IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

Australia Decides: The Violence Triangle and Same-Sex Marriage

Written by Samara Hand

The same-sex marriage plebiscite now underway in Australia has, unsurprisingly, stirred much controversy. The non-binding postal survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics has brought to the surface the divisive debate led largely by religious groups in favour of voting No on the one side and the LGBTQI community and human rights advocates in favour of voting Yes on the other. This debate, like others around the world, has brought to the forefront the discrimination and violence experienced by members of the LGBTQI community. Using Johan Galtung’s typology of violence, it is possible to see how the non-recognition of same-sex marriage itself can be regarded as a form of violence and how it relates to other types of violence experienced by the LGBTQI community.

The Australian Human Rights Commission in 2015 reported that the rate of suicide for LGBT people was up to 14 times higher than the general population. In this sense, the non-recognition of same-sex marriage leads to both the somatic and mental realizations of individuals in same-sex couple relationships being below their potential realizations

Galtung is well known for his theory of peace and violence developed in his 1969 article Violence, Peace, and Peace Research, wherein he describes peace as the absence of violence. In turn, he considers that “violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations”. In the paper he also distinguishes between direct violence and structural violence, considering that both types of violence result in individuals being killed or hurt. The difference is that with direct violence, consequences can be traced back to specific actors.

This is the type of violence seen in the rates of verbal and physical abuse directed towards members of the LGBTQI community in Australia, with, according to a 2014 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, approximately 61 percent of LGBTQI young people experiencing verbal abuse and 18 percent experiencing physical abuse. Contrary to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s assertion that “the days when we were cruel to people on the basis of their sexuality…have long gone”, the figures show that the LGBTQI community continue to face discrimination and violence.

In the ongoing plebiscite, proponents of both sides of the debate have turned violent resulting in criticism which appears to have harmed the Yes vote more than the No vote (as they are accused of not practising what they preach). However, without condoning violence on either side of the current debate, the violence experienced by members of the LGBTQI community is not just a once off within the context of a divisive public debate, it is ongoing and occurs in their daily lives. Furthermore, it is systemic of the heteronormative framework embedded in Australian society. This is where Galtung’s conception of structural violence is useful.

Galtung writes that with structural violence there is no specific actor, rather it is “built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances”. The institutionalised discrimination against and the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is one such example of unequal power. Furthermore, the very fact that politicians and the general community have a say on the matter is a testament to the structural violence of the current legal definition. While heterosexual couples can freely enter into a marriage, realising their desire to make public and legally binding their declaration of love and devotion to one another, same-sex couples, on the other hand, are currently prevented from realising that desire.

This undoubtedly has a significant impact on same-sex couples, both practically and mentally. An article in The Conversation written by law lecturers at La Trobe University dispels the common perception that de facto partners have the same legal rights as married couples, noting that de facto couples often have to jump through a lot more hoops to enjoy the same rights, resulting in more time and money being spent. Other research has also suggested that legalising same-sex marriage is a matter of public health, a particularly important consideration given the incidence of mental health issues among the LGBTQI community due to discrimination; for example, the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2015 reported that the rate of suicide for LGBT people was up to 14 times higher than the general population. In this sense, the non-recognition of same-sex marriage leads to both the somatic and mental realizations of individuals in same-sex couple relationships being below their potential realizations, corresponding with Galtung’s definition of violence.

The majority of those against legalising same-sex marriage cite religious beliefs and the importance of a child being raised with a mother and father. While people are certainly entitled their individual beliefs and religious convictions, it is also important to recognise that in the case of same-sex marriage, these beliefs form part of the general attitudes that legitimate both the direct violence committed against LGBTQI community members and the structural violence embedded in the current legal structure. This brings in Galtung’s third type of violence: cultural violence.

Several years after Violence, Peace, and Peace Research Galtung introduced the concept of cultural violence which he defined as “those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence – exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art, empirical science and formal science (logic, mathematics) – that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence”. If we can recognise that the current legal structure prevents same-sex couples from realising their potential, that is, that the current legal definition is a form of structural violence, then the beliefs and attitudes which justify the structural violence can be recognised as cultural violence. They legitimate the discriminatory legal definition of marriage.

While the legalisation of same-sex marriage would certainly challenge the heteronormative framework embedded in Australian society, it need not come at the expense of individuals’ freedom of thought, conscience and religion. As former Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson wrote in an article, a balance can be achieved by separating civil and religious marriage but recognising both equally in the law. In this way, same-sex couples can have the right to make public and legally binding their declaration of love and devotion to one another without forcing religious adherents to carry out a ceremony that violates their religious beliefs.

The distinction between the current definition and that proposed by Tim Wilson, is that in the latter, the potential realisations of same-sex couples concerning marriage are not limited by the attitudes or religious beliefs of others which are embedded in the current legal definition. While it continues to be, such a definition amounts to structural violence as the mental realisations of same-sex couples are below their potential realisations.

Samara Hand works in the Ministry of Education for the Government of Australia. She recently completed her masters in Human Rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. You can follow her on Twitter @SamuraiSam24. Image Credit: CC by Danijel-James Wynyard/Flickr