The plebiscite

The undead past

It sounds like science fiction, but there’s no question it works. Late last year, I wrote about the ‘debate’ over PrEP, short for pre-exposure prophylaxis, which allows people who are HIV-negative to take a daily pill to prevent getting infected. It works whether or not condoms are used, and therein lies the rub: people who are opposed to gay men and transgender people getting it on freely tend to oppose PrEP as well. This, along with the fight for same-sex marriage, has reheated an older debate about gay ‘promiscuity’.

Notches blogger Michael Bronski, noting the connections between gay marriage and HIV, cites Yale Law professor William Eskridge: ‘It should not have required the AIDS epidemic to alert us to the problem of sexual promiscuity.’ In his book, Eskridge argues that a ‘self-reflective gay community ought to embrace marriage for its potentially civilising effect on young and old alike’. Closer to home, Rodney Croome, former head of Australian Marriage Equality (AME), heatedly disputed a recent research finding that most gay couples are ‘open relationships’.

The (research) gives a skewed view of the lives of gay and bisexual men because the survey participants are recruited from gay bars, sexual health clinics and sex clubs. The skew is deliberate of course. The survey is designed to target men who are at greatest risk of HIV transmission. It doesn’t find monogamous couples because it isn’t looking for them. The problem arises when the results are misreported as representative of all gay and bisexual men. This gives advocates against marriage equality and against lifting the gay blood ban a free kick.

Croome’s remarks highlight the respectability politics that come into play as a result of the residual homophobia and organised resistance against same-sex marriage.

Many of my queer friends and I are not pro-marriage, and only want it to happen because the debate has dragged on for so long; we want it off the agenda so we can focus on more pressing issues of queer fairness and justice. Many of my straight friends are pro-gay marriage because they are supportive and assume that’s what we want. If anything, they are offended when I say I don’t want marriage, because who wouldn’t want a life like theirs?

Here’s the thing, though: when we do finally get the right to marry, we have gone past the point where we can celebrate it. Winning this right no longer fits the usual rhetoric – righting an historic wrong, recognising all love is valid – because the fight itself has given lie to all of that.

A comic feature by Fury in Overland notes that the Nazis persecuted homosexuality, sending between 5,000 and 15,000 gay men to concentration camps, and that the German government did not apologise for this until 2002. What it could also have noted was that when the Allies liberated the camps, they carefully checked records to ensure that homosexual detainees were not released before their sentences expired.

In Victoria, it was not until 2014 that convictions for homosexual activity were pardoned. Far from being history, there were men still living with those convictions. Attention was only drawn to the issue by a UK petition to pardon code-breaker Alan Turing in 2012. The cartoon by Fury aptly concludes ‘Human rights should not be a popularity contest – because not all injustices are so marketable.’

There are, right this second, people held behind chain-link on Nauru because it is not safe to love a person of the same gender in their countries of origin and yet it is politically inexpedient to let them have refuge in Australia. I would call them concentration camps except they don’t meet the minimum legal requirements for concentration camps at international law.

The law may be changed but the injustice lives on. I’ve worked in HIV prevention for more than a decade, including time as a member of the Victorian Ministerial Advisory Committee on LGBT Health, developing campaigns and strategy for social change. To this day, I don’t touch any work that involves young people, be it mental health promotion or school safety. My own experience of being bullied by students who recognised me as a proto-queer – before I did, myself – was severe and prolonged.

On one occasion at a Catholic secondary college, the year-level coordinator – an ex-policeman responsible for discipline – picked up a bottle of clear glue from my desk. ‘What’s this?’ I was absent, and the class told him it was mine. ‘Probably his perfume bottle.’ This was relayed back to me with glee. When I reported homophobic bullying, the question that followed was ‘well are you?’

Later, at a public high school, a legal studies teacher – a ‘sneaky Christian’ – used to hide his beliefs behind ‘Some people might say that …’ And one day he said: ‘Some people might say that homosexuality is just a socially acceptable cover story for paedophilia.’ I froze in my chair. Is that how people see me?

I’d grown up wanting to be a father, but in that moment I gave up on that, completely; I radically excised it from my hopes. Although now I can critically unpick it, the impact on my developing sense of self was profound: I began keeping a three-foot air-gap between my person and any children present. This is what Lacan meant about internalising the gaze of the other: the social lens through which I view myself is profoundly homophobic.

Last year, I interviewed a young man about why he took PrEP. He told me it helped relieve his fear of getting HIV. He didn’t fear the disease itself; he feared that infection would validate all the homophobic attitudes his family expressed around him, growing up.

Experiences like these are what my queer friends and I are reliving, right now, in this debate over the mere proposal to hold a same-sex marriage plebiscite. This week, Pat McGorry and Mental Health Australia came out against the plebiscite, saying it constitutes a threat to mental health of LGBTIQ people. Croome, for all his willingness to throw ‘promiscuous’ gay men under the bus, has resigned from AME over its position in favour of a plebiscite.

Labor is taking the time to message and position itself to oppose it, but that time comes at a cost. To borrow an image from Stranger Things, while this debate drags on, people in my community are living every moment in the Upside Down. The laws might be changed, but that history continues to be lived in the present.


Image: Emilien Etienne / flickr

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Daniel Reeders is a PhD candidate at the ANU School of Regulation and Governance, where he is studying the role communities play in health promotion. He writes a blog, Bad Blood, about stigma, culture and health.

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