Gay Rights and Social Citizenship

Riley Brooke
16 min readJun 21, 2017

Gay rights as revolution or reform: how has the gay rights movement challenged, reshaped, or adhered to the concept and practice of social citizenship in Australia, both in the context of early gay liberation in the 1970s-80s, and in contemporary gay rights movements?

via — one of a number of lesbian and gay protest around the time of the first Mardi Gras in 1978.

1. Introduction

This piece outlines the contrasting elements of gay rights movements, past and present, between those elements seeking to win specific rights for people with a gay identity through illustrating how little the granting of such rights would challenge or reshape social citizenship, and those elements actively seeking to radically challenge and reshape the concept and practice of social citizenship, as a central movement goal.

For the purposes of this essay, the terms ‘gay’, ‘LGBTI’, and ‘queer’ will all be used at various points, in line with the terminology used by the organisations and activists being discussed. ‘Gay’ was for a long time used as a catch-all for people with same-sex attraction — gay men, lesbians and bisexual people. While ‘queer’ initially began as a slur, the 1970s saw many gay liberationists reclaim the term; in the contemporary setting, many LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people and organisations self-identify as ‘queer’.

2. Social Citizenship and Social Movements

Social citizenship refers to social relationships between individuals, and between individuals and the state, in which individuals are recognized as human beings and on that basis granted their civil, political and social rights in exchange for responsibilities to one another and the state [1].

Social movements consist of networks of individuals and groups engaged in cultural conflict, on the basis of shared collective identity [2].

Social movements therefore challenge what it means to be eligible for social citizenship; they reshape understandings of the responsibilities individuals and groups have in order to be recognized as deserving of social citizenship, and understandings of things that social citizenship entitles individuals and groups to.

3. Early Gay Rights Struggles in Australia

In Australia, male homosexuality was criminalised in every state and territory until gradual decriminalisation between the mid 1970s and late 1990s. Australian law was silent on homosexuality between women, largely because of the widely held belief that women did not have strong sexual desires, and therefore it didn’t occur to (male) politicians that women would think to have sex with other women [3].

The fight for the decriminalisation of homosexuality between men was ‘the most heated political battle for gay rights in Australia’ throughout the 1970s-90s [4][5], and was one that inherently challenged the concept and practice of social citizenship; any attempt, pre-decriminalisation, for homosexual activists to organise and be publicly active was radical in itself. To be sexually attracted to someone of the same gender at the time violated acceptable ways for individuals to relate to one another and to the state; violated the practices required for social citizenship.

Despite this, the extent to which different groups actively attempted to challenge the concept and practice of social citizenship through their campaigning for early gay rights, varied greatly. There were different frames within the movement for the way in which to approach the reshaping of social citizenship to allow for gay existence.

3.1 Context: The Homophile Movement

The “homophile movement”, beginning from late 19th century Europe, flourishing in the US between the 1950s and 1970s, and largely led by middle class white gay men and lesbians, was the first to argue for decriminalisation of homosexuality. The frame of the homophile movement was one that sought to illustrate the similarities between homosexual and heterosexual people as a means for gay acceptance. The movement was dominated by those who ‘endeavoured to advance the cause of equal rights through conformance with the heterosexual norms prevalent at the time’ [6].According to Dennis Altman (2012),

homosexuals were still seeking integration into society…There was still a certain apologetic tone, as if homosexuals were agreeing that homosexuality was abnormal, while pleading to be given a chance to show others just how square-if not straight they could be [7]

These elements of the movement still sought to reshape social citizenship through inclusion of the homosexual identity in conceptions of acceptable citizenship, but aimed to do this through expressing how slight the disruption to social order societal acceptance of homosexuality would be; through politics of assimilation and integration [8][9].


3.2 Australia’s Earliest Homosexual Political Groups

The organisation identified as the Australia’s first openly homosexual political group was the Australian Lesbian Movement (ALM), which formed in Melbourne at the end of 1969. The group initially formed as an Australian chapter of the US lesbian group, Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), and its purposes were largely adopted from the US organisation:

education of the Lesbian enabling her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society, participation in “responsible research” into homosexuality, and promoting homosexual law reform…developing an understanding and acceptance of the Lesbian as an individual, leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous taboos and prejudices — by public discussion meetings and by dissemination of educational literature on the Lesbian theme [10]

Tactics of the ALM included putting advertisements in newspapers, putting up flyers at universities, inviting outsiders to present talks, organising meetings, going to community groups, publishing their magazine and talking to the media. While these activities certainly impacted public discourse, these tactics largely tied into the less radical movement frames of the US homophile movement. The ALM revolved largely around making the case that greater public acceptance of lesbianism would not necessitate or constitute a challenge to notions of social citizenship at the time.

This movement frame involved arguing for the minutest possible amendments to the concept of social citizenship; arguing that the concept of women being attracted to women was not a radical one and that lesbianism could be smoothly integrated into current understandings of how people relate to each other and to the state.

The ALM split with its American parent organisation, DOB, in July 1970, due to ALM’s dislike of the increasing militancy of the DOB’s involvement with the gay liberation movement. The hesitancy of the ALM to embrace the increasing militancy of the American gay liberation movement led to its loss of ground and relevance in the Australian context to more radical organisations like the mixed-gender Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP), and to the eventual demise of the ALM in 1972.

At its inception, in Sydney, just 6 months after the birth of ALM, CAMP’s aims were largely similar to those of ALM, however its demographics were of university radicals and so tactics soon shifted. In October 1971, CAMP held Australia’s first public demonstration for Gay Freedom, in Sydney. That same month, some activists from CAMP split to form Gay Liberation Australia, which then formally became its own, more explicitly militant, radical organisation by 1972 [10][11].

3.3 Mardi Gras 1978

The Sydney Mardi Gras march in 1978 was organised in part to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the US Stonewall riots of 1969, when members of the LGBT community in Greenwich Village, New York engaged in spontaneous demonstrations against police raids of the gay bar, the Stonewall Inn [4][12].

Sydney Mardi Gras 1978 was attended by a few hundred people, who refused to comply with police orders to disperse, instead pushing forwards only to face mass arrests and police brutality. 53 people spent that night in police cells, and the issues around gay liberation and police powers were drawn into the spotlight. News of the demonstration and arrests radicalised and mobilised a wave of new gay liberation activists, and increased momentum in the growing movement to decriminalize homosexuality [4][13].


3.4 Tasmanian Decriminalisation Movement

Every Australian state and territory had its own struggle to decriminalize homosexuality in the 1970s-1990s, beginning with South Australia in 1975.

The struggle to decriminalize homosexuality was fieriest in the last state to decriminalize, Tasmania, which did not decriminalize sex between consenting adult men until 1997. Initial calls for decriminalization in Tasmania came in the mid-1970s; the Tasmanian Homosexual Law Reform Group was founded in early 1976, and publicity was bolstered later that year by the public coming out of Green movement leader Bob Brown. Multiple unsuccessful parliamentary lobbying efforts from various gay rights individuals and organisations ensued throughout the late-1970s and early 1980s attempting to have decriminalizing legislation passed [14].

In 1988 the more radical Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group (TGLRG) was founded in Hobart, and began to hold stalls at Salamanca Market to collect signatures on petitions supporting law reform and to distribute information about homosexuality. Hobart City Council banned the TGLRG stall at Salamanca Market, however the group continued to attend the markets weekly in protest.

These protests resulted in multiple arrests and grew to become Australia’s largest ever instance of gay rights civil disobedience, leading to an eventual backdown of the Council. The Tasmanian decriminalisation movement grew further, consistently holding rallies, protests and community education, until 1997 when public support for decriminalization of homosexuality in Tasmania grew to 60%, and law reform was achieved. This concerted and prolonged community campaign for decriminalization was the first that saw the application of radical Green protest and direct action methods to the gay rights movement [3][14].


3.5 Gay Liberation and Social Citizenship

The gay liberation movement demanded ‘a revision of society rather than assimilation into it’, and supported second-wave feminism’s challenges to dominant assumptions about hierarchy and authority [4][7]. Activists embraced the radicalism of gay liberation as a way to fight structures like the nuclear family and gender and sexual binaries and hierarchies so as to disrupt liberalism and capitalism more broadly. Significant challenges to notions of social citizenship were therefore core to the gay liberation movement.

Altman conceptualizes the movement frame of gay liberation thus:

‘The basic difference is rather that gay liberation advances beyond the civil rights liberalism of the earlier groups; it is in some ways what Black Power is to the civil rights movement. No longer is the claim made that gay people…are as decent, as patriotic, as clean-living as anyone else…Gay liberationists, like black radicals before them, have reversed this: there is almost perverse delight in playing up to the stereotypical image, of shocking rather than persuading society’ [7]

A Gay Liberation Front statement as published in the first issue of its newsletter Come Out! is as follows:

“Gay Liberation is a revolutionary homosexual group of women and men formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished. We reject society’s attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions on our nature. We are stepping outside of these roles and simplistic myths. WE ARE GOING TO BE WHO WE ARE. At the same time, we are creating new social forms and relations, that is, relations based upon brotherhood, cooperation, human love and uninhibited sexuality. Babylon has forced us to commit ourselves to one thing … revolution” [7]

Here, a core goal is a radical challenge and redefinition of social citizenship; the movement is not just requesting acceptance of one particular type of additional [homo]sexual identity into otherwise unchanged understandings of social citizenship, but demanding a complete revision of social institutions so as to allow for recognition of a broad new variety of sexual roles, activities and human relations.

4. Contemporary Gay Rights Struggles in Australia

Contemporary gay rights campaigns in Australia are belied by similar tensions between more conservative and more radical organisations and aims to those seen in the early decriminalisation movement.


4.1 Marriage Equality

In the contemporary context the more visible, resourced elements of the gay rights movement are organisations like Australian Marriage Equality (AME), whose members are largely upper middle class white gay men, and which are almost wholly focused on the narrow aim of gay assimilation through inclusion in the institution of marriage. Tactics are centred on getting support of big business and on lobbying individual politicians to ‘get the numbers’ in Parliament for the passage of a law granting people of the same gender the right to marry [15].

This extremely narrow goal reflects a return to pre-Gay Liberation conservatism in the gay rights movement, with tactics centering on illustrating to the public how little the changes such organisations are arguing for would challenge or reshape notions of social citizenship.

A 2017 media release by AME was titled ‘Marriage equality campaigners tell the Senate inquiry that this is a simple reform about fairness for all Australians’, and quotes Anna Brown, Co-Chair of Australians for Equality: ‘we cannot stress enough that this reform is simply about extending the right of civil marriage to all Australians’ [16].

Some gay rights advocates critique AME and other similar organisations for this narrow focus on marriage, themselves seeing marriage equality as just one part of a broader struggle for gay rights, while other critics go further and see the modern campaigns of AME and others for the acceptance of gay people into the traditional and conservative institution of marriage as undermining the early gay liberation movement’s fight to reimagine social citizenship outside of such structures [4][7][17].

4.2 Mardi Gras in the 2010s

A site of tension in the contemporary gay rights movement is the Mardi Gras parade. A far cry from its early roots as a radical protest march, Mardi Gras in the 2010s is a corporate, commercial spectacle, where even the police — the institution responsible for serious violence against the early gay liberationists trying to reshape society to accommodate them — have a float and can claim ‘Pride’ [18].

via — police marching in the 2016 Mardi Gras parade.

Members at the annual general meeting of Mardi Gras on 16 November 2016 voted to uninvite Australian Liberal Party Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull from Mardi Gras 2017 due to the homophobia of the Liberal Party [19]. However, a former Mardi Gras chair said at the meeting that the organization had been “hijacked” by left wing activists and the decision to uninvite Turnbull was soon overturned by the Mardi Gras board [20].

The determination of the Mardi Gras board to appease conservative politicians and be apolitical and non-disruptive rather continue Mardi Gras’ tradition as a defiant struggle for rights again illustrates similar movement goals to the earlier homophile movement.

Lyons et al (2015) interviewed 439 gay Australian men aged 50 years and older about ‘how life has changed for the gay liberation generation’ and found a sentiment among some that the younger generation of gay rights activists had lost some of their radicalism due to the benefits and freedoms that the gay liberation generation’s struggle had won:

it is refreshing to see the younger generation enjoying the freedom we never had, but in saying that, they should never take it for granted and forget the struggles of the older generation and acknowledge that if it was not for those brave men and women back then they would not be enjoying the freedom or being able to openly express their love for another of their same sex [21]

Men in contemporary Australia who are wealthy, upper-middle class, white and gay face few structural challenges, barring the obvious example of marriage. This contrasts greatly to gay liberationists of the 1970s for whom existence itself was criminalised.

There is therefore very little impetus for members of organisations such as AME or the now far-less-radical Mardi Gras to continue with the gay liberation movement’s goals and aims to radically restructure society through prolonged, often dangerous, protest campaigns. Organisation tactics instead centre closely on bringing about marriage equality through lines of argument that seek to convince politicians and the public of how minimal the challenge to social citizenship the broadening of the definition of marriage would constitute.

As seen in the Mardi Gras Board’s refusal to accept the wishes of the Mardi Gras membership in their uninvitation of Malcolm Turnbull from Mardi Gras, these powerful conservative elements of the contemporary gay rights movement also seek to distance themselves from, or shut down, elements of the gay rights movement they deem too radical.

4.3 No Pride In Detention

Nevertheless, there are some elements of the queer rights movement that fight to bring Mardi Gras back to its protest roots, linking back to the old radicalism of gay liberation by tying together the struggle for gay rights across varied sites of homophobia. One example of such is No Pride In Detention (NPID): the NPID float has been a contentious protest float in several Mardi Gras parades in the 2010s.

NPID highlights the Australian government’s treatment of queer refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom seek asylum in Australia as a result of persecution on the basis of their sexuality in their country of origin, who the Australian government then sends to detention on Manus and Nauru, where homosexuality is criminalized and punishable by 14 years’ jail.

Ongoing hostility has arisen between the conservative board of Mardi Gras, concerned with public image of the organization and maintaining ties to the politicians whose support it deems necessary for the eventual passage of marriage equality, and the radical NPID float, which points out hypocrisy of an organization claiming to be in favour of queer rights giving a platform to and maintaining ties to a political party which actively colludes in the mistreatment of queer refugees and asylum seekers [18][22].

NPID clearly exhibits different movement goals to those prioritised by AME: while AME and other like-organisations look to the specific legal change that would tangibly grant benefits to gay people in Australia, NPID links its struggle to other contemporary social movements like the refugee movement.

NPID, like early gay liberation, engages in protest tactics to draw attention to broader structural injustice and a need for a radical rethink of social citizenship, through opening up conversations about borders, detention and the global refugee crisis — and how these issues interlink with ongoing struggles for gay liberation globally.

Movement frames in this element of the gay rights movement actively centre struggles around challenging and reshaping social citizenship. Tactics are based not around assimilation of the gay identity into the status quo but on radically reshaping society, relationships between individuals, and between individuals and the state, and even the role of the state, as a means to find justice for all LGBTI+ people.

via — No Pride in Detention in the 2016 Mardi Gras parade.

5. Conclusion

Gay rights movements in Australia, from the early campaigns to decriminalise homosexuality, through to contemporary campaigns for marriage equality and other issues, vary greatly in the degree to which, and ways in which, they seek to challenge and reshape the concept and practice of social citizenship.

Some gay rights organisations, campaigns and movements, including elements of the early homophile movement, and of the contemporary marriage equality movement, attempt to persuade the public of how benign homosexuality is, and how assimilation of gay identities into currently understood concepts and practices of social citizenship can constitute just a slight shift to the status quo. As illustrated above, their movement tactics revolve around minimising perceptions of how gay rights could cause disruption to current understandings of social citizenship, and appeasing conservative forces and the public.

On the other hand, more radical groups, including Gay Liberation and No Pride In Detention, actively centre the goal of challenging and reshaping social citizenship in their campaigns. They take a broader approach to issues of structural injustice for LGBTI+ people; campaigns and tactics are framed by an understanding that radical, broad-based social change — including radical changes in the ways in which people relate to one another and the state, and practices and identities expected of people — is required for true realisation of rights for all LGBTI+ people.

Thanks to Vanamali Hermans for invaluable advice, input and proofreading.

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