In December 2017, LGBTIQ people in Australia finally won equal marriage rights. This long overdue reform was met with jubilation from people right across the country. This victory represents a huge step forward in the fight for equality and against bigotry and discrimination.
While the postal survey method was not the preferred means with which to achieve marriage equality, the process did mean that many thousands of people were drawn into the campaign. It is estimated that at least 100,000 people attended rallies and thousands were involved in door knocking, phone banking and other activities aimed at mobilising the ‘yes’ vote.
In the end the ‘yes’ vote was just shy of 62%, with an incredibly high turnout of almost 80%! The ‘yes’ campaign brought people together, created a sense of unity, and gave ordinary people an opportunity to participate in the political process. This led to a much better outcome than if it had just been left up to right-wing politicians to do shady back room deals.
Some marriage equality activists fought against the postal survey. They attempted to block it in the High Court and some talked about attempting to boycott the vote. Others claimed that a postal survey would unleash a “festival of reaction”, implying that ordinary people couldn’t be trusted with such a decision. They complained that it would cost too much money and that it wasn’t binding.
While there were some on the ‘no’ side who used the opportunity to push homophobic views, they were overwhelmingly drowned out by the enthusiasm for a ‘yes’ vote. Clearly the naysayers turned out to be thoroughly wrong, and thankfully the idea of a boycott was pushed into the background.
Huge ‘yes’ vote pressured politicians
The fact that almost 8 million people voted ‘yes’ added huge amounts of pressure on the politicians. While it’s true that the vote wasn’t formally binding, the fact that the overwhelming majority supported equality meant that even previously wavering politicians were pressured to conform with the dominant view.
Even arch-bigot Tony Abbott was put on the back foot by the 75% ‘yes’ vote in his seat of Warringah. A staunch opponent of marriage equality, even he felt that he could not vote against the legislation so instead he abstained. He didn’t even have the courage to stay in the chamber while the vote was taking place.
He was joined in abstention by Coalition MPs Andrew Hastie, Michael Sukkar, Kevin Andrews, Scott Morrison, Rick Wilson, Alex Hawke, George Christiansen and Barnaby Joyce. Because of the success of the ‘yes’ campaign only four MPs dared vote against the bill. They were the independent MP Bob Katter and Coalition MPs Keith Pitt, Russel Broadbent and David Littleproud.
On the day the bill was passed, politicians from all the parties celebrated as if this historic win was theirs. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said: “What a day to put our arms around same-sex couples and say we love you, we respect you, you have all the rights that everyone else has had for so long — now we’re all at one.”
Labor Party MPs also tried to pretend they were champions of LGBTIQ rights. Their hypocrisy beggars belief. The Labor Party were recently in power for six years and they consistently delayed legislating for marriage equality and refused to bind their MPs to support the party’s policy. In fact, many Labor MPs voted for John Howard’s homophobic changes to the Act back in 2004.
These politicians have no shame. The hugs, fake tears and singing was all purely for the cameras. They have no real concern for the rights of LGBTIQ people and this was confirmed by the actual content of the bill they supported.
While marriage equality has now been legislated for, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 actually enshrines other forms of discrimination. In addition to changing the definition of marriage, the Sex Discrimination Act was also changed allowing celebrants, ministers and others the right to refuse to marry a same-sex couple on the basis of a religious (read: homophobic) objection.
Homophobia still exists
It is beyond cynical that Turnbull claims to be a champion of equality when he said that protecting so called ‘religious freedoms’ was more important than legislating for equality. Not only did both the Coalition and Labor vote to legalise other forms of discrimination, but they both support other policies that discriminate against LGBTIQ people, for example their draconian immigration policies.
Currently LGBTIQ asylum seekers suffering from persecution are denied safe passage and protection in Australia in breach of international laws. According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald LGBTIQ asylum seekers have been denied refugee status because of “bizarre hoops” they had to jump through to prove their sexuality, such as answering questions about Madonna and Bette Midler, or being asked to describe the interior décor of gay bars on Oxford Street in Sydney.
Some asylum seekers who were granted refugee status had to demean themselves to the point of providing photographic and video “evidence” of their sexual activities.
It’s not just asylum seekers who bear the brunt of homophobic immigration policies and operatives. A German man who was re-entering Australia on a tourist visa in December 2017 was denied entry and then deported after Australian Border Force (ABF) officers found in his luggage sex toys and PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) – an antiretroviral drug that HIV negative people take to reduce their risk of exposure to HIV.
ABF claimed that this man’s visa was denied because they suspected he was going to be engaging in sex work while on a visa with no working rights. But a lawyer representing him said: “This is very normal for ABF. I deal with deportations every week and it’s always the exact same behaviour… that’s how I know that he was profiled for being… a visibly gay man… ABF officers are incredibly racist and incredibly homophobic. They routinely make homophobic remarks to their charges…Without question it was a homophobic ABF officer who pulled him over to open up his suitcase, and then upon finding the sex toys and the PrEP, they’ve decided to detain him…”
On top of denying asylum seekers safety and deporting gay men, there are still many other forms of discrimination that LGBTIQ people experience. Homelessness, poverty, mental health issues, issues with accessing PrEP and gender confirming surgery are just a few. Then there’s the social stigma which, while it has diminished somewhat over the years, is still all too real.
Our working class allies
It is clear that homophobia still exists in many other guises despite the winning of equal marriage rights. We should celebrate the victory that we have just achieved but we need to keep the fight going to address all these other forms of discrimination.
The best way to fight against these “day-to-day” forms of oppression is to build maximum unity amongst all those who suffer from exploitation and oppression. In the main it was ordinary working class people, led by LGBTIQ activists, who won marriage equality and it is these same people who have the potential to fight for and win other crucial reforms. We cannot rely on either the politicians or those who seek to exploit and oppress us in any way.
A determined mass movement that involved workers organisations, community groups, student unions and LGBTIQ rights activists could pressure the government into implementing important reforms such as investment in public housing and healthcare. This would benefit all working class people, but particularly LGBTIQ people, who are disproportionately affected by shortages. The solidarity formed while fighting for these reforms would also help to undermine homophobic attitudes.
The plight of asylum seekers who are fleeing their home countries on the basis of persecution because of their sexuality is another aspect of the campaign that LGBTIQ rights activists must take up.
For real liberation
While we have won marriage equality, we are still yet to win real equality in every aspect of our lives. We need to fight to win real equality, but we should set our sights even higher. The LGBTIQ rights movement today should take lessons from movements for gay rights that emerged in the 1960s.
Instead of limiting their struggle to a fight for equality with other exploited people, the leaders of the movement in the 1960s saw the pressing need to incorporate radical, anti-capitalist politics into their work. They wanted not just equality, but liberation.
Inspired by the anti-Vietnam war struggle, civil rights and women’s liberation movements, they built fighting organisations that drew a link between race, class, poverty and homophobia. This is crucial. Inequality, including homophobia, sexism and racism, is an inherent part of the capitalist system, where 1% of the population is extraordinarily wealthy, while the rest of us are exploited for profit.
Replicating this sort of approach would put us in a much better position to take the fight beyond marriage equality. Ultimately, while reforms can help lessen the burden and diminish discrimination, as long as the inequitable profit-driven system remains intact, the basis for homophobia and other forms of discrimination will continue.
Only democratic socialism, where decisions are made collectively, can ensure that society’s wealth is shared equally and the basis for discrimination is removed once and for all. That’s why socialists have fought hard for marriage equality, but also why we take the fight beyond that, to challenge the capitalist system itself and fight for full liberation for all workers and young people, regardless of their sexuality or gender.
By Meredith Jacka