A pin could have been heard dropping in Sydney’s Prince Alfred Park in the moments before the result of the postal vote on marriage equality was announced on the morning of November 15.
Lovers stood with their faces pressed into each other’s chests, whitened knuckles held shaking hands, friends stood shoulder-to-shoulder and rainbow families held each other in tight embraces. Even the blustering wind that had dishevelled our stall all morning seemed to have been holding its breath. All was silent as we braced for the result.
Thousands more were gathered in major cities across the country.
The crowd continued to grow larger still in those moments as more and more people streamed into the park to witness the making of history.
Then the announcement rang out: 61.6% voted Yes to marriage equality and only 38.4% voted No. We won!
The crowd erupted, openly emotional and joyful. The jubilation in the air was palpable and contaigious, as the crowd began to cry, kiss, jump and embrace with their loved ones as well as perfect strangers. Love is in the air began to play over the loudspeakers and the crowd swayed to the music. If love could ever be airborne, it was in that moment.
Later that day, Oxford St came alive as it did nearly 40 years ago on the evening of the first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in 1978, as a mass celebratory street party danced down the road.
A triumphant chant broke out, “Tony Abbott, fuck you! 38(%) to 62(%)!”.
All day, the sentiment of the movement, and of those who voted, was clear: Victory is in sight, so let’s bring it home.
As we go to print, there is a private Senator’s bill introduced by WA Senator Dean Smith to amend the Marriage Act. The bill has been co-sponsored by eight senators from across the political spectrum. Both Labor and the Greens have thrown their support behind the bill.
Smith’s bill will do a few things. First, it will redefine marriage, away from a union between a man and a woman, to a union of two people.
Secondly, it reaffirms religious exemptions, which allow religious organisations to discriminate against same-sex couples and LGBTI individuals. These discriminatory protections for organisations are currently in the Sex Discrimination Act. Religious organisations will continue to be able to refuse to make facilities available or to provide goods and services for a marriage ceremony, including a same-sex marriage.
Thirdly, it will change the definition of “authorised celebrant” to include a new class of “religious marriage celebrants” who can refuse to conduct a marriage ceremony if it is contrary to their religious beliefs.
By default, authorised celebrants will be expected to solemnise same-sex marriages, unless they register as religious marriage celebrants. Ministers of religion and Australian Defence Force chaplains will still be able to refuse to solemnise any marriage.
A much worse bill was tabled by Senator James Patterson, but he has since backtracked and now seeks to be one of the many conservatives hoping to reform the bill into anything but equality.
Smith’s bill is far from perfect. There are pre-existing protections for religious groups, and it is a furphy that same-sex couples seeking to marry will force unwilling celebrants to take part.
All that is needed to make marriage equality a reality is the redefinition of marriage from a union of a man and a woman to a union of two people.
Smith’s bill is not the bill we asked for, but it is the bill we are facing. So, what should we do with it?
A minority of the movement has argued that we should call for the failure of Smith’s bill, as it cements the ability of government registered civil celebrants to discriminate. But calling for the bill to fail is in opposition to the overwhelming majority of the movement which is backing the imminent passage of the bill.
Laws that allow churches to discriminate against same sex couples, LGBTI people or single mothers should be overturned. Mostly, these are state religious exemption laws.
It is not acceptable that a country with supposed separation of church and state gives religious organisations the right to sack homosexual workers, single mothers, de-facto couples and refuse adoption services to same-sex couples — to name a few of the crimes these organisations can commit without recourse.
The 61.6% of Australians who returned their survey forms with the Yes box ticked, did not say Yes to extending the rights of civil celebrants to discriminate.
However, after 13 years of struggle, the passage of this bill, while conceding ground to the bigots, would be a significant partial victory.
With its eyes on the prize, the movement is unlikely to reorient towards demanding the passage of a bill without any religious exemptions (which does not yet exist and it is unclear who, if anyone, would introduce it), or to mount a new campaign to amend existing religious exemptions in legislation.
Over a year ago, Socialist Alliance raised the slogan: No more delays, marriage equality now. Today, this is the position of the broader movement.
The Smith bill can and should be amended to strip it back to the real issue: not the rights of bigots, but the rights of LGBTI people. But we should not tolerate further delays.
The road ahead after marriage equality is not clear. But what we do know is that the 4.9 million people who voted No signal that there is much work to be done to fight homophobia, and the 7.8 million people who voted Yes show the potential to do it.
The day before the results were released, Sydney LGBTI activists gathered to protest the government’s cruelty towards the refugees on Manus Island who have been left with no food, water or power in an abandoned refugee camp. They argued that PNG, where homosexuality is a criminal offence, is not safe for LGBTI refugees and that all 600 men must be brought to Australia now. A contingent at the Sydney Result Night Street Party held a banner that read “Queers against the camps”.
The human rights travesty on Manus Island is just one of the issues that the movement could pivot towards next.
There are also rights to be won for transgender and intersex people.
And there is solidarity to show to LGBTI people suffering under homophobic regimes in Egypt, Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Tanzania and Indonesia.
And just like marriage equality, justice, on all of these issues, is well overdue.
[Rachel Evans is a long-term LGBTI rights campaigner and one of the founders of Community Action Against Homophobia. Mia Sanders is the national co-convener of Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance. Evans and Sanders are members of the Socialist Alliance.]