Tracing activist demands concerning ‘same sex’ relationships

Barbara Baird traces the shifting demands of Australian gay and lesbian activists with respect to ‘same sex’ relationships, from not marriage to just marriage.

I blame Prime Minister John Howard for a lot of things, including the form and content of the current debate about marriage equality in Australia.

The discriminatory regulation of intimate relationships in Australia did not, of course, begin with John Howard. The colonial regulation of Aboriginal peoples’ sexual, reproductive and family lives has had devastating consequences which continue today – as does their resistance. The imposition of ‘patriarchal white sovereignty’, as Aileen Moreton-Robinson describes the law/lore of the Australian nation state, has also regulated the intimate lives of non-Aboriginal peoples, including those who have deviated from heterosexual norms.

Adelaide Gay Activists Alliance, 1973. Image courtesy of SA Memory, State Library of South Australia.

Direct challenges to state regulation of homosexual relations came with the emergence of civil libertarian concern with homosexuality in the mid 1960s as well as the emerging Gay Liberation and Women’s Liberation movements. This is not to say that the demand for legal recognition of lesbian and gay couples was on the public agenda of activists in the 1970s.

The almost fifty years of homosexual activism in Australia can be divided into two periods. The first focuses on the decriminalisation of (male) homosexuality. The second period focuses on law reform to recognise lesbian and gay relationships, ‘same sex relationships’ as they tend to be known today.  This is a reductive periodisation that occludes as much as it acknowledges. But it does accurately describe the periods of the liberal project of law reform, which has been the most legible face of most activist groups.

By the time lesbians and gay men in Australia were turning their attention to the legal recognition of their relationships, state governments had granted de facto heterosexual couples many of the rights previously enjoyed only by married couples. This made the starting point for lesbian and gay activists very different to that in the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland, for example, where many life-sustaining benefits and entitlements accrued exclusively to married spouses.

Let’s say that the second period of public homosexual activism began in 1994. Tasmania, the last state to do so, had not yet decriminalised homosexuality, but the writing was clearly on the wall. The New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL) published the final version of their discussion paper The Bride Wore Pink (henceforth The Bride) that year. This document signified the formal start to NSW community-based activism for the legal recognition of same-sex relationships. The Australian Capital Territory passed the first same sex relationship law reform in 1994 – a limited piece of legislation, but it was a start. The United Nations International Year of the Family provided forums for lesbians and gay men to argue that ‘we are family’. The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras took this as their slogan in 1994, coincidentally the first year that the parade was broadcast on free-to-air television.

Among the many participants in the Mardi Gras parade in 1994 were a flotilla of lesbian brides.

‘Lesbian Brides’ marching group, Sydney Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras Parade, 1994. Photograph by C. Moore. C. Moore Hardy Collection: 61352, City of Sydney Archives.

But in these early years, the focus of lesbian and gay relationship reform activism was not marriage. The reference to ‘the bride’ in the title of the GLRL document was humorous – camp. Similarly, the Mardi Gras brides struck a humorous and ambivalent pose to weddings and marriage, open to interpretation. Their bra, tulle skirt and top hat costumes were parodic and subversive – white, but hardly innocent.

The Bride recommended the redefinition of de facto status to include lesbian and gay couples. It recommended the allocation of state funds to consider ‘the appropriateness or otherwise of bestowing entitlements on the basis of relationships’ and ‘the focusing on monogamy, exclusivity and blood relations’. The Bride also recommended that ‘the lesbian and gay community join together with other groups to lobby for the removal of the cohabitation rule in the [federal] Social Security Act 1991’. Removal of this rule would mean that the payment of benefits and pensions would not be judged on the basis of a person’s relationship status. These recommendations betrayed the legacy of revolutionary feminist, gay and AIDS activist thinking about relationships, including the identification of the patriarchal and heterosexist nature of the welfare state, experienced most punitively by the poor. The Bride rejected marriage for both strategic and political reasons.

It would be a mistake to locate the late-twentieth-century Australian history of homosexual couples only in relation to this history of activism, or in isolation from developments in other parts of the world. Early in 1998, mainstream media doctor and practising GP Kerryn Phelps and private school teacher Jackie Stricker were ‘outed’ by Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph after their return from New York where they had been married by a liberal Jewish rabbi. Kerryn and Jackie were not the first lesbian couple to appear in an Australian capital city newspaper, but they were the first to enjoy sustained, and increasingly legitimating, publicity. In this respect, their status as a lesbian, or gay, couple remains unrivalled. They were a harbinger of what Canadian scholar of sexuality Marianna Valverde described in 2006 as ‘a new entity in the history of sexuality: the respectable same-sex couple’.

In 1999, the NSW parliament was the first to deliver significant reform to recognise same-sex relationships. In 2002, the GLRL published And then … the brides changed nappies. This report broadened the relationship reform agenda to include reproductive and parenting issues. By 2004, only South Australia had not yet legislated comprehensive reform.

Enter John Howard and his Attorney-General Philip Ruddock from stage right; an election on the horizon, and a small number of same sex couples seeking legal recognition of marriages conducted overseas. In mid 2004, an amendment to the Marriage Act 1961 was rushed through the parliament, with the opposition support of the Australian Labour Party (ALP). This legislation defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, specifying that same sex marriages solemnised in foreign countries would not be recognised in Australia. LGBT activists were unprepared, and the Christian Right were right behind the changes.

Howard’s legislation significantly shifted the terrain of LGBT politics. In 2001, two leading sympathetic legal academics had described same sex marriage as ‘alien to Australia’. The co-convenors of the NSW GLRL declared that most of the community were not interested in marriage in 2003, arguing that there were more pressing, and more practical, issues upon which to focus. Only weeks before the government’s marriage bill, the co-convenor of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby suggested that a debate might begin while asking, ‘do we really want to be part of that “old edifice” of marriage?’

Thirteen years later, that is still a good question.

After 2004, the focus on same sex relationships entered a new stage; the centre of LGBT politics became just marriage. Australian Marriage Equality formed that year and continues as a single issue organisation, spawning The Equality Campaign, which is providing leadership in the 2017 campaign.

Australian Marriage Equality Bus, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, 2012. Photograph by C. Moore. C. Moore Hardy Collection: 071225, City of Sydney Archives.

The same sex relationship law reform project has been almost completed at the state and territory level (adoption is not universally available to same sex couples). In 2008, the ALP Rudd government reformed over eighty commonwealth laws to include same sex partners in the definition of a couple. Changes were made to taxation law and relating to the defence forces, for example. While many gained, those same sex couples where one or both partners were receiving Centrelink benefits suffered financial detriment. The authors of The Bride Wore Pink knew that this would be the unfortunate outcome of equality. Marriage remains outside the domain of equality, but what is withheld is mainly symbolic, not material. The advantage of marriage is, however, that it automatically confers privileges for which de facto couples may have to argue and demonstrate their entitlement. There have been twenty-two bills dealing with marriage equality in the federal parliament since 2004, moved by politicians from a range of parties. Four have come to a vote, all defeated.

The postal ballot on marriage equality offers the reductive option of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer in relation to a question that begs multiple histories in order to be understood. At the same time, the marketplace exploits the potential emptiness of support for ‘love’ or ‘equality’. In August 2017, the lingerie retailer Honey Birdette staged a parade through the streets of Sydney. Young women wearing the company’s flimsy merchandise held placards in favour of marriage equality while promoting the Honey Birdette brand. The company have recently been the subject of employee complaints about their sexist work practices.

I recall U.S. political theorist Wendy Brown’s observation in States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (1995), that the attainment of rights in a (neo)liberal framework can come at the cost of a language to describe the ongoing forms of domination and marginalisation that these rights do not and cannot address. A historical approach can recover and nurture that which seems to have been lost in the narrowing (and commercial appropriation) of a previously much more complex and critical set of political positions. These historical resources may well be what we need to survive the marriage equality moment.

See the full article: Barbara Baird, ‘Before the Bride Really Wore Pink,’ M/C Journal 15, no. 6 (2012).


Barbara Baird is an Associate Professor in Women’s Studies at Flinders University. She recognises the sovereignty of the Kaurna people, traditional owners of the Adelaide plains, upon whose land she lives and works. She has written extensively about the history and politics of sexuality and reproduction in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Australia, with a focus on abortion.


Copyright remains with individual authors who grant VIDA a perpetual, world-wide, royalty free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, reproduce and promote content. For permission to re-publish any VIDA blog post, in whole or in part, please contact the managing editors at

This entry was posted in Marriage equality. Bookmark the permalink.