Originally published in FUSE, December 2011
In 2009 I spent a year in Sweden. Around August Stockholm held their annual pride march. The march is huge, often attracting around 500,000 viewers. This year, it was held approximately 6 months after the Swedish Government, with an overwhelming majority, approved same-sex marriage in the country. The passage of the law followed a huge campaign in the country to see same-sex marriage become a reality.
Coming to the march, I was interested to see how a queer movement would react to such an achievement and move forward. What I found was pretty amazing. First, the theme of the march was ‘how does heteropatriachy affect you?’ (roughly translated), a pretty strong indication of a movement that was not willing to settle with same-sex marriage as their end goal. The second amazing fact was the size, and energy of the march, and from what I saw in my year in Sweden, the movement around it. It was clear that same-sex marriage had not gotten rid of the momentum for the Swedish queer movement. In fact it probably helped it. Same-sex marriage was clearly seen as one victory on a ladder to much wider societal change.
Looking at the Sweden, I think there is much that the Australian queer movement can learn from their experience. Momentum in Australia around same-sex marriage is so strong at the moment that it is, in many ways sucking the oxygen out of most other high-profile queer issues. The campaign also looks certain to come to a head soon, particularly after the ALP National Conference at the end of 2011 (note: this article was written before the national conference). From there, activists should have a pretty good idea about where the same-sex marriage campaign is moving. It is almost certain that there will be a vote on the issue in Parliament in 2012, with an almost equal chance that the bill will be passed as it is defeated.
So, what should we do after such a vote? How should we approach the next 12 months? What happens if same-sex marriage passes? What happens if it fails?
One of the key things I have learnt from a range of training in movement politics (which has not be completely exhaustive) is that setting up stepping stones to a greater victory is essential to movement success. It is important to be able to identify achievable goals that can lead to eventual, long-term success. This allows us to have identifiable victories that can lead towards long-term success. For example, for someone running an election campaign, the election of a particular candidate should be seen as an identifiable victory that is part of longer term success (i.e. forming long-term social, environmental and economic change through Parliamentary means).
Same-sex marriage should be seen in a similar vein. Whilst we may have disagreements about the value of marriage for queer people (something I am happy to engage in), for those who are advocating and campaigning for it, it should be seen as one potential, identifiable victory, that is part of long-term success. Same-sex marriage is part of a broader campaign to change the way our society operates and to bring an end to the heteropatriachy. It is by no means the be all and end all of queer politics.
One of the key elements of ensuring that these sorts of strategies work is being clear that the stepping stones on the way to a greater victory are just one part of this long-term change. This is important at two points of time.
First, social movements need to be able to clearly articulate that achievable goals are just part of a broader change desired in society. In the case of same-sex marriage for example, it continues to be essential that we articulate that same-sex marriage isn’t the be all and end all. And whilst many of us consider it to be an essential element to change in our society (noting that many others don’t), we cannot see this as our end goal. This means being realistic in campaigns and acknowledging that there are other elements to the broader movement that just same-sex marriage.
This is an issue that has to be addressed for queer activists. For many, it can now be seen that same-sex marriage has in many ways become the sole goal of the queer movement. Organisations such as ‘Australian Marriage Equality’ and ‘Equal Love’, who both focus almost solely on same-sex marriage, are now dominating the public sphere of the queer movement. With this, it is easy to see why there are serious concerns that other issues are simply being pushed off the agenda. Concerns such as queer mental health, trans* rights, gender identity and the overarching oppressive nature of our society, whilst still there in the background, are continuing to be pushed out in favour of same-sex marriage debates. Whilst this makes sense as same-sex marriage comes to a head, it is essential that as long as there is a focus on same-sex marriage, we don’t forget the broader goals of the movement.
Second, it is essential that the queer movement has a clear plan forward after same-sex marriage is wither won or lost. Whilst it is clear that many will focus on re-strategising if the issue fails in Parliament in 2012, we will also need to re-strategise if the law passes Parliament in 2012. The debate over same-sex marriage has seen the queer movement gain almost unprecedented coverage and support, with a community that clearly feels empathy with the issues the queer movement are putting forward. If, and when, same-sex marriage passes we need to clearly think about how we can keep this momentum going, so we can tackle the big issues facing our society.
Whilst some may say that this is something we can deal with after same-sex marriage is passed, by then it may be too late. All one needs to do is look at the loss of momentum for the union movement’s Your Rights @ Work campaign after the election of the Rudd Government to see that victories, whilst sweet, can halt significant momentum. Dealing with that potential now is essential for dealing for long-term success.
If you are someone who cares about same-sex marriage, things are looking bright in 2012. Yet, as the campaign momentum for same-sex marriage heats up, so does our responsibility to ensure a bright future for the queer movement after any legislation is passed. We have real potential to take this momentum to the next stage and to be able to really deal with some of the issues facing the queer movement in Australia and around the world.