The current debate about protecting religious freedom feels uncannily like John Howard’s ban on same-sex marriages in 2004. We have to act now to ensure the outcome is different. LGBTI human rights in Australia are now under the worst threat since 2004.
Rodney Croome is a spokesperson for just.equal and Equality Tasmania
Looking back through the tears and cheers that accompanied the passage of marriage equality legislation in 2017, it can be hard to imagine just how awful things were thirteen years earlier.
The American religious right was in uproar about the possibility of same-sex couples marrying. They behaved as if no greater threat existed to the institution of marriage than two men walking down the aisle.
Their crusade was a backlash to the growing legal recognition of same-sex relationships in the late 90s and early 2000s.
2004 was an election year in the US and George W Bush’s strategists were keen to wedge the Democrats and corral evangelical voters. So, he promised a Constitutional amendment forever enshrining marriage as a man/woman deal.
2004 was also an election year in Australia. This country’s right wing culture warriors and Liberal Party strategists also went in search of a way to wedge Labor and hook evangelical and blue collar voters.
Particularly focussed on the western suburbs of Sydney and regional Queensland, they felt ethnic and evangelic battlers could be enticed away from Labor with a strong anti-same-sex marriage policy.
Right wingers found their hook in a court appeal lodged in late 2003 by Australian same-sex couples seeking to have their Canadian marriages recognised under Australia’s liberal foreign marriage recognition laws.
‘Doom and Gloom Croome’
In January 2004, I publicly predicted Howard would take advantage of this court appeal by introducing an amendment to the Marriage Act.
I said it would spell out that marriage as only between a man and a woman, and also ban the recognition of overseas same-sex marriages.
Serious political commentators dismissed the idea.
Some LGBTI spokespeople mocked me as ‘Doom and Gloom Croome’.
Howard would never do that, they said.
Australians weren’t like Americans.
Sadly, I was right.
What I was not expecting in 2004, was the alacrity with which Labor announced its support for Howard.
Also unexpected, the indifference, and sometimes open hostility, of many LGBTI community leaders to marriage equality.
Within minutes of Howard announcing his move, Labor’s leaders were on the news saying they would back him.
Within hours, some LGBTI community leaders were saying marriage equality didn’t matter.
It wasn’t the issue.
Everyone should just move on.
It was one of the most tragic moments of appeasement and cowardice in modern Australian LGBTI history.
It took over a decade of campaigning, and a damaging postal survey, to undo the wrong committed in 2004.
LGBTI human rights today
The parallels with today are ominous.
There is yet again an anti-LGBTI moral panic that has swept the US and is sweeping Australia.
Last time the panic focused on our perceived threat to the institution of marriage.
This time, it’s about the perceived threat LGBTI pose to ‘religious freedom’.
As in 2004, today’s moral panic is a backlash to change which has already occurred.
This time that change is the inclusion and acceptance that has come with marriage equality.
As in 2004, the religious right wants to cement the second-class legal status of LGBTI people.
This time it intends to diminish LGBTI people by using ‘religious freedom’ to erode the protections we have under anti-discrimination and hate speech laws.
As in 2004, there is yet again a hook for a new, repressive law, the sacking of Israel Folau.
Also, there is yet again a contest for evangelical, ethnic and blue collar voters in western Sydney and regional Queensland.
This time the contest arises out of an unexpected Liberal election victory.
The religious right stoke the narrative that religious voters re-elected a Liberal Government most people assumed un-electable.
While no real evidence exists to support their narrative, if they say it often enough, some believe it.
As in 2004, the Coalition is determined to corral religious voters from Labor and from the panoply of parties on the far right.
As in 2004, Labor is weak in our defence.
Shadow assistant treasurer, Stephen Jones, suggested that centre-left supporters of multi-culturalism have to tolerate some level of anti-LGBTI prejudice.
Fortunately, today’s LGBTI leaders show much greater interest than their predecessors showed in 2004.
But that said…
There could be a lot more and a lot stronger campaigning on the issue than we have seen.
There still seems to be an attitude that if we are quiet and polite nothing bad will happen to us.
We cannot allow 2019 to be a repeat of 2004.
We cannot bequeath to those who come after us another draining, decade-long battle for dignity and equality.
Now is the time to speak out against discrimination under cover of ‘religious freedom’.
Now is the time to highlight the damage done by hate speech in the name of religion.
Send an email telling our national leaders not to allow discrimination and hate speech against LGBTI people in the name of “religious freedom”.
We must protect hard won LGBTI human rights in Australia.
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