Thursday, 18 November 2010

Bully For Us

It’s come to my attention, courtesy of more than one person(some quite close to me), that my online presence has shifted subtly from beingthat of an atheist secondarily concerned with the issue of marriage equality toa gay man secondarily concerned with that of secularism. I’ll not name thesepeople and am quite convinced they meant nothing by it, but I’ll still take theopportunity, given that this is my own greatly neglected blog space, to deny itas vehemently as I can without – perish the thought – inadvertently coming offas (unduly) confrontational.

The political landscape in Australia, as it stands, is goingthrough a bit of an exciting phase. It’s not up to me to say whether or notthis phase has any legs – suffice to say that I hope it does – but it is, nevertheless, undeniable. Gay marriage,marriage equality, is getting more and more mainstream attention. So muchattention from our National Broadcaster, in fact, that it has earned a new nickname from at least one (although one could assume this implicitly meansmore than one) Liberal MP. Don Randall is not the only one to have noticedthis. Allow me to digress to personal anecdote for just a moment.

I work in a fairly unremarkable industry performing a fairlymenial job with fairly average Australians. That is to say I believe I workwith a decent cross-section of the community that have an interest in politicsequal to, or perhaps slightly above, that of your average Aussie. One of themore communal activities we enjoy is, of a Tuesday morning, deconstructing thematerial discussed during the ABC’s Q&A from the previous night*. I recalla recent conversation with my boss over the final episode of Q&A, duringwhich the topic of gay marriage was raised once again. My boss – a father offour, twice married – lamented that he was quite tired of the issue beingbrought up week in and week out, in his opinion derailing important issues moreworthy of our attention than this ‘no-brainer’, as he puts it (though Istrongly suspect his idea of ‘no-braining’ it is to dismiss the issue out ofhand altogether). It was a personal opinion, not one that I took too personallyor to heart, but it stuck with me. The previous post on this blog, posted somemonths ago now, referred to the irksome argument against gay marriage that goesalong the lines of the following:

I’m sick of this issueconstantly coming up when we could be talking about more important things. Whydon’t gays ever discuss THOSE issues?

I invite you to peruse that post for my response to this weakargument. For the purpose of this post, it will suffice to note that it seemsfor many straight people the issue of gay marriage is more a bother thananything else. It’s that troublesome side-issue that will not go away. Thatpolarising topic that can’t be brought up around a dinner table or water coolerwithout someone getting offended orself-righteous, and as such is best avoided altogether.

The conversation continued. ‘I think,’ my fellow averageAustralian continued, ‘that Tony Jones must be gay. He does, after all, givethe gay marriage issue a lot ofpress. It comes up every week on Q&A and he will not let the issue drop. Ijust get the feeling that he must be gay.’

Fellow average Australian is not quite net-savvy enough tocheck Wikipedia for the definitive answer to his musings. However, his commenthighlights something that I think could be instructive to everyone. What hedid, without realising it, was illustrate the exact reason why the gay marriagedebate does not have a slew of straight allies lining up to speak out on itsbehalf. In a nutshell, he demonstrated exactly how pervasive bullying can be inour everyday, rational, adult lives. He didn’t realise it, I must stress, buthe had just handed any bully looking to tread on the lives and rights of thegay community all the ammunition they need to conduct a standover campaign thathas stunted, and continues to stunt, acceptance and progress right across theworld.

It Gets Better. SortOf.

Anti-Gay bullying has been in the news for quite some timenow. As a direct response to this, Dan Savage launched the invaluable ‘It gets better’ project for gay youth. I made a video for it myself. I’ll not hear anegative word said against it – had I stumbled on a resource like this onYouTube in my youth, things might have turned out differently. I may have beenmore confident, more outspoken, more comfortable. Happier.

But it does fail to address one particular thorn in the gaycommunity’s craw that, as far as I’m aware, is not really dealt with by anybodyin the mainstream media. The fact is that, as much as people like to trumpettheir acceptance (or, as a compromise, their tolerance), and for as much as Ican point people to poll after study after poll that indicates 70-odd percentof Australians are in favour of marriage equality, the bullying that most of uswent through during our school years has never really left us. It’s stillthere, and it’s more subtle, and it’s affecting us in a way that we might notbe properly dealing with.

Straight people, and straight men in particular, arereluctant to declare their support for gay marriage in an open and up-frontway. I have tried to analogise this for others when it comes up in debate, andthe best way I found was to think of it as follows:

Imagine that a poll exists that definitively gauges supportfor gay marriage. There are three options. ‘(a) I support gay marriage’. ‘(b) Iam straight and I support gay marriage’. ‘(c) I do not support gay marriage’.Can any of you envisage a straight male – to a similar extent, a straightfemale – that would be willing to select option ‘a’ over option ‘b’? Unfair,you might claim. The wording is misleading. In fact you might consider that astraight male choosing option ‘b’ was being yet more selfless than he selectingoption ‘a’ by declaring that he has no vested interest in the outcome of thepoll. ‘Though I do not stand to benefit,I support the rights of others’.

But I suspect I know the real reason that they would notselect option ‘a’. I’ve already mentioned it. It is because most people in thiscountry – most average Australians, male andfemale – are terrified of the bullies.

To elaborate:

Recall the assumptions made by my, I must insist, overwhelminglyopen and considerate boss about Tony Jones. A man shows a little support forgay marriage and you can see the suspicion begin to creep in to the thoughts ofthe undecided or unaffected. To the mind of the average Australian, support isnot the default response. It becomes easy and comfortable to rationalise supportaway as being driven by a personal stake. ‘His interest in the topic is sostrong – by virtue of the fact that he holds an interest at all – that he mustsurely be batting for the other team’.

This is not an unusual assumption. Hearsay and personalexperience ought to confirm it enough for any individual reading this, thoughif you are still in doubt I can only refer you to the screenshot posted belowthis paragraph. Adam Bandt is the Greens MP who has brought the issue of gaymarriage to the fore in the last 24 hours of writing this. I just had a feelingthat the question may have been asked before. Call it clairvoyance**.

To voice one’s support of gay marriage without some kind of explicitmandate is immediately assumed to mean that one is of the gay persuasion one’sself. The assumption can be as baseless as those made in regard to Tony Jonesand Adam Bandt – it’s still painting a target on the forehead of the personvoicing their support for the bullies to commence hurling their muck. For astraight man or woman to announce support for gay marriage is to opt-in to thekind of day-in, day-out bullying that gay people are subjected to constantly.And why on earth should a straight person want to do that?

Before I raise too much ire: I am by no means suggestingthat there are zero examples of straight men and women who offer theirunequivocal, wholehearted, unconditional support for gay marriage without carefor the mudslinging they are signing up for. There are innumerable individualsone might point to – Adam Bandt and Tony Jones being but two of them. Nor am Isaying that the support offered by those straight people comfortable enough todeclare their wholehearted but separatesolidarity is meaningless or somehow devalued. I do not think this. Any support for gay marriage is valuable,appreciated, and above all moral. It is not the fault of any heterosexualindividual that bullying of the homosexual community is so steeped intosociety, so casually accepted by legislators and social figureheads, that itmakes them want to distance themselves from it as much as possible.

I am saying, however, that if we do not acknowledge thatthis is a major reason why there is not moresupport for gay marriage from otherwise righteous and upstanding members of thecommunity then we are doing the bullies a favour by allowing them to operateunhindered. We empower these bullies to continue to maintain their desiredstatus quo – that of unequal rights, social injustice and intolerance ofanything different to themselves. I have up until now refrained from identifyingthese bullies and I don’t wish to implicate any one particular group as beingmore responsible than the other. You can assume, however, that I am referringprimarily to groups whose morality is dictated by a higher power and who stillcontrol a sizeable portion of the public discourse of what is right and what iswrong. Churches. Religious lobby groups. You can nominate your favourite anti-gaygroup here and the thrust of the argument will hold up.

Dan Savage was right. It does get better after high school.But the bullying doesn’t so much abate as it goes to ground, shrouds itself inmoral umbrage and demands to be taken seriously. If you still doubt thevalidity of this argument, consider the strong support that gay marriage receivesfrom the atheist and sceptical communities. Why so much stronger the supportfrom these quarters? Quite simply, it is because these people are used todealing with the bullies that presume to dictate to normal people what is andis not acceptable. It’s what they (that is to say, we – I am writing with myatheist hat on here, after all) do.Disapproval from the church or from a group of people less concerned withsecular principles is part and parcel. The bullies, for atheists, are a mostly defangedadversary because their disapproval means nothing.

The same cannot be said for many – dare I say most – averageAustralians. The ones who hear Tony Jones speak out on gay marriage andimmediately assume he must be ‘one of them’. The ones who google ‘is Adam Bandta gay’. The ones who denounce both of those things, but would still make a businessof checking the ‘I’m straight’ box in that imaginary poll so that, if there beany bullies about, they will be shielded from the worst of the thuggish,subversive harassment and discrimination doled out for the gays. Disapprovalfrom friends, family and community has got to be at least one reason why somestraight men are reluctant to be strong supporters of gay marriage. It has gotto be at least one reason why several people have pointed out to me that I’vebeen extremely rabid in pursuing this gay marriage issue recently, whereas mytweets used to be ‘more balanced’. It has got to be one reason why we stillfind ourselves, in 2010, having this argument.

I’m Sorry

Having said all of these things, I do need to apologise if Ihave offended any heterosexual readers who feel I’ve been harsh. I appreciate I’vetaken a strong stance here, perhaps one that could be considered unreasonable.In my defence I can only reiterate my intention in a more succinct way.

I have no wish to demonise, marginalise or dismiss anyheterosexual human being that is willing to offer their support to gay marriagein any capacity whatsoever. Despite my words today, I’ve no expectation thatsupport needs to be all-or-nothing, or that partial support is worthless.Likewise I do not believe that those who do not proudly break forth fromcommunity bullying are somehow cowardly and need to ‘man up’, as it were.People will support – or oppose – the issue of gay marriage in their own way,and I’m not going to presume that I am in a unique position to judge whether ornot they are doing a good enough job.

The only people that deserve to be demonised, marginalised,dismissed, ridiculed and shamed are the bullies that make this kind of thingokay. The bullies that never quite got over high school, that spout their ownversion of morality with the absolute authority of a zealot and foster anenvironment that makes it difficult and, yes, in some cases, impossible for theaverage Australian to support gay marriage as fully as they might like. Myintention here is to point out that these bullies exist and that theirinfluence is far-reaching and very strong. My hope is that if this kind ofbullying can be recognised – if we can spot it, and call it out, and not allowit to dictate how we or those we are close to will respond to incrediblyimportant social issues, we might stand a chance of making it better after all.It might be worth pointing out that Tony Jones is not automatically ahomosexual simply because he has pursued the issue of gay marriage on the ‘GayBC’.

Anti-gay bullying is not fine in high school. On that, weare all agreed. But we’ve a fair distance to go before we eradicate anti-gaybullying out in the big, wide, adult world. Don’t put up with it. You might bestraight, you might be gay, you might be anything in between – the bullying is goingto target you one way or another. Make your high school self proud and stand upfor yourself.

Even better, stand up for someone else.

*  While it was on, obviously. It’s a cryingshame that Q&A should end so early, particularly given the politicalclimate we inevitably find ourselves in the lead up to Christmas every singleyear.
** He isn’t,by the way.