SUPPORT: Brian Wilson at last night’s marriage equality rally in Newcastle. Picture: Jonathan CarrollWHEN New Zealand MPs and the parliamentary gallery broke into the traditional love song Pokarekare Ana in April, it was a stirring moment in our trans-Tasman neighbour’s history.

New Zealand was the 13th nation to legalise marriage between same-sex couples. Fourteen countries have done so, the first being the Netherlands in 2001 and most recently France in May.

Who could forget New Zealand’s National MP Maurice Williamson using the power of laughter in his poignant “Be ye not afraid” speech, doing the rounds online, reminding us that by legislating marriage between same-sex couples the Parliament was not “declaring nuclear war” nor was it introducing “skin diseases or rashes or toads in your bed” but simply allowing two people who love each other to have that recognised through marriage. The vote passed 77-44 with support from all major parties.

Yesterday in Newcastle, about 70 locals rallied in Civic Park in support of marriage equality, a lot of them young people attending what was, in some cases, one of dozens they’ve attended in recent years.

Marriage equality remains for many a human rights and social justice issue.

A 2011 Roy Morgan poll showed 68 per cent of Australians supported marriage equality, and with a further 75 per cent believing it is inevitable (Galaxy), it’s time for us to be on the right side of history.

This Friday, June 28, marks the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, a milestone in the gay rights movement.

Back then, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community chanted “We want freedom” . . . today they ask for the right to marry the person they love – it doesn’t seem too much to ask.

This is not a fringe issue; it is an issue that affects parents, children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, friends and work colleagues.

It could affect the person who makes your coffee at the local café, your family doctor or the neighbour you say hello to in the morning.

The importance of progressive parliaments and other representative bodies that advocate for marriage equality goes far beyond the simplicity of marriage as a consensual union of two people who love each other; it is about creating an inclusive society that doesn’t exclude the people we care about.

Former Australian Industry Group chief executive officer Heather Ridout has been vocal in her support of marriage equality, stating the issue is “very relevant to many Australians” and not the “radical agenda” some fear.

When it comes to business, in five years same-sex marriage has reportedly delivered $111 million to the Massachusetts economy, while conservative estimates suggest that Australia could benefit from in excess of $161 million to our local economy.

Over many years, the institution of marriage has evolved and prejudice has been steadily exposed and removed. In the United States, for example, interracial couples were not permitted to marry in some states until 1967, and today wives are no longer defined or treated as property. Furthermore, extending marriage for same-sex partners in no way seeks to diminish what many regard as a religious institution. Australian law clearly recognises both religious and civil marriages, and faith communities will continue to define religious marriage in whatever way they wish.

According to ABS data, however, almost 70 per cent of marriages performed in Australia in 2010 were done so by civil celebrants.

The issue of marriage equality also calls to mind the gross over-representation of LGBTI youth in Australia’s self-harm and suicide rates, who according to Suicide Prevention Australia are up to 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual counterparts. Professor Simon Crowe, president of the Australian Psychological Society, in stating the society’s support for marriage equality, said in 2011 that “decades of psychological research provides the evidence linking marriage to mental health benefits, and highlighting the harm to individuals’ mental health of social exclusion”. The importance of supporting LGBTI rights and marriage equality correlates closely with advocating for the mental health and wellbeing of young Australians. These are heavy burdens gay and lesbian youth carry more than others.

In 2011, the Australian Labor Party officially amended its national platform to support marriage equality for same-sex couples and granted members of Parliament a conscience vote on the issue. It was Labor governments that first acted against racial, sex, age and disability discrimination, as well as removing discrimination against same-sex couples from more than 80 different Commonwealth laws.

In the Labor tradition of social justice, fairness and eliminating discrimination, this is an issue I strongly support.

Sharon Claydon is a former Newcastle City Councillor and the federal Labor candidate for Newcastle.

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