Oppose homophobia: support same-sex marriage rights!

Rallies will be held across the country this month for same sex marriage rights — the first in a series of protests being organised by the Equal Love campaign as part of a national year of action for the campaign, now in its sixth year. The campaign has been growing since the federal government introduced a ban on same-sex marriage in 2004. In the last 12 months the campaign has mobilised supporters of same-sex marriage rights in a series of protests, including the largest ever national mobilisations against the government’s ban, held in August 2009.

On February 25, the Senate rejected the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009 — introduced by the Australian Greens to remove the same-sex marriage ban — with only the five Greens senators voting for it.

A report released in November 2009 titled Not So Private Lives found that 54.4% of same-sex attracted couples would choose marriage and 80% felt marriage should be an option for same-sex couples. The study, carried out by the University of Queensland School of Psychology, also found that preference for marriage over other forms of formal recognition of relationships (e.g., civil unions) was higher among young people — 65% among those under 20 and 62% for those under 30.

The report’s findings dispel the myth that most same-sex attracted people are content with civil unions — which is a compromise being peddled by some ALP lobbyists. This compromise also fails to address the fundamental inequality in the same-sex marriage ban, an inequality based on reinforcing homophobic discrimination. The campaign for equal marriage rights and the nationwide mobilisations have refused to accept this. The uncompromising fight against homophobia has attracted many young people to the campaign and helped to build pressure on the government.

The campaign for equal rights for same-sex couples had an important victory in 2008, when the Rudd government amended laws relating to taxation, social security, health, aged care and employment to remove discrimination against same-sex couples. These changes failed to alleviate the pressure on the government over same-sex marriage. Rather, the changes emboldened the campaign to keep fighting for full equality and to highlight the hypocrisy of the government in continuing to refuse to repeal the marriage ban.

Economic independence

While the removal of homophobic laws marked an advance, the changes to social security and family assistance laws have also created serious problems for many same-sex couples. From July 1, 2009, same-sex couples in de facto relationships were recognised as partnered in regards to social security payments. The effect of this is that someone’s social security payment takes into account the income of their partner as well as their own income. The “partnered” rate of payment is lower than two single-payments, meaning that some couples, including age and disability pensioners, lose about $180 a fortnight. In some cases, people will have their social security payment cancelled altogether if their partner earns over the payment threshold.

An article in the January 15 Sydney Morning Herald reported on some of the consequences of these changes, particularly for elderly homosexual couples. University of South Australia researcher Jo Harrison told the Herald about a disability pensioner who had been suicidal after being made dependent on his employed partner after losing his pension.

Centrelink also requires personal questions to be answered to determine de facto status — including current and past sexual relations, financial and social relations, the nature of the commitment and household finances. Not only are these questions an invasion of anyone’s privacy, in the context of a long history of homophobic discrimination, such forced “outing” poses serious problems for same-sex couples. It is all the more abhorrent when the same government refuses to recognise the full equality of same-sex couples in marriage rights. One man told the Herald that his 82-year-old partner had found the experience of providing such information to Centrelink terrifying because he “feared blackmail for declaring formally his gay orientation and activity at a time in the past when people could be sent to jail for it”.

As well as showing many politicians to be what Harrison referred to as “pig ignorant” about the specific issues facing gay and lesbian couples, these issues also highlight the need to fight for a long-standing demand of the women’s liberation movement: economic independence for all. Social security payments should not be dependent on the income of anyone’s partner, regardless of sexuality.

Formal equality and real oppression

The women’s liberation movement won many gains for women in relation to issues such as employment and pay rates, although the formal equality won in relation to pay has not translated into actual equality of income. The assumption that women’s incomes are secondary to men’s is still ingrained, and buffered by a continual ideological campaign that promotes women’s primary social role as being mothers and carers. It is enshrined in unequal rates of pay and in social security laws that enforce economic dependence within the family unit.

Women still earn only 84% of male earnings for full-time work. This is not only about keeping wages low for working women; it also creates a downward pull on wages overall. Moreover, the economic dependence it enforces is also essential to the maintenance of the family system, which is essential to the functioning of capitalism. The capitalist economic system relies on women in working-class families to perform socially necessary functions without payment — childcare, aged care and domestic cleaning, cooking, etc. The family system also plays a vital role in socialising new generations of working people into socially determined gender roles. As then-PM John Howard wrote in 2008 in justifying his government’s record of “social conservatism”, “Functioning families remain not only the best emotional nursery for children but also the most efficient social welfare system that mankind has ever devised”.

This is what explains the vehement pro-family campaigns and defence of what Kevin Rudd has termed the “proper arrangements under the [2004 amended] Marriage Act”, which, for the first time, defined marriage as a legal “union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”. Nicola Roxon, then-shadow attorney general, stated in August 2004 that the federal ALP leadership supported legally defining marriage as an exclusively heterosexual legal arrangement because “we understand that it is a bedrock institution for families”.

The Rudd government’s 2008 Centrelink reforms made clear what its conception of families is. As Harrison observed, “The old-fashioned heterosexual model of a dependent wife on a breadwinner husband is being imposed on gays and lesbians.” Same-sex marriage challenges this conception of the family unit, which is why so much of the political establishment is fighting so hard to maintain the ban on same-sex marriage. This is also why the liberation of women is tied with the liberation of those oppressed on the basis of their sexuality.

The struggles against homophobia and sexism ultimately face the same enemy — a socio-economic system that must divide and oppress people in order to survive. While the struggle against homophobia must be unceasing in its militancy and determination to fight for equality, any movement for true liberation cannot end its struggle at formal equality in a fundamentally unequal society.