By Aisiling Canavan and Gabriel Hanrahan-Lawrence
The first speech for gay rights in parliament was given by German socialist August Bebel on January 13th 1898, calling on the Reichstag to remove Paragraph 175, which criminalised sodomy. Though Bebel’s speech may seem lackluster by today’s standards, it was in fact quite shocking to his contemporaries, as indicated by the incensed interruptions during the speech.
In 1950, Leftists also started gay rights group The Mattachine Society. It was most likely the second gay rights group in America, founded by Communist party member Harry Hay and several of his friends. They were opposed to the medical model of homosexuality that other similar groups pushed, and said that homosexuality was not an illness. This was quite radical for the times and put the Society on the left of the gay rights movement.
The next big push for LGBTIQ+ rights was the infamous Stonewall Riots of 1969. These were overwhelmingly poor, Black and Latino people who had been attacked by police at the Stonewall Inn. Police had been targeting queer people and the bars they frequented for a long time. This riot was integral in building a militant tradition of LGBTIQ+ activism, standing up against repression, and empowering future generations of activists.
In Australia in 1973, the case of Jeremy Fisher saw unionists supporting queer rights. Jeremy Fisher was a student at Robert Menzies College at Macquarie University. After he attempted suicide, the university found gay liberation badges in his room, and expelled him from the college. Fisher approached the student union to discuss his expulsion and the union, run by members of the Socialist Youth Alliance, approached the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) who were constructing parts of the campus at the time. Workers downed their tools in solidarity with the expelled student, and eventually he was allowed back into the college. BLF workers at UNSW also downed tools in a show of support for the strike at Macquarie.
All this occurred before the first Australian Mardi Gras in 1978, an event that put queer rights on the map in Australia. This was a protest on the streets of Sydney, which showed international solidarity with the LGBTIQ+ movement. It was, like the Stonewall riots, repressed by police, and over 50 people were arrested and beaten in the cells. Beginning as a commemorative effort of queer Sydneysiders to celebrate the Stonewall Riots of the sixties, the first Mardi Gras saw thousands of people responding to the call “out of the bars and into the streets” – a call we still hear today.
LGBTIQ+ activism has seen dramatic changes from the efforts of past activists, reverting into more organised efforts of groups and organisations in the present day. From our decades-long fight for marriage equality to the rallying efforts of young people to save the Safe Schools Coalition, despite continued attacks from conservative politicians, LGBTIQ+ activism has seen many evolutions since Sydney’s first Mardi Gras.
Despite these changes, the fight for equality has never been more relevant and important. Since the amendments to the Marriage Act, during the Howard government in 2004, the marriage equality movement has seen massive mounting support; empowering and politicising many young queer people.
During a recent marriage equality rally held in Sydney—on the anniversary of the day that the Howard government changed the Marriage Act—thousands turned out in support of express action within parliament to correct their past mistakes. As National LGBTIQ+ Officer for The National Union of Students (NUS), April Holcombe, stated: “We’ve had majority support of the population for the last nine years.” She expressed the need for all people to put pressure on the government through grassroots activism and mass demonstrations.
The continued importance of fighting for LGBTIQ+ rights can be seen in one particular issue facing activists today: the mounting hatred by members of parliament and major media institutions against the Safe Schools Coalition. This hatred was shown earlier this year when co-founder of this Coalition, Roz Ward, was attacked by the press and subsequently suspended from her job at La Trobe University.
Protests ignited by student activists and the unwavering support of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) meant these conservative attacks were counteracted, and Ward was quickly reinstated. But attacks on safe schools doesn’t end with this incident. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently called for a review into the coalition, claiming that the organisation is imposing a “gay agenda” upon children.
These modern day battles fought by the queer community reveal the importance of unification through struggle; gathering support from workers’ unions to student organisations, to create and sustain social change. This unification is essential in order to cultivate radical action against homophobia, by demanding a collective effort from all left-wing people who believe in and support the power of solidarity when faced with injustice.