From Mardi Gras to Manus Island: lessons from the campaign for same-sex marriage

One of the most remarkable things about the gay and lesbian movement in Australia is how little attention it gets from scholars or activists. This is surprising. It has, after all, been the most successful social movement of our time. Do we need to be reminded that 45 years ago homosexuals (which was the politest word in common use) were a vilified, marginalised and, in the case of men, criminalised minority? Today, legal equality is a few acts of parliament away, and social equality is advancing on all fronts through the efforts of hundreds of lesbians and gay men, transgender and intersex people, bisexuals and straight supporters. We stand on the cusp of same-sex marriage – and who, seriously, thought that was a possibility back in the 1970s? It is probably true that most parents would rather their kids didn’t turn out gay, but overwhelmingly they would, as no less a figure than John Howard once opined, love them anyway. And literally millions of parents would be just fine with it.

And yet, how often is its success looked to as a way of understanding how Australia got to be the society that it is? How often are its lessons drawn upon to guide other movements in their struggles for equality or justice? (Hint: almost never.)

So what did we do that worked, and how might these things be relevant to the most pressing moral question in Australia today – the shocking mistreatment of refugees and asylum-seekers? The brutal mistreatment of these most vulnerable people at the hands of governments is horrifying for many of us. The hostility, or at best indifference, of the vast majority of our fellow citizens equally horrifying.

It would be easy to despair, which suits the major parties just fine. However, I want to suggest that looking at the LGBTI movement’s progress since 1969 might provide some clues as to how to break through – initially to the 27 per cent of Australian who think the present policy is ‘too tough’; and beyond that perhaps to wider circles of people whose humanity has been smothered by the demonising Big Lies of Liberal and Labor alike.

Remember – the gay and lesbian population of Australia is, and seems always to have been, no more than about 2 per cent of the population. Add in another few per cent for bisexuals, trans and intersex and you can see how small our forces have been. The activists among us comprise smaller numbers still. Gay Liberation was probably fewer than 500 people nationally at its peak in 1973. The first national homosexual conference in 1975 attracted 600. The first Mardi Gras in 1978 involved, at most, one to two thousand. Rallies in support of same-sex marriage gather a few thousand, though the numbers of people doing the hard, day-to-day work of persuading politicians and opinion makers on this question are probably to be measured in their dozens. People active in the health, welfare and cultural fields may be a few hundred more again. These are the people who have taken us from where we were to where we are in the space of a single generation.

It was the movement that did this – a form of organisation perfectly suited to small groups of people hoping to reshape laws, public and professional opinion, organisations’ policies, market attitudes. It was a movement that changed, in short, every aspect of society. Movements are complex things, full of strands and currents that variously compete and cooperate, who focus on a myriad of causes, express a multiplicity of views, have goals that are often radically incompatible, and who act in a range of ways from lobbying to lobbing eggs. Activists worked in trade unions and workplaces, churches, political parties, other social movements. They held hands in the streets and wore badges outing themselves to all and sundry. They told their families, their friends and workmates – or just let them work it out for themselves, to cope as best they could (which was, more often than not, pretty well).This tiny minority – noisily or quietly standing up for itself – demanding, uncompromisingly, simple respect and social transformation has achieved more than its founders ever expected.

In learning from this movement, let’s firstly recognise that refugee solidarity is a movement. It is composed of activists, divided by much, distributed through many organisations, but united by a common goal of seeing refugees treated with the basic dignity that they deserve as human beings. There are many, many groups and individuals doing what they can, surrounded by a penumbra of supporters who would often like to do something but are not really sure what that might be.

In recent weeks we have seen a flare up in the gulag in PNG – acts of protest, often in the form of self-harm, that have reminded us, in case we needed it, that things up there are truly terrible. But we have seen, too, small acts of solidarity and it seems to me, as a sympathetic outsider to the movement, that something might be stirring. Remember the tennis protest, the aeroplane occupations of the last couple of weeks, the clergy who have been peacefully occupying MPs offices (or even, years ago now, that bloke from the Big Brother household who taped his mouth closed)? Of course you do. These were newsworthy and notable in the way that many political activities aren’t any more. In the movements of the 1970s such small-scale actions – too small to be demos – were called zaps and were considered a perfectly legitimate way to highlight an issue to new audiences and to inspire others to act. The gay and lesbian movement was never afraid of civil disobedience: kiss-ins and die-ins, publicly admitting to breaching the buggery laws. There were any number of ways to garner attention and raise important issues at the same time.

But even more conventional forms of action can matter – in the context of a movement they represent the fact that we are waging of war on all fronts – trying out new tactics, probing for weaknesses in our opponents’ defences. Last week well over 100 people paid to attend a public meeting in Melbourne organised by Young Liberty to hear about the plight of LGBTI refugees in Australia and PNG. If the organisers start to bring those people together, there is a new front opened. There are moves in the ALP by Labor for Refugees cells to address the party’s policy and although the leadership’s henchfolk have been quick to rein them in, this is an opportunity too. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has placed a full-page ad in the Saturday Paper – they must have had something in mind there.

The gay and lesbian movement of the 1970s gives us plenty of ideas about how we might approach this. First up – don’t be afraid of small. We are a minority of the population to be sure – but we have millions of sympathisers, thousands of activists in many different campaigns who are onside and would share their knowledge with us to support the refugees. There is support even within the mainstream in the form of the Greens and elements the ALP and probably even the Liberals (remember the ‘doctors’ wives’ – a patronising terms for a real phenomenon). Those of us who want to do things are more than plentiful enough to act.

It would help if we could see each other. The lesbian and gay movement adopted the pink triangle and, more recently, the rainbow flag – as a way of finding each other and letting the ‘gay-friendly’ express their support in shop windows and the like. A few years ago the little ‘Refugees are Welcome Here’ posters signalled our passions to passers-by. What’s the universally recognised symbol for Friends of the Refugees? But we do need to act in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Click-activism is brilliant for sending messages – gay libbers only had word of mouth, telephone trees and gestetnered leaflets. We can tell politicians what we think; we can tell each other when and when to gather; we can share news and articles and analyses to our hearts’ content. But there is no substitute for coming together face to face.

When the gay movement felt itself fragmenting and its energies failing in the mid-1970s they convened a conference open to all activists. It was so successful that it was organised every year. For three or four days at plenaries and in workshops, in lectures and debates and conversations, people found out who was doing what, what had worked and what had not. They came together with like-minded people from all over the country and founded organisations and campaigns that in the following months and years undertook a plethora of activities. It reinvigorated those involved, recruited new people, and reached out to the wider world. It was these organisations and campaigns that changed Australia.

An open, activist-oriented national conference that brings people together would be, in my view, the single most important thing that the refugee movement could do at this point. Big name speakers if we must, but workshops, workshops, workshops run by those who are active is what matters. It is from here that people find ways to be involved that suit their circumstances. Can’t afford to get arrested? Get involved in public speaking. That idea make your blood run cold? Work on a newsletter (no need to learn gestetners any more) or brainstorm slogans and memes. There’s always a place in a movement for people who want to do something.

In a recent Overland online article, Liam Byrnes celebrated the film Pride and the solidarity group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. At the heart of the story is the tactic of twinning, of support groups adopting a particular mining village to send money to, to meet with, to encourage … Surely it can’t be too illegal, or too difficult, to twin with refugees? Or may it is – but let’s meet and talk and see what’s possible. Chances are it will be more than we expect.Ultimately it is active minorities that make a difference. If the Parties of Brutopia are ever to be turned away from their savagery towards refugees, it will be in the same way that they were turned away from their homophobia – by us, and people like us, changing the way Australians think.

Graham Willett

Graham Willett is a recovering academic. He has a particular interest in social movements (of both Left and Right) as instruments of social change.

More by Graham Willett ›

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  1. I was also thinking a broad conference to reflect, learn some history. and talk strategy would also be a good idea at the moment. Thanks for writing this Graham. You put it well.

  2. I think its the example of self-respect that worked for gay liberation. “Gay is Proud”. But not so much the banners in the streets, though that was all part of sharing the magic. It was more the spreading glow among formerly ashamed, closeted gay women and men of the possibility of speaking up for ourselves, as Graham suggests. And it turned out that our courage was generally respected: when we came out as a person among people. That’s what worked.

    This does generalise to other activism. We can speak up about our concerns if we own them, as our personal concerns. This must be differentiated from mere demands, often perceived as the real, tough activism. I believe gay liberation demonstrated the efficacy of the understanding from the women’s movement: the personal really is political.

  3. Great article Graham. To often in current times I hear people trying to discredit current GLBTI movements with the weird idea they some how exist in opposition to the refugee struggle. It is refreshing to hear a message for solidarity.

  4. I failed above to express my thanks for your great article Graham.

    You sum up “If the Parties of Brutopia are ever to be turned away from their savagery towards refugees, it will be in the same way that they were turned away from their homophobia – by us, and people like us, changing the way Australians think.” I agree, but would add that its no mere cognitive task: it involves also our emotions (and theirs), engaging them with such creative provocations as “Brutopia”. But with the emotional intelligence to allow and welcome the emotional engagement of our “foes” with us as fellow human beings. Its a delicate task.

    I was particularly alerted to this need at the recent HomoHistory Conference in Melbourne, where a righteous activist of the Safe Schools project, a woman worthy of great respect, diasappointed some in her audience by suggesting that the way forward for Safe Schools in dealing with its cruelly mistaken opponents is for “their heads to hit the pavement”.
    Too sad. We need to uphold human respect as a core value, not place our faith in
    defeating an enemy if we are to offer worthwhile social leadership.

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