For some time now there has been a strong critical framework that identifies a significant shift in the politics of homosexuality in the Anglo-oriented West over the last fifteen to twenty years. In this article I draw on this framework to describe the current moment in the Australian cultural politics of homosexuality. I focus on the issue of same-sex marriage as a key indicator of the currently emerging era. I then turn to two Australian texts about marriage that were produced in “the period before” this time, with the aim of recovering what has been partially lost from current formations of GLBT politics and from available memories of the past.
Lisa Duggan’s term “the new homonormativity” is the frame that has gained widest currency among writers who point to the incorporation of certain versions of homosexuality into the neo-liberal (U.S.) mainstream. She identifies a sexual politics that “does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (50). More recently, writing of the period inaugurated by the so-called “war on terror” and following Duggan, Jasbir Puar has introduced the term “homonationalism” to refer to “a collusion between homosexuality and American nationalism that is generated both by national rhetorics of patriotic inclusion and by gay and queer subjects themselves” (39).
Damien Riggs adds the claims of Indigenous peoples in ongoing colonial contexts to the ground from which contemporary GLBT political claims can be critiqued. He concludes that while “queer people” will need to continue to struggle for rights, it is likely that cultural intelligibility “as a subject of the nation” will be extended only to those “who are established through the language of the nation (i.e., one that is founded upon the denial of colonial violence)” (97).
Most writers who follow these kinds of critical analyses refer to the discursive place of homosexual couples and families, specifically marriage. For Duggan it was the increasing focus on “full gay access to marriage and military service” that defined homonormativity (50). Puar allows for a diversity of meanings of same-sex marriage, but claims that for many it is “a demand for reinstatement of white privileges and rights—rights of property and inheritance in particular” (29; see also Riggs 66–70).
Of course not all authors locate the political focus on same-sex marriage and its effects as a conservative affair. British scholar Jeffrey Weeks stresses what “we” have gained and celebrates the rise of the discourse of human rights in relation to sexuality. “The very ordinariness of recognized same-sex unions in a culture which until recently cast homosexuality into secret corners and dark whispers is surely the most extraordinary achievement of all” (198), he writes. Australian historian Graham Willett takes a similar approach in his assessment of recent Australian history. Noting the near achievement of “the legal equality agenda for gay people” (“Homos” 187), he notes that “the gay and lesbian movement went on reshaping Australian values and culture and society through the Howard years” (193). In his account it did this in spite of, and untainted by, the dominance of Howard's values and programs. The Howard period was “littered with episodes of insult and discrimination … [as the] government tried to stem the tide of gay, lesbian and transgender rights that had been flowing so strongly since 1969”, Willett writes (188).
My own analysis of the Howard years acknowledges the significant progress made in law reform relating to same-sex couples and lesbian and gay parents but draws attention to its mutual constitution with the dominance of the white, patriarchal, neo-liberal and neo-conservative ideologies which dominated social and political life (2013 forthcoming). I argue that the costs of reform, fought for predominantly by white and middle class lesbians and gay men deploying homonormative discourses, included the creation of new identities—single lesbians and gays whose identity did not fit mainstream notions, non-monogamous couples and bad mothers—which were positioned on the illegitimate side of the newly enfranchised. Further the success of the reforms marginalised critical perspectives that are, for many, necessary tools for survival in socially conservative neoliberal times.
Same-Sex Marriage in Australia
The focus on same-sex marriage in the Australian context was initiated in April 2004 by then Prime Minister Howard. An election was looming and two same-sex couples were seeking recognition of their Canadian marriages through the courts. With little warning, Howard announced that he would amend the Federal Marriage Act to specify that marriage could only take place between a man and a woman. His amendment also prevented the recognition of same-sex marriages undertaken overseas. Legislation was rushed through the parliament in August of that year. In response, Australian Marriage Equality was formed in 2004 and remains at the centre of the GLBT movement. Since that time political rallies in support of marriage equality have been held regularly and the issue has become the key vehicle through which gay politics is understood. Australians across the board increasingly support same-sex marriage (over 60% in 2012) and a growing majority of gay and lesbian people would marry if they could (54% in 2010) (AME). Carol Johnson et al. note that while there are some critiques, most GLBT people see marriage “as a major equality issue” (Johnson, Maddison and Partridge 37).
The degree to which Howard’s move changed the terrain of GLBT politics cannot be underestimated. The idea and practice of (non-legal) homosexual marriage in Australia is not new. And some individuals, publicly and privately, were calling for legal marriage for same-sex couples before 2004 (e.g. Baird, “Kerryn and Jackie”). But before 2004 legal marriage did not inspire great interest among GLBT people nor have great support among them. Only weeks before Howard’s announcement, Victorian legal academic and co-convenor of the Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby Miranda Stewart concluded an article about same-sex relationship law reform in Victoria with a call to “begin the debate about gay marriage” (80, emphasis added). She noted that the growing number of Australian couples married overseas would influence thinking about marriage in Australia. She also asked “do we really want to be part of that ‘old edifice’ of marriage?” (80).
Late in 2003 the co-convenors of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby declared that “many members of our community are not interested in marriage” and argued that there were more pressing, and more practical, issues for the Lobby to be focused on (Cerise and McGrory 5). In 2001 Jenni Millbank and Wayne Morgan, two leading legal academics and activists in the arena of same-sex relationship politics in Australia, wrote that “The notion of ‘same-sex marriage’ is quite alien to Australia” (Millbank and Morgan, 295). They pointed to the then legal recognition of heterosexual de facto relationships as the specific context in Australia, which meant that marriage was not viewed as "paradigmatic" (296). In 1998 a community consultation conducted by the Equal Opportunity Commission in Victoria found that “legalising marriage for same-sex couples did not enjoy broad based support from either the community at large or the gay and lesbian community” (Stewart 76).
Alongside this general lack of interest in marriage, from the early-mid 1990s gay and lesbian rights groups in each state and territory began to think about, if not campaign for, law reform to give same-sex couples the same entitlements as heterosexual de facto couples. The eventual campaigns differed from state to state, and included moments of high profile public activity, but were in the main low key affairs that met with broadly sympathetic responses from state and territory ALP governments (Millbank). The previous reforms in every state that accorded heterosexual de facto couples near equality with married couples meant that gay and lesbian couples in Australia could gain most of the privileges available to heterosexual couples without having to encroach on the sacred territory (and federal domain) of marriage. In 2004 when Howard announced his marriage bill only South Australia had not reformed its law. Notwithstanding these reforms, there were matters relating to lesbian and gay parenting that remained in need of reform in nearly every jurisdiction. Further, Howard’s aggressive move in 2004 had been preceded by his dogged refusal to consider any federal legislation to remove discrimination. But in 2008 the new Rudd government enacted legislation to remove all discrimination against same-sex couples in federal law, with marriage and (ironically) the lack of anti-discrimination legislation on the grounds of sexuality the exceptions, and at the time of writing most states have made or will soon implement the reforms that give full lesbian and gay parenting rights.
In his comprehensive account of gay politics from the 1950s onwards, published in 2000, Graham Willett does not mention marriage at all, and deals with the moves to recognise same-sex relationships in one sixteen line paragraph (Living 249). Willett’s book concludes with the decriminalisation of sex between men across every state of Australia. It was written just as the demand for relationship reform was becoming the central issue of GLBT politics. In this sense, the book marks the end of one era of homosexual politics and the beginning of the next which, after 2004, became organised around the desire for marriage. This understanding of the recent gay past has become common sense. In a recent article in the Adelaide gay paper blaze a young male journalist wrote of the time since the early 1970s that “the gay rights movement has shifted from the issue of decriminalising homosexuality nationwide to now lobbying for full equal rights for gay people” (Dunkin 3). While this (reductive and male-focused) characterisation is not the only one possible, I simply note that this view of past and future progress has wide currency.
The shift of attention in this period to the demand for marriage is an intensification and narrowing of political focus in a period of almost universal turn by state and federal governments to neoliberalism and an uneven turn to neo-conservatism, directions which have detrimental effects on the lives of many people already marginalised by discourses of sexuality, race, class, gender, migration status, (dis)ability and so on. While the shift to the focus on marriage from 2004 might be understood as the logical final step in gaining equal status for gay and lesbian relationships (albeit one with little enthusiasm from the GLBT political communities before 2004), the initiation of this shift by Prime Minister Howard, with little preparatory debate in the LGBT political communities, meant that the issue emerged onto the Australian political agenda in terms defined by the (neo)conservative side of politics. Further, it is an example of identity politics which, as Lisa Duggan has observed in the US case, is “increasingly divorced from any critique of global capitalism” and settles for “a stripped-down equality, paradoxically imagined as compatible with persistent overall inequality” (xx).
Brides before Marriage
In the last part of this article I turn to two texts produced early in 1994—an activist document and an ephemeral performance during the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. If we point only to the end of the era of (de)criminalisation, then the year 1997, when the last state, Tasmania, decriminalised male homosex, marks the shift from one era of the regulation of homosexuality to another. But 1994 bore the seeds of the new era too. Of course attempts to identify a single year as the border between one era and the next are rhetorical devices. But some significant events in 1994 make it a year of note. The Australian films Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and The Sum of Us were both released in 1994, marking particular Australian contributions to the growing presence of gay and lesbian characters in Western popular culture (e.g. Hamer and Budge). 1994 was the UN International Year of the Family (IYF) and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras chose the theme “We are Family” and published endorsement from both Prime Minister Keating and the federal opposition leader John Hewson in their program. In 1994 the ACT became the first Australian jurisdiction to pass legislation that recognised the rights and entitlements of same-sex couples, albeit in a very limited and preliminary form (Millbank 29).
The NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby's (GLRL) 1994 discussion paper, The Bride Wore Pink, can be pinpointed as the formal start to community-based activism for the legal recognition of same-sex relationships. It was a revision of an earlier version that had been the basis for discussion among (largely inner Sydney) gay and lesbian communities where there had been lively debate and dissent (Zetlein, Lesbian Bodies 48–57). The 1994 version recommended that the NSW government amend the existing definition of de facto in various pieces of legislation to include lesbian and gay relationships and close non-cohabiting interdependent relationships as well. This was judged to be politically feasible. In 1999 NSW became the first state to implement wide ranging reforms of this nature although these were narrower than called for by the GLRL, “including lesser number of Acts amended and narrower application and definition of the non-couple category” (Millbank 10). My concern here is not with the politics that preceded or followed the 1994 version of The Bride, but with the document itself.
Notwithstanding its status for some as a document of limited political vision, The Bride bore clear traces of the feminist and liberationist thinking, the experiences of the AIDS crisis in Sydney, and the disagreements about relationships within lesbian and gay communities that characterised the milieu from which it emerged. Marriage was clearly rejected, for reasons of political impossibility but also in light of a list of criticisms of its implication in patriarchal hierarchies of relationship value (31–2). Feminist analysis of relationships was apparent throughout the consideration of pros and cons of different legislative options. Conflict and differences of opinion were evident. So was humour. The proliferation of lesbian and gay commitment ceremonies was listed as both a pro and a con of marriage. On the one hand "just think about the prezzies” (31); on the other, “what will you wear” (32).
As well as recommending change to the definition of de facto, The Bride recommended the allocation of state funds to consider “the appropriateness or otherwise of bestowing entitlements on the basis of relationships,” “the focusing on monogamy, exclusivity and blood relations” and the need for broader definitions of “relationships” in state legislation (3). In a gesture towards a political agenda beyond narrowly defined lesbian and gay interests, The Bride also recommended that “the lesbian and gay community join together with other groups to lobby for the removal of the cohabitation rule in the Social Security Act 1991” (federal legislation) (34). This measure would mean that the payment of benefits and pensions would not be judged in the basis of a person’s relationship status. While these radical recommendations may not have been energetically pursued by the GLRL, their presence in The Bride records their currency at the time.
The other text I wish to excavate from 1994 is the “flotilla of lesbian brides” in the 1994 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. These lesbians later appeared in the April 1994 issue of Sydney lesbian magazine Lesbians on the Loose, and they have a public afterlife in a photo by Sydney photographer C Moore Hardy held in the City of Sydney archives (City of Sydney). The group of between a dozen and twenty lesbians (it is hard to tell from the photos) was dressed in waist-to-ankle tulle skirts, white bras and white top hats. Many wore black boots. Unshaven underarm hair is clearly visible. Many wore long necklaces around their necks and the magazine photo makes clear that one bride has a black whip tucked into the band of her skirt.
In an article about lesbians and legal recognition of their relationships published in 1995, Sarah Zetlein referred to the brides as “chicks in white satin” (“Chicks”). This chick was a figure that refused the binary distinction between being inside and outside the law, which Zetlein argued characterised thinking about the then emerging possibilities of the legal recognition of lesbian (and gay) relationships. Zetlein wrote that “the chick in white satin”:
Represents a politics which moves beyond the concerns of one’s own identity and demands for inclusion to exclusion to a radical reconceptualisation of social relations. She de(con)structs and (re) constructs. … The chick in white satin’s resistance often lies in her exposure and manipulation of her regulation. It is not so much a matter of saying ‘no’ to marriage outright, or arguing only for a ‘piecemeal’ approach to legal relationship regulation, or lobbying for de facto inclusion as was recommended by The Bride Wore Pink, but perverting the understanding of what these legally-sanctioned sexual, social and economic relationships mean, hence undermining their shaky straight foundations.(“Chicks” 56–57)
Looking back to 1994 from a time nearly twenty years later when (straight) lesbian brides are celebrated by GLBT culture, incorporated into the mainstream and constitute a market al.ready anticipated by “the wedding industrial complex” (Ingraham), the “flotilla of lesbian brides” can be read as a prescient queer negotiation of their time. It would be a mistake to read the brides only in terms of a nascent interest in legally endorsed same-sex marriage. In my own limited experience, some lesbians have always had a thing for dressing up in wedding garb—as brides or bridesmaids. The lesbian brides marching group gave expression to this desire in queer ways. The brides were not paired into couples. Zetlein writes that “the chick in white satin … [has] a veritable posse of her girlfriends with her (and they are all the brides)” (“Chicks” 63, original emphasis). Their costumes were recognisably bridal but also recognisably parodic and subverting; white but hardly innocent; the tulle and bras were feminine but the top hats were accessories conventionally worn by the groom and his men; the underarm hair a sign of feminist body politics. The whip signalled the lesbian underground sexual culture that flourished in Sydney in the early 1990s (O’Sullivan). The black boots were both lesbian street fashion and sensible shoes for marching!
It would be incorrect to say that GLBT politics and lesbian and gay couples who desire legal marriage in post-2004 Australia bear no trace of the history of ambivalence, critique and parody of marriage and weddings that have come before. The multiple voices in the 2011 collection of “Australian perspectives on same-sex marriage” (Marsh) put the lie to this claim. But in a climate where our radical pasts are repeatedly forgotten and lesbian and gay couples increasingly desire legal marriage, the political argument is hell-bent on inclusion in the mainstream. There seems to be little interest in a dance around the margins of inclusion/exclusion.
I add my voice to the concern with the near exclusive focus on marriage and the terms on which it is sought. It is not a liberationist politics to which I have returned in recalling The Bride Wore Pink and the lesbian brides of the 1994 Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, but rather an attention to the differences in the diverse collective histories of non-heterosexual politics. The examples I elaborate are hardly cases of radical difference. But even these instances might remind us that “we” have never been on a single road to equality: there may be incommensurable differences between “us” as much as commonalities. They also remind that desires for inclusion and recognition by the state should be leavened with a strong dose of laughter as well as with critical political analysis.
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