Why equality alone won’t bring LGBTI liberation

Winning equal marriage will be a blow against bigotry, but homophobia and transphobia will persist until we get rid of capitalism and the family, write Amy Thomas and James Supple.

Within months, equal marriage could be law. It has been a long wait, 13 years since then Prime Minister John Howard changed the Marriage Act to declare that marriage could only be between a man and woman.

Support for equal marriage has grown steadily since then. We know that an overwhelming majority now back it, with 63 per cent in a recent Newspoll saying they would vote “yes”.

This shift is part of a long trend of growing acceptance of LGBTI people’s rights, begun by the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s in Australia. Much of the formal legal discrimination against LGBTI people has gone.

Winning equal marriage rights will be a blow against homophobia and those who oppose LGBTI rights in general. But it will not bring an end to it.

Equal marriage is already law in 26 countries. Among them is Donald Trump’s America, where a reactionary homophobe is President, who recently signed an order banning trans people from the military.

The wave of growing acceptance and visibility of LGBTI people over the last few decades sits alongside homophobia and transphobia that continues to blight people’s lives.

Sixteen per cent of LGBTI people between the ages of 16 and 27 say they have attempted suicide, as well as 42 per cent of transgender people, according to a new study by the Telethon Kids institute.

In 2012 LaTrobe Uni academics found that 61 per cent of young LGBTI people had been verbally abused, and 18 per cent physically abused because of their sexuality. At work, almost 40 per cent of LGBTI people still feel forced to hide their sexuality or gender identity.

The gutting of the Safe Schools program last year was another example of the continuing bigotry. Malcolm Turnbull caved into a bigoted campaign by the hard right of his party and the Australian Christian Lobby who denounced Safe Schools as, “a radical program that encourages kids to explore gender theory and sexual practices”.

Behind this was the idea that being gay or trans is abnormal, and that openly discussing gender and sexuality might encourage more people to come out.

Teaching material featuring stories about how LGBTI people have come out, dealing with depression and accepting your sexuality and gender identity have been banned as supposedly “radical” and dangerous for children.

Its support for transgender kids was a target of particular attack, denounced by the likes of Tony Abbott as “social engineering”.

The reality is the anti-bullying program saves lives, with young LGBTI people six times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.

This homophobia is not simply a product of reactionary ideas. The oppression of LGBTI people is structured into our society because it delivers enormous benefits to capitalism.

The family

Right-wing conservatives have always opposed equal marriage as part of an effort to reinforce conservative values, including the idea that LGBTI people and their relationships are inferior, and even some kind of threat to society.

At the time he made equal marriage illegal in 2004, then Prime Minister John Howard said it was necessary because marriage between a man and a woman was “a fundamental, bedrock institution of our society”. He claimed that, “marriage is not only the best emotional environment in which to raise children, but it is also the best and most efficient social welfare system that mankind has ever devised”. This was part of defending the model of the heterosexual nuclear family, made up of a man, a woman and their children.

More recently, Liberal Senator Eric Abetz (who once said the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tasmania would lead to incest) similarly wrote in Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile’s newsletter that equal marriage would “destroy the family—destroy the nation”.

The importance of the family has long been an obsession for the political establishment.

Former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd too paid it homage as, “the incubator of human capital”. British Conservative leader David Cameron, who himself supported the introduction of equal marriage in the UK, declared that, “nothing matters more than the family”. This echoed Margaret Thatcher, who famously rejected all other collective organisations when she said, “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

Conservatives are obsessed with maintaining the nuclear family because it remains of key importance to capitalism as a whole.

Rise of capitalism

The efforts by the ruling class to promote the family developed out of the experience of the industrial revolution in Britain.

In the early industrial capitalism of the 1800s, men and women flooded into workplaces and cities. But businesses did not provide for the welfare of their workers, and infant mortality rates were so high that they threatened the ongoing survival of the workforce.

One 1842 report showed that life expectancy among factory workers was just 17 in Manchester, 16 in Bethnal Green in east London, and 15 in Liverpool.

As late as 1840 the majority of factory workers were women, who managers considered more obedient than male workers, and just as suited to the labour in the new factories.

The more far-sighted capitalists became concerned that action was needed to improve the health of the workforce and to ensure the reproduction of the next generation of labourers. Without this, their ability to continue making profits in the long term was under threat.

So the state stepped in, working very hard to establish the nuclear family. Laws were passed from 1842 banning women from underground mining work and in 1844 and 1847 restricting the hours they could work each day.

Alongside this went the promotion of Victorian ideals of family life, including an obsession with sexual restraint and a morality that looked with horror on any kind of sexuality outside the nuclear family.

The disintegration of the family among the working class, caused by the horrors of factory life, was seen as breeding immoral sexual activity and fuelling revolt.

The new emphasis on the family meant enforcing the role of women as caregivers in the home and men as breadwinners in the workforce, and justifying this on the basis of gender stereotypes.

Employers in both France and Britain made efforts to promote family life, control sexuality and encourage orthodox gender roles. Attempting to “naturalise” gender roles, and justify them scientifically, became an obsession of science.

In this climate, a new Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed in Britain in 1885 that increased the age of consent in an effort to crack down on prostitution, and also made any sexual acts between men a crime.

The trial of Oscar Wilde under the new laws in 1895 whipped up homophobic hysteria and popularised the idea that homosexuality was a “condition” found in a particular type of person.

In Australia, some of the earliest laws concerned marriage—and the criminalisation of homosexuality. The “family wage”, enshrined in Australia in the Harvester judgement of 1907 as one of the pillars of workplace law, was designed to establish a male wage high enough to support a wife and children.

Women were to stay home and take on the burden of raising the next generation of workers. The ruling class has benefited because women perform this task within the family unpaid.

Today, unpaid labour in the home is worth around $24 billion per year, according to the Bureau of Statistics. Without the family, the system would have to take on more of the costs of raising children itself through government spending on childcare, accommodation, cooking and cleaning. This is a threat to the rich and powerful because it would hit corporate profits.

There have been important changes since the era of the industrial revolution. Women now play a much greater role as part of the workforce.

There has also been a marked increase in single parent families, now making up one quarter of all households with children. But the financial pressure for single parents to stay within the nuclear family remains, with 23 per cent of all children in single parent families below the poverty line. Cuts to welfare payments for single parents in 2012 have made things harder.

Both this economic compulsion, laws that benefit couples, and the lack of alternative arrangements for bringing up children, all keep the family unit going.

We know from history that there isn’t anything in human nature that predisposes us to nuclear families, monogamy, exclusive heterosexuality, or the gender expectations of capitalism.

Patriarchal families and the oppression of women only developed some 5000 to 6000 years ago following the rise of agriculture. The hunter gatherer societies in which humanity has spent most of its existence did not contain nuclear family structures.

Diverse forms of sexuality and gender expression were accepted in many previous societies.

Cross-gender transfer was common among the Indigenous people of the Americas—where someone born into one “gender” could transition into another. Two-spirit people of North America, the katoey of Thailand, or the hijra in India, are examples of “third genders” that have existed historically.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, sex between men was regarded as perfectly acceptable, within defined limits.

Maintaining gender roles and the nuclear family, and arguing that they represent some natural human state, remains very important to capitalism. LGBTI people threaten that, and so they remain—even if the era of widespread acceptance—a “problem” for capitalism.

It is also why the fight for equal marriage must be about more than just incorporating gay and lesbian couples into the institution of marriage. It must also take on the right’s attacks on gender fluidity and the rights of trans people, because it is traditional gender roles that help keep homophobia and transphobia alive.

The fight against homophobia and transphobia must continue, even after we win equal marriage and full equal rights.

Equal marriage will help loosen their grip. But the fight for full liberation is still to be won.


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Albanese’s weakness risks LGBTIQ+ rights in schools

In a fresh demonstration of the federal government’s cowardice, Anthony Albanese has sought Peter Dutton’s support to take a bipartisan approach to religious discrimination laws that risk opening LGBTIQ+ people up to further bigotry.

Transphobia runs deeper than anti-trans bigots

Transphobic mobilisations must be opposed, writes Sophie Cotton, but this should be linked to a fight against the broader institutional transphobia in the political mainstream

Official transphobia legitimises the far right

The appearance of a handful of Nazis at the “Let Women Speak” rally in Melbourne last weekend has caused a furore.