Why same-sex marriage should be supported

By Kathy Newnam

On November 28, rallies will take place across Australia to demand same-sex marriage rights. Organised by the Equal Love Coalition, the national day of action will demand the passing of the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009 — legislation put to the Senate by the Australian Greens to remove discrimination in the Marriage Act on the basis of sexual orientation. A Senate inquiry into the issue will release its report on November 26.

This year has marked the high point of the campaign for same-sex marriage rights that was triggered in 2004 when the Howard Coalition government, with the support of the Labor Party, banned same-sex marriage, including the recognition of same-sex marriages entered into overseas. The August 1 same-sex marriage rights national day of action was the largest mobilisation of the movement in Australia, with 10,000 people rallying across the country. Under pressure from the campaign, the Rudd government introduced legislation in November 2008 that provides same-sex couples the same rights as unmarried heterosexual couples in areas such as taxation, social security and health, aged care and employment. This means that same-sex couples who can prove they are in a de facto relationship have most of the rights of married couples.

The Rudd government has attempted to use these changes as a cover for its refusal to lift the ban on same-sex marriage. In the lead-up to the ALP national conference in August, Rudd organised against attempts to reverse the ALP policy on same-sex marriage. He told the media on July 29: “We went to the last election being very clear-cut about our position on marriage under the Marriage Act being between a man and a woman … We’ve simply reflected our view and my view as to what the proper arrangements are under the Marriage Act, but in terms of other discriminations we have acted rapidly to remove those under various items of federal legislation.”

Some ALP lobbyists have argued for a national scheme for civil unions, as has been legislated for in the ACT, Victoria and Tasmania. The Equal Love coalition has rejected civil unions as a substitute for marriage equality, pointing out that such a scheme would entrench the second-class status of same-sex couples. The coalition also points to research from the US and Britain that shows that civil union partnerships are often not recognised by many employers and insurance companies, which find ways to discriminate in order to refuse to grant legal entitlements.

A Galaxy poll released on June 16 found that 60% of Australians supported equal marriage rights (36% were opposed, while 4% were undecided). The poll, commissioned by Australian Marriage Equality and Equal Love, with the support of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, found that support was even higher among young people — 74% among those aged 16 to 24. The poll disproved the idea that opposition by the major parties to marriage equality is about electoral support — that the Labor and Coalition parties don’t want to back something that will lose them votes.

The opposition from the capitalist parties and politicians to same-sex marriage can be understood only through realising the role that marriage and the family system plays for capitalism. Various ALP leaders have claimed that the party’s policy is based on “tradition”. This gets half way to the truth. They are protecting “traditional family values”, which is simply shorthand for the many social norms that are enshrined in the family system. This system is based on subservient women willing to do the unpaid domestic work that capitalism needs to cheaply reproduce its labour force. The family system is also a key mechanism for training the next generation of workers to respect “authority”.

‘Protecting’ the family

The political opposition to same-sex marriage is about “protecting” the family institution. While capitalism has responded to the pressure of the women’s liberation and gay rights movements since the 1960s by accommodating different conceptions of the family, it has to continually reinforce the ideology that justifies the family institution. Same-sex marriage challenges the mythology surrounding the family — the idea that a “happy family” is about dad and mum and their 2.3 kids.

The same forces that line up in opposition to same-sex equality are also the enemies of the liberation of women from their primary role as unpaid carers for children. Upholding the ban on same-sex marriage also provides these forces with a platform from which to spruik for “traditional family values” and perpetuate homophobia. While Rudd and other capitalist politicians seek to distance themselves from the often violent results of homophobia, the fact is that their support for homophobic laws like the same-sex marriage ban legitimises homophobia. This lays the basis for the widespread discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people — both the legalised discrimination such as the marriage ban, discriminatory age of consent laws and denial of fertility services, as well as the day-to-day discrimination faced in employment, housing, health, education and other social services.

And it lays the basis for homophobic vilification and violence. A 2003 survey of 600 gay men and lesbians by the NSW Attorney General’s department found that more than half (56%) of the respondents reported having experienced one or more forms of homophobic abuse, harassment or violence in the previous 12 months. Eighty-five per cent had experienced such abuse, harassment or violence at some time in their lives, while around three-quarters of them reported experiencing two or more such incidents. The effects of homophobia, social exclusion and the threat of violence can be devastating — a 2003 Deakin University report on rural and remote health, found that same-sex attracted young people were six times more likely to attempt suicide than the population as a whole.

The movement for full equality for LGBTI people is gaining momentum in the US. On October 11, 200,000 people participated in the National Equality March in Washington, DC. The march was held against the opposition of much of the establishment gay and lesbian rights lobby groups that see their interests aligned with the political fortunes of the Democrats, and which are oriented to behind-the-scenes lobbying of these capitalist politicians. March organiser and long-time gay-rights activist Cleve Jones told the rally: “A free and equal people do not tolerate … do not accept compromises. They do not accept delays. And when we see leaders and those who represent us saying you must wait again, we say no, no, no longer will we wait”.

Red-scare tactic

The march organisers had come under public attack from the congressional Democrats, including from Barney Frank, presented by the corporate media as a spokesperson for gay rights, who told media that the “only thing they’re going to be putting pressure on is the grass”. The attacks on the march reflected the tactics of the Democrats and their defenders — attempting to isolate any criticism of the Obama administration from the left as being out of touch or an “internet left fringe”. This adds to the significance of the National Equality March which was the first major progressive protest mobilisation against the Obama administration.

The attempts to isolate the protests included the Red-scare tactic, articulated by well-known gay rights lobbyist, Democrat and capitalist Charles Merrill who called for the cancellation of the march. Merrill wrote on gay news blog Queerty: “I am not going. Even though I donated $5,000.00 I didn’t realize it would be a Marxist ‘Rosie the Riveter’ event … Workshops scheduled are Union leader Cleve Jones and Sherry Wolf who is a leading socialist activist, writer, and public speaker; is an associate editor of the International Socialist Review; and is a member of the National Equality March Steering Committee.”

Attempting to claim the mantle of defending the movement from right-wing media attacks he wrote, “Wait till Glen Beck [a right-wing talk show host on Fox TV] and FOX hear about this dizzy propaganda”. Merrill’s call for the cancellation of the march was widely reported, with many news services running his press release which stated, “The only way for the LGBT community to avoid alienating lawmakers and escape the Communist label, says Merrill, is to cancel the National Equality March completely. The 75-year-old activist won’t be attending, and he hopes other LGBTs follow his example.”

A member of the US International Socialist Organisation (ISO), Wolf responded to the Red-baiting when she opened her speech to the rally: “I hope that Glenn Beck, is watching because for the record, my name is Sherry Wolf and I am a socialist”, she declared to cheers. Wolf went on to say: “When the establishment argues in this country that the economy is collapsing, that health care is a nightmare and because we have two wars and occupations underway, the president’s plate is too full right now for civil equality for lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people, we need to understand this and say it bluntly, frankly and often as we can: LGBT people are the working people who are losing their jobs and having our homes foreclosed on. We are the people who are losing our health care and if we have it it’s crappy. And we are in the tens of thousands among those people fighting and dying for oil and empire”.

In an assessment of the march for the ISO’s Socialist Worker weekly, Wolf wrote on October 16: “The march was a vindication of the idea that mass protest is possible, necessary and desirable if the left is to challenge both the right and the politics of don’t-rock-the-boat gradualism gripping the Democratic Party and its liberal defenders ... Tanner Efinger, a Los Angeles bartender who labored for months without pay to build the march, introduced one of the march’s initiators Cleve Jones at the rally, saying: ‘I am no-one of note, I am not a seasoned speaker, I have no published pieces of work or even a college degree. I have no health insurance, I am in debt ... We are, all of us, an unrepresented motley crew of underdogs’. It was an eloquent description of the carpet of humanity laid out before the Capitol on that gorgeous fall day.”