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Update: We won! The compulsory OPD topic was changed in April 2018 to read that “it is up to the parties to decide which descriptor they prefer.” People no longer need to choose in line with their gender identity or recorded sex!

I have to say I’m pretty irritated at the new field on the Notice of Intended Marriage and Official Certificate of Marriage that ask for a descriptor (groom, bride or partner). When they changed the marriage legislation in December 2017, sex and gender were supposed to be removed from the marriage equation altogether. Instead, the Attorney General’s Department took it upon themselves to add this field that nobody asked for, and then made a rule that parties to a marriage have to choose their descriptor in line with their gender identity. Why shouldn’t men be able to describe themselves as brides if they want, and vice versa?

I’m so irritated by this turn of events that I sent a letter to my local member, and also to the Attorney General, as the minister in charge of marriage law. If you want to send your own letter, feel free to cut and paste my text from below, pop it on your letterhead, and send it out to whoever you think is appropriate!

 

Dear Minister

Re: Terminology for marriages post 9 December 2017

I have been a marriage celebrant since October 2013, solemnising over 235 weddings in that time. I also train new and continuing celebrants through the Certificate IV in Celebrancy and through Ongoing Professional Development. I am deeply concerned about the changes to the marriage forms brought in by the Attorney General’s Department following the legislative changes of 9 December 2017.

The recent amendment to the Marriage Act 1961 made Australia a more inclusive and less discriminatory society. The definition of marriage in Australia has become less restrictive. The right to marry is no longer determined by sex or gender. Procedures for marriage have, however, placed more emphasis on categorising marrying parties into columns than the previous procedures.

Changes to marriage forms

With regard to forms, the Notice of Intended Marriage has an added field, Item 4, which asks marrying parties to state their legal sex, with options of Male, Female or X. Apparently this is for the Australian Bureau of Statistics. I have no problem with this field; I believe it will provide interesting and relevant data about the types of couples choosing to marry in Australia.

A second added field on the Notice of Intended Marriage, Item 1, which is also on the Official Certificate of Marriage, asks how the party would like to describe themselves, with options of Groom, Bride or Partner.

The fact sheet issued to celebrants by the Attorney General’s Department states that “it is up to each party which descriptor they prefer”, and goes on to say “the descriptor ‘groom’ can be used by a male party, and ‘bride’ can be used by a female party.” Further information provided in the compulsory Ongoing Professional Development topic for 2018 states that “parties should choose a descriptor that reflects their gender identity.” It allows that the gender identity for the purpose of Item 1 may be different from the sex recorded in Item 4.

The fact sheet and compulsory topic do not explicitly state that the descriptor ‘bride’ cannot be used by a male party, or vice versa. There may indeed be some parties to a marriage who identify as male who would like to describe themselves as a bride, and some parties to a marriage who identify as female who would like to describe themselves as a groom.

There has been much discussion and confusion about this amongst celebrants, with anecdotes of different celebrants receiving opposing advice from the department about the description field. Births, Deaths and Marriages Registries also seem unsure of the interpretation of this fact sheet, and I have had one case where the Victorian Births, Deaths and Marriages Registrar had trouble interpreting the fact sheet instructions when considering whether to register a marriage where one female party selected the descriptor Groom. The fact sheet states that this field has been added for the benefits of Births, Deaths and Marriages Registries, so they may decide how to describe the parties in their registers and on the certificates prepared by them, but I cannot see why the certificates couldn’t reflect the descriptors of Party 1 and Party 2 as the marriage documents do.

Is this field really necessary?

In the spirit of the recent legislative change, there should be less focus on sex/gender in the new forms, not more. Therefore if Item 1 is kept on the Notice of Intended Marriage, I believe couples should be free to decide their own “description” without using their gender identity as an indicator.

Change to the ceremony wording

During the ceremony, the couples must use the Section 45 vows, using the term “husband, wife, or spouse” or “words to that effect”.

The department’s fact sheet says, “the term ‘husband’ can refer to a male marriage partner”. It does not say that the term ‘wife’ cannot be used to refer to a male partner, and many celebrants would prefer to allow parties their choice of terminology, without government stipulation of gender appropriate terms.

New situations may need new terminology. I suggest that the term “partner in marriage” could be an alternative option for couples during the Section 45 vows and ask that the Guidelines be updated to state this.

Now that the Marriage Act has recognised a more modern form of marriage, using an increased amount of gender based terminology and classifications seems to be moving backwards.

Whatever the decision of the Government regarding this terminology, the instructions to both celebrants and the Registries of Births, Deaths and Marriages needs to be updated to provide firm guidance on all matters.

Yours faithfully

Sarah Aird