The pink vote
Should LGBTI people vote for parties that do not fully accept them?

Image: The Star Observer, July 2016

Reactions to the Orlando shootings and ongoing concerns about a proposed plebiscite on same-sex marriage have ensured that homosexuality is an issue in the current election campaign. One might assume this works in favour of Labor and the Greens, but the reality is more complex.

The July issue of the Star Observer, Australia’s most significant gay newspaper, features a picture of Turnbull on the front cover depicted as a “daddy”, a term for a sexually attractive older man. The issue contains considerable political coverage, heavily weighted in favour of the Liberals, with profiles of gay Liberal candidates and Tony Abbott’s sister Christine Forster, herself a Liberal councillor for Sydney.

While there are also interviews with lesbian candidate Sophie Ismail, who is running for Labor against Adam Bandt in the seat of Melbourne, and Martine Delaney, a trans Greens candidate in Tasmania, there are odd omissions such as the two openly queer South Australian Senators – Penny Wong (Labor) and Robert Simms (Greens).

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this; editors make choices and the Star Observer is far more balanced and objective than the current Murdoch press, for instance. But, in light of current controversies around gutting the Safe Schools program and refusing a parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage, it might strike many readers as somewhat surprising.

The Liberals interviewed – Christine Forster, Trent Zimmerman (member for North Sydney) and Geoffrey Winters (Liberal candidate for Sydney) – all stress that their sexuality is not the only factor that defines them. That a community newspaper is able to recognise this in an era of heightened identity politics is surely a sign of progress.

But despite the undoubted goodwill of those quoted – and the comment from young National Blaise Bratter that it’s easier to make change from the inside than throwing rocks from the outside – the issue left me uneasy.

Yes, a person’s sexuality should be irrelevant to their political allegiances. But, like gender and race, it cannot be while the larger society defines people on the basis of their sexuality. The real significance of the marriage debate is not the legal benefits of marriage, most of which are already available to same-sex couples, but rather the full acceptance of homosexuality that amending the Marriage Act symbolises.

Bill Shorten has promised these amendments within a hundred days of winning, while the Greens have campaigned for same-sex marriage for many years. There is even a single-issue Equality Party, whose central plank is marriage equality. (Like other single-issue parties, they appear to have no position on other issues that would confront a member were he or she to be elected.)

As noted by some of Turnbull’s critics, quoted in the Star Observer cover story, the Abbott–Turnbull government has effectively slowed down progress towards prevention of discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity. None of the many people interviewed for this issue raised the question of queer asylum seekers, and the fact that people who have fled their homelands because of their sexuality are being detained in countries where they face equal persecution. The battle for marriage equality overrides all else.

Many within the Liberal party, including its leader, clearly support marriage equality. There will be three, possibly four, openly gay Liberals in the next Parliament. (In the seat of Brisbane both major parties have nominated gay men.) But the Coalition parties include people so opposed to same-sex marriage that they will vote against it even if the plebiscite favours change.

There is a certain irony in the prime minister saying he would not have invited Sheikh Shady Alsuleiman to attend an iftar dinner had he known his views on homosexuality. The sheik’s views are not that distinct from those held by some of Turnbull’s own backbench, whom he presumably has not debarred as dinner companions.

Having condemned homophobia “wherever it is to be found”, Turnbull lays himself open to questions about his own colleagues. If he is prepared to insist that Muslim clerics accept equality irrespective of sexuality and gender expression, should this not also be a requirement for members of the government he leads? Should he not show equal distress at the language of the Australian Christian Lobby, whose rhetoric is a more sanitised version of the same hatreds?

Political parties by their nature contain disparate elements, and the Labor Party too has a few obvious homophobes, mainly senators who owe their places to support from the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA). The most strident of these, Joe Bullock, resigned within his first term because he could not accept his party’s commitment to same sex marriage.

What little evidence we have suggests that, while people who identify as LGBTI are probably more likely to vote on the left than others of the same socio-economic status, there are many who identify with and indeed represent conservative parties. At what point will they refuse to support a government that denies support to queer refugees, to safer schools and to marriage equality?

Dennis Altman
Dennis Altman is Director of the Institute for Human Security LaTrobe University.

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