Marriage in homosexual histories

Shirleene Robinson kicks off our marriage equality series by reflecting on the history of marriage in LGBTIQ advocacy and activism.

On 21 April 1975, two men – an Australian citizen, Anthony Corbett Sullivan and his American partner, Richard Frank Adams – were married in Boulder, Colorado. To emphasise how truly revolutionary this was, on the other side of the world in Australia, homosexuality between men was illegal in every state and territory at this time.

Sullivan and Adams were issued their Colorado wedding license by a sympathetic county clerk, Clela Rorex, after she failed to find any official guidelines preventing same-sex marriage. Sullivan and Adams were motivated to marry after falling in love. They wanted to both express this and receive the legal protections a marriage would have afforded, particularly in relation to immigration rights. While the Federal US government later overturned their marriage, it now serves as a major milestone in the history of the marriage equality movement. The involvement of an Australian man in this case is particularly noteworthy, as it places the Australian movement for marriage equality in transnational context and points to a longer history of activism in this area than is popularly acknowledged.

It is often popularly assumed that Australian lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) advocacy around marriage emerged in 2004, when then Prime Minister John Howard amended the Marriage Act of 1961 to prevent same-sex couples from marrying. Howard did this to prevent Australian same-sex couples who married in countries such as Canada from receiving official recognition on their return to Australia, and in an attempt to wedge the Labor Party on the issue. In doing so, Howard deviated considerably from Robert Menzies, who had avoided placing too narrow a restriction on marriage with the 1961 legislation. Menzies and his party then recognised marriage as an institution that was subject to evolution over time.

Adelaide’s Rainbow Walk, a timeline of significant events in lgbti history. Image by Michael Coghlan via Wikimedia Commons.

The year 2004 is certainly a significant one, marking the formation of advocacy groups such as Australian Marriage Equality, organised to overturn the exclusion of LGBTIQ people from the institution of marriage. Yet there is a much longer history surrounding LGBTIQ people, marriage and marriage-like unions. Historians such as Barbara Baird, Max Denton and Rebecca Jennings have made important interventions here, uncovering the way the absence of marriage played out in the intimate lives of past generations of LGBTIQ people. Denton has found calls for ‘homophile’ marriage recognition dating from the 1950s in the United States. Jennings has noted there were cases of female couples wishing to undertake marriage ceremonies and receive this type of recognition occurring in Australia from as early as the 1950s.

Why have histories of LGBTIQ people and their quest for marriage been largely overlooked? Partly because the institution was sharply critiqued by many involved with the gay liberation movement and the feminist movement of the 1970s. There was certainly some merit to these critiques. As Rodney Croome, Ann McGrath, Victoria Haskins and others have pointed out, for much of its history in Australia, marriage has involved the control and subjugation of women, Aboriginal people and other marginalised groups. Some academics, including US-based Lisa Duggan, have labeled the movement towards marriage equality as ‘homonormative’, arguing that as more LGBTIQ people take up the option, something transgressive from LGBTIQ has been lost.

The institution of marriage itself, however, is not static in its meanings. From a contractual agreement that primarily cemented property rights, over time, it has evolved into the more romantic contemporary conception of a public celebration of a mutual commitment to a shared life and love between couples. It has also become a more inclusive institution, as bars to interfaith and interracial marriage have been removed. Most marriages conducted in contemporary Australia are civil ceremonies, rather than religious ceremonies, which also represents a cultural and historical shift. Today, there are still both gay and heterosexual couples who critique marriage as a model for relationships, seeking out and adopting other possibilities. It is important to note though, that over the last decade polls have consistently shown that a majority of LGBTIQ people and a majority of heterosexual people in Australia support marriage equality. In 2014, a Crosby Textor poll found support had reached a decisive 72 per cent.

However, to treat the marriage equality campaign as a twenty-first century phenomena or ‘fad’ is to ignore its historical roots. Of course earlier LGBTIQ activists, by necessity, had to focus publicly on then more pressing concerns such as decriminalization, the struggle against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia, the fight for equality under a range of state and Federal laws and the HIV and AIDS epidemic. It was not until 1997, after all, that Tasmania became the last state to decriminalize sex between men. Moreover, it was not until 2001 that the Netherlands became the first country in the world to allow same-sex couples to marry.

Peter Bonsall Boone and Peter de Waal at 2017 Mardi Gras, campaigning for marriage equality so they can solemnise their fifty-year relationship. Image by Sarah Midgley.

This has meant that same-sex marriage has historically received both less activist and less academic attention. It does not, however, mean that LGBTIQ people have not long engaged with this issue. It means that when contemporary opponents of marriage equality claim that LGBTIQ people have not considered marriage, they are disregarding a rich and clear history.

While public support has increased remarkably in Australia over the past decade, LGBTIQ people have a history of undertaking marriage-like rituals even in the absence of official recognition. As far back as 4 March 1932, the Arrow newspaper noted that in Brisbane ‘over the last two weeks there have been two “weddings” between men’. In an article laden with the homophobia of the era, the newspaper continued to describe the ‘ghastly, horrifying spectacles of painted men and primping lads united in a sacrilegious blasphemy that they call the “bonds of matrimony”.’ Surprisingly, the Arrow noted that, ‘professional people have been invited as guests to witness the “weddings”’. The newspaper viewed this as ‘an astounding revelation that perversion of this rotten type is so openly accepted in Brisbane.’

Oral histories also provide evidence that LGBTIQ people have a longer history of engaging in marriage-like rituals. Nola Strawbridge, who I interviewed in 2015 for the ‘Australian Lesbian and Gay Life Stories’ oral history project conducted in conjunction with the National Library of Australia, remembered attending several same-sex ceremonies in the 1970s, which replicated weddings for committed same-sex couples in the absence of official recognition. Other members of the LGBTIQ community interviewed for projects such as the ‘LGBT Lives’ oral history collection held at the State Library of Queensland have told similar accounts.

Love is Love rally, Adelaide, 2015. Image by Jenny Scott via Trove.

Machinations conducted by politicians have thus far prevented same-sex Australian couples from marrying in their own country under their own laws. Over the course of the past sixteen years, however, as a range of countries have amended laws to allow same sex couples to marry, many same-sex Australian couples have married overseas. New Zealand, which introduced marriage equality in 2013, has proven to be a particularly popular destination. Others, with dual citizenship, have married in British consulates across Australia. Clearly, future historians of LGBTIQ people and marriage will have to be mindful of this transnational context.

There is a lengthy history of LGBTIQ engagement with and advocacy around the institution of marriage. While official recognition would have been inconceivable to all but the most optimistic of LGBTIQ people in Australia until quite recently, histories which leave out accounts of LGBTIQ engagement and advocacy for marriage are not complete. By considering the longer history of LGBTIQ advocacy around the issue of marriage, we are able to highlight an important element of the LGBTIQ experience.

Marriage equality has now become perhaps the most widely-discussed social issues in contemporary Australia, galvanising a nation as, barring two pending High Court challenges, the country faces an unpopular and pointless postal plebiscite on this issue. In this climate, there is some reason for optimism, however. In 1975, when Sullivan and Corbett lodged their application for a wedding licence in Colorado, marriage between same-sex couples was not legally recognised anywhere. Today, over one billion people live in countries with marriage equality. There is every reason for same-sex couples in Australia to expect to access the same rights and recognitions as their heterosexual counterparts.


Shirleene Robinson is an Associate Professor and the Vice Chancellor’s Innovation Fellow in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University. She has written extensively on topics encompassing histories of sexuality, race, childhood, medicine, law and politics. Her most recent book was Gay and Lesbian, Then and Now: Scenes from an Australian Social Revolution with Robert Reynolds. She has also volunteered with Australian Marriage Equality since 2012 and is currently a Director on its Board.

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