Tag Archives: Homophobia

Ban the Bard if Safe Schools scares you

WESTERNERS have lived through many periods in which extreme Christians distributed anti-gay propaganda and thereby got the ear of authorities, and this month’s spat from Australia’s hard, religious right shows not much has changed in four hundred years.

It’s an old war, that between conservatives wanting to put the brakes on equality, and progressives trying to touch the accelerator.

During the reign of James I (1603-1625) in England, the fires of Puritanism were well on their way to blazing a lasting wound through societies in many continents, burning until well after the Salem Witch Trials in New England at the end of the century.

The Puritans were antsy about anything showy. They railed against the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses as much as they did the Roman Catholic church, with its theatre-like ceremonies and costumes.

One of their main bugbears was gender. At its very core, Puritanism called for men to be men and women to be women. Any variation was seen as a threat to stable society.

So it’s fascinating, and a little alarming, to see modern-day politicians using similar fear-mongering language.

When Senator Cory Bernardi complains about the very idea that children role-play in an attempt to teach them empathy for same sex-attracted teenagers in the Safe Schools program, he could be accused of overreacting.

When columnists like News Corp’s Angela Shanahan labels Safe Schools a “radical form of sex education that promotes a fluid gender ideology,” she’s probably venting her spleen a bit much.

PURITAN POLEMIC Cover of William Prynne’s Histrio-Mastix (1633).

But when these and others, like MP George Christensen and Lyle Shelton (MD of the Australian Christian Lobby) deliberately obfuscate the program, muddying its concepts with pornography and what they label “disturbing” behaviours like penis tucking and breast-binding, the pack invective calls to mind one of the great forefathers of postmodern gender panic, William Prynne (1600-1669).

Prynne encapsulated every Puritan complaint of the millennium in his polemic Histrio-mastix: The Player’s Scourge, published in 1633 as an argument to close the playhouses of Britain.

“…sundry common Actors do usually once a day, at leastwise twice or thrice a week, attire themselves in women’s array to act their female parts; yea, they make a daily practice of it to put on women’s attire, it being inseparably incident to their lewd profession,” is just one mild quote from this extremist manifesto.

And it worked. By the English Civil War, the Puritans got their way and Britain’s playhouses were closed in 1642.

But one popular publication survived this century of censorship. First printed in 1623, and hated by the Puritans, the complete works of William Shakespeare was firmly entrenched in the Australian school syllabus decades ago.

So if the Safe Schools program is questionable to neo-Puritans like Bernardi et al., let’s put Shakespeare to the test and see if he should stay on the curriculum.

Well, on gender fluidity, Shakespeare gets knocked out straight away. Cross-dressing takes place in one-fifth of his works. Enduring crowd pleasers such as Twelfth Night, As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice see the playwright’s heroines in male attire for the bulk of the play, masquerading as young men who find themselves in comic sticky situations with heroes who are fooled into homoerotic attractions to them.

GIRL ON GIRL Lady Olivia wooing Viola in ‘Twelfth Night’.

Viola, the protagonist of Twelfth Night, even goes so far as to ask a sailor to secretly loan her clothes and present her to the local Duke as a eunuch.

Presumably this entails binding any breasts that might give her disguise away once Viola discards her “women’s weeds”.

When learning about the early production of Shakespeare’s plays, students will invariably come across a great reality: all the female roles were originally played by men.

But the end of that tradition in the 1660s didn’t end the fun. For centuries, whenever women played Viola, and these actresses dressed as a young man and encountered Lady Olivia who falls for ‘him’, endless girl-on-girl innuendo has entertained many a theatre and classroom.

Yet we do not hear the neo-Puritans within government crowing about these ‘gender-bending’ Shakespeare texts on the school curriculum, and no complaints about the 80,000 school students a year exposed to Shakespeare at the hands of the Bell Shakespeare Company, in receipt of $1.28 million in federal funding announced by George Brandis in the 2015 budget.

The neo-Puritans had their chance to rid Australian schools of Shakespeare, as part of a searching and robust review into the national curriculum by the Abbott government, reported under Turnbull in January, 2016.

But the Bard survived: “…drama, its different varieties, in tragedy, comedy, romance and historical plays, from Shakespeare (as a recurring presence) to the present will be represented,” the report confirmed.

I found one submission that called for more Shakespeare, but none that alerted the inquiry to the possibility that students might encounter all manner of sexual references in Shakespeare’s plays.

SEXY SCENE Mel Gibson and Glenn Close in ‘Hamlet’ (1991)

“To live in the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed, stewed in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty,” says Hamlet to his mother, accusing her of adultery and not washing the sheets.

“Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty,” prays Lady Macbeth to deities that are not the Christian God, explicitly requesting gender reassignment and a nasty streak.

Like most of my generation, I studied Hamlet and Macbeth at school and was taken to many productions. We read and role-played scenes from Shakespeare, but we were left to interpret the diversity for ourselves, probably out of prudishness more than any Puritanism.

“All Australian students deserve access to a world-class curriculum that encourages diversity and which allows schools flexibility over how it is taught,” the curriculum inquiry website leads off with, like an over-arching mission statement.

With Safe Schools now under serious attack, it seems the very meaning of ‘diversity’ and ‘flexibility’ is also up for grabs.

But William Shakespeare, creator of more than 1700 words in the English language, and many a figure of speech, left us with a saying that can be used when answering over-zealous critics of sexual diversity.

eBook | Paperback

It’s a line from Hamlet, perfect for when someone vehemently attempts to convince about something where the opposite is true.

About your trashing of LGBTI dignity, Cory, George, Lyle and your chums, I say: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Michael’s literary non-fiction debut Merely Players: Acting like Shakespeare really matters is available in paperback and as an eBook. 

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. 

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Christianity vs. LGBTI, an unnecessary war

“This is not a suffering competition for martyrs, it’s a legislative process taking place in a secular nation.”

THE Turnbull government has no firm plans for a public vote on marriage equality. We only know it’ll be ‘after the election’, an Abbott three-word slogan for ‘on the never-never’; and that it will be a non-binding, $160-million-dollar opinion poll that won’t be compulsory for any Australian voter or politician to participate in.

But that doesn’t really matter. While Malcolm Turnbull wasn’t watching, a war cabinet has been plotting against LGBTI dignity from the Coalition backbench, spilling from the party room into the media this week when the Safe Schools program came under attack.

Now is not the time to be under any illusions: Australians in every community are coming under pressure to take a position on whether Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex people (LGBTI) have the right to equal marriage and if the parliament should attempt to ensure LGBTI children are no longer alienated and bullied at school.

From many right-wing MPs and senators, and at least one on the left, this program generated hate speech that was about as unparliamentary and dishonourable as it gets, from representatives who bear the word ‘honourable’ in their formal titles.

The Safe Schools program was always going to come under unjustifiable attack. Every LGBTI project I have ever been involved with has become a target if it even hinted at the possibility of going anywhere near a school.

God forbid adults who have lived through the profound lack of in-school protection for LGBTIs seek to ensure young people receive a shred of information, before they start learning myths about diversity from those who would seek to indoctrinate their children against us and the LGBTI students and teachers among them.

Yet the multi-party state- and federally-funded program has revealed deep phobias, from the parliament to my neighbourhood and on social media. The reaction has been so strong it’s become hard to pick the real victims.

Quite rightly, LGBTI groups cited the National School Chaplaincy Program as meeting every one of the accusations levelled at Safe Schools.

12496322_10153958480562813_111425310789912770_oMemes showing the huge disparity between Safe Schools and School Chaplain funding left many people of faith feeling under fire.

I get why – it smarts when you’re made to feel you have to justify your existence.

But this is not a suffering competition for martyrs, it’s a legislative process taking place in a secular nation. While your repression might feel like my oppression, they are certainly far from the same phenomenon, and only one of us is being legislated against.

Whichever citizens can be bothered voting in the never-never plebiscite do not need the distraction of false victims when it comes to exactly who is being oppressed by inequality.

Coming so soon after the Australian Christian Lobby’s call to hit the pause button on anti-discrimination laws so they can hate their way through the marriage equality debate, we’ve woken up in the middle of a war: Christians versus LGBTI.

Bill Shorten called-out Cory Bernardi on his homophobia this week, while Malcolm Turnbull called for measured language, preferring to avoid labelling the hate that dare not speak its name.

I wish it wasn’t happening, I wish our parliament would simply vote on the matter, because in absolving itself of guiding a parliamentary free vote, the Coalition is leading this country to tear itself asunder.

“Bringing homophobia and transphobia into the light will be an ugly process for an ugly energy.”

The marriage equality plebiscite is already causing damage. The debate has become a base numbers game between LGBTI and Christians, so vociferous so early that many voters will simply stay away.

Once we see yes/no campaigns in communities, such as the small island where I live with my husband among a population of around 600, I predict the Coalition’s plan will cause great division.

Homophobia, in my experience, always polarises between two extremes. There are the unacceptable and illegal gay bashings and overt violence, while at the other end of the spectrum are the silent, insidious processes of exclusion that occur right under the nose and invariably go unchallenged.

Gradually, our friends have started to witness attempts to make us invisible in certain conversations, because it’s noticeable when a homophobe addresses someone we’re standing with, but not us.

When we were new to this place, few were aware of this subtle discrimination, but about a year ago, making new friends brought with it the realisation that some of the so-called ‘great people’ living here, who are also incredibly homophobic, would gradually make themselves apparent to anyone paying attention.

As the plebiscite approaches, all this covert behaviour is being forced into the open. Election campaigns in my part of the world take place on the road, where there’ll be no hiding for anyone.

Bringing homophobia and transphobia into the light will be an ugly process for an ugly energy, and where my husband and I might have flown under the radar in certain quarters of our community, we’ll be outed far more than we realise. It’s already started to happen, and we’ve been on the receiving end of verbal homophobia only a few steps from our front door since the Coalition’s plebiscite plan was announced, after not being the target of anything remotely homophobic for more than a decade.

I have never felt the wish to avoid witnessing my own times, but if I could safely opt out of this era, I probably would. I can’t afford a world cruise until marriage equality is delivered, so it’s time to stand visibly, primarily on the home front.

For a generation of LGBTI on the brink of coming out, this period in Australia’s history has the potential to create a similar level of confusion and despair as the AIDS crisis did for my generation, putting nails in closet doors, not removing them.

For that reason I will participate in a long and relentless yes campaign in my community, unapologetic and vocal. They’ll need to face plenty of questions and cut through some uncomfortable moments, but there is room on the yes team for moderate and progressive Christians and people of other faiths.

The reality of picketing the island’s only polling booth, handing out yes material with a bunch of naysayers across the driveway doesn’t fill me with pride, not yet, but at least the homophobes will be as out as the homosexuals in this community, and when we finally have marriage equality, years from today, we’ll know who to hold hands in front of as a reminder of exactly who the oppressed ones were.

Michael’s book Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love is out now. This article was first published on NoFibs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Australia’s marriage equality in chains

After many years trying to interest the Australian media in my story, particularly the LGBTI media, it was only in the wake of another tragedy that a European mainstream media source published this op-ed on Australia Day. 

AUSTRALIA has long traded on its relaxed ‘fair go’ approach when spinning friendly, down-to-earth slogans to sell our easy-going holiday locations to the world.

But for one pair of British newlyweds who recently honeymooned in South Australia, a crucial danger lay completely hidden.

Why would the same-sex legislation of South Australia be of any concern to David and Marco Bulmer-Rizzi when they planned their romantic getaway?

“Between all the wine tasting and surfing, it’s easy to miss the inequality of this sun-soaked nation.”

We’re an enlightened, first-world society, aren’t we? Neighbours and Home and Away have their share of same-sex attracted characters; South Australia even has a proud record of LGBTI equality, being the first state in Australia to decriminalise homosexuality in 1975. It’s all good, right?

Wrong. Between all the wine tasting and surfing, it’s easy to miss the inequality of this sun-soaked nation.

Hearing about the South Australian legal system’s treatment of Marco Bulmer-Rizzi, who was subjected to the indignity of seeing his husband’s relationship status recorded as ‘never married’ in the wake of David’s accidental death in that state last week, I felt a familiar and frustrating pang of grief.

The international outrage was loud and justified. South Australia’s Premier Jay Weatherill quickly apologised, offering a guarantee that South Australian law would be changed to amend David’s death certificate. In an acute state of grief, Marco gave an interview, expressing his ardent hope that this kind of thing never happens again in Australia.

At that point I got very angry, because I have wanted exactly that ever since my partner Jono died in New South Wales more than a decade ago.

LIFE PARTNERS Michael Burge and Jonathan Rosten in 2002.

In 2004, despite NSW’s same-sex de-facto laws having been in place for five years, my deceased partner’s death certificate was issued to his blood relatives without my name on it or any reference to our relationship.

You read that right: Sydney’s Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages broke the state law to disenfranchise me.

The complicity of the funeral company I’d contracted meant the illegally issued document took me two years to fix. Despite lobbying the NSW Attorney-General, no apology was issued by the state government, and no assurances were given that training would be put in place to prevent anything similar happening to others.

For 12 years, I’ve been communicating the dangers for LGBTI couples and death certification to anyone who would listen. In 2015, I wrote a book about my experience – Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love. My motivation was to increase our awareness about how vulnerable LGBTIs are in Australia, with inconsistent state and federal laws that allow surviving same-sex spouses to fall between the cracks.

But death is a hard sell. Same-sex death is even harder. Too many Australians are unwilling to believe such unfairness and homophobia in our organisations and government departments.

Even more difficult to communicate is the homophobia that leads some families to deny the existence of same-sex spouses. At least Marco Bulmer-Rizzi was spared discrimination at the hands of homophobic in-laws, who were the driving force behind my disenfranchisement.

Whatever the reason behind the silence about my story, right now, there are generations of LGBTI in Australia who remain completely invisible on their deceased partner’s death certificates and were thereby blocked from their spouses’ estates.

Who is to blame for this legal lottery that has been erasing LGBTI stories in Australia for decades?

Politicians, sure, but it has long been painful and depressing to me how slow Australia’s media and publishing industries have been to recognize and disseminate the message about this disconnect. It’s impossible to argue they’re reflecting audience sentiment, when all polling on marriage equality places community support at over 70 per cent.

The solution is staring Australians in the face: a free vote of federal ministers on the floor of the nation’s parliament could enact marriage equality here in less than a week.

Yet national legislation that would sweep aside state anomalies is considered so controversial it put us in a holding pattern on marriage equality years ago.

“There has just never been enough outrage about marriage equality in this country.”

We have a sitting prime minister – Malcolm Turnbull – who supports marriage equality, but the political deal-making when he ousted Tony Abbott saw him sign away the parliamentary vote he once publicly backed. Instead, he has a plan for a divisive referendum at a time and in a manner he’s reluctant to reveal.

In the fallout of the Bulmer-Rizzi case, South Australia’s highest-profile conservative politician, Christopher Pyne, was quick to call for overseas same-sex marriages to be recognized in Australian states and territories.

But his approach illustrates the problem in a nutshell. Although he is a supporter of marriage equality, Pyne would rather advocate for a piecemeal solution that would protect visiting international LGBTI couples long before Australians.

When our leaders start to campaign for the human rights of guests instead of residents, they have lost touch with exactly who they represent in parliament.

Pyne’s words also imply he thinks marriage equality in Australia is so far away we’d best jet off to countries that support our relationships and benefit from a legal loophole.

DISENFRANCHISED SPOUSE British citizen Marco Bulmer-Rizzi.

This behavior is far from isolated in Australia. Our tendency to overlook our creatives in favour of international artists – our ‘cultural cringe’ – is cast into the shade by this even stronger legislative blind spot for all domestic human rights. It’s only ‘bad’ if it makes world news. It only warrants a state premier’s apology when it happens to a foreign national. Fix it by sorting out the laws that the world is watching.

We were caught out treating Marco Bulmer-Rizzi with the heartlessness of our penal-colony roots, and, putting his confidence aside, Jay Weatherill will come up against plenty of homophobic politicians and public servants in his journey to amend David Bulmer-Rizzi’s death certificate. I’m anticipating the British media will track this Australian story closest.


Despite all our ‘fair go’ slogans – or perhaps because of them – there has just never been enough outrage about marriage equality in this country to drive the issue from a statistic into a legal reality. That we got a kick along only as the result of the untimely death of a young gay tourist is shameful.

This op-ed was first published by Gay Star News.  

It also appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.