Do we need Church & Telstra's two cents?

Both here and in the US we're seeing organisations weigh into the marriage equality debate and affect the politics of the issue with calls for boycotts. It's time to assess how far they should be going, writes Dennis Altman.

A report that Telstra was quietly retreating from support for same-sex marriage after threats of a boycott organised by the Catholic Church went viral two days ago.

Predictably, marriage equality activists leapt into social media to demand boycotts of Telstra.

According to the Australian, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney questioned the company's support for Australian Marriage Equality. Spokesmen for the Archdiocese have denied that a boycott was threatened, although this was certainly the implication in the letter sent to Telstra.

Both sides of this debate need reflect on what role they expect of corporations in political debate, and why a corporation should take a stand on this particular issue, rather than any other. I admit to a certain cynicism at the eagerness of many multinationals to jump on the marriage equality movement while ignoring massive inequalities within their own structures.

Telstra, like every other corporation, should be held to account for how it treats LGBTI employees and customers. Yes, one might argue that as good corporate citizens they should support equal treatment of people wishing to marry. But there is a certain irony in progressives seeking support from large corporations, who are eager to prove their credentials on issues that have far less impact on their profitability than would, say, a proper inquiry into the salaries and conditions of workers in offshore call centres.

Both the queer movement and its opponents are, not surprisingly, following the United States, where a number of states are passing laws deliberately aimed at allowing discrimination on the basis of sexual and gender identity.

Recently a number of high profile entertainers, including Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr, have withdrawn from proposed appearances in North Carolina following that state's passing of the Public Facilities Privacy and Securities Act.

As the name suggests, the law bans trans people using public restrooms and change facilities without a change to their birth certificates, but it also prohibits anti-discrimination ordinances based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The law was apparently sparked by a move in the city of Charlotte to introduce such anti-discrimination provisions.

Issues of sexual orientation and gender identity are taking up greater space in the public arena, as shifts in cultural values produce a ferocious backlash.

Significantly, some corporations have weighed in; both Deutsche Bank and PayPal have placed plans to expand in the state on hold.

Positions around LGBT rights are major polarising factors in this year's presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, announced a major shift in US foreign policy when she declared "gay rights are human rights" [see Altman & Symons: Queer Wars Polity 2016]. Conversely, Republican candidates have made opposition to same-sex marriage and even anti-discrimination provisions central to their campaigns.

Of course this is not new; in 2004 George W Bush stressed opposition to marriage equality in his re-election campaign, and probably gained crucial votes. In Australian John Howard introduced the Marriage Amendment Bill, which incorporated the common law definition of marriage - "the union of a man and a woman to exclusion of all others" - into both the Marriage Act and the Family Law Act, thereby giving the same-sex marriage movement its impetus. There is little evidence that the issue won the Howard government additional support.

Twelve years later the issue has not gone away in either country, although the United States now recognises same-sex marriage, due to a Supreme Court ruling, which could be overturned by either a constitutional amendment or a shift in the balance of the court.

In Australia the current Government has abandoned its alleged commitment to Parliamentary government and is proceeding at a snail's pace towards a plebiscite, which some of its MPs have declared will not change their position.

Issues of sexual orientation and gender identity are taking up greater space in the public arena, as shifts in cultural values produce a ferocious backlash, most evident in the reaction to the Safe Schools program, where the Turnbull Government first agreed to a review, and then overrode the review's recommendations to satisfy their conservative faction.

One of the leading opponents of same-sex marriage, Senator Cory Bernardi, has proclaimed it should not be a first order issue. I agree; but it is precisely the opposition of people like Bernardi that has made it one. It is no longer possible, as people like Julia Gillard and Jeff Kennett have acknowledged, to express reservations on same-sex marriage without seeming to support discrimination.

Unlike most of my friends I do not believe that all opposition to same-sex marriage is in itself homophobic, but unfortunately those who express opposition tend to do so in language that undoubtedly is.

The Catholic Church lives within a secular society that accepts abortion and divorce, even if practising Catholics do not. Is it unreasonable to expect them to remember the divide between state and church on the marriage issue?

Dennis Altman is a Professorial Fellow in the Institute for Human Security at La Trobe University.

This article first appeared on The Drum

Find an expert

Search our experts database.