Unity needed in equal marriage fight

September 20, 2013
High-school students protest for equal marriage in Sydney on September 1. Photo: Gaspar Inc Photography.

The new Prime Minister Tony Abbott is infamous for his homophobia. Only recently he dismissed the equal marriage rights campaign as the “fashion of the moment”.

The equal marriage rights campaign is about much more than marriage. It’s about a prejudice that kills people. Particularly for young people, life in the queer community keeps them constantly on their toes.

All around, queer people are self-harming, and every day young people worry that somebody they care about might commit suicide. These are the consequences of homophobia and transphobia.

These prejudices are reinforced by discrimination enshrined in law. Abbott had the gall to dismiss this life and death struggle as a “fashion statement” just weeks before the election.

The election of Abbott is not good news for the queer community, but it is unlikely to derail the struggle. The queer community has already proved its resilience over a nine-year campaign for equal marriage rights that had its beginnings under a Liberal government.

The queer community has not only survived John Howard. Collectively it experienced parental rejection, workplace discrimination, homelessness, drug addiction, and one quarter of queer people have attempted suicide. Despite all this, the movement today is powerful. It has recently mobilised the biggest protests in Australia’s history and won many concessions from the government.

The ACT parliament introduced a bill on September 19 to legalise marriage equality. It is expected to pass in October with the support of Labor and the Greens.

Abbott’s government can override these laws, as was done in 2008 under Kevin Rudd’s Labor government. But the government can’t attack without facing consequences.

Now more than ever, confidence and unity in needed. Activists need to implement tactics in the movement toward that goal. Yet national organisation Australian Marriage Equality (AME) is calling on the Liberal Party for a conscience vote.

Make no mistake, the conscience vote is a tactic that lets homophobes off the hook. Labor’s policy supports equal marriage rights. If it had simply bound members to vote according to its policy while in government, queers could marry now. Instead, the ALP betrayed the campaign by dithering with a conscience vote.

Begging the Liberals for a conscience vote is even more misguided. No one can seriously expect Abbott, a man with no conscience, to allow one just because he is asked nicely.

The AME appeal for a conscience vote undermines the community’s confidence in its own power. The only point in begging Abbott to recognise human rights is if you don’t think the movement is powerful enough to force his hand. It does have that power, and AME is leading the queer community down the garden path when say it doesn’t.

AME have also been talking up “family values” and marriage as a promoter of social stability. This promotes division at exactly the moment the movement needs to stay united. We have no problem with queer people who want to marry. Of course that’s their right.

But it shouldn’t exclude queer people who don’t fit the conservative “family values” mold from the movement. The more white-bread “family values” are talked up, polyamorous people, casual sex enthusiasts, BDSM practitioners, drug users, sex workers and homeless youth will increasingly feel sidelined.

Alternatively, let’s not get frustrated and weaken the campaign in the process. Let’s not let the anger at Abbott's election get in the way of broadening this campaign.

In Sydney, campaign group Community Action Against Homophobia have chosen to put the slogan “Fuck Tony Abbott — Marriage Equality Now!” on rally stickers.

This has proved unnecessarily divisive. Getting bogged down in a debate about using the words "Fuck Abbott" on rally promotion distracts from the common task campaigners agree on — fighting for the right to marry.

The movement wants to increase rally sizes, make stronger alliances with every organisation that agrees with its goal, regardless of what they think about the slogan "Fuck Abbott".

People have come out onto the street, again and again, for marriage equality. The leadership of this movement has a responsibility to these people to keep the struggle focused. There are plenty of constructive things that could be done. Some ideas could be the Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20, Human Rights Day, mass weddings in Liberal seats, a convergence on Canberra for the first sitting of parliament next February for a mass wedding.

Ultimately, the community needs to take back the movement. There is a danger of people getting demoralised after this conservative victory. Now more than ever, strong, vibrant organisations are needed to lead a strong grassroots response.

If you don’t agree with the decisions that some queer organisations are making, get involved in the organisation. If they operate through open meetings, go to a meeting. Bring along all your friends.

Vote against tactics that will divide the movement, that concede ground to homophobes or isolate the movement. Propose a better strategy and put it to the vote. Make sure the movement is organised democratically. This is our movement. This is our moment in history and we have every right to grab it with both hands.

[Farida Iqbal and Rachel Evans are long-term, grassroots marriage equality activists, and members of the Socialist Alliance.]

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