As reported in Overland yesterday, the New South Wales parliament last week tabled an Anti-Safe Schools Petition of 17,000 signatures from the Chinese-Australian community. The petition raises a few key concerns about the Safe Schools program, namely that it promotes gender fluidity contrary to cultural and religious beliefs; discriminates parents and children from other cultural backgrounds who have a view that sexual relationships involving male and female is normative, and prevents them from teaching these norms to their children; is not inclusive of Australia’s cultural and religious diversity; and does not address other forms of bullying such as those based on race or physical appearance. The following day, on 25 August, the chairperson of the Confederation of Indian Australian Associations and the president of the Chinese Association of Victoria both expressed the same troubling concerns as those cited in the petition. Two days later, former High Court Judge and prominent gay advocate Michael Kirby responded to the media by backing the Safe Schools program and stating that Australia, unlike the Australian Chinese community, has ‘moved on from not discussing homosexuality’.
Implicit in these concerns are claims about the incompatibility between cultural identity and sexual identity. Implicit here too is the separation between sexuality and culture. Sexuality is viewed narrowly as sexual practices rather than as a set of learned, culturally inscribed values, meanings, symbols, habits and rituals that we live and experience alone and with each other. Culture is also viewed narrowly through its anthropological lens as a set of shared beliefs and customs of a group of people, rather than the arena where issues such as identity are played out and contested. Central too is a contestation of values, between Western sexual ‘progress’ and non-Western sexual ‘backwardness’.
The petition does not recognise the long histories of sexual diversity in Chinese and Indian cultures. In artworks from archaeological digs, pictures in sacred texts, stories from literary classics, and in practices of everyday life, there are plenty of examples of diverse sexual practices and gender expressions. From as early as the third century in ancient China, political ideologies, philosophies, and religions have regarded same-sex intimacy as a norm in everyday life. Poems and courtly journals from the Ming, Lin and Song dynasties have extolled the virtues of male friendships and some have even regarded them as neutral and exemplary. Similarly, in the ancient texts of Hinduism such as the Kama Sutra, sex and same-sex eroticism are celebrated as central and natural components of everyday life. Taught in schools, celebrated in operas and embraced in popular films, these practices are respected in Indian and Chinese cultures. In 1997 China decriminalised homosexuality and in 2009 India officially recognised its third gender by giving the hijra, a person who is born male or intersex but dresses in feminine clothing and uses female pronouns, the right to vote. So it is not historically accurate to claim that the cultural and religious values of Chinese and Indian communities are at odds with gender diverse expressions. In fact, as Chinese-Australian writer Benjamin Law concurs in his tongue-in-cheek gonzo journalism book, Gaysia, ‘Of all the continents in the world, Asia is the gayest!’
Moreover, by suggesting that gender fluidity is contrary to cultural and religious beliefs, the petition also denies the presence of LGBTIQ people everywhere, including in Australia’s Chinese and Indian communities. (In Sex by Numbers, David Spiegelhalter, a statistics professor at Cambridge, revisited Kinsey’s contested claims that 10 per cent of the population are gay, and proved Kinsey was actually quite accurate. It is therefore prudent to proclaim there are at least 10 per cent of people in these communities are LGBTIQ-identified.)
In fact, anti-bullying support resources for Chinese and Indian LGBTIQ people are extremely important as they confront multiple layers of discrimination in their everyday lives: the gendered racism and hetero-sexism of the mainstream predominantly Anglo and straight community, the hetero-sexism and patriarchy of their ethnic communities, and the racism and hetero-sexism of other straight ethnic communities.
Even in mainstream predominantly Anglo LGBTIQ communities, sexualised racism works to situate Asian queers as both hypervisible and invisible at the same time: hypervisible through the exoticisation, fetishisation and sometimes stigmatisation of skin colour, (ask any Asian male who uses Grindr); invisible, because cultural identities and heritage are often relegated or not recognised as part of queer social life. Coupled with Australia’s white immigration policy that has historically emasculated Asian men by preventing them from bringing their wives or inter-marrying, and Australia’s media that has consistently stereotyped Asian women as either too feminised or too passive, Chinese and Indian LGBTIQ folk experience multi-layered discrimination at the intersections of these histories and practices.
For young people who are also experiencing life-cycle transitions, these intersections are accentuated. As they encounter the physical and social change that falls between childhood and adulthood, they are also coming to terms with who and what they want to be. Just as straight young people embark on life-cycle transition with trepidation, so too are Chinese and Indian youths, straight and queer alike. Some straight kids, especially those who are lithe and smaller in musculature, are also often misread as effeminate. Some queer kids, who may choose to ‘come out’ by disclosing their sexual identities, are sometimes ostracised from their families and ethnic communities. All of which makes the support resources the Safe Schools program provides all the more important. As the 2015 Mission Australian Youth Survey reports, equity and discrimination are one of the top three issues ranked by young people as the most important to them. In claiming that the Safe Schools anti-bullying only addresses one form of discrimination (sexual), the petition fails to see that for LGBTIQ people from culturally and linguistically diverse and Indigenous backgrounds, experiences of discrimination are always intersectional and interrelated.
The Safe Schools program emerged from evidence-based research that there are and will continue to be young people who are same-sex attracted and gender questioning, and thus vulnerable to bullying and self-loathing. These young people need access to information that can help make sense of their feelings and experiences. They need to hear that there is nothing psychologically wrong with them and that they do not have to be forced to conform to rigid gender identity and sexuality norms that suppress their own sense of self, a self that does no harm to others. Their peers need the same education so that they do not fall into bullying or discriminatory behaviour, which will cause irreparable damage to young LGBTIQ folk.
Safe Schools cannot be a question of weighing the values of cultural and religious beliefs of migrants against the lives of young sexually and gender diverse children and teenagers, some of who will be from migrant backgrounds themselves. We know that migrant and LGBTIQ identities are not mutually exclusive. There are queer Chinese and queer Indian people. Our multicultural nation needs to get used to that fact. We’re here, we’re queer and we are not prepared to allow young queer folk from migrant communities to experience the same kinds of isolation and alienation that many of us had to grow up with.
Moreover, the purported cultural and religious values pitted against LGBTIQ folk by segments of the Australian Chinese and Indian communities can be equally found in Christian cultural and religious beliefs that still pervade much of Western and (white) Australian culture. We do not need to look far to see that the language of the anti-Safe Schools petition lodged by members of the Australian Chinese community in NSW, whose sentiments were supported by segments of the Australian Indian community, is remarkably similar to that expressed by the Australian Christian Lobby.
As a nation, we need to recognise that migrants and LGBTIQ people both share common histories of marginality. To suggest that ‘the Chinese community need to be told that Australia has moved on from not discussing homosexuality’ is to suggest that migrant communities and queer individuals cannot coincide and that the Australian nation is homogenous. For queer migrants, there is no easy way of separating one category of identity from the other; both markers sit within the same body as neither separable nor inseparable. And this should alert us to the fact that these identity markers also intersect with others – class, age, nationality and citizenship, disability – to name some of the more salient classifications of social differences. Attending to the intersectional and multi-dimensional aspects of difference does not call for a more general anti-bullying program to replace Safe Schools. Rather, it calls for highlighting the specificity of different forms of life experiences that can help young people navigate the difficult terrain of growing up and give them options for how to negotiate their gendered and sexual lives. Contrary to opinion from the anti-Safe school lobbyists, gender and sexuality educators are much better equipped to account for how sexuality and gender have come to operate and acquire their meaning in our society than those who have never studied this stuff. If we are to understand how bullying works in the school ground, the workplace, the media and even various cultural and religious beliefs, we need to give an account of how the marginal have come to be marked as lesser beings.
Any responsible parent would not want to encourage or perpetuate an environment that produces bullying. All educators need to be made aware of the diversity of the students to which they have a duty of care, and be equipped to deal with such difference and deter prejudice and bullying. Every government ought to support programs that build environments that respect the diversity of its people and protect those who are marginalised, isolated or excluded from social life as a consequence of erroneous understandings of identity and prejudiced practices of past institutional arrangements (such as diagnosing homosexuality as a mental illness). The sooner the Australian nation cultivates the means in which to educate its people on how sexuality and gender diverse folk are present in all cultures, and that this does not have to spell incompatibility with religious belief, the better able our democracy will be able to live up to its name of governing for all.
Image: Bengaluru Pride 2009, by Vinayak Das