A conservative history of marriage equality

Riki Scanlan doesn’t know where to go from here

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Imagine the very near future where marriage equality is legislated. Joyous queers, hand-in- hand, proceeding down the aisle to celebrate their newly gained matrimony. Rainbow rental cars revving along the street towards honeymoon. But can we expect queer politics to remain energised in the campaign to broaden queer rights and oppose queerphobia?

The problem with the recent renaissance in queer politics is that it has been overtaken by a focus on marriage equality as the fundamental goal of the movement. We have a serious opportunity to expand the campaign beyond marriage equality: the current debate should challenge the conservative construction of gender–sexuality normativity and family values.

This conservative politic crystallised in a new form, in Australia, in the 1990s, with the Howard consensus around religion, laissez-faire economics, and families. In this time, conservative religious politics experienced a revival, aided by think tanks, lobby groups, and parliamentary forums. Marion Maddox, in God Under Howard, traces this development, examining the careful framing of the discussion over gender and sexuality by Howardites and the discriminatory policies that they enabled.

The Liberal Party, in 1995, elected John Howard for the second time as their leader. This followed a years-long campaign for a renewal of heterosexual family values by the religious right of the Party. A turning point in the campaign saw Lyons Forum co-founders Chris Miles and Alan Cadman organise a cross-party petition against Hewson’s decision to send a message of support to the 1994 Sydney Mardi Gras. They used the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship to lend their campaign the veneer of moral outrage, while wedging Hewson on his resistance to traditional family values—but Hewson was never given a chance to sign. In the end, Howard was the only man who met the new benchmark of ‘family values’, religious commitment, and bushy eyebrows for leadership of the Liberal Party.

When Howard became Prime Minister, part of his platform was the opposition to ‘special interest minorities’ who did not represent the ‘mainstream’. But these categories had been carefully constructed: the ‘mainstream’ was implicitly aligned with ‘traditional family values’—glossed by some in explicitly homophobic terms, and the silent mainstream was no more than the vocal minority of the Howardites. In the 80s and 90s mining magnate Hugh Morgan funded a series of think tanks, lobby groups, and publications that developed both ideology and policy aimed at removing the ‘special privileges’ enjoyed by women, queers, Aboriginal people, and the poor—privileges aimed at redressing imbalances in society. One such policy, income splitting, proposed tax incentives to structure families as a single-(male)-income married (heterosexual) couple with children; others suggested restrictions to IVF or adoption access for homosexuals; and, of course, suggestions were made to revise the Marriage Act to explicitly exclude queer marriage.

These ideas were ridiculed at the time, but in the early 2000s, Howard accomplished many of them, saying proudly that they had achieved by stealth what they could not do outright. There was a smoke-and-mirrors approach to Howard’s leadership: never overtly discriminatory, yet endorsing discrimination by ‘understanding where it comes from’; always putting the focus on removing benefits for marginal groups, yet slashing support for everyone. The ‘family-values’ ideology concealed a laissez-faire economic agenda, creating a bastardised conjoinment of the two.

Howard’s leadership of the Liberal–National Coalition achieved the deft unity of neoliberal economics with social conservatism. This ideology reinvigorated a conception of the family unit as heterosexual, nuclear, and with two or three kids: one for mum, one for dad, and maybe one for the country. Dad is the breadwinner; Mum is the housewife; and if they run their family like that, they get sweet tax benefits. The kids grow up ‘normal’, get an education, and join the workforce.

The campaign for marriage equality, based on the ‘universal right’ of marriage has, to its credit, forced Howard’s overt homophobia to the sidelines once again. The Liberal–National Coalition cannot credibly oppose marriage equality as a method of consolidating and expanding their socially conservative base. Fractures exist between the ‘conservative warriors’ of the Coalition and its more pragmatic elements.

All is not well in the marriage equality campaign, however. While it has succeeded to date, in part due to wedging the Right via appeals to universal equality under the guise of marriage, it has limited itself from launching a thorough, ongoing critique of gender–sexuality normativity, or of ‘family values’, or of the many other discriminatory policies.

An overwhelming majority of people support marriage equality, but their support for a formality, a symbol, does not equate to their rejection of queerphobia. All kinds of secret resentments may coincide with public endorsement of marriage equality. The campaign for marriage equality has hardly cracked open the debate over sexuality and gender: instead, its strategy has been to subsume queers within the ‘mainstream’: by declaring We are just like You.

At the moment, we have an impossible-to-pass marriage equality bill proposed by Labor and a contentious plebiscite. If both fail, Labor promises to pass it if elected in 2019, or the Coalition may cave and pass a marriage equality bill—which is exceedingly unlikely. If we achieve marriage equality, where do we go from there? Legislation cannot amend homophobia out of existence.

The great opportunity of the marriage equality campaign is that it is both national and universal. It is a banner beneath which we have an opportunity to advance new challenges to conservative politics. But instead of taking up that opportunity, we have shrouded ourselves in the proceduralism of plebiscite-or-not. And if we win a sham plebiscite, some politicians will nonetheless vote No, on account of their electorates doing so, which shall legitimate homophobia in the backroom halls of power.

The queer movement presently is all too willing to subsume itself within socially conservative family values rather than opposing them; all too willing to dislocate marriage equality from the social context of queerness in Australia; all too willing to set aside broader challenges in defence of queer rights to achieve a symbolic victory of marriage equality. If we win that way, we lose.

Sadly, I do not think that the queer movement is up to the challenge that I wish it would take up. Declare me a cynic, but we have thrown away our opportunities.