In the coming week or so there will be demonstrations around Australia for equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians and for their right to adopt.
[ED – In the interests of local topicallity let it be noted that the Canberra demonstration will be at 1.30 pm on Saturday 2 August in Garema Place]
Many people will attend out of a sense of fairness. It is only just that any person, irrespective of sexual orientation, has equal rights with others.
But we need to go further and understand the roots of homophobia in our society to begin to see how to overcome this deep seated reaction.
The forces against gay marriage are numerous. Half a million of them were in Sydney a few weeks ago.
But it would be a mistake to attribute anti-gay sentiment to religion alone. Certainly many religious groups (but not all) have taken up the cudgels of anti-homosexual propaganda as their power and influence over society has weakened.
Historically it is not even the case that the rise of Christianity coincided with the rise of anti-same sex laws.
The decline of the power of the Roman Empire (before Constantine converted to Christianity) saw it begin to tax its own citizens to save itself. Prior to this decline the wealth of the Empire had been built solely on slaves.
As its own citizens became part of the exploited classes through taxation, the Emperors enacted laws banning all sexual activity (not just same sex activity) that did not lead to procreation. Anal sex, homosexuality, bestiality were all non-productive and so were banned. The thinking was that by doing this there would be more Roman citizens to exploit.
This is precisely the thinking that led the ruling elite under capitalism to attack homosexuality. Indeed the word homosexuality was not known until the late 19th Century when the anti-same sex campaign reached full expression.
Capitalism had waged a long campaign to drive peasants off the land and into the factories in the cities.
But for capitalism to continue, it needs its next generation of workers. The family provides the perfect solution for the employing class to bring that about.
A stereotypical family – male breadwinner, with wife and children as chattels – creates that future group of workers, at little cost to those who benefit, the bosses. The cost is borne by the bread winner and more immediately his wife.
This model, to be successful, needed to be enforced on workers who showed little enthusiasm initially for this family. Criminalising homosexual activity was one aspect of this enforcement.
The Christian Churches were an accessory to this, partly because their rules on sexuality developed at a time when the Roman State had banned homosexual activity and Catholicism was about to take over that State.
The Church’s sleeping seed of rabid homophobia was given new life with the rise of capitalism. This gave power to the Churches as they struggled against the ideas of the enlightenment and rational thought.
The women’s liberation movement in the 60s and 70s broke the shackles of the family as the bedrock of society. The uneasy compromise capitalism reached with that movement – women as both workers and carers – opened up a space for those in same sex relationships.
Couple this with the fact that the 60s were truly a time of ferment and challenge to the ruling order, and militant demonstrations for homosexual rights saw the old anti-homosexual criminal laws swept away in many Western countries.
Some, like Spain, have now recognised gay marriage.
But make no mistake. The nature of capitalism is such that it still sees the family unit as the best model for cheaply producing the next generation of workers.
Hence, while accepting the reality of gay relationships, many (like Howard and Rudd) still hanker for the old days when women were brood mares for capital and homosexuality a crime.
Those days are gone, but the forces of reaction will try to wind back the gains if they can. They have popular allies in many of the churches and among more backward elements of society.
These demonstrations are an important step in defending and extending the rights of gays and lesbians to equality. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
John Passant is a Canberra writer. He will be attending the Canberra demonstration beginning at 1.30 pm on Saturday 2 August in Garema Place.