When Eric Abetz went on AM to rail about the moral iniquities of same-sex marriage, it must have seemed like a good idea. At the time.

He suggested that Australia should follow the example of various Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and China (but not Thailand) on the issue, rather than places like the United States, Ireland, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Brazil. His tone suggested he thought he was being terribly cunning.

The public response was predictable to almost anyone, but not apparently to Eric. His intervention turned out to have the opposite effect to the one he intended, exposing silly arguments to the ridicule they deserved. He provided major national assistance to the cause he was trying to defeat.

Senator Abetz was not the first anti-gay campaigner to become an unwitting assistant to the cause of gay and lesbian rights. Indeed, it’s likely that the immense and rapid gains made by the movement in the past few decades could not have happened so quickly or so emphatically without them.

The clearest example of that is Fred Nile.

Fred has made an entire career out of political poofter-bashing. It made him famous enough to get the ten per cent or so of the vote to bump him into the New South Wales upper house. But he hasn’t had a single win on his central issue of turning back the clock on gay rights.

The height of the great AIDS scare …

The closest he ever came to victory was in 1984, at the height of the great AIDS scare, when the Mardi Gras committee, under extraordinary public pressure, almost cancelled that year’s event. If that had happened, the Mardi Gras would probably never have happened again. But a new association president faced down the scare-mongerers and the parade went ahead.

Fred bitterly opposed repealing the laws which made gay men into criminals, fought long and loud against anti-discrimination laws and tried to turn gay and lesbian people back into marginalised and criminalised pariahs.

He and those associated with him wanted compulsory testing for HIV, for positive people like me to be tattooed on our genitals and to be herded indefinitely into special detention centres. There would be a public register of all HIV positive people.

Of course, none of those things happened. But this era of politically-driven hysteria did have an effect. By the end of the 1980s, the level of anti-gay violence in Sydney had soared. Gay murders in inner-Sydney were running at five or six a year, comprising 20 per cent of all the non-domestic murders in New South Wales.

In 1989, when I became editor of the Sydney Star Observer, the city’s gay community newspaper, I found that any gay man who had been living in Darlinghurst or Surry Hills for more than a year was likely to have been beaten up at least once.

Extremist hatred

Fred Nile and his associates did not stop to think what effect their extremist hatred would have either on gay people or on the broader population. The general community found themselves exposed to risible arguments based on fear and hatred. And, mostly, they saw that unreasoned hatred for what it was.

For the nation’s gay communities, he provided the essential unifying factor ‒ an external threat. Gay politics are not known for their harmony and unanimity but Fred made this community speak as one, and speak more loudly and more successfully than ever before.

There are many examples but this is one.

Some 20 years ago Jeff Shaw, attorney-general in the NSW Labor government, raised the possibility of extending anti-vilification legislation, already in place for racial vilification, to sexual orientation. It attracted almost no attention. Few gay people either knew about it or understood it. There was no campaign to support it.

But then Fred stepped in. He loudly and bitterly condemned the idea, turning it from something that probably was not going to happen into something gay people felt they had to have. An enthusiastic and effective grassroots campaign sprang up and, when the matter came before the parliament, there were 3000 people in Macquarie Street to demand its passage.

Fred Nile, however unintentionally, has been perhaps the most significant figure in the advancement of the gay rights agenda …

Fred, always the dramatist, dragged himself from a hospital bed and made his speech in parliament wearing a pair of blue pyjamas. The response was not sympathy, as he had apparently anticipated, but laughter. The measure was passed.

Fred Nile, however unintentionally, has been perhaps the most significant figure in the advancement of the gay rights agenda. The improvements would have happened without him but not nearly so quickly or so completely. We couldn’t have done it without him.

I knew Christopher Pearson in Adelaide in the 1970s when he was a young, slim, good-looking Maoist. With time he lost his hair, put on an awful lot of weight and zoomed across the political spectrum from far left to far right. He founded and edited the Adelaide Review before becoming a Labor-bashing, heavily conservative columnist, first in the Financial Review and then in The Australian. He wrote major speeches for John Howard.

But Christopher, though close to the power-centres of the Liberal Party, never stopped being an out-and-proud gay man. He once told me about a dinner with a new Tasmanian homophobic senator called Eric Abetz: the subject had been homosexuality.

‘Why are you so set against homosexuality?’ asked Christopher.

‘Because it’s unnatural. We just aren’t designed that way,’ said Eric.

‘Well, if it’s so unnatural and we aren’t designed that way,’ said Christopher slowly, ‘how come it feels so good?’

People viscerally opposed to homosexuality often don’t bother with reasons but, for those who find they have to, ‘unnaturalness’ and ‘bodily design’ are the arguments they use. For same-sex marriage, they add the one about how marriage has always been between a man and a woman and therefore has to stay that way; and because it would devalue the relationships of married heterosexuals. Eric’s invoking of the Asian example is new but probably won’t catch on.

Naturalness is never defined. In fact homosexuality often occurs in ‘nature’ as a common variation on the norm. It has been observed in foxes, lions, dolphins and many other higher mammals, as well as humans. But perhaps they’re all being unnatural too.
Throughout most of history, religious attitudes to homosexuality and marriage have been far less monolithic than they became in the past 300 years or so …

In his magisterial Same-Sex Relationships in Pre-Modern Europe the professor of history at Yale, John Boswell, showed how many in the mediaeval church rejected homosexuality because it was too natural. Foxes did it, they said. Vermin!

But Boswell also lists 62 documents from the eighth to the seventeenth centuries which contain contemporary liturgies for the solemnisation of same-sex unions in the Jewish, Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Throughout most of history, religious attitudes to homosexuality and marriage have been far less monolithic than they became in the past 300 years or so. As the documents reveal, the modern concept of homosexuality as something separate from the rest of human sexuality would not have been recognised. Those writers who condemned homosexual relations tended also to condemn heterosexual ones. Sometimes people having same-sex relationships were condemned and put to death. And sometimes they were celebrated and even revered. The Christian martyrs Serge and Bacchus became saints.

And Christopher Pearson’s riposte neatly demolishes the claim about bodily design. If the body did not facilitate it, people wouldn’t do it and certainly wouldn’t take pleasure in it. Nor would foxes, lions, dolphins …

A series of polls showing massive support for marriage equality suggest the claim that gay relationships devalue straight ones may never have gained traction. The idea that what one person does can be devalued by what someone else does is, as they say, counter-intuitive. Very few heterosexual married people seem to feel their relationship has anything to do with the conduct of anyone else’s.

Eric Abetz and Andrew Nikolic may succeed in their last-ditch attempt to delay an amendment of the Marriage Act to to include same-sex couples by preventing Liberal politicians from having a conscience vote. But they have not convinced the people of Australia and that, in the end, is what will count. The more they make their case in public, the quicker reform will happen.

Former ABC journalist Martyn Goddard is a commentator/analyst, specialising in health analysis. He was also a frequent feature writer for the SMH and editor of the country’s two major gay community publications, the Sydney Star Observer newspaper and OutRage, a national colour magazine. And he worked in national HIV/AIDS policy development.

Door to door community-led campaign of Taroona finds 71 per cent support for marriage equality

• Leo Schofield in Comments: This comment appeared recently on Facebook, posted by Richard Cobden SC, an eminent lawyer and former president of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras: “Were Tasmania represented in the Commonwealth Parliament by the same ratio of politicians to people as NSW, it would have 3.5 members of the House and about 0.8 of a senator. Instead it has 5 of the former and 12 (12!) of the latter. No wonder we are plagued with an antediluvian bozo like Eric Abetz, who, spurred on by that special sort of loathing that devout Christians reserve for other people’s happiness, seems to have been driven by the prospect of gay marriage either to be saying our society should be more like Asia’s, or that we should have an Anschluss with Austria. Eric has not said which of the Asian countries’ mores, as they apply to marriage and sex, we should adopt. The multiple wives of some parts of Malaysia? The polyandry of Tibet? The Japanese and their age of consent of 13? The concubines of China? The arranged marriages of India? Female subjugation in sympathy with Islam? I await his further guidance.”

• Mike Moore, Hervey Bay: It frightens me that if 74 Liberal members of Federal Parliament and a dozen or so Country Liberal people were to fall under a bus, or buses, Eric could potentially become Prime Minister. After all, John Gorton made the move from the Senate to the house to become PM.