As a resolution to the debate on marriage equality draws closer, activists worry about how to maintain momentum after a win. By Caleb Triscari.

The fight after marriage equality

Nic Holas, co-founder of The Institute of Many.
Nic Holas, co-founder of The Institute of Many.

The Institute of Many is an HIV advocacy group that organises meet-ups in cities across the country. Those who attend events are not required to admit their status, in an attempt to build solidarity without distinction. The institute also runs a private Facebook group for HIV-positive members to seek comfort and find community in a world that does not always share the same kindness.

The group fights on several issues. There is the medication that prevents HIV transmission, such as PrEP, which has yet to be subsidised by the federal government. Those in need of the antiretroviral drug have to seek out clinical trials or access the online market. These are important issues, although in the sphere of queer activism they can be overlooked. Because in queer politics in this country one issues overwhelms all others. “The tricky thing here,” says Nic Holas, who co-founded the group, “is the visible pivot the community has made in our fight to achieve marriage equality.”

The institute’s current campaign, “The Wizards of Poz”, publishes online content featuring members of the HIV community who are proud to share their status. A core focus of the campaign is to “pay rent on our privilege” given to those living with HIV in modern-day Australia. The members of the community have it better than their predecessors, and the campaign believes in resilience and looking forward.

The community Holas advocates is a small part of the broader LGBTQI population, but the issues its members face will not be resolved once marriage equality is passed. “HIV/AIDS activism and community organising long predates the fight for marriage equality, and it is one of the most well-organised, effective fights in the history of the LGBTIQA community,” Holas says. “My activist forebears put their bodies on the line, and many lost their lives during the fight. I have a lot of respect for the tactics and methods of the marriage equality movement, which have been very effective, but they have not been the same as ours – to create here a momentary distinction, in what is realistically for most two objectives shared by one community.”

The marriage equality debate in Australia has banded together a public outcry like no other LGBTQI cause in the past decade, and it is unclear if any other will do the same. Will the rallying cries fall silent once the legislation is passed?

If marriage equality were to pass, Holas believes, the LGBTQI community will definitely need to make changes to where their efforts are focused. Marriage equality is one step in the greater movement, but the next steps need to be smaller and aimed towards strengthening the branches that make up the community.

“Respectability politics and a boomer/gen X LGB population, who hold the majority of powerful positions across marriage equality, AIDS Inc, Mardi Gras, have skewed our struggle, at the expense of intersectional queer issues,” Holas says.

“My concern … is that once marriage equality is reached, then the movement may turn its focus to allowing gay men to donate blood, which some refer to as ‘blood equality’. To that, I say the best way for gay men to fight so they might be allowed to donate blood is to join in the fight to end HIV/AIDS. If not – and what we see is a movement that springs from the perceived hurt of discrimination, which has basis in scientific fact as well as economic rationalism – then that, to me, is an insult.”

Many issues that affect only strands of the LGBTQI community are less often brought to the public’s attention. In late 2016, it was reported that HIV rates in the Northern Territory had reached a five-year peak, and are disproportionately high within Indigenous communities. International studies show a quarter of homeless youth are queer or intersex. These issues receive little attention and support.

Intersectional issues fall in the shadow of the more mainstream concerns that influence LGBTQI Australians. Corporations accused of “pinkwashing” are only focused on the topics that grab the spotlight, not that of the building blocks that make up the bigger picture.

In order to truly steer the agenda and build progress from the ground up, the concerns of groups within the community need to be given greater attention – and the body of support is certainly there.

Sally Rugg, marriage equality campaign director for GetUp!, argues that the marriage equality debate has solidified an unyielding force that can’t be broken. Rugg believes there is a galvanising effect in this debate, shown by the coming together of groups to oppose the plebiscite on same-sex marriage.

“In 2016,” she says, “LGBTIQ elders, activists, community leaders and peak bodies stood in front of the attorney-general, George Brandis, shoulder to shoulder, and told him we wouldn’t accept a plebiscite on marriage equality that would undoubtedly put our community’s young, visible and vulnerable at greater risk.”

Rugg also believes the opposition to the plebiscite means the general public “can sympathise with our struggles and understand the nuances and complex injustices we sometimes face”.

Queer youth have been caught in the crossfire in recent discussions over the rights of LGBTQI Australians. The mainstream debate doesn’t consider how anti-LGBTQI sentiment affects younger generations with a greater sense of insecurity.

For Holas, Safe Schools was a prime example of another cause that brought together the queer community and its allies. Its potential to reduce discrimination from a young age resonated with the broader public, bringing forth a new generation with respectful ideas. But that support did not compare with the attention given to marriage equality. The program was successfully shouted down.

Conservative senator Cory Bernardi claimed Safe Schools provided links to sadomasochism websites. These claims were never substantiated but they didn’t have to be. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has vowed to fully fund Safe Schools at a state level. Many of his interstate counterparts do not share the same view.

The plebiscite was dead on arrival. The Coalition still doesn’t have the numbers for the vote to be taken to the public, and even MPs from within the party room are tired of pushing this policy. In a conversation with BuzzFeed Australia, Liberal senator Dean Smith expressed dissent with his party’s logic.

“What is it about this issue that people think parliament can’t be relied upon to do what parliament does?” he asked, despite the prime minister publicly reaffirming the plebiscite as the only way forward.

Smith described himself and his political persona as “bruised” – a policy of this nature does not warrant a non-binding poll and, in Smith’s opinion, contradicts the purpose of a representative democracy.

Rugg believes that a greater focus on transgender rights will organically become the next step after marriage equality is passed. There are many restrictions that transgender Australians face that will be resolved once marriage equality occurs. Although, much like Australians living with HIV, a proliferation of stigma and misinformation is still a burden.

“Evidence from around the world shows that the rights and identities of transgender people are thrust into the spotlight following a victory for marriage equality – both from activists seeking the progress and opponents of progress who are looking for their next target.”

Recently, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found state laws that require couples to divorce before legally changing their sex to be in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. South Australia successfully amended its laws to make this a possibility. In Victoria, it wasn’t accepted by the upper house.

For transgender children, approval from the Family Court is required to access hormone treatment, in addition to approval from a medical expert. Australia is the only country in the world to have this requirement, but legal experts are hoping to soon decrease the bureaucracy.

As this discussion continues to stretch out, activists will continue holding rallies and launching campaigns. Politicians will continue to point fingers. Nevertheless, its eventual legality should not diminish the movement’s momentum. The exhausting fight for marriage equality in Australia demonstrates a kinetic energy that has been used to disapprove of the government’s choices. Activists are keen to see that energy is harnessed rather than allowed to dissipate.

Holas argues that regardless of its direct impact or symbolic value, the legalisation of marriage equality cannot act as a resting point for the Australian LGBTQI movement. Rather, a strong resilience should be encouraged as the community takes on the next set of hurdles.

“If, however, it symbolises a sort of end point, rather than a step in the long road to liberation – and true equality,” he says, “then we have sold Australia a lie, and ourselves down the river.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2017 as "Wedding wringer".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Caleb Triscari is a Melbourne writer and former editor of Farrago.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.