How we won marriage equality

Sydney says Yes to marriage equality. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

A year on from the result of Australia’s marriage equality postal survey, it is timely to look at the grassroots campaign that made this historic victory possible, and some of the remaining challenges ahead for the LGBTI community.

The same-sex marriage ban was enacted under former Coalition prime minister John Howard on August 13, 2004, when parliament voted to change the legal definition of marriage to the “voluntarily entered-into union of a man and a woman to exclusion of all others”. The amendment to the Marriage Act was passed with Labor’s support.

Along with other activists from the Sydney-based grassroots activist group Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH), I was involved in the first organising rallies and actions to stop the ban.

CAAH had originally been formed in 1999 to fight against New South Wales’ discriminatory unequal age of consent laws. Along with socialists, greens and independent activists, Simon Margan and I helped reinvigorate CAAH to fight the marriage ban.

Our first protest was in June 2004, outside the 700-strong National Marriage Forum in Canberra. The forum involved a bunch of right-wing Christian fundamentalists who view queers as 21st century moral terrorists, unfit to raise children and psychologically disturbed. It was at this forum that Labor MP Nicola Roxon announced her party would pass the same-sex marriage ban.

There was a real uncertainty in the air that day. The parliamentary vote was looming and we were not sure if people would turn up or support the campaign. In the end about 400 people turned up, chanting: “Same-sex marriage now!”

One thing we were sure of was that it would be a long fight, particularly because of Labor’s kowtowing to the Coalition.

Initial support 

At the time, polls indicated only a third of heterosexuals and a third of our own community supported marriage equality.

We had a hard time convincing queers to come out at that early stage in support of marriage equality. Marriage rights were simply not a big deal in the LGBTI community at the time.

So activists had to do a lot of work to convince our community: we had arguments in pubs, published articles in the queer press, did countless poster and leaflet runs up and down the queer strips, and held small speak-outs on Oxford Street and King Street.

We also began trying to bring the different strands of the movement together in response to the ban.

CAAH approached the Aids Council of NSW (ACON) and the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL) to jointly organise actions, but was knocked back.

On the other hand, Australia Marriage Equality (AME) consistently rallied against the ban. AME Sydney’s Peter Furness assisted CAAH, providing valuable advice on how to navigate the political terrain.

At the time, most of the ’78ers — the LGBTI activists who were present at the first Mardi Gras — did not support the marriage rights campaign, so we needed all the advice we could get.

There wasn’t the sort of broad support for marriage equality back then that there is today. For the first six months of the campaign, we couldn’t even get the LGBTI press to take up the issue in any depth.

We had a lot of people in our community arguing that they didn’t support marriage equality because they were against marriage, which they viewed as a patriarchal institution.

We responded by saying we needed to reform the marriage institution. Just as the campaigns fought and won by feminists to recognise rape in marriage and divorce rights had greatly improved many women’s lives, marriage equality could also help many rainbow relationships, assist children within them, and give social standing to LGBTI people. 

To those who said they personally didn’t want to get married, we said that while it was their right to make that choice, there were others who did want to marry their partners.

For us, the campaign wasn’t about our individual opinion on marriage, but about social recognition; about kids being bullied at school and being thrown out of home; about all those partners who weren’t allowed in the hospital room as their lovers died, or who were ostracised at their lovers’ funerals; and many other examples of how members of the LGBTI community were treated as second-class citizens.

CAAH activists took the debate about marriage equality to university campuses and to the Queer Collaborations student conferences. While high school students were interested in the campaign from the start, it took longer to convince and involve university students.

First national protest

On the first anniversary of the ban, CAAH and AME organised the first national day of action for marriage equality. ACON and GLRL, however, continued to resist calls by grassroots organisations to join the campaign and refused to concede the homophobic nature of the marriage ban.

In 2006, CAAH and AME met to jointly organise an action in Sydney for August 13. Despite attempts by establishment queer groups to stop the protest going ahead— including by falsely claiming the police had denied us permission to rally — it was a success.

That same year, the ACT government legislated in favour of civil unions, following discussions with the lobby group Good Process. The Howard government, however, promptly squashed the legislation, with the campaign for civil unions quickly dissipating in its aftermath.

The ACT Legislative Assembly had another go at passing civil unions legislation after Labor’s Kevin Rudd became PM in 2007. However, the federal Labor government put huge pressure on the ACT assembly to water down the legislation.

Despite a strong campaign by the local LGBTI community in support of civil unions, the ACT legislative assembly caved to federal government pressure. In the end, a registration scheme was passed instead.

While establishment groups sought to limit their focus to de facto rights or civil unions, the grassroots campaign continued to call for full marriage equality. CAAH had no problems in supporting registrations, but refused to concede on marriage rights.

It was around this time that our slogan changed from demanding same-sex marriage to marriage equality, as many of us saw the need to include trans and gender-fluid people in our campaign. 

Unfortunately, other groups continued to work to undermine support for marriage equality. 

At the 2007 annual Mardi Gras Fair Day, CAAH activists unfurled a banner that read “Same-sex marriage rights NOW” in front of a Sea of Hearts media stunt organised by the NSW GLRL. In response, NSW GLRL called the police to move activists on.

Given the many reports of police beatings of queers on Oxford Street at the time, their attempts to use the police to intimidate activists did not go down well in the community.

Around this time, gay and lesbian magazine SX began to provide a lot of sympathetic coverage to the protesters and the marriage equality campaign. This was one of many signs that the campaign for marriage equality was gaining support.

In 2007-08, CAAH led and won a campaign to free Ai Humayan, a queer Pakistani refugee locked up in Villawood detention centre. For the next few years, CAAH continued to campaign in defence of queer refugees, winning all the cases we campaigned around.

While these cases didn’t dominate the marriage equality campaign, we made sure we helped queer refugee where we could. We also made sure that the 76 countries that banned homosexuality were mentioned and condemned. We did this to raise awareness about how other queers faced even worse hardships than we do and to develop a sense of solidarity.  

In 2008, CAAH led a coalition to protest the tour of Pope Benedict, who described homosexuality as a “disorder” and condemned the use of condoms. This led to a 1500-strong No To Pope protest, with messages such as "Gay is great" and “The Pope has it wrong. Put a condom on”.

Protests spread

While continuing to organise national events on August 13 — the day of the ban — the campaign also began to mobilise on May 14, International Day of Action Against Homophobia, and December 10, International Human Rights Day.

In 2009, 3000 people rallied for marriage equality outside Labor’s National Conference in Sydney. 

In 2010 and 2011, CAAH followed the lead of Equal Love Melbourne and led a National Year of Action, during which we organised rallies every three months in major cities.

Rallies also began to spring up in regional and rural locations, an indication of the strength of the campaign and the courage of LGBTI people in rural Australia.

In December 2011, 10,000 rallied in Sydney for marriage equality outside Labor’s National Conference  — by far the largest single marriage equality protest up until then.

The protest was not only historic due to its size but because of Labor’s response. Everyone was hopeful that Labor would change its position. But they didn’t. Instead they committed a sleight of hand, with marriage equality being including in the party’s platform but MPs being given a conscience vote on the matter — thereby ensuring no bill could get passed in parliament.

At the 2013 Mardi Gras, two young gay men, Jamie and Bryn, were attacked by police. Bryn was CAAH co-convenor at the time and a leading figure in the marriage equality campaign. We responded with a 2000-strong rally on Oxford Street to condemn the police and demand an independent inquiry into the assaults.

At the rally, Greens speaker Irene Doutney asked the crowd who had been harassed or attacked by police. About two-thirds of the crowd put their hands up. Aboriginal elder Ray Jackson roused the crowd by reminding everyone of the original Mardi Gras slogan: “Stop police attacks on gays, women and Blacks.” 


The marriage equality campaign was many things. At times, it was a vibrant and celebratory festival, but in the early days it sometimes felt like a never-ending struggle, one in which we were making minimal headway.

It took a monumental effort to fight homophobia, overcome the delaying tactics of successive Labor and Coalition governments and turn passive minority support into active majority support. This was possible due to the grassroots organisations that started the movement, rallied the community, won the debate and mobilised mass numbers of people — all without the funding of the bigger organisations.

And all of it was worth it when we finally won last year.

On September 10, 2017, CAAH led Australia’s largest ever protest for LGBTI rights, bringing more than 30,000 people onto the streets for marriage equality. The protest built on the momentum of 20,000 people who had marched in Melbourne the week before, with 10,000 marching in Brisbane, 4000 in Canberra, and thousands more across the country. 

We won many concessions during this strong grassroots campaign, including civil unions, registration schemes, adoption and surrogacy rights and the recognition of overseas same-sex marriages.

But throughout the whole campaign, we remained focused on winning the battle for marriage equality. We wanted it to be easier for queer kids to come out of the closet and be proud of who they are. And we all did this.

But the fight is not over. We still have much to do. Conservative sections of society are pushing back against marriage equality and the rainbow community.

Trans people in particular are bearing the brunt of these far-right attacks. They need our solidarity. The marriage equality fight was never just a gay campaign. Right from the outset, trans people were key activists in the fight against the marriage ban.  

We need to stop queer kids and teachers being expelled from religious schools. We need to end all religious exemptions when it comes to discriminating against the LGBTI community.

We have many demands to win. We want trans people to have access to free, quality operations. We want to reinstate the anti-bullying Safe Schools programs in schools. We need housing for queer kids thrown out of their homes. 

What the marriage campaign showed is that if we protest long and hard enough, we will win. The seeds of resistance we planted during the marriage equality campaign will continue to grow. Let’s keep watering them so that one day we can walk among a rainbow-lit forest, free from oppression.

[Rachel Evans would like to thank Farida Iqbal for helping to put this article together, in particular with information regarding the equal marriage campaign in the ACT.]