ACT backs down: Support same-sex marriage!

May 17, 2008

The federal Labor government says it is not homophobic. Yet it agrees with its Coalition predecessor that marriage is a "union between a man and woman". Regardless of opinion on marriage, the legal rights afforded this institution should be available to all couples regardless of gender.

In early May, the Rudd government threatened to overturn an ACT bill for same-sex civil unions if it came into law. This came as a surprise to some, especially as PM Kevin Rudd had promised in December not to overturn such state-based laws.

When the ACT first passed a same-sex civil union law in 2006, it was overturned by the then-Coalition government, without Labor's support. Two years earlier through, Labor agreed with the Coalition on banning same-sex marriage.

By early May, Labor carried out its promise to the Australian Christian Lobby to overturn the ACT legislation.
The sticking point was the right of same-sex couples to hold a legally recognised ceremony.

The ACT Assembly backed down under this homophobic pressure, passing a civil partnerships act that does not allow for official ceremonies. However, the legislation does allow for non-official ceremonies provided by the state and conducted by the registrar general or her delegate. It is expected that the first of these will take place before May 24.

The current focus on the legal complexities of different kinds of registry schemes and de facto recognition means that attention is diverted away from the government's homophobic attitude to same-sex marriage.

As negotiations between the federal ALP government and the ACT Assembly drew to a close in early May, the federal Attorney General announced he would repeal, before July, more than 100 pieces of legislation that discriminates against same-sex couples. These discriminatory laws affect tax, social security, immigration, workers' compensation, hospital visiting rights, superannuation, health and aged care.

But allowing same sex couples the right to marry would still be the fastest route to end this discrimination. Instead, federal Labor is only willing to allow same-sex couples de facto recognition.

Greens' Senator Kerry Nettle will move amendments to Labor's upcoming law reform package to allow same-sex couples to marry. "Without the right to marry, same-sex couples do not have equality", Nettle said, adding, "Equality is not something that comes in half measures".

If the ALP government really was serious about eradicating homophobic laws this would be a huge step toward legal equality for gay, lesbian and bisexual people (but not transgender and transsexual people).

Some in the movement argue that same-sex marriage is not important, on the grounds that they are against the institution. But this argument misses the point. The Nazis denied Jews the right to marry. Marriage was denied to interracial couples in the darkest days of genocide against Aboriginal people. It was the case then, and it remains the case today, that to deny equal rights to a minority group sends an unequivocal message that they are subhuman.

Just as it is wrong to discriminate against Aboriginal people, neither is it acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation.

While the move to repeal these laws is welcome, it's also the case that Labor is acting now because it's under some pressure from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) protest movement and it doesn't want to legislate in favour of civil unions or marriage.

(The Democrats first released their Sexuality and Gender Status Bill in 1995 when Labor was in government, but Labor and the Coalition made sure it did not make it beyond the Senate's notice paper.)

Over the past four years the movement has grown louder and prouder. The size of our rallies is comparable to the movement at its 1970s peak. But we know that there's widespread agreement that such discrimination is wrong, as the numbers at Mardi Gras reveal.

The 1978 Mardi Gras attracted between 1000 and 2000 people. The national day of action for same sex-marriage attracted around 4000 people nation-wide in 2006, with 1500 in Sydney and almost 2000 in Melbourne.

Politicians might seem to decide on a homophobic whim what laws suit us and what laws don't. Yet they are not all powerful. The protest movement can be a potent force, and it is testimony to the movement that Labor has been forced to move on de facto recognition and registry schemes.

Rather than placate us, the federal government's reforms should spur us on to demand our full rights. Civil unions with legal ceremonies in the ACT would have been a step in the right direction. At the same time, civil unions are not same-sex marriage.

Anger over the threat to overturn civil unions in the ACT, combined with incredulity over the federal government's inconsistency over de facto and marriage rights, could translate into large protests at the August national day of action.

[Farida Iqbal is a Resistance activist and a member of the Canberra-based Campaign for Civil Unions.]

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