‘Aussie Values’: The Problem With The Yes Campaign

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Equality is equality, but you shouldn’t have to look and act like ‘everyone else’ to be granted it. Emily Castle explains.

It is no real surprise that the Party for Freedom, a far-right group of white nationalists dedicated to anti-Islam protests, should now take up arms to defend “white heteronormativity” against the perceived threat of same-sex marriage.

Nor is it particularly difficult to galvanise left-wing activists into action against this brand of extreme right-wing nationalism – at a recent rally in Darlinghurst, Sydney, counter-protestors significantly outnumbered the small turnout of Party for Freedom members.

What is less readily perceptible – and so receives less critical attention – is the pervasive reliance on nationalism within the campaign for marriage equality itself.

Although marriage equality rallies were important to me as a rainbow-socked teenager, I soon stopped attending on the basis that marriage was both irrelevant to my personal desires and antithetical to my political views.

But, regardless of our views on marriage, all LGBTIQ Australians are part of the present debate, and the mobilisation of nationalist rhetoric in the marriage equality campaign has impacts that extend well beyond queer communities.

Where the Party for Freedom echoes the rest of the No campaign in its claim that same-sex marriage will “weaken society”, the Yes campaign relies on precisely the inverse argument: that marriage equality will strengthen the nation.

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But what exactly about the nation is being strengthened?

In each of the three main arguments of the official Equality Campaign – for love, for fairness, and for progress – there is an appeal to nationalist values that implicitly but powerfully reinforce white Australian identity and legitimate the exclusion and marginalisation of other social groups.

Firstly, the seemingly harmless affirmation that marriage equality is about “love and commitment” conceals how a discourse of love frequently serves national interests.

Marriage is never simply a commitment to another person but also fundamentally a commitment to the nation. In return, it is expected that the nation bestows its love upon the married couple – the good citizens – in the form of legal security and rights pertaining to parenting, residency and property.

The marriage equality campaign therefore relies upon the patriotic assertion that LGBTIQ people are just like every other Australian; that the desire for our love to be recognised by the nation is proportional to our love for the nation.

Far from threatening or disrupting family norms, the marriage equality campaign proliferates celebratory images of happy gays and lesbians that reinforce normative ideals of love and commitment, with ads frequently featuring white cisgender couples shown or implied to have a lifelong, stable and monogamous relationship and an aspiration to buy property or have children together.

While this may be representative of the experiences or desires of many LGBTIQ people in Australia, it is important to question how these representations uphold white middle-class “family values” that are understood to be good for the nation.

In this way, the marriage equality campaign reinforces a dominant social script that prescribes the desirability – and acceptability – of certain relationships and families over others.

Through invoking and reinforcing the power of the State to arbitrate the legitimacy of intimate relationships and family structures, this dominant social script can be used to justify the marginalisation of all those who fall outside the narrow terms of acceptability.

One need only look to historical and continuing government policies in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to see how discourses of love are manipulated to maintain and legitimate the dominance of the white Australian State. From explicit restrictions on marriage under the Aborigines Protection Act 1869 (Vic) to the reliance on claims of child sexual abuse to justify the NT Intervention in 2007 — colonial policies frequently rely upon racist representations of Aboriginal families as failing to reproduce a white ideal of “love”.

As regards the campaign for marriage equality, queer Indigenous writers and activists have already highlighted how the voices and bodies of white queer people continue to be prioritised, and trans writers have cautioned against the constant re-inscription of an exclusionary gender binary.

Drawing together these important insights, it is clear that the celebratory rhetoric of “love is love” covers over the way that the marriage equality campaign reinforces not only homonormativity but also homonationalism.

Homonationalism” points to the way that some forms of queer love become aligned with nationalist norms and values, allowing LGBTIQ rights to legitimate the marginalisation and exclusion of other social groups.

This is precisely what is happening in the second key argument of the Yes campaign, which pivots on the injustice of gay and lesbian people being “excluded from marriage” and suggests that marriage equality will help build a “fairer and more inclusive country”.

This emphasis on marriage equality as “a unifying moment for our nation” masks the need to consider who might be left aside or even cast out of the nation’s loving embrace in order to maintain this fantasy of fairness and inclusion.

Notably, the culture of tolerance celebrated by the Yes campaign is particularly hypocritical in relation to the horrific treatment of LGBTIQ asylum seekers in Australia’s offshore detention centres.

Not only does Australia actively send LGBTIQ people to places where they are likely to face further persecution for their sexuality, Australian government officials have been known to rely upon stereotypes of gay and lesbian identity in assessing the cases of LGBTI asylum seekers.

The credibility of LGBTIQ asylum seekers has been subject to highly invasive demands to document and justify their sexuality, with the credibility of their asylum claims being determined on the basis of Western assumptions about what “real” gay and lesbian relationships look like.

The present debate around marriage equality does more than just divert public attention away from this ongoing state-sanctioned abuse of LGBTIQ asylum seekers. It also plays a role in reinforcing the dominant social script against which the authenticity of people’s sexuality and relationships is measured.

On face value, marriage equality might represent ever-increasing fairness and acceptance for LGBTIQ people in Australia. But this fairness and acceptance does not extend to LGBTIQ people who don’t fit the norms – in other words, those who aren’t stereotypical enough, good enough, grateful enough, white enough, or Australian enough.

Even though only a narrow band of LGBTIQ people stand to benefit from the proposed changes to the Marriage Act, marriage equality is continually positioned by the Yes campaign as a key marker of social justice and a stepping stone towards further positive social change.

This appeal to a national narrative of progress constitutes the third principal argument of the marriage equality campaign: if Australia is “a decent and fair nation” where “treating people unfairly and unequally is a thing of the past”, then we need to eliminate discrimination against LGBTIQ people not only from our hearts but from our laws.

Framing Australia as an inherently good (or loving) nation that just hasn’t quite caught up with the rest of the world – or at least the “advanced English-speaking” parts of the world that we want to identify with – facilitates our ardent desire to be seen as a progressive nation.

At present, Australia is considered among the “second tier” of nations when it comes to LGBTIQ rights.

Once marriage equality is achieved, Australia will be able to claim what many consider its full and rightful place among the league-table of “enlightened” nations that have legalised same-sex marriage.

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This will undoubtedly increase Australia’s ability to promote itself to international audiences as a “gay friendly” tourist destination. But when positioned as a barometer of modernity and progress, marriage equality can also be used to give more fuel to the fire of racist and xenophobic government policies and practices.

Having apparently conquered the homophobes at home, Australia would have greater justification in targeting or vilifying comparatively “backward” homophobic nations – all the while allowing for continued blindness towards the many gross injustices in Australia our nation is involved in perpetrating.

This is not to suggest that supporters of marriage equality are racist – although they certainly can be – nor that they aren’t actively committed to fighting for social justice on other fronts.

Even – or especially – if Australia positions itself as a beacon of LGBTIQ rights, this calls for close consideration of how only some queer people are welcomed into the nation, and how these same rights can be instrumentalised in the service of xenophobia and Islamophobia at home and abroad.

Here, it is instructive to return briefly to the Party for Freedom.

In the lead-up to the Darlinghurst rally, the group’s Facebook page vehemently derided the “intolerant ideologues” on the left who “want to normalise homosexuality in the same way multiculturalism has been normalised”.

Drawing a similar parallel, it is clear that notions of equality and acceptance predicated on “normalisation” enable the rejection and exclusion of those who don’t fulfil nationalist ideals and values.

It is not simply that these are other issues that are more important than marriage equality. In the campaign for marriage equality, these seemingly “other” issues are always at stake.

It is therefore no longer simply a question of challenging the hyper-nationalist “white heteronormativity” championed by the Party for Freedom and the No campaign. There is also an urgent need to start unravelling the subtle but pervasive ways that homonationalism underwrites the Australian campaign for marriage equality.

Otherwise, the nation’s promise of love for LGBTIQ people will remain hand-in-hand with the threat of its withdrawal, with far-reaching impacts within and beyond the queer community.

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Emily Castle

Emily Castle has studied Fine Art and Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne and currently volunteers with Undercurrent Community Education Project and SNAICC – National Voice for Our Children.

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