Australia Doesn’t Have Gay Marriage. Mexico Does. Here’s Why.

On Sydney’s Oxford Street, a woman walks past posters advertising a rally in support of same-sex marriage in Australia, June 1, 2015.

Photo by William West/AFP/Getty Images

“I think it’s probably better if you don’t hold hands. You know how your father gets.”

That’s what my mum told me last year when I arrived in Australia for Christmas with my boyfriend for the first time. My mum’s statement felt like a slap in the face: After spending so many years struggling with myself, I was finally happy and totally in love.

My mum, who is Australian, was alluding to the more conservative background of my dad, who is Mexican. Like him, I was born and raised in Mexico, and like him, I experienced the conservative Catholic values and machismo that are the national norm there. It was for this reason that I‘d also had concerns when coming out to him. But the truth is, he couldn’t have been more accepting, of both me and Joseph. When we left, my dad said, “Well done. He’s a great man.”

In recent months, I’ve found myself reflecting on these events more and more. And last week, the contradiction came to a head: A few months after legalizing same-sex marriage, Mexico’s Supreme Court legalized gay adoption. Just one day earlier, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had banned members of his party from voting in favor of a new marriage equality bill, effectively killing it.  

Like many in Australia and around the world, I was shocked, hurt, and appalled. How could this happen? In one of the world’s most advanced democracies; in the country that hosts Mardi Gras and gave us Kylie Minogue and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; in a country that prides itself on giving everyone a “fair go” and coined the term no worries. How could this happen?

It would be easy to blame the failure of marriage equality on Australia’s conservative government and to further demonize Abbott as head homophobe. But the truth is, marriage equality has been up for debate in Australia for a decade. It’s been there through two terms of a left-wing Labor government, and it still didn’t make it through Parliament and into law. And while most Aussies now support gay marriage, we still elected a government that is totally opposed to equal rights.

The question remains: Why have Mexico’s socio-cultural norms helped to advance legal recognition of same-sex relationships there, while Australia’s values have impeded progress on equality?

Let’s start with the church. Religion is a big deal in Mexico: 82 percent of the population identify as Catholic, compared with just 25 percent in Australia. If you’ve ever read Catholic doctrine or heard anything coming out of the Vatican, you’d think this would make for a very homophobic society. But when you consider that Catholic bastions like Ireland, Spain, France, Argentina, Uruguay, and Mexico have all legalized same-sex marriage, it’s clear that’s not quite right.

Catholic social values have changed dramatically. A recent Pew Research survey found that 60 percent of U.S. Catholics supported same-sex marriage, while a 2013 survey of Mexican Catholics also revealed majority support. Meanwhile, the referendum results in Ireland, where 84 percent identify as Catholic, speak for themselves.

The reasons for this shift in Catholic attitudes to homosexuality are vast and merit a more detailed discussion (for a great overview, check out Peter Weber’s discussion in the Week). For me, though, the most important factor is the Catholic emphasis on family. As Mo Moulton writes in the Atlantic, Catholic doctrine, with its “emphasis on family ties and community cohesion,” was a key element in Ireland’s same-sex marriage win.

Whenever I go back to Mexico, the dozens of cousins and second cousins and third cousins I have there—many of whom I haven’t seen in years—are quick to embrace me as primo, inviting me into their homes and telling me all the family gossip. By contrast, in Australia, I didn’t even know I had family outside of my first cousins until my grandmother passed away a few years ago and other relatives sent their condolences.

In a country where family is the basis for society, it’s harder to exclude members of the population from legal recognition. It’s harder to kick out your gay son or hate your lesbian sister. When the sacrament of marriage is the cornerstone of the family, it’s only natural that this should be a right for everyone—as in Mexico. To see the contrast in Australia, one need only look at Tony Abbott’s constant refusal to recognize the legal rights of his own lesbian sister.

That’s not to say that there aren’t homophobic Mexican families, or that Aussie families love their kids any less because they’re not Catholic, but it is undeniable that family values have played a role in moving gay rights forward in Latin America. For us Latinos, blood is always thicker than water.

Another key factor is la revolución. Unlike Australia’s calm progression to nationhood, Mexico’s history has been marked by constant upheaval. From the bloody War of Independence in 1810 to the revolution a century later all the way to the current drug war, Mexico’s development has been a fraught one. While this has certainly resulted in a more dysfunctional and often unstable political climate, one positive by-product is a greater willingness to challenge the status quo, what Octavio Paz describes as the Mexican desire to chingar. Australia has never experienced the kind of upheavals that lead to profound self-reflection and dramatic cultural change.

Revolution and the end of dictatorial rule has given rise to powerful social changes across Latin America, often framed in a human rights context. It’s what Elisabeth Jay Friedman, director of Latin American studies at the University of San Francisco, calls “savvy social mobilization.” As I wrote in a piece for Newsweek last year, activists have been able to harness the new social movements that emerge after dictators are toppled, using tactics that have advanced human rights generally to advance LGBTQ rights specifically. This was particularly important in countries like Argentina and Brazil.

In Mexico, the spirit of revolution is embodied in its great capital, el Distrito Federal, which has been the epicenter of both conflict and change. The sprawling metropolis, home to 22 million, houses more galleries and museums than any other city in the world. It is here where the greatest Mexican writers, thinkers, and artists, from Carlos Fuentes to Diego Rivera, created their masterworks. Its magnetism stretches far beyond Mexico’s borders, attracting everyone from Gabriel García Márquez to Leon Trotsky.

It’s little wonder, then, that Mexico City was the first place in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage, a decision that has had a dramatic impact in advancing gay rights around the country and across the region.

Contrast this with Canberra, Australia’s small, provincial capital, and it’s a little less surprising that its politicians are unwilling to embrace innovation. A city of countless roundabouts, everything in Canberra, including its politics, seems to go around in circles.

I’m being a bit unfair: Six dull years in Canberra gave me a poor view of the capital, where same-sex marriage was briefly recognized back in 2013. But still, Australia has been remarkably slow to evolve on social issues. Just 60 years ago, Aboriginal children were still being forcibly taken from their families; indeed, indigenous Australians weren’t given full legal recognition until the 1960s. Up until the 1970s, the country upheld the “White Australia Policy,” which, in historian Charles Bean’s words, was created explicitly for the “exclusion of Oriental peoples.”

We’ve come a long way since then, and Australia is beautiful place to live (especially if you’re a straight, white male). Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that there is a strict, conservative streak stretching back for more than a hundred years; a long snake that has reared its ugly head in the form of Tony Abbott.

Abbott has explicitly refused to acknowledge any influence from international developments on gay rights, saying recently that “what happens in the United States is obviously a matter for the United States, just as what happened in Ireland [in its marriage referendum] was a matter for the Irish.”

Australia’s political leaders have once again revealed Australia to be an isolated island nation. It gave the world Kylie and Priscilla, but it also gave us the xenophobic One Nation party and Abbott’s appalling refugee policy. This kind of xenophobia also leads to a refusal to engage with the international dialogue of progress.

By contrast, Mexico often acts as a bridge between its powerful northern neighbor and its developing cultural cousins to the south. Unlike Australia, Mexico (like most of Latin America) has explicitly allowed itself to be influenced by landmark decisions in other countries. As Omar Encarnación wrote in the New York Times last year, “Latin American high courts have in recent years indulged in ‘trans-national legalism’ to advance gay rights, by borrowing legal precedents from other countries, including the United States.”

I don’t think Australia is particularly anti-gay. I don’t think my mum, who now emails Joseph more than me, is at all homophobic. But I do think that behind Australia’s sunny shores and cheery disposition lie dark roots of xenophobia, isolation, and a resistance to change that are worth acknowledging. And while I’m sure marriage equality will eventually find its way to Australia, maybe it’s time the sunburnt country took a look at the wild land south of the U.S. border for a little advice on how to fully recognize love.