Same-Sex Marriage: Division within the Gay and Lesbian Community
Lyndon Barnett - June 2005
In May 2005, The Greens
organised a forum in the Newtown Hotel to raise awareness of the issues
surrounding same-sex marriage. Representatives of three major NSW gay-rights
lobby groups attended: The NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL), Australian
Marriage Equality (AME) and Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH). The NSW
Greens Senator, Lee Rhiannon and the Tasmanian Greens Assembly Member, Nick
McKim addressed the community meeting.
It was billed as an open discussion of the issues, but it didn't quite go
according to plan. Simon Margan from CAAH explains, "A group of noisy
hecklers turned up and basically tried to disrupt the meeting. It was quite
scandalous. The group interjecting was from the Gay and Lesbian Rights
Lobby. Luke Gahan, National Convenor of AME tells a similar story, Nick
McKim spoke of the Bill he had introduced in Tasmania and members from the GLRL
tried to find fault with everything he said. They shouted him down. I felt
really sorry for him.
The episode served to indicate that the question of
same-sex marriage has become a divisive issue within in the gay and lesbian
Traditionally, same-sex marriage has not been an issue for
gay and lesbian lobby groups. It just wasnt prioritised that much,
until it was banned, Simon explains. As soon as people cant
do something then, they react against it. There is no point complaining about
something that we can do already. We only campaign against things where there
is a problem.
Same-sex marriage became a campaign issue on August 13
2004 when the Federal Senate passed the Marriage Amendment Act. This Act
defined marriage as between a man and a woman, and also stated that marriage
ceremonies conducted overseas between same-sex partners were not recognised in
Australia. While same-sex marriage was never legally possible, the Federal
Government had now passed an Act that made it illegal. And not surprisingly the
major gay rights lobby groups objected.
Luke Gahan dubbed August 13 as Marriage Equality
Black Friday, setting up the lobby group AME to not only repeal the new
Act but to lobby parliamentarians to legislate on allowing same-sex couples to
marry in Australia. In just under a year the AME has grown to over 500
supporters, says Luke.
CAAH also took on the marriage issue as a focus for
campaigns, "We reacted against it, says Simon. It is something
that needs to be set right. CAAH has been established in 2000 to campaign
for the rights of the gay and lesbian community. The first issue we dealt
with was queer refugees. Whether being queer allowed you to seek refugee status
in Australia, where people could be sent back to countries where they could
receive the death penalty because they were gay.
Like the other groups the GLRL took up the marriage issue
having for 15 years lobbied for gay and lesbian rights issues including
anti-discrimination, parenting and most recently the Australian jailed in Fiji
for homosexual acts.
So the community was united against the changes in
Marriage Act imposed by the Government.
The dissention between lobby groups arose in April 2005
over which parliamentary arena to facilitate marriage equality.
Dissent on the issue had its origins in the findings of a
constitutional law expert who discovered a loophole in the Marriage Amendment
Act. In April this year Professor George Williams of UNSW said that state laws
were constitutional when they dont overlap with Commonwealth laws and so
the changes to the Federal Marriage Act had opened the way for states to pass
their own laws without any overlap. Each state could constitutionally pass laws
allowing for same-sex marriage, he argued.
Nick McKim explained the loophole to the Tasmanian House
of Assembly on April 13 2005, John Howard's amendments to the Federal
Marriage Act made it abundantly clear that that Act only referred to marriage
between a man and a woman. Having done that, Mr Howard inadvertently left the
constitutional door open for the States to legislate for gay marriage, because
there is no overlap and there is no conflict, because federal law only relates
to marriage between a man and a woman.
Based on the constitutional advice and with the full
support of the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group, Nick McKim introduced
the Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2005 into Tasmania Parliament on April 12. The Bill
was debated the following day where it was concluded that a parliamentary
inquiry should commence.
Following the Tasmanian lead, Lee Rhiannon tabled a
Same-Sex Marriage Bill into the NSW Senate on May 4. It has yet to be debated
Lee Rhiannons Advisor, Kristian Bowell, explains the
reasoning behind the Bills, The Greens sexuality policy advocates full
legal equality regardless of sexual orientation. Same-sex marriage is a
pillar of that equality. Given the Federal Government's opposition to same-sex
marriage, it is appropriate to explore the possibility of sexuality law reform
at a state level.
In the same month in the ACT, Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope
published a government-supported discussion paper on formally recognising
same-sex relationships, including same-sex marriage in his Territory. The
discussion paper calls for submissions and comments by August 2005.
The state-based Bills have the full support of AME and
CAAH who see state based same-sex marriage as a positive step forward. Simon
explains CAAHs stance, Our position is that we would like to see
100 per cent equality eventually, so anything that comes close to 100 per cent
equality is good enough for us. If people are making the right moves in the
right direction then we support that. Luke Gahan the Convenor of AME has
a similar view, We are calling for same-sex marriage at a federal level
because that would be full equality, however state-based legislation is a great
step in the right direction.
To generate community and parliamentary support for the
NSW Bill, AME and CAAH have organised a National Day of Action for the
anniversary of the Marriage Equality Black Friday. On August 13
2005, they will march from Taylors Square to State Parliament. However
the GLRL have not indicated whether they will be supporting this event. As
Simon says, The GLRL wont endorse any of our actions. I dont
know what they are going to do for the up-coming August National Day of
The GLRL are pushing for same-sex marriage only at a
federal level. They do not support the Greens initiative for state-based
legislation. In a press release co-convenor, David Scamell said,
State-based marriage laws may give the right to marry, but they will not
give our relationships full equality in the eyes of the law. It will make our
relationships separate and unequal. Separate in that straight couples will be
able to be married under federal law, while our marriages may only be
recognised under NSW law. Unequal in that we will still face discrimination in
many areas on a day-to-day basis.
To debate strategies the GLRL hosted their own
relationship equality forum in Newtown this month to facilitate community
discussion on the federal issue. Simon says, We [CAAH] went to the GLRL
relationship forum but we did not heckle like they did at The Greens forum.
They are pushing for federal legislation as opposed to state legislation. If it
is not possible, it isnt possible.
In response to GLRLs position, Kristian Bowell, Lee
Rhiannons parliamentary advisor says, Whilst the Greens acknowledge
the good work that the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby has done in NSW, we
disagree with them on their point of view and on tactics. When the Greens
introduced a Same-sex Relationships Bill into Federal Parliament in 2004 the
GLRL were unimpressed with that initiative as well. On that basis, it is
unclear if the Lobby supports proposals that they do not initiate.We believe
that if this legislation is passed it will take NSW a step closer to full
equality and that in itself, is a positive outcome.
Luke Gahan says that this division within the Gay and
Lesbian community could threaten all efforts towards legalising same-sex
marriage. He says that opponents of same-sex marriage are using GLRLs
comments as ammunition against the concept regardless of the political arena.
Guy Barnett, a Tasmanian Liberal Party Senator who championed the Marriage
Amendment Act in 2004, used the NSW GLRL press release in a letter to the
Editor of the Hobart Mercury published on May 7. After citing the release,
Barnett wrote, I stand by my earlier comments that the Tasmanian Greens
legislation is a distraction and a political stunt.
Luke points to a possible solution to the current
differences within the Gay and Lesbian community, These competing views
amongst the NSW lobby groups, demonstrate a definite need for a National Rights