Equal marriage rights — we are winning

September 7, 2009

The August 1 national day of action for equal marriage rights was the biggest demonstration for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights in Australian history.

Up to 10,000 people rallied nationwide. It set a world record for the biggest illegal queer wedding. It was also the largest protest that happened during the Labor Party's national conference in Sydney.

The movement for queer marriage rights has come of age. It is no longer a campaign of the LGBTI community and its fringe of supporters. It is no longer a small campaign dwarfed by larger campaigns.

It is now a movement that has sunk its tendrils into society and it is unmistakeably making its mark on Australian political life.

The resilience of this campaign is as impressive as its recent growth.

Sometimes when bad laws are passed people give up. Yet this campaign survived the federal ban on same-sex marriage in 2004 and continued despite the defeat of two rounds of civil union legislation in the ACT.

Sometimes when governments give concessions people are pacified. Yet when the federal government amended more than 100 laws that discriminated against same-sex de facto couples the movement was buoyed up. It only highlighted the lack of full marriage rights.

This persistence is important to Australian activism today. Too many campaigns seem to spike at the beginning and then crash before their demands are won.

The Socialist Alliance has played a decisive role in the survival of the campaign. The first national day of action in 2004 was initiated by Socialist Alliance activists. As socialists we have a deep conviction in the independent power of working people to make social change.

We know that the government is not all powerful — people power makes it possible to build on a campaign even after bad laws are passed.

Queer people stick out like a sore thumb as the only minority group in Australia denied the right to marry. This is what makes queers and their supporters so indignant, outraged and persistent.

It's five years since former Prime Minister John Howard banned queer marriage. In 2004, the LGBTI community was more divided than it is today.

On the one hand there were the peak LGBTI lobby groups — such as the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby in Sydney — who were too closely tied to the Labor Party to demand the right to marry.

On the other hand, the leadership of the queer student movement did not want to demand queer marriage because of opposition to the institution of marriage itself.

Yet the leaders of the marriage rights campaign have persisted in this debate and, for the most part, have won out on the question of marriage rights. Community momentum has swept aside the hesitations.

The campaign has never been as united as it is now. The founding groups Community Action Against Homophobia, Australian Marriage Equality and Equal Love (Melbourne) are now joined in principle by the peak lobby groups and by many student queer collectives.

Socialist Alternative has recently joined the Socialist Alliance and the Greens in the struggle. Amnesty International has also adopted a position in support of same-sex marriage.

Developments elsewhere may have also impacted on the size of the Australian rallies. The large US campaign for equal marriage rights inspired activists in Australia.

The Australian and US campaigns have been driven by similar political circumstances. The Rudd Labor government, like the Obama government in the US, is having a complicated effect on people's political psychology.

Both governments were elected on the basis of deep discontent with the previous government. As a result both governments have enjoyed an extended honeymoon period.

On one hand, this has had a demobilising effect on many movements. Many people have placed their hopes for change in the new government rather than in protest movements.

On the other hand, expectations of progressive change have been raised both in Australia and the US.

Obama does not support LGBTI marriage, but many of his supporters do. His slogan "yes we can" has been adapted by the marriage rights campaign: "yes we can too!"

The feeling that change is in the air has helped make the US protests to repeal Proposition 8 so large. Proposition 8 is an amendment to the Californian constitution, passed in November, that ended the right of same-sex couples to marry in the state.

Similar things are happening in Australia. Melbourne Equal Love activist Meighan Katz told Melbourne Community Voice on July 22 that people feel there is "room to move" on marriage rights with the ALP in power. More people have come out to protest around queer marriage because they think the ALP can be pressured.

The timing of the national day of action with the ALP national conference was important. It meant the rallies had a very sharp political focus on the ALP to change its policy.

Yet the ALP did not budge an inch. It did not even endorse a national registry scheme, let alone the right to marry. Perhaps some people were disappointed by this.

But it is to be expected given the deeply entrenched homophobia in the ALP. It is not a reason for disappointment. It is a reason to fight harder.

The campaign has never been stronger, though it still has challenges to overcome. The campaign must do more to address the concerns of transgender and intersex people.

Too often this is seen as a gay and lesbian struggle, yet the 2004 marriage ban is just as discriminatory to transgender and intersex people as it is to gays and lesbians. In fact, transgender and intersex people have had even more of a raw deal.

Transgender and intersex people are not only affected by the 2004 marriage ban. The law also refuses to recognise their gender. Further, the federal government has made no move to end laws that discriminate against transgender and intersex people.

The Equal Love group that organised the rally in Canberra may point a way forward on this question.

Activists from transgender rights group A Gender Agenda persuaded Equal Love Canberra to make a conscious effort to cover transgender issues in its speeches on the day, and to make the language on publicity materials as transgender inclusive as possible.

Equal Love Canberra decided not to use the phrase "same-sex marriage" in recognition that for many transgender and intersex people the issue is not same-sex marriage, but marriage regardless of gender.

This poses some dilemmas for communication — the campaign is known to the public as about same-sex marriage. Yet the size of the Canberra rally did not suffer for the transgender-inclusive language and the appreciative comments of transgender people who attended indicate that the effort was worthwhile.

The movement will no doubt take up such challenges, just as it has overcome many challenges already.

The campaign has already won the battle of public opinion. Recent polls show about 60% of Australians now support equal marriage rights. Among young people, support is more than 70%.

Further national protests are planned for late November. The sentiment for equal marriage must be mobilised again and again in a mass campaign. If we can achieve this, then we will win.

[Farida Iqbal is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Canberra.]

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