As a general proposition, the basic ingredient of a good, successful relationship is love and care. Whether it is a same-sex or different sex relationship – I don’t draw a distinction.

For most Australians the meaning of these words from newly elected Labor leader Mark Latham couldn’t have been clearer, Latham’s yes to gay law reform is as stark as Howard’s no.

In reality Latham’s statement is about much more than contradicting the Prime Minister’s politics of exclusion. By talking about love and care rather than privacy or equality, Latham has positioned lesbian and gay Australia’s emancipation in a new paradigm of human values rather than human rights. And he challenges us to do the same.

Following the lead of other social democrats like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, Mark Latham draws heavily on communitarian thought. In the eyes of communitarians we are shaped by our relationships with others. This means that functioning families and communities are what make us happy, not the unbridled pursuit of individual fulfilment. Latham’s social policy has a corresponding emphasis on community building. Responsibility peppers his rhetoric as commonly as freedom.

Within this framework human rights have at best an ambiguous place.  By definition human rights are about the fundamental entitlements of individuals or groups. They cannot be negotiated or compromised. This irks people like Latham because relationships are all about compromise. Human rights are extreme claims that may have a role in extreme situations. But when it comes to day-to-day life Latham prefers to talk about what we can all gain from negotiating an outcome rather than asserting competing entitlements. Instead of an individual’s liberty to be themselves he prefers to talk about the quality of an individual’s bond to others. He prefers to talk about values.

In some important respects I agree.

This might surprise some people. Ten years ago I was a vocal advocate for stripping gay law reform of the public health language AIDS had packaged it in and placing it firmly in the context of human rights.  I am proud of my role in the Tasmanian UN case because it played a crucial part in transforming the rationale of gay and lesbian legal emancipation from disease prevention to the recognition of fundamental and universal human rights.

But a decade on it’s time for another equally radical change.

There have always been problems with the language of human rights as a way of expressing the aspirations of LGBT people.

Up until recently the official recognition of lesbian and gay human rights has been limited to privacy rights, reinforcing the homophobic prejudice that sexuality is a personal affair which can legitimately be excluded from public life and public policy.  Meanwhile, in the hands of the weak and the frightened human rights have too often been used as another roundabout way of referring to homosexuality. How often have we heard this is a matter of human rights not gay rights?

Even more frustrating is the fact that it is impossible to squeeze the experiences of isolation, low self esteem, social ostracism, coming out, personal affirmation, communal celebration and sexual and gender fluidity into ideas like freedom of speech and equality before the law. The language of human rights simply wasn’t made to contain and express the richness and ambiguities of human experience.

More recently, far right advocates have managed a successful hatchet job on human rights. When they aren’t undermining human rights as an abstract set of principles used by UN bureaucrats to undermine Australia’s sovereignty, or a way to grant sexual minorities special rights, they co-opt them into a militant anti-gay agenda that asserts the rights of bigots to hold on to their heterosexual privileges and express their hateful dogma. Little wonder that by 2003 human rights debates tire and confuse the Australian public.

Don’t get me wrong. Human rights are still the fundamental defence against persecution. The problem is that we devalue their currency by over using them. Worse still, we lazily fall back into the language of human rights instead of employing concepts which express our aspirations in immensely more powerful ways.

An example is the debate about relationship law reform in Tasmania. It was hardly ever about human rights, and only sometimes about equality and anti-discrimination. These are things that not everyone understands or which people understand in radically different ways. More often than not that debate was about something which everyone understands, love.

The broader debate about the place of LGBT people in Tasmanian society has followed the same path. The language of human rights and equal opportunity has played a crucial role. So has talk of accepting difference. But the word that has had the most impact, because it is really what our long struggle has been about, is belonging.

Love and belonging are the kind of ideas – the kind of values – with which people like Mark Latham are comfortable. They are all about people reaching out to each other rather than buzzing around their own little universe. By coincidence they are also the direction in which the worldwide movement for LGBT emancipation is heading. Whether it be young LGBTs finding their place in rural communities, acknowledgment of the role and contribution of LGBT people in religious institutions, or the recognition of commitment and caring in same-sex relationships through civil unions, fostering positive moral values is how many LGBT people now lay their claim on justice.

So does all this make Mark Latham a champion of LGBT people? Thanks to that nasty little demon called politics unfortunately not. Latham might fall over himself to send a greeting to Mardi Gras, he might be a vocal advocate of superannuation reform for same sex couples, but he also draws a line. Just days after his election as Opposition Leader, and again using the language of communitarianism, Latham cast doubt on whether he would support same-sex couple parenting:

The idea of a world of unlimited choices as a nirvana neglects the fact that a lot of those choices can weaken social relationships. Boys without dads can have some bad consequences.

Like any ideology, Latham’s can serve different masters and in this case that master is political expediency. It’s not hard to imagine him drawing a similar distinction between de facto style recognition of same-sex relationships and gay marriage equality on the basis that traditional marriage is a social keystone (and because the polls don’t support marriage reform).

For those of us who believe there is an important place for values in expressing the aspirations of the LGBT movement, the job is to keep Latham, and those like him, honest. Love is love is love regardless of gender and sexuality. This is the message which must echo in the ears of Mark Latham and every other Australian political leader until that day when its truth is finally heeded.

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