Movements as Forces with Irrepressible Momentum: How Feminism indicates that Gay Marriage will not be Denied


by Naomi Bartle


Executive Summary

  • This article looks at current debate about gay marriage, and uses examples from the feminism movements and the changing perspective of females to argue that gay marriage is an inevitable change. It argues that it is just a matter of time before Australia makes the changes.
  • Key points of this article include the history of homosexuality, and the history of females, which suggest that, just as women have been defined by society, so too have the ways in which we look at homosexual relationships.
  • It then looks at the change of social roles of men and women brought about during second wave feminism as well as looking at modern opinions of the gay marriage debate and modern perceptions of homosexuality.
  • The article also considers religious aspects of this debate, and then discusses recent changes in the perspectives of homosexuality and Tasmania’s attempts to be the first Australian state to legalise gay marriage.

An important topic in today’s society is the question of gay marriage. There are strong opinions on both sides of the debate about whether homosexual couples should be allowed to be legally married and be recognised by the state. There are several countries such as Canada that already have legalised gay marriage, and there is much pressure on the Australia government to follow suit and make the changes to the marriage laws so that they embrace homosexual marriage. Several bills already have been put before parliament in an attempt to make the changes, but so far none have been successful despite the fact that many Australians are in favour of gay marriage. This article argues that gay marriage is inevitable in our society’s future. By looking at examples of feminism throughout history to support the argument of gay marriage, it show that as we advance as a society, changes such as gay marriage are inescapable. This article traces some key similarities and differences between social perceptions of homosexuality and women throughout history, paying particular attention to how viewpoints have evolved over time. This includes modern opinions of gay marriage, social roles of men and women, changing laws and society, as well as the influence and perception of religion.

In Ancient Greece, homosexuality was accepted as a normal part of life until the rise of Christianity led to a change of social perceptions; homosexuality then became viewed as somehow wrong or immoral. It actually had been seen as a sign of manliness for men to sleep with both men and women in Ancient Greece, where homosexuality was considered a perfectly normal relationship. At the same period of time, however, women had much less standing. Even so, according to John Addington Symonds’ nineteenth-century work A Problem in Greek Ethics: Studies in Sexual Inversions, the love between two women was given equal rights to two men, and both men and women were given the same freedom as heterosexual individuals of either gender. As Greece merged into the Roman Empire, the sexual freedom that typified Greek society was not accepted by the Romans and, over time, popular opinion towards homosexuality changed (though not necessarily always opposed). In the Middle Ages, according to Gordon Rattray Taylor, there was much freedom in sexuality as the Church battled in vain to impose its ideas of sexual regulation. During the eighteenth century, women were placed into two very defined categories of ‘damned whores’ or ‘god’s police’; from society’s moral standpoint, if you were not one of god’s police then you were a damned whore. This perception of females changed during the feminism movements. Many people, however, maintain a narrow view of homosexuality based on stereotypes. In the twenty-first century, stereotypes of homosexuals have been challenged with much help from pop culture including TV, books, and movies that have portrayed homosexuals in a variety of ways that defy classic labels.

In modern Australian society many people support gay marriage, but state and federal governments remain unwilling to enact the necessary change to laws to legalise gay marriage (although they will acknowledge it if performed legally elsewhere). In polls conducted for newspapers or TV shows, over 50 percent of people support gay marriage. In February 2012, prime minister Julia Gillard dined with same-sex couples in a committed relationship — including a couple who married in Canada in 2008 — who had won the right to dinner in the Lodge at a charity auction. An argument used against legalising gay marriage is that it may lead us down a slippery slope towards accepting polygamy and bestiality, but heterosexual marriage itself started off this slippery slope when it recognised marriage as being more than a religious ceremony between followers of the same faith. If people of different religions, ages, and races can marry then who are we to say that, just because two people share the same gender, they should not be allowed to marry, whereas people can marry, divorce, and remarry partners of the opposite sex as many times as they wish. Over 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, and perhaps that number would lower if same-sex marriage was legalised.

When women struggled for the right to get a higher education they had to change the way that society perceived their supposedly ‘natural’ role. Now, with the debate about gay marriage, as a society we must change how we view what should constitute marriage. If it is about children, then anyone who cannot physically have children or who does not want children should not be allowed to get married. It used to be that a marriage was ‘til death do us part’, but after the introduction of divorce the perception of marriage has changed demonstrably and now it must undergo significant change again.

Debate about legalising gay marriage is about changing laws, but no article can discuss gay marriage without acknowledging the religious aspects and the influence of religion on people’s opinion. Although Australia is a multicultural society with followers of many religions, Christian beliefs are still a major part of our culture as evidenced by the popularity of holidays such as Easter and Christmas; therefore it stands to reason that it also will affect views on marriage. The rise of Christianity in Ancient Rome is what led to changing opinions on homosexuality, which was once accepted as a normal part of sexual experience in Greece before it merged with the Roman Empire. But surely when religion is a person’s reason for opposing gay marriage it simply is unfair for them to force their religious views on someone else just because they lead a different lifestyle that is condemned in the Bible. There are many parts of the Bible that are no longer followed because of changes in society, including the role of women. A person’s religion is their own choice to follow and to what degree they take their faith, but marriage is no longer just a religious ceremony and the debate of gay marriage is about laws in which religion should play no part.

During the second wave feminism movement, one of the major aims was changing social perceptions of what defined females and males. The main focus of this was mostly about how females were equally capable as men at many things and how they should not be forced into the role of a wife or mother. Another part of this was also changing how men were viewed and acted and what it was that defined masculinity. During the women’s movement, argues Barbara Ryan, feminist ideals became synonymous with lesbianism, which led to a fraction in the women’s movement because heterosexual feminists did not want to be linked to something identified with lesbianism. Part of the women’s movement was about women refusing to marry and living their lives for themselves rather than taking care of a husband and children, and when married feminists complained about problems in their marriages they were forced to believe that it was their own fault for choosing to stay in that relationship. This part of the women’s movement was about giving women the right to choose if and when they were to get married, and even now there are men and women who make the choice not to get married or to have children so it can therefore be assumed that some of these people are homosexual and just because they are given the right to get married doesn’t mean they will. The women of the feminist movement fought to gain equality between the sexes, and now homosexuals are fighting for equal rights when it comes to marriage. Feminism completely changed the way that females were viewed by society; all gay marriage will do is slightly alter the way we view one aspect of society — something most Australians are happy to do.

In 2008, laws changed to allow same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual de facto couples in areas such as Medicare and unemployment benefits, showing that although they cannot be married legally the government nonetheless acknowledges their relationship (which also can be seen in the introductions of civil unions). There are parallels between the government acknowledging homosexual couples, and the government of 1902 acknowledging the female citizens of Australian by granting them the right to vote and allowing them the chance to influence the way the country was run. It took 108 years for Australia to go from females winning the fight for the right to vote to our first female prime minister; how long will it be before the laws are changed to allow homosexual couples to be married? Already, perceptions of homosexuality have changed significantly, with homosexuality being changed from being seen as a mental illness, to being made a crime, to now being accepted by a majority of the Australian people as a normal lifestyle. Now, in 2012, Tasmania, which had been the last Australian state to decriminalize homosexuality, is attempting to be the first state to legally recognise gay marriage in Australia.

Throughout history both the way that sexuality is perceived and how gender is perceived has changed significantly as society changes and our understanding of the world changes. Homosexuality is now a part of life that, for the most part, is accepted by the majority of Australians without issue. Like the stereotypes that females changed during the feminism movements over the years, thanks to popular culture the stereotypes of homosexuality have been changed for the better. Homosexuality has been a part of history for a very long time but the ways in which it has been perceived have changed as the society it is part of has changed. The growth of religion condemned homosexuality as they preached their own ideas of human nature, and as religious ideologies spread the way people thought and acted was altered to fit their worldview while they condemned those who did not ‘belong’. During the second wave of feminism the ways that females and males were viewed by society were challenged and forever altered. If, over time, females have been able to change their roles in society from being just that of a wife and mother to now leading the country how can we think that gay marriage is something that needs to be stopped or is something that will never happened when there are countries making the changes already, and even a state of Australia is fighting for marriage equality by legalising gay marriage.


Selected further reading:

A Bolt & comments, ‘Slippery Slope: another example’, The Herald Sun, 20 September 2012, http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/slippery_slope_another_example/ (accessed on 10/10/12)

Ed. P, Grimshaw, S, Janson, & M, Quartly, Freedom Bound 1, Allen & Unwin, Crows nest, 1995.

Pugh, M Women and the women’s movement in Britain 1914-1959, Macmillan, London, 1992.

Ryan, B Feminism and the women’s movement, Routledge, London, 1992.

Symonds, J Studies in sexual inversions, AMS press, New York, 1928

Taylor, G Sex in history, Thames and Hudson, London, 1953

© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Naomi Bartle, Movements as Forces with Irrepressible Momentum: How and Why Feminism indicates that Gay Marriage will not be Denied. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/movements-as-forces

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/movements-as-forces