The overwhelming 61.6 per cent Yes vote for equal marriage is a victory against the Liberals, homophobia and the bigots behind the No campaign. The result is a triumph of years of campaigning. The fight for marriage equality in Australia must be one of the most long-running anywhere. It is 13 years since the conservative government of John Howard first made same-sex marriage illegal in 2004.
There were concerns that the voluntary postal vote would lead to a low turnout. Instead 79.5 per cent of people returned their vote, higher than general election turn-outs in many countries without compulsory voting.
The bigots were well and truly isolated as football codes, the doctors’ association, most trade unions and a huge range of community groups announced their support for equality. The enthusiasm for a Yes vote spilled into the largest ever demonstrations for equal marriage—20,000 in Melbourne and up to 50,000 in Sydney.
Every state and territory recorded majority support. Victoria, where the unions through the Victorian Trades Hall were the backbone of the Yes campaign, had the highest Yes vote of any state or territory barring the ACT.
For years, both major parties have delayed and refused to legislate for equal marriage. While Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull technically supported a Yes vote, he is so beholden to the hard right of his party that he did almost nothing to campaign for it. And the entire exercise of conducting a plebiscite on equal marriage was itself an attack on LGBTI people, designed to give a platform to bigots everywhere and to legitimise opposition to LGBTI relationships.
The No campaign took full advantage of this, with their bigotry on open display. There were disgusting comments from Australian Christian Lobby boss, Lyle Shelton, about the possibility that children of same sex couples would become a “new stolen generation”. They ran TV ads scaremongering about “radical gay and lesbian sex education”, implying all LGBTI relationships are a problem.
The No campaign was comprehensively defeated. But the fight against homophobia in society is far from over.Having lost the vote, the No campaign are now making demands to further discriminate against LGBTI couples and to promote anti-equal marriage views on the grounds of religious freedom. The hard right of the Liberal Party wants further amendments to the proposed equal marriage legislation. A group of Liberal MPs including Scott Morrison have even demanded that parents be allowed to withdraw their children from any classes at school on marriage they disagree with.
The existing bill proposed by Liberal Senator Dean Smith, already contains unjustified “religious freedom” exemptions. Religious organisations will have the right to refuse to provide facilities, goods or services for same-sex weddings. And existing secular civil celebrants (but not any appointed after the legislation is passed) will be allowed to opt out of performing same-sex ceremonies.
Despite the increasing support for equality, homophobia remains deeply ingrained in Australia. The shocking statistics on mental health show how difficult life is for young LGBTI people in Australia. Sixteen per cent of LGBTI people between the ages of 16 and 27 have attempted suicide, as have 42 per cent of transgender people, a recent Telethon Kids Institute study found. Yet the Safe Schools anti-LGBTI bullying program was scrapped in most states as governments gave in to homophobic scare campaigns.
It is already legal for religious schools to fire teachers simply for being gay. Craig Campbell, a high school teacher in Perth, was barred from relief teaching at a Baptist school in October after he told his boss he was in a gay relationship.
The main Yes campaign, backed by Australian Marriage Equality, avoided confronting the wider homophobia from the No side, going out of its way to distance equal marriage from the Safe Schools program or trans rights. This limited the impact of the equal marriage vote as a blow against homophobia.
Homophobia, transphobia and LGBTI oppression will exist as long as capitalism continues. Capitalism requires the nuclear family in order to reproduce the labour force at the lowest cost to the rich and powerful, while they pump out gender stereotypes to justify their system. It is only decades of struggle that have forced the ruling class to accept formal equality for LGBTI people in marriage and other areas of life.
The push to entrench discrimination in the name of religious freedom is designed to undermine the victory that has been won. That can’t be allowed to happen. We need to keep fighting until homophobia is gone for good.