CANBERRA, Australia — The U.S. ambassador to Australia told Australian marriage equality supporters on Monday that although their nation continues to ban same-sex marriage, it remains more progressive than his own in protecting the rights of gay employees and sportsmen.
Ambassador John Berry, who married his male partner Curtis Lee in Washington in 2013, gave a luncheon speech at Parliament House, where lawmakers are bitterly divided over a draft bill that would allow gay marriage nationwide.
The legislation is expected to go to a vote this year, with conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott opposed to it.
Berry contradicted an opening address by Sen. Sarah Hanson-Young of the minor Greens party, who said Australia was falling behind other countries on sexual equality issues.
Berry told an audience that included lawmakers from government and opposition political parties that while 37 U.S. states have approved marriage equality, only 18 have passed employment non-discrimination statutes that protect private sector employees from losing their jobs because they are gay.
"You would think those numbers might be reversed," Berry said.
"The fact that they're not shows that this is not an issue where ... the feeling is you're behind. No one is behind here," he said. "We're all in a struggle as we seek to move forward in that principle of equality under the law."
Berry also congratulated major Australian football and cricket leagues that have adopted no-tolerance policies toward homophobia within clubs or from spectators.
"I wish our U.S. leagues would be as courageous and we continue to press that fight in the United States," Berry said.
But Berry offered no advice on whether Parliament should allow gay marriage, saying that was for Australians to decide.
Australian federal law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. But federal law also states that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and that the relationships of same-sex couples married overseas cannot be legally recognized.
Political momentum to change the law has grown since a recent referendum in which 62 percent of Irish voters called for their constitution to be changed to allow same-sex marriage.
Opinion polls show that most Australians support gay marriage. Gay rights advocates say Australia is now the only English-speaking developed country to ban same-sex marriage after the Irish vote.