In a recent referendum, the Swiss people have voted to legalize same-sex marriage, to legalize same-sex couples using sperm banks, and to legalize same-sex couples to adopt children for the first time. Switzerland is the last country in Western Europe to do so.
The long struggle
Same-sex marriages were almost legalized last year, except there has been huge push back from homophobic opponents. “The marriage laws were amended by the federal government and approved last year by Parliament to grant all couples the same rights. But opponents seeking to limit marriages to unions between a man and a women collected enough signatures to force a referendum,” according to the NY Times.
It was a tight race to the finish line. “Polls by local news media had predicted widespread approval for same-sex marriage in Switzerland, but they also showed the opposition gaining some last-minute momentum after an intense advertising campaign. The legislation change was accepted by 64.1 percent of voters and received strong support in both urban and rural areas.” The results are similar to Australia’s 2017 plebiscite, where 61.6 percent voted in favor of marriage equality.
The after effects
Despite the good news being “hailed as a milestone for the L.G.B.T.Q. community in the alpine nation,” lesbian and gay Australians know all too well how traumatic having your sexual orientation publicly debated can be.
At the time of the Australian plebiscite, lesbian Senator Penny Wong warned the same-sex marriage debate was going to have horrific effects on lesbian and gay couples and rainbow families. “Have a read of some of the things which are said about us and our families, and then come back here and tell us this is a unifying moment,” she said to the ABC. “The Australian Christian Lobby described our children as the ‘Stolen Generation’. We love our children, and I object, as do all those same-sex couples who have kids, to be told our children are a stolen generation.”
She was right. A study in recent years, from the University of Sydney, analysed the negative consequences of public debate around homosexuality and gay rights. “Same-sex-attracted people who were more frequently exposed to messages of prejudice and messages of discrimination during the postal survey also reported more elevated symptoms of depression and anxiety, and also stress,” author Stefano Verrelli said to AM.
What does this mean for the lesbian and gay people of Switzerland? The Australian study found that “those who came across negative media messages about homosexuality more than once a day had distress levels 58 percent higher than those who were exposed to them only once a week.” At the time of the Australian vote, “mental-health organizations said they were experiencing increased demand for their services.” It would only make sense for Swiss gay and lesbian people to suffer similarly at the moment.
The Swiss referendum and Australian plebiscite flared the flames of pre-existing, violent homophobia. Putting gay rights to a vote permits public homophobia. The results of the Australian study were “pretty much consistent with what they found overseas, both in the United States and the Republic of Ireland when they’ve had votes on same-sex marriage,” Stefano Verrelli continued.
Homophobia existed before the plebiscites and referendums, sure, but putting gay rights to a public vote gave it a credible platform. “Cultural narratives that reinforce discrimination of LGBTI people are everywhere from when you’re born,” said activist Sally Rugg. “The survey gave this enormous platform and enormous permission for all those horrible attitudes [towards] LGBTI people to be given this huge microphone and legitimised.”
While marriage equality is absolutely imperative to the lives of many same-sex couples, the fact some countries took it to public debate and public vote — as if homosexuality should be up for debate or voted on — has caused longterm pain.
Swiss same-sex couples will be happy about marriage equality. However, they won’t forget what homophobic things have been said during the debate pre-vote. The ramifications of governments remaining undecided on the rights of gay people, letting homophobic community members advocate against homosexuality and marriage equality, stays with us.