Long road to equality doesn’t end at same-sex marriage marriage, Bendigo LGBTI pioneer says

Jamie Gardiner at the last marriage equality rally before the postal survey closed. Picture: CONTRIBUTED
Jamie Gardiner at the last marriage equality rally before the postal survey closed. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

For Jamie Gardiner, one of the first great forces behind LGBTI visibility in central Victoria, the road to same-sex marriage has been a long one to traverse.

And, while it might be a significant milestone, he says a long journey remains before his community can boast real and full equality.

It was August, 1975, when the mathematics lecturer moved to Bendigo for a teaching job at the city’s  technology institute – what would eventually become La Trobe University.

The Bendigo into which Mr Gardiner arrived was one with little visibility of and few opportunities for same-sex attracted people.

Even after decades on the coalface of the gay rights movement, his closest brush with homophobic violence came at his Carpenter Street home in Quarry Hill.

It was a Friday night when he heard calls of “poofter” from the street, followed by the smashing of glass as vandals hurled rocks through a window.

It was at this address he would go on to host meetings of the Central Victoria Gay Group, what some believe to be the first organisation of its kind in regional Australia.

The formation came soon after Mr Gardiner returned from studying in England, during which time he became involved in gay politics. It was a fight he was keen to continue once back on Australian soil, contributing to the first National Homosexual Conference in Melbourne, 1975, and event that aimed to reinvigorate the country’s gay liberation effort.   

At that conference, he met a lesbian couple from Shepparton and together they formed CVGG. 

When advertisements were placed in newspapers inviting people to its first meeting, there was significant interest.

Every month, members would travel to one another’s homes – from Bendigo to Echuca, Shepparton to Deniliquin – for parties and barbecues, at which Mr Gardiner would insist on at least 10 minutes of political discussion, updating participants on what was happening with their community in nearby Melbourne.   

“The fact that it continued, and that people kept coming and offering their places and so on, was precisely that confirmation that was needed,” he said. 

The group would continue for the best part of 15 years, until its leadership was decimated by the spread of HIV and AIDS.

Recognising relationships

Jamie Gardiner. Picture: FAIRFAX MEDIA

Jamie Gardiner. Picture: FAIRFAX MEDIA

Mr Gardiner said the AIDS crisis made clear the legal vulnerability of gay relationships, with partners of men dying from the disease refused the same rights as heterosexual spouses.   

Until then, the primary fight waged by the gay rights movement was for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. In Victoria, that was achieved in December, 1980.

In reality, marriage equality was a live issue since Denmark first recognised same-sex relationships in 1978 and it was on Mr Gardiner’s radar as a law student in 1992.      

“I wrote pages in my research thesis on marriage as an example of what I was describing as a paradox, that even governments and bodies that had recognised the need for sexual discrimination law to be outlawed failed to realise the discrimination againt relationships needed to be removed,” he said.

In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country ot enshrine marriage equality in law and that same year, Steve Bracks’ Victorian government began a process to recognise de facto relationships.  

But it was in 2004, when prime minister John Howard moved to change the definition of marriage to exclude same-sex couples, marriage took top billing on the gay rights agenda.  Mr Gardiner described that decision as an effort to “cut off at the knees” any consideration by the courts that overseas same-sex marriages be recognised inside Australia.

“[Marriage equality] became important because it was opposed in such a narrow, bitter way,” he said.

‘The nasty rump’ of opposition

Jamie Gardiner. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Jamie Gardiner. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Still, that level of animosity proved nothing compared to the hatred Mr Gardiner saw meted out during the period of the postal survey; it was a venom Mr Gardiner described as unprecedented since the time of the AIDS crisis. 

“[The survey] gave homophobes the biggest licence to be treated as if they were an equal part of the process rather than the nasty rump they were,” he said.

“The level of nastiness, outright lying and misleading attacks on LGBTI folk has been worse and has been licenced by the federal government in a way that is disgusting.”

But there was a silver lining, he said. Same-sex attracted and gender diverse people had pulled together unlike ever before - and many millions of allies were brought on board too.

“In the process, those people have realised - many for the first time - how vicious the attacks on LGBTI folk and allies are,” Mr Gardiner said.

“This will have enlivened the spirit of cooperation which will continue to deal with this these sort of lies.”

The journey towards equality for LGBTI people did not end today when the Governor-General gave royal assent to same-sex marriage legislation.

The ultimate goal, Mr Gardiner said, was to “get acceptance, a celebration of diversity, of all of our lives, as threads in the tapestry of Australian life”.

In his estimations, that could still be a generation away.

“It would be nice if if could be done in 10 years, but I think we've got a little longer to go.”

A battle-hardened activist 

Even the newly minted Marriage Amendment Act had room for improvement, containing what Mr Gardiner called “unnecessary and undesirable kowtowing to religious bigotry”. 

Just how, after four decades of confronting opposition to equality, does Mr Gardiner remains so driven - buoyant, even?

Even when homophobes used stones to smash his leadlight window in Carpenter Street forty years ago, he wasn’t as scared as he was angry.

He said he was fueled by the absurdity of arguments, like those of the ‘no’ campaign, and the malice with which they were communicated was infuriating to him.

“But you could say I've been fighting so long on the issue that I'm battle-scarred and it doesn't hurt me anymore.”