Twice last year, the streets of Melbourne were filled with a stunning spectacle of rainbow colours, placards and people calling out for the right of same-sex couples to marry. Both massive protests on August 1 and November 28 were organised by Equal Love as part of a national campaign to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage imposed in 2004 by Prime Minister John Howard. In Melbourne alone, 5,000 people rallied in August. The mood at the November event was equally electric. Sparks flew when it was announced that the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill had been rejected in the federal Senate — despite a flood of 10,000 submissions supporting the bill. This rally launched a year of action to win the right to marry. At both gatherings the message from demonstrators was, “We demand full equality, nothing less!”
The grassroots push for same-sex marriage rights that Howard’s ban spawned has drawn inspiration from international victories: Sweden, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, South Africa, Mexico City and the U.S. states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Iowa. But the shocking defeat in California has also made activists more determined. In November 2008, the lesbian, gay, bi, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) movement failed to mobilise votes to stop a referendum overturning the state’s Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. This confirmed to queer activists here that winning the right will require a full-on fight.
Women and queers: same struggle, same fight. And it’s not just chance that this battle coincides with a similarly tough one for abortion rights. Kevin Rudd continues to oppose same-sex marriage, despite growing support from inside his Labor Party ranks. One week before the November 28 rally, following the lead of Tasmania, the Victorian ALP became the second state branch to pass a resolution for legalisation. It also called on Rudd not to block the Australian Capital Territory’s (ACT) legal recognition of “marriage-like” ceremonies for same-sex couples. The Rudd government also refuses to implement measures to enhance women’s access to abortion, leaving this within the realm of state law. Except for the ACT and Victoria, it’s still in every state’s criminal code. The current prosecution in Queensland of a young couple, who could spend years in prison if convicted for procuring the woman’s abortion, shows that these centuries-old laws are not just relics collecting dust.
These struggles are two battlefronts of one war: same-sex marriage and women’s free reproductive choice threaten the nuclear family — capitalism’s cornerstone. This institution is what the profit system relies upon for the steady provision and care of its labour force, without having to pay for it. Based exclusively on a male-female union and his power over her and the children, this family that Rudd et al are striving to preserve is homophobic and sexist to its core. Woe betide the wife who asserts her independence or the offspring who is queer!
This is why socialist feminists fight for same-sex marriage. It’s about winning equal rights for queers, while knocking down this crucial pillar of capitalism. Speaking for Radical Women at the August 1 rally, Alison Thorne put it this way: “The refusal to recognise same-sex marriage…is discrimination based on hatred of lesbians, gay men and all who challenge compulsory heterosexuality. Same-sex marriage — like no-fault divorce laws and similar innovations — will help turn an oppressive institution into its opposite.”
Autonomous organising is not “identity politics.” Faced with systemic oppression, how can we build a struggle capable of reaching its historic potential? An independent LGBTI movement will enable the current growing momentum to develop into its full power. This is autonomous organising — an independent movement for equality by the oppressed. And it’s empowering.
But much of the Left doesn’t see it this way. Radical Women’s U.S. chapters have had debates with the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) on this question. The ISO equates autonomous organising with “identity politics.” They claim it divides the working class. This is also the argument of ISO’s Australian equivalent, Socialist Alternative. To Radical Women, these orientations are poles apart.
Identity politics is limited to interacting only with one’s own community on its own issues. Essentially it’s separatist, and it promotes unity on a superficial basis, ignoring the class differences that exist within the group. For this reason, identity politics is conservative, and it does not challenge capitalism. Autonomous organising, on the other hand, is the independent organisation of people around a common unifying interest. This isn’t separatism, because it can be founded upon a multi-issue program and build powerful alliances with other oppressed groups. For example, Radical Women is an autonomous organisation of working class women, in all our diversity. Our socialist feminist program is multi-issue, and this enables us to confront oppression in all its forms while also placing “women’s issues” up front and training women to be leaders.
Look to history. The Gay Liberation Movement — ignited in June 1969 by the queer patrons of New York City’s Stonewall Inn who had one police raid too many — is a prime example of how an independent mobilisation of the oppressed can expand revolutionary ranks, radicalise the working class and change the world. The same can be said of the women’s, civil rights and other mighty liberation movements. How many people have come to revolutionary politics from these movements or been impacted by them? These movements radicalise whole layers of people, and the world sure isn’t the same!
This way of organising is also necessary. Often it’s the only way the voices of the oppressed are heard — especially if the socialist movement isn’t incorporating their demands into the class struggle. How many times have queers, women and people of colour been told to bite our tongues and wait our turn until after the revolution? Autonomous organising is a way to say “No!” to such narrow views — expose them and overcome the homophobic, sexist and racist divisions, which is ultimately the only way to defeat capitalism.
It opens up the movement to fresh, no-nonsense voices. From the California defeat of 2008 have sprung young queers who are reviving the spirit and outrage of the 1960s. Scathing of the LGBTI movement misleaders, whom they blame for losing — refusing, for example, to use the term “gay marriage” or show same-sex couples in their TV ads so not to offend the straight population — these new leaders are seizing the reins and saying it’s time for the queer movement to get tough and militant. This too is the power of autonomous organising.
Looking ahead! The LGBTI movement for same-sex marriage rights has an awesome role in the struggle ahead. The profit system is holding on by its fingernails. Equal marriage rights for queers would weaken its grip. Women have a stake in this, too, and this alliance between LGBTI and feminist activists is a natural. Queers are also workers, people of colour, young, elders, disabled — all the groups hurt by capitalism. That the Australian Education Union, National Tertiary Education Union and Construction Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union endorsed the November 28 rally points to the potential of another powerful ally — the union movement.
This year of action can become a magnet for all who believe in equal rights for queers and want the status quo completely transformed. Through building a strong, independent movement, queers can make lasting alliances forging a multi-movement upsurge for full liberation — not just for queers, but for everyone.