Gay academic, activist and icon Dennis Altman launched a scathing attack against the marriage equality movement at a public event in Melbourne last week, arguing it takes focus away from more important issues and further marginalises LGBTI people not in long term relationships.
Discussing his recent book The End of the Homosexual? at the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby AGM with Lobby co-convener Anna Brown, Altman expressed frustration at marriage equality being framed as a ‘human rights issue’. He described hearing a radio interview with a woman in Canberra waiting to get married:
“To be honest what came through was the most appalling, smug self-satisfaction. ‘I’m in this fabulous relationship, everybody loves us and we want to get married and it’s a basic issue of human rights.’ And I thought well fuck off. It’s not,” Altman said.
“People being killed in Uganda, people being raped in South Africa because people assume they’re lesbian, men being lured into parks and bashed up in Russia, those are basic human rights [issues]. In Australia if you are in a long-term relationship…you actually have pretty well all those rights.”
Altman acknowledged the symbolic value of marriage, but said losing his long term partner a year ago has sadly highlighted the ways the movement excludes single people.
“[What] most worries me is the message it sends to other people: you are a failure if you are not in a long-term relationship. You are a failure. It’s exactly the message young women have had to fight against for a long time,” he said.
“One of the strengths of the lesbian and gay world was that it had room for a variety of relationships and it had room for people who weren’t couples.”
Altman criticised what he saw as a failure of the LGBTI press to provide a forum for rigorous and intelligent debate on community issues.
“I think there is a sort of anti-intellectualism reflected in some of the gay press, I see reflected in Joy FM. If they’re here I hope they don’t take it personally but I also hope they take it on board, because my sense is they are not interested in ideas,” Altman argued.
“It’s finding that way of broadening the discourse and getting beyond the idea that everything will be solved the day two women in matching white tuxedos can walk down the aisle together and get married.”
Altman argued passionately for more political advocacy around the power of fundamentalist religion in society, particularly in schools, and around the violent persecution of LGBTI people throughout the world.
“What you can do effectively is often not what you do in public,” he said, discussing Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s visit to Indonesia for the Bali Democracy Forum.
“The worst thing she could do is get there and start telling the Malaysians and the Singaporeans they should repeal their laws… One of the things we have to do is build alliances with groups in other parts of the world and listen to what they think we can most usefully do.
“And I think the current issue now is, who do we talk to in Russia to get a real sense of what is the right approach to the Sochi Olympics. We can feel good saying let’s boycott it, but we don’t live there. We’re not going to get bashed and beaten up because of what westerners say, and we have to do this with a lot of humility.”