10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #4: Because Julia Gillard let me – and the LGBTI community – down

I don’t cry much. Well, that’s not entirely true. I cry – a lot – at emotionally manipulative movies (and it doesn’t really matter whether they’re good, bad or Sandra Bullock). But outside a darkened cinema I can count on two hands the number of times I have cried over the past twenty years. And almost never in front of other people.

So why then did I find myself gently sobbing, for about 15 minutes, in the middle of a large crowd in Sydney’s Hyde Park, on the afternoon of Saturday December 3rd, 2011? It wasn’t because it was almost the end of what had been an extremely long year professionally, nor was it because I had only had about two hours sleep (although both factors certainly didn’t help).

No, I found myself crying in public, in a way that I genuinely had very little control over, because that was the moment that I knew that, already almost two years into my engagement to Steve, it was going to be several more years before we would be able to walk down the aisle, in our own country and surrounded by our family and friends.

December 3rd was the day the 2011 ALP National Conference decided that, as well as making support for marriage equality a part of the Party’s platform, it would fundamentally undermine that position by allowing any Labor Party member of parliament to vote against the equal right of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people to get married. And with that decision they destroyed the prospects of marriage equality passing in that term, and made it very difficult in the following term too.

What has happened since – the defeat of Marriage Amendment Bills in September 2012, the defeat of the ALP Government in 2013, and the lack of priority and support for this issue by the incoming Abbott Liberal-National Government in its first term – were all entirely foreseeable on that early summer’s day.

Sitting here typing, more than two and a half years since that National Conference vote and now more than four and a half years into Steve and my engagement – with who knows how many more left – and the hurt and anger which I felt on that day is still with me, often not very far from the surface.

I have learnt to channel that disappointment to provide even more energy and impetus to my advocacy and activism for LGBTI rights, for young LGBTI people who need safe schools and an inclusive curriculum, for LGBTI refugees fleeing persecution but who Australia locks up and resettles in countries which criminalise homosexuality, and of course for marriage equality itself.

But something which we must also do is to hold to account those people who are responsible for the ongoing unjustified and, let’s face it, homophobic, bi-phobic, trans-phobic and intersex-phobic discrimination against LGBTI people in the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961.

Almost 10 years into the ban on equal marriage and there is plenty of ‘accountability’, or blame, to go around. From John Howard, whose Coalition Government introduced the ban in 2004, to Mark Latham, who ensured the then Labor Opposition rolled over without anything resembling a fight, to all the conservative cheerleaders and News Ltd columnists (tautology, I know) who have opposed progress since then, to the Australian Christian Lobby whose entire existence appears dedicated to halting LGBTI rights, to Joe de Bruyn who has sabotaged change within the ALP, his equivalents who have done the same in the Liberal and National Parties, the 98 members of the House of Representatives and 41 Senators who voted against LGBTI equality in parliament in September 2012, and of course current Prime Minister Tony Abbott who remains implacably opposed to marriage equality – all must accept their share of responsibility for the fact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians continue to be 2nd class citizens under the law.

But there is one person I blame above all else, one person who I believe should assume the largest share of responsibility for the fact that Steve and I can still not get married, one person whose actions had the most potential to change that situation for the better, but who instead chose to do exactly the wrong thing, at exactly the wrong time: former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

On 15 November 2011, in the lead-up to that critical National Conference, Gillard announced her views in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. In that article, she chose to support a continued ban on marriage equality in the ALP platform, while also favouring a conscience vote, to be implemented by a rule change to make whatever policy position was ultimately adopted by Conference non-binding on MPs.

In doing so, Gillard chose what was the worst possible option, the one which would do the most damage to the short- and medium-term prospects of marriage equality in Australia.

That is not an over-statement. In practice, there were five main positions which Gillard could have chosen:

• Support for a platform change and a binding vote (the position of most marriage equality activists at the time)
• Support for platform change and a conscience vote (the position ultimately adopted by Conference)
• No position on either – and instead allowing Conference to decide both
• Opposition to platform change and support for a binding vote (which would at least have been consistent with the previous seven years, when all ALP MPs had been bound to vote against equality) or
• Opposition to platform change and support for a conscience vote (Gillard’s position).

If Gillard had chosen any of the four other options described, it is reasonably likely that both the platform change and a binding vote would have been successful at the National Conference, something which would have made marriage equality entirely achievable in 2012 in the process.

Instead, Gillard used her position as Prime Minister, and Leader of the Labor Party, to lean on people to ensure that, no matter what happened in terms of the policy, marriage equality would never be able to be implemented through a binding vote. She chose to actively exert the influence that she had because of her office to deny the right to marry to her fellow Australians on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

She went much, much further than simply advocating for a particular outcome: Gillard even chose to be the main sponsor of the motion in favour of a conscience vote, thus transforming the entire issue into a ‘test of leadership’. By stepping into the fray in this way, Gillard had turned the question of marriage equality into a question of loyalty which, for those of us who haven’t (yet) managed to suppress it, was the dominant theme – well, its absence was anyway – of the last term of ALP Government.

Thus, to stand up for the principles of fundamental equality and human rights was seen to be disloyal to the Party leader, and to simultaneously stand up for a binding vote – something which should be standard operating procedure for a collectivist party – was seen as doubly disloyal. And there were people inside the party who were making that very argument – that to support equality, and more importantly, to support a binding vote, was to be disloyal to Gillard – in the days leading up to the crucial ballot.

In the end, Gillard and her supporters couldn’t hold back progress altogether. There was enough support on Conference floor to achieve a resounding victory in terms of changing the platform to support marriage equality – while the vote wasn’t counted, it was estimated to be around 3 to 1 in favour. But her conscience vote resolution was also successful – by a much narrower margin, of 208 to 184.

Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard celebrates after a conscience vote is approved at ALP National Conference in December 2011, a move that destroyed any chance of marriage equality being passed in the last Parliament, and continues to make passage difficult today.

Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard celebrates after a conscience vote is approved at ALP National Conference in December 2011, a move that destroyed any chance of marriage equality being passed in the last Parliament, and continues to make passage difficult today.

In short, it was (just) a bridge too far for the ALP National Conference to effectively ‘roll’ a sitting Prime Minister on both parts of the marriage equality equation.

If she had adopted any of the other positions outlined above, Conference would have only had to ‘defeat’ her once, or even not at all (if she had either done the right thing and supported platform change and a binding vote, or not taken a position to begin with). I genuinely believe that, had Gillard taken a different view, a binding vote would have been more likely than not – meaning that Steve and I might very well be married today.

And that is why, of all the people who have contributed to the current sorry state of affairs in Australia, where LGBTI relationships are deemed not worthy of the same recognition as cisgender heterosexual relationships, I blame Gillard the most – because her actions, above those of any other, were the most decisive in ensuring this 2nd class status was continued.

In the coming months, and particularly with the release of Gillard’s memoirs in late September, there will be a concerted effort to glorify her Prime Ministership, and discuss only the positive accomplishments of her time in office – her rise as the first female Prime Minister, the introduction of a price on carbon, the establishment of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and the introduction of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections in federal law for the first time. And I would be the first to admit that they were all great accomplishments.

But biography should never be hagiography. So we must not overlook her central role in the defeat of marriage equality, not just in the last term of parliament, but also potentially in this one too, because she helped to ensure that ALP MPs would not be bound.

In this important respect, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard profoundly let down not just Steve and myself, but all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians who believe that their relationships should be treated fairly and equally under the law. She was someone who should have been on our side, but instead actively worked against us.

She was wrong, and she wronged our community. Her actions were inexcusable, and I know that I and others won’t be accepting any excuses which she might attempt to proffer in My Story.

Above all, what Julia Gillard did in late 2011 was unforgivable, and I for one will never forgive her. Nor should we ever forget.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #5: Because there’s no intellectual stimulation in arguing against stupidity

There are some public policy issues which, as well as being important, can give rise to ‘intellectual stimulation’. By that I mean something that provokes informed debate, with multiple views, genuine disagreement about the best solution, sometimes even substantive and substantial arguments about the definition of the ‘problem’ itself.

Sadly, marriage equality is not one of these issues. Instead of being an exchange of ideas, for the most part the pro- and anti-marriage equality ‘debate’ is not really a debate at all. And it can’t be. Because it is impossible to have a debate when one side turns up without any arguments whatsoever on their side.

If the past ten years have taught us anything, it is that anti-marriage equality campaigners are the intellectual Lilliputians of Australian public life. Sure they might have company out there on their ‘island of stupid’ (hello anti-vaxers!), but it is difficult to think of many other public discussions in recent memory when so much has been said by people who had so little of substance to say.

It has become common to say that the argument for marriage equality has been run and won. And that’s true – except ‘won’ is an understatement. The defeat of anti-marriage equality campaigners, on the intellectual playing field at least, resembles nothing more than the 7:1 drubbing handed out by Germany to Brazil in the recent men’s football World Cup.

It is such a one-sided affair that, at times, you almost feel tempted to invoke the ‘mercy rule’ (which the opponents of marriage equality would probably reject anyway because it has too much in common philosophically with euthanasia).

In practice, the vacuity of anti-marriage equality campaigners, like Jim Wallace, or Lyle Shelton, or Cory Bernardi (and countless others), hasn’t stopped them from spouting the same nonsense time and time again over the past decade. It doesn’t matter that what they say on this subject has no credibility, they’ll keep saying it regardless.

Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby.

Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby.

And that’s the frustrating thing – approaching ten years since the original ban on same-sex marriage was introduced, and with the possibility of several more before equality is finally legislated, it remains our responsibility to have the same public ‘debate’ with these people. To calmly refute the ridiculous claims that marriage equality will harm children, or impact on religious freedom, or that just because marriage has ‘traditionally’ been man-woman that it automatically must remain so in future.

And when I say ‘our’ responsibility, we should acknowledge that this burden has fallen particularly heavily on the shoulders of people like Australian Marriage Equality’s Alex Greenwich, and later Rodney Croome, and the Penny Wongs and Bob Browns of the political world, who have had to sit on countless panels and engage in countless debates with the Jim Wallaces and Lyle Sheltons of the Australian Christian Lobby, while suppressing the natural urge to react emotionally against the ignorance of what is being said. Hats off to them for doing what many of us might struggle to do.

Of course, this isn’t to say there is no intellectual stimulation in marriage equality per se. There certainly have been, and continue to be, interesting intellectual debates on this subject. It just happens that they are all held between people who already assume that everyone should be equal, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The debate about whether people should be aiming to make marriage inclusive or abolish it altogether, about whether there was strategic value in pursuing state-based same-sex marriage laws or not (or whether to support the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 or not), about where marriage equality sits on the overall list of priorities for the LGBTI community – all provide more intellectual succour than discussing the issue of marriage equality with a campaigner who seriously believes that marriage, under secular law, should be restricted to heterosexual couples.

It’s just a shame that we seem consigned to having to continuing having this lop-sided non-debate for several more years to come. I for one can’t wait to discuss something a little bit more stimulating – and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

One final thing – you will hopefully notice that I have been careful to restrict these comments to anti-marriage equality campaigners, rather than all people who do not (or not yet anyway) support marriage equality. I am certainly not accusing all people who hold that view of being ‘stupid’.

However, I am most definitely saying that, if you have carefully considered the question of marriage equality, and come to the conclusion that the only acceptable form of marriage is one man and one woman, and that you will campaign for that publicly, despite having no arguments on your side that withstand any kind of scrutiny, and against the equality and human rights of your fellow citizens, well, as Forrest Gump might say, “stupid is as stupid does.”

Hey Australian Labor, It’s Time to Bind on Marriage Equality

After narrowly falling short at the 2011 National Conference, and with only 12 months left until the next gathering, now is the time to restart the push for the Australian Labor Party to adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality.

In this post, I will discuss the issue of binding versus conscience votes by looking at the state of play in the current Parliament, the arguments for and against changing the party’s rules, the internal consequences of adopting a binding vote, external strategic considerations in determining whether to pursue this change and, if you agree with my approach, I will end by suggesting ways in which you can assist the push for reform.

One last thing before we begin, however: I am a Labor Party member, and have been for more than 12 years. But I am also an LGBTI advocate and activist and, where the ALP falls short of the standards which we, as a community, have every right to expect of it – as it does with respect to marriage equality – then I will call it out, and agitate for reform, both from within and from without. Because that is the only way the Labor Party is ever going to change.

It's Time to Bind Graphic

It’s Time to Bind: The Numbers

This wouldn’t be a post about a Labor Party rule change if it didn’t start by looking at the numbers – in this case, the current numbers in Commonwealth Parliament.

The prevailing narrative in the push for marriage equality in 2014 appears to be that all efforts must be directed at achieving a conscience vote within the Liberal-National Coalition, and that once this is achieved, marriage equality stands a good chance of being passed in the next 12 to 18 months.

But what if this narrative is wrong? What if a Coalition conscience vote is not enough?

If we look at the numbers closely, with the Abbott-led Government standing on 90 seats out of a possible 150 in the House of Representatives, and adopting increasingly conservative views on a range of social issues (section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, asylum seekers etc), do we really think there would be enough Coalition MPs willing to vote for marriage equality for any Bill to be successful, if the Labor Party were to continue to adopt a conscience vote?

Those who would answer that question in the affirmative point to two recent examples, from the past 18 months, where marriage equality was achieved in comparable countries, with conscience votes, and under (although not by) conservative governments: New Zealand, and England & Wales.

However, there are at least four key differences between the experience in those countries, and the current situation in Australia:

i) The conservative Prime Ministers of both, John Key and David Cameron respectively, were personally committed to marriage equality
ii) A significant minority of conservative party MPs in both were willing to vote yes (46% in New Zealand, 49% in England & Wales)
iii) The conservative Governments of both are minority Governments, meaning it did not take a large majority of other party MPs’ support to reach 50% plus one, and
iv) In both countries, roughly 90% of Labour MPs voted in favour, meaning the reform was passed easily in any event.

Of course, the size of the parliamentary victories for marriage equality in each country (395 to 170 in the House of Commons, 77 to 44 in New Zealand), mean that perhaps not all of these conditions need to be replicated in Australia in order for a Bill to pass here. But currently none of these conditions exist.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is staunchly opposed to marriage equality. He refused to allow a ‘formal’ conscience vote in the last parliament when the Marriage Amendment Bill was debated. He refuses to even consider changing his position despite the fact his own sister is in a same-sex relationship and wishes simply to have the same right to marry that he currently enjoys.

And, while others might have fantasies that his position in the Lodge might be involuntarily changed for him by his colleagues in the Coalition party room, that is highly unlikely to happen before the 2016 Federal election (at least in part because of the reaction to the Labor Party’s change of leaders in the lead-up to the 2010 poll).

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who, unlike his conservative counterparts in the UK (David Cameron) and NZ (John Keys), strongly opposes marriage equality.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who, unlike his conservative counterparts in the UK (David Cameron) and NZ (John Key), strongly opposes marriage equality.

The imposing 90 to 55 parliamentary majority enjoyed by the Liberal and National Parties over the ALP isn’t going to change (barring unforeseen by-elections, and even then only by one or two) before 2016, either.

The level of support for marriage equality amongst Labor MPs in Australia falls far short of their comrades in New Zealand and England & Wales, too. Instead of 90% support, only a slim majority of all Labor Party House of Representative MPs (and just under 60% of those that voted), did the right thing back in September 2012 – a low figure which does much to discredit the party’s overall progressive credentials.

But the number of Liberal and National MPs who voted in favour of the Marriage Amendment Bill 2012 was even lower: zero. While acknowledging that there wasn’t a ‘formal’ conscience vote – meaning that members of the frontbench were prohibited from voting yes – we should remember that the Liberal Party in particular is fond of saying that all of its (backbench) MPs have a conscience vote on every single issue.

And yet, of the 60 or so Liberal and National MPs who theoretically could have exercised that freedom, just one – Senator Sue Boyce from Queensland – abstained. And, as of 1 July 2014, she is not even there anymore. Not a single one of her colleagues joined her in abstaining, let alone voting to support the legal equality of LGBTI Australians.

Moving forward just two years, it stretches credulity to suggest that, in the event a formal conscience vote were provided today, the level of support for marriage equality from Coalition MPs would even come close to approaching the 45% plus figure reached by conservative party MPs in New Zealand and England & Wales.

Putting the scale of the numerical challenge in front of us even more bluntly, if the level of ALP support for marriage equality were to be the same in 2014 as it was in 2012 (60%, now the equivalent of 33 House of Representatives MPs), and taking into account the support of cross-bench MPs Adam Bandt, Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie, reaching the magical 75 votes needed to secure passage would require the support of 39 Coalition MPs – or 44% of all Liberal and National MPs in the House of Representatives (NB This calculation excludes the Speaker’s vote).

Based on everything we know – and under the leadership of someone like Prime Minister Abbott, whose personal opposition would influence some of the MPs in the Liberal party room in particular to cast their vote against – that bar seems very high, so high that it is arguably unachievable.

Let’s be generous then, and assume that the level of support amongst Labor Party MPs has risen to two thirds, meaning 37 MPs voting in favour (which is possible, given that some intellectual ‘dead wood’ was removed last September). That would still mean 39% of Liberal and National MPs having to vote yes to achieve even the slimmest of victories in the lower house.

Now, that might, just might, be possible. But, if you were a gambling person, would you be willing to put any money on that outcome?

With the future of marriage equality – something of much higher value than mere money – at stake, why aren’t we considering these numerical hurdles, and asking whether there might be other ways to reach 75?

One of these ways is if the Australian Labor Party were to adopt a binding vote on marriage equality for its Federal MPs, through a rule change at its July 2015 National Conference. That move would instantly change the equation – with a guaranteed 58 votes in favour (55 from the ALP, plus three from the cross-bench), only 17 Liberal and National MPs (or 19% of the total) would need to support a Bill to get it across the line.

Less than one in five would still be difficult, although it is eminently more achievable than the two in five required in the other scenarios described above. However, as the outcome of the 2012 legislation clearly demonstrates, even reaching this figure would still require a formal conscience vote for Coalition MPs.

Which brings me to my conclusion on this section. Looking at the numbers alone, it is highly likely that, in order for marriage equality to be passed in the current term of Parliament, we need for there to be both a conscience vote for Liberal and National Party MPs and a binding vote for Labor MPs.

I will readily admit that those dual, and potentially competing, objectives, may or may not be achievable – something I will examine later in this post (see ‘The Strategy’, below) – but before we get there, I want to talk further about the policy arguments for and against an ALP rule change, as well as the potential internal consequences of such a reform.

It’s Time to Bind: The Merits

As many people would be aware, one of the major achievements of the 2011 ALP National Conference in Sydney was the adoption of a commitment in the national platform to support marriage equality. As a result, the current platform includes the following (at paragraphs 126 and 127):

“Labor will amend the Marriage Act to ensure equal access to marriage under statute for all adult couples irrespective of sex who have a mutual commitment to a shared life. These amendments should ensure that nothing in the Marriage Act imposes an obligation on a minister of religion to solemnise any marriage.”

However, during the very same debate, that Conference passed a resolution that fatally undermined any chance of marriage equality passing in the last parliament and which, as we have seen above, continues to jeopardise its passage today. Specifically, “[c]onference resolves that the matter of same sex marriage can be freely debated at any state or federal forum of the Australian Labor Party, but any decision reached is not binding on any member of the Party.”

Putting aside numerical considerations for a moment, let’s examine the merits of such a position. Is there any justification for adopting such a position, for supporting legal equality irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, but then allowing MPs to vote against such equality?

The short answer: no. And the long answer: no.

In short, there is absolutely no reason why, of all the various policy issues which the Australian Labor Party adopts binding positions on, marriage equality should be considered so ‘special’, so extraordinary, as to justify a disregard to, and breakdown of, solidarity on this issue.

Turning to this question in slightly (okay, a lot) more detail. The Australian Labor Party is founded on the labour movement, and as such has adopted at its core the principles of collective organising, of being stronger together than as individuals.

In its rules, these ideas of solidarity have translated into the practical requirement that all parliamentary representatives are bound to vote together on nearly all issues. The ALP has certainly never argued, as the Liberal Party has done, that its backbenchers enjoy a conscience vote on every single issue.

Any differences on policies are debated, often passionately, at conferences, and inside caucus rooms – but they are resolved there, and the Party adopts a united front on the floors of parliamentary chambers across the country.

Except when it doesn’t. On a small number of issues, the Labor Party does have a history of allowing conscience votes, usually for things that are described as ‘matters of life and death’, although it is hard to see how laws relating to homosexuality, or LGBTI rights more generally, have much to do with that criteria.

The problem for those that would try to use the history of LGBTI-related conscience votes to argue for a free vote on marriage equality today is that, for each of these votes, when we reflect on them critically, it is clear that the granting of a conscience vote was wrong. Wrong on principle, and wrong in practice.

For example, the 1984 law decriminalising homosexuality in NSW was not formal Government legislation – it was a private member’s Bill, put forward by the then Premier, the late Neville Wran, and voted on by all parliamentarians, including Labor MPs, through a conscience vote.

Does anyone who is involved in public life today – anyone outside the religious fundamentalist fringes of society – actually believe that this legislation was wrong? Is there anyone in the modern ALP who is prepared to say that Labor MPs should have been allowed to vote against the decriminalisation of male same-sex sexual intercourse in 1984? Anyone at all?

The counter-argument is probably that the vote on decriminalisation took place thirty years ago, and that times, and attitudes, have changed in the decades since. Fine, let’s look at a more recent example. It took until 2003 for the NSW Parliament to equalise the age of consent between male same-sex sexual intercourse and mixed-sex intercourse.

Again, it was achieved through a conscience vote, and again a small number of ALP MPs (including, it should be pointed out, a current Federal shadow minister, together with Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi) voted against this proposal. Just over a decade later, would anyone seriously try to mount the argument that ‘gay sex’ should attract a higher age of consent than ‘straight sex’? Or that the ALP should have abandoned the principle of a binding vote on this issue? I suspect the answer would be a resounding no.

There are other examples, from other jurisdictions, as well as examples relating to other LGBTI topics (such as adoption or parenting), but each has the same outcome – a conscience vote which opponents of equality argue for vociferously at the time, citing all sorts of ‘moral hazards’, but which looks patently ridiculous in hindsight.

Those that say the history of conscience votes on homosexuality inside the ALP justifies a free vote on marriage equality now, should feel free to explain how the use of a conscience vote in each of these cases was justified – because these are the precedents, and this is the intellectual ‘legacy’, with which they are associating.

If they cannot demonstrate that those conscience votes were morally justified – and I would strongly suggest they can’t – then perhaps they should reconsider their arguments for a conscience vote on marriage equality today. Otherwise, they will simply be consigning the Labor Party to making the same mistake again, and again, and again.

Instead, I believe the Labor Party should fast forward through the all-too-frequent embarrassing ‘phase’ when it allows some MPs to vote for legal discrimination against a minority group before it belatedly corrects itself, and reach the right conclusion now – which is that all of its MPs should be bound to vote in favour of marriage equality in this term.

On a related topic, some have argued that the ALP should adopt conscience votes relating to the broad topic of ‘marriage’ per se (not just whether LGBTI couples should be included, but also on other marriage-related matters such as divorce). However, there isn’t a strong historical precedent for their use here, either.

In one of the more bizarre political speeches in recent times, speaking against marriage equality in her address to the ALP National Conference in December 2011, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard argued that a conscience vote should be granted because a conscience vote had been granted to Labor MPs with respect to the ‘no fault’ divorce reforms in 1975 (for the full text of her speech see here: <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/archive/national-affairs/julia-gillards-address-to-the-alp-national-conference-on-a-conscience-vote-for-gay-marriage/story-fnba0rxe-1226213001184 ).

Then Prime Minister celebrates after a conscience vote is approved at ALP National Conference in December 2011, a move that destroyed any chance of marriage equality being passed in the last Parliament, and continues to make passage difficult today.

Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard celebrates after a conscience vote is approved at ALP National Conference in December 2011, a move that destroyed any chance of marriage equality being passed in the last Parliament, and continues to make passage difficult today.

Gillard did not even attempt to acknowledge the fact that, from the time then Prime Minister John Howard introduced his ban on marriage equality in 2004, until her speech that day, all ALP Parliamentary Members had been subject to a binding vote on marriage broadly, and marriage equality specifically – they had been obliged to vote against LGBTI equality.

This glaring omission, ignoring the most recent seven years and instead grasping at an example from 36 years prior, was necessary because there was no intellectual rationale for that binding vote to become a conscience vote in 2011. The substantive arguments for and against marriage equality had not changed, the rights and wrongs of the issue were no different than they had been in 2004, or 2007, or 2009.

The only thing that had changed was the numbers within the ALP (something I will come to in the next section). In practice, there was no new ‘moral hazard’ which had suddenly transformed this issue from something which the Labor Party could bind on, to something so complex or controversial that it required a free vote.

There wasn’t even a legitimate question of religious freedom at stake – because, as made clear in paragraph 127 of the platform (see above), no church or religious group would be obliged to perform an LGBTI-inclusive marriage ceremony. This was a secular party, supporting the position that a secular Parliament should vote in favour of LGBTI relationships being recognised as equal under secular law. Nothing more and nothing less.

The ridiculousness of the ALP’s position – in supporting a platform position in favour of marriage equality, but then allowing its MPs to depart from that platform whenever they wished – is revealed when we compare it with the other main social policy issue currently the source of controversy within the ALP (and across Australia generally): asylum seeker and refugee policy.

Now that is an issue which is genuinely ‘life and death’, with policies that have directly led to the murder of Reza Berati, in Australian custody in an offshore detention centre which the last ALP Government re-established, which continues to drive scores of asylum seekers in numerous camps both here and abroad to, and beyond, breaking point and yes, which has also involved several mass drownings at sea.

If ever there was a subject that raised substantive moral and ethical concerns that would be it. And yet there is no conscience vote on that issue, nor is there a push for one (and, it must be added, nor do I believe there should be one – while obviously I think current ALP policies on refugees are appalling, the only way they can be changed is in Government, with all ALP members bound to vote in favour of a more humane approach).

The moral and ethical concerns of those who would oppose marriage equality, because of their belief that marriage is something which must be reserved solely for heterosexual relationships, pale in comparison, indeed fade into complete insignificance, when assessed against those concerns raised by refugee policies.

In fact, one could assert that in contrast to refugee policy the topic of marriage equality looks like an ‘ordinary’ issue, and definitely something which can be resolved in the ‘ordinary’ way – by a Conference vote, for and against, and then implemented by a binding vote on Labor’s parliamentary representatives.

But there is one last comparison that I wish to make which I think shows that the ALP’s position in favour of a conscience vote on marriage equality is not just ridiculous, but outrageous as well.

Imagine, for a second, that in 2011 the original ‘White Australia Policy’ still existed, and that in response the Labor Party National Conference adopted in its platform a position that it would remove discrimination based on race from all immigration policies and laws. Now imagine that same Conference then turned around and said that ALP MPs could vote against these changes if they believed that some migrants were less deserving of rights simply because of their race.

Outrageous, isn’t it? I believe that not only would the modern ALP not allow a conscience vote in these circumstances, it would expel, without a moment’s hesitation, any MP who even threatened to crossed the floor. And yet the only difference between that example and the issue of marriage equality is that the former is about racial equality, and the latter is about the equality of all people irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

As this comparison makes abundantly clear, while overt discrimination on the basis of race is, thankfully, not permitted (at least in the Party’s rules), there remains a special privilege for some MPs within the Labor Party to vote against the fundamental rights and equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

Earlier this year, Commonwealth Attorney-General Senator George Brandis encountered significant, and entirely justified, criticism, including from the ALP, when he told Parliament that “people have the right to be bigots.” But isn’t this criticism just a little bit hypocritical when, at the same time, Labor’s rules state that Federal Members of Parliament have the right to be homophobes?

I’ll concede that some people don’t believe opposing marriage equality necessarily equates with ‘homophobia’ (I do, but, to some extent, that is a debate for another day). Nevertheless, the point remains: there isn’t really any substantive difference between the Attorney-General saying that people have the right to be bigots, and the Australian Labor Party saying that its parliamentary representatives have the right to discriminate against LGBTI people.

Just as it is doing in the racial vilification debate, the Labor Party should be standing up for members of a minority group who are vulnerable to discrimination on the basis of their attributes. Instead, while its platform says the ALP supports finally conferring LGBTI Australians with ‘1st class’ citizenship, its rules allow a significant proportion of its MPs to continue to vote to entrench our 2nd class status.

It’s time to say that this situation is offensive – as I believe many people, both inside and outside the ALP, find it to be.

It’s time to point out that allowing a conscience vote on marriage equality is a gross violation of the principle of collective organising that lies at the heart of the ALP, a violation that has no merit or justification in principle whatsoever.

It’s time to say that allowing conscience votes on LGBTI rights of any kind, and permitting some Labor Party parliamentarians to vote against legal equality on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, is no longer acceptable in a contemporary political party that likes to refer to itself as progressive.

It’s time for the Australian Labor Party to adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality.

It’s Time to Bind: The Split?

When the merits of the arguments for and against a binding vote are all said and done, there are only two things left to debate – the internal consequences of adopting a binding vote for the ALP, and the external strategic considerations, for marriage equality campaigners, concerning when to push for such a vote.

Turning first to the internal consequences. There is an accusation which is made against people calling for a binding vote on issues like marriage equality, that we are somehow trying to ‘split’ the party. It is certainly an accusation which I would expect to hear frequently in the lead-up to next year’s National Conference, particularly as the push for a binding vote gathers steam.

In fact, the exact opposite is true – those who staunchly oppose being bound are the ones who threaten to split the party because of their own narrow self-interest.

Supporters of marriage equality inside the Australian Labor Party have spent the past decade meticulously playing by the rules. From the bleak days of August 2004, when the Latham-led Opposition chose to roll over and vote against marriage equality in response to John Howard’s attempted political ‘wedge’, through the following six years slowly building the case for full equality, while also gradually addressing other areas of discrimination (including securing de facto relationship recognition at the federal level for the first time in 2008).

By 2011 the time had come to make the final push for a change to the national platform. But that delay had come at a cost. For more than seven years, progressive Federal MPs had, in line with the Party’s binding policy position, been voting against LGBTI equality.

This included openly lesbian Senator Penny Wong, who was bound from the first vote in August 2004, until the December 2011 National Conference, to vote against her own equality, and that of her relationship. Her position invited, and attracted, much opprobrium from her own community, with suggestions that she had sold them out – even though she was playing the long game.

The same is true of out Senator Louise Pratt, who was bound to vote against the equality of her community from the time she was sworn in, in July 2008, until the end of 2011. But it was not just LGBTI MPs that were affected. Any progressive MP who genuinely believed the stance against marriage equality was discriminatory and wrong (and there were plenty from the very beginning), accepted these restrictions, and the criticisms that went along with them.

There were no public threats to cross the floor and bring forth a split in the Party – just a quiet determination to slowly build support towards an eventual change to the platform. That is exactly how a collectivist party should operate. And, in the lead up to the last National Conference it was clear that these tactics had paid off, with momentum firmly on the side of the angels.

In absolutely no coincidence whatsoever, that was also the moment opponents of marriage equality inside the ALP suddenly discovered that this topic was an ethically fraught one, and therefore required a conscience vote. Note that they did not make these arguments at the National Conferences of 2006 or 2009, both of which had occurred during the period when a binding position was being imposed on progressives.

No, the opponents of marriage equality only truly discovered the ‘benefits’ of a conscience vote when the number of people supporting equality inside the Party had finally outgrown the number of people opposed, and that as a result there was a very real risk that a binding vote might be actually applied on them.

It is plain to see how this Damascene conversion, adopted in quick succession by opponents of equality from the then Prime Minister down, was in fact intellectually bankrupt. In essence, they were saying that, while it was perfectly acceptable to impose a binding vote against progressives from 2004 to 2011, it was totally unacceptable to impose a binding vote on social conservatives from 2011 onwards.

In short, “binding votes are for people like them, not people like me.” That, my friends, is the antithesis of collectivism.

But worse than this blatant hypocrisy are the threats of socially conservative ALP MPs who state, usually in private or off-the-record, but occasionally in public, that even if the ALP were to adopt a binding position in favour of marriage equality, they reserve the right to thumb their noses at the bonds of solidarity and instead cross the floor.

As reported by Phillip Coorey in the Sydney Morning Herald at the start of the 2011 conference:

A handful of Right MPs, including Chris Hayes from western Sydney, told the Herald yesterday they would never vote for gay marriage, even if party policy dictated it. “You do believe in certain things. I can’t apologise for my beliefs,” Mr Hayes said. (full article: http://www.smh.com.au/national/we-wont-vote-for-gay-marriage-even-if-party-changes-its-position-say-labor-right-mps-20111130-1o766.html#ixzz371gEEuUI )

In more recent times, Mr Hayes has been joined by another Federal Parliamentary colleague in saying that, no matter what the supreme decision-making body of the Australian Labor Party decides, his own views against LGBTI equality mean that he feels no requirement to be bound by it.

As reported by Phillip Hudson in The Australian on 4 April 2014, then candidate, now Senator, Joe Bullock, declared that, “[i]f the party decides it [marriage equality] is not a conscience vote and expels me, so be it.” (full article: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/labor-senate-candidate-joe-bullock-sorry-for-offensive-speech/story-fn59niix-1226874445978 )

If a binding vote was good enough for Senators Wong & Pratt before the 2011 National Conference, it is good enough for Mr Hayes and Senator Bullock in 2015.

If a binding vote was good enough for Senators Wong & Pratt before the 2011 National Conference, it is good enough for Mr Hayes and Senator Bullock in 2015.

It is hard to work out which part of these comments is most offensive. Whether it is the complete disregard for not just the rules of the party of which they are representatives, but its philosophical underpinnings too. Or the absolute sense of personal entitlement which spouts from their mouths (for the record, this attitude, that an MP considers themselves above the party, is one ‘age of entitlement’ that I would definitely like to see come to an end).

But for me, it is not something either Mr Hayes or Senator Bullock said which is most repugnant. It is what they didn’t say. Neither finished their statement by saying that they would resign from Parliament.

Any member of the Australian Labor Party, from Federal Opposition Leader to local branch member, is free to decide at any time that they can no longer abide by the Party’s rules, and therefore to resign. But, for Members of Parliament, elected as candidates for a collectivist party, standing on and bound by a collectivist platform, the consequence of doing so should be that they resign their seat in Parliament as well. The fact that neither Mr Hayes nor Senator Bullock committed to doing so speaks volumes about their honour, or (arguable) lack thereof.

Because, as much as News Ltd columnists and the Australian Christian Lobby would try to turn any MP who crossed the floor on this issue and was subsequently expelled into some sort of martyr, abandoning solidarity but retaining the seat in Parliament which they secured as a member of, and with the assistance of, the Australian Labor Party would, in my view, be the height (or indeed depth) of dishonour.

The attitude of Mr Hayes and Senator Bullock also amply demonstrates exactly who would be responsible for any ALP ‘split’ in the event that the Party does adopt a binding vote. It would not be the fault of those who painstakingly make their case in the Party’s internal forums, who secure the passage of a binding resolution at the next National Conference in July 2015, all in accordance with the Party’s rules and processes.

No, any split would be the responsibility of those who would do their best to burn the place down if they did not get their way.

I used to think that the most appropriate analogy for this situation – of the ALP continually succumbing to demands for ‘conscience votes’ whenever social conservatives refused to abide by a particular decision – was that of parents giving in to the tantrums of a two-year old. That, by continuing to give that toddler what it wants rather than saying “no”, the Labor Party had created a monster that keeps on demanding more and more and more.

On reflection, however, that is grossly unfair on two-year olds. They don’t actually know what they are doing. Well, they might, but they are not yet old enough to be held liable for their behaviour.

Whereas the people who make these threats, time and time again, know exactly what they are doing. They are blackmailing their own political party, a group that they should hold and demonstrate allegiance towards, knowing that the party is more likely to give in to their extortionate demands than stand up to them.

Well, the time has come to say no more to their hypocrisy, and no more to their blackmail. It is no longer acceptable to simply give in to people who have zero respect for the party of which they are a member. Who believe that they alone have the right to deviate from a collectively-determined platform which is binding on everyone else.

It’s time to push for a binding vote in favour of marriage equality on all ALP Members of Parliament. And, if there are some MPs who decide they cannot abide by that decision (and there may well be some, although probably far fewer than many people expect), then the door is that way, but the seat stays here.

In practice, any member who does decide to leave, ‘split’ in terms of their commitment to the party a long time ago. Besides, these are people whose one noteworthy ‘achievement’ in life will be having left their political party, while a sitting member of parliament, because they couldn’t live with the idea of all Australians being equal regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. Their loss would not really be any loss at all.

It’s Time to Bind: The Strategy

Questions about parliamentary numbers, internal ALP rules and any potential party ‘split’ are actually the easy part of this discussion. The most complex issue in this entire debate concerns strategy, namely whether now is the appropriate time for marriage equality campaigners to restart the push for a binding vote.

And I will begin this section by acknowledging that different people, well-motivated and on the same side of this campaign (the broader movement for marriage equality), will arrive at a different assessment on this subject. There are people who I respect who will argue that any push for a binding vote inside the ALP jeopardises the overall campaign and therefore should be abandoned.

But, while I respect their opinions, I respectfully disagree.

For me, the framework for approaching this issue comes in the form of the following three questions – presented together with my answers:

i) Is there an inherent philosophical inconsistency in pushing for a binding vote inside the ALP while also pushing for a conscience vote in the Coalition? No.
ii) Would a binding vote in the ALP automatically mean there is no chance of a conscience vote inside the Coalition? No.
iii) Does pushing for a binding vote inside the ALP make it more difficult to achieve a conscience vote within the Coalition? Possibly.

Looking at these issues in more detail. The answer to the first question – concerning philosophical inconsistency – might seem counter-intuitive to some, but here is why I answered “no”.

First, we should always remember that there is nothing inherently ‘good’ about a conscience vote (there is nothing inherently ‘bad’ either, unless you are part of a collectivist organisation). A conscience vote is simply a process, an instrument, a means to an end.

I am sure nearly all marriage equality campaigners would be satisfied if there was both a binding vote inside the ALP and a ‘party vote’ in the Coalition, not only meaning that marriage equality was passed, but also that it would be done with a large majority and in a spirit of true bipartisanship.

Sadly, that is not going to happen. There is no chance of the Liberal and National Parties, in their current forms, adopting a formal position in favour of full LGBTI equality. Hence, it is entirely rational to push for a conscience vote within the Coalition, both to improve the overall numbers in the Parliament, and to ensure that no MP is forced to vote against the fundamental rights of other Australians on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

On the other side of the political aisle, the ALP already has a conscience vote, which means the only procedural change which can increase the share of Labor Party MPs voting in favour of marriage equality is to adopt a binding vote instead. From an advocate’s point of view, again, it is perfectly justifiable as a strategy to be arguing for the Australian Labor Party to maximise the number of its MPs voting in support.

Meanwhile, the same philosophical arguments would still apply – it would remain the case that no MP would be forced to vote against the fundamental rights of their fellow Australians (the same as for the Coalition).

No corresponding argument can be made by those opposed to marriage equality. This is because the right to get married, in secular law, has exactly zero impact on anyone else’s human rights. More couples would be married, and recognised as such by the State. LGBTI Australians would finally be treated equally in the Marriage Act 1961. That is all.

No-one else’s rights to be married, or have their own marriages recognised, would be affected. No religion’s right to recognise marriages (or not recognise, as the case may be) within their own religion would be compromised. And, despite whatever the Australian Christian Lobby and other extremists might try to argue, there is no fundamental right to impose one’s religious beliefs onto others, or to deny other people their human rights for religious reasons.

Which means that, as well as a compelling numerical reason to argue for a binding vote within the ALP, and a conscience vote inside the Coalition, there is also a philosophical approach which can provide it with moral justification.

In response to the second question, while what the ALP decides could have an influence on what position the Liberal and National Parties adopts (see below), it is definitely not automatic. For example, we have already witnessed a parliamentary vote where one side was ‘bound’ and the other had a conscience vote – in September 2012, with the Liberal and National Parties deciding not to follow the ALP’s lead in adopting a conscience vote.

Similarly, even if the ALP was to retain a conscience vote for the remainder of this term, there is no guarantee that Coalition MPs will end up with a free vote. While it appears that some progress is being made inside the Liberal and National Parties, the ultimate decision still rests with the party room – and there remains a real chance that there will be no Coalition conscience vote this side of the 2016 election regardless of what Labor does.

Of course, it makes no sense to deny at least the potential that the push for an ALP binding vote may make it more difficult to achieve a conscience vote within the Coalition, which is why I answered the third question “possibly”.

But, just because that outcome is a possibility (how big that possibility is depends on one’s subjective point of view), does not necessarily mean we shouldn’t try. There are, for example, several reasons why I believe we should continue to pursue a binding vote within the ALP while also acknowledging and assuming this risk.

First, as I noted in ‘The ‘Numbers’ section earlier, it is highly likely that for any Bill to succeed in this term of Parliament, it will need both a binding vote inside the Labor Party and a conscience vote inside the Coalition. So it seems logical to me that, while groups like Australian Marriage Equality make the case for a Liberal and National Party conscience vote, other groups (and I’m looking squarely at you, Rainbow Labor) simultaneously pursue a binding vote inside the ALP.

Second, there is the question of timing. If the ALP is to adopt a binding vote, it can only be done at its next National Conference, to be held on July 24-26, 2015. That will be almost two years into this three-year term of Parliament (and approaching four years since the ALP first adopted a conscience vote).

If the Coalition hasn’t agreed to a conscience vote by then, then it is highly unlikely to agree to one at any point this term (and, if it is willing to say no this term, under sustained pressure from groups like AME and in the face of a growing majority of community support for marriage equality, it could very well say no next term, too).

Third, if we were to make an honest assessment of where things stand at this moment, it is still more likely than not that marriage equality will fail this term. While there is a (very) small chance that a conscience vote on both sides could get the job done, or that a combined ALP binding vote/Coalition conscience vote secures its passage, most possible permutations lead to the Bill’s failure.

Which means we must keep a close eye on the next term of Parliament, to be decided at the 2016 Federal election. And, given that election looks like it will at least be competitive, wouldn’t there arguably be more benefit than cost in having one of the two ‘parties of government’ standing on a platform of a binding vote?

Such a position would mean that marriage equality would have a strong chance of passage if the ALP were to win Government (success would be almost guaranteed) or if there was a close election result either way (with only a small number of Coalition MPs needing to break ranks to secure victory).

On the other hand, if the ALP continues to adopt a conscience vote, the success of marriage equality will remain dependent on whether the Liberal and National Parties also adopt a conscience vote, and even then on the vagaries of the balance between progressives versus social conservatives inside both the ALP caucus and Coalition party room.

Fourth, there is an argument that the ALP adopting a binding vote at the 2015 National Conference would actually increase pressure on the Liberal and National Parties to agree to a conscience vote ahead of the 2016 poll. After all, opinion polls consistently show support for marriage equality standing at a minimum of 55-60%, increasing with each passing year, and strongest amongst young voters (ie new voters entering the ‘electoral market’).

In this context, it would take a truly ‘courageous’ party (in the Sir Humphrey sense of the word) to bind itself to a position shared by at most a third of the electorate – and a diminishing proportion at that. I can certainly think of a few Coalition MPs who would have extra incentive to push for a conscience vote in such a scenario (the name of an Australian TV prison drama springs to mind, for some reason).

As I said before, different people will hold different views about some of these strategic considerations. And, depending on how they see them playing out, I completely respect that they might arrive at the conclusion that we should not be pushing for an ALP binding vote at this point in time.

But I hope that they are also willing to acknowledge that there is no absolute ‘cut and dried’ case that the only way marriage equality can be achieved is through a conscience vote on both sides. That on this rainbow-hued issue, there are at least some strategic shades of grey.

In that case, where at a minimum there is doubt about whether to pursue a binding vote or not, I submit that we should fall back on our values, on what is ‘right’. From my point of view – and this post is simply my own perspective – I think we should be guided by the arguments for and against a binding vote. And, as discussed earlier (see ‘The Merits’), that case is open-and-shut: the ALP should adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality.

Putting it another way, if there is a strong case that a binding vote is the correct ideological position to take, then it would take an equally strong strategic counter-argument to tell progressive members of the ALP not to purse that objective at next year’s National Conference. To suggest to them that, even though a binding vote is the right thing to do, you should explicitly not pursue it because members of the Coalition are yet to secure a conscience vote. In my opinion, no such ‘overwhelming’ strategic argument exists.

Instead, I believe we should do exactly the same thing as we did at the 2011 National Conference – campaign for a binding vote. It was the right thing to do then. And it will still be the right thing to do next July. I hope that, after reading these arguments, you agree.

One final point. Some might argue that we should wait for a conscience vote to be held at some point in the next 12 months and, presuming it loses, to only push for a binding vote following that defeat.

But there are two problems with that argument. The first is that it took most of 2011, in the lead-up to December’s conference, to build momentum for the platform change. To have the same chance of success next year means starting campaigning now.

Second, I believe that doing so would expose the marriage equality movement to (probably quite fair) criticisms that it was merely being opportunistic, or disingenuous, because it was only pushing for a binding vote because the conscience vote had lost, and not because a binding vote was also the correct position to take. I would prefer to take this stance from the beginning of the campaign so that we can have credibility when it comes time for the debate on the floor of next year’s Conference.

Overall, while ‘strategic considerations’ are definitely the most complicated part of this debate, I think it leaves us exactly where we have been all along: that it’s time for the Australian Labor Party to adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality.

It’s Time to Bind: Take Action

As noted throughout this post, the main decision on whether the ALP adopts a binding vote on marriage equality will be made at the next National Conference, to be held on 24, 25 and 26 July 2015 (unless of course marriage equality is passed beforehand, in which case I will have been wrong, but very gladly so).

That might seem like a long way away now but, given the amount of time and effort that went into securing the platform change at the December 2011 gathering, it is important that we start focusing our efforts today.

The first key hurdle between now and next July is NSW State Conference, to be held on Saturday 26 July and Sunday 27 July 2014. That will be the last NSW Conference held before National Conference, and it is highly likely that a motion to support a binding position on marriage equality will be debated there.

There are a number of ways you can demonstrate your support for a binding vote in the two weeks left before this Conference. In particular, you can tweet, call, write or email either the Leader of the NSW Opposition, Mr John Robertson MP, or the NSW Labor Party itself, expressing your views in favour of genuine LGBTI equality. Their contact details are as follows:

Twitter (NB Please use the #ItsTimeToBind hashtag)
John Robertson @jrobertsonmp https://twitter.com/jrobertsonmp
NSW Labor @NSWLabor https://twitter.com/NSWLabor
Suggested tweet: Hey @NSWLabor & @jrobertsonmp, I believe #ItsTimeToBind in favour of #marriageequality. Please support a motion to bind at State Conference

Call
John Robertson (02) 9230 2310
NSW Labor (02) 9207 2000 or 1800 503 035

Write
Mr John Robertson MP
Leader of the Opposition
Parliament House
Macquarie St
SYDNEY NSW 2000

Mr Jamie Clements
NSW Party Secretary
NSW Labor Party Head Office
PO Box K408
HAYMARKET NSW 1240

Email
John Robertson leader.opposition@parliament.nsw.gov.au
NSW Labor nswlabor@nswalp.com

If you are stuck for something to write or say, here is a suggestion:

“I support the equal right of all Australians to marry, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

While I welcome the decision of the 2011 ALP National Conference to adopt a platform position in favour of marriage equality, I strongly oppose the decision to provide a conscience vote, allowing some Labor MPs to vote against the fundamental rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

I believe it’s time for the Australian Labor Party to adopt a binding vote in support of marriage equality. I call on you to support a resolution in favour of a binding vote at the NSW State Conference on July 26 and 27, 2014.”

Will NSW Labor Leader John Robertson say I do to a binding vote at State Conference on July 26-27, 2014?

Will NSW Labor Leader John Robertson say I do to a binding vote at State Conference on July 26-27, 2014?

From 28 July 2014 onwards, the primary battle will be fought at the federal level, with increasing pressure from both sides leading up to National Conference next year. Once again, the key figures to lobby are the Leader of the Federal Opposition, the Hon Bill Shorten MP, and the Australian Labor Party Head Office directly. Their contact details are:

Twitter (NB Please use the #ItsTimeToBind hashtag)
Bill Shorten @billshortenmp https://twitter.com/billshortenmp
Australian Labor @AustralianLabor https://twitter.com/AustralianLabor
Suggested tweet: Hey @AustralianLabor & @billshortenmp, I believe #ItsTimeToBind in favour of #marriageequality. Please support a binding vote on all MPs

Call
Bill Shorten (02) 6277 4022
Australian Labor (02) 6120 0800

Write
The Hon Bill Shorten MP
Leader of the Opposition
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Parliament House
CANBERRA ACT 2600

Australian Labor
5/9 Sydney Avenue
BARTON ACT 2600

Email
Bill Shorten Online contact form: http://billshorten.com.au/contact
Australian Labor Online contact form: http://www.alp.org.au/contact_us

Again, if you are in need of inspiration for what to write or say, how about this:

“I support the equal right of all Australians to marry, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

While I welcome the decision of the 2011 ALP National Conference to adopt a platform position in favour of marriage equality, I strongly oppose the decision to provide a conscience vote, allowing some Labor MPs to vote against the fundamental rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

I believe it’s time for the Australian Labor Party to adopt a binding vote in favour of marriage equality. I call on you to support a resolution which makes support for marriage equality a binding position on all ALP Federal MPs at the next National Conference, to be held in July 2015.”

Will Federal ALP Leader Bill Shorten 'do the right thing' and support a binding vote at the 2015 ALP National Conference?

Will Federal ALP Leader Bill Shorten ‘do the right thing’ and support a binding vote at the 2015 ALP National Conference?

If you liked this post, if you agree with it, or even if you think it is simply worthy of further debate, then please also share it with others. And if you want to stay up to date with more on this issue, please follow me on twitter (@alawriedejesus https://twitter.com/alawriedejesus ).

Finally, I wanted to say thank you for reading what has turned out to be a pretty lengthy post – I appreciate your interest in something which I feel so passionately about.

I do sincerely believe that we need to be having this conversation now, so that we can start planning our actions over the next 12 months. Ultimately, I think we need to work together to achieve a binding vote in support of marriage equality inside the ALP, and most importantly a legislative victory for marriage equality inside the Australian Parliament. Because, as we all know, we’ve waited long enough.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #6: Because it Lets MPs Off the Hook

This reason is closely related to number 6 (“Because Sometimes it Overshadows Other Important LGBTI Issues”), because it too derives from the fact that marriage equality now dominates the Australian LGBTI policy landscape.

As a result of this dominance, the position that Members of Parliament – indeed, all candidates for elected office – take on marriage equality has come to be the ‘primary’ LGBTI question which they are asked during election campaigns. Of course, in many ways that makes sense, given the high level of interest in this issue, both in our community and across society.

The answer that each MP gives can also be a useful pointer to how they may vote on other issues. An MP who says they support marriage equality is assumed to be more likely to support LGBTI anti-discrimination laws, or inclusive aged care services, or safe schools.

In this way, the simple yes/no, good/bad answer on marriage equality has the potential to serve as ‘shorthand’ for whether they are likely to vote yes or no on other reforms important to our community. In fact, I used this approach (analysing past votes on marriage equality) just this week in helping to estimate whether particular MPs might be more or less sympathetic on an education-related initiative.

But we run into significant difficulties when this question becomes the only question that we ask of our MPs, when the only calculation that we make about whether an MP is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on LGBTI issues is whether they support marriage equality or not.

First and foremost, if we only ask about marriage equality, then we are letting our MPs ‘off the hook’ in terms of their responsibilities to deal with the full range of issues which are important to and affect the LGBTI community.

If the only LGBTI topic they ever have to talk about is whether or not we can get married, then we are not making them talk about how to achieve equality of outcomes in health, in education and employment, we are not making them discuss how the state should support diversity in sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Second, we are letting our MPs off the hook because answering yes to marriage equality is, when you think about it, actually fairly easy. As the long and drawn out debate over the past decade has demonstrated, there really isn’t much of a debate to be had at all – either you support the equal recognition of our relationships, or you do not (for more on that particular issue, see 10 Things #5, next week).

There are many other LGBTI issues which are either more complex (for example, what are the best or most effective ways to reduce the over-representation of LGBTI young people in terms of mental health issues, depression and suicide), or which many of our MPs have never had to genuinely turn their minds to (such as where limits on religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws should be drawn). To say yes to marriage equality is simple – we should be making our MPs work a little bit harder than that in order to get our support.

Third, by not asking about a range of issues, we run the risk of letting off the hook those MPs who are supportive of marriage equality but who do not support other LGBTI issues. For example, it is possible to support inclusive marriage laws but also to support the exclusion of same-sex couples from the right to adopt or to access assisted reproductive technology (just ask Portugal, where gay couples can marry but not adopt or use ART).

It is also possible (and in practice it is far too common) for MPs to support marriage equality, but to simultaneously believe that religious organisations should be able to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* people, in schools, in health care, in employment, in pretty much any context. In this light, the simple yes/no, good/bad ‘shorthand’ fails us – because it is possible to support marriage equality, but not support LGBTI equality more broadly.

Conversely, it is possible to oppose marriage equality but be supportive on other LGBTI reforms. The best example of this was former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Her position on marriage equality – to oppose it, while also supporting a conscience vote inside the Labor Party, thereby ruining any chance of its passage in the last parliament – was unconscionable, and, from my perspective at least, can never be forgiven (for more on that particular issue, see 10 Things #3, in a few weeks).

And yet, Gillard’s period of leadership saw more pro-LGBTI reforms than most, if not all, of her predecessors. The introduction of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections in Commonwealth law for the first time, progressive Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender, funding for the QLife counselling initiative, PBS listing for Gardasil vaccinations for boys and a national LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Strategy, among other things, all happened during her (brief) tenure.

All of which goes to show that the position of our MPs on LGBTI issues is much more complicated than a single question, and much more layered than any simple yes/no answer could hope to capture. Marriage equality supporters can be poor on other reforms. Alternatively, MPs who oppose marriage equality can be supporters on other important issues.

Which means we do ourselves a great disservice if the only thing we ever talk about with MPs is whether they support our equal right to get married. We cannot, we must not, let them off the hook by allowing them to ignore the full breadth of LGBTI issues. We need to be better at putting more questions to them, and above all, we need to be better at asking more of them.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #7: Because Sometimes it Overshadows Other Important LGBTI Issues

In a similar way to reason #9 (“Because sometimes I feel guilty for having #firstworldproblems”), one of the things that frustrates me about marriage equality is that this issue has come to dominate domestic LGBTI politics to such an extent that it can, and has, overshadowed other important issues.

 

Now, that is not necessarily a criticism of marriage equality campaigners, including Australian Marriage Equality. They have done a fantastic job of promoting marriage equality and ensuring that, over the past decade, it has gone from what could be described as a ‘minority concern’, to one of widespread acceptance across the Australian population (even if our parliamentarians are taking far too long to catch up).

 

It is also not to dismiss the fact that marriage equality is an important issue in and of itself – obviously, as someone who is engaged themself, I understand the emotional pull at the heart of this issue which compels so many people to take action (and any regular reader of this blog would note the high volume of posts which relate to the denial of this right, not just in Australia but around the world).

 

But, and this is a big but, I am not sure that this completely justifies the disproportionate attention, and in some cases, disproportionate energy, which has been given to the issue of marriage equality by our community, especially over the past two to three years.

 

That statement might be a little bit controversial, so allow me to provide some context before you make up your mind. Let’s compare, for example, the community response (both our own, and the broader Australian community) to marriage equality with that regarding three other important LGBTI issues.

 

In April 2012, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs inquiry into two marriage equality bills conducted an online survey – to which 276,437 Australians responded (including more than 177,000 people in favour).

 

In subsequent months, the related Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs Inquiry received a record number of formal submissions – approximately 79,000, with roughly 46,400 people taking the time to write in support of a Marriage Act that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

 

Around the same time, the Gillard Government was preparing legislation which would, for the first time ever, provide anti-discrimination protections under Commonwealth law on those exact same grounds.

 

These protections were contained, along with a range of other measures, in the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination (HRAD) Bill 2012. The Exposure Draft of that legislation was considered by the same Senate Committee, and a still ‘healthy’ 3000 submissions were made (although, it has to be pointed out, many did not address the specific issue of LGBTI anti-discrimination but were in fact about other aspects of the Bill).

 

The HRAD Bill was eventually replaced by the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013, which, as the name suggests, focused exclusively on LGBTI protections. When it too was considered by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, in June 2013, just 90 standalone submissions were made. Nine. Zero. Or about 0.11% of the total submissions on marriage equality, to the same Committee, just 12 months prior.

 

To choose another example – during 2012 and 2013 the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) drafted the national Health & Physical Education curriculum, something which has the potential (or should do anyway) to help young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students in classrooms around the country.

 

Except, as I have written previously (link: <http://alastairlawrie.net/2013/12/24/no-5-draft-health-physical-education-curriculum-fails-lgbti-students/ ) the first draft of that curriculum did not even mention the words lesbian, gay or bisexual, erroneously included trans* and intersex in the same definition (and even then only referred to them in the glossary!) and essentially ignored sexual health and HIV.

 

That draft was open for public consultation from December 2012 to April 2013. In four months, 279 online surveys were completed, as well as 99 formal written submissions. Removing submissions from organisations (mostly from non-LGBTI health and education groups), there were exactly 14 submissions from individuals to that public consultation. One. Four.

 

Earlier this year, the HPE curriculum, together with all other subject areas, were referred by the Commonwealth Education Minister, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP, to homophobe Kevin Donnelly for yet another review. The grand total number of written submissions to that inquiry – of which only a small number would have focused on LGBTI exclusion from Health & Physical Education – was approximately 1,500.

 

One final example. Again, at the same time as the marriage equality parliamentary debates and the Sex Discrimination Act inquiry were going on, the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs was holding its own inquiry on the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of people with disabilities in Australia. One of the key issues examined by that inquiry – perhaps not to begin with, but certainly by the end, primarily as a result of the hard work of groups like OII Australia – was the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people.

 

Now, the intersex community might be small in number, even within our own community (see Notes) – but there is no denying this issue looms large in terms of all of the human rights abuses perpetrated against any member of the LGBTI community in Australia, at any point in our history. So, it was perhaps disappointing that the entire Senate inquiry – and not simply for the Report focusing on intersex issues – received just 91 standalone submissions.

 

But, as we have seen above, that is simply one part of a frustrating overall trend. The entire number of submissions to two LGBTI anti-discrimination inquiries, two reviews of the HPE curriculum, and an inquiry examining the coerced sterilisation of intersex people, is less than the number of submissions to one state-based same-sex marriage inquiry (NSW, in March 2013, received 7,586 submissions), let alone the 79,000 submissions to the 2012 Senate marriage inquiry.

 

Of course, simply counting submissions in this way doesn’t necessarily reflect other work undertaken, by a range of groups, with respect to anti-discrimination protections, the curriculum or intersex rights – much of which happens behind the scenes.

 

As indicated above, the high volume of submissions to marriage equality inquiries is also a testament to the hard work of groups like Australian Marriage Equality (and others, including GetUp!), in terms of mobilising the community.

 

There are also other advantages enjoyed by the issue of marriage equality (it is part of a clear, single-issue global movement, in recent years at least has emerged as part of the cultural zeitgeist, it is a much simpler yes/no policy question), not enjoyed by some of the other issues identified.

 

And it is much easier to report on – the images of brides and grooms either being denied legal equality, or enjoying newly-won rights, makes marriage equality a very ‘photogenic’ issue. The fact our opponents have given consistently outrageous comments also makes reporting on ‘conflict’ in this area much more straightforward for journalists.

 

It is even arguable that the disproportionate focus on marriage equality may actually be necessary in order to achieve such a significant and, until recently, almost unimaginable, social change.

 

And yet, when I reflect on the level of commitment which goes into marriage equality, compared to other important LGBTI issues, I find myself sometimes lamenting that we do not put the same level of energy, and dedicate the same level of time and resources, into the latter.

 

So, by all means I encourage you to support – or continue to support – the important work that Australian Marriage Equality does (to find out how to get involved, go here: <http://www.australianmarriageequality.org )

 

But, at the same time, it would be great if more people would also support some of the other organisations that, in addition to working on marriage equality, also advocate on a range of other LGBTI issues, which are no less important to the long-term health and well-being of our community. They include:

 

The NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby (<http://glrl.org.au )

The Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby (<http://www.vglrl.org.au )

Transgender Victoria (<http://www.transgendervictoria.com ) and

OII Australia – Intersex Australia (<http://oii.org.au )

 

Those are four groups that I am or have been involved in, or have worked with – but there are a range of other LGBTI advocacy groups in states and territories around the country worthy of your support. Because, while marriage equality might be an important thing, it is not and never has been the only thing.

 

The national Health & Physical Education curriculum will have an impact on young LGBTI people for years, if not decades.

The national Health & Physical Education curriculum will have an impact on young LGBTI people for years, if not decades.

 

Notes

  • The reference to the comparative size of the intersex population is absolutely not meant to suggest that the issues it confronts does not count (as a member of another, albeit slightly larger, minority group, that is obviously not a rational position to hold), but it has been included here because it could partly explain why less people would have made a submission to this inquiry. Nevertheless, the scale of injustice involved in the sterilisation (and other unnecessary medical interventions) of intersex people without consent, in Australia, TODAY, means it is something we all should be concerned about.
  • It should also be noted that, when people were presented with a simple way of expressing their concern about the national Health & Physical Education curriculum – via a Change.org petition – at least 6000 people added their signature in less than a month. Obviously, people do care about other issues, including those listed above, so different groups also need to learn better how to engage on these issues, and translate that innate or latent support into concrete actions.

Why I Don’t Support the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014

Tonight is the 1st anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s historic decisions in the Proposition 8 and Defense of Marriage Act cases – reinstating marriage equality in California, ensuring couples legally married under state law could not be denied federal benefits, and giving impetus to a surging tide of marriage equality litigation across the US [As an aside, if you get the chance to watch recently released documentary The Case Against 8, do, it’s amazing].

 

And from tomorrow, Australian couples where one partner has British citizenship will be able to start marrying in UK consulates in (selected) capital cities around the country.

 

Both developments mean that the question of how marriages solemnised by countries which already have marriage equality are treated under Australian law is firmly back on the public, and political, agenda.

 

As you may already be aware, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young earlier this year introduced the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 in Commonwealth Parliament. If passed, it would ensure that same-sex couples validly married under the laws of another country would be treated as married under Australian law.

 

Which sounds eminently reasonable. Indeed, as someone who is a long-term LGBTI advocate himself, is engaged to be married (and has been for four and a half years already), and has contemplated using the laws of either New York or New Zealand to marry his own partner, what problem could I possibly have with this proposed legislation?

 

Here goes then – at the risk of making myself unpopular with (at least some) other marriage equality advocates, the following is why I do not support progressing with the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014:

 

My problem is not necessarily about what is included in the Bill (although there is an issue in the drafting which I will come to later). It almost goes without saying that I completely support the legal recognition of the marriages of same-sex couples that have been wed in other countries.

 

Instead, my problem concerns what is not included in the Bill – the recognition of domestic marriages – and the consequence of only recognising marriages conducted ‘outside’ Australia, and not those ‘inside’ at the same time.

 

If passed, such legislation would create a situation whereby there would be three main distinct categories of same-sex couples who wish to be treated as married in Australia:

 

  • Couples who have the financial resources to take advantage of the opportunity to marry under the laws of another country;
  • Couples who have been or are able to marry under the laws of another country because of their current or former nationality (including where one partner has UK citizenship or where the couple has emigrated from a country with marriage equality); and
  • Couples who do not have the financial resources or nationality to be able to take advantage of marriage equality elsewhere.

 

Only couples in the first two categories would be able to be considered legally married.

 

In effect, if the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill were to succeed, Australia would have a system which, far from recognising genuine ‘marriage equality’, would actually create new types of marriage inequality, only this time based on distinctions around class and nationality rather than sexual orientation.

 

Put simply, I cannot advocate for a Bill which would provide the opportunity for a couple who can afford it to get married overseas and have that marriage legally recognised here, but which would tell an elderly couple barely surviving on the age pension that they cannot be married under Australian law because they do not have the money.

 

If we are genuinely interested in marriage equality, then both couples must have the same right to wed. To put it another way, I am only interested in advocating for a Bill which attempts to redress the injustice perpetrated against both couples, not just the one that can afford to.

 

Now, some advocates might draw parallels between the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 and the various state and territory same-sex marriage bills that were pursued in Tasmania, NSW and the ACT in recent years. They could argue that both reforms are about gradual or incremental change and therefore both should be supported.

 

I disagree. While the state and territory same-sex marriage bills raised a range of complex ethical issues, including that they were never genuinely ‘equal’ under Commonwealth law, and more substantively that their final versions were deliberately non-trans* and intersex inclusive (see Notes below), they at least had some substantive arguments in their favour.

 

Those Bills involved asking state and territory MPs to step in where Commonwealth Parliamentarians had clearly abrogated their responsibility to treat all couples equally. In doing so, advocates were asking state and territory parliaments to do all that they legally could to reduce the discrimination experienced by same-sex couples.

 

State and territory same-sex marriage bills, and most notably the Bill that was passed in the ACT, also had the benefit of clarifying the constitutional position of marriage equality in Australia. The High Court, in its decision on 12 December 2013, found that while state and territory-based same-sex marriage laws were invalid, Commonwealth parliament clearly has the legal authority to introduce marriage equality through amendments to the Marriage Act 1961.

 

Which means that, while the Court’s decision to invalidate the marriages of 31 same-sex couples who had been wed in Canberra during that five day window of opportunity was obviously heartbreaking for them, the overall outcome was also of immense benefit to the wider marriage equality movement – it put the pressure squarely back on Commonwealth MPs as the only people who can remove marriage discrimination in the law.

 

Which makes it incredibly odd – and that’s putting it kindly – that the first Bill to be introduced after that decision, and (from an outsider’s perspective anyway) what seems likely the first Bill to be debated, is legislation which asks for something less than what is necessary to achieve full equality.

 

The Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 essentially involves asking the same people, sitting in the same place and exercising the same powers, who could deliver us full equality, to pass a law which falls far short of what we want, and fails to deliver the rights we deserve. In this light, the current Bill is inferior to the – already problematic – state and territory same-sex marriage laws.

 

It is also difficult to work out what the tactics might be in pursuing such a strategy. After all, it is hard to imagine many, or indeed any, Commonwealth MPs voting to recognise marriages solemnised elsewhere who would not also vote to recognise marriages entered into domestically.

 

The level of opposition to such a Bill would also probably be the same – while the people who support ongoing discrimination against LGBTI people in the Marriage Act might be a little bit slow to grasp the concept of equality, they would be quick to reject anything which ended up with the recognition of married same-sex couples on Australian shores.

 

Which makes the decision to pursue the recognition of overseas marriages first, isolated from the question of domestic marriages, seem too clever by half. Perhaps the only benefit is that it has instigated another parliamentary inquiry into marriage equality (although even that might not feel like much of a benefit as we all write another submission, to yet another inquiry, arguing for our equality, when what we really need is for Commonwealth MPs to just get it done already).

 

For those interested, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently considering Senator Hanson-Young’s Bill, and is accepting public submissions until Thursday 31 July (details here: <http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Recognition_of_Foreign_Marriages_Bill_2014 ).

 

I do commend Australian Marriage Equality for ensuring that their ‘pro forma’ online submission encourages people to call for both the recognition of foreign marriages and for marriages performed here (details here: <http://www.australianmarriageequality.org ).

 

Nevertheless, I would go further than that. I would explicitly argue to Senator Hanson-Young, and to anyone who wishes to proceed with the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014, that they should reconsider. Once the Senate inquiry is completed, and presents its final report to Parliament by Wednesday 3 September, I believe this legislation should be abandoned.

 

The next Bill to be debated in the Senate Chamber should be, must be, legislation which provides for genuine marriage equality, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, and not one which would allow some same-sex couples to marry, but only those from certain classes or nationalities.

 

Still unconvinced? There is one more problem with the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 which, as I alluded to earlier, lies in the drafting of the Bill itself. And it is not a minor problem, either.

 

The Bill would leave in tact the current definition of marriage in section 5 of the Marriage Act 1961 (“marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”). Instead, it replaces section 88EA with the following:

 

(1)  Despite the definition of marriage in subsection 5(1), a union between:

(a)  a man and another man; or

(b)  a woman and another woman;

solemnised in a foreign country under local law as a marriage is recognised as a marriage in Australia.

(2)  The parties to a union mentioned in subsection (1) have the same rights and obligations under this Act, or under any law of the Commonwealth, as the parties to a marriage between a man and a woman.

 

This is explicitly, and only, a same-sex marriage Bill. It is not genuinely inclusive of any marriages of people who may not be, or who may not identify as, a man or a woman. Some couples which include trans* or intersex individuals may not be able to utilise such laws or may not want to, because the language does not reflect who they are, and therefore denies the nature of their relationships.

 

The Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill does not challenge the unnecessary inclusion of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in section 5 of the Marriage Act, something which we should be moving away from – instead, it further entrenches these concepts, by replicating this language in additional subsections. Which, for me, is yet another reason – and a fairly compelling one at that – to not advocate for this Bill as it currently stands.

 

In conclusion, while the intentions of those who have drafted this legislation are sound, the outcome that its passage would deliver is not. It is time to go back to the drawing board, and return with a Bill that genuinely delivers marriage equality, not just to some couples, but for all.

 

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, author of Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, author of Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014

 

Notes

 

  • In terms of state and territory same-sex marriage laws, I acknowledge that the question of whether they should have been supported at all was a complex one, with different people coming down on different sides of that debate. My own view was that the drafting of those Bills should have attempted to set out a range of possible relationships which could have been recognised, allowing the High Court to strike out whichever it believed did not have a constitutional basis. As it turns out, all of them would have been– but at least we would have been struck out together.
  • As with all other posts (except where explicitly stated), these are my own views, and not those of any organisation with which I am associated.
  • Finally, there are still five weeks left until submissions close to the Senate inquiry. At this stage, I plan on writing a submission that reflects the above, and calls for the Recognition of Foreign Marriage Bill 2014 to be dropped, and replaced with a genuine marriage equality bill. Of course, I am willing to hear any arguments countering what I have written, and change my position/submission if I am convinced that I have got it wrong.

 

12 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Athletes I Admire Most

Tonight, from my perspective, is ‘peak sport’ for 2014: the start of play at Wimbledon (when we can at least still dream of an Australian winner), and the first of the final group games at the men’s football World Cup (with Australia bowing out, hopefully with another solid performance, against Spain in the early hours of tomorrow morning). As a long-term tennis fan – and football fan once exactly every four years – it doesn’t get much better than that.

 

To celebrate this, but more importantly to acknowledge the fact that the past 12-18 months has been a ‘breakout’ period for LGBT people in sports worldwide, I thought I would write about some of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes who I admire most, some for their outstanding play on the field, some for the paths they have forged for others to follow, and some for what they have accomplished off the field as well.

 

Of course, in limiting this list to just a dozen names, there are many, many worthy people who I have left out (and to whom I apologise) – but here are some of the LGBT athletes that this particular sports fan looks up to:

 

12: Abby Wambach

 

Given the current World Cup in Brazil, I thought I would start with a football player who has competed at three World Cups, as well as at two Olympic Games (winning Gold Medals at both). Abby Wambach is also the highest goal scorer in international football – male or female – with 167 goals, and was FIFA World Player of the Year (2012).

 

Abby’s sexual orientation became more widely known last October, when she married fellow football player Sarah Huffman – although she rejected descriptions that this was her ‘coming out’: “I can’t speak for other people, but for me, I feel like gone are the days when you need to come out of a closet. I never felt like I was in a closet. I never did. I always felt comfortable with who I am and the decisions I made.”

 

See also: Casey Stoney, who has herself played at two World Cups, more than 100 internationals, captained both England, and Great Britain at the London Olympics, and who officially came out in February this year.

 

On the men’s side, few players have come out while still active, with the most recent being Robbie Rogers (who has played 18 times for the US, although none at World Cup level), and of course Justin Fashanu, an English player who came out way back in 1990, but whose life ended tragically eight years later.

 

11: Nicola Adams

 

Bisexual British boxer Nicola Adams did one of the most difficult things in sport: to win a Gold Medal, as a favourite, at a home Olympics (London 2012). In doing so, she became the first openly LGBT boxer to win a medal at that level.

 

See also: Puerto Rican former world IBA Featherweight champion Orlando Cruz became the first male professional boxer to come out as gay while still active in October 2012.

 

10: Michael Sam

 

So much has been written about Michael Sam already this year that adding much here is almost redundant. He makes this list alone for the courage of coming out publicly prior to NFL draft camp (although his teammates knew during his final season of College football) – and accepting the risk that he would be drafted lower, or even not at all, because of this declaration. To risk killing off your career, by being honest about who you are from the outset, in a sport where no active player has ever come out, is the definition of brave.

 

The moment where he emotionally celebrated being drafted by the St Louis Rams by kissing his boyfriend Vito Cammisano, broadcast live on ESPN to millions of Americans, was also one of the most beautiful things we will see on TV this year (sports or non-sports related). I’m sure I’m not the only person around the world who knows very little about ‘grid iron’ but who cares passionately about whether Michael Sam makes his on-field debut in the next few seasons.

 

See also: US basketball player Jason Collins came out via Sports Illustrated in April 2013 and, in March 2014, played for the Brooklyn Nets, becoming the first openly-gay active player in any of the ‘big four’ North American men’s sports competitions (baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey), although baseball player Glenn Burke was apparently open about being gay to his teammates and club owners in the late 1970s, but not to the public at large.

 

Michael Sam embraces boyfriend Vito Cammisano live on ESPN after being drafted.

Michael Sam embraces boyfriend Vito Cammisano live on ESPN after being drafted

 

9: Brittney Griner

 

While there might be more accomplished openly lesbian or bisexual women’s basketball players (so far, anyway) than the 23 year old Griner, it is hard to look past someone who, in the same week in April 2013, was both picked first overall in the WNBA draft and came out publicly as a lesbian to Sports Illustrated (a couple of weeks before Jason Collins). The fact that she has used her new-found fame to stand up against bullying, and bullying of young LGBT people in particular, makes me respect her even more.

 

See also: There have been several other notable lesbian or bisexual female basketball players, although one of the more famous was three-time Olympic Gold Medallist Sheryl Swoopes, who announced she was gay in 2005 and had a long-term female partner, although has since become engaged to a man (NB I have not used the word bisexual here because I do not believe Swoopes uses that term to identify herself).

 

8: Belle Brockhoff

 

As with Griner, there have no doubt been more accomplished openly-LGBT athletes at the Winter Olympics. But, to me, coming out to the world at age 20, before your first ever Games, and then being an active part of the Athlete Ally/AllOut ‘Principle 6’ campaign against homophobia in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics in Putin’s Russia is seriously impressive. Oh, and did I mention that just this week she became a beyondblue Ambassador for mental health, including LGBTI mental health?

 

See also: Dutch speed-skater Ireen Wust, who came out as bisexual in October 2009, has been to three Winter Olympics, winning 4 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze medals, becoming the most successful athlete for the Netherlands at the Olympics. And, while he just missed out on qualifying for the Sochi Games, I couldn’t leave out the Vancouver Olympian from New Zealand, Blake Skjellerup, who came out in May 2010 and is, like Griner, an advocate against bullying.

 

7: Matthew Mitcham

 

Another athlete to come out before their first Olympic Games – also aged just 20, in the lead-up to Beijing in 2008 – Mitcham went on to claim the Gold Medal in the men’s 10 metre platform, with the highest-scoring dive in Olympic history. The fact that he had been so public about his sexual orientation also meant that the world got to see him celebrating his victory by embracing his boyfriend, Lachlan Fletcher, in the stands – a forerunner of, and rival to, the Sam-Cammisano moment.

 

See also: It would be remiss not to mention British Olympic bronze medallist diver Tom Daley, especially given his December 2013 coming out video on YouTube has been watched more than 11 million times around the world.

 

Matthew Mitcham celebrates his Gold Medal victory in Beijing with partner Lachlan Fletcher

Matthew Mitcham celebrates his Gold Medal victory in Beijing with partner Lachlan Fletcher

 

6: Amelie Mauresmo

 

I have chosen the previous four athletes at least in part because they have all been ‘out’ from the early days of their sporting careers. One of the most famous athletes to set that precedent was French tennis player Amelie Mauresmo, who not only came out publicly at the age of 19 during the 1999 Australian Open (where she went on to make the final), but who also endured negative comments from other players in response.

 

The fact that she persevered against her (on-court) psychological struggles, to become world number 1 and then both Australian Open and Wimbledon Champion in 2006 is truly admirable.

 

See also: I have written previously about the large number of out female tennis players (link here: <http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/01/21/in-search-of-the-elusive-gay-or-bisexual-male-tennis-player/ ) compared to the complete absence of any out male players. Of those women, one of my favourites is Casey Dellacqua, who came out in August last year, with the simple announcement that she and her partner Amanda had become parents.

 

5: Greg Louganis

 

Greg Louganis is the only person to feature on this list who was not openly LGBT during their sports career. And, while he may go down in history as one of the greatest divers of all time (winning two gold medals at both the Los Angeles and Seoul Olympics), that is not the reason I have included him here either.

 

He features because of his disclosure in 1995 that he was both gay and HIV-positive, having tested positive at the start of 1988. In doing so, he was confronted by, and helped to confront, the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV, at a time when large numbers of people in the US, Australia and other Western countries were still dying from AIDS-related illness (noting of course that this continues to be true for much of the world today).

 

Louganis has since worked as an advocate for people living with HIV, as well as for the human rights of the LGBT community, thus demonstrating his champion abilities extended from the diving board to the real world.

 

See also: Australian Sydney Olympic silver medallist, trampolinist Ji Wallace, who announced he was gay in 2005, and HIV-positive in August 2012, and who has since become another advocate for people living with HIV.

 

4: Renee Richards

 

One of the true pioneers of LGBT sports, Renee Richards transitioned in 1975. She was subsequently denied entry to compete at the 1976 US Open Tennis championships. Richards contested this ban in the New York Supreme Court, which ruled in her favour, allowing her to compete at the 1977 US Open where, despite losing in first round singles, she made the women’s doubles final.

 

Richards continued to compete until 1981, rising as high as number 20 in the rakings (in February 1979). She may not have won a title, but in the period since she has won an enormous amount of respect for being a trailblazer for trans* participation in sports.

 

See also: Mianne Bagger, Danish born Australian resident, was the first trans* woman to play in a professional golf tournament at the Women’s Australian Open in 2004. She went on to qualify for and play on the European Women’s Golf Tour. Trans* Canadian athlete Michelle Dumaresq is another pioneer in this field, competing in the 2002, 2003 and 2004 World Mountain Biking Championships.

 

3: Louisa Wall

 

Wall made her international debut for the Silver Ferns in netball in 1988 at the age of just 17. Later, she went on to compete in international rugby union, coming out publicly as a lesbian prior to playing for the New Zealand team that won the women’s World Cup in 1998.

 

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Wall entered Parliament in 2008, and it was her Private Member’s Bill which was eventually passed on 17 April 2013, making New Zealand the 13th country in the world to achieve marriage equality. That list of achievements is enough to make most people (this author included) feel pretty inadequate by comparison.

 

See also: While he never played internationally, another LGBT athlete to make the transition to politics is Brian Sims, who in 2001 became the only openly gay college football captain in NCAA history, and is now a Democratic member in the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives.

 

Louisa Wall with partner Prue Katea celebrating passage of the NZ Marriage Amendment Bill

Louisa Wall with partner Prue Katea celebrating passage of the NZ Marriage Amendment Bill

 

2: Ian Roberts

 

Looking back on it now, almost 20 years later, it is difficult to overstate the significance of Ian Roberts’ coming out – for so many people around the world (including for the author, who was 17, deeply in the closet and at a religious boarding school in Brisbane at the time).

 

The fact that someone who was one of the ‘hard men’ of rugby league, having played 9 State of Origin matches and 13 Tests for Australia, talked openly about being gay – and, importantly, who continued to play the game for another three years – was simply amazing.

 

At the time, it was also supposed to be a ‘game changer’, with Roberts opening the door for other gay or bisexual rugby league (and Australian rules) players to come out, too. In 2014, in Australia at least, none have followed in his footsteps, thus underscoring just how significant his original declaration was.

 

See also: While no other Australian top flight rugby league or Australian rules players have come out since Roberts retired, Welsh rugby union and rugby league dual captain (and British Lions captain to boot), Gareth Thomas came out as gay in 2009, prior to his rugby league international appearances.

 

1: Martina Navratilova

 

It is almost inevitable that the number one person on any list of LGBT athletes to admire will end up being Martina Navratilova. Yet, despite her ‘top ranking’ becoming almost a cliché, there is a reason why it is impossible to ignore the achievements of a tennis player who came out as a lesbian, aged 24, way back in 1981.

 

At the time, Navratilova had already won two Grand Slam singles titles and previously reached the top ranking. She would go on to win a further 16 Grand Slam singles titles (including every major at least twice, and Wimbledon nine times), 41 Grand Slam doubles titles (31 women’s, ten mixed), among 167 singles titles overall, and 177 doubles titles overall. Martina (her fame was such that many felt they were on first name basis) was also world number one for 332 weeks, second only in history to Steffi Graf.

 

The fact that she did so as an out and proud lesbian meant that Navratilova served as a powerful role model for countless young lesbians and gay men in the 1980s, especially when such role models were somewhat thin on the ground. And it should be remembered that she did so at great personal cost – at a time when tennis was moving from the early days of professionalism on its way to becoming a global money-making machine (for the top players at least), Navratilova’s declaration no doubt contributed to a massive loss of potential sponsorship income.

 

For all of these reasons, her on-court accomplishments, the fact that she was a powerful role model, and that, in coming out at 24 she knowingly sacrificed financial rewards to be true to herself, Martina Navratilova is the LGBT athlete I admire most.

 

See also: There is no ‘see also’, it’s just Martina.

 

Martina Navratilova, demonstrating the determination that made her one of the greatest players of all time

Martina Navratilova, demonstrating the determination that made her one of the greatest players of all time

 

Notes

 

Obviously, putting together any list like this is going to be somewhat subjective, and the athletes included above certainly reflect the fact that I am a tennis fan (with three of the 12 positions) and Australian (it’s highly likely that if I wasn’t, Belle Brockhoff and Ireen Wust would be swapped). There are also plenty of other athletes who would have made worthy entries – Alyson Annan, Natalie Cook and Rennae Stubbs among them.

 

I also make no apology for the fact that women make up two thirds of the list – it is undeniable that men have been lagging behind in terms of LGBT sports for some time (although there are hopeful signs, with people like Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins and Michael Sam, that they might finally be starting to catch up).

 

Finally, I acknowledge that I have not included any intersex athletes in this article. I have done so deliberately because, for the most part, the fact that these athletes have been intersex has been publicly revealed not because of the athlete’s own actions, but as a result of the compulsory ‘sex testing’ of those athletes (in many cases leading to disqualification and bans from their chosen sports). In such a situation, I do not believe it is my place to talk about their intersex status – that is up to them.