Last week, a petition was tabled in New South Wales Parliament calling for the Safe Schools program to be scrapped. It was presented by the Chinese-Australian community and contained over 17,000 signatures. Its main points of contention were that
Safe Schools contains resources that promotes a particular ideology, including gender fluidity, that is contrary to our cultural and belief system, and discriminates against children and parents from other cultures who have a view of sexual relationships involving male and female as normative, due to their families’ cultural and religious belief system.
The petition was lodged by Damien Tudehope, the Liberal member for Epping, who said that he ‘represented one of the most multicultural electorates in Sydney’. The following day the Australian ran a story reporting that similar sentiments were being expressed by the Indian and Chinese communities in Victoria.
In the Australian Parliamentary process, a petition that garners more than 10,000 signatures must be discussed – and this petition should not be an exception. That there are groups of people in Australia (including some from Asian cultural backgrounds) who hold homophobic beliefs cannot be ignored or dismissed. But also concerning is the way in which conservative politicians have used cultural groups, particularly of Asian heritage, as a line of defence in their attack on the Safe Schools program and in the discourse around LGBTI rights.
This is not the first time ‘Asian culture’ has been used as an excuse for the Liberal government’s hostility to LGBTI communities. Last year, in the wake of the successful Irish referendum on marriage equality and amidst critique that Australia was lagging behind the US and New Zealand in this area, Senator Eric Abetz cited the Asian Century and the absence of same-sex marriage legislation in Asian countries as a reason to not legalise marriage equality. During the recent federal election, Labor’s loss in Chisholm was partially attributed to a Liberal social media campaign on WeChat targeted at Chinese-Australians, which raised concerns over Safe Schools and same-sex marriage.
While the views of different cultural groups (respectfully expressed) should certainly be acknowledged, the government is hardly acting in the interests of Australia’s Asian communities.
The government and media portrayal of isolated instances of anti-LGBTI sentiment as representative of the entire Chinese or Indian cultural demographics in Australia is harmful. It reduces the myriad of individuals within a culture into a single demographic marker and ignores the complexity, diversity and nuance of views held within these communities. Now, it is not necessarily the government’s fault if a petition comes from people who validly assert themselves as the Chinese-Australian community. But the reluctance to look deeper and the quick acceptance of these expressions without further community survey points to political opportunism, and suggests a lack of recognition of Asian-Australians as diverse individuals with varying beliefs rather than a monolithic body.
Furthermore, this homogeneous gaze is an insult to the LGBTI members of these communities: people who campaign for their rights, and suffer doubly from discrimination due to race and sexuality. If conservative politicians truly had the interests of Asian-Australians at the fore, they would see it is LGBTI youth from these communities who would arguably benefit the most from the Safe Schools program. Access to mental health and wellbeing support services can be particularly difficult for newer migrants or those from non-English speaking backgrounds due to language barriers, a lack of awareness of such services, or cultural taboos when it comes to mental health. Safe Schools would do much in terms of providing accessible support for LGBTI youth from migrant communities.
The government’s quick and heavy-handed deference to ‘Asian values’ is equally problematic: it suggests that Asian cultures exist in a vacuum and are perpetually fixed. This view is reminiscent of racist Primitivist and Orientalist rhetoric that reduced the non-Western ‘Other’ to a timeless culture that existed in a separate untouched realm from the progress and cultural dialogues of the West. In a multicultural society such as Australia’s, it needs to be recognised that cultural exchange is constantly occurring. People both shape and are shaped by the cultures around them. This is not to say that certain beliefs should be patronisingly imposed upon others; but that instead of viewing the intolerance of sexual and gender diversity in various cultural communities as boundaries for Australia’s laws, politicians need to consider that perhaps the homophobia in these communities are influenced and further perpetuated by the homophobia that exists in Australia more broadly. After all, if we legally do not recognise the right of same sex couples to marry, why would we expect cultural minorities to hold views contrary to our laws?
Indeed, the suggestion that the government is protecting the interests of multicultural communities proves contradictory when viewed in a broader context. In this instance, the views of the Chinese and Indian communities have been used as a show of support, yet the perceived anti-LGBTI sentiment within other cultural groups, such as from Muslim communities, have been used by conservative politicians to justify racism and discrimination. Those on the Right constantly posit Islam in contrast to the liberal democratic values of the West, and have cited homophobia as one of the justifications for their anti-Muslim immigration platform. It’s not difficult to imagine how an anti-Safe Schools petition from a Muslim community would be received in the current climate. These contradictory responses suggest that these politicians are not really interested in the values of diverse cultures but are using select cultural communities as excuses for perpetuating their own bigotry and homophobia.
Interestingly, the fact that the homophobia from Chinese and Indian communities seems to be acceptable and even palatable holds revealing implications of how different cultural minorities are viewed. In this case, it’s hard to ignore the stereotype of the model minority at play, where Chinese-Australians are perceived as an ideal cultural minority who can be called upon when reinforcements are necessary, but are non-threatening and whose voices are largely excluded from Parliament. As the persisting arguments over 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act indicate, Asian-Australian voices are only important when they’re relevant to the Right, and quickly discarded when inconvenient.
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