Hey Gillard, Stop keeping Us in the Dark Ages! How Historical Perspectives help to provide Insight into Equality for Same-Sex Relationship


by Brittany Rogers

Executive summary

  • The Australian Government currently has not legalised same-sex marriage, even though the majority of the population support such a change.
  • Throughout history there have been countless minorities, and even majorities, persecuted against for their differences or beliefs.
  • The AIDS pandemic is one such instance of past prejudice, where it was eventually found that this intolerance, which was bred from ignorance, was unfounded.
  • Discrimination experienced by women when they were fighting for the right to vote is now being experienced by the gay and lesbian community; enfranchisement and emancipation are both common themes.
  • Australia already holds a history of persecution against sexual orientation. From the Salamanca Market events of 1988, the relatively recent decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tasmania and the discrimination against a safe-sex campaign- Rip & Roll.
  • Why have we not already learnt from our mistakes?
  • Why is Australia not following in the footsteps of other nations and states around the world such as New York, the most recent American state to legalise gay and lesbian marriage.
  • Same-sex partnerships are treated in Australia as de-facto relationships, through government institutions they are even treated much like married couples, so why are they denied this right?

The consequences of denying the right of marriage to the gay and lesbian community extends much further than any legal repercussions such a denial brings. In an openly modern, accepting and multicultural society, it is hard to believe the Australian federal government still refuses to legalise marriage equality for same-sex relationships, when it is clearly the majority of the population who wish to do so. The meaning of marriage has evolved throughout time. Not too far gone were times that most societies arranged marriages and economic partnerships for their children. While some cultures still engage in this practice, marriage now has evolved into an expression of commitment and love between two consenting adults, free to choose their own husbands and wives. Throughout history there have been countless battles around the world for equality, from the right of women to vote alongside men to the equal treatment of non-white communities across the world. These battles highlight the same struggles that gay and lesbian communities are going through right now. Further battles have been fought over the rights of this community to be treated justly and without prejudice, such as the assumptions surrounding the origins of AIDS and the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour. Have we not learnt our lesson from history? Have we not yet learnt that all human beings deserve the same rights regardless of gender, race, religion and sexual orientation? The courtesy extended to this minority should not differ from that of anyone else. Looking back throughout history gives us plenty of evidence to suggest that not only will same-sex marriage eventually be legalised, but it is an unacceptable restriction on human rights and free will. Continuing to allow intolerance of change and persecution of this community is to openly admit that Australia is stuck in the dark ages, that our nation is not as modern, compassionate, fair and tolerant as one is led to believe.

Looking back throughout history there are many notable events that show prejudice and presumptions held against the gay and lesbian community. None is more prominent than the AIDS pandemic that swept through the world from the 1970s, particularly the United States. As the pandemic developed year to year, theories about the source of AIDS contributed to the narrow-mindedness surrounding the gay community. In 1981, Dr Curran of the CDC in America was reported in The New York Times to have said: ‘The best evidence against contagion [to non homosexuals] is that no cases have been reported to date outside the homosexual community or in women’. Even after reports of cases in injecting drug users, many still linked the disease to its initial occurrence in gay men while calling it ‘gay compromise syndrome’, GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) and even ‘gay cancer’. This presumption against the gay and lesbian community bred ignorance and fear. AIDS sufferers where evicted from their homes and the deceased were denied burials. We now know that AIDS is not solely a disease affecting those in the gay community. It can be passed onto anyone and from anyone primarily through exposure to bodily fluids and unsafe sex. Clearly this case of prejudice was unfounded, the community prevailed and it was shown that one of the largest intolerances against them was wrong. We can apply this to the right for marriage equality. It is homophobia, not homosexuality that is the problem that needs fixing. The ignorance and fear brought on through homophobia in this case is the same intolerance that is holding back further equality for the gay and lesbian community, the right of marriage equality.

The right of women to vote further highlights the struggles for equality. Women’s suffrage was a groundbreaking movement in many nations throughout the world and still continues to be today. First Wave Feminism in Australia from the 1880s brought with it great change to the legal identity for women as well as reshaping politics and society. Women were arguing for enfranchisement on the basis of individual rights. They lobbied for political and civil rights equal to those of men and were concerned about the general emancipation and advancement of women. Personal freedom, civil equality and social and political changes: where do these arguments sound familiar? Through petitioning, lobbying and campaigning they achieved equal moral standards for both sexes (except for Aboriginal women) by 1901. The battle for equality between women’s right to vote and the right to marriage equality are strikingly similar. The enfranchisement on individual rights is a common theme between the two, as well as the emancipation of advancement. What can we learn through this case in terms of marriage equality? We can learn that marriage equality is inevitable if there is but one person to fight for that right. In Australia at the moment we have significant numbers of marriage equality supporters. Galaxy Research polling from 2009-2011 shows that 62 percent of the population support marriage equality. Even more clear is that 75 percent believe the reform is inevitable. Support between the ages of 18-24 also is at an overwhelming 80 percent. Women were excluded from the right to vote, much like the gay and lesbian community are excluded from the right to marry. Headspace, Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation, underlines on AME: ‘Marriage equality is primarily about ending social exclusion and giving all Australians the same basic rights’.

We do not have to look far to see that Australia has a history, and a recent one at that, of persecution against sexual orientation. It was only in 1997 that Tasmania became Australia’s last state parliament to decriminalise male homosexuality. This meant that it was not until the end of the twentieth century that Australia finally was rid of criminal laws barring all homosexual activity. This was not an easy battle as particularly highlighted by the Salamanca Market events of 1988. Members of the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group were banned from holding a stall at the market. This escalated into weekly protests and arrests that grew into Australia’s largest ever gay rights civil disobedience. The battle continued the following year when the Legislative Council rejected legislation to decriminalise homosexuality, so law reform advocates took their case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. This case was the first of its kind anywhere in the world and Australia’s first United Nations case. This action eventually resulted in Canberra acting on the United Nations decision for the right to sexual privacy for all adult Australians. How is it that a part of our nation still was criminalising male homosexuality just 14 years ago? Today there would be an uproar of public opinion if the expression of sexual orientation could have you sent to prison for a maximum of 21 years! It is this outrage that should be felt for marriage equality. Professsor Kerryn Phelps, former president of the Australian Medical Association, further emphasises this point on Australian Marriage Equality (AME) website by saying:

Today, most people can’t imagine a situation where blacks and whites, or Jews and non-Jews would still be banned from marriage, not here is Australia. But some of us do not need to stretch our imaginations because we are living in a state of marriage apartheid, in Australia, right now, in 2011.

What is ironic in this case is that Tasmania was the first jurisdiction to recognise same-sex relationships in Australia in 2004. How could this oppression occur and why is it still occurring now? Due to anti-discrimination laws, it is criminal for oppression to occur but that does not stop the emotional oppression felt by those in the gay and lesbian community. This behaviour is equally as unjust and is criminal against human rights.

As recently as June this year there was further discrimination against the lesbian and gay community when there was uproar in Australia over the decision by advertising company Adshel to remove Gay Safe Sex advertisements after giving in to pressure from the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL). Paul Martin, Executive Director of Healthy Communities, released a statement that criticised the actions of the ACL:

The Australian Christian Lobby has used homophobia dressed up as protecting children to have an important public education campaign removed. ACL’s Queensland Director Wendy Francis has previously been criticised and forced to apologise for sending out a homophobic tweet likening gay marriage to ‘legalising child abuse’.

The tasteful Rip & Roll advertisement featuring a hugging gay male couple (fully clothed) with an unopened condom sparked nationwide outrage over its removal with a campaign for reinstatement going viral within hours. A Facebook campaign titled ‘Homophobia- NOT HERE’ grew to over 90,000 members and #ripnroll was trending in the top 10 for Australia on Twitter with people voicing their disappointment over Adshel’s decision. The advertisement was reinstated the very next day from public pressure. Paul Martin sent out his thanks to ‘the tens of thousands of supporters who lent their voice, mainly via Facebook and twitter, to getting the adverts reinstated.’ He also highlighted that the advertisement in question was quite conservative when compared with other public advertisements for a range of commercial products. We only have to walk down the street or switch on the TV to understand his point. Children are exposed to sexualisation, violence and much more through many media formats and many other advertisements. In comparison with the Rip & Roll advertisement, which was tasteful, loving and promoting a safe sex message, these other advertisements were not removed. Evidently persecution of the gay and lesbian community persists in our society. What is striking, however, is that just over three weeks later, on the other side of the world, New York was passing a bill in support of gay marriage becoming the sixth and third most populous US state to legalise same-sex marriage. What is wrong with this picture? How can progressively modern and multicultural societies such as Australia be falling behind in this topical discourse? They should be following the example led by other nations and states who have instated same-sex marriage including but not limited to the Netherlands (2001), Massachusetts (2004), Spain (2005), Norway (2009), Argentina (2009) Portugal (2010) and now New York (2011).

Here is a simple thought. The gay and lesbian community already can have recognised same-sex relationships in Australia, albeit they are only recognised as ‘de-facto’ in most states. They also are legally able to adopt children and raise them as a family unit. Why, then, are they denied the next step? Why are they denied the right to make these declarations of love and family official? What is even more grossly unjust is that government institutions such as Centrelink now require those in same-sex relationships to declare their relationship, thereby possibly receiving reduced benefits much like a married couple, and yet they are denied the right to marry. Why are same-sex couples treated as though they are married and yet denied the right to have the legal recognition and the celebration of their commitment? To those opponents who believe that marriage equality is a large change for only a tiny amount of people, look harder. Look to the 13.5 million Australians in support of marriage equality as those who will benefit. Look not only to those directly forbidden to marry for love and commitment and think of their friends and family who also must bear the prejudice and the hurt of knowing their friends, their children and their family are not treated as equal citizens. Allowing same-sex marriage will only further strengthen the resolve of marriage and everything for which it stands.

Looking back throughout history teaches us many things. Lessons can be learnt from the prejudice and intolerance bred from political and social movements, not just in our own country, but around the world. Australia should become a nation where their people belong to a land of free will as clearly that currently does not occur for the gay and lesbian community. It should be a nation of free choice and opportunities for all, not just a segment of the population. It is easy to sit back and watch idly by as persecution of minorities, and even majorities, occurs day to day in such a modern society. It is horrendous to think of such persecution occurring against women, non-whites or religious groups in Australia today. Yet, this is exactly what is occurring now against the gay and lesbian community. One day in the future our children and grandchildren will look back and think how abhorrent the treatment of this minority was and be thankful it does not occur in their time. Would you really want to be remembered in history as those who stood in the way of marriage equality? Or would you rather be known as its champions, its supporters and its drivers? Australia needs to wake up, lead change in marriage equality and show the world we are a progressive nation full of complete tolerance, recognition and acceptance of same-sex relationships. When is it that we are going to stop seeing the world in binaries as male or female, black or white, hetero or homo, and learn that equality is deserved by all, in this case the right to marry whomever we so choose.

Selected further reading:

Australian Marriage Equality, Answering the Opponents of Marriage Equality, Australian Marriage Equality, 2011, retrieved 4 October 2011,

Australian Marriage Equality, Homepage, Australian Marriage Equality, 2011, retrieved 4 October 2011, http://www.australianmarriageequality.com/wp/

Australian Marriage Equality, Information Sheets, Australian Marriage Equality, 2011,

retrieved 4 October 2011,

Australian Marriage Equality, Marriage Equality Facts at a Glance, Australian Marriage Equality, 2011, retrieved 4 October 2011,

Australian Marriage Equality, The Case for Marriage Equality, Australian Marriage Equality, 2011, retrieved 4 October 2011,


Australian Suffragettes, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1988, retrieved 4 October 2011, http://www.abc.net.au/ola/citizen/women/women-home-vote.htm

AVERT, History of AIDS Up to 1986, AVERT, 2011, retrieved 4 October 2011,

Croome, R, Gay Law Reform, Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, 2006, retrieved 4 October 2011, http://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/G/Gay%20Law%20Reform.htm

Esterberg, KG, ‘The bisexual menace revisited: or, shaking up categories is hard to do’ in S Seidman, N Fischer & C Meeks (eds), Introducing the new sexuality studies: original essays and interviews, Routledge, London, 2007, pp. 157-9

Healthy Communities, Rip & Roll- Queenslanders Stand Up to Australian Christian Lobby, Healthy Communities, 2011, retrieved 4 October 2011,


Tasmanian Gay & Lesbian Rights Group, It’s over: 9 year gay law reform campaign ends in victory, Tasmanian Gay & Lesbian Rights Group, 2011, retrieved 4 October 2011,

Tasmanian Gay & Lesbian Rights Group, Trespass, Tasmanian Gay & Lesbian Rights Group, 2011, retrieved 4 October 2011,


‘New York passes bill allowing gay marriage’, The Age, 26 June 2011, retrieved 4 October 2011, http://www.theage.com.au/world/new-york-passes-bill-allowing-gay-marriahe-20110625-1gkns.html

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Citation: Brittany Rogers, Hey Gillard, Stop keeping Us in the Dark Ages! How Historical Perspectives help to provide Insight into Equality for Same-Sex Relationships.

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