Bob Katter wants his wor(l)d back

The Castro, San Francisco. Photo: Elenie Poulos

Some thoughts about marriage equality in light of Australia’s postal survey.

This piece was first published by ABC Religion & Ethics on 1 September 2017.

Bob Katter grieves the loss of his favourite word to the cause of a minority group. But sadly for him, it’s gone and so is the privilege that he’s trying to protect.

The word gay was lost to Bob Katter in the 1960s, so as he went on to explain, having lost control of “the most beautiful word in the English language” he doesn’t want to now lose “one of the most beautiful institutions in human history”, not to the same people who stole his beloved word. Even a cursory glance through history should have been enough for Bob see that for almost its entire history, marriage has not been a beautiful institution – certainly not for women. But if you’re in a privileged institutional space, it can be hard to see what happens to those oppressed and marginalised by the institution. 

Right now in Australia, three of the most powerful planks of privilege are taking a pretty strong beating. Neoliberalism is being challenged as a result of two travesties of its own making – climate change and growing inequality. Our deeply embedded colonialism is currently being challenged by the so-called ‘history wars’ now focussed on Australian Day and the statues that bear witness to the making of white privilege and power in this land. And patriarchy continues to be challenged by women (don’t they ever give up?) and now forcefully by the LGBTIQ community.

The movement for marriage equality is a liberation movement and liberation movements are about exposing the ideas, systems, structures and institutions that keep people marginalised and powerless. Liberation movements expose the privilege built into our cultural stories and rock the foundations of institutions that have a vested interest in maintaining them.

The arguments from those who oppose marriage equality mask a deeply held belief that LGBTIQ people make a choice contrary to ‘God’s will’ or the ‘natural order’ of things. There’s much in the world that could be described as contrary to God’s will – racism, poverty, nuclear weapons, political corruption, domestic violence, corporate tax avoidance. It’s hard to fathom why people choose to put all their time, energy and money into fighting the celebration of loving faithful relationships. No harm comes from them.

Marriage is a powerful institution in our society, often celebrated as a mark of individual success. Just think about the fuss made over a wedding compared to the fuss made about a graduation, for example. Marriage is also a rite (civil and religious) that allows a community to gather around two people to both celebrate their love and commitment, and promise support.

In reaching for marriage equality, LGBTIQ people and their families and friends challenge a worldview that labels LGBTIQ people as ‘unnatural’ and seeks to keep them scared, hidden or at the very least controlled. They challenge the lie that continues to be perpetuated by the patriarchal streams of theology in most of the world’s religions that gay people are not born, they make a (morally bad) lifestyle choice. This is the fundamental belief that lies at the heart of the religious right’s campaign. For in extending marriage to same-sex couples, a society not only legitimises these relationships, it accepts the created humanity of LGBTIQ people.

Of course not everyone buys into the institution of marriage. Some people believe that as a historically patriarchal institution used to control and exercise power over women, it is beyond repair. That may be the case, but the best hope it has is that any two people who love each other can choose to marry regardless of their gender.

Religious freedom will be preserved as Carol Johnson and Marion Maddox and others have been arguing – religious institutions will continue to be free to marry or refuse to marry anyone they want.

What is not assured for the religious right and churches who take an aggressive stand against LGBTIQ people is, as Father Chris Middleton, rector of Xavier College, and many others have already pointed out, freedom from charges of gross hypocrisy.

Liberation movements throughout history have crashed through the bad theologies and hypocrisies of the church and the oppressive structures of society. It will happen again.

Bob Katter, welcome to the long, slow march of human society civilising itself.

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