At the first Melbourne rally in defence of the Safe Schools Coalition on 10 March this year, I stood with my friends in the rain feeling pretty devastated, thinking about how quickly the state can take away what we have fought so hard for. But it wasn’t just devastation we felt, it was also rage. In this slurry of emotions and poncho-covered rainbow attire, people were there to fight back.
Two particularly important moments happened at that parade. Firstly, a young trans child shared their story of how Safe Schools saved their life. Then Roz Ward, the Safe Schools co-founder, and particular punching bag for the Christian lobby, took the stage and yelled, ‘I’m here, I’m queer and I’m not going anywhere!’
It was an impassioned rallying cry and a claim of personhood in the face of bigotry. In the immediate context of a society where powerful conservative forces are trying to erase the Safe Schools Coalition, any queer person claiming that they will remain present assumes a powerful stance by virtue of making that claim.
However, its significance goes deeper than this. The phrase was a riff off the slogan ‘we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it’, created by a short-lived activist group called Queer Nation, located primarily in North America in the early nineties. Queer Nation was full of rage – understandable, given the time period and the fact that they grew out of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). ACT UP were a radical AIDS activist group that formed in 1987 in response to what they saw as bland and respectable AIDS activism; they decided it was time to get radical. Most notably, ACT UP carried bodies of AIDS victims through the street in coffins or scattered their ashes on the lawns of the White House. One of ACT UP’s main goals was to ensure access to life-saving drugs, whilst drawing attention to the Reagan administration’s blatantly homophobic rhetoric. The slogan ‘Silence = Death’ was ACT UP’s rallying cry. A branch of ACT UP was also formed in Australia. The political situation might have been different here, but the need for a community response was no less important.
Some queers, rightly, saw that there was still a need for a radical form of activism in the face of gay hate crimes and other forms of prejudice. Thus the creation of Queer Nation. The zine Queers Read This, which was distributed at the 1990 New York Pride Parade, is considered by many as the first action from Queer Nation. The zine was infused with rage (and much of this anger is unfortunately still relevant today). After the zine, Queer Nation’s activism mostly took the form of protests, disruptions and the outing of people. Many of the chants used at the Safe Schools rallies, such as ‘Out of the closets, into the streets’ were either created, or made popular, at Queer Nation demonstrations. When they disbanded after a few years, the group released a statement stating ‘Queer Nation is dead, long live Queer Nation’. Perhaps this was a premature claim?
Activists since the late 90s have shifted their focus. They now call for more acceptable demands; demands that attempt to assimilate queerness, rather than challenge heterosexual norms, for example advocating for queer people to serve in the military and, of course, gay marriage. The push to absorb gay lives into the neoliberal capitalist norms of monogamy, consumption and colonialism, is what we call ‘homonormativity’. The most blatant example of this homonormativity is the upsurge of corporations, such as banks and fast food chains, marching in Pride parades. One needs no further evidence of this than the silence all of these corporations have held over the Safe Schools issue. Yet queers have constantly fought back against their inclusion, most recently seen at the Melbourne Pride Parade, where a number of activists disrupted the parade under the slogan ‘Queers Bash Back’. Queers Bash Back also has links to ACT UP and saw this action as a direct response to homonormativity.
Queer Nation might have been forgotten in the face of homonormativity but it still remains as a queer politic. Queer Nation activists, with that ACT UP legacy, came out of an era where people with HIV/AIDS had become victims of government neglect. The government viewed them as already dead, even before death. ‘Get used to it’ was a response to this, a claim that even in the face of death, queers were an essential part of the community. Of course, they are still with us, and the struggle against the stigmatisation of people living with HIV continues.
In the setting of the Safe Schools debate, ‘not going anywhere’ shows a change in the queer narrative. It is a refusal to allow our younger people, and our community as a whole, to be made invisible. It a refusal to accept that we are people who need to be ‘gotten used to’. And it is a refusal to have our lives constantly used as pawns in political debates. Yet it also stands in contrast with the continued push for homonormativity from within our community, a contradiction that shows that while we are not homogenous in our political positions, we are united in our support of Safe Schools.
The legacy of queer resistance to state and conservative oppression, including resisting homonormativity, is one that has always been loud, and fabulous. Drawing on our history, and indeed inciting rage, is one way that queer people can do more than demand that straight people ‘get used to’ us. It is possible to radically alter who the norm of who ‘us’ actually is. Moreover, in the continuing fight for Safe Schools, and beyond this, it is important to know our queer history so we can continue to utilise it in the present. Perhaps the Queer Nation is dead, yet its legacy of radical queer activism lingers. It shows society that queers are here, and ‘here’ is everywhere.
Here I am using ‘queer’ to mean a radical politic and identity as opposed to the more mainstream gay politic, rather than denoting a particular gender and/or sexuality.