Tag Archives: Homophobia

The hate that dare not speak its name

AUSTRALIA is fighting a very old battle. It’s been Trojan-Horsed into every household in the form of the Turnbull Government’s postal survey on federal marriage law. Like all wars, the propaganda is rife.

“It would make for a better, fairer and more entertaining match if #TeamNo owned the label ‘homophobes’.”

We’re being asked to vote on altering the Marriage Act to allow equal access to couples of the same gender. Naturally enough for Aussies, we’re dealing with it by forming teams in a numbers game over the country’s oldest political football.

In one corner we have gay-friendly #TeamYes in bright, inclusive colours, although the commentators can’t avoid the war references, labelling them everything from rainbow authoritarians to the gay gestapo. 

In the other corner #TeamNo is pitching itself as the underdog, and while it’s still working out what colours to wear, #TeamYes has been chanting Ho-mo-phobe! Ho-mo-phobe! Ho-mo-phobe!

Understandably, it’s unsettling for them, but what label would #TeamNo prefer?


This would be apt had Western right-wing governments not led their nations to major marriage equality wins long ago. It was David Cameron, Tory prime minister of Great Britain who said that he supported equal marriage rights for the same sex-attracted because he is a conservative in a now famous speech that forever ruled out conservative as a more accurate label for a homophobe. 


Many of Australia’s faithful are sticking to their ancient creeds, led by the Australian Christian Lobby’s Lyle Shelton; but this label fails on two counts. First, anyone upholding all the Abrahamic scriptures in the twenty-first century must broaden their definition of marriage beyond one man and one woman. The Old Testament allows a bloke more than one wife and a list of exceptions to consensual monogamy. Second, Australia is replete with people of faith who are publicly voting yes to marriage equality. 


Upholding the nuclear family is another excuse for refusing same-sex couples equal marital rights. Family First’s breakaway Senator Lucy Gichuhi is one champion in this hard-fought corner. But family values come undone as an excuse for disliking marriage equality when we have multiple generations of surrogate, adopted, biological and foster children that have no different outcomes as a result of being raised by same-sex parents. 


Resisting change for change’s sake is a hybrid of orthodoxy, conservatism, and family values, practiced enthusiastically by the likes of Senator Cory Bernardi. However, when a minority group seeks access to a traditional legal institution such as the Marriage Act, Mr Bernardi’s objection to sharing traditional marriage with gays can only be homophobic. This might be why several sub-teams pop up in the traditionalist camp to diffuse the simple yes/no question in the marriage law survey – #TeamFreedomOfSpeech, #TeamReligiousFreedoms and #TeamRadicalGenderTheories, to name a few.


Social media is replete with players enlisting themselves onto #TeamNo because they feel bullied by #TeamYes, led by the dummy spit of columnist Tom Switzer. They were going to vote for marriage equality, apparently, but their vote was dependent on same sex-attracted people playing nice in a respectful match. They usually profess “heaps of gay friends” yet preface lengthy anti-equality statements with the word “but” to discriminate against the same people. Exclusion on the basis of a rough game is not victimhood, it’s homophobic.  


Internalised homophobia is a thing. Anyone who was ever closeted will tell you how easy it is to catch a bout of it, even long after coming out.


If all the above players are to be believed, homophobia has never existed and same sex-attracted people are making up all the laws that saw us arrested, chemically castrated and executed across the centuries.

What didn’t exist for a long time were terms to describe the evolution of equality, but as same-sex attraction made space for itself in Western culture, phrases and words were added to the lexicon. It’s an evolving process and commentators need to keep up.

During Oscar Wilde’s trials in the 1890s, homosexuality was analysed around the euphemism ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, but by the middle of the twentieth century the fluid term ‘gay’ was in common use and doing little harm.

But pejorative words for homosexuality came into widespread public use as gay liberation got serious in the late 1960s. It’s hardly surprising that a blanket term ‘homophobic’ – coined by a psychologist – was swiftly owned by same sex-attracted subculture, replacing ‘wowser’ and ‘zealot’ in the gay pride push-back.


#TeamYes earned its stripes long ago and has plenty of skin in the long game to full equality.

It would make for a better, fairer and more entertaining match if #TeamNo owned the label ‘homophobes’. It sounds more easily curable than bigotry; there is no law against being inherently homophobic, and religious freedoms are already protected in the Marriage Act.

Their failure to self-identify is what proves any equivalence between #TeamYes and #TeamNo to be so false, and the whole match stacked against a clear win for anyone in Malcolm Turnbull’s survey.

We are right to suspect that is the aim of the game.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The killing of the plebiscite

“For the first time we are seen not as an issue but as people.”

THERE has been no progress on marriage equality in Australia since long before former Prime Minister Tony Abbott tricked his moderate frontbenchers into a marathon joint party room meeting with the hard-right National Party in August 2015 and gave Australia a new word to debate at dinner parties.

Abbott got the idea about a public vote on same-sex marriage from his independent nemeses Tony Windsor and Rob Oakshott, who first uttered the P-Word during Julia Gillard’s prime ministership.

“It would lower the temperature of the political debate and would provide some back-up support to any politician who takes this thing on in future,” Oakshott said.

Despite voting against marriage for same-sex couples in parliament, Windsor started wavering in favour of relationship equality after attending a same-sex civil union. “If it came down to my vote [in Parliament] I’d have to have a really hard think about it. But that ceremony had an impact on me. I’d probably vote for it,” he said.

Yet he plumped for a public vote instead of just wielding his parliamentary power, a move which has set the tone for the conservative approach to marriage equality in this country ever since: why deal with the pesky issue of allowing gays to marry when it can be handed over to the people?

Even the Greens were up for a referendum in 2013, with Christine Milne wanting to take the debate away from former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and then opposition leader Abbott, labelling them both “on the wrong side of history”.

But what happened to the marriage equality plebiscite in the Senate late on November 7, 2016, is a ‘David and Goliath’ tale of how Australian LGBTI found our voice.

Ask the people

Abbott and the hard right must have rubbed their hands together on the night of August 11, 2015. With this strange-sounding, hard-to-spell latin word – plebiscite – they’d well and truly snookered marriage equality advocates and lobbyists with a matching slogan that would appeal to the lowest common denominator: “Ask the people,” usually thrown with a nifty kicker: “What are you afraid of?”.

Australia hadn’t experienced a plebiscite in more than a generation. The last came in 1974 under Gough Whitlam, and it asked Australian voters about our preferred national anthem. We selected ‘Advance Australia Fair’ over ‘God Save The Queen’, but Malcolm Fraser ignored what the people said and reinstated the old song. It wasn’t until Bob Hawke altered the song sheet for good in 1984 that our voice was respected by parliament.

But Abbott was pleased enough about his plan that he took his eye off key supporters, including Christopher Pyne, whose rage at being tied to the homophobic hard-right of the National Party was the last straw, and saw them oust the Prime Minister by September that year.

The cheers within many LGBTI households were loud the night Abbott was dumped, but just as many warned about the chance of betrayal. We’d been duped before by Julia Gillard, who’d presented as progressive but soon adopted an anti-equality mantra, and Turnbull disappointingly followed suit. His mantra was intoned differently, dictated by the National Party from the moment the new PM signed the nation’s most secret power pact – the Liberal Party-Coalition agreement. Clearly, a plebiscite was to be the only way forward under this regime.

What are you afraid of?

The question was so powerful it spread its tendrils throughout the Australian LGBTI community. A public vote sounded good. It sounded fair. Objections were hard to come up with once it had been embedded in the Liberal Party’s suite of election promises.

Only marriage equality lobbyists, it seemed, witnessed the way the rhetoric changed throughout the lengthy election campaign. In the final week, marriage equality barely left the news cycle, the plebiscite positioned as some progressive torch lit by true believers. But many of us asked how on earth a policy championed by Tony Abbott, dreamed up in rural heartlands by conservative thinkers, could be in any way beneficial to LGBTI?

Rodney Croome.

The problem was there was very little detail about how a plebiscite would be managed, and the Coalition was painfully shy about giving it, which generated credible reports that the Coalition might well make the outcome non-binding and require a majority of electorates to pass. The pressure was enough for Turnbull to come clean before the ballot: Coalition MPs could snub their noses at any plebiscite outcomes.

After the election, the diverse Senate and the return of Pauline Hanson captured most of the media’s attention. During the fallout, one of the highest-profile marriage equality activists in the county resigned from the organisation he’d created in 2004.

Rodney Croome’s move away from Australian Marriage Equality (AME) called to mind Ivan Hinton-Teoh’s in April. Croome’s explicitly anti-plebiscite stance sounded an alarm bell. Hinton-Teoh (who with his husband Chris was one of the first same-sex couples to wed in the ACT before the High Court quashed the law that allowed it) had started a new group just.equal.

Over its first decade, AME had become the peak marriage equality advocacy group in the country, so there was some explaining to do. Doug Pollard at The Stirrer managed to get AME’s Alex Greenwich (Independent NSW MP), on the record answering serious questions about why the group had not campaigned harder against Turnbull’s plebiscite during the election; but the marriage equality waters were muddied, and there weren’t too many clear answers to be found anywhere.

Plebiscite or nothing

The mantra from within the Coalition quickly evolved. It was now ‘accept the plebiscite or wait indefinitely’. On a sunny Sunday afternoon working the Brisbane Markets with my husband, Richard and I talked through what was at stake and agreed: if it came to a choice, we were prepared to wait for our New Zealand civil union to be recognised in our home country.

We also knew what it was to knock on doors asking for our human rights, having petitioned our region to gauge the mood. Our results showed the electorate of Bowman in South East Queensland was overwhelmingly behind marriage equality, but the process was painful. The question brought out the first homophobia either of us had been exposed to in more than a decade.

As we shared our story, friends in the lobby networks started to come out on the same page: the plebiscite was a great risk to mental health, and there was a sense that had AME campaigned harder against it during the election, Turnbull may not have won. We all reminded ourselves that Doug Pollard had called on AME to change its ways within a week of the election, even as Turnbull’s victory hung in the balance and everyone was speculating about the formation of the new Senate, which would stand as the last line of defence against the plebiscite.

Suddenly, things came into much sharper focus.

Just.equal was already match fit and spearheaded the push against plebiscite-or-nothing thinking, with Shelley Argent, national spokesperson for PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and Croome. A poll was commissioned showing the true picture of support for a plebiscite, which had dropped to less than half of Australians when respondents were informed of the $160-million cost and the non-binding nature of the outcome. Another showed the overwhelming majority of Australian LGBTI would be prepared to wait for a parliamentary vote, not a public one.

Shelley Argent.

Several Coalition MPs relied on the positive outcome of the Irish marriage equality referendum, using mantras like ‘dancing in the streets’ and ‘bringing the nation together’. This was quickly countered by a study showing a different picture of the negative Irish experience.

The message was clear: the majority of people who would be impacted by marriage equality in Australia – that is, the LGBTI community – were prepared to wait for a parliamentary free vote on our human rights. We demanded the Parliament ditch the plebiscite.

Under any circumstances

AME and its new arm Australians For Equality (A4E) adopted strong anti-plebiscite language in response, and called for the nation’s LGBTI activist and advocacy groups to unite, but the devil was in the detail.

Once again it was Doug Pollard who covered the story: even though the majority of Australian LGBTI activist and advocacy groups were opposed to the plebiscite with AME and A4E, a smaller collective – just.equal, Shelley Argent, Rodney Croome and Rainbow Families (Victoria) – wanted to add three simple words to the anti-plebiscite declaration.

“Our position, and the position the LGBTI community wants us to advocate, is very simple: no plebiscite under any circumstances, just a free vote,” a statement issued by just.equal revealed.

Shove it

Miranda Devine can always be relied on to capture the moment. She went out early and hard and told the LGBTI community to take the “olive branch” offered by conservatives and “shove it where the sun don’t shine”. Classy dame, Miranda, but her vitriol, and where it was specifically aimed, showed savvy pundits knew the plebiscite was in its death throes, attacked not by Bill Shorten and Labor (the preferred chief suspects of the Coalition), but by us, the majority of the nation’s LGBTI community.

Rodney Croome recaptured the moment from Ms Devine: “For the first time at a federal level the voice of the LGBTI community has been the leading voice on an issue that affects us more than anyone else. For the first time our mental health in the face of prejudice and hate has been a primary consideration for many law makers. For the first time we are seen not as an issue but as people.”

The Liberals tried reviving the plebiscite with a compromise deal offered by Warren Entsch – an electronic online poll with a lower price tag. But while he remains a great supporter of marriage equality and has done much to raise awareness about the issue in the Liberal Party, Entsch still struggles with the reality that any vote that is not binding on Parliament is a dodo.

Turnbull and his team bravely flew the rainbow flag all the way from the House of Representatives to the Senate vote, repeating every old myth and mantra on the way; but after a short life, this unnecessary, expensive, divisive shit of a policy has been slain.

The Prime Minister can hardly be disappointed, since he was opposed to a public vote on human rights before he shoved Tony Abbott out of the top job, and today’s Senate vote rids the Upper House of even more residual Abbott stink.

Plan B

Ignore the naysayers, there is one. Head over to just.equal and get up to speed… they’re the ones who’ve really got plebiscite blood on their hands.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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

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.