There are many reasons for which the small Mediterranean country of Malta could claim superiority over Australia. Impeccable coastlines, gelato on every corner, really cute terriers… and as of last month, for achieving marriage equality before us. In a vote, too.
LGBTQI rights have been the talk of the town lately. A postal vote has been announced and the issue is set to dominate traditional and social media fora for the months leading up to it. Anything resembling legitimate discussion about the legalities and logistics of legislating marriage equality will happen below the surface of the louder, amplified voices of a minority who frame downright vitriol as debate. It encourages hate and allows voices who have the ability to cause serious and lasting psychological harm open season. But even more insidiously, keeping this issue at the forefront of media coverage effectively ensures that no other battles can be truly advanced in the mainstream arena while this old, tired debate insists on occupying our time again and again.
Michael Kirby, the first openly gay High Court judge of Australia, spoke two weeks ago (before the announcement of the postal vote) about the advancement of LGBTQI rights in the context of the United Nations at a talk announced by the Australian Human Rights Centre. For a large part of his talk, he spoke about the tenuous— and very recent— gains Australia has made towards the acceptance of homosexuality. The first state to decriminalise homosexual acts was South Australia in 1975 and NSW didn’t get there until 1984, Tasmania, mind-blowingly, decided to make the move in 1997, just twenty years ago. Moreover, the historical narrative of the time often omits the fact that many such advances were made not because of an increasing communal acceptance of homosexuality as normal, healthy, not-grounds-for-imprisonment-at-least behaviour. No, most of those advances were made as a reaction to the aggressive AIDS epidemic, and a recognition on the part of the Australian states that they needed to draw together sectors of society which had been marginalised and in which the epidemic was rife: the gays, the sex-workers, the drug-users. State criminal codes were changed, at least partially, for the sake of controlling disease. These changes were recent, and not necessarily a gesture of goodwill. They were a reaction.
This makes it clearer than ever that rights are not secure. We are on tenuous ground and the plebiscite debates threaten to weaken the foundations we stand on if we allow it to descend into a open forum of hate and vitriol. As if this wasn’t enough to guard against, there also needs to be an awareness that by keeping marriage equality at the forefront of our minds, politicians (whether actively or not) play into an understanding that activists can only keep the public’s attention on a few major issues at one time. There is simply too much saturation coverage. By forcing us to fight for basic rights such as marriage equality, which should have been granted long ago, there is no room in the public sphere for the other work which so desperately needs to be done. I asked Professor Kirby before the announcement of the plebiscite— somewhat presciently, it would seem— about what he thought the other issues in the sphere of LGBTQI rights were, other than marriage equality, and what work there still is to do. His response was immediate. “Sometimes it seems as if we only talk about the ‘L’ and ‘G’ part of the acronym”, he said. “What about the T and the I— the transgender, the intersex, all the other members of our society who deserve the same as us?”
Keeping the nation waiting means that politicians can use the left’s own natural propensity towards infighting against us. There is a silent understanding of sorts that we have no right to ask for more when we haven’t yet gotten past a more seemingly accessible hurdle, like marriage equality. Mainstream demands for intersex recognition and transgender safe spaces are kept at bay by an implicit questioning of how we as a country can deserve that, when we haven’t even gotten marriage equality yet. Keeping marriage equality up in the air allows politicians to move slowly on other topics of importance for LGBTQI rights. Especially when there is a gradual eroding of rights in other nations, such as in the US where transgender people have been recently banned from military service, we need to guard our gains ever more vigilantly. The need to prioritise rights into some sort of constructed hierarchy— of ‘easier’ rights here, and ‘harder’ rights over here— is a senseless one, but one which persists in a climate where public attention is drawn to so many areas that only few are able to actually stick in the minds of the populace.
Whatever happens in November, there needs to be an understanding that we can leap forward in some ways while lagging behind in what seems like an obvious move. We must stop enabling politicians from using the marriage equality debate as a way to quieten our desires for anything more radical. Equality will happen, as a matter of time. But we must ask for more. This is the time to resist their attempts to try to keep our desires small and still out of reach.