Marriage equality: the fight is far from over

A 'Say Yes to marriage equality' rally in Sydney on September 10.
November 10, 2017

The results of the non-binding voluntary survey on same-sex marriage will be announced on November 15.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that by October 31, 12.3 million people (77% of the electorate) had returned their surveys – a much higher level of participation than initially expected.

This strong turnout has been viewed as favouring a Yes result in the survey.

Others have suggested the result will be close, with the potential for a narrow defeat for the Yes vote.

Irrespective of the outcome, we will need to continue to fight not only to achieve marriage equality but to combat the right's bigotry.

The survey was intended to eliminate marriage equality as a source of tension within the Coalition's party room and ensure that legislation was not put before parliament. The hope was that the survey would deliver a clear No vote.

The desire to avoid debating any legislation is reflected in the government's continued lack of clarity on what bill it will support in the event of a Yes majority.

The most likely bill – because it already has the support of Labor – is the private member's bill put forward by Western Australia Liberal senator Dean Smith in August.

The Smith bill expands significantly on existing religious exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act. It would enable churches to refuse to marry gay and lesbian couples and civil marriage celebrants to register their objection to marrying same-sex couples.

It is objectionable that churches should be able to refuse to marry people on religious grounds. But to allow private citizens performing a secular marriage to do so sets a dangerous precedent in terms of legalising bigotry.

Smith has argued that his bill provides essential protection to "religious freedom". This refrain has been taken up by the Christian right in its campaign against marriage equality.

In late October, ultra-conservative Liberal MP Andrew Hastie called for the Smith bill to be dramatically modified. It is thought that Hastie will put forward more than 100 amendments to the proposed bill.

This is a cynical move, aimed at delaying the legislation and using marriage equality legislation to expand the ability of bigots to lawfully discriminate against LGBTI people.

 If successful, it would not only undermine marriage equality, but raise the level of discrimination and marginalisation experienced by LGBTI people.

The right's obsession with religious freedom is entirely cynical and divorced from the real historic struggles for religious freedom, which were about defending and protecting the rights of religious minorities from laws linked to state religions.

Organisations like the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), together with various far-right groups, have been at the centre of the right's campaign against marriage equality.

They have actively mobilised fear of polygamy as a reason for opposing marriage equality, despite there being no current push to legalise polygamy from those religious communities, including within Islam, where it is practiced.

These arguments are not just about saying that it is OK to discriminate against some religious beliefs; they actively seek to promote homophobia based on Islamophobic dog-whistle politics.

The right’s push to protect "religious freedom" is part of a broader assault to impose its conservative social attitudes via the state. It is a campaign that is anti-secular while seeking to violate the religious and social freedoms of those whose lives do not fit within the right's view of morality.

There are supporters of marriage equality who view these concessions as acceptable to achieve marriage equality. They argue that the amendments are irrelevant or that, once passed, the bill could be subsequently amended.

The reality is that these amendments will be used by bigots to marginalise and discriminate against LGBTI people. Moreover, once legislation is passed, it will be much harder to mobilise popular support to amend it.

The Christian right will not just rely on right-wing MPs and senators to stop or amend any marriage bill – it will broaden its campaign of vilifying the LGBTIQ community.

The ACL is likely to follow the approach of the US Christian right, from whom it borrowed its campaign against marriage equality, to push for the right to discriminate same-sex couples and amplify the marginalisation and vilification of the transgender community.

In the face of the right’s determination to roll back our rights, it is vital that we continue to mobilise in support of the LGBTI community.

Mobilising helps to build solidarity and reassert our right to exist and live our authentic lives.

Mobilising will also help create pressure to ensure that legislation is introduced quickly to parliament and help prevent a situation where Labor and other parties that support marriage equality accept amendments that expand the right of bigots to lawfully discriminate against the LGBTI community.

[Lisbeth Latham is a trans woman and a member of the Socialist Alliance].

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