While queers themselves may have various complex critiques of marriage and its benefit or harm to queer communities, the debate around same-sex marriage in the mainstream media is very simple: either same-sex relationships are worthy of equal recognition to heterosexual ones, or not. Opponents of same-sex marriage in mainstream media generally no problem with marriage itself, only its inclusion of same-sex relationships. Hence opposition to same-sex marriage in mainstream media is rightly identified with queerphobia.
When Barack Obama announced his support of same-sex marriage in May 2012, he was the first USA President to do so. Yet the story of the first black president being the first president to support same-sex marriage somehow turned into the story of black homophobia. Media abounded with speculation on whether his stance would cost him “the black vote” (ABC News, The Nation, NBC) as journalists wrote of “black America straggling behind in the history of gay liberation” (John McWhorter, the New Republic).
Black LGBTI activists have labelled these claims spurious and unhelpful. They explain that the analysis of Prop 8 was based on a flawed exit poll and that “the black vote” accounts for only a small part of the margin. They point to the long history of black support for queer rights, strong links between black and queer liberation movements including vocal support of queer rights from the likes of Coretta Scott King, Huey Newton and Angela Davis and the acceptance and celebration of black queer writers, artists and activists like Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Alice Walker and Wanda Sykes.
Something similar seems to be happening in Australia. Most of the loudest opposition to same-sex marriage in Sydney has been from the Anglo-Australian leaders of the Anglican and Catholic churches in Sydney, while probably the most high-profile proponent of same-sex marriage in Parliament today is Senator Penny Wong, a mixed-race immigrant lesbian. A 2005 report by The Australia Institute showed that the most homophobic regions were in areas which by ABS statistics have comparatively small immigrant populations from countries outside North-West Europe.
Yet again, it seems minoritised ethnic and religious groups are being held disproportionately responsible for the bill’s failure. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen holds the outer western Sydney seat of McMahon, and The Australian linked his vote against the marriage bill to McMahon’s “substantial immigrant community who are devout Christians or Muslims [whose] religious leaders have said same-sex marriage goes against the tenets of their faiths”.
So why is the media (including the mainstream queer media) so obsessed with queerphobia in immigrant communities? Pessimistically, I believe it’s to build up a defence of racism and xenophobia for progressives. We’ve already seen how racist violence such as the Cronulla riots were given a faux-feminist justification by criticising sexism in Islam. White gay media personality Dan Savage has talked about how the USA should cut aid to African countries with homophobic laws among other comments. Even more frightening are examples from Northern Europe, where groups like the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands justify extreme xenophobia as necessary for gay rights. Israel also uses gay rights to defend apartheid policies.
Australian queer movements can learn from these examples. We know that haters everywhere claim that queerness is new, unnatural and non-traditional. We also know we’ve always existed, in some way or form, in every place and time. Queerphobia does exist in immigrant communities, as in any, but real and lasting change comes from within: it comes from finding the queer histories in our cultures, from developing and promoting queer representation, from pointing to the values that support queer love and authenticity and from celebrating positive change. All cultures can integrate queer liberation; no one needs to assimilate to an Anglo-Australian norm that is itself hugely queerphobic, though sometimes in different ways. The mainstream queer movement needs to be vocal in explicit support of all peoples and cultures, and assertive when the rhetoric of queer rights is exploited for racist purposes.
Further reading on queer critiques of marriage:
Some resources for Australian queers of minoritised ethnic or religious backgrounds:
50+ books by Queer People of Colour (QPOC) writers (not Australian – but you can add your own recommendations in the comments)