This past weekend I went to the Homosexual Histories Conference, Beyond the Culture Wars, in Melbourne. I tried to keep a note of the different parts of the conference I found interesting in Facebook posts as I went along, and these posts are all copied in below. I’ve also added one more at the bottom that I was too tired to write up and post when the conference was over.
Homosexual Histories conference, half way through day one!
Just before lunch I went to a session titled “Think of the Children!” largely about right-wing reactions to Safe Schools and other campaigns in particular around the gender binary.
What I found interesting was that a number of times a couple of speakers spoke about how the creation of “new identities”, particularly around gender, does nothing to challenge the existence of other identities. In fact they seemed bemused at people who felt that discussions around gender binaries challenged the existence of standard ‘woman’ and ‘man’ identities.
This befuddled me. Much of the discussion around gender is specifically designed to challenge historical identifiers and the cultural expectations and practices of this. Campaigns against “toxic masculinity” for example are directly designed to challenge many of the masculine norms around being a man.
How can we therefore claim that ‘new identities’ do not challenge the existence of old ones?
For me this highlights many of the limits of identity politics. In creating a politic framed around the idea that ‘everyone should just be able to express their identity however they want’ we ignore the social and material constructions of these identities, the norms they enforce, and the often very negative impacts of these constructions.
It perpetuates the idea that ‘everyone should just be able to be whoever they want’, but then gets confused when people get defensive when we start to challenge the constructions of their identity. It is a clear contradiction and one that identity politics cannot overcome.
Homosexual Histories Conference, part two:
Just went to a fascinating discussion on a backlash against LGBT people (using LGBT language here specifically as it is important) in the last year in Indonesia. Over the past here there has been a ‘competition’ between politicians to make the most homophobic remarks, with armed gangs roaming different parts of the country, at times evicting gays and lesbians from their homes and public places.
What was interesting is the role the Western Homo Agenda has played in all of this. Much of the backlash has been about politicians arguing LGBT Rights (that language specifically) have been a form on cultural imperialism in the country. That this is a form of ‘neo-colonialism’ — a way for the West to import a cultural agenda into the country.
This is a new thing, with one of the speakers discussing how previous gay activism in the country specifically trying to have an “Indonesian flavour”, using Western concepts, but localising them. However those approaches have been overrun in favour of a LGBT Rights narrative.
This is really challenging! The reflection that one speaker made was that “the program in the West can sometimes be detrimental to us.”
How we deal with this, I do not know! But it is a challenge. And to me it really highlights how queer activism and anti-colonialism are inherently interlinked. I must think more!
Homosexual histories, part three:
A really great first day. Some amazing speakers and a lot of great people with great discussion.
I’m going to finish off the day thinking about one thing.
The final plenary, focused on the culture wars today, descended somewhat into a discussion of the LGBTI movement (for want of a better term) as it exists today. In particular, the question debated was, are LGBTI people in Australia better off today than ten years ago.
There were many in the room that argued that at least in terms of legal rights and social acceptance LGBTI people are certainly better off than we likely ever have been. Despite some tinkering here and there we’ve seen a steady advance of legal rights that has yet to be reversed. The only clear area I think this is not true would be in the treatment of gay asylum seekers, which is clearly getting worse.
That does not mean everything is okay, or even good, for all or many people. Let us be very clear about that.
As you would all also know I have many critiques about how we define this ‘better’, in particular the assimilationist approach to it. But I know that I feel safer and more comfortable living as a gay man now than I would have ten, twenty, thirty or forty years ago. And I suspect that is the case for many LGBTI people (I obviously cannot talk for all).
What is interesting to me is that this was not the general feeling of much of the room. Many looked at the seriousness of the fights that exist now (and they are serious), and saw this as a clear reversion back into a far more dangerous situation. We had this conversation earlier on in the day as well when we discussed the role of ‘creativity’ and ‘fun’ in queer activism — why has this disappeared? Many of the answers were that the fights are more serious now — we have much more to lose.
I think there are clearly major fights to be had. But I also think in many cases progressives have won, or are winning, the equality-based agenda that much of the LGBTI movement has been based on for the last decades. It is outside of this space — in the realm of class politics, race, policing, security, public service etc — that things are really going backwards.
So I’m left wondering whether queers are, as someone suggested, reverting to a space a victimhood? Are we projecting the reversions elsewhere in the world onto equality, when it does not exist? Or am I just seeing things wrong, and there is actually a huge pickup in homophobia out there, that I just cannot see? That’s what I’ll go to bed thinking about tonight.
Homosexual Histories, part four:
Just had an amazing presentation on the homonationalism and the police.
In the presentation Emma Russell talked about the way the police (in Victoria in particular) have rebranded themselves to be more ‘pro-queer’ in recent years. This is something that is relatively well documented, a process of the police making themselves look more ‘pro-queer’ while still implemented the same forms of surveillance, discrimination and violence.
What I think interested me the most was that Emma spoke about this process as a way of the police, and the state more broadly, as being reconstructed as ‘queer friendly’. She spoke for example about apologies to the 78ers and to queers being convicted of anti-sodomy laws as a way of ‘drawing the line’ between an anti-queer past and a pro-queer future. These are the ways to close the door on a shameful past and to move forward.
What Emma argued however is that whole this has transformed the image of the police (who are now welcomed with open arms at Pride Marches and the Mardi Gras), it has not transformed their practices. While violence at Mardi Gras does not occur at the same level in 1978 for example (except for events like that in 2013), we now see control in the forms of surveillance and dog sniffers.
Police in this sense are at the pointy end of recent attempts to remake the state and incorporate the gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans community. While this could be seen as a true transformation, like Emma, I am far more skeptical. The very nature of the controlling police force suggest that queer incorporation is just a way of incorporating us into a violent system — something I am not very happy with!
Homosexual Histories, part five (not published on Facebook as I ended up being too exhausted):
The final session I went to today was on psychiatry and sexology. There were some really interesting discussions on the origins of sexology, particularly in Germany and Austria, and how this impacted our understandings of sex and sexuality. It was fascinating to hear about how concepts of medicine were used in the early days as a way to create acceptance for same-sex desires, very similar to discussions around the ‘gay gene’ today.
The one talk that really took my interest though was one titled The Curious Case of Dr Neil McConaghy by Kate Davison.
Basically Dr Neil McConaghy was the most prolific aversion therapist in Australia during the 1960s and early 70s. He developed aversion therapy in the country, working closely with well known psychiatrists from around the world. Yet he also did so while proclaiming himself to be a Marxist and trying to reach out to left wing and liberationist groups in Australia.
I essence Dr McConaghy argued that while he hoped for liberation for queer people, he could not see that happening in the near future. Therefore it his duty as a psychiatrist to try and help ‘change’ lesbian and gay identified people if that is what they wanted. The pain people faced from social stigma was enough to force him to act.
This opened up an interesting discussion about whether Dr McConaghy was someone who was a very complex individual who was in many ways a creature of his time, or if he is just a ‘bad guy’. There’s no doubt in my mind that his treatments did a lot of harm, but at the same time it is hard to just make him out to be inherently ‘evil’ — it is far more complex than that. This is particularly true if we live in a society (based in identity politics) that says people should be able to express their identity however they want. What if the identity they desire is one as a ‘reformed homosexual’? While acknowledging that this is based in a homophobic society, is this something we must deny a consenting adult? This is something Ben and I have discussed on our podcast recently.
I’m certainly not in favour of conversion therapy and it is something that is historically based in bigotry. But the case of Dr McConaghy highlights once again to me how complex the issue is.