Like most Australians, queer or otherwise, I will be glad when the marriage equality debate is over.

I have spent the last seven years of my life working within Australia’s LGBTI communities, marriage equality an incessant hum in the background.

I am sick of talking about it, I am sick of asking for it, and I do not want it, at least for myself.

Of course, when I receive my ballot paper in the mail for the postal vote on marriage equality I will vote yes, and I would hope most Australians will do the same. I do not begrudge anyone the opportunity to get married, and given how important the issue is to so many of my queer comrades, I hope it makes them happy. But I will never be an advocate for marriage equality, no matter how high it is held as a shining beacon of progress and “love” — an apparent panacea for everything that ails my communities.

The strangest thing about this endless debate is that it has forced queers to consider, constantly, our position on an issue as banal as marriage. Something that was once furthest from my mind (not because I couldn’t get married, but because the thought had never entered my head) is now a daily reality.

Somehow, marriage of all things has become the unexpected battleground for the fight against homophobia.

Well, not somehow. When the Howard government amended the Marriage Act in August of 2004 to define “marriage” as “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others”, it came in response to small numbers of Australian same-sex couples seeking to have weddings performed overseas recognised here.

Howard’s move was a pre-emptive strike. This was still early in what would become a wave of reform around the world — in 2004 when the Marriage Amendment Act was introduced, only the Netherlands, Belgium, a few Canadian provinces and Massachusetts in the US had legalised same-sex marriage.

There isn’t much of a history of agitating for marriage within queer communities, and even at the time, one queer advocate quoted on Lateline recognised the move as an attempt by Howard to wedge the Australian community on an issue very few people were talking about.

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I remember digging through the archives of the Star Observer when I worked there as a journalist and coming across an election special from a 1987 issue of the newspaper. Major-party candidates for inner-Sydney seats were asked to respond to questions about a range of issues relevant to the gay community. The closest any of it got to marriage came under the heading “Taxation”, with questions like: “What particular benefits does (sic) your party’s taxation policies offer single people?”

In at least one sense, Howard’s plan in 2004 worked. The amendment triggered the real beginning of a now 13-year lobbying campaign for marriage equality in Australia.

But despite its galvanising effect on LGBTI communities, Howard’s change to the Marriage Act was a conservative victory not just for its entrenchment of a very specific area of discrimination. It made marriage equality the centrepiece of a conservative LGBTI political movement wholeheartedly embracing the politics of respectability.

“Respectable” queers aren’t anything new. At least as far back as the 1960s there have been splits within queer political movements; then it was the “homophiles”, or assimilationists, and the liberationists, or those who sought sexual revolution as a way to dismantle harmful social structures rooted in sex, sexuality and gender.

While the politics of liberation have all but disappeared from mainstream LGBTI discourse (though not completely — small sections of queer political movements worldwide continue to align themselves with anti-capitalist projects, for example) assimilation has become our catch cry.

And by making marriage our flagship political issue, we have placed our desire to be “just like everyone else” front and centre.

Whenever I think about this my mind goes immediately to GetUp’s 2011 video promoting marriage equality, “It’s Time”. Astonishingly, the video has its own Wikipedia page, which, under “Reception”, links to a story in The Advocate calling the clip “possibly the most beautiful ad for marriage equality we’ve seen”.

Of course it is — there’s absolutely nothing queer about it. The first-person video shows the progress of a relationship with an adorable young man from meet-cute to marriage proposal, only revealing at the last moment that you’ve been seeing through the eyes of a second man the whole time. In other words: surprise! They were gays all along.

This is the pinnacle of marriage equality as respectability: promoting queers as literally indistinguishable from heterosexuals.

Respectability politics is the disavowal of everything we’re afraid might make people fear or dislike us in order to fit in, in order to benefit from the same systems we see enjoyed by rich, white heterosexuals. It’s the impulse we see when queers respond to accusations that we are “perverted” or “abnormal” by saying “no we’re not” instead of “what’s wrong with being abnormal?”

The fair question to ask is: what’s wrong with that?

A few things, I’d argue.

First, by denying our difference, we lose a connection to the struggles of our past and the specifics of our culture, both of which I think there is value in preserving.

Second, differences of gender and sexuality are fundamental. Pretending they do not exist simply strips us of the tools to combat future bigotry and discrimination based on that difference.

Third, and most importantly, there will always be queers unable to “pass” for respectable, even if they wanted to. These queers are the most marginalised in our communities: trans and gender nonconforming folk, poor queers, homeless queers, queers with mental illness, just for example. By wholeheartedly embracing respectability politics we leave these people behind.

We also leave issues behind. The criticism levelled perhaps most often at the discursive dominance of the marriage equality movement is that it drowns out every other issue affecting queer communities.

I would like to believe, at my more generous moments, that the fact we have been talking about marriage equality in mainstream political discourse for so long means attention has spilled over into other queer issues. We saw this to some extent with the Safe Schools debate last year, but it’s difficult to think of other examples.

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The amount of airtime given to marriage makes it hard to get other queer issues on the agenda, even within our own communities. The standard response to this, that we can care about more than one thing at the same time, is unconvincing. In practice, either we can’t or we don’t.

Just days after the postal plebiscite on marriage equality was announced, the New South Wales government introduced a bill into state Parliament that, if passed, would increase the penalty to up to six months in prison for not taking “reasonable precautions” to protect a partner from contracting an STI. This law would be a direct attack on the already marginalised communities in Australia disproportionately affected by HIV, including gay men.

The issue finally received some coverage this week, but other than a few HIV organisations and advocates, nobody had noticed until now.

While everyone is distracted by marriage, we are being criminalised.

This is a particularly pointed example, but it’s far from the only one. Exemptions to anti-discrimination law mean most religious employers can legally fire a person for being gay. Trans people are facing violence in our prison system. Intersex infants are routinely subjected to horrific “normalising” surgeries in Australian hospitals.

I hope that when marriage equality is here, and it will be, all the political capital we have accumulated over the course of this fight is channelled into some of these other issues, many of which are inconvenient reminders of the ways we are different.

My fear is that instead, that capital will evaporate as the now “respectable” queers — along with the rest of the country — breathe a sigh of relief that finally we are equal. (It doesn’t help that we’ve been making arguments for years now that marriage equality will solve our other problems, most notably mental illness and suicide in LGBTI communities.)

I want to be very clear: this is not an argument against marriage equality. I will be voting yes, and I will encourage others to do the same.

I understand how important this issue is to many queers, and I hope that marriage equality makes them feel as loved and accepted as we are told it will.

I also hope, however, that when this is all over, we remember how important it is not to leave anyone behind in the rush to be just like everyone else.

Peter Fray

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