Labor must support marriage equality now

July 17, 2015
About 5000 people rallied for marriage equality in Perth on July 5.

An important protest for marriage equality will be held outside the Labor Party's national conference in Melbourne on July 25. The protest is being organised by Equal Love Melbourne.

It is one of a series of demonstrations being organised in the lead-up to the spring session of parliament, where it is expected that several bills for marriage equality will be debated.

Marriage equality has recently been won in Ireland and the United States. This places unprecedented pressure on the government. Australia is becoming more and more isolated globally.

National Party MP Barnaby Joyce said marriage equality would make Australia look decadent in the eyes of Asia and would harm our trading relationships. But the rising tide of queer liberation is making progress in Asia too.

In February this year a committee formed by the Nepalese Supreme Court submitted a report to the Nepalese government recommending marriage equality. Vietnam recently repealed legislation criminalising same sex marriage. However, this does not mean same sex marriages have legal status in Vietnam, just that holding a wedding is no longer a criminal offence.

The global movement for marriage equality is even making progress in little-known corners of the world such as Pitcairn Island. This colony of the United Kingdom has a population of just forty-eight people, and a marriage equality law was passed there earlier this month.

The Australian government is under enormous pressure from the grass roots marriage equality movement. We have been protesting for 11 years, and recently Ireland and the United States have inspired us. Some of the biggest queer rights protests in Australian history have recently been organised: 5000 people demonstrated in Perth and 2000 in Canberra.

The Abbott government stands condemned for its stubbornness. If there is a divided vote in the Liberal Party in August, that will be fantastic because it will show the pressure is mounting. Even if their party refuses to allow a conscience vote, dissenting Liberal Party MPs should still cross the floor.

The Labor Party should not be let off the hook. It was in government for six years during which time it could have legislated for marriage equality. It squandered the opportunity. It had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, for seven years to adopt a position in favour of marriage equality. It only did it at its 2011 national conference where some 5000 people protested in support of marriage equality.

Labor does not yet plan to bind its politicians to vote for equal marriage rights. If this was to happen marriage equality would be law. But if Labor parliamentarians are free to vote according to their “conscience”, including for prejudice and bigotry, it makes it harder for us.

Some leading activists in the equal marriage rights campaign have given up on pressuring Labor to bind its vote. Instead they are focused on getting the Liberal Party to allow a conscience vote. This is a mistake.

The equal marriage rights campaign has already pressured the Labor Party to adopt equal marriage policy and, if we keep up the pressure, those supporting a bound vote will win out. We need huge protests leading up to the Spring session of parliament to help that along.

Regardless of whether the tactic is for a bound vote or a conscience vote, we all need to be out on the streets protesting.

We may be on the brink of victory, but there is no guarantee we will win. In both the Liberal and Labor parties there are politicians who will do everything they can to stall the course of history. To have any chance of pushing them over the edge, we need to be united in action

A win will change the lives of many. However, marriage equality will not mean the end of our struggle.

The Human Rights Commission has released a comprehensive report detailing the legal inequality still on the books, Resilient Individuals: Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Rights 2015.

Its findings are surprising. Queensland still doesn’t have an equal age of consent for gay male sex. Several states and territories still don’t have anti-discrimination legislation that fully protects trans and intersex people. The Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia have not yet expunged the criminal records of the people who were arrested for sodomy before it was decriminalised.

People under the age of 18 still need a Family Court Order to access stage 2 hormone treatment for gender transition. A Family Court Order costs approximately $30,000 and it means young people vulnerable to suicide and self-harm have to go through the stress of being cross examined in court. Australian law still allows non-consensual, medically unnecessary genital surgery on intersex children — children born with combined male and female biology.

We have to keep fighting to win full legal equality. Even this won’t mean queer liberation — the feminist movement has mostly won formal equality but discrimination is still widespread. Each new victory prepares the ground for the next one.

Queer people have been suffering for generations and we need solidarity from everyone. We need solidarity not just for gays but for trans, intersex, bisexuals and all queer people. We need solidarity not just for queer people, but to show that it is possible for masses of ordinary people to change the course of history and provide an inspiring example to those fighting to win a better world.

[Farida Iqbal is a long-time marriage equality activist and a member of Socialist Alliance.]

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