Prime Minister Julia Gillard said marriage equality was "inevitable" when she met with three same-sex couples on February 21 during a dinner organised by GetUp! The admission came despite her own opposition to equal marriage.
In contrast to the PM’s begrudging acknowledgement of the campaign’s momentum, actor Magda Szubanski said she was “1000% in favour of gay marriage,” on February 14.
“All Australians, including gay Australians, should have exactly the same rights, including the right to love, marry and take care of our partners,” Szubanski said.
Gillard’s recognition that the movement for equality is too powerful to stop came after the ALP platform was changed last December.
In the country’s biggest rally for marriage equality, 10,000 people marched on Labor’s national conference. The conference adopted equal marriage as ALP policy, but immediately undermined that position by supporting a conscience vote.
This allows Labor MPs to vote against the party position, making it harder to make equality law.
The Liberal Party has also announced its backbenchers would have a conscience vote, but the shadow cabinet would be bound to the Liberal Party’s opposition to marriage equality.
The backflips and partial backdowns from the big parties, the rise of prominent people speaking out for equality, and the growing momentum for equality are the result of a hard fought campaign.
What is “inevitable” now is due to a huge campaign over the past eight years.
In 2004, as the grassroots campaign for equal marriage began in Australia, an SBS Newspoll found that just 38% of Australians supported marriage equality and 44% opposed it.
There was even majority support in the religious community.
How did the campaign change the minds of almost one-third of Australians?
“We’ve always focused on mobilising people around a clear demand for equal rights,” said Rachel Evans, a long-term leader of Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH), which has spearheaded the campaign since 2004.
One of the first actions of CAAH was an occupation of the office of Births, Deaths and Marriages, staging an “illegal wedding” for two women.
CAAH’s next rally protested against the Howard government's ban on equal marriage, including its refusal to recognise same-sex marriages performed overseas. Howard even sent letters to marriage celebrants threatening de-registration if they performed a same-sex wedding.
“The rally just after the ban was passed was furious, especially since the ban was passed with ALP support,” Evans said. “A noisy protest outside Labor’s Sydney headquarters saw the police aggressively threaten to move us on. Yet the protest stood strong, voting to stay on the streets, rekindling the spirit of 1978 where a queer rights protest was attacked by police.”
The equal marriage campaign has permeated every corner of Australia.
When independent MP Bob Katter tried to wipe lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people out of existence by saying there were none in his north Queensland electorate, the first ever equal marriage event was held in Mt Isa.
Seventy people rallied at Katter's office. The protest called on Katter to raise money for teenage suicide prevention. Protest organiser James Newburrie said 30% of “gay teens will commit serious self-harm or suicide”.
Some of the key moments of the campaign have exposed the inhumanity of the marriage ban. The two young sons of lesbian mothers Sandy Miller and Louise Bourke spoke at an Australian Marriage Equality forum last July.
They said they were “really proud of our mums, and when people at school ask why they are not married, we have to tell them it’s because the government doesn’t let them. It’s not fair.”
Some of the less radical LGBTI organisations distanced themselves from the equal marriage campaign at first, but over time the breadth and momentum of the movement brought them on board — in some cases unintentionally.
The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras never adopted marriage equality as its theme, despite calls from the movement.
But last year, the theme “say something” meant that by the night of Mardi Gras, 15 floats had marriage equality as their theme.
The culmination of the movement so far was last December’s mass rally at Labor’s national conference.
Evans said it was “the most unified the campaign has been. The grassroots campaign has been trying to get the widest active support including groups like Mardi Gras, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby NSW, and GetUp, since the campaign beginnings.
“Once all the forces came together, with even Sydney Council flying rainbow flags in the rally build up, the movement had a strength that couldn’t be ignored, and our opponents were clearly buckling.”
Full equality is a right
On equal marriage, Gillard has said “there are some important things from our past that need to continue to be part of our present and part of our future”.
Yet would equality opponents also support the previous ban on interracial marriage? Would they accept the treatment of Aboriginal people prior to the 1967 referendum as “flora and fauna”? And if Gillard’s position on accepting old prejudices were applied to gender, she may not have the right to vote, let alone be PM.
The Marriage Act changed as recently as 2004, when the Howard government amended it to exclude the possibility of equal marriage.
Some progressive people oppose marriage equality, on the grounds that marriage is an archaic and patriarchal institution.
But the crucial aspect is equal choices. As one of the more amusing signs at rallies has said: “Queers want the right to make the biggest mistake of our lives too!”
Supporting equal marriage rights is not the same as forcing marriage.
It is about saying the state should not be able to deny civil rights to any person based on their sexuality.
Homophobia costs lives
The importance of the equal marriage campaign goes beyond allowing LGBTI people to marry — it is about standing up to discrimination that costs lives.
The American Psychiatric Association and the Australian Psychological Society has called for full marriage equality to address serious health effects caused by homophobia and discrimination.
Self-harm among LGBTI youth is devastatingly high — a 1998 study found 30% of queer youth attempt suicide. Laws that reinforce discrimination contribute to this tragedy.
Winning equal marriage will send a message that LGBTI people are equals, not second-class citizens.
Despite mass public support, the party in government adding equal marriage to its platform, and the opposition’s partial backdown, marriage equality still doesn’t exist in Australia. Two equal marriage bills are currently in parliament, but it is possible that neither will be passed.
CAAH is determined to keep up the pressure. It is organising a marriage equality float at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras on March 3, and a rally for marriage equality on International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) on May 12.
When marriage equality is won in Australia, we should remember that the real force for
change was not those who finally signed on the dotted line for the bill. The real victory was won by those who collected petitions, spoke out, occupied registries, held illegal weddings and rallied for equality.
This force, people power, changed the minds of millions and made equal marriage a force that could not be resisted — an “inevitable” movement, in the PM’s words.
The equal marriage movement is also a valuable lesson for every struggle for justice — that people power can change minds, can change politics, and can change the world.
[For more information or to get involved, join the “Sydney Campaign for Marriage Equality” Facebook page or visit CAAH's website.]