The campaign for equal marriage rights

by Louise O'Shea • Published 12 March 2011

The campaign for equal marriage rights has been exceptional in recent Australian politics. It has given rise to sustained mobilisations involving thousands of people in spirited protest. It has opened a public rift in the Labor Party over an issue of social justice. And it has forced its way into the public spotlight repeatedly, despite the wishes of the political establishment. In so doing, the fight for marriage equality has broken from the pattern of most campaigns in Australia over the last two decades, which have tended to flare up in response to specific incidents then subside as the issue has faded from the media and mass consciousness. The marriage equality campaign has been remarkable in its ability to endure over the longer term and generate a certain energy and momentum, even through periods in which it has received minimal coverage in the mainstream media, and despite yielding very few tangible results for most of its history. For an issue that is not of central importance to Australian capitalism, this is quite unique.

The campaign in Australia, unlike the US, was not driven primarily by a desire to marry on the part of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) people. Rather, it was launched in response to a homophobic attack by a conservative government with a history of stirring up division to shore up its support base and secure its electoral fortunes. It was no accident then that the amendment to the Marriage Act, which changed the definition of marriage to “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” and prohibited any recognition of marriages between same-sex partners performed outside Australia, was proposed and then rushed through parliament two months out from a federal election.

Moved by the ruling Liberal Party, but greatly assisted in its passage by the unanimous support of the Labor Party, the amendment was voted into law during the final days of parliamentary sittings in August 2004, without even a serious debate. At the time, the amendment enjoyed reasonable public support, with only 38 per cent of people polled expressing opposition.[1] The rallies that were held in some capital cities against the amendment were small. At the parliamentary level, opposition was limited mainly to the Greens and the now defunct Australian Democrats.

Six years later however, over 60 per cent of the population support equal rights, and demonstrations of thousands have become a regular feature of the political landscape. The 2010 federal election campaign was dogged by the issue, despite the wishes of both major parties. Several significant figures on the right and left of the ALP have felt the need to publicly declare their opposition to the policy, and the issue is one closely associated with the Greens, whose stance in favour of equal rights is frequently credited with contributing to their their electoral success. How and why marriage equality has captured the mass imagination like no other contemporary issue, and bucked the existing trend in Australian politics, is the focus of this article.

Homophobia in Australia

The significant changes in family structures, living arrangements and the efforts of gay rights campaigners have contributed to the generalised acceptance of same-sex relationships as a part of the social landscape in Australia, even by those who may not necessarily embrace homosexuality as a practice. The emergence of “gay-friendly” suburbs in most major cities, gay-oriented businesses and a growing LGBTI welfare and advocacy sector over the last 30 years have helped to break down the stigma associated with homosexuality and have brought about greater openness regarding LGBTI lifestyles and issues. Major public events like Mardi Gras and Pride festivals, the introduction of more and more gay characters on television programs and in movies, and the increasingly commonplace nature of gay and lesbian sections in bookshops and video libraries all reflect this trend.

The increased visibility, important though it is, has not however completely broken down the stigma, nor has it led to anything approaching equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. Instead, new stereotypes have been created that perpetuate the idea that LGBTI people are different and somewhat deviant, and heterosexuality continues to be held up as and assumed to be the norm. The widespread portrayal of gay men as frivolous, appearance-conscious and sex-obsessed is the most obvious of these new stereotypes, while events such as the Mardi Gras and Pride festivals involve an element of observing the bizarre practices of strangely dressed exhibitionists as much as they do one of validating non-heterosexual practices or challenging discrimination.

The expectation that sexual desire should conform to the nuclear family model also continues to be virtually universal, reflected in the fact that young LGBTI people are still obliged to “come out” to friends and family, an experience for which there is no equivalent amongst their heterosexual peers. Outright homophobia is also still rife, particularly affecting young people who are less likely to have access to the economic resources and support networks that can provide respite from hostile parents, other authority figures or workmates. High schools continue to be some of the most difficult and dangerous places for LGBTI youth, with studies showing that the situation is becoming worse rather than better. A 2010 report found that 18 per cent of LGBTI and gender-questioning youth had experienced physical violence, and 61 per cent had experienced verbal abuse, up from 46 per cent in 1998.[2] Eighty per cent of this abuse occurred at school. Ironically, while polls show that there is far more support for equal rights amongst young people than there is in the overall population (over 80 per cent compared to 62 per cent),[3] this does not necessarily translate into young people experiencing less homophobia than their older counterparts.

Furthermore, the increased visibility has done little to erode the idea that the traditional nuclear family consisting of husband, wife and two children is the natural and desirable way to live, despite the hysterical warnings of family values advocates. Far more widespread is the idea that lifestyles which deviate from the “norm” should be tolerated, but within a framework that nevertheless promotes the traditional family as normal. So gay parents are acceptable so long as they socialise their children to accept mainstream values, such as that heterosexuality is ideal and children are better off with both a mother and a father, and in every way possible emulate the nuclear family. This is not to say the changes that have taken place and the increased acceptance, however limited, are unimportant. They have made a significant difference to the lives of countless LGBTI people. But it is also necessary to recognise the limitations inherent in these changes in order to understand why homophobia continues to exist today, and why it is necessary to continue fighting for more rights and ultimately sexual liberation.

Class and homophobia

The integration of LGBTI culture into Australian capitalism, with its geographical orientation to the inner city, young professional image and trendy lifestyle association, has contributed to the idea that LGBTI issues are primarily the preserve of middle class Greens voters, and not ones that most working class people would think twice about.[4] Yet despite the stereotype of the homophobic blue collar worker, studies indicate that there is more support for equal rights and better attitudes about homosexuality within the working class in Australia than amongst the general population. Surveys of attitudes towards same-sex couples’ rights based on political affiliation show that amongst Labor voters there is much greater support for equal rights (74 per cent) than amongst those who vote Liberal (48 per cent), and only slightly less than amongst those voting Green (81 per cent)[5], despite the much publicised support for LGBTI rights on the part of the Greens’ party leadership. Given that the voting base of the ALP continues to be largely made up of organised workers, and that support for equal rights amongst Labor voters as a block is well above the average of the total population, these results provide no evidence that homophobia is more prevalent in the working class. Instead the survey shows that it is the typically more middle class, well educated and wealthy supporters of the Liberal Party who are the bastion of conservative family values and homophobia. A 2010 poll showed blue collar workers to be far more supportive of equal rights than Liberal voters, with 57 per cent of blue collar workers registering their support for equal marriage rights, a figure only slightly below the overall average.[6]

A study of attitudes towards homosexuality amongst religious groups revealed a similar pattern. The study found Baptists and evangelical Christians to be the most anti-gay, while Catholics were found to be the least. This is despite the fact that the Catholic church continues to be one of the most outspoken against LGBTI rights. In part this is due to the Catholic church leadership having less influence over its constituency, but it also reflects the traditionally working class nature of Catholics in Australia, compared to the more middle class Baptists and evangelicals.[7]

There are several factors mitigating against homophobic attitudes in the working class. One is that the experience of most workplaces is one in which workers are required to interact and cooperate with others from a range of different backgrounds and social groups, including LGBTI people. This interaction can foster a degree of mutual respect which cannot always be undermined by politicians or tabloid journalism. Furthermore, if workers are involved in any sort of dispute or industrial action to improve their pay and conditions, or over a political issue, the practical importance of unity and mutual respect tends to become clear. Because workers can only exercise power collectively, by taking coordinated action or going on strike, as broad as possible participation and unity across traditional divides are indispensable weapons in any struggle for workplace rights. This means that individual workers can only raise their standard of living or win rights insofar as they are organised and united with other workers, hence the enduring union slogan “touch one, touch all”.

Such action also highlights the conflicting class interests which permeate capitalist society. The reaction of politicians, media outlets and religious leaders can generate in workers an acute awareness of the conflict between their interests and those of the rich and powerful in society. This means that when it is other groups in the firing line of governments or employers, workers are already more likely to harbour a hostility to these forces, and to line up with those being targeted. Such traditions exist and continue to be passed on in the Australian working class, despite the many setbacks the labour movement has experienced over the last few decades.

This is of course not to say that homophobic attitudes do not exist within the working class. But it does show that ideas are not just uncritically absorbed from the mass media or right wing shock jocks, but are shaped and impacted by the experience of life under capitalism, an experience which is very different depending on whether an individual is compelled to work for a living, or is deriving benefits and privileges from the status quo. And it means that there is real potential to win workers away from divisive ideas, in a way there is not for a typical business owner or manager, whose position is strengthened by divisions between workers.

The response of the left

It cannot be said that there has been general agreement amongst the left and LGBTI community about the need to campaign against the marriage ban. The gay liberation movement in Australia, dating back to the early 1970s, had never put forward marriage rights as a major demand. Indeed, many in the movement saw it as anathema to their struggle, which they identified as one for sexual liberation and radical social transformation rather than acceptance within the system. As a gay liberationist and socialist active at the time wrote in The Battler in 1985:

When gay liberation erupted in Australia in 1970-71 it did not see itself merely as a movement for reforms. It was part of a broader, fighting movement that was out to win real liberation for all the oppressed. We declared that civil rights were not enough. All of society and its institutions had to be changed. We challenged the family, the laws, the church. The very ideas that people had about homosexuality, ideas that had all the force of “simple common sense” were defiantly rejected.[8]

For the few still subscribing to this vision, fighting for marriage was not a part of their traditions, while others of that generation had different reasons for a lukewarm reaction. Many had abandoned the goal of liberation long ago; they had found a niche within the system and therefore saw little appeal in a campaign for equal rights that might involve confrontation with those within the establishment who now provided them with a comfortable life and relative privilege.

The reaction amongst younger, student or former student LGBTI activists to the ban and subsequent campaign was similarly problematic. The early 2000s saw something of a radicalisation amongst LGBTI students involved in university queer departments and collectives. The protests against a World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in November 1999, which saw tens of thousands gather in the city and successfully blockade the event, sparked off similar actions against related targets around the world. One of these was held in Melbourne on September 11, 2000 (dubbed S11 after the date). These protests were a watershed in Australian politics, attracting over 20,000 people to a blockade and giving rise to a radicalisation amongst a small layer of young people and students. An epicentre of this radicalisation was the campus queer departments and other young LGBTI people organised into groups such as the Melbourne based group Queers United to Eradicate Economic Rationalism (QUEER) and the Brisbane based Queers Against Corporate Exploitation (QuACE). These groups were formed explicitly with the purpose of mobilising people for the S11 demonstration at which they organised a sizeable Queer Bloc of LGBTI youth and supporters.[9]

There was an emphasis within this layer on opposing the system, showing solidarity with other oppressed groups and issues, and on direct action. They were heavily influenced by the politics and tactics of the anti-capitalist movement of the time. Actions included confronting the notorious Catholic Archbishop and bigot George Pell, controversially uprooting Melbourne’s celebrated floral clock to highlight the appalling state of AIDS treatment in the developing world, as well as organising contingents for demonstrations such as those on May Day.

But as the anti-capitalist movement waned, and was eclipsed by issues of war and imperialism, so too did the radicalisation around the younger queer milieu. An emphasis on personally living out your radical sexual politics in defiance of mainstream society gradually replaced that of struggle as a means to cope with or counter homophobia and sexual oppression. Elitism often accompanied this shift, with many criticising the anti-war protests for their mass, mainstream character, preferring to challenge the dominant paradigm through polyamory, adventures in the sex industry or by subverting and experimenting with gender identities. So when in 2004 a major homophobic attack was launched by the government, many current and former queer activists failed to respond and in many cases refused to oppose it in any meaningful way.

An article in the Melbourne University student publication Farrago, published in 2008 and written by a former queer officer of the student union, typified this tendency. While advocating attendance at rallies against the marriage ban, the vast majority of the piece was devoted to questioning the merit of the demand. Such an emphasis, and the extent to which there were qualifications made and caveats on the support, in effect amounted to a rejection of the campaign, and meant that what might have been an opportunity to politicise a new layer of LGBTI people on campuses and draw them into activism was ultimately squandered. This approach furthermore abandoned the campaign to the more conservative marriage advocates, who were then free to emphasise the more right wing arguments in favour of marriage rights.

Arguments against marriage equality

The non-bigoted case against calling for marriage equality tends to rest on three main arguments. The first is that marriage is a conservative institution which contributes to LGBTI oppression and that as such LGBTI people should reject rather than seek inclusion in it. Second, that winning marriage rights for same-sex couples would marginalise and compound the oppression of sections within the LGBTI community, such as singles, platonic couples, those in polyamorous relationships and others whose relationships do not fit the traditional model of marriage. Third, that non-heterosexual people and practices in and of themselves present a challenge to the status quo and that seeking recognition from mainstream society curtails this subversive potential. As the aforementioned Farrago article put it:

Have we given up on liberation and settled for assimilation? The old chants of “fuck off breeder scum” have been replaced with “we’re just like you”; as we beg for a place at the table of heteronormativity. Instead of critiquing a system and an institution that structurally oppresses us as queers we are lining up to be good heterogays and disappear into the suburbs with our superannuation, mortgages and tax cuts.

…When we let the state sanction our relationships it renders them powerless and dooms them to the safe grey silhouette of love that the state allows.

…let’s build a community and a movement that acknowledges the strength and power of our relationships in their diversity and difference to the status quo.[10]

Such arguments translated in practice to the organising of a hostile contingent to attend a rally for marriage equality in Melbourne in August 2005, which made its opposition to the main demand abundantly clear, not least through the throwing of eggs at a simulated same-sex marriage. This reaction was not unique to Australia. In the United States, a group called the Beyond Marriage Collective, made up of numerous LGBTI activists and writers grouped around the website “Against Equality”, issued a statement in 2006 entitled Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for all our Families and Relationships. The statement, signed by over 200 prominent LGBTI writers, activists and academics, criticised the focus on marriage equality within the LGBTI movements, instead calling for far more extensive recognition of non-nuclear family household arrangements and relationships.[11]

While formally unobjectionable, the preoccupation with agonising over the potential drawbacks of achieving equality effectively positions the statement as hostile to the struggle for marriage rights. If winning the demand would perpetuate LBGTI oppression as much as it would challenge it, as the statement ultimately argues, then an oppositional, or at best ambivalent, attitude is surely the only logical one to take. Comments made in 2009 by prominent queer theorist Judith Butler, a signatory to the statement, illustrate this point:

I agree that the right to homosexual marriage runs the risk of producing a conservative effect, of making marriage an act of normalisation, and thereby presenting other very important forms of intimacy and kinship as abnormal or even pathological. But the question is: politically, what do we do with this? I would say that every campaign in favour of homosexual marriage ought also to be in favour of alternative families, the alternative systems of kinship and personal association. We need a movement that does not win rights for some people at the expense of others.[12]

Veteran UK activist Peter Tatchell went further, equating winning equal rights with capitulation to the homophobic system. Speaking in relation to marriage as well as other areas of discrimination, he stated:

Equality is a good start, but it is not sufficient. Equality for queers inevitably means equal rights on straight terms, since they are the ones who dominate and determine the existing legal framework. We conform – albeit equally – with their screwed up system. That is not liberation. It is capitulation.[13]

Another way in which opposition to equal rights has been presented as a left wing stance has been by arguing against marriage and in favour of civil unions as a substitute. As Alexander Cockburn put it in 2004:

Why rejoice when state and church extend their grip, which is what marriage is all about. Assimilation is not liberation, and the invocation of “equality” as the great attainment of these gay marriages should be challenged… Civil union…is what makes sense as a national cause.[14]

Answering the anti-marriage arguments

Marxists recognise the contradictions inherent in the demand for equal marriage rights, while still uncompromisingly supporting the struggle for it. Marriage is an institution which historically and still today serves to entrench women’s oppression. It is a pillar of the nuclear family, in which women are relegated to the role of dutiful wife and mother, often economically dependent on their husbands and as such subject to their whim. Frederick Engels describes in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State how, as property came to be inherited through the father rather than the mother, “[t]he man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children… In order to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore the paternity of his children, she is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband.”[15] Thus marriage has primarily represented an economic contract and a unit of reproduction in which the sexuality of women is necessarily oppressed in order to ensure paternity of children in the interests of inheritance. The idea that it should provide emotional fulfilment or involve romantic love is a relatively recent one.

Marriage has not only historically contributed to the oppression of women, but in more recent times has also been the basis for the denial of the right to work for married women, forced women to stay in unhappy situations through the prohibition on divorce and, under the law, has treated wives as the property of their husbands. Nevertheless, the right of LGBTI people to take part in this institution is one that should be defended. Justifying the exclusion of same-sex couples, whatever the rationale, does nothing to challenge the sexist family values inherent in the institution of marriage. Those imposing the homophobic ban are not doing so in order to protect LGBTI people from the scourge of marriage or because they hope in this way the practice might die out, but rather to maintain marriage as a sacrosanct institution that forms the basis of the nuclear family and promotes heterosexuality as the highest form of love. The ban has thus become a symbol of homophobia and a means by which all non-heterosexual relationships are relegated to second class status, and for that reason should be unapologetically opposed. To agonise over the merits of the demand therefore misses the point, and only gives salve to those arguing to protect the integrity of marriage against those who fall outside the nuclear family norm.

Furthermore, ending the exclusive recognition of heterosexual relationships through marriage by extending it to non-heterosexual relationships can, to a limited extent, help to undermine the family values that marriage symbolises. Forcing the state to validate same-sex relationships implicitly challenges the idea that heterosexuality is the normal and natural way for people to express their sexuality, and that it is the preferable way to live. It is therefore not simply the case that marriage involves only the “assimilation” of same-sex couples into “straight society” by normalising non-heterosexual relationships; equally it can help to undermine the values of and confront the prejudices reinforced by the existing framework.

Arguing for the inclusion of oppressed groups in institutions about which sharp criticisms can validly be made is hardly unique. In fact, every struggle for reform under capitalism involves some variation of this contradiction. Fighting for higher wages or better conditions at work can be seen as a means by which the wage system is legitimised and reinforced and therefore as a capitulation to exploitation. Demanding the right to vote can similarly be dismissed on the basis that it may strengthen illusions in parliamentary democracy, or the demand for free education dismissed as a tacit endorsement of the right of the state to determine the curriculum and control ideas. The struggle to reunite Aboriginal children stolen from their families by Australian governments could, according to this logic, be criticised as a capitulation to family values, or the campaign for inter-racial marriage as an endorsement of marriage and the sexism and homophobia it symbolises. To argue that any of these demands or campaigns should be treated with ambivalence or opposed by left wing activists on the basis that they reinforce objectionable institutions or are a capitulation to the status quo would be patently absurd. Making demands on the capitalist state and its accompanying institutions is a means to challenge and undermine these institutions, and victories can spur people on to further question and challenge that which is taken for granted at other times. Those who dismiss such struggles as an endorsement of capitalist institutions relegate themselves to the sidelines of every struggle against the day to day injustices of capitalism, and conform to the worst stereotype of revolutionaries as interested only in some abstract revolution that has nothing to do with addressing the concerns of the mass of workers and the oppressed.

Struggle itself, even around seemingly conservative or limited demands, forms a “school for the working class” as Engels put it. It forces the powers that be to take a side, pushes wider layers of people to take notice of and confront issues of homophobia and gives allies an opportunity to demonstrate their support. This all helps to politicise people in and outside campaigns, and to elucidate the realities of a class-divided society. To continually question the potential ramifications of victory, and in so doing undermine confidence in the validity of the demand, only serves to demobilise people and thus strengthen the hand of the bigots. Instead, the aim should be to politicise the campaign as much as possible, so that those within it start to draw conclusions about the need for more far reaching change, a task which requires a clear resolve to win, not ambivalence.

A further reason to fight for marriage equality is that it can be a question of relevance to the class struggle. Less so in Australia perhaps, but in the US, health care and other benefits are bestowed through marriage. To argue that LGBTI people should be excluded from these rights in this context is to argue against a material and not insignificant increase in living standards for workers. Of course, the right to health care ideally should not be contingent on or connected to relationship status or employment, but accepting marriage inequality, and the consequent right of bosses to deny health care to those prohibited from marrying, does not help to redress this situation.

Furthermore, the battle for marriage equality should not be seen narrowly as a campaign limited to this demand. It can instead become a symbol for challenging homophobic attitudes more generally and form an opening for a broader argument about the need for more thoroughgoing sexual liberation. A successful campaign could potentially be a platform from which struggles around confronting homophobia in schools, transgender recognition, adoption and parenting rights could be launched. Which is why the argument for civil unions as a way to undermine the “grip” of church and state on our lives misses the point. The goal of the campaign is not simply to bring about laws which enshrine an ideal form of relationship recognition. It is against the homophobic exclusion of relationships deemed unnatural and undesirable according to the prevailing values of society. Therefore, demanding equal treatment before the law is a means to challenge bigotry and homophobia. Arguing for the creation of a new category separate from the customary way in which relationships are recognised is a capitulation to those who want to maintain the second class status of same-sex relationships without appearing outrageously homophobic.

This has been the basis on which some in the Labor Party have distanced themselves from the campaign and found justification for a policy that entrenches inequality. It has been a fig leaf for homophobia, rather than a genuine argument about how best to achieve sexual freedom. Nowhere has this been more evident than within the student movement. While the actions for marriage equality have involved thousands of students, the Labor-aligned student activists who control the National Union of Students have essentially taken a hostile attitude to the campaign. Their concern to avoid arguing anything which conflicts with the party in which they aim to forge careers has trumped their purported commitment to social justice. The argument for civil unions has provided them with a way both to maintain their liberal credentials and to avoid appearing outright homophobic, while at the same time defending the ALP’s discriminatory stance.

Finally, the argument that non-heterosexual practices represent a challenge to the dominant paradigm in and of themselves, and that their subversive nature would be compromised by marriage equality, amounts to nothing more than self-satisfied elitism. Looking down on the supposedly dull conformity of those living in the suburbs with “superannuation, mortgages and tax cuts”, while those with asymmetrical haircuts and designer tattoos live lives of open-minded freedom, is no strategy for winning liberation or challenging homophobic prejudice. The gains that have been made for LGBTI people in Australia have corresponded very closely with the willingness of those with mortgages living in the suburbs to take action – by joining unions, going on strike and challenging the powers that be. It has been when class consciousness and organisation has been at its strongest that homophobia towards students, in workplaces and within the union movement has been most successfully challenged. So while the mass of workers may acquiesce most of the time to many of the expectations of society, this does not mean that they are not also able to and inclined towards challenging them.

And whether they do this or not, the right of LGBTI people who do want houses in the suburbs is one that should be defended, not derided. A 2005 study carried out by the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby found marriage to be the most popular form of relationship recognition amongst LGBTI people, with 45 per cent of those surveyed indicating a desire to marry.[16] To tacitly line up with the state in denying people this right in practice amounts to demanding that people live without the rights extended to mainstream heterosexual couples simply because it validates those who see their own sex lives as a political statement. As wonderful as it would be if having unorthodox sex could change the world, there is no historical precedent for this. Deriding the desire to marry makes the argument for more far-reaching change that might challenge marriage and the family seem like a justification for the denial of rights, rather than an appeal for greater sexual freedom.

Of course this does not mean that proponents of marriage equality should or do actively promote or endorse the institution of marriage. As discussed above, most are motivated by the symbolism of the ban, rather than a pressing desire to marry or enthusiasm for the institution. And it is the case that there is a need to critique those more conservative forces who see the campaign for marriage equality as a means by which to promote family values rather than challenge them. Rodney Croome, spokesperson for Australian Marriage Equality and prominent LGBTI activist represents this trend. In a 2010 book he argued that “[a]llowing same-sex couples to marry will admit many more couples who seek to uphold the core values of marriage and are enthusiastic for the institution… It will also prompt opposite-sex couples to re-value wedlock as an institution.”[17]

Promoting the potential benefits of an institution which underpins homophobia and sexism to a significant degree is counter-productive in a campaign that ideally should be a vehicle for challenging these prejudices. And they are arguments designed to appeal to those on the right wing of society, not to those who can be the basis for a serious campaign in the streets and in the workplaces. Again however, the existence of more conservative voices within the campaign is not a reason to reject the struggle. Abstention simply cedes the ground to these more conservative organisations and individuals. Instead, intervention to politicise and radicalise the campaign as much as possible is what is needed if the campaign is to become a more generalised challenge to homophobia in all its forms.

The fact that many supposed opponents of homophobia have shied away from or actively opposed the most important national campaign for LGBTI rights in decades in Australia has not only hampered the chances of success and provided a left cover for those wanting to capitulate to homophobia, but it has also meant that a chance to politicise a new layer of LGBTI youth has in part been squandered. The abstentionist and ultra-critical attitude to the campaign that has characterised many in this tendency is a particularly indefensible position to hold in the Australian context. While the campaign in the United States has been largely initiated by LGBTI activists, through the battle in the courts for legal recognition dating back to 1993,[18] the campaign in Australia has been against a government-initiated homophobic attack. As such, the abstentionist arguments about the potential pitfalls of marriage equality are objectively far more reactionary, in that they amount in practice to lining up with the Liberal Party.

The campaign

Despite the many disagreements about the demand for marriage rights, there has been a campaign against the ban since its introduction. Demonstrations have occurred on the anniversary of the law passing in most capital cities, although they were mostly only in the hundreds for the first few years. In Victoria it was the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby which initiated the campaign while in New South Wales, where the equivalent lobby organisation is more conservative, it was a pre-existing organisation, Community Action Against Homophobia (whose predecessor was founded in 1999, then morphed into the anti-capitalist GLAM [Gays and Lesbians Against Multinationals] then became today’s CAAH), that took up the fight. More conservative lobby groups, such as Australian Marriage Equality and its offshoot Coalition for Equality, also played a role in meeting politicians and attempting to attract media attention to the issue, albeit on a more conservative basis.

Although the issue received only very limited coverage in the mainstream media, support for equal marriage rights nevertheless slowly increased as the campaign went on. By 2008 support stood at 58 per cent and by 2010 it had reached 62 per cent.[19] In 2009, the street demonstrations began to grow, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney. Thousands were mobilised in both cities, and significant numbers elsewhere. Late November saw the launch of the National Year of Action, designed to make same-sex marriage rights a campaign issue in the lead-up to the 2010 federal election. The mobilisations accordingly continued and increased in number throughout 2010, and the issue was one which dogged politicians of all stripes during the federal election campaign.

The street demonstrations against the ban have typically been young and exuberant, if not all that politically sophisticated. The overwhelming sentiment that stirs people into action has been indignation at how out of step the politicians are with mainstream public attitudes in maintaining the ban and the fact that it discriminates in such a blanket manner against relationships and love itself, rather than access to services or rights to children which people can feel more defensive about. This in part explains the enduring nature of the issue: there is a sense that this should and could be won, that the government has taken an indefensible stand. So ironically, it is the fact that society is seen to be less homophobic that makes people feel the need to protest homophobia more decidedly. But the homophobia which does endure, and especially as it affects young people as mentioned earlier, also underpins the determination to protest, and accounts for the significant representation of high school-age protesters at the rallies. Those most agitated about this issue are by and large not necessarily intending or wanting to actually get married. The symbolism of the ban, the fact that it relegates all non-heterosexual relationships to second class status, and the homophobia that continues to permeate society have been far more significant.

Gay and lesbian organisations

A consensus has gradually emerged amongst LGBTI organisations about the need to support marriage equality. While not up in arms about the issue, most organisations have been amenable to assisting the campaign in a variety of ways. A national roundtable discussion organised by the Greens in September 2010 was attended by Australian Marriage Equality, Coalition for Equality, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (Victoria and NSW), GetUp, a gay and lesbian health peak body and Rainbow Families, along with representatives from the various campaign groups. Some organisations, such as the ALSO Foundation in Victoria, have also seen being associated with the campaign as an opportunity to re-establish some relevancy, and there has been no shortage of LGBTI-oriented businesses that have been prepared to assist, no doubt sensing a business opportunity in equal rights.

Consistent coverage of the campaign in the LGBTI press and radio has also helped keep the issue of marriage equality in the spotlight, and has contributed to the feeling that the rallies are obligatory events on the LGBTI calendar. Prominent figures in the campaign groups have become minor celebrities as a result, with the Equal Love Melbourne convenor and Socialist Alternative member Ali Hogg winning several awards for her efforts. But the more established nature of the LGBTI bureaucracy means that most of these organisations are not primarily oriented towards activism, and can be wary of the impact it may have on their funding or standing in the eyes of the government or corporate sponsors. And their concern for maintaining their respectability or niche can further contribute to a certain ambivalence towards the campaign. The consequent failure of many gay and lesbian organisations to really throw themselves into the campaign has been a barrier to it going forward qualitatively.

Another barrier to the campaign significantly increasing its impact has been its inability to break out of LGBTI sectionalism. The campaign events differ little from LGBTI community events, which can be alienating to those outside the community, notwithstanding the emphasis on civil rights and equality. As a result, non-LGBTI organisations and individuals have been largely absent from the campaign events, and this remains an important area into which the campaign needs to extend its reach.


When the ban was introduced by Howard in 2004, the ALP immediately voted for it without so much as pushing for a debate in parliament or sending it to a committee. Nicola Roxon, then Shadow Attorney General, defended Labor’s support for it this way: “We understand how strongly many people feel about retaining and promoting the institution of marriage between men and women and as a bedrock institution for families.”[20] ALP left member Anthony Albanese criticised the government over the lack of debate about the issue and accused it of being divisive, but not even one Labor MP was prepared to openly state their opposition to the ban or vote against it.

A notable shift in the rhetoric about this issue has taken place in the ALP since 2004. Mark Latham, who was the leader when the ban was voted for, has since said he “regrets” taking the position he did, and that “Most people who are reasonable about it recognise that love is the important thing. If two people love each other, no matter their gender and their background, that’s the thing that should define a good marriage, and society should respect that.”[21] A slowly growing number of Labor figures have also been prepared to criticise the party’s policy, significantly from the right as well as the left. Mark Arbib and Paul Howes from the right, along with Doug Cameron and Queensland Premier Anna Bligh from the left, have joined other dissenters, mostly in the state branches of the party. Others, such as Bill Shorten, have expressed their personal opposition to the ban, and 22 of 39 federal ALP backbenchers have privately conveyed their disapproval of the party’s policy.[22] Penny Wong, ALP Senator and one of the few out lesbian MPs in Canberra, has been an outspoken supporter of her party’s policy, a stance that has drawn much ire from the LGBTI community. Significantly however, at the 2010 state conference of the South Australian branch of the ALP, she indicated that despite her many declarations to the contrary, she does in fact support equal rights.

This dissent has not gone unchecked however. Late in 2010 Prime Minister Gillard more trenchantly reiterated her commitment to maintaining the ban, while right wingers Wayne Swan and Joe De Bruyn have also spoken out in support of the policy. Such actions have the potential to backfire on the ALP. The fact that such figures are publicly airing their homophobia can be a spur to action for wider layers of people. Those who might not trouble themselves to demonstrate for marriage when it seems to be the way the wind is blowing anyway might see the point of taking action when homophobia appears to be on the march, or when particularly outrageous statements are made by people who are meant to embody “Labor values”.

Regardless of how things unfold, the Labor Party leadership is stuck in a bind. To back down on the issue of same-sex marriage will make them look weak, open them up to criticism that they have capitulated to the agenda of the Greens and display a degree of conviction and commitment to social justice that they generally attempt to avoid. On the other hand, to continue with the ban holds few benefits and allows the Greens to better position themselves as a progressive alternative.

The Greens

The Greens have been eager to take up the cause of marriage equality, and it has become one which defines their modern, liberal image in contrast to Labor’s out of step, old style conservatism on the question. It not only appeals to the young, liberal, inner city constituency which forms the backbone of the Greens’ support, but it is also an issue which is safe – the granting of same-sex marriage rights does not pose a serious threat to Australian capitalism, and the mainstream nature of the sentiment means it is not the ideal issue for the right wing to attack the Greens over. Greens representatives have accordingly been vocal against the ban, with the party’s leader Bob Brown describing it as a “straight Australia policy”.[23] The issue has also been prominent in the Greens’ various electoral campaigns, the party has an official spokesperson for the issue and it has been the Greens who have repeatedly moved legislation in the federal parliament guaranteeing full marriage rights for all couples.

The 2010 federal election saw the election of Greens candidate Adam Bandt to the lower house of the Australian parliament, a success attributed in part to the party’s clear stance in support of equal rights. Since the election, the Greens have continued to campaign around same-sex marriage rights, and it appears that they intend to be seen to attempt to follow through on their stand. They have held press conferences, organised meetings and assisted with rallies since the election, and while their emphasis on pushing for a conscience vote rather than a change in ALP policy has myriad problems, it has nevertheless kept the issue on the agenda. At the state level the Greens have also been active, by helping to move state-based marriage equality legislation in Tasmania and South Australia.

However while they have undoubtedly made an important contribution to the campaign, the Greens have not used their popularity and public standing to the greatest effect. Their view of parliament as the means to win gains on behalf of people has meant they have done little to mobilise their many supporters in the streets and workplaces to take the kind of action that could potentially create a political crisis for the government and force them to accede to the campaign’s demands. They have not used their public profile and the forums that provides in the media or their speeches in parliament to agitate for people to not just give moral support to the campaign, but to attend its rallies, move motions in their unions and participate in other campaign activities. The impact they have on building mass support for the campaign is therefore far less than it could be, and highlights their serious political weakness. A serious party which offered a genuine left alternative to the ALP could have a material impact on the strength or weakness of movements, which the Greens fail to do.

The contribution of Socialist Alternative

Socialist Alternative (SA) members are active in the same-sex marriage campaign in every city in which SA has a presence. The groups which organise the campaigns are everywhere small in relation to the numbers they can mobilise, even in Melbourne which is the traditional centre of the campaign. Despite this, the groups are widely seen to be broad and organised around a single unifying purpose – to repeal the ban. This is a strength, and helps attract support and maintain allies in a way that other campaign groups that are more associated with the left and radical politics sometimes struggle to achieve. Maintaining this approach is important if the campaign is to continue mobilising significant numbers and drawing in more support.

Socialist Alternative has played an important role in these campaign groups, arguing for demonstrations, to involve more sympathetic groups and organisations in the campaign and to continue pushing the issue, even when it appeared that little progress was being made. In particular, it was SA members who successfully argued for the National Year of Action around equal marriage, which involved an escalation in the number of demonstrations and events in the year leading up to the 2010 federal election. The initiative proved to be a success, with the demonstrations increasing in size in most cities, which was vital to escalating the campaign and attracting greater public attention. The campaign undoubtedly benefited from the increased sense of purpose and national cohesion that the year brought.

SA members who have been elected to Queer Officer positions in the National Union of Students (NUS), both at a state and national level, have also made an important contribution to the campaign, speaking at rallies, talking to the media, coordinating activity on university campuses and using their position to encourage other organisations to support the campaign. SA members have also largely taken responsibility for the work involved in building and publicising the rallies, securing the support of trade unions and student unions and cajoling these organisations to publicise the campaign to their members and in some cases organise contingents. The decline of traditional activism, and of organisations with an activist focus, has meant much of the work of publicising campaign events, contacting potential allies and taking responsibility for the logistics of the protests has fallen to SA along with a few other notable individuals. This is an important argument for continuing to build a socialist organisation in Australia.

It has also been notable that much of the traditional left has ignored or had a dismissive attitude to the campaign. Apart from the Socialist Alliance, none have maintained a consistent presence in the organising groups, and their contingents at equal marriage rallies have been minimal to non-existent. Whatever the rationale for this abstention, the reality is that same-sex marriage has become an established issue in Australian politics and one that large numbers of young people feel strongly about and are prepared to mobilise over. While thus far this sentiment has not been a sharply radicalising force, it nevertheless is exposing a new generation to protest politics and can create an opening for political ideas amongst young people, an otherwise all too rare occurrence.

The international context

Marriage equality has been an issue not just in Australia but around the world. The year in which the ban was enacted in Australia was also a key year for the equal marriage campaign in the US. In May 2004, the Supreme Court in Massachusetts ruled that a prohibition on same-sex marriages violated the state’s constitution. This ruling prompted a raft of other states to immediately amend their constitutions to avoid the same fate, and referenda on the issue were run in several states alongside the presidential elections of that year in order to mobilise a right wing constituency that was favourable for the ruling Republicans. The divisive nature of the issue, and the clear electoral opportunity the Republicans recognised in it, no doubt contributed to the conservative Australian government’s move to ban it the same year.

Not all movement on the issue has been towards homophobic discrimination however. Same-sex marriage has been fully legalised in the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Spain, South Africa, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina and Canada, with a raft of other countries introducing some form of civil unions.[24] This variation in responses on the part of the world’s governments to relationship recognition is indicative of differing viewpoints as to how to both maintain the nuclear family as a bedrock social institution and to adapt to the changing social arrangements which are widely recognised as irreversible. Maintaining a discriminatory policy is for some governments a means to clearly stigmatise relationships falling outside the nuclear family model, even if they don’t actually expect it to prevent them being formed. The approach of others is to attempt to adapt the ideology of the family to different sorts of relationships and living arrangements. So long as people are living in long term, stable partnerships, bearing the cost of child raising privately and taking responsibility for the sick and elderly, the function of the family is fulfilled. The capitalist class, which would otherwise have to fill the breach through taxation or direct provision, is spared the cost and responsibility for providing these essential services – which is, after all, the essential function of the family.

A shift to the latter approach can be the reason that the Australian government eventually concedes on marriage rights. They can conclude that punitive sanctions are not the best way to promote and perpetuate the traditional family in a modern context, that there would be greater benefits in instead remoulding the family to social reality in order to maintain its relevance as a social institution, and that the overheads of seeming hopelessly out of touch by continuing to oppose equality outweigh the advantages. Campaigning can have an impact on what governments decide to do in this context. The increasing divisions that have opened up within the ALP testify to both the ambivalence within sections of the ruling class about maintaining the ban, as well as the impact that campaigning can have. A victory against the bigoted ban on same-sex marriage, regardless of the government’s calculations, has the potential to embolden people and spur them on to greater political demands, both around LGBTI rights and broader issues.

[1] Misha Schubert, “Public backs gay unions: equality”, The Age, Melbourne, 21 June 2007.

[2] Writing Themselves In 3, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Melbourne, 2010, pp.40, 44.

[3] Poll commissioned by Australian Marriage Equality and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Galaxy Research, October 2010. Full results at

[4] Marrissa Calligeros, “Working Class Against Gay Marriage: Senator”, Brisbane Times, 18 November 2010.

[5] Australian Marriage Equality poll, 2010.

[6] Quoted in “Public opinion on same-sex marriage”, 6 December 2010, available at

[7] Shirleene Robinson, Homophobia: an Australian History, The Federation Press, NSW, 2008, p.3.

[8] Graham Willet, “Gay Oppression: A Prop for the Family”, The Battler, 20 April 1985.

[9] Mark Pendleton, “Queers, Anti-capitalism and War”, 2001, polsci/ marx/ gayleft/queers_anticap_war.htm.

[10] Curtis Red, “Nothing Civil About Our Unions”, Farrago, Melbourne University Student Union, Melbourne, 2008.

[11] Beyond Marriage Equality Collective, “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for all our Families and Relationships”, 26 July 2006,

[12] Fina Birules, “Interview with Judith Butler: Gender is Extramoral”, Monthly Review Zine, 16 May 2009, butler160509.html.

[13] Jack Nichols, “Peter Tatchell: Outrage in Action”, Gay Today, at

[14] Alexander Cockburn, “Gay marriage a sidestep along freedom’s path”, Counterpunch, 2 March 2004,

[15] Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, International Publishers, New York, 1972.

[16] Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, “Not Yet Equal”, Melbourne, 2005.

[17] Rodney Croome and Bill Muehlenburg, Why vs. Why: Gay Marriage, Pantera Press, NSW, 2010.

[18] Craig Rimmerman and Clyde Wilcox (eds.), The Politics of Same-sex Marriage, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007, p.39.

[19] Australian Marriage Equality poll, 2010.

[20] Meaghan Shaw, “Labor backs ban on gay marriage”, The Age, 5 August 2004.

[21] Statement originally made on radio and quoted in “Latham regrets not allowing gay marriage”, Same Same, 16 August 2010, local/ 5759/Latham-regrets-not-allowing-gay-marriage.htm.

[22] Joe Kelly, “Labor to support amended Greens’ motion on gay marriage”, The Australian, 16 November 2010.

[23] Tim Wright, “Same-sex couples still waiting at the altar for basic rights”, The Age, Melbourne, 31 July 2009.

[24] Rimmerman and Wilcox, The Politics of Same-sex Marriage, p.342.

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