The history of the 13-year campaign for marriage equality in Australia is an incredible underdog story, but you would not know that if you got your news from the mainstream media.
Throughout the period of the postal survey, the implication has been that marriage equality activists are powerful bullies stomping around the political playground and kicking over the sandcastles of defenseless No campaigners, such as the Australian Christian Lobby (the tax-exempt lobby group that receives millions of dollars each year in corporate funding).
In fact, the long march toward equality has been a grueling battle to change public opinion and the homophobic policy of the major parties, recalls Socialist Alliance spokesperson for LGBTI rights Rachel Evans.
The fight for marriage equality began on August 13, 2004, when then-Prime Minister John Howard, with bipartisan support, changed the Marriage Act to include a definition of marriage as the “voluntarily entered-into union of a man and a woman to exclusion of all others”, beginning a ban on same-sex marriages.
Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) is a Sydney-based grassroots activist group, originally formed in 1999 to fight against the discriminatory unequal age of consent laws in NSW.
In 2004, CAAH was resurrected by socialists, greens and grassroots activists, under the leadership of Evans and Simon Margan, to spearhead a campaign to remove the homophobic marriage ban.
In June that year, just before the ban was passed and coinciding with a forum held by the right-wing Christian group National Marriage Coalition, CAAH called the first marriage equality protest in Australia. A crowd of 400 people cheered the demand: “Same-sex marriage now!”
Evans described the uncertainty in the air on the day of that first protest as the impending ban loomed. “Transforming the bipartisan opposition to marriage equality in the Marriage Act was a daunting hurdle and Labor’s kowtowing behind the Liberals showed that there was no breakthrough in sight,” she said.
But there was also a bigger and more pressing task: building a new movement from a disengaged community. The movement needed to be strong enough to pressure parliamentarians and radically shift public opinion about marriage rights for lesbians, gays and bisexuals in same-sex relationships. There were also murkier laws about the rights of transgender and intersex people to change their gender marker without being forced to divorce their spouse.
“Only a third of heterosexuals and a third of our own community supported marriage equality so we knew it would be an uphill battle,” Evans said.
Early attempts at unifying the movement were thwarted when CAAH approached the Aids Council NSW (ACON) to organise joint actions, but was knocked back. Although CAAH organised a 500-strong protest a week after the ban, in those early days the campaign was politically isolated.
A few weeks after the ban, Sydney Labor MP Tanya Plibersek, considered part of the left of the ALP, attempted to justify the marriage ban in an interview on an LGBTI radio show by saying “none of my gay friends want to get married”. Even though Plibersek herself was married, she said: “As a feminist, I think the marriage institution is patriarchal.”
Evans said in those days “CAAH was the only group consistently rallying against the ban. However, Peter Furness from Australian Marriage Equality (AME) Sydney assisted, giving us valuable advice on how to navigate the political terrain. Most of the 78ers [the LGBTI activists who were present at the first Mardi Gras] did not support the marriage rights campaign at that stage, so we needed all the advice we could get.
“There wasn’t the sort of broad support for marriage equality that there is now. Homophobia was so much more rampant that Labor did not come under any significant fire for passing the ban. And for the first six months of the campaign, we couldn’t even get the LGBTI press to take up the issue in any depth.”
CAAH engaged in debates about the issue of marriage equality at many of the Queer Collaborations student conferences. Evans said: “High school students have always been interested in the campaign, but it actually took longer to convince and involve university students.”
On the first anniversary of the ban, CAAH called for a national day of action for marriage equality, triggering the first national mobilisation for marriage rights.
But as the movement began to grow, so too did the backlash.
Labor’s dominance on many LGBTI advocacy organisations — the “queerocracies” as Evans describes them — resisted the push by the grassroots organisations for them to join the marriage equality campaign.
Evans recalls a meeting organised by the Greens in a gay pub in Newtown: “There were fierce arguments made against Rodney Croome [of the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, now Australian Marriage Equality] and CAAH when we raised the issue of fighting for marriage equality.
“Sections of the LGBTI community and Labor MPs argued that no one wanted to get married, that pushing for it would “alienate our support base” and that LGBTI relationships would be equally well supported with a registration scheme.”
Evans remembers meeting in 2006, when “the queerocrats, CAAH and Australian Marriage Equality met to talk about jointly organising the August 13 action in Sydney.
“But the queerocrats lied to the collective saying the police weren’t allowing our rally to go ahead. We independently checked with the police who said it was fine. So we organised the event without Labor forces.”
In 2006, the demand emerged for civil unions in the ACT, which was later won in 2009. Community support for the marriage demand began to grow too.
Evans said, “the queerocracy organised ‘polling’ afternoons, where LGBTI participants were asked if they wanted a registration scheme or civil unions. But they didn’t ask about marriage rights.”
CAAH argued for registrations, civil unions and marriage rights, refusing to concede the marriage demand.
Activists thrown out of Fair Day
At the Mardi Gras annual Fair Day in 2007, CAAH activists unfurled a banner reading “Same-sex marriage rights NOW” in front of a Sea of Hearts media stunt organised by the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights lobby (NSW GLRL) which profiled Labor politicians. NSW GLRL called the police to have the activists moved.
To Evans, Mardi Gras and NSW GLRL “looked like hypocrites given that the police were still beating up queers on Oxford Street at the time. Calling the police to intimidate activists was a bad look for them.”
A shift in reporting by the LGBTI press began soon after, when the front cover of SX, a gay and lesbian magazine, gave sympathetic coverage to the protesters and the marriage demand.
“SX gave [CAAH] almost weekly coverage in those days, when the magazine was edited by two progressives. Unfortunately, the two editors ended up being given the shove because they fought against increased advertising at the expense of activist news,” Evan said.
In 2008, CAAH helped organise against the tour of Pope Benedict, who described homosexuality as a “disorder” and condemned the use of condoms. This culminated in the 1500-strong No To Pope protest, with the messages "Gay is great" and “The pope has it wrong. Put a condom on".
CAAH also mobilised on May 14, for International Day of Action Against Homophobia, and on December 10 for Human Rights Day.
The movement reached a turning point in 2009 when 3000 people rallied for marriage equality outside the ALP National Conference.
In 2010 and 2011, CAAH followed the lead of Equal Love Melbourne and led a National Year of Action, during which it organised rallies every three months in the major cities.
Rallies also began to spring up in regional and rural locations, an indication, Evans says, of the growing strength of the campaign and rising courage of LGBTI people in rural Australia.
In December 2011, a national mobilisation of 10,000 people called for marriage equality outside the ALP National Conference, the height of marriage rights mobilisations until this year. The crowd chanted, “Shame, Gillard! Shame”.
The pressure of the growing movement forced Labor, led by then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard, to change its position at this conference, finally putting marriage rights on their platform. Also won was “certificates of non-impediment” which can be granted to homosexual couples who wish to be married overseas.
But the right wing of the party narrowly won the caveat of a “conscience vote”. At the time, a conscience vote would not have delivered a majority of votes in Parliament to win equal marriage rights. GetUp too argued for a “free vote”.
On the heels of victory
Much has been said about the Malcolm Turnbull government’s financially and emotionally costly postal survey, but it also electrified, not only the LGBTI community, but thousands of heterosexual allies as well, triggering the largest demonstrations for marriage rights Australia has ever seen.
On September 10, Sydney held 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 marching the week before in Melbourne, 10,000 in Brisbane, 4000 in Canberra and thousands more across the country.
As a result of this strong grassroots campaign, we have won many concessions, including civil unions, registration schemes, adoption and surrogacy rights and the recognition of overseas same-sex marriages.
Evans said: “When Dean Smith’s lightly amended marriage equality legislation passed the Senate, AME was in the spotlight. AME has received the lion’s share of media coverage on the campaign since mid-2010. While primarily a lobbyist outfit, it has also run a very slick media campaign.
“But we can’t let history be rewritten. The richer organisations have always had the resources to politically dominate the movement. Their tendency has been to fill platforms with pro-establishment politicians.
“But it was the grassroots wing of the movement — socialists, greens and independent left-wing activists — that started this movement, radicalised the community, won the debate and mobilised the numbers. And we did it all without the funding of the bigger organisations, just buckets passed around the crowd at rallies.”
At times, there has been more collaboration between groups and this unity has produced some of the strongest periods of the campaign.
“AME helped to organise a CAAH press conference in November 2011. GetUp! put out a pro-marriage video on YouTube in February 2011 and advertised the CAAH protest rally outside the ALP National Conference to its huge e-list.”
Evans said the ideological battle waged in the community is crucial to the story of how marriage equality was won.
“Marriage rights was not a big deal in the LGBTI community when the demand first emerged in the early 2000s. Activists did a lot of work to convince our community. We had the arguments in pubs and in the queer press, countless poster and leaflet runs up and down the queer strips, speakouts on Oxford St and King St.
“When people said they didn’t personally care about marriage so why should they care about the campaign, we reminded them of all of the lovers who haven’t been allowed in the hospital room when their partners died and those ostracised at their lovers’ funerals; the working class LGBTI families, the rural and regional communities, the terrible mental health rates amongst our youth.”
The campaign for marriage equality has been many things. At times, it has been vibrant and celebratory, but in the early days it sometimes seemed like a hopeless struggle. Much work has been done to fight the delaying tactics and homophobic policies of Labor and Coalition governments for the past 13 years and to turn minority support into majority support and challenge homophobia.
Today, LGBTI youth are coming out sooner and prouder, having grown up in a society forever changed by the impacts of the marriage equality campaign — a tiny seedling of only a few hundred people on that June day in 2004 that grew into a triumphant 7,817,247 postal survey forms returned with the Yes box ticked.
[Mia Sanders is a lesbian activist and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]