In 1993 I was attending a gay and lesbian rights forum in Canberra, when news came through that the following year was to be the International Year of the Family (IYF). The room fell silent as it dawned on all present that this meant a year of political gay bashing by Conservative MP’s and the Religious Right.
Sadly, we were right. Fred Nile MLC and Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer led the charge to turn that year into a divisive debate about definitions of “family”, most of which were designed to exclude gay and lesbian couples raising children and to marginalise single parents.
The Religious Right hid behind the façade of so-called “family groups,” and used the year to trumpet heterosexual relationships, to fear monger about gays raising kids and to elevate marriage as society’s unquestioned pinnacle.
Lesbian and gay people had a duty to respond to this. However, every time the gay community contributed to the debate to raise the facts of their relationships and the increasing trend for same-sex couples to have children, they were attacked by Conservatives for “hijacking the word family”, “spoiling the International Year celebrations” and for “social engineering”.
President of the ACTU Jenny George, entered the IYF celebrations with a grand gesture for the peak union body to pursue a “family leave test case” in the Industrial Relations Commission (to extend leave entitlements to workers if a family member was ill), but attracted the ire of the gay community by clumsily omitting same-sex couples in the definition of “family”.
The result saw the gay community and the Catholic Bishops present arguments to the IRC both for and against the recognition of same-sex relationships. The gay community read from international labour treaties, while the Bishops read from the Bible.
Fortunately, the IRC found in favour of the human rights argument, but “squibbed” the issue by creating a very broad definition of interdependent relationships that includes same-sex couples without actually naming them.
Meanwhile in Tasmania, the National Party was holding a “Family Picnic” on the Sydney Mardi Gras long weekend, as an antithesis of the fleshy festival on the mainland. In the hope of gaining a foothold on the island state and of reaping anti-gay voters, the Nationals attempted to tap into Tasmanian anxiety about the unrelenting homosexual law reform debate and nailed it to the IYF masthead. Same-sex couples gate-crashed the picnic with their kids. The mix was volatile, but in the end the Nationals’ stunt backfired.
Having fanned the flames of intolerance, the Nationals were now at risk of burning themselves with it. The picnic was an unwelcome controversy. Tim Fischer could be seen dashing about among the redneck crowd and audibly telling them to, “tone it down” as the homophobia got out of hand and lost public support.
Only the previous year, Governor General Bill Hayden, in a wide ranging speech, had called for spousal benefits to be extended to same-sex couples. This largely unremarkable statement sent the Right, and its assorted anti-gay groups, ballistic. The Liberals went on the attack, Labor went into hiding and “family” front groups screamed that Hayden had “lost the plot”.
Ten years later and it seems little has changed. Mr Bill Muehlenberg from the Australian Family Association, (Online Opinion December 6, 2004), demonstrates that the Religious Right is still trying to define gay and lesbian people out of social policy and still insists on marriage as the best and only framework within which to raise children.
However, even the AFA struggles with its own contradictions and oversights as it tries to define families not according to what they are, but by what they aren’t (homosexual). Nor can it explain the cruelty of why it vehemently opposes marriage for same-sex couples raising children, while at the same time arguing that children are greatly advantaged by having married parents.
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