After YES: Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

This piece was originally going to be a summary of my thoughts on the victorious Same-Sex Marriage Plebiscite in the weeks following that victory – but life got away from me and now that was several months ago. However, in the wake of the recent victory in the Republic of Ireland, where reactionary restrictions on abortion were overturned by popular vote, I have seen the same arguments aired now as I saw then.

First: The Great Debate

Late last year, Australia saw the realisation of a decade long struggle, one which has seen countless thousands hit the streets in countless marches and demonstrations of a collective desire – to change the Marriage Act instituted by the Howard Government, legalising same-sex marriage. This has been the central demand of the LGBTI movement for over a decade, and the primary demand of the mainstream organisations of the movement – who demanded that the incumbent governments simply change the legislation through parliamentary vote.

Despite a slowly growing majority standing in support of the change, multiple governments, under both Labor and the Coalition, refused to make this simple change – social conservatism was and is still a powerful force in Australian social life, and a key structure of the social formation as it guards itself against social struggles and maintains social reproduction.

When the government of the weak neo-liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called for a plebiscite on the issue, the reaction from the LGBTI movement was that of disgust at the idea. Firstly, the argument offered was that the right of a minority should not be put up for a mass democratic vote by the majority (as this is would be worse than it being debated in by the majority straight, white, bourgeois parliament) and that the parliament should simply do its job. The second was that the public debate would have a negative impact on LGBT people’s mental health, due to the heightened levels of public discussion about whether or not LGBT people deserved rights (or were child abusers, communist agents or anything else that the reactionaries would throw our way).

For the first response, I am perplexed. When did bourgeois liberal institutions become vehicles for social progress? Even more bewildering is the notion that parliament should “do its job” – last I looked, its job seemed to managing the hideous mess that is the Australian settler colony and the capitalist mode of production. There seems to be a line of thought that has emerged within liberal identity politics that sees the state as a protector of oppressed minorities from the scourge of social bigotry and the mob – despite the fact that the federal parliament as a whole seems to be statistically more homophobic than the majority of Australians.

For the second, we get to a far messier question. There is no denying that many LGBT people felt a great pain during the plebiscite – and the disgusting parade carried out by the reactionary right was truly sickening. However, I would like to question some aspects of this argument.

Is homophobia brought to the surface worse than homophobia simmering beneath? It is certainly easier to confront.

If public debate is necessarily harmful, what happens to the concept of democracy?

I think these questions need to be answered, especially since the victory of another popular referendum in Ireland – and are particularly disturbing in the wake of the plebiscite here.


Second: Your politics (and your community) can make you weaker

Let us dig into the reality of this terrible thing. Struggle is hard, and social progress is hard. It is a messy, complex and violent process – ultimately, it is a place where “shoulds” must be put to one side. Should people have to fight for their rights? Of course not. Will they have to? Yes. They always have and they always will. There is no world in which progress comes without struggle, and struggle will never be easy.

A politics that is helpful to oppressed people equips them for this reality. It arms them with the necessary tools (theoretical and organisational) and strengthens them through solidarity and collective action to stand up to their oppressor and to win the battles they need to win. The current dominant tendencies in the LGBT movement do not meet this prerequisite. The dominating liberalism of organisations such as Australian Marriage Equality sees its position as that of the lobbyist, begging for scraps from the table of representative (read: bourgeois) “democratic” institutions and their politicians. The current that feeds off this dominant trend is that of a liberal identity politics, focused on self-care and safety at the expense of building a revolutionary movement and offering a real alternative to the majority of people – a true minoritarian perspective, for a movement that seeks to keep itself in the minority.

I would like to postulate a possible alternative to a politics that is empowering. It is possible for oppressed people to take up politics that makes them weaker. That disempowers them, that leads them astray and that offers up despair rather than empowerment. I would argue that the dominant beliefs held in the LGBT community right now offer this exact poison.

In the wake of the monumental victory of the plebiscite, the feeling was firstly of relief – justifiable. However, since that time I have seen many of my fellows in the community lament the fact that we had a plebiscite at all.

In the spaces I was occupying, you would have thought we had lost. You would have thought that we had not scored a massive victory over the conservatives that has sent them scuttling away like the freaks they are, making the issue of marriage entirely dead for them (and forcing them to move decisively to the issue of trans rights). A sense of malaise, indecision and sadness hangs over a community – and with that there comes an inability to capitalise on the victories of our struggles. There has been little talk of driving the movement forward, to take on issues of transgender rights, housing and healthcare issues or defending Safe Schools. Even those who clamoured to remember these issues in the lead up to the plebiscite seem disheartened and unable to proceed with the struggles that now beg to be fought.

Emotional response is not pre-political – it is filtered through your political perspectives and your ideological understandings of the world. And the dominant politics of the LGBT community at this point is a minoritarian one – one that relies on the state to protect an oppressed minority from the savage masses. Such a political perspective is fundamentally defeatist – in that it sees victory as fundamentally not possible – in fact, it cannot even really conceive of victory in a meaningful way.

This is not to say that we should ignore social pain – but our response to pain (our self-care, if you will) is a political one, and it embodies our political values, our perspectives and our strategies.

The LGBT community deserves better than this. We deserve, and in fact need, a politics that places our empowerment and our strength first, that builds communities based on a sense that struggle is an inevitable path of oppression – that we are fighting back, not staying brow-beaten and silent.

A politics that links our freedom with the struggles of the entire working class against the state and capitalism – for communism and freedom. That politics is necessary, not just for the path of our movement, but for the hope of our youngest members – the idea that the future is ours, that the path is struggle, and that freedom is on its way.

Anni McAllen is a trans woman, communist activist, and mediocre blogger in Brisbane. She writes on political economy, queer politics, and contemporary political thought from a Marxist perspective. This article was originally published on Anni's blog, Subterranean Fire. You can also find her on Twitter, @communa161.