The fight for same sex marriage rights under Labor

Amy Thomas looks at Howard’s homophobic legislation and Rudd’s continuation of his legacy-and what we can do to fight it

John Howard won the 1996 election promising to govern for the “mainstream” of Australia-a Coalition government, he told us, would not be influenced by the noisy, “special interest” groups which had led the Keating government to neglect the “general interest”.

After the election, as Indigenous, women’s and ethnic groups were progressively de-funded, it became apparent that Howard planned to use them all as scapegoats to divide opposition to his right-wing policies and boost his support. He told Australia he’d be “disappointed if his son was gay”. Any parent, of course, would feel that way, he told us.

The marriage ban

His Marriage Amendment Bill of 2004 reaffirmed marriage as a “union between a man and woman, to the exclusion of all others… for life.” At the National Marriage Conference that year, both the Coalition and Labor opposition declared their shared belief that marriage “is a bedrock institution” and a “heterosexual union”-on the same platform that evangelist Minister Margaret Court called homosexuality a “sin of the flesh” and claimed that children of same-sex parents felt “shame and guilt” because of their parents’ selfishness.

In January that year, an article by Tasmanian lesbian and gay rights lobbyist Rodney Croome entitled “Will gay marriage be the next Tampa?” published in the Sydney Star Observer, warned that LGBTIQ people were likely to face scapegoating in the lead up to the 2004 election, similar to Howard’s racist “children overboard” strategy in 2001. Discontent with Howard was on the rise and same-sex marriage held all the advantages of Howard’s favoured wedge politics.

Croome’s predictions proved correct. The ban was an attempt to divert attention away from the policies that were making life harder for working class Australians-why be worried about other concerns when homosexuals are undermining society’s most basic institutions?

Howard’s decision to amend the Marriage Act followed a similar attempt by President Bush. Bush was searching for a divide-and-rule issue leading up the US elections. The campaign for same-sex marriage was gaining traction at the time in the US, as court challenges won the right in some states. While his ban attempts were unsuccessful, the tactic was partially responsible for Bush’s election win. Howard saw a similar opportunity here. While there was no ongoing campaign at the time, what better than to launch a pre-emptive strike against it and drum up divisive homophobia in the process?

Howard’s marriage ban didn’t win him votes in the way his actions over the Tampa did. But combined with the Labor party’s capitulation to support the ban, it did give renewed legitimacy to homophobia. The ban was pushed through without parliamentary debate or opposition from the Labor Left. Only the Greens and the Democrats stood opposed to the legislation.

Rudd’s promises and post-election realities

Rudd Labor’s election win signified a desire by the majority of Australians for an end to the Coalition’s warmongering, attacks on worker’s rights, climate denialism and social conservatism. The broad-based support for LGBTIQ rights (polls show up to 79 per cent support for same-sex marriage) and a small amount of pressure from the left, placed some expectation on Rudd, and state Labor governments, to deliver LGBTIQ people their basic rights.

Last year the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission counted 58 areas where legislation discriminated against same-sex couples. In response, Labor, pre- and post-election, guaranteed they will remove 102 pieces of discriminatory legislation relating to everything from social security, taxation, Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits scheme, inheritance, property rights and hospital visitation. The NSW Labor government has recently legislated to allow same-sex couples access to the Family Court, and the Victorian Government has followed Tasmania in instituting a “relationships register” for same-sex couples.

However, the reform that has been so far promised or delivered takes exception to adoption, IVF, surrogacy and marriage-all the rights that would allow LGBTIQ people to form the families and relationships of their choosing.

Rudd-and state Labor’s-agenda so far has not represented any real break with the social conservatism and homophobia of the Howard years. Most recently Labor broke a key election promise and intervened to prevent the passing of ACT Civil Partnership legislation. Both Rudd and McClelland echoed Howard’s “marriage is between a man and woman” catchcry in their justification for doing so. Civil unions would “mimic marriage” and therefore “undermine” the Marriage Act.

Rudd’s Australia

Homophobia continues to play a key role in the ideology of Rudd’s Australia. His opposition to gay marriage is not just a moral conviction, nor something borne out of his religious beliefs. It is connected to an ideology of how society should be constructed and maintained. The nuclear family and the inextricably linked institution of heterosexual marriage remain crucial to Labor’s conservative social ideology reflecting a strong commitment to capitalism.

During industrialisation, the need for a working class heterosexual family, supported by a “family wage” paid to the male workers, and women staying home to raise the family, was pushed by the capitalist class as a way to cheaply produce skilled, healthy workers. In 1861 in Australia, homosexuality and abortion were outlawed, divorce was made almost impossible and “illegitimate children” were discouraged through active discrimination. The late 19th century saw a barrage of pro-family campaigns to convince men and women of their particular social roles-husband as breadwinner and wife as mother-within this nuclear family. Anything that would allow sexuality and gender expression beyond these oppressive roles became socially unacceptable.

Where these social attitudes have been overturned it has been the result of ongoing social movements. The 1970s gay liberation movement was crucial in leading change through militant resistance to homophobia and sexism-we owe the decriminialisation of homosexuality, the right for homosexuals to teach in schools, the introduction of anti-discrimination legislation, and an increased acceptance and visibility of LGBTIQ people, among other things, to this movement.

The fundamental institution (nuclear itself means nut or kernal) of the family remains essential to capitalism. There is no less need now then there was in the 1970s to build a militant, broad-based social movement. As Rudd continues the process of neo-liberalism and privatisation of public services, the pressure for people to organise themselves into heterosexual family units, where women are forced to take up the responsibility of unpaid “caring”, usually on top of paid work, in order to fill the gap created by reduced social services and access to child care, only continues.

While same-sex marriage and parenting rights in themselves can only ever represent a partial ideological challenge to this idea, it is one that Howard, and now Rudd, are scared of. The legislating of same-sex marriage would signify a weakening of the ideological grip of “traditional family values”, and the state’s ability to wield it as a sledgehammer in pushing a neo-liberal agenda.

There’s a pressing need to step up the battle for same-sex marriage rights as part of ongoing resistance to the oppressive structures that perpetuate homophobia and oppression.

Building the fight

Since the 2004 ban, major established gay rights groups like the Victorian and New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights lobbies have in public declared support for full same-sex marriage and parenting rights. But rather than actively campaign around marriage they have seen their role as putting the case persuasively to politicians-which has often meant stopping short of a call for full marriage and parenting rights.

Lobbying-based strategies have only delayed the start of an active and consistent public campaign of political pressure on the government. Shelley Argent from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays was invited to represent the LGBTIQ community at Rudd’s recent 2020 summit, and there was a recent roundtable discussion in Canberra between same-sex rights lobbies and the Attorney-General’s department.

But the results of these years of lobbying and pushing for concessions have in no way markedly changed the landscape for LGBTIQ people in Australia.

Small activist groups around the country, mainly organised out of university queer departments and far left groups, organised rallies nationally this year on the anniversary of Howard’s marriage ban. However, a “one big rally” approach will never provide enough political pressure for a win in the campaign. This is shown by the narrow support for the rallies around the country, with only a few hundred turning out in each city.

The consistent effort of LGBTIQ activists in Brisbane, mainly organised out of the QUT Queer Collective, provides an example of how to take the fight forward.

The recent establishment of the Queensland Queer Coalition, an attempt to unify and garner support from LGBTIQ lobbyists, community groups and unions to provide ongoing and activist responses to homophobia is the kind of base-level work that needs to be done if we are to re-establish a real fight for LGBTIQ rights that reaches out further than those already on the far left.

We need to take from this year’s anniversary rallies a drive for an ongoing campaign that demands marriage and full parenting rights, links with other social movements, and that is willing to take public a stand against Rudd’s homophobia. It’s only with this kind of campaign that we are likely to win basic human rights for LGBTIQ people.


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Irish referendum: Equality, not austerity, the winner

In a historic referendum win, Ireland has become the first country in the world to recognise marriage equality by popular vote. The 62 per cent Yes vote on 22 May represents a resounding rejection of decades of institutional homophobia.

Same-sex marriage anger turning on Abbott

Abbott and the Coalition should have been celebrating a victory when the High Court overturned the ACT’s same-sex marriage legislation. But their attempt to stick with a minority position against same-sex marriage is not doing the Coalition any favours.

Homophobic Abbott exposed by ACT same-sex marriage challenge

The ACT has become the first state or territory in Australia to recognise same-sex marriage, in a move that increases the pressure on Tony Abbott and is an important blow against homophobia. Darlene Cox, who is making plans to marry her partner in the ACT, told ABC, “It’s fantastic, it feels great. This is about enhancing my rights.”