Twenty-three years of rainbow reporting

February 21, 2014
In 1991 newly launched <em>GLW</em> joined the campaign for the repeal of Tasmania's sodomy laws.

From its inception, Green Left Weekly has reported on the fight against discrimination suffered by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.

In the early 1990s, activists were fighting against discrimination suffered by people living with HIV and AIDS and for gay law reform and rights. More recently, the struggle has been for equal marriage and adoption laws, and against homophobia. In those two decades, opinion polls have shown rising support in the community for LGBTI rights, support that the politicians and lawmakers in this country have been consistently slow to act on.

Australia inherited Britain’s sodomy laws with colonisation. A sodomy law defines sexual acts that are deemed to be "unnatural" or immoral, such as anal sex, oral sex and bestiality, as crimes. Same-sex sexual activity between men could be prosecuted with the death penalty until 1899, when it was reduced to life imprisonment.

After Britain’s legalisation of all homosexual acts in 1967, the Australian states gradually repealed their sodomy laws, starting with the Don Dunstan government in South Australia in 1975.

By 1991, the only state to retain any sodomy laws was Tasmania. The newly launched GLW joined the campaign for their repeal.

In October 1991, after the notoriously conservative Tasmanian upper house rejected the repeal of the state’s sodomy laws yet again, GLW interviewed Rodney Croome from the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group (TGLRG) on their plans to take their case against Tasmania's anti-gay laws to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). In its 1994 ruling, the UNHRC did not accept the Tasmanian government’s defence that the laws were needed to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS in the state and upheld the complaint.

This obliged the federal government to pass the Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Act, which legalised sexual activity between consenting adults throughout Australia and prohibited laws that arbitrarily interfered with the sexual conduct of adults in private. However, the recalcitrant Tasmanian government persisted in refusing to repeal the offending laws. In 1997 the TGLRG won a High Court ruling that the Tasmanian laws were inconsistent with the federal act and must be repealed.

Tasmanian legislative councillors voted almost unanimously to repeal that state's anti-gay laws on May 1 that year, bringing Tasmania into line with the rest of Australia. The decision was a victory for the nine-year struggle for justice for Tasmanian gays and lesbians. Rodney Croome told GLW that the result was "unbelievable", not just because repeal had finally been won but because no amendments were attached. Tasmania now has the best criminal law in Australia regarding sexuality.

If the fight to decriminalise homosexuality was won, the battle to end discrimination was far from over. In its second issue, GLW reported on the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power’s (ACT UP) efforts to end HIV/AIDS-related discrimination. This discrimination could prevent gay men from obtaining insurance or employment, cause street violence, and lead to the stigmatisation and isolation of people who are HIV positive or who have AIDS.

In late 1993, GLW hosted a debate on methods of limiting the spread of AIDS in Australia. David Kault said the ideology underlying the current strategy favours individual action rather than state intervention. “This sits nicely with a belief in individual freedoms and responsibilities as opposed to state responsibility for public welfare,” he wrote.

“In other words, current AIDS strategies are rooted in liberalism, the each to his/her own philosophy that justifies the capitalist system and spares the state the expensive responsibility of protecting individuals who are unable to act in their own interest.”

He said the best approach to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS was “compulsory screening, isolation and treatment, the method which had been used for all serious infectious diseases until TB [tuberculosis] ceased to be a major problem about 20 years ago.”

Ken Davis, in reply, said human rights and public health go hand-in-hand in fighting AIDS.

“AIDS in Australia is also characterised by an unprecedented level of community organising and mobilisation, challenging traditional repressive public health models as well as dominance by the medical experts and drug companies.

“In political advocacy, in preventive education and in volunteer support programs, the communities of people with HIV, gay men, drug injectors and sex workers have shown leadership. Australia's successes are as much due to their efforts as to those of health professionals or governments.”

Many articles in GLW over the years have criticised the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras for becoming too commercialised, at the expense of the progressive politics that marked its origins.

It has unquestionably become a huge money spinner for the travel industry, gay and lesbian venues, and dance party promoters. And it has come a long way from the first march of 1000 people in 1978 that was broken up by police. Now police march in the parade and the emphasis is more on costumes than slogans.

Some Mardi Gras parade themes have increased community awareness of certain issues —HIV/AIDS research, ending discrimination against the queer community, David Hicks’ and Chelsea Manning’s incarceration — Mardi Gras' success has largely been measured in financial and economic, rather than political, terms.

However, in 2005, Mardi Gras turned more political when more than 150 people joined the GLW-supported Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) contingent in the parade. CAAH brought together 14 groups from around Australia to march behind the CAAH "Repeal the Marriage Ban, End Discrimination" float.

CAAH’s float was in response to the John Howard government’s passing of the Marriage Amendment Act in 2004, which specifically removed the rights of same-sex couples to marry. GLW was an early champion of equal marriage rights as CAAH began to organise mass rallies for the cause.

2007 was the turning point for the campaign: a Galaxy poll showed a majority of Australians (62%) supported marriage equality. Plans were made for marriage equality bills around the country. By 2009, the federal Labor government had overturned 58 laws discriminating against same-sex couples, and the Greens had the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill in place. But then-prime minister Julia Gillard mystified many with her opposition to marriage equality.

GLW advertised, supported and reported from the rising number of equal marriage rallies around the country. These culminated in a 10,000-strong rally that converged on the Labor national conference in 2011 — the biggest queer rights protest in Australian history. But once again the politicians lagged behind the people. The conference gave lip service to marriage equality, but added a conscience vote allowing individual MPs to opt-out.

By 2012, Galaxy polls were reporting that up to 80% of young people supported equal marriage. The two young sons of lesbian mothers Sandy Miller and Louise Bourke told GLW that 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.”

The Australian Capital Territory passed a same-sex marriage bill on October 22 last year, which allowed same-sex marriages of ACT residents and non-residents. The ACT was the first Australian jurisdiction to legalise same-sex marriage, after a nine-year struggle.

The result was overwhelmingly celebrated. More than 1000 couples indicated they wanted to get married under the new laws. But the bill was criticised by transgender and intersex communities for including the words “marriage between two adults of the same sex", added to bolster its chances of surviving a High Court challenge. A week later the High Court overturned the ACT legislation.

CAAH is determined to keep up the pressure. It has a marriage equality float at Mardi Gras this year and there will be more rallies for marriage equality. Rachel Evans from CAAH told GLW: “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. 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.”

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