The course of true love never did run smooth: especially, it seems, when that love comes wrapped in rainbow colours. Over the past decade 23 bills dealing with marriage equality, or the recognition of overseas same-sex marriages, have been introduced into the Australian Parliament. Legislation came after several years of brawling within the federal Coalition, an expensive and lengthy opinion survey, and attempts to roll back existing anti-discrimination protections through a series of amendments, which failed to pass in either House.
The bill passed overwhelmingly, as most MPs accepted the result of the survey and voted for change. Only four MPs were prepared to vote no; a small number, including Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce and Scott Morrison, left the chamber to avoid voting. Assent from the Governor-General came on 8 December; with luck, changes to the law will come in time to help a rebound in the retail sector.
It was ironic that after years of cynicism about same-sex marriage I co-hosted a few programs on queer radio station JOY FM about the marriage debate. As one might expect, the program took the importance of a yes vote for granted, and there was a strange mix of exuberance and anger as various people from the community talked about the ‘survey’. ‘I’ve never been political’, confided someone who’d been to his first demonstration, a reminder that most people do not think much about politics, and the marriage debate has thrust thousands of people into an unfamiliar world in which governments suddenly impinge on their very sense of who they are.
Of course, the survey was about a lot more than the right of two people of the same sex to walk down the aisle in matching tuxedos or dresses. Because the no campaign linked same-sex marriage to a number of cultural issues—for Abbott this was a vote about freedom of speech and political correctness—it became a vote about basic acceptance and a willingness to extend equality to everyone irrespective of their sexual or gender identity. (For convenience I’ll use the word ‘queer’ to encompass everyone whose sexual orientation or gender expression is other than mainstream.) Indeed, the no campaign was remarkably reluctant to say much about same-sex marriage other than constant mutterings about the dark consequences that would flow from its approval.
The survey was unnecessary. The power to regulate marriage is clearly a parliamentary responsibility, no different from issues such as abortion or euthanasia where MPs have traditionally not been bound by party lines. The idea of a referendum, twice rejected by the Senate, was an elaborate device to manage apparently irreconcilable differences within the Liberal Party. When the government announced a voluntary postal survey, conducted by the Bureau of Statistics, this was widely regarded as a further device to postpone change, even to block it for several years.
At the time few people expected so high a response (almost 80 per cent of eligible voters, on rolls that had swelled in the month after the survey was announced). There was cynicism about the willingness of young voters to respond to a postal survey, and jokes that no-one under 30 would be able to find a letter box. Both sides claimed the other was well funded, and dark references to ballots being stolen or falsified spread across social media.
Many people felt it improper for others to vote on our right to marry, but if one asks the state for legislative change one inevitably asks approval from the entire polity. Yes, it seems wrong to establish human rights through a popular vote or survey, but it is also a reminder that ‘rights’ are human inventions, which vary across time and space. The problem with this process was that it reduced a sensitive debate to sloganeering, and established a dangerous precedent for future debates.
Although I had access only to the yes side, the two campaigns struck me as very different. The yes case mobilised thousands of people to attend street rallies, which often felt celebratory despite the impassioned speeches. The no campaign appeared to hold few large-scale events, and clearly used existing religious and ethnic networks to promote its cause. It also appeared to outspend the yes side, with more extensive television and newspaper advertisements. Both Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas (yes), and the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney (no) donated a million dollars to the campaigns. In Joyce’s case it was his own money.
It is easier to argue for inclusion rather than exclusion, and the yes campaign had a large choice of people willing to advocate. The no case struggled to find prominent women, but cleverly found a couple of non-Anglo spokeswomen who became prominent in public forums. One of them, Karina Okotel, not only lamented the consequences of changing the Marriage Act, but said: ‘In Sri Lanka, you see arranged marriages, they work. Marriage has always been about family and a stable environment for kids.’1
Okotel and Dr Pansy Lai were no match for Penny Wong or Magda Szubanski; and the yes campaign was careful to stick to its script. But both sides traded in emotion, inevitable in a popular campaign. The idea that there could be a ‘respectful debate’ was always fantasy: a respectful debate implies equality between two sides, but the no campaign included too many people who wanted to crusade against homosexuality or, their new bogey, ‘gender ideology’. When they denied any animosity to queers their arguments became hollow, reduced to nothing more than resistance to change without any logic as to why this change as against all others was so dangerous.
I felt then—and still feel now—that the turning point came the weekend of the football finals. The AFL had already endorsed the yes case, and on the first weekend in October American rapper Macklemore performed his 2012 hit single ‘Same Love’—widely considered a gay anthem—to a crowd of more than 80 000 at a rugby league final in Sydney, while stadium screens displayed the National Rugby League (NRL) logo above messages such as ‘We stand for equality’. With both major codes publicly calling for a yes vote, the game was over.
• • •
I used to be cynical about demands for same-sex marriage. Too often the voices calling for change seem oblivious to all injustices other than their claim to be legally married. But people in this position are already in long-term relationships, comfortable about their sexual identity and probably on good terms with their biological family.
Same-sex marriage has, however, become the totemic yardstick for acceptance of gender and sexual diversity, even though it depends upon very conservative underpinnings. As far back as 1996 the cover of the Economist proclaimed ‘Let them wed’, and since then most liberal democracies have followed this advice. I found it grating to be told constantly that Australia was the exception among English-speaking countries, as if language was somehow proof of virtue. ‘The Anglosphere’ is, after all, a favourite reference of Abbott, though not, it seems, when it comes to marriage, where he blithely ignored even the British Tory Party. And I was surprised that the media seemed largely unaware how far the language of the Christian right resembled that used by autocrats such as Vladimir Putin and Robert Mugabe.
Speaking on the ABC’s Q&A, Jesuit priest Frank Brennan stressed the difference between religious beliefs and civil law, but that distinction was often lost on the battlefield. In the parliamentary debate, which stretched across several days of the first week of December, Liberal backbencher Andrew Laming gave an equally measured analysis of the difference between state and religious law, a distinction that seemed lost on most of his conservative peers. (Labor MPs who might have had doubts about the legislation were clearly under orders to stay quiet.) There was a certain irony in conservative MPs quoting international covenants on human rights to advance their definition of religious freedom, even if, as Adam Bandt and Mark Dreyfus pointed out, they quoted selectively.
Marriage did not need to become the central symbol of acceptance, and the early gay liberation movement, like third-wave feminism, rejected marriage as outdated and patriarchal. Love is love could, after all, signify an assertion that we don’t need the blessings of church or state: there are many examples of committed homosexual relationships long before marriage became an option. But even radical queers saw the debate as about equality and acceptance, whatever their personal doubts about the institution. The marriage movement seems bent on assimilation into society as is, and brave talk of creating new forms of family and community have largely disappeared. Most homosexuals, it turns out, really are just like everyone else.
It was interesting to talk to straight supporters, some of whom seemed far more invested in same-sex marriage than I am. I recall a former Labor cabinet minister expostulating in fury that Julia Gillard did not support SSM; a couple of years later I spoke at a rally with Bill Shorten, who was genuinely passionate on the issue. Is there some element here of atonement for earlier attitudes, an unspoken acknowledgement that they ignored all their own homophobic prejudice, what Christopher Isherwood called ‘annihilation by blandness’? Or is it, perhaps, that supporting same-sex marriage is a way of taming homosexuality, of making it respectable in ways that former British prime minister David Cameron had in mind when he said he supported same-sex marriage because he was a conservative?
Had the Howard government not amended the Marriage Act in 2004 to declare that marriage was exclusively between a man and a woman, it is possible that change might have come with less charged political debate. But the growing number of countries legislating for change—and the bizarre anomalies this created for couples legally married elsewhere—meant Australia would feel increasing pressure to follow suit. The Labor Party recognised this, if painfully: one of its most conservative senators, Joe Bullock, resigned shortly after his election because of the party’s changing stance. Had Malcolm Turnbull been more adroit he would have used his political capital on becoming prime minister to take command of the issue and ensure a free parliamentary vote. The independence of parliamentarians, after all, is a fundamental Liberal tenet, and recourse to unnecessary referendums runs against the basic principles of the Westminster system.
• • •
Does it matter that Turnbull chose this other, more circuitous route to achieve what he clearly wanted? The costs have been considerable, a drain on emotional even more than financial resources. For many queers the experience was deeply painful, even if for some campaigners it was highly exhilarating.
The hurt with which so many queers perceived the debate was the hurt of people just discovering the extent of residual contempt, even hatred towards them. There was real anger in ‘the community’, set alongside a certain sentimentality, expressed in constant messages about caring for each other. This led, probably inevitably, to a certain amount of hyperbole. At an opening event of the Melbourne Festival the director spoke of this as ‘the most difficult time for the LGBT community ever’, ignoring the far darker times of police persecution and AIDS deaths. There was also, to be honest, something of a search for victimhood. Yes, the survey unleashed some nasty and threatening cases of homophobia, including several random acts and threats of violence. But hunting down every instance of overt support for the no case, and posting it constantly on social media, conflated hatred with discomfort with change, and only furthered the feeling of being under siege.
There were some nasty fellow travellers alongside the churches on the no campaign; it appears, for example, that the skywriter who wrote ‘Vote No’ over Sydney Harbour was linked to some of the alt-right movement in Australia.2 But to advocate a no vote was not in itself homophobic, and skywriting is best left to fade away. The equality campaign successfully discouraged a couple of attempts by fringe right-wingers to provoke violence, and despite a couple of nasty incidents the campaign produced fewer direct confrontations than had been feared.
But the campaign picked at old scars, and thousands of people across the country felt forced to relive adolescent traumas, to come out, again, in the spotlight of national attention. The public divisions within the Abbott family, the Kardashians of Australia, were played out for thousands of others. One of my friends spoke at length of her fears about talking to her family, above all her deeply religious mother, and her relief when her mother told her she’d voted yes. I wanted to dismiss the fears and anxieties every mention of the no case provoked when I came across these words from Nelly Sachs: ‘We are so sorely hurt / We feel that we must die / If the street throws a harsh word at us.’3
People are opening up about difficult discussions with their family, hurts that they have carried for half a lifetime that are now resurfacing. One friend speaks of his parents never displaying a photo of him with his partner, even when they automatically did so for their straight children.
But if the campaign was hurtful this was in part because we let it be. The queer press gave extraordinary coverage to the right-wing fringe of the Liberal Party, and largely ignored those cabinet ministers who supported changing the law. The ‘awful As’—Abbott, Abetz and Andrews—have no more faithful followers than the reporters for the Star Observer.
Underlying the no campaign was deep fear of losing the privileges accorded to religious institutions in Australia. The claims for protection of religious freedoms were in practice claims for the right to wind back existing anti-discrimination laws, sometimes to an absurd degree. No-one suggested that a Jewish baker might refuse to serve a Muslim customer, or a gay florist might deny Interflora to a Catholic wedding, but these were the sorts of cases being mooted. Conservatives claimed they would no longer be able to discuss their concept of marriage, despite the obvious freedom for advocates of change to make their case while SSM was illegal.
Ironically the parliamentary debate coincided with arguments before the US Supreme Court about the First Amendment rights of a Christian baker to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. His argument seemed based on the premise that a wedding cake is a work of art, not merely a commercial product; the complainants argued that to exempt the baker from anti-discrimination laws ‘would become not a safeguard against discrimination, but a licence to discriminate’.4 (A decision had not been announced at the time of writing.)
The legislation introduced by Senator Dean Smith and seven colleagues from the major parties was termed the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill. It already contained provisions that a cross-party committee felt were necessary to protect religious sensibilities, and while these are minor they already make a distinction between hetero- and homo-marriage. As far as I know no-one has suggested any such distinctions will apply to same-sex divorces. The calls to water down the Smith bill by appealing to the 5 million Australians who had voted no seemed odd coming from politicians who elsewhere have claimed that the Turnbull government’s slim majority gives them a mandate to disregard all positions but their own.
• • •
Against expectations, the bulk of rural and regional Australia voted yes. The no case won a majority in only 17 out of 150 federal electorates, including a couple in rural Queensland—and a swathe of Labor seats across western Sydney. There were widely different analyses of the vote, based on opinion surveys and electorate demographics.
The strongest correlation seemed to be between religiosity and the no vote.5 This is hardly surprising, given the emphasis on religious freedoms in the campaign. Nor is it surprising that those areas with high concentrations of recent immigrants also tended to vote no; of course, ‘overseas born’ is a misleading demographic, as it includes a very wide range of ethnicities, beliefs and education. Seizing on Muslim concentrations in some western Sydney electorates ignored the reality that their vote was not homogenous, and in some of these seats there are fewer Muslims than various Christian denominations. It must have discomforted politicians such as Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernadi that their much disliked ‘multicultural’ communities emerged as the bulwark of the no case. Some of the most ardent opponents such as George Christensen and Kevin Andrews found they were out of step with their constituents; although both of them abstained in the parliamentary vote.
The rigidity of our party system means that politicians rarely need to choose between their own beliefs, those of their constituents and their party. (One is reminded of Oscar Wilde’s choice between this world, the next world and Australia.) Members of parliament represent both an electorate and a political party, and our system assumes that MPs are bound by their party’s position, except in exceptional cases such as the recent euthanasia debate in Victoria. But having sought a national survey, could they do anything other than accept the result? Even Jacqui Lambie, the now former Tasmanian senator, said she would have voted for change after all five Tasmanian electorates recorded a yes vote. The three senior Labor figures—Jason Clare, Tony Burke and Chris Bowen—who represent the electorates with the highest no vote continued to support change. The Labor senators who voted no shared a remarkable lack of distinction, seemingly united by their connections with the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), the last bastion of the Catholic right in the Labor Party.
Both sides have been galvanised by the campaign, although one suspects few minds were changed: the results, after all, reflected a decade of opinion surveying. Lyle Shelton, the smooth-faced leader of the Australian Christian Lobby, called for a renewed ‘fight for freedom’ and was active in lobbying conservative MPs to water down the proposed legislation. But the week following the survey was a bad one for the lobby: the Victorian Parliament agreed to a (very limited) euthanasia measure, and Labor scraped back in the Queensland state election, which the lobby identified as ‘a referendum on radical gay sex and gender programs, abortion and euthanasia’. People such as Shelton sometimes argue that there is a large body of social conservatism waiting to be tapped if only Liberals were bold enough to speak to them. The survey was a very expensive way of demonstrating that this belief is largely a myth.
Many in the yes camp will probably retreat from politics. The week after the survey result the Perth PRIDE committee banned refugee advocates from their parade, then retracted under criticism. This was a reminder that the coalition around marriage was often born of immediate self-interest and, despite the language of rights and equality, many marriage advocates have little concern for broader issues. Already there are Facebook posts from ‘radical queers’ claiming ‘I knew all along the white gay boys would dump us the moment they got what they wanted.’ Although this message seemed no more than lazy stereotyping, it was also a reminder that we all deploy words such as equality, rights, even love, to suit our purposes. Beware George Brandis bearing gifts.
At the same time, the campaign enlisted thousands of people, often attending their first demonstration and making their first phone call asking for support. They are now likely to be more open to calls for action on other issues of human rights, and groups such as GetUp!, which was a key player in the yes campaign, has shown a remarkable ability to enlist and encourage activism across a number of issues.
In the week before the parliamentary debate I spoke at an event organised by the Channel, a ‘rainbow donors circle’ established by young professionals to help ‘change the way Australians experience gender and sexuality for the better’. About 70 people gathered in the large reading room of Melbourne’s Fitzroy Town Hall, a monument to nineteenth-century civic virtues, to listen to a visiting American queer philanthropist. I was honoured to hand a cheque for $5000 to an organisation known as StartOut Australia, which aims to provide mentoring to young regional and rural queers. The marriage decision does not mark an end to queer organising, although it may take unexpected forms in future.
• • •
Towards 6 p.m. on 7 December the House of Representatives filled up for the final vote. The voice vote was overwhelming; there was a plaintive call for a division. Almost the entire government and opposition crowded together on one side of the House, enjoying the moment; a few disconsolate abstainers quietly slipped out of the chamber. The outburst of joy at the final tally was in part relief that it was now over, even members who had voted no—and those who had carefully hidden their views throughout the long debates—seemed swept up in a moment of bipartisan celebration. Warren Entsch (Liberal) literally swept Linda Burney (Labor) off her feet in delight. Some in the gallery burst into song—perhaps they were young enough to have learnt the lyrics of ‘I am, you are, we are Australian’ at school—and four of the cross-benchers unfurled a rainbow flag. It was a unique moment when normal politics gave way to a sense of shared nationhood.
My Facebook feed was filled with people saying they finally felt recognised as equal in Australia. The decision was primarily symbolic, with less practical effect than a swag of previous legal changes, such as the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour and the inclusion of sexuality and gender orientation in anti-discrimination protections. But symbolic victories are important, more important than I’d recognised in the early days of the marriage campaign.
For journalist Paul Kelly, who had long fretted over the implications for religious freedoms of changing the Marriage Act, the vote ‘constituted the arrival of the new Australia, and the demise of the old’.6 This apocalyptic language verges on the hysterical; rather, the vote was a tardy recognition of changes in attitudes that have been taking shape over the past few decades. In time we will see the marriage debate as one of a series of moments that have changed our assumptions about sexuality and gender, reshaping the very concept of what is taken for granted.
To this extent the no campaign was right: marriage equality is part of a much broader set of cultural shifts, even if these are not quite the changes we expected in the heady days of women’s and gay liberation. We spoke about radical change; today’s rhetoric is about equality and acceptance. Support for diversity has become fashionable in the corporate world, where some very smart players have made ‘LGBTI inclusion’ an increasingly attractive goal. The Midsumma and Mardi Gras parades of 2018 will almost certainly include a record number of business and government groups, all eager to show their status as allies. Supporters of marriage equality have included many people who seem blind to the situation of asylum seekers detained offshore who have fled because of their sexuality.
Previous battles revolved around images of sex: the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour, seeking support for AIDS research, treatment and prevention, while acknowledging HIV was spread through sexual (and needle) contact. The dominant rhetoric of the queer movement has become one of domestic respectability: at a recent business event to support ‘pride in practice’ several speakers mentioned the continuing illegality of ‘being in a same-sex relationship’ in many countries, when the reality is that it is sexual behaviour between men that is criminalised. The slogan ‘Love is love’ diverts attention away from sex, making comfortable what could seem confronting.
The sheer bloody-mindedness of the Australian right made the vote for same-sex marriage a triumph, and a testament to many years of hard campaigning. But all success carries with it potential loss, and part of me hankers for the ways in which my generation talked of sexual liberation rather than monogamous coupling. The liberation movements of the 1970s found inspiration in John Rechy’s ‘sexual outlaws’ and Erica Jong’s ‘zipless fucks’, and recognised that love, sex and companionship were not necessarily all found in the same person. But if hypocrisy is the price of defeating the religious right, that’s not a great price to pay. •
Dennis Altman is a professorial fellow in Human Security at La Trobe University, and author of 14 books, most recently The End of the Homosexual? and, with Jon Symons, Queer Wars.
- Karina Okotel, quoted at <http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/gay-marriage/no-campaigns-unlikely-secret-weapon-a-young-lawyer-with-a-human-rights-background/news-story/4059578f7d3ed56722f557bd286fd702>.
- Karen Middleton, ‘Alt-right links to the “no” case’, Saturday Paper, 2–8 December 2017.
- See <https://nellysachsenglish.wordpress.com/2013/04/29/we-are-so-sorely-hurt/>.
- David Cole, ‘Let them buy cake’, New York Review of Books, 7 December 2017, p. 54.
- See <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/datablog/2017/nov/17/same-sex-marriage-survey-religion-drove-the-no-vote>; see also <http://insidestory.org.au/beyond-the-hipster-line/>.
- Paul Kelly, ‘Amid jubilation and history lie deep divisions’, Weekend Australian, 9–10 December 2017.