Same-sex relationship equality: Organising to win!

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Last June, Federal Member for Melbourne, Lindsay Tanner, told attendees at Pride Or Prejudice, a queer community forum, why the Australian Labor Party (ALP) had voted with the Howard Government to pass homophobic amendments to the Marriage Act. Not surprisingly, Tanner copped flack from queers angered by the bi-partisan support for the legislation which defined marriage as exclusively between a man and woman for life and forsaking all others. Tanner told the crowd that the lesbian and gay community had been insufficiently vocal around relationship equality and had not been out on the streets. While Tanner’s motivation was to excuse the ALP for once again voting for the inexcusable, his advice was also sound. If any of us want more rights, we can’t wait for politicians to hand them to us on a platter — because they won’t. We’ve got to build a politically independent mass movement prepared to fight for our rights. When we forge alliances, mobilise broad support, change community opinion and start getting uppity, we are a force that cannot be ignored.

In the last year, the campaign for same-sex relationship equality has left the closets for the streets. Thousands rallied around the country on the first anniversary of the ban on same-sex marriage. Activists have campaigned at big community events such as the Pride March and the Midsumma Carnival Day. There have been community, television and radio debates to educate about the issue. Those arguing for equality are getting more column inches in letter-to-the-editor pages. Thousands have signed Equal Love postcards addressed to their local Members of Parliament. Many more have signed a petition demanding relationship equality. Some within the campaign, including Radical Women, have reached out beyond the usual queer community events by campaigning in suburban shopping centres, on campus and at union picnics.

The battle for same-sex relationship equality has entered the political mainstream, and those arguing for equality are gaining ground. State Premier Steve Bracks is out of step with the majority of Victorians in his opposition to the introduction of a civil unions scheme. A survey conducted by the Australian National University shows that 52% of Victorians and a massive 86% of Victorian adults under the age of 35 support civil unions.

Extreme anti-democratic measures. The Federal Government revealed the depth of its homophobia when it stepped in to disallow the decision of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government to legislate for civil unions.

The ACT Parliament voted in May to pass legislation allowing gays and lesbians to enter into civil unions which would have almost the same status as marriage. But before the law could come into force, the Howard Government moved to overrule it. Under the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act of 1988, the Governor-General can disallow a law within six months of enactment. The only other time a law passed by a self-governing territory has been overridden was in 1997, when the Federal Government voted to overturn voluntary euthanasia laws in the Northern Territory. But this time, the Howard Government took the unprecedented step of bypassing the Parliament and imposing its wishes by Executive edict! In this situation, the Senate has the power to overrule the Governor-General, but it rejected a disallowance motion moved by The Greens.

The Howard Government, which is desperate to impose its narrow, moralistic family values upon every facet of our lives, used anti-democratic laws to squash the ACT initiative. However, if a State (as distinct from a Territory) introduces a civil union scheme, the Federal Government will not have the same powers to overrule it.

Second rate options. The political intensity of the debate around same-sex relationship recognition has helped clarify what is at stake. Initially, significant numbers of queers were reluctant to campaign for relationship equality, especially the right to marry.

Marriage is a prison for women, shutting them off from the world to serve their husbands and raise the next generation of workers. You only need to read one or two hysterical rightwing opinion pieces about the sacrosanctity of marriage to appreciate that this analysis is spot on. The Festival of Light and Salt Shakers are mobilising religious zealots to back Howard in overturning State and Territory laws that provide for relationships other than the traditional heterosexual marriage. Opponents of same-sex marriage equality know exactly what marriage is for! They also know that homosexual unions ultimately spell doom for their prized institution. That’s good news.

This is one of the reasons why the move for same-sex relationship recognition can settle for nothing less than full equality.

The Tasmanian Government has introduced a relationship register which same-sex couples can use. This is a far cry from equality, and the scheme has had a poor take-up rate.

Queensland Liberal MP, Warren Entsch, has announced plans to introduce a private member’s bill to remove gender-specific references in laws that cover taxation, superannuation, Medicare and other areas. This would give same-sex couples improved rights in some areas, but it does not constitute relationship recognition. While the Entsch bill should certainly be supported, if carried, it must be used as a springboard to continue the campaign for absolute equality.

A reform which can be won. The battle for civil union schemes in every state and territory and for gays and lesbians to be able to marry is one we can win. But victory requires the right strategy.

Just three days after the Howard Government overturned the ACT Civil Unions law, 300 angry people rallied outside the Liberal Party headquarters in Melbourne. Similar actions followed in Sydney, Canberra and other cities. The Melbourne action was called by a group of activists from within the Equal Love Campaign, who formed a group called Civil Union Action. Unlike Equal Love, which is a working group of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby and needs executive approval before it can act, Civil Union Action could move swiftly and tap into the community anger.

Our focus must be on building alliances, strengthening community support and ensuring that our message is heard. This cannot be achieved through a polite lobbying strategy, coupled with an anxiety about alienating anyone. This debate has raged in the movement for gay and lesbian rights since the 1950s and ’60s. The moderate homophile organisations argued for respectability at all costs. But the gay liberation movement — which boldly connected the issues, stormed the streets and demanded nothing less than complete liberation — has helped create a world where lesbians and gay men are visible and the majority of young Australians now actively support relationship equality.

If you’d like to work with Radical Women on the campaign for relationship equality, get in touch. We’re gathering signatures on a petition to the Howard Government and educating around the issues by drawing the links between relationship equality and equal access to donor sperm and other reproductive rights struggles. Join us also in building the Stand Up For Your Love Rights protest on Sunday, 13 August, marking the second anniversary of the laws that banned same-sex marriage. Dress in red and assemble 12:30 pm at Parliament House, Spring Street, Melbourne to demand a civil union scheme in Victoria.

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