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Civil unions in the closet: Rudd bows to the religious right

By Carol Johnson - posted Thursday, 14 February 2008

Labor’s rather confusing attitude to the ACT same-sex civil unions Bill became a little clearer in an interview with federal Attorney General Robert McClelland published in The Australian on February 7. McClelland is reported to have said that the “ceremonial aspects of the ACT’s civil unions model were unacceptable”.

He went on to suggest that the Federal Government would be prepared to endorse a watered-down form of so-called “civil union” that appeared to be little more than an existing state and territory based registration scheme akin to that in Tasmania.

Such registration schemes have removed a range of forms of discrimination. However, they are used to register not just same-sex unions but also a range of other, non-sexual interdependent relationships, which is why the religious right has often found them easier to accept than full civil unions for same-sex couples.


In other words, federal Labor would prefer that civil unions stay in the closet, or as The Australian headline perceptively put it “Gay unions OK, just not in public”. It is usual for countries that have same-sex civil unions, such as Britain, to allow public ceremonies. Why then is this not the case in Australia?

McClelland’s statements regarding ceremonies are particularly significant given that the Howard government rejected the ACT’s 2006 same-sex Civil Unions Bill by claiming that its ceremonial features “mimicked marriage”. Gay and Lesbian activists were therefore very concerned when the ALP’s 2007 National Conference inserted a clause into the 2007 ALP National Platform and Constitution stating that Labor would “not create schemes that mimic marriage” and Labor made similar statements in response to an Australian Christian Lobby survey.

It is still not clear how Labor will respond if the ACT goes ahead and passes its bill, particularly given Rudd’s reported comments, in 2006 and 2007, that a Federal Labor government wouldn’t interfere with the states’ and territories’ rights to pass such legislation.

Nonetheless, the Australian Christian Lobby appears to believe that it had an undertaking from Labor to oppose ACT-style civil unions, as part of a 2007 election sweetener to the religious right. At the least, federal Labor appears to have promised to try to water down the ACT’s civil unions legislation, perhaps also to placate religious conservatives in its own ranks. (Note that it already appears that the ACT will continue to use the formal term "civil partnerships" - a linguistic re-badging of its civil unions originally introduced to try to get revised legislation past the Howard

However, Federal Labor needs to think very carefully about the implications of its opposition to including the option of a ceremony in a civil unions law.

To begin with, it is an extraordinary imposition on the civil rights of citizens. Imagine the outcry if Federal, State and Territory governments tried to prevent specific ethnic or religious groups having ceremonies incorporated into civil or religious heterosexual marriages? Would that type of government interference be considered acceptable for other groups of citizens? Labor supported Howard when he made same-sex marriage illegal, now Labor is also trying to seriously circumscribe the lesser form of union that some countries such as Britain (where same-sex marriage is also illegal) have been prepared to offer gay and lesbian citizens precisely because they can’t marry.


Labor’s opposition to public ceremonies is clearly highly discriminatory in itself but, more than that, it reinforces one of the most obvious forms of discrimination against gays and lesbians in a homophobic society, namely the injunction to keep same-sex relationships out of the public eye and in the closet. In other words, once Labor passes its welcome same-sex law reforms, you may be able to inform a public servant that you are in a same-sex relationship for taxation purposes but please don’t have a government sanctioned public ceremony declaring your love!

McClelland’s arguments are simply the latest version of a longstanding tendency in Australian politics for even those supporting same-sex law reform to suggest that, unlike heterosexuality, same-sex love should stay to some extent a private matter, hidden from public view.

It has been common for politicians to make unashamedly discriminatory statements in this regard that would be considered absolutely outrageous if applied to heterosexuals. So, former Liberal PM John Gorton could say openly in a 1973 speech in favour of male homosexual law reform:

We are concerned with one question and one question only ... Should homosexual individuals who are adults, who both wish a homosexual relationship with each other, who do not flaunt it but who act in private, withdrawn from the public gaze, be dubbed criminals and be subject to punishment by the criminal law? I suggest to the House that they should not be treated in that way ...

Let us put out of our minds what sometimes is in mine - the thought of people walking hand in hand down the street or with their arms round each other or in other ways acting in ways which we find objectionable. Let us think instead of the thousands of men who are not like that, who could not be discovered in an ordinary glance at the population, who hurt no one, harm no one and yet have this hanging over them.

In other words, Gorton is endorsing views that gay men should stay firmly in the closet, self regulating even whether to put an arm round a lover, however much personal pain (and internalised shame) this imposed.

Male homosexuality has long been decriminalised (well only since 1990 in Queensland and 1997 in Tasmania). Federal Labor has progressed far beyond Gorton’s position. Unlike the Howard government, it supports removing the numerous forms of discrimination against same-sex couples (although not necessarily same-sex families) which the Human Rights and Equal opportunity Commission has identified. The government even has the first openly gay or lesbian Cabinet Minister (Penny Wong, who has spoken eloquently in caucus and parliament in favour of removing discrimination against same-sex couples). There is much for gays and lesbians to celebrate about the election of the Rudd Government.

Nonetheless, Robert McClelland’s recent statements suggest that there are still limits in how far Federal Labor will go in allowing same-sex love to be celebrated in public, even if their position has progressed enormously since Gorton’s.

The government doesn’t seem to realise that, by bowing to the religious right, Labor is still implying that same-sex unions are somehow shameful and should be kept private. Politicians need to think about how important such prejudiced attitudes have been in the history of oppressing gays and lesbians. If in doubt, they should read Senator Bob Brown’s account of the electric shock aversion therapy he underwent as a young man (see James Norman’s biography of Brown).

Labor is also (no doubt unintentionally) reinforcing the mores of a society in which gays and lesbians still know that, even today, casual displays of affection in public that heterosexuals wouldn’t think twice about, such as holding hands can be deemed unacceptable. Indeed, they can trigger incidents of homophobic abuse and violence (PDF 15.82MB).

It is an extraordinarily backward step. It is also an indication of Rudd’s own social conservatism and his somewhat ambiguous position on same-sex issues, given his desire to attract the Christian vote. (See my earlier On Line Opinion piece).

Brendan Nelson recently indicated his personal support for removing some forms of discrimination against same-sex couples. He asked Liberals unhappy with his position to imagine “how would I feel if that were me? How would I feel if I had a son, daughter, brother or sister in these arrangements?” I suggest it would be helpful if all heterosexual politicians imagined the same thing about civil unions.

How would you feel if your government apparently considered your love for your partner so problematic, so second-rate, so potentially shameful that they would not only make it illegal for you to marry, but would then go further and even oppose you having a public ceremony with your civil union?

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About the Author

Carol Johnson is a Professor in Politics at the University of Adelaide and has written extensively on Labor governments and also on politics and gender. She has a particular interest in the politics of emotion. She is the author of The Labor Legacy: Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke (Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1989) and Governing Change: From Keating to Howard (Network Books, Nedlands WA, 2007).

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