“Gender and sexual politics: Changing citizenship in Australia since 1969” examines the effects and legacies of the feminist and sexual revolutions for citizenship in Australia. In the last fifty years, Australians have increasingly claimed rights and protections in the intimate languages of sexual and gendered identities. This has reorganised public culture in confounding ways and led to debates about how and in what ways ideas about intimate life and identity politics should frame the rights, protections and obligations of citizenship. Complex and sometimes competing claims about the rights of same-sex couples, the protection of victims of domestic violence, the importance of sex education for minors, the harms suffered by fathers and many others have reverberated in Australian political life since the early 1970s; in other contexts scholars have suggested these kinds of claims represent the emergence of sexual citizenship. This project will provide a critical genealogy of claims made in the language of gendered and sexual identities which have opened up and challenged Australian citizenship since 1969. The project hopes to benefit policy makers and stakeholders with a new understanding and framework to navigate this complex landscape and test the utility of the notion of ‘sexual citizenship’ to explain these transformations.
In one sense, this project is a cultural history of the intersection between political and private life. The catch cry of the feminist and sexual revolutions was that ‘the personal is political’ (rather than private or natural); this project traces the complex and contradictory effects of that claim. Rather than assuming that the categories through which we understand our gender and sexual identities represent stable ground upon which claims for the homosexual, the lesbian, the unwed mother, or the father have been made in late modern political life, this project examines how these identities were assembled and re-assembled in the moments of their articulation, how the rights claimed in their name are influenced by the contingent and fragile shape of these identities at any one time, and how the stories and ideas that underpinned these claims changed over time. What were the political effects of claims made for justice and equality in the 1970s? How, for example, did the language of trauma and suffering begin to ground claims for state support, recognition and redress? This project asks how contingent identities have intersected with changing narratives of political life to make claims for and reorganise the obligations of citizenship.
The historical arc of this project might, on first glance, suggest a narrative of incremental inclusion and progressive change, but we are wary of comforting narratives of political progress. We begin with the related (but historically distinct) campaigns for the decriminalisation of sex between adult men and for state support for domestic violence refuges in the 1970s, both of which were key issues in the ground breaking Royal Commission into Human Relationships that placed the often private or clandestine suffering of women and sexual minorities in full public view. We build, then, on the important work of Michelle Arrow on this Royal Commission and the 1970s more broadly. The project will unfold through a series of case studies that examine moments of contestation in Australian public life over the rights, obligation and governance of gender and sexuality, and we will conclude our study with the campaigns for so-called marriage equality that concluded last year. When this historic reform was passed, it was common to hear policy makers and activists talk about a long arc of progress that began with decriminalisation and concluded with marriage equality. Our preliminary research suggests, however, that this is a much patchier history of rights lost and gained, of new forms of governance producing new forms of regulation and normalisation, and of contests between and amongst activists regarding the limits and scope of reform. Feminist activists in the 1970s would be astounded to hear their arguments being deployed by father’s rights groups in the 2000s, and many members of Gay Liberation in the same era would be surprised to learn that activism concerning sexuality would seek to gain inclusion in the institution of marriage rather than achieve its destruction. This project seeks to explain these seeming contradictions in new and productive ways.