Is our response to the plebiscite making us more vulnerable than the existence of the plebiscite itself?

“Stop the fags”

This week, many of the direst predictions of those opposing the marriage equality plebiscite came true, as an awful anti-equality poster appeared in parts of Melbourne. The poster, which spread across social media, was pointed to by many as an example of the sort of hate-speech so many have feared with a plebiscite campaign.

This is not the first time a flyer or statement of this sort has received this sort of attention. In fact, especially since the decision by the Coalition to have a plebiscite, it feels like every instance of homophobia such as this ends up making big news, with queers spreading material across social media, lamenting how terrible this sort of stuff is for the mental health of our community.

While there are certainly discussions to be had about whether sharing this material is good or not, we also have to ask ourselves, are our collective responses to this sort of homophobia, and even the plebiscite itself, making us more vulnerable as a community?

We all know the reasons for the opposition to the plebiscite pretty well by now. While the vote was initially opposed as an unnecessary waste of money opposition quickly turned toward the mental health impact it would have, particularly on young, vulnerable, queers. A plebiscite, it was said, would ‘unleash a barrage of hate’ – something that would lead to mental health problems, and even potential suicide. Advocates have used many ways to back this up – emphasising the vulnerability of our community, drawing comparisons with similar votes in other countries (even the Irish vote), and, as has happened this week, pointing constantly to instances of homophobic ‘hate speech’.

I do not deny the genuine concern that many queers have for the mental health of our most vulnerable during this time. I also do not deny that this is a tough time for many, and that flyers like that spread around in the recent week can have a real impact. Yet, at the same time we need to interrogate this collective response, and ask the question, has it actually made things worse?

While this response, one that has emphasised the ‘vulnerability’ of our community, has caught on heavily in response to the plebiscite, it actually has a long history.

In the 1970s and 80s, due both to the rise of neoliberalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, so-called ‘new social movements’ began to drop analyses of class, and to instead begin to develop analyses of power based in identity. Of course identity issues – that of race, gender, sexuality etc. had been around for a long time, but during this period identity became central to progressive social movements.

With this there was a significant shift in the analysis of power within capitalism, primarily along the lines of Foucauldian thinking. Foucault argued that power is decentralised amongst many institutions within society. He moves away therefore from seeing the state as a source of central power, with neither the bureaucratic state nor the organisation of the social order by capital, being suitably heavily criticsed by him, nor his disciples.

With these shifts Wendy Brown (in her book States of Injury) argues that the left began to see oppression being based more at a social and localised level, retreating from critiques of the state and the power structures of capitalism. The left moulded an increased faith in the structures of the state, seeing it as an institution which affords “individuals protection against the worst abuses of the market.”

In this theoretical position, oppression began to be seen as born out of every day social injuries, instead of being seen as the result of systems of the bureaucratic state or of the system of capitalism. Oppression was not due to a particular system of power, but instead was the result of every day events – the everyday denial of someone’s identity (think of macroaggressions and ‘everyday sexism’ or ‘everyday homophobia’).

This approach to identity has in turn shaped much of queer politics around the lens of pain. As Fury wrote in Archer Magazine, pain has even become a way to define who we are:

we queer folk have only been given the option to understand ourselves through the lens of pain. Because of this, it’s hardly a surprise how much we judge and police queerness by its proximity to suffering.

Fury continues, stating:

Oppression and its relevant experiences have become an important tool to define what makes us different to the mainstream and to each other. This, in its turn, has been important to ferry resources to the most in need. However, it is not without its downsides. It is easy to process the conversation around oppression like it, in itself, is a tangible metric instead of a shared context which yields statistical trends.

Here we come back to the plebiscite. The main focus of the critique of the plebiscite has been on the supposed inability of the Australian public to have a ‘civil’ or ‘mature’ debate on this. Every flyer, advertisement, or TV ad is shown as an example of our inability to discuss this issue maturely, while others have even made the argument that straight people talking about same-sex marriage is in effect a form of oppression. The whole discussion has been framed around the pain that this vote will inflict upon LGBTIQ Australians, with most assuming that this pain is inherent, and that it will impact everyone. It is almost assumed that everyone will be miserable, often to the point of suicide, during this period.

Here is where it is worth critiquing the response to the plebiscite, and in particular the ‘vulnerability’ and ‘pain’ framing that has been used to define the define. Wendy Brown argues that this politics of ‘injury’ (in her terms) backfires deeply against those who use it. This occurs in two ways.

First, through seeing power and oppression through the lens as described above, Brown argues that minority groups end up giving power back to the state. “This effort,” she argues, “casts the law in particular and the state more generally as neutral arbiters of injury rather than as themselves invested with the power to injure.” In seeing the general population as the inflictors of oppression, identity politics gives the state back the power to solve this pain. This occurs despite the state being the main source in inflicting these injuries in the first place.

This couldn’t be clearer that in the case of the plebiscite. One of the most ironic parts of the plebiscite debate has been calls that this issue should be handled in Parliament, with the general assumption that this venue has a greater capacity to deal with this issue in a mature manner than the general public. This is despite the fact that, if you trust all public polling on the issue, our Parliament has a significantly greater percentage of homophobes compared to the general population. Yet somehow we seem more interested in giving power to the likes or Cory Bernadi, Tony Abbott and Eric Abetz than we do to the millions of Australians who simply want this to be over and done with.

This handing back of power to the state has one other major impact – it reinforces positions of vulnerability within queer communities. By giving power to the state to become the arbiter of the injuries inflicted upon us, Brown argues that minority groups actually reinforce our own ‘minority status’, placing ourselves as reliant upon the state for our survival.

As we can see by recent events the recent attacks on Safe Schools and the failure to pass marriage equality however, the state is not something we should not really be relying upon. They do not have the interests of queers at heart. This leaves the question, if we rely on the state as our protector, what happens when the state fails? When this occurs (as it inevitably does) queers up seeing ourselves as having no protection at all, completely out in the open and vulnerable to whatever attack hits us. We are in this instance completely defenceless.

This is what has occurred in the plebiscite debate. With the state, who is apparently supposed to protect us, facilitating the very debate many do not want to happen, queers instantly feel vulnerable and unprotected. There is an immediate sense that any bigot out there could get us, and that they can do so without anyone there to stop them.

This very notion of our own vulnerability has reinforced itself with every day of the debate. With each moment we have told ourselves that we are vulnerable to attack, and to the mental health problems that come with it, we’ve reinforced that narrative in our own community. We’ve come to believe our very own mantra that we are weak and unprotected, reinforcing the very vulnerability, and mental health problems that likely come with that.

But what are the alternatives? Who else can protect us against both attacks from the community, and from the state?

To me the answer is clear: ourselves!

Throughout our history queer communities have often relied on the resilience of its members to survive and thrive, not on the protection of the state. It was the resilience of queers that created the Stonewall Riots and the movement that followed. It was the resilience of queers that got us through the HIV/AIDS crisis to the point where we are today.

While recognising that there are people out there to get us, we also have to recognise that is the not the state that will protect us, but ourselves. In fact it means recognising that compared to general society the Government is far less interested in protecting us.

When it comes to the plebiscite, this resilience to me means asserting that we can and will win. Instead of saying that this is just all too much, we have to create a strong community that helps us all get through it together. Of course there will be times it will be too much, but through working together, and asserting our power, we are much more likely to get over those moments than we are if we rely on anyone else to protect us.

I’ve seen some of this in responses to the plebiscite debate so far. In reaction to the latest flyer it was great to see some respond by saying, ‘is this the best you’ve got’, or ‘there’s no way you’re going to defeat this fag’. Recent mobilisations that have brought queers together to figure out how we’re going to win have also been great. These have been opportunities to assert our own power, and to say that no matter what you throw at us, we’ll come together, and we’ll win.

This is the stuff we should focus on — the stuff that builds strength in the face of adversity. The stuff that build resistance. This is not only how we’ll win, but how we’ll protect our community in the meantime.

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