When a sufficient number of people adopt a particular idea, it becomes self-sustaining and self-promoting. Social theorists call this “critical mass.
Victories in the fight for marriage equality around the Western world are gaining speed rapidly. It is hard not to wonder whether a cultural tsunami might not result — one which deals a serious blow to the “traditional family unit” with its oppressive and proscriptive gender roles. It may be one that creates a world where women can dream of more than a fairy-tale wedding from Barbie-Land followed by decades of unpaid labour from Cinderella-Land, and men can find their Prince Charming if they want to as well.
But the battle is still raging in many countries, and this year has been interesting as activists have been rethink tactics and focus.
The victories in some other nations are the best guide for the next move of the campaign in Australia.
The United States
The victory of US President Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney in the recent US election has its complexities, but the news for gay men and all women is better than it could have been.
Obama will definitely be better on minority rights than anyone elected by Romney’s proudly misogynist, rape-affirming, violently homophobic fan-club in much of the Republican Party.
One of the few issues that set Obama and Romney apart was Romney’s clear opposition to marriage equality. In classic Romney-style, this policy was a rewriting of his previously progressive persona.
In his 1994 senatorial campaign, a more “liberal” Romney told lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans newspaper Bay Windows that he would be “Better than Ted for gay rights”, referring to staunch marriage equality advocate Senator Ted Kennedy.
In May, Obama’s views changed in the opposite direction to Romney’s flip-flop, but he also affirmed the right of each state to decide on the issue. It seems fair to say that the choice of Obama himself was an unmistakable popular mandate for marriage equality.
At the election, four states were polled on equal marriage rights. Maine, Maryland and Washington all endorsed same-sex marriage. A proposal to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota was shot down as well.
Before this year, every marriage equality referendum was lost, including the huge 2008 Proposition 8 campaigns in the state of California.
How can these latest clear victories be explained then?
In a nutshell, the anti-Prop 8 campaign and other opportunities for reform failed at the polls because they relied on lobby groups to campaign and ignored the grassroots.
The anti-gay groups did not make that mistake. The “Yes on 8” campaign organised by ProtectMarriage.org was funded and staffed by the Roman Catholic group Knights of Colombus, and the Latter Day Saints (Mormons).
After a plea from the Mormon hierarchy, Mormons donated almost half the funds, and provided 80-90% of volunteer labour for “Yes on 8”.
Since the global financial crisis, there has been a shift in progressive politics in the US from parliamentary to grassroots activism, such as Occupy Wall Street. In 2008, Join the Impact came to public attention when it organised a mass protest in response to prop-8.
More than 1 million people attended the protests in 400 cities worldwide, with attendance varying from 25,000 in San Diego and 10,000 in New York to “about a dozen” in Laramie, Wyoming and Sandpoint, Idaho.
The US situation is a marvelous illustration of the principle that activist groups have been insisting on at least since the time of the women’s suffrage movement and the Vietnam anti-war movement.
We have won these recent victories, not because of Obama’s “evolution” on this issue, but because of a powerful, grassroots campaign demanded change.
Movements can’t succeed simply off the steam of money and powerful friends. The people, united and organised, are the only political force that can create real change.
The map of marriage rights around the European continent tells a creepy story. With few exceptions (significantly, Italy), it is post-Soviet states that have no recognition of same-gender couples.
The most obvious cause of this anachronistic discrepancy is the rise of nationalism, the religious right and neo-fascism that took place after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Extreme homophobia was characteristic of these movements, resulting in an epidemic of homophobic violence, bans on the “propaganda” of homosexuality in nine regions of Russia including St Petersburg, a “hundred-year ban” on pride marches in Moscow, and no anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTI people anywhere in Russia.
Most other European states have achieved some form of same-sex couple recognition. Formal marriage equality exists in the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland and Denmark. Civil unions are recognised in Britain, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. France, Britain and Luxembourg look like they have full equality on the books, with bills on the table in their parliaments.
But where marriage equality has been granted, it has been done so in ways that are careful not to alienate the support of the powerful European church, by granting religious exemptions, and refusing to acknowledge marriage rights as human rights.
When French lesbian couple Valerie Gas and Nathalie Dubois went to the European Court of Human Rights to establish marriage and adoption rights under anti-discrimination law, the court ruled: “The European Convention on Human Rights does not require member states’ governments to grant same-sex couples access to marriage.”
This decision is now frequently quoted by opponents who argue that it establishes a legal precedent that marriage equality is not a human right.
The promised reforms of the Tory government in Britain follows this trend of supporting the reform without treating marriage as a human right, and allowing dissenting organisations such as religious bodies to continue to practice discrimination.
The global South
There’s not much good news coming from communities in the global South. The death penalty for sodomy is still enshrined in law in many African, Middle Eastern, and south-east Asian countries.
Uganda is considering an anti-homosexuality bill which would allow the death penalty for male gay sex, and require all citizens to report all known homosexual people to the government or face criminal prosecution.
Two glowing exceptions to this trend are Nepal and Mexico City. In 2007, a revolution in Nepal led by Maoist rebels overthrew the monarchy, decriminalised sodomy, recognised a third gender, and established a committee to legalise marriage equality, which is expected to be guaranteed as a human right in the forthcoming constitution of Nepal.
In November 2009, Mexico City granted marriage equality, and these marriages are regarded as valid in all regions of Mexico by the Supreme Court. The region of Quintana Roo has also witnessed a number of gay couples marrying, and attempts to annul the unions have been unsuccessful.
Until 2004, Australia was like Quintana Roo, with no legal obstacles to same-sex marriage. The John Howard government with the support of the Labor opposition passed the Marriage Amendment Act 2004, a ban on marriage equality. This was also supported by Labor left politicians such as Tanya Plibersek, who opposed marriage equality on “feminist” grounds.
These were hard times. Even the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL) refused to condemn the marriage ban, and in 2007 called the police to have a pro-equality banner removed from Mardi Gras Fair Day.
A few small voices for marriage equality began to emerge.
Community Action Against Homophobia began to organise a national day of action each year on the anniversary of the marriage ban. This quickly gained enough steam to become a quarterly rally.
Marriage rallies were being organised by the grassroots group Equal Love in Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra, and many smaller cities like Wollongong and Armidale soon showed support with as well.
2007 will be remembered as the turning point for the campaign. A Galaxy poll showed a majority of Australians supported marriage equality, the GLRL agreed to support equality, and plans for an equality bill began to be hatched.
By the end of the electoral cycle, the ALP had overturned 58 laws discriminating against same-sex couples, and the Greens had placed the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009, addressing the sticky 59th law.
In 2010, Julia Gillard flattened us all with her mystifying opposition to marriage equality.
CAAH and Equal Love responded by organising the biggest action to date. A united national rally of 10,000 people stormed the streets of Sydney and landed at the Labor conference, where they squeezed formal support out of the ALP.
But it also passed the right of party members to a “conscience vote” on the issue, which allow Labor right politicians block reforms, and the bills were voted down.
Within the current government, this leaves open one option for legislating marriage equality: state parliaments.
A bill was narrowly rejected by the Tasmanian Upper House in September, but there is strong cross-party support for marriage equality bills in NSW, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia. The ability of states to pass marriage bills may be challenged in the Supreme Court – but they also might win the challenge.
It’s absolutely clear from recent international history that even the most supportive lobbyists and parliamentarians will sell out the campaign, negotiate religious exemptions, and legislate marriage equality as a privilege rather than a right. To win, we need to do what we know will work: organise the majority to rise up and demand it.