A national campaign calling for same-sex marriage called Equal Love has been running for five years and has attracted growing support. Its focus is to shift public attitudes to gay and lesbian relationships through a campaign involving education and direct action protests.
Its key demand is for the Australian government to legislate for equal marriage rights for all — regardless of sex, sexual orientation or gender.
Same-sex marriage is a hot topic of debate in politics in Australia and the world over. The debate extends into the queer community. However, as the Equal Love campaign emphasises, the main issue is that same-sex marriage is a human right.
The arguments against same-sex marriage can generally be broken down into one of two types. The first argument is rooted in homophobia and bigotry. Ultra-conservatives and the religious right claim marriage is a sacred institution. Marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman, they say.
This kind of outright expression of homophobic prejudice has more to do with keeping in place a family structure reinforcing traditional roles than it is about protecting "sacred love".
The modern nuclear family is very beneficial to the capitalist class. The family provides free of charge — mostly through women's unpaid labour — the reproduction of the next generation of workers, care for the aged and sick and the care and feeding of the present generation, among other things.
Alongside the exploitation of women, the traditional family system also plays a valuable ideological role for those who defend today's unequal class society. It's one of the main ways conservative values are instilled in young people.
Homosexual relationships pose an alternative and therefore are a potential threat to the present social system, which depends so much on the heterosexual nuclear family and traditional gender roles.
Part of the "moral argument" against same-sex marriage is that marriage has always been between men and women. This historical argument implies that history, somehow, provides a moral high ground.
However, similar arguments were once made against inter-racial marriage, sentiments that would be publicly expressed today only by right-wing racists.
The second argument against same-sex marriage is most often voiced on the left and even by sections of the queer community. It raises an ideological disagreement with marriage itself, which is viewed as an oppressive, conservative and unnecessary institution.
Some queer critics of the campaign have pointed out that marriage has its ancient origins in securing property relations and has its roots in chattel slavery. Others object to the campaign because it seeks to force the state to "sanction" queer relationships.
However, the point is that the state makes same-sex marriage illegal today. The campaign is about ending state discrimination against queer couples who wish to marry.
Support for the right to same-sex marriage is not the same thing as advocating marriage as a superior kind of relationship. But for many people marriage is the highest form of commitment, the deepest expression of love two people can make.
A decision to marry is a deeply personal choice. The Australian government prevents queer couples from making that choice for themselves — simply because they are queer.
The same-sex marriage ban reinforces homophobic ideas that queer relationships are somehow "unnatural". This is something the "left" critics of the equal rights campaign overlook.
The federal ALP government is resisting calls to end its discrimination against same-sex relationships. It has tried to deflect criticism for its failure to overturn the marriage ban by pointing to new laws passed in November 2008 that ended some forms of discrimination against same-sex de facto couples.
The changes came about through years of serious campaigning by the queer community and its allies. The new laws mean that same-sex de facto couples now have many of the same legal, financial and work-related rights as straight couples. Things previously not available to same-sex couples, such as child support and bereavement benefits, are now available.
This is an advance and has sparked renewed confidence and hope in the queer rights movement. However, the changes have also highlighted the lack of full equality for same-sex couples.
The recognition of same-sex relationships by Centrelink, for example, means newly recognised couples are now subject to joint income assessments. For many, this has led to significant cuts in Centrelink payments.
Same-sex couples are equal enough to be screwed out of Centrelink payments like anyone else, but not equal enough to marry. For most same-sex couples, the government's limited changes appear hypocritical and have simply rubbed salt into the wound. Nothing but full equality will do.
In June, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young introduced a private member's bill to legalise same-sex marriage. She also tabled a petition with 30,000 signatures in support. Hanson-Young's bill should be supported. It also reflects the majority view in Australia.
Equal Love's annual national day of action will take place on August 1, involving thousands of people around the country. In past years, the protest was held on August 13 — the anniversary of the passing of legislation, by the Howard government in 2004, that banned same-sex unions.
This year's protest on August 1 will involve mass demonstrations to coincide with the ALP's national conference. Equal Love also plans to break the world record for "the largest mass illegal wedding ever" on the day.
The group hopes to receive greater media visibility and build "pressure [on] the [ALP] to change its outdated and discriminatory policy on same-sex marriage".
Ben Cooper, the Equal Love campaign coordinator in Sydney told Green Left Weekly: "There has never been a better time to push for same-sex marriage equality. The release of a Galaxy poll that found 60% of Australians support equal same-sex marriage rights and the introduction of the gender neutral bill. Equal marriage rights are becoming a significant and central human rights issue."
Recognition of civil unions instead of same-sex marriage does not give gay and lesbian couples the same rights as their straight counterparts. It still sends a strong message that homosexual relationships are different, and ultimately lesser.
[For details of the August 1 protests for same-sex marriage rights visit www.equallove.info].