Prime Minister Turnbull ended the year rejoicing that same-sex marriage was finally legal in Australia, grandiosely claiming he had delivered the victory. In the moment of the vote, it seemed almost every parliamentarian wanted to be seen draped in the rainbow flag. But the LGBTIQ community and the millions who stood with them will not be conned by these late converts. The single biggest obstacle to marriage equality in Australia was the federal Parliament, which for 13 years refused to enact the will of the majority. Liberal Prime Minister John Howard amended the Marriage Act in 2004 to expressly forbid the recognition of overseas same-sex marriages. There was no progress under Labor: it first refused to sponsor a bill and then hid behind a conscience vote.
With the return of the Liberals, the government tactic was to frustrate and delay any way possible. The promise of a plebiscite, bitterly opposed by LGBTIQ people as a green light for hate, became the new excuse not to legislate. With the plebiscite bill defeated, the government launched a non-compulsory, non-binding postal survey at a cost of a $122 million. Faced with an insulting and painful vote they did not want, opponents of homophobia and transphobia had no choice but to mobilise. Young people registered to vote in huge numbers.
The result was decisive: about 80% participated and 61.6% voted yes. Despite the outcome, there were still politicians who tried to impose discriminatory amendments.
Same-sex marriage was finally won by mass struggle — almost half a century of it! The earliest gay rights organising in Australia began in the late ‘60s. When gay liberation blasted onto the scene, the vision was a new society based on equality, where sexuality and gender are free. The movement called for homosexuals to publicly come out into the open and challenge heterosexist norms. As the numbers doing this increased, not only did almost everyone have an LGBTIQ friend, workmate or family member — now they knew it. The organising on the streets, in unions and on campus was also crucial.
The Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women have a long history in the battle for relationship equality, dating back to the ‘80s. Our first major analysis, written in 1994, was a piece titled “Choosing Your Relations: Lesbian and Gay Relationships Can Challenge the Family.” This headline gets to the essence: marriage and the family are patriarchal institutions that keep women in bondage. Capitalism relies on women’s free labour to maintain the workforce, raise the next generation and care for the sick and elderly. Some radicals stood on the sidelines during the long marriage equality fight, simplistically dismissing the issue as conservative. In contrast, we linked this fight to the broader struggle for complete liberation, recognising that changing the definition of marriage would contribute to turning it from a pillar of conventional bourgeois society into its opposite!
Ticking this fight off the agenda, for now at least, is positive. But winning same-sex marriage is not — and never has been — the holy grail. The cost to the LGBTIQ community was immense and the pain very real during the lengthy postal survey. The vile bigotry peddled by those campaigning for a No vote — especially the hysterical transphobia and targeting of kids with non-binary genders — underscores the battle ahead. The lessons are clear: the answers are found not in Parliament but in building alliances and forging a bold movement. The honeymoon is over, and there is work to do!