The public opinion survey — practically a referendum, given the number of people who responded — that has paved the way for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia could have been avoided. Even before Wednesday, multiple opinion polls had shown that a majority of Australians favour gay marriage.
The Malcolm Turnbull-led government did not take the legislative route to bring about social change, even if such a law would have reflected the will of the people. However, the groundswell of support that has forced a debate in Australian Parliament illustrates how social change can be driven by pressure from below.
Societies are often pushed in a more progressive direction by the law. The abolition of untouchability in India and Abraham Lincoln’s termination of slavery in the US are cases in point. On same-sex marriage, however, politicians and governments around the world have been too slow to act. In the US, it was only in 2015 that the supreme court legalised gay marriage at a national level after a number of states passed laws doing so.
The tide turned more swiftly after that — Ireland, with a large staunchly Catholic population, voted for a constitutional amendment to legalise same-sex marriage in 2015. That the change in a society’s values is confirmed by the people is indeed welcome. For the political class, however, the resort to a referendum shows that they are either unaware or unwilling to reflect it as legislators. And for India, on Section 377, there are lessons to be learnt.
Far from having a debate on expanding the scope of marriage and civil unions, sexual activities “against the order of nature” are still criminalised in India. While the Delhi HC struck down the colonial era statute in 2013, it was upheld by the apex court, which passed the buck to Parliament. The political class, however, has largely opposed, or been silent on, decriminalising homosexuality. If they don’t act soon to right this continuing wrong, India’s society and government are in danger of falling irretrievably behind the times.