LGBTI activists respond to John Pilger: 'Equal marriage rights and Bradley Manning are both big issues'

Bradley Manning supporters at Occupy London, last year. Photo:

By Rachel Evans & Karl Hand

May 23, 2012 -- Green Left Weekly -- More than 1000 Sydney-siders hit the streets on May 12 demanding equal marriage rights, but prominent left-wing journalist John Pilger has criticised the march in his recent article “Bradley Manning, not gay marriage, is the issue”.

He said: “A protest parade in support of gay marriage filled the city centre. The police looked on benignly. It was a showcase of liberalism. Three days later, there was to be a march to commemorate the Nakba (The Catastrophe), the day of mourning when Israel expelled Palestinians from their land. A police ban had to be overturned by the Supreme Court.”

He said the equal marriage issue "diverts attention" from pressing issues of war and poverty, and in particular the detention and trial of alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning. We cannot agree with this.

However, we do agree with Pilger’s criticisms of US President Barack Obama’s hypocrisy on equal marriage. By affirming the right of same-sex marriage, but doing nothing to legislate for it, Obama is guilty of political opportunism. He did not call out his party, the Democrats, to legislate for marriage equality in the US states they dominate. He could have, but did not.

This shows how hollow Obama’s rhetoric really is. As Pilger points out, even worse than Obama’s opportunism is the hypocrisy of him lauding gay rights while his government persecutes the openly gay Manning.

At the same time, it’s a plus that Obama has declared his support for equal treatment for same-sex couples. Obama’s hypocritical words were politically useful for our campaign against homophobia. His statement encouraged people to attend the Sydney equal marriage rally. Some people brought placards that compared Obama’s position with Australian PM Julia Gillard’s refusal to budge.

Support for equal marriage rights is not the same as support for patriarchal property rights, as Pilger suggests in his article. For many same-sex attracted people, especially young and often poor couples, marriage has more to do with dignity and pride than property or inheritance.

Banning same sex marriage — as Australian government Labor Party MPs and opposition Liberal and National party MPs voted to do in August 2004 — relegates same-sex attracted people to second-class citizenship. Queer youth are up to 14 times more likely to kill themselves than their straight counterparts.

These suicide rates make battling second-class citizenship laws a matter of life and death. Excluding at-risk people from the right to marriage exacerbates mental health problems. All progressives should abhor homophobia and its consequences as a social disease.

Marriage has been drastically reformed over the past few centuries. Property rights are now just one of many reasons why couples of all classes marry.

The struggles of women and racially oppressed groups against society-wide discrimination have been the main driver of the past changes to marriage laws. In Australia, those struggles by women and Aboriginal people have made a lasting impact.

Reforming marriage to give access to same sex attracted people follows in the tradition of these past campaigns.

The marriage equality movement has inspired thousands in Australia. In December, the movement mobilised 10,000 protesters onto the streets of Sydney in a display of people power. The campaign is an example of an oppressed group of people rising up and acting to create a better world.

Pilger’s comparison of the May 12 equal marriage rally — “police looked on benignly. It was a showcase of liberalism” — with a Palestine solidarity rally three days later that NSW police tried, and failed, to ban, does not match the facts.

Police had tried to shut down the equal marriage rally for weeks before the event. Police told rally organisers from Community Action Against Homophobia to cancel the rally because Sydney Town Hall square is “private land”, because minor building works were happening at the Town Hall, and finally, (oh, the irony) because the rally would disrupt a straight wedding.

Rally organisers did not back down. The rally went ahead. And when the street march arrived at the corner of Oxford and Crown, the crowd sat down, occupied the road and performed an “illegal” wedding service.

That police tried to disrupt equal marriage and pro-Palestine protests shows the need for solidarity between different groups.

No single movement is the silver bullet to end all oppression. The US war machine will not free Bradley Manning when we win marriage equality in Australia. But thousands of young queers have gained courage by mobilising in the streets. Their success in changing the political landscape shows how people’s power works. Each victory reveals to people how powerful they really are.

The 1% is wary of such movements because they challenge people’s illusions that the system works. The marriage campaign has influenced a whole generation of young people in this way.

Some people involved in the campaign will go on to strive for even greater victories, like an end to war, poverty and injustice. But unless they believe change is possible in their hearts and minds, that awareness will never take root. We should not despise the day of small beginnings.

As grassroots activists in the equal marriage movement, we have never campaigned for marriage equality just so we could have Disneyland weddings or white dresses and limousines. Instead, we wanted to help the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex community find the ability to stand up for themselves and imagine a better world. That is the real issue at stake.

[Karl Hand is pastor of CRAVE Metropolitan Community Church. Rachel Evans is the LGBTI spokesperson for the Socialist Alliance. Both authors are long-time activists in the marriage equality campaign in Australia. They are co-editors of the 2011 book, The Rainbow road to liberation: Marriage, sex and gender rights today.]

From GLW issue 923

"The 1% is wary of such movements because they challenge people’s illusions that the system works. The marriage campaign has influenced a whole generation of young people in this way."

No, they don't. They add weight to the liberal-capitalist system's claim that it IS democratic and it DOES work for everyone, and distract attention from what should be socialism's focus, humanity's move to a fairer and more rational socioeconomic system. The '1%' love identity politics; it has been a major force in the fragmentation of the left and its reduction to a spectator in the back row of the political arena.

The left will never again become a force to be reckoned with until identity politics takes a back seat.