Fight homophobia! Fight capitalism!
By Shua Garield
On August 14, thousands of people will rally around Australia for equal marriage rights regardless of sex, sexuality, or gender identity. This will be the 7th annual national August mobilisation protesting the Marriage Amendment Bill, passed by the federal parliament on August 13, 2004, which banned the legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Australia. This bill inserted the sentence “marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” into the Marriage Act and added that, “A union solemnised in a foreign country between a man and another man or a woman and another woman must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.”
The bill, introduced by then-attorney general Phillip Ruddock, was supported in parliament by both Liberal-National Coalition and Labor parties. Passed in the lead-up to the 2004 federal election, the bill was widely seen as yet another example of then-PM John Howard’s use of electoral “wedge politics”, appealing to socially conservative sections of Labor’s voting base. The federal ALP’s support for the bill was seen by many who opposed it as either evidence of the influence of conservative religious groups within Labor or as another example of Labor’s cowardly fear of differentiating itself from the Coalition by taking a principled position that might lose the ALP votes.
While it was undoubtedly at least partly an electoral tactic, there was more behind the Marriage Amendment Bill than crude appeals to homophobic voters. If it had merely been an electoral tactic, one might expect there to have been a weakening of these parties’ opposition to marriage equality as public support for it has increased. When the bill was passed in 2004, Newspoll reported that 38% of Australians supported legal recognition of same-sex marriages, while 44% were opposed. However, by June 2007, public support for the right to same-sex marriage was 57%, according to a Galaxy poll. Another Galaxy poll in June 2009 showed 60% support, with only 36% of respondents opposing same-sex marriage. However, despite this increase in public support for marriage equality — due in no small measure to the efforts of those activists who have campaigned for it over the past six years — the Coalition and Labor have reaffirmed their opposition through three consecutive federal election campaigns. On February 25, they voted down legislation introduced by the Greens to remove the discriminatory clause from the Marriage Act. The reason the major parties’ opposition to marriage equality for homosexual couples remains despite the majority support among voters is because their policy is not simply a reflection of public prejudice. Rather, it is part of an intentional campaign to reinforce such prejudice.
Since the emergence of class-divided societies some 5500 years ago, marriage has been an institution for the division of society into separate family units, thus ensuring that private ownership of socially produced wealth has been transmitted to legally recognised heirs. This has required control by propertied husbands of their wives’ reproductive capacity.
Capitalist exploitation, the extraction of socially produced wealth by the small class of people who own the mines, factories and other productive assets that are operated by the class of hired workers, is helped greatly by the fact that most of the labour that goes into maintaining the paid workforce, is done for free, mainly by women within family units. Sustaining this social arrangement requires ongoing promotion of the prejudice that it is “natural” for married women to be unpaid careers and houseworkers.
The partial successes of the women’s liberation movement since the 1960s have eroded this blatantly oppressive form of marriage in developed capitalist countries such as Australia, with widespread acceptance that women have a right to control their child-bearing ability and that mothers have a right to right to paid employment on equal terms with men. Nevertheless, the unpaid labour of women within the family system remains crucial to the capitalist system, with unpaid housework, two-thirds of which is done by women, being estimated at half of Australia’s GDP. This saves capitalist employers having to pay out hundreds of billions of dollars in extra wages that would be needed by workers to pay for these domestic services. Maintaining this arrangement is what lies behind Coalition and Labor support for the “traditional” family unit based on heterosexual marriage.
In 2004, Nicola Roxon, then-shadow attorney general, stated 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”. In 2008, John Howard wrote: “Functioning families remain not only the best emotional nursery for children but also the most efficient social welfare system that mankind has ever devised.”
Part of the ideological campaign in defence of the heterosexual family structure is to paint any departure from this structure as “unnatural” and therefore worthy of social scorn. The denial of equal marriage rights aids this ideological campaign in that it legitimises the idea that non-heterosexual relationships are not worthy of the same level of social recognition as heterosexual relationships, and therefore continues to promote the idea that such relationships are “inferior” to heterosexual relationships. It therefore continues to promote homophobia.
Thanks to the gains won by struggles against the oppression of non-heterosexual, transgendered, and intersex (LGBTI) people since the 1970s, it is now harder for capitalist politicians to get away with denying legal recognition to equal rights to these sections of the population. The reforms introduced by the Labor government in 2008, which removed discrimination between same-sex and heterosexual couples in areas such as superannuation access, taxation, health and welfare provision, are the latest in a string of victories in Australia dating back to the decriminalisation of sexual contact between men in South Australia in 1975. Mainstream capitalist politicians are today forced to take a more subtle approach to oppressing LGBTI people to avoid provoking mass action from the large numbers of people who support equality, and thereby risk causing broader radicalisation. Thus the Labor Party seeks to convince LGBTI people and their supporters that the concessions made so far to them are “enough”, in the hopes that this will salve anger about remaining areas of discrimination and demobilise or isolate campaigns for equality.
However, LGBTI people in Australia are still systematically denied rights that are available to the rest of the population. This includes not only marriage, but also adoption and IVF access. But even these last bastions of legal discrimination are crumbling. Adoption by same-sex couples is already legal in the ACT and Western Australia. In June, independent MP Clover Moore introduced a bill into the NSW parliament to allow same-sex couples equal adoption rights. The Labor, Liberal, and National parties are to give their MPs a conscience vote on the issue. While this is certainly preferable to these parties ordering their MPs to vote the bill down, allowing a conscience vote still reinforces homophobia by implying that it is legitimate for votes on this issue to be guided by MPs’ personal bigotry.
The deliberate reinforcement of homo-phobia by the political parties that represent the interests of the capitalist class goes hand-in-hand with their incessant efforts to force working people to shoulder the burdens of capitalism’s economic failures. With the leaders of both major parties committed to cutting spending on and/or privatising provision of social welfare so as to deliver a greater proportion of society’s wealth to the capitalists, working people are expected to turn to the family system to meet their material needs. Because capitalism continually generates social and economic crises, the ideological campaign in defence of the “traditional” family unit, the oppression of women within it, and the anathemisation of all departures from it will continue until capitalism is destroyed.
In the meantime, the politicians who play with prejudice are also playing with LGBTI people’s lives by encouraging a cultural climate in which LGBTI people are under constant threat of violence and other forms of abuse. A recently-published book, Speaking Out: Stopping Homophobic and Transphobic Abuse in Queensland, by Newcastle University law lecturer Alan Berman and Bond University assistant professor Shirleene Robinson, details the results of a 2009 survey of 1100 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered residents of Queensland.
Fifty-three percent had received some form of verbal or physical abuse or harassment in the two years prior to being surveyed. Lifetime rates of abuse were even worse, with 76% of gay and bisexual men, 69% of lesbians and bisexual women, 92% of trans-women, and 55% of trans-men having received homophobic or transphobic verbal abuse. Physical assault without a weapon had been suffered by 32% of gay and bisexual men, 15% of lesbians and bisexual women, 46% of trans-women, and 45% of trans-men. Twelve percent of gay and bisexual men, 6% of lesbians and bisexual women, 38% of trans-women, and 9% of trans-men had been assaulted with a weapon.
Three-quarters of the victims of this abuse did not report the incidents to authorities. In a June 4 ABC News report, Berman explained that reasons for this included that, 16% do not believe their report would be dealt with fairly, 9% feared further violence or discrimination and 8% feared being outed”. Berman also told the ABC that similar smaller studies in Victoria and NSW had yielded similar results. Furthermore, according to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell - Hidden in the Crowd: Documenting the links between sexuality and suicidal behaviours among young people, a 2003 report by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University, same-sex attracted young people are up to six times more likely to attempt suicide than the population in general.