Marriage rights campaign needs final push for victory

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The equal marriage rights campaign looks on the cusp of victory. After seven and a half years, the ALP has passed support motions in every state branch, bar one, and it passed a motion in favour at its 2011 National Conference.

Many prominent MPs have come out “personally” in favour of marriage equality. Openly lesbian front-bencher Penny Wong, resisted for six long years, then got the tactical nod from her atheist, defacto living boss PM Julia Gillard, and came out with “personal” support.

MPs and large swathes of the ALP are giving the nod to marriage rights because the grass-roots campaign has become so strong. There was only had 33% support for same-sex marriage when it was banned in 2004. Now the campaign has the support of 60% of adults and 75% of young people.

The grass-roots struggle for marriage

Since the passage of the bigoted ban on marriage equality in 2004, Socialist Alliance comrades have been centrally involved in organising the fight back.

Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH), a queer rights group, formed to fight unequal consent laws in NSW, in 1999. It organised an anti-corporate contingent for Mardi Gras in the early 2000 period, and was resurrected by Socialist Alliance and Greens members in 2004.

Simon Margan (Greens) and Rachel Evans (Socialist Alliance) were the Sydney CAAH Co-convenors in the early stages of the marriage rights campaign.

In Sydney, CAAH mobilised 500 people the week before the ban, and around 500 people after it was banned on August 13, 2004. The Aids Council NSW (ACON) mobilised 1000 people before the ban. CAAH tried to organise united actions with ACON, but the latter refused the unity attempt.

In an interview on queer radio a few weeks after the ban, ALP Sydney MP Tanya Plibersek justified the ban with ultra-left posturing saying “None of my gay friends want to get married” and “As a feminist I think the marriage institution is patriarchal”. (This wasn’t hard to argue down given she was married at the time.) However, the ALP did not come under any significant fire for passing the ban. CAAH was the only organised voice protesting the ban. Even the queer press did not take up the issue in any depth in the first six months of the campaign.

Then, through CAAH, Socialist Alliance initiated and helped co-ordinate a national rally on August 13, 2005. This was the beginning of the national days of actions for marriage equality.

ALP organises against marriage equality

The ALP organised against the grass roots movement in the organisations it dominated — the “queerocracies” — which were strongest in Sydney.

In one meeting organised by the Greens in a queer pub in Newtown, Rodney Croome (Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby now Australian Marriage Equality) was howled down by queerocrats, and the Greens. CAAH was also equally lambasted on the night. The arguments from the ALP was that no-one wanted to get married, that pushing for it would “alienate our support base”, and that queers would be equally well supported with a registration scheme.

At one stage (we think in 2006), the queerocrats, CAAH and Australian Marriage Equality met to talk about jointly organising the August 13 action in Sydney. But the queerocracts lied to the collective saying the police weren’t allowing our rally to go ahead. We independently checked with the police who said it was fine. So we organised the event without the ALP.

From 2006, Socialist Alliance comrades were instrumental in building, then winning, in 2009, civil unions in the ACT. As more of the LGBTI community were becoming convinced of marriage rights the queerocracy organised “polling” afternoons, where participants were asked if they wanted a registration scheme or civil unions. Marriage rights were not promoted in these polls. Socialist Alliance and CAAH argued for registrations, civil unions and marriage rights. We refused to concede on the marriage demand.

In 2007, at Fair Day (big queer picnic of 20,000 people), we held up a big CAAH “Same-sex marriage rights NOW” banner in front of a “sea of hearts” media stunt organised by the ALP-controlled NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights lobby. The media stunt involved putting plastic hearts in the ground as a media backdrop for ALP and some Greens pollies. Cute, but hypocritical.

CAAH bannered it up and the Lobby called the police on us! This was then reported on the front cover of queer mag SX, and Mardi Gras looked like hypocrites given that the police were also still beating up queers on Oxford Street.

The same year Socialist Alliance comrades initiated queer refugee campaigning with CAAH, and helped free Pakistani bi-sexual Ali Humayan. A highlight was getting two queer magazines SX and Sydney Star Observer (SSO) barred from Villawood Detention Centre — which led to the campaign being featured on the front cover of both newspapers. Geelong Trades Hall Council was the first union organisation to support the campaign.

In this period, CAAH had almost weekly coverage in SX which was edited by progressive lefties. Comrade Farida Iqbal received a whole page on her as a left wing activist! (Unfortunately, the two editors ended up being given the shove because they fought against increased advertising at the expense of activist news.)

In 2008, apart from the marriage campaign, CAAH initiated and helped organise the hugely successful NoToPope protest. In 2008, CAAH also mobilised on May 14, for International Day of Action Against Homophobia, and Human Rights Day.

From 2004 onwards, CAAH also debated the marriage rights issue at most of the student mid-year Queer Collaborations Conference. Comrades held workshops and spoke in plenaries about the issue. The university student layer has not been overly interested in the marriage campaign. High-school students, however, had been, and still form a large part of the current rally participants.

The numbers at rallies in Sydney had varied, and rose to 1500 at their height. But in 2009, the rally outside the ALP National Convention attracted 3000 people.

In 2010, CAAH followed the lead of Equal Love Melbourne, and led a “National Year of Action” during which it organised rallies every three months. CAAH was attracting 20 plus people to meetings at the end of 2009, and the composition was quite broad. Unfortunately, even though CAAH organised several rallies in 2010, the numbers coming to meetings dwindled in 2010.

Rallies also took place in regional and rural locations in 2010, indicating the strength of the campaign and rising courage of queers who lead a more closeted life in rural Australia.

In 2011, rallies have been organised every three months in all the major cities. In December 2011, a national mobilisation rallied 10,000 outside the ALP National Conference.

As a result of this strong grass roots campaign, we have won many concessions.

Rainbow rights renaissance

Concessions have been wrested from the homophobic ALP (state and federal) at rate of every two months over the last two years. The campaign has won civil unions in the ACT, registration schemes in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, adoption rights (which unfortunately also included religious exemptions) in NSW, surrogacy rights in Queensland, and Tasmania passed a law that recognises same-sex couples overseas marriages. (This is not an exhaustive list of concessions.)

The marriage rights campaign is a fight for human and civil rights. Like the fight for convicts to marry who they wished (1850s), and Aboriginal people (1950s), this is a campaign to eliminate second class citizenship for same-sex loving couples.

Stephanie Bolt is Andrew Bolt’s sister. She is a lesbian, and married her partner in Canada. Her sentiments express the reason why marriage rights are crucial for LGBTI dignity. “It may seem naive, but having that certificate in my hand made me untouchable, secure, normal, and for those wonderful few weeks, I could drop the shield.”

The rich divide the working class along sex, gender and race. These divisions break down solidarity. Any civil rights won by an oppressed sector, develops class conscience (it’s not queers and “degenerate lifestyles” destroying the family unit, its domestic violence, the government selling public housing, and insufficient funding to women’s refuges. It’s not queers who threaten the survival of the species, its global warming and so on).

The campaign has challenged rigid gender binaries

The Australian Services Union’s successful Equal Pay campaign over recent years reminded us that capitalism oppresses women. Big money is made out of the gender binary. Jobs that involve taking a nurturing role, like community work, cleaning or childcare, are stereotyped as women’s work and they are paid less. Unsurprisingly, discrimination against people who don’t fit the gender binary is an ugly reality under capitalism, in the workplace and beyond.

Veronnica Baxter campaign

On March 10, 2009, just after Mardi Gras, Veronnica “Paris” Baxter, an Aboriginal woman was arrested by Redfern police and jailed. Police abuse of Aboriginal people over petty matters is bad enough but this trans woman, who had lived as a woman for 15 years and had an “hourglass figure” according to friends, was placed in the all-male NSW Silverwater Metropolitan Reception and Remand Centre.

On March 16, Veronnica was found hanging from a bed sheet tied to the top bunk in her cell at 6am. Those who knew her said she would never have requested to be in a male cell, and never would have killed herself in custody.

Activists, including Rachel Evans, norrie mAy-welby, Tracie O’Keefe and Ray Jackson, presented 500 signatures to NSW Greens MP Sylvia Hale, requesting a full and open inquiry into her death.

The inquiry, held on April 4, 2011, revealed that Veronnica had been “smiling, happy and talking” before her death, that she had made four emergency phone calls on the night of her death. The guards had forgotten to record what actions were taken regarding the phone calls.

The inquiry also raised the possibility that Veronnica was denied hormones. Going “cold-turkey” on hormones after a long period of use is extremely painful and traumatic, and can result in attempts to suicide.

The inquiry was a whitewash, and the Baxter case remains unresolved. However, the battle for justice has helped raise awareness about Black deaths in custody, and SGD rights. It has also brought some unity and shared experiences to the LGBTI, SGD and Aboriginal rights movements.

Sex and/or gender diverse victories

Within the last two years of victories, sex and/or gender diverse (SGD) advances have also come thick and fast. We’ve won victories on transgender passports, birth certificates and non-gendered identity changes.

To win free medical operations for trans people (which is available in Cuba) is still a big hurdle to jump, and the intersex community is still fighting for no medical interventions at birth. It is very hard to assess how many intersex babies are operated on without their consent as hospitals do not keep records. However, the Australian SGD community is at an all-time high, politically confident stage.

Within this rainbow rights renaissance, there is finally a fight to get the last remaining discriminatory age of consent laws repealed in Queensland.

Conscience vote won’t spell victory

While the ALP voted for marriage equality to be part of its platform at the 2011 National Conference, the bigots won a conscience vote by (just) 8 votes (out of 400 delegates). Also won was “certificates of non-impediment” which can be granted to homosexual couples. This is the paperwork legalising same sex couples right to be married overseas.

Moreover, straight after the Conference, the ACT ALP government promised to introduce another civil unions’ bill that would be “more like marriage”. This came after the Queensland ALP introduced civil unions in the lead up to the Conference.

The ALP conscience vote will not deliver enough votes in Parliament to win equal marriage rights. The lobbyist group, Australian Marriage Equality (AME), is now frantically lobbying the Liberal Party to allow a conscience vote. So far, opposition leader Tony Abbott has refused, but he remains under pressure sa many Liberals support marriage equality.

As with all major campaigns, the resilience of the people’s power movement will determine victory or defeat. If the loud “Shame, Gillard, Shame” chant outside the ALP National Conference is anything to go by, the movement is prepared to battle on till we run over the finishing line.

Of course, if two ALP MPs fall dead tomorrow, and the buy-elections (pun intended) go the way all are predicting, we could have an Abbott government, which would slow down the change process.

Implications for Australian politics

When we win the marriage rights campaign, confidence in people’s power making change will rise.

There has been some demoralisation among the international working class since the 2003 mass anti-war mobilisations did not stop the Iraq war. However, more recently, the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements have lifted spirits and re-focused efforts, including in Australia where the social movements remain uneven and sporadic.

When we win the campaign for marriage rights, it will be irrefutable proof that even in Australia — one of the richest imperialist countries — when the mass of people mobilise consistently over time around a clear demand we can force change.

Action needed to democratise the campaign

Nationally, Socialist Alliance members are playing a role in the marriage rights campaign in Sydney (Community Action Against Homophobia), Adelaide (Equal Love), Melbourne (Equal Love) and Hobart (Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby Tasmania). We have played crucial roles in Equal Love Canberra, Wollongong and Newcastle. In Perth and Brisbane Equal Love groups exist but we are not actively involved.

We are not the only socialist organisation involved in the campaign. Ali Hogg, Equal Love Melbourne spokeswoman and Socialist Alternative member, has been involved since late 2009. She has received three awards — the most recent was coming number 6 in the top 100 most influential people in Victoria.

Australian Marriage Equality receives a lion share of the media coverage of the campaign and has since mid-2010. While primarily a lobbyist outfit, it has also run a very slick media campaign. It helped to organise a CAAH press conference in November 2011. GetUp put out a pro-marriage youtube in February 2011, and sent the CAAH protest rally outside the ALP National Conference to its huge e-list.

The NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby only recently converted to marriage. After years of insisting on a “registrations only” position, it decided to support federal civil unions (it still does not support state civil unions). It now supports marriage. But while it can mobilise 100 people for a Mardi Gras float, it still cannot bring that number to the marriage rallies.

Sydney Mardi Gras (formerly known as New Mardi Gras) paid for CAAH’s public address system at last year’s ALP conference rally, and it has played a more supportive role in the campaign since early 2011. It sometimes meets up with CAAH representatives.

Despite the increasing support for the marriage campaign,n there has been less grassroots involvement in CAAH. There is an element within the LGB community that would prefer to hand the movement over to bureaucrats.

Socialist Alliance members are continuing to argue for and initiate more democracy in the organising groups. Democratically-run campaigns mean that there’s an ability to build relationships with the broadest possible range of people, especially youth, SGD people, queer refugees and people of religious faith.

We haven’t always managed to achieve this and having a strong Socialist Alliance presence at movement meetings would enable us to argue for a much more democratically run campaign and a greater level of inclusivity.

Next steps

In an effort to help broaden and democratise the movement Sydney Socialist Alliance comrades initiated a 1Love, Marriage Equality Conference in December 2011. Although small in numbers, the conference had a wide range of groups in attendance, and decided on:

  1. National phone hook-ups to co-ordinate the grass-roots campaign;

  2. A cavalcade to Canberra on first sitting day of Parliament on February 7 — the same day as an ALP MP will put forward a private member’s marriage bill; and

  3.  An action on May 17, coinciding with International Day of Action Against Homophobia.

In Sydney, the Mardi Gras season goes for a month (February til March). CAAH will also organise a Marriage Rights walking contingent for the Mardi Gras parade on March 5.

We need to prioritise this campaign

We are very near victory, and Socialist Alliance members have built up good political authority in the campaign.

We want to propose branches seriously discuss participating in the campaign this year so that we can help win a significant reform, and also make the associated gains from being involved in this important right’s campaign.

The recent release of our new booklet The Road to Rainbow Liberation will assist in convincing activists to get involved in the campaign, and to also consider joining Socialist Alliance.