Analogies and excuses: racism and the marriage equality debate

If the recent results of the same-sex marriage survey represent a step towards greater equality for all Australians, then why do white people continue to conflate homophobia and racism, or use homophobia to justify racism?

Since the resounding national Yes vote was announced, public commentary on marriage equality continues to reproduce racial inequality by appropriating, homogenising or scapegoating people who do not fit the norm of whiteness.

The implicit centring of whiteness in the mainstream LGBTIQ movement was epitomised when Dee Jefferson described in the Guardian how the increased public homophobia of the past few months allowed her, as a queer person, to feel closer than ever before ‘to imagining how it feels to be an Indigenous person, or someone from an ethnic minority‘.

Without a doubt, such a statement was intended to convey empathy and humility – as Jefferson writes, the hope that the negativity of the debate surrounding marriage equality ‘makes us more cognisant of the rights of all minorities – and makes us fight for them with a similar fury’.

However, individual intentions are largely irrelevant when we understand that the problem of racism is a problem of power. Without intending to be racist – and often without even sounding racist – statements like this consolidate whiteness through appropriating the experiences of an imagined racialised ‘other’.

Different forms of oppression are only able to be compared in this way if they are understood as distinct from one another in the first place. This single-axis framework of discrimination – either homophobia or racism – disregards the complex and embodied intersections of oppression that so many people experience.

To be sure, any form of discrimination that we personally experience can inspire us to join the struggle against other forms of oppression. Crucially, these individual experiences can be the basis for building solidarity across differences.

Experiences of racism certainly motivated many people to join the campaign for same-sex marriage. For example, in the Senate the day after the survey results were announced, Labor MP Penny Wong spoke passionately of how her formative experiences of discrimination – on the basis of race rather than sexuality – continue to motivate her to fight for equality in all its forms.

The connection between racial discrimination and the case for same-sex marriage was similarly highlighted by queer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists, including Nayuka Gorrie and Blackfullas for Marriage Equality, as well as queer refugees.

However, homophobia is not an analogy for racism.

When white queer people suggest that experiencing homophobia allows us to better understand racism, the desire for solidarity collapses into the effacement of important differences.

Beyond a basic reminder of the fundamental importance of intersectionality in LGBTIQ activism, there is the risk that a statement like Jefferson’s allows white queer people to assume that we can’t be racist like our heterosexual counterparts because we ‘understand’ oppression.

In a sense, the experience of homophobia is assumed to make one into a better white person – a white person who is better able to understand racism.

Yet being queer does not mean that I understand what it is like to be not white. And being queer does not make me any less white.

For Jefferson, like many LGBTIQ Australians, the vitriol of recent public debate made her realise for the first time how truly ‘other’ she feels as a queer person in a heteronormative society.

While no-one should ever feel judged or attacked on the basis of their sexuality, it is arguably a privilege to only now be realising what it is like to experience public prejudice. Indeed, whiteness not only protects against racism, it can also provide a buffer against the devastating impacts and violence of homophobia.

As a result, making reductive comparisons between homophobia and racism potentially allows for complacency or even complicity with regard to the racism that has been and continues to be present within the Australian marriage equality debate itself.

A clear example of this is the recent scapegoating of migrant communities in Western Sydney.

Not long after the results were announced, influential ABC election analyst Antony Green, among others, claimed that the ‘most statistically interesting aspect’ was the correlation between electorates with the strongest ‘no’ votes and areas with high populations of residents from ‘non-English speaking backgrounds’.

Several commentators have protested this vilification of migrant communities. Naaman Zhou, for example, criticised the cherry-picking of data in order to reinforce essentialised stereotypes of racial and cultural difference, while conveniently ignoring ‘multicultural’ electorates with very high Yes votes. Carrie Hou likewise denounced the persistent erasure of the voices of queer people of colour in the marriage equality debate and the use of the survey results to further divide minority communities.

In addition to acknowledging and challenging the harmful impact of this racist rhetoric, we also need to flip the gaze and look at how these claims about the results in Western Sydney reinforce and recentre whiteness in the mainstream LGBTIQ movement.

Once again, two separate groups are inferred: Yes voters and No voters; progressives and conservatives; English-speakers and non-English speakers; ‘Australians’ and migrants.

Under the authoritative and seemingly benign objectivity of ‘demographics’, the survey results are selectively interpreted to demonstrate that one of these groups is more traditionalist, more conservative, more intolerant – in other words, less assimilable to dominant ‘Aussie values’.

However, because ‘they’ are homophobic, ‘we’ are not being racist in making these claims.

There is a connection between this use of homophobia to legitimate racial discrimination and the way that homophobia is conflated with racial discrimination in a statement like Jefferson’s.

Both instances are underpinned by a racist logic that implicitly reinforces the norm of whiteness in the LGBTIQ movement, yet simultaneously allows any possible accusation of racism to be denied.

As is so often the case in white Australia, whiteness itself goes unmarked and unnamed. It is only through the construction of its ‘other’ – the figure of the intolerant migrant, for example – that whiteness is understood to have any meaning.

So rather than speak of whiteness, we speak of tolerance, progress, secularism, acceptance, equality, human rights, LGBT rights, queerness …

None of these are inherently white concepts. Yet through laying claim to these progressive values – which are always defined by what they are not and who could not possibly embody them – whiteness sanctions and secures its own dominance.

Often it is these subtle and insidious practices and discourses that reproduce prejudice and bigotry. It is therefore crucial to challenge the alignment between queerness, progressiveness and whiteness that occurs so frequently in the words and actions of the LGBTIQ movement.

After many gruelling months of public homophobia and scrutiny of LGBTIQ relationships and families, queer white Australians like Jefferson and myself might sincerely declare that we will ‘never take [our] equality for granted again’.

But unless we stop taking whiteness in the LGBTIQ movement for granted, whiteness will remain the unspoken synonym of ‘equality’.


Image: Wall in Newtown / MLHS

Max P Castle

Max P Castle studied Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne and Sculpture and Spatial Practice at the Victorian College of the Arts. Max is a member of Undercurrent Community Education Project and currently volunteers with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS).

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