Ten years ago, on August 13 2004, the John Howard government, with the support of the Labor Party, passed legislation that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
Queer people did not have the right to marry before the legislation was passed, but the new definition was brought in to close any loopholes and make it explicit that the Coalition government did not support civil rights for gay and lesbian people.
After the marriage ban, queer people were worried about what might happen next. Would the legislation embolden bigots across the country? Would there be an increase in anti-queer violence and prejudice? Would the suicide rate go up?
While it is true that the marriage ban has had some of these impacts, the remarkable thing is that events largely went in the opposite direction. In response to the marriage ban, the largest, most sustained queer protest movement in this country’s history was galvanised.
This 10-year anniversary is a good time to celebrate the many achievements of this movement, even though we still haven’t won the right to marry.
In 2004, as the marriage ban was going through, activists in Sydney revitalised Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH), which initiated the first protests.
Demonstrations were also held in Melbourne and a large public forum was held in Perth. In 2005 the first national day of action was called by CAAH in conjunction with the then new organisation Australian Marriage Equality (AME). Equal Love Melbourne was born at about the same time. These groups have organised a national day of action every year since then on the anniversary of the ban.
Now that the movement has proven itself, it seems strange to recall the early challenges we faced getting it started. Some of the most prominent queer organisations in the country refused to support it.
The NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby would not endorse any rallies, and a large section of the queer student left saw the campaign as a reactionary endorsement of the patriarchal institution of marriage. Peak lobby groups and the student left have now largely come on board.
We had no way of knowing 10 years ago that the movement would be so big but tenacity pays off. Long-time queer activist Rodney Croome said that the way to make social change is to find the issue around which the course of history pivots. He also predicted that before we won the right to marry, the government would concede other things. He was right. Even though we haven’t won the right to marry, we have won anti-discrimination legislation and civil unions in several states.
Legislative change is not the only achievement of this movement. The change in the social fabric is equally important. There has been a huge shift in public opinion towards acceptance of queers.
We still have a long way to go though. All of the gains we have made are insecure and can be taken away by future governments. For example, the proposed cuts contained in the federal budget will have a devastating impact on queer homeless youth. If the government succeeds in taking away society’s safety net, the burden will fall on families — and particularly women.
Who else is going to take care of all the young people who can’t get on the dole? All the disabled people who can’t get the pension? All the elderly people? If the budget gets through it will reinforce all kinds of reactionary ideas about the heterosexual nuclear family being the bedrock of society. And if we are unable to reverse it over time, people will start to accept those ideas as normal.
Another very important reason to keep up the fight is because trans and intersex people are still living in intolerable conditions. The social tide has turned against homophobia in a big way, but trans and intersex people still face daily misgendering and humiliation. Trans and intersex activists have put up a powerful fight over the past 10 years. They have won victories for legal recognition on passports and birth certificates as well as being part of the campaign for the right to marry. They need solidarity for their own struggles from everyone else.
We should also support the refugee rights movement. Refugees who have fled anti-queer persecution are living in intolerable conditions on Manus Island and Nauru. The PNG “solution” is devastating for queers. It is reprehensible to send queer refugees to a country that criminalises homosexuality.
The sad reality is that homophobia and transphobia kill people. Formal equality granted in marriage laws would be a big step forward in public acceptance of queer relationships and would help erode discrimination faced by queers.
Aside from the 10-year anniversary of the equal marriage rights campaign, this month also marks the one-year anniversary of the suicide of Amber Maxwell, one of the core marriage campaign activists in Perth. The rest of us will keep fighting until the injustices that killed her are a thing of the past.