‘There’s no room for political messages today, today is for us.’
– Words said to a person holding a ‘No pride in detention’ banner in front of Bill Shorten at the Yes campaign victory at the State Library in Narrm / Melbourne, 15 November 2017.
Collective outrage was growing in August 2017, when Australia’s mandatory detention regime killed another asylum seeker, Hamed Shamshiripour, on Manus Island. As argued by Maddee Clark at Deakin’s Gender and Sexuality Studies seminar series, the Australian parliament sought to distract the public from the asylum seeker issue, and so a two-month long postal survey emerged on marriage equality. Discussion about the inhumanity of Australia’s detention camps fell off the front pages of the news, and collective mainstream mobilisation around asylum stagnated.
Solidarity against mandatory detention looms in the background of a few pieces in Going Postal: More than ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, edited by Quinn Eades and Son Vivienne, a sprawling archive of over fifty pieces of prose, tweets (including one by Behrouz Boochani on Manus), poetry, pictures and cartoons on last year’s postal survey.
While there are some strong contributions found exclusively in the anthology, the majority of pieces can be found online already, as they were published during the survey, which I found to be a serious weakness – along with the number of times the cost of the postal survey is mentioned. Indeed, the aims of the collection seem underdeveloped, as though the book is spurred by the archiving of Quinn Eade’s ‘I can’t stop crying’ series, originally published in The Lifted Brow. Eades describes the ‘short leap’ between the idea of archiving his work to suddenly collecting pieces for a book. If there was more time to develop the vision for the book, perhaps there could have been more writing outside the heat of the campaign, and more critical writing from the margins.
Going Postal is an anthology that deliberately tries to bring together a number of ‘discordant’ pieces. On the one hand we have marriage critics. Jess Ison advances a critique of marriage and argues strongly against conservative queers who will disappear into privilege rather than community-building once marriage access is gained. Carolyn D’Cruz evokes well the tension of being forced into conversations about campaigning for a state institution one does not support. In other pages of the anthology, readers will find the sorts of single issue politics many contributors rail against.
When I delved among sections on the legal benefits of marriage certification, I was reminded exactly of the deep problems with conferring benefits to that institution. How is it ‘equality’ if people have to marry to access legal, insurance and healthcare rights and benefits? What happens if you depend on significant caring relationships that are not marriage or marriage-like and are outside the nuclear family? I am left to wonder how the debate has shrunk our imaginations, and whether single queers exist.
Even the spectrum of discussion in reformist groups has whittled away. The NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby’s prescient report ‘The Bride Wore Pink’, published in 1994, is fully aware of the constrictions of marriage as in institution. They are against the ‘cohabitation rule’ that means those living with a partner are always reliant on their partner before the state. It is telling that Centrelink was one of the first government institutions to recognise all queer partnered relationships (now including polyamorous ones): not because it is queer friendly but to maximise saving money. The lobby proposed a broadening of family beyond the narrow nuclear model to ‘significant persons’ in people’s lives. Nowadays the range of debate has shifted so far it is a struggle to find similar lobby groups mention these critical issues of marriage, family, welfare and the state, let alone borders.
Many of Going Postal’s pieces try to challenge centring marriage as the end goal. Roz Bellamy’s ‘Marriage Equality is not the biggest issue’ stands out for its directness. Likewise, Nayuka Gorrie compares marriage equality to the assimilationist politics of Indigenous constitutional recognition. Timmah Ball writes a biting and enjoyable series of vignettes that poke at the seams of the smug privilege of some gay couples, straight people and hypocritical institutions that pretend they are queer friendly with stickers instead of action. Speaking of silences, Edie Shepherd writes sharply for queer and trans people of colour to speak to ‘the overwhelming whiteness’ of the campaign. She is scathing of those left behind in the campaign, and settlers who reproduce colonialism by forgetting queerness is ‘not a “modern” and western concept’.
I am left unconvinced by some passages. For instance, Vivienne mentions in brief the ‘lateral violence’ causing divisions, including fighting over inadequate funding. I find this use of lateral violence confusing because while it is true governments may pit many of us against each other, there are other dynamics at play. Many people at the centre of LGBTIQA+ communities receive lots of support and when people at the margins ask for the same resources, that is a fair ask – one that aims for an end to structural inequality. Dennis Altman has some valuable critiques of queers ‘bent on assimilation’ – and the need to envision a bigger sexual liberation politics – but he dismisses merely as ‘lazy stereotyping’ some radical queers pointing out that ‘white gay boys’ are among those who see marriage as their single political issue. It would be more interesting, I think, to engage in why so many white gay men have more class mobility versus many others in queer communities and how that mobility may affect their politics.
What is clearly spelled out by several writers are genuine divisions caused by systemic racism in white LGBTIQA+ communities. Addressing the white supremacy of people blaming people of colour in Western Sydney, Omar Sakr powerfully indicts ‘the violent hatred white Australia has for queerness [that] is too recent to be swept under a rug’. Ball questions why there was little celebration for the first Aboriginal woman in Victorian parliament, Lidia Thorpe. Meanwhile, the late Candy Royalle deplores the yes campaign’s exclusion of queers of colour, working-class people and critiques of state violence – underlining that the battle for liberation is far from over.
Although a number of the voices marginalised during the survey are present in the collection (Indigenous writers and other writers of colour, one writer on disability rights, one intersex contributor and one trans feminine writer), I do not think there is enough, nor did they make up the editors and commissioners of the book. And some of the stylistic choices I find grating, including the inclusion of internet comments on articles, and the fact that Vivienne writes about allies being part of LGBTIQA+ communities rather than asexual people. Contentious debates on who is included in the rainbow acronym are beyond the scope of this piece, but some engagement with writing by asexual people as well as the allies included in the book would have added another important perspective to the anthology.
Many pieces touch on the failures of LGBTIQA+ communities to grapple with oppression and inclusion. Cee Devlin writes a striking piece that centres the charged reality of queer grieving: how difficult many of us find holding space for each other with trauma and oppression causing fragmentation and community-scale ‘vicarious burden’. Further on community, Simon Copland argues much of the yes campaign neglected building community but instead positioned queers as fragile individuals. Kochava Lilit pens an excellent piece digging into allies of many varieties, including those who do nothing to challenge inaccessibility. In a similar vein, Morgan Carpenter bemoans how the intersex community has been left behind by endosex (non-intersex) people, at great emotional cost.
What was price of the yes campaign? Eades speaks to the moment queers protesting Bill Shorten were silenced on the announcement of the yes win, because there was ‘no room for political messages’. I wanted more of these moments to be captured in the anthology, along with analysis. One example I did not see reflected in enough detail, beyond the snippet written by Simon Hunt, was when the Australian Christian Lobby opened their No campaign by targeting trans feminine people: their first advertisement focused on a mother’s fears that their school lets her son ‘wear a dress if he felt like it’. In response, GetUp’s advertisement encapsulated all the conservatism of the yes campaign by presenting an image of a white heteronormative married nuclear family talking platitudes about fairness – and failing to stand in solidarity with gender nonconformity in schools. Allison Gallagher in The Guardian and Amy Thomas and Hannah McCann in Overland underline how this manoeuvre paved the way for a kind of defeat, even in victory.
In the notes for Going Postal, the book is described as a ‘counter-narrative to the simplified joy of the 2017 Australian “Yes” vote’, but it left me wanting more because it lacked the depth I needed from a counter archive. Many of the critical writers could only touch on their vision for transformation or wider critiques after they had discussed the problems and limits of the Yes campaign. We live in times where economic pressures such as rising rent, low wages and declining welfare are making queer living more precarious. I see in my networks a rise in inequality in LGBTIQA+ communities, with a large layer struggling to access basic needs like housing, food, healthcare, work, welfare, asylum, safety and access to support and justice for those in prison. Much of the Yes campaign stubbornly stuck to a single issue instead of building solidarity. How are we going to make fighting for those at the margins the centre of our social movements?
Going Postal: More than ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, edited by Quinn Eades and Son Vivienne (Brow Books), was released on the anniversary of the postal survey result on 15 November. It is out in bookstores now.
Editorial note: several articles featured in this collection, some cited here, first appeared in Overland’s online magazine.
Image: Joe Brusky / flickr