Fifteen hundred people filled Canberra city centre with rainbow pride on June 21, to demand marriage equality.
The vibrant rally, organised by GetUp! and Australian Marriage Equality (AME), heard from Samantha and Hayley Wilson, Ebony and Ben Grady, Angie Shillington and Ally Howe, Yvette Berry from ACT Labor, Shane Rattenbury from ACT Greens and Ivan Hinton Teoh from Australian Marriage Equality.
The ACT has an important place in the marriage rights campaign. Grassroots campaign group Equal Love Canberra formed early in the battle and organised many rallies and actions in the heart of the city.
With the election of the Kevin Rudd federal government in 2007 the ACT tried to introduce a civil partnership bill in that December, but the Rudd government demanded they remove a section of the bill that allowed same sex couples to recognise their relationships with a formal ceremony.
With no compromise in sight, the ACT abandoned its civil partnerships legislation, eliminated any ceremonial aspects and settled for a system of relationship registers virtually identical to those operating in Tasmania and Victoria.
The scheme, passed on May 8, also gave same-sex couples increased access to superannuation, taxation and social security law reforms.
On November 11, 2009, the Civil Partnerships Amendment Act was passed. Presented to the ACT Legislative Assembly by the Greens, it made the ACT the first territory in the country to legalise civil partnerships ceremonies for same-sex couples.
Then on October 22, 2013, the ACT government passed a marriage equality bill.
In one of its first acts, the Abbott federal government launched a High Court challenge against the ACT law. The court ruled against the ACT law on December 12, 2013, declaring “the Constitution permitted only the federal parliament to make laws with respect to marriage in Australia”.
Canberra couple Samantha and Hayley Wilson, spoke to the rally about marrying under the ACT law in the week before the High Court overturned the legislation. They said: “31 couples married in the five days we had marriage equality. We were one of them and when we had our marriage annulled, we were gutted.”
High school students from a local Catholic school told the crowd how they had spoken out against a brochure distributed in their school by the Catholic administration that condemned marriage equality.
Equal Love Canberra fought for relationship recognition, for civil unions and for marriage equality.
Founding member Farida Iqbal said: “We protested with only a fraction of the support we have now for marriage rights. We did not give up at civil unions, we kept protesting for full equality.”
Unfortunately the rally organisers did not mention the pioneering work of Queer Action, the Campaign for Civil Unions or Equal Love Canberra.
AME and GetUp! are planning another rally for marriage rights in Perth on July 5.
An action will take place outside the ALP National Conference in Melbourne on July 25, calling for a binding vote on a marriage bill and grassroots marriage rights group Community Action Against Homophobia will hold an action on August 9 at Sydney Town Hall.
The federal government suggests it will initiate a marriage bill in August, and hinted it will allow a free “conscience” vote for its MPs on the question. This bill and free vote may result in the bill having enough votes to pass.
The Abbott government has shown its duplicity on many issues, and political advances for the oppressed are never straightforward, but as grassroots support for marriage rights grows, victory seems ever closer.
The movement, dejected after the defeat of ACT marriage bill, is gaining confidence. However, a win is not inevitable unless we continue to mobilise. We must show the government they will suffer a political cost if they back the bigots.
[Rachel Evans has been a long-term equal marriage rights activist, a member of the grassroots Sydney-based Community Action Against Homophobia, and a founding member of the Socialist Alliance.]