Stonewall 50: Bouquets & Bricks

Today marks 50 years since the Stonewall Riots, a key moment in the history of LGBTI rights activism, both in the United States and around the world.

 

In a different world I had hoped to be in New York, attending the World Pride celebrations marking this significant anniversary – although unfortunately sometimes the more mundane parts of life, like mortgage payments, have other plans.

 

I wanted to be there to pay my respects to the activists who have come before us, and on whose shoulders we stand, who have paved the way towards the improved rights and increased acceptance many of us enjoy today.

 

Even though I may not be there in person I can still honour their achievements in my own small way, on this somewhat niche LGBTI rights blog, on the other side of the globe.

 

Thank you to the brave people at the Stonewall Inn who, in the early hours of June 28 1969, fought back against police oppression, and fought to end the injustice that was ubiquitous in the lives of queer people at that time.

 

Thank you to the trans and gender diverse people, the drag queens and the people of colour who have been at the forefront of this battle from the very beginning.

 

Of course, the Stonewall Riots was not the first instance of LGBTI people fighting back against abuse and mistreatment. Thank you too to the people at Compton’s Cafeteria, and Cooper Do-nuts, and likely other instances of queer rebellion that have been lost to history, because we were not the ones who were writing it.

 

Nor was Stonewall the starting point for LGBTI rights within the United States, with groups like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis undertaking the comparatively-boring legal reform work – but who, in doing so, took far greater risks than we could possibly appreciate today.

 

Obviously, the story of LGBTI activism did not begin and does not end with the US either (a mistake we make all-too-often, especially on anniversaries like this).

 

Thank you as well to the countless campaigners for our rights around the world, from the advocates for homosexual recognition in Germany in the second half of the 19th century, to the courageous people fighting for decriminalisation in the 69 countries where homosexuality remains illegal today (hopefully 68 later this year, if Bhutan’s upper house passes the Bill before it).

 

Looking closer to home, Australia’s most-famous instance of queer people celebrating amidst the spectre of police brutality had its own 40th anniversary just last year. Thank you to the 78ers, whose courage at that first Sydney Gay Mardi Gras helped inspire the generations here that followed.

 

Just as in the US, however, Mardi Gras was not the starting point for LGBTI rights in Australia.

 

Thank you to the people who stood up in the preceding decade, from the formation of the Homosexual Law Reform Society of the ACT in July 1969 (just one month after Stonewall, and who will celebrate their own 50th anniversary in four weeks’ time), through the early 70s activism of groups like Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP for short), to the decriminalisation advocates in South Australia and elsewhere.

 

Thank you to the people who responded to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, which decimated our community when it had only just begun to emerge from the darkness. You fought for your lives – and for all of us – and in doing so you kept the (candle)light alive.

 

Thank you to the HIV activists today, who understand that this struggle is not over.

 

Thank you to the law reformers, who over decades have secured the building blocks of legal equality, from anti-discrimination protections, to relationship recognition and most recently the right to marry the person we love.

 

Thank you to the trans and gender diverse activists, who have been fighting – against even greater resistance – for the right to live the lives you were always meant to. The battles for access to birth certificates and identity documentation, and health care, are not over.

 

Thank you to the intersex activists whose struggles seem bigger still. Many of whom are survivors of gross violations of the human right to bodily autonomy, but who speak out to stop those same coercive surgeries and treatments from being inflicted on others. And who must fight against the indifference of politicians, the arrogance of medical professionals and too-often the ignorance of other members of the LGBTI community.

 

Thank you to the queer people of colour, and especially to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTI people, who fight not just against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia, but also against the racism that lies at the heart of our country (and, sadly, within our own community too).

 

As can be seen from the above, the incredible progress made so far on LGBTI rights has been achieved because of the work of more than any one particular individual or organisation. We have all played a role.

 

From the brave people who threw the first bricks at Stonewall. To others who have thrown bricks through the legal, social and cultural discrimination which LGBTI people all-too-commonly faced. And everyone who has thrown their own bricks through the closet of invisibility and shame that too many people have endured.

 

With those bricks we have built ourselves a community, and a home, where more people than at any point in history can feel accepted for who they are, no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics.

 

But, as we all know, the house of LGBTI rights remains incomplete – there is still much unfinished business, in Australia, the United States and around the world, before all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people can finally be considered ‘free & equal’.

 

Which means we need more (metaphorical) brick-throwers, to smash down the walls of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia that keep many LGBTI community members imprisoned.

 

So today, as we celebrate Stonewall 50, and give thanks to the LGBTI activists who have made our world a better place, we should take a moment to reflect on what each of us can do, what we should do, and what we must do, to carry on their work.

 

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Pride, Pressure and Perseverance

I am a naturally introverted person, and someone who is more likely to express an opinion about an issue of public policy, than to wear my heart on my sleeve.

 

Which means that, when it comes to something like the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, I am more likely to understand the philosophical importance of ‘pride’ – of a community coming together to express pride in who they are – than to actually feel it. Think more political expression than personal emotion.

 

But today is different. Today I definitely feel pride, deeply and sincerely, in my community, in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer Australia.

 

I feel pride not just because of what we as a community have accomplished, but also because of the reasons we took on the task in the first place.

 

By now you would know that, this morning, the Australian Labor Party caucus formally decided to block Malcolm Turnbull’s plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

Given the numbers in the Senate, and the already stated positions of the Greens, Nick Xenophon Team, Derryn Hinch and even Liberal Senator Dean Smith, that means the plebiscite’s enabling legislation will not pass the upper house, when it is ultimately voted on (whether that is in a few weeks’, or a few months’, time).

 

We have, through collective effort, killed the plebiscite. It merely remains to be buried.

 

I probably don’t need to explain to regular readers of this blog just how hard many, many people have had to work to make that happen – in the face of stiff opposition.

 

The plebiscite was the policy of not one but two Prime Ministers, and of a (narrowly) re-elected Liberal-National Government.

 

It had a vocal cheer squad across large sections of the mainstream media, and even many of those who knew it was poor public policy nevertheless urged us to accept it as a supposedly ‘pragmatic’ way forward.

 

It was, at least initially, popular in the electorate – although now, after we have spent months painstakingly highlighting the fact it is both non-binding, and extraordinarily expensive, it is less popular than Donald Trump.

 

The Government even had the easiest argument to make – ‘Let the people decide’ – despite the fact using a plebiscite to determine the rights of a minority group is a perversion of Australia’s system of representative democracy.

 

And it would have been comparatively ‘easy’ to adopt the path of least resistance, to roll over and accept the offer that was on the table, and the possibility it could have led to marriage equality by the middle of next year.

 

Given we have already been waiting so long for marriage equality, and that there are many couples who have now been engaged for many years, or even decades, waiting to simply be treated equally under Commonwealth law, that may have even been an understandable choice.

 

But it would not have been the right one. And I am proud we did not make it.

 

The LGBTIQ community decided, following much debate over the course of several months, not to roll over and ‘put up with’ a fundamentally flawed model put forward by people who clearly did not have our best interests at heart.

 

Instead, we stood up to say no to their unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite.

 

We stood up to say that, given marriage equality is, at its heart, about fairness, the manner in which it is recognised must be fair as well (contrary to Attorney-General George Brandis’ recent bleatings that ‘the ends justifies the means’).

 

Above all, we stood up to say that, while a plebiscite may have helped some members of our community to have their rights recognised more quickly, it would also have caused real and potentially long-lasting harm to young and vulnerable members of the LGBTIQ community, and to rainbow families.

 

And that trade-off was unacceptable to us.

 

Which means that, as well as having the right objective, we were also motivated by the right reasons – and that makes me immensely proud, too.

 

As an aside, I am also personally satisfied in the small but hopefully meaningful role I played in this much broader collective effort – whether that was by writing multiple submissions and letters to decision-makers, engaging in community education, refining arguments and messaging, conducting my own survey to ascertain community attitudes towards the plebiscite or even designing simple little memes that somehow managed to reach a wide audience.

 

As with any significant campaign, there are obviously many, many people (too many to event attempt to name here) who have all helped achieve this particular victory. I am just happy to be among them.

 

Of course, this is not the ultimate success that we crave – the equal recognition of our relationships under the Marriage Act 1961, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

Defeating the plebiscite is just another battle (albeit a significant one) on the long road towards that objective. And there are, unfortunately, plenty more battles left to fight to reach that goal.

 

Which means that, rather than being able to sit back and rest on our laurels at this point, we must keep the pressure up – just as we have done for the past 12 years.

 

We must keep the pressure up on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a man who claims to support the LGBTIQ community generally, and marriage equality specifically. Well, if that is the case, then it is his responsibility to actually demonstrate that support by providing a free vote in the Parliament, so that this issue can be resolved as quickly as possible (and potentially before the end of this year).

 

And if Turnbull is unwilling or unable to lead on this (and all indications are that he will not show the same leadership that Bill Shorten today has), then we must keep the pressure up on other MPs and Senators within the Coalition who back marriage equality, and encourage them to follow their conscience and cross the floor to support the legislation put forward by Labor and/or the Greens.

 

Hon Bill Shorten MP Official portrait 20 March 2013

In blocking the plebiscite, Bill Shorten has shown the leadership that Malcolm Turnbull sadly has not.

 

We must also keep the pressure up on the Government over their proposals, released last night, to dramatically expand religious exceptions as part of any amendments to the Marriage Act – including by providing civil celebrants with the power to effectively put up a sign saying ‘No gays allowed’, and religious-operated businesses and services to turn away LGBTIQ couples.

 

Anything beyond the existing right of ministers of religion to refuse to officiate a ceremony is unacceptable and must be rejected.

 

And we must keep the pressure up by continuing to defend our principled stance against the plebiscite.

 

It is inevitable that many within the Liberal and National Parties will now turn around and blame the LGBTIQ community, and the Australian Labor Party for listening to us, for their failure to achieve marriage equality in the short-to-medium term.

 

But that view is based on a falsehood – because, if those same MPs and Senators are genuinely interested in resolving this issue, then they should be reminded that they sit in the place where they can do exactly that, by passing legislation in the ordinary way (and in exactly the same way that our rights were denied by John Howard’s Government in August 2004).

 

For however long it takes us to achieve marriage equality, we will likely need to continue to explain our justification for saying a firm ‘No thanks’ to the plebiscite – and that is because it is unnecessary, inappropriate, divisive, wasteful, unprecedented, bizarre, inconsistent, radical, unfair and dangerous.

 

Right now, it remains to be seen just how long that wait will be. As indicated above, if Turnbull were to do the right thing and call for a free vote immediately, marriage equality could be passed within a matter of weeks, and LGBTIQ couples could be able to marry by the start of 2017.

 

Or it could take slightly longer, with sustained pressure forcing the Government to change its position over the course of the next 12-18 months (or compelling enough backbenchers to summon the courage to walk 12-18 feet across the parliamentary chamber to pass the Bill).

 

It may even be that we will not achieve marriage equality for another three or four years, following the possible election of a Shorten Labor Government – or the Coalition coming to its senses and abandoning the unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite.

 

No matter how long it takes, we know that marriage equality will eventually be recognised under Australian law.

 

Why? Not just because it is the right thing to do. But because of one quality that LGBTIQ Australians have shown, in abundance, since Howard’s unjust ban. A quality that we continue to demonstrate today: perseverance.

 

Over the past 12 years, we have been let down by multiple Prime Ministers, and Governments of different persuasions. But we have kept fighting.

 

We have been legislated against, and then largely ignored, and yet we have continued campaigning until we made marriage equality a central issue in Australian politics.

 

And we have been underestimated, time and time again – most recently about the plebiscite itself (you can bet that most senior figures within the Coalition, and indeed many people in the media, believed that the LGBTIQ community would simply acquiesce to their problematic proposal).

 

But we have persisted in arguing for what we believe is right and fair, including the fairest way to achieve it.

 

We do this because it’s personal. Because, while prima facie this is an issue simply of legal discrimination, it is about far more than that.

 

It is about who we are as people, and our fundamental right, not just to equal treatment under the law, but to dignity and respect.

 

It is about our relationships, about seeing them be recognised as being as worthy as those of everyone else – and about having the same choices as others, including whether to get married or not (rather than having that decision made for us by 226 people in Canberra).

 

It is about our families, both the rainbow families who are raising thousands, or tens of thousands, of happy and healthy – and above all, loved – children, and our parents and siblings and extended families, who share the entirely understandable desire that their family members be treated fairly.

 

And it is about generations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer Australians still to come, who have the right to grow up in a country that does not discriminate against them simply because of who they are.

 

For all of these reasons, we will continue the fight for marriage equality for as long as it takes.

 

We will persevere. Until it is finally done.