Marriage equality is a health issue
Australian marriage law should be amended to allow two people of the same sex to marry, according to a NSWNMA submission to a senate committee.
The NSWNMA submission to the senate committee, which is considering the issue of same sex marriage, highlighted the health and human rights issues at stake.
“The issue of marriage equality was discussed at last year’s Annual Conference, and delegates overwhelmingly supported the campaign of Australians for Marriage Equality to establish a legislative framework for same sex marriage in Australia,” says Judith Kiejda, NSWNMA Assistant General Secretary.
“We consider this a matter of human rights, specifically the right for all members of our community to be treated equally before the law.”
In October last year, the federal government released what is known as a ‘draft exposure’ of the same sex marriage bill it intends to introduce if a plebiscite is held and the community votes in favour of same sex marriage.
The union made a submission in response to the draft exposure bill in January 2017 after a vote in support of marriage equality at the last NSWNMA annual conference. A recent survey – sent to all members – showed the vast majority support marriage equality.
In the submission, NSWNMA General Secretary Brett Holmes notes that marriage equality is not only a human rights issues, it is also a health issue.
“As health professionals we recognise the compelling research that identifies the health risks to those who are discriminated against on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, including social isolation, poor self-esteem, and the risk to mental health and well-being,” Brett wrote.
He says the Association therefore supports the draft exposure bill’s proposal to change the definition of marriage in the current Marriage Act by replacing the words “a man and a woman” with “two people”.
Submission also supports religious freedom
The NSWNMA’s submission, however, also recognises the right to religious freedom: the Association supports the draft exposure bill’s exemptions for ministers of religion – in order to allow them to conduct religious marriage ceremonies in accordance with their religious beliefs.
But the Association doesn’t support the draft’s proposal to also allow civil celebrants to decline to officiate same sex marriages because of religious beliefs.
“Given that marriage in Australia is a civil institution and laws defining and regulating marriage are made by the Commonwealth of Australia and not by any Church or religious body or organisation, we object to these exemptions being extended to civil celebrants,” Brett writes.
“It is time for all Australians to be equal before the law,” he says.
“Legal discrimination against the Australian LGBTI community [is an anachronism that] must be consigned to history and this federal government has an opportunity to make a clear and unambiguous statement that there is no place in our community for this form of discrimination.”
Trailblazing nurse wants his marriage recognised
Bill Whitbread-Brown, a clinical trials coordinator at Newcastle’s Mater hospital, flew to Canada in 2007 to marry his partner Andrew, then a worker with BHP Newcastle. Although the couple have now been together for 27 years, they are still waiting to have their relationship formally recognised in Australia.
“There’s a lot of politicians who have had three or four marriages in that time and we can’t even get married,” Bill notes.
“We’re hoping that we will eventually get marriage equality. We’ve been through quite a few rallies in support of the change. It would mean that we are equal citizens to everyone else in Australia.
“As it stands at the moment it is like animal farm, where all animals are equal and some animals are more equal than others. In Australia a same sex relationship is not equal to a heterosexual relationship.”
Bill and Andrew Whitbread-Brown are no strangers to the struggle for equality. In 1995 the couple queried a bill from the health insurer NIB to cover the two men and their then one-year-old son.
NIB treated the pair as two single men, rather than charging them a family rate – an amount of $2,745 compared to the $1,830 they charged families. In an over-the-counter exchange NIB advised them that if Bill was a woman they would be eligible for the family rate.
The couple took their complaint to the Equal Opportunity Tribunal, and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court. NIB argued that the rules of its health fund overrode the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act. The tribunal rejected NIB’s case, but the insurer appealed the decision. To fight the case Bill and Andrew had to raise $15,000 and put their house on the line.
Bill remembers: “It was extremely scary at the time, and we had no idea when we put everything in motion that it would be as big as it was, but looking back I can see it was a landmark case establishing what a family relationship is.”
A big win against discrimination
Bill and Andrew eventually prevailed, and their case led to the government changing the wording of the National Health Fund Act to prevent discrimination against same sex couples.
“Even today we encounter 20-year-olds and they go ‘Oh my god you’re that couple!’”
The battle to end discrimination against same sex couples is far from over though, says Bill.
“Even though we technically have equal rights under the de facto laws, where one person [in a same sex relationship] is sick in hospital, the parents can still come in and say they are next of kin, and they can make decisions about treatment in a way that would not happen in a heterosexual relationship.”
“It makes it very difficult for the health professional if the sick person is unconscious.
“To the politicians, I would say it’s time to listen to the public – and there is a huge majority of people in favour of same sex relationships – and recognise them as equal.”
In a draft exposure bill on changes to the marriage act currently being released for comment, Bill and Andrew’s marriage in Canada would be recognised.