New Years, Gramsci, and Easing into 2017

On New Year’s Day Jacobin magazine published a short piece by Atonio Gramsci called “I Hate New Year’s Day”. In the article Gramsci argues:

“I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make resolutions, and you regret your irresolution, and so on, and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates.”

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sixteen-miles/9190040031

It was a compelling and interesting piece, and one I connected with immediately. The idea that society turns our lives into set dates and markers, making us “lose the continuity of life and spirit” is  an interesting way to look at dates such as New Years, and the rigidity that it creates. This I thought was particularly true given much of the angst around 2016 and the happiness many people had with its departure. More than ever this year New Years provided a sort of a breaking point — a time when people could leave some of the horror of the past behind, with an aim to start afresh and relish in challenges of the new year ahead.

It’s almost the end of the first month of 2017 but I still have Gramsci’s article in my head. While I connected with the spirit of his writing, in the physical reality in many ways I don’t connect at all. Because while it has almost been a month I still feel I am easing back into a new year, preparing myself slowly for the challenges ahead. I still see New Years as a defining line, one I continue to reflect on as we enter 2017 fully. 

It’s an interesting dynamic and one I hadn’t thought of until this time. January always feels like this for me. I ease back in, enjoying the heat, and the cricket and the tennis, trying desperately to avoid work and ‘real life’. And I make plans and resolutions, hoping to fix things I don’t like, and achieve things I want to achieve. I feel this is a common experience of this month, particularly in Australia where so many people have such time off to enjoy the Summer months.

So I end up in a dilemma. While I agree with Gramsci that these sorts of dates can “turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management” at the same time I feel myself relishing in this opportunity. I feel a desire to have break in the continuity of life to reevaluate, assess and move forward.

That is what has happened once again this year. It is only now that I feel the desire to truly get back into normal life, and I do not regret that. In fact I feel liberated by the opportunity to sit back and evaluate in this way.

But then maybe that is the real point Gramsci was making. Why does this have to be considered a break from “real life”. Why must real life be the thing we hope not to have to return to? Why are our real lives so difficult that we need to designate a time every year to have a break from it? Shouldn’t our lives be one of continued “life and spirit” so that we can have the time for holidays, relaxation, and enjoyment, at all times, not just once (or maybe twice) a year. Why must going back to ‘real life’ be such a pain?

Gramsci I think outlines this thought perfectly in his piece, saying:

“That’s why I hate New Year’s. I want every morning to be a new year’s for me. Every day I want to reckon with myself, and every day I want to renew myself. No day set aside for rest. I choose my pauses myself, when I feel drunk with the intensity of life and I want to plunge into animality to draw from it new vigor.

No spiritual time-serving. I would like every hour of my life to be new, though connected to the ones that have passed.”

Maybe that is the reality of the joy of New Years and the months that precede and follow it. Is it maybe that these months are those that represent what we really want out of our lives? Are they the periods that represent the true spirit of life — ones that give us a genuine sense of feeling refreshed and excited for the challenges to come.

This is what I’m thinking about as I ease back into 2017. How do I make this feeling last for an entire year? How do we do that for an entire society?

What if the state provided everyone with a basic income?

Trials around the world are about to explore what happens when people are guaranteed a minimum amount of money to live on. The radical policy could reinvent our relationship to work.

basicincome

Originally published in BBC Future, 18 January 2017. 

This month Finland is embarking on a radical economic experiment. Its government is giving 2,000 people free money for two years, guaranteeing them a minimum income. The participants – selected at random from people receiving welfare – will each get 560 euros ($600) a month and they will continue to receive the money even if they get a job.

The Finnish trial is the largest of a number of experiments looking at what happens when you give every citizen a guaranteed income – a policy known as universal basic income. “We hope that basic income will give these people a sense of financial security and the opportunity to plan ahead for their lives,” says Marjukka Turunen at Kela, Finland’s social insurance agency, which is running the trial.

Read the full article here.

 

The teaches of peaches

Last weekend my partners and I drove to Sydney to see Peaches live in concert.

I am not much of a concert-goer, and so it often takes someone I really love to get me out to a gig. This year Peaches was that person. When we saw she was touring we jumped on tickets , and I did not regret it one moment during the show. In doing so I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is about her that I love so much.

img_5642

Peaches’ concert was raw, and totally energetic. She did not rest for a single moment, pumping a mixture of her hits and some new music with energy that just continued unabated. She did so in really creative ways, with a cool mixture of props, costumes and back up dancers that created what was a really coherent show that in itself had somewhat of a narrative.

At one point for example the stage crew blew up a giant condom, which Peaches walked into to sing Dick in the Air. At another time she literally walked out onto the crowd, balancing herself on people’s hands while performing.img_5665

I think most impressive though were the use of her back up dancers. She had two dancers that appeared throughout. The two first showed right at the start and then re-entered during Vaginoplasty wearing giant vaginas on their heads. As the concert continued they slowly stripped their clothes, revealing themselves the crowd. In the end the two were wearing matching pink leather harnesses, embracing each other in the last songs in deep, and highly sexual, embrace. In one of the encores, the two, both with long flowing black hair, came out with hair dryers, blowing their hair around from the front. It was, strangely, one of the most sensual things I’d seen.

This is the thing I realised I love about Peaches. Peaches has built her career off being shocking — her top hits are songs like ‘Fuck the Pain Away’, ‘Two Guys for Every Girl’ and ‘Tent in My Pants’. She revels off being risqué, and I love her for it.

However, going to her concert, part of me feared what that would look like. The show was heavily choreographed, and in doing so it had a real potential to look staged. I worried about a concert where Peaches went ‘what shocking thing can I do now?’. I worried she’d be doing it for the shock value, not because it suited the music, the crowd, or even the show itself.

img_5620

But it was nothing like that at all. The show was not a ‘shock for shock sake’. Im fact it was less shocking, and more sensual and sexual. The choreography, and sexuality, all fit within the setting of the stage and the music. Yes, she did come out in a giant condom, and it was amazing, but she also designed (or had designed) amazing costumes, and dance moves, and props that all worked together to create a highly entertaining show.

It was raw, it was real, and it was naturally. Most importantly it was natural to her. It was not contrived, or designed just to ‘shock’, but to entertain, and I suspect in many ways, just to have fun. And have fun and entertain she did.

That is what I love about her. She does sex but she does it because she loves it, not because it’s what makes her career (at least that’s my perception). And that is the Teaches of Peaches — she teaches us how to make sex real, and not just a thing to put us into shock and awe.   

Starting a PhD!

In very exciting news, last week I was officially offered a scholarship to start a PhD in Sociology at the Australian National University (ANU) next year. I will be starting in around February or March.

A PhD is something that has been in the back of my mind for a while now. It has been a niggling thought, something I thought I may do eventually, sometime down the track. I think now seems like the right time and I’m excited about the opportunity.

australian_national_university

For me the opportunity of PhD offered me some really valuable things.

I love my work as a writer and really enjoy what I do. However, working freelance has some major downfalls. For me, most importantly, I’ve struggled both with a lack of a community, and with a lack of stability. My work is very isolated, which at times makes motivation and intellectual stimulation difficult, and can often sew the seeds of self doubt in my mind. This I think often plays directly into my anxiety.

A PhD I think will help change some of this. I’m really excited about the opportunity to be working on a campus and with a community once again. I’ll be able to bounce ideas off others, and have an office I can go to every day. Even just the idea of having colleagues close by excites me a lot. Most importantly this community will be stable for at least three years, which, when I think about it, is longer than any job I’ve ever had.

I still intend to continue my writing. I’ll be keeping up my column with SBS Sexuality, will be blogging and podcasting, and will keep chugging away at my books. While obviously a PhD will be a lot of work, I do not intend for it to detract from all of that. In fact my hope is that it will enhance it — it will give me the opportunity to formalise research I’ve been working on for years. In many ways I feel like I’ve been living a bit of a PhD life for years now (I may regret saying this down the track), but this will just formalise it with more structure and more community. Obviously it will be different as I will have things like deadlines, which for my big projects at least at the moment are non-existent. But I think that will be good for me as a motivator.

So that is where I’m headed next year! I will be keeping up the writing life, just in a different kind of way. I am really excited about it!

The Homosexual Histories Conference

15107356_708368519321367_5703006914697611824_nThis 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.

Day One:

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.

Day Two:

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.

Stop trashing the Irish Referendum

“In an attempt to defeat the plebiscite we’ve rewritten the history of the Irish Referendum, making it out to be an awful event that hurt the Irish population deeply. We must stop doing so.”

Yes supporters react at Dublin castle, Ireland, Saturday, May 23, 2015. Ireland has voted resoundingly to legalize gay marriage in the world's first national vote on the issue, leaders on both sides of the Irish referendum declared Saturday even as official ballot counting continued. Senior figures from the "no" campaign, who sought to prevent Ireland's constitution from being amended to permit same-sex marriages, say the only question is how large the "yes" side's margin of victory will be from Friday's vote. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Yes supporters react at Dublin castle, Ireland, Saturday, May 23, 2015. Ireland has voted resoundingly to legalize gay marriage in the world’s first national vote on the issue, leaders on both sides of the Irish referendum declared Saturday even as official ballot counting continued. Senior figures from the “no” campaign, who sought to prevent Ireland’s constitution from being amended to permit same-sex marriages, say the only question is how large the “yes” side’s margin of victory will be from Friday’s vote. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

Originally published in SBS Sexuality, 2 November 2016

When Ireland voted for marriage equality in May last year, the scenes were jubilant. There were parties in the streets, with people around the world basking in the glow of the first ever national vote in favour of marriage equality. The impact was felt around the world, furthering momentum for same-sex marriage, in particular in Australia.

This story, however, is very different to the one presented to us today. In the fight against the Australian plebiscite for marriage equality, many have turned on the Irish referendum, working hard to paint the vote as being terrible for queer people. Over the weekend, for example, Just Equal released a video to show the ‘true cost’ of the referendum—a true cost of severe emotional distress.

In an attempt to defeat the plebiscite we’ve rewritten the history of the Irish Referendum, making it out to be an awful event that hurt the Irish population deeply. We must stop doing so.

I do acknowledge, of course, that the Referendum must have been difficult for many in the Irish community. The stories told in the video are genuine, and difficult to hear. But the way Australian campaigners have used these stories has completely rewritten the history of vote, trashing what was an extremely momentous moment.

This rewriting of history is based on what can only be described as biased research on the impacts of the Irish Referendum. Early this month, anti-plebiscite campaigners released the first ever research on the psychological impacts of the Irish vote, showing, naturally, that the No Campaign resulted in significant distress for Irish queer people. The research, however, was deeply flawed. In particular, the questionnaire focused solely on the No Campaign, priming participants to think only about the negatives of the vote and to ignore the many positives. As Tad Tietze argues: “This is a classic method of getting the results you want, not only by asking questions that only consider one side of an experience and only negative emotions and impacts, but also in pulling the attention of those surveyed only to those negatives.”

This negative focus peddled by Australian campaigners directly contradicts the real positives of the vote. The book Ireland Says Yes, for example – which goes into the details of the victory – talks about an extremely positive “Yes” campaign based on a philosophy of ‘excitement and stability’. The book describes how Irish campaigners won by going door-to-door across the country, with many seeing the vote as a real opportunity to change Ireland from the ground up.

That social change has become a reality, with long term benefits for Irish people. Research has shown there has been a massive increase in the number of young people coming out since the referendum, suggesting the vote both boosted the confidence of young queer people and made Ireland a more welcome place for Irish queers. The Referendum also created momentum for other legislative achievements, with world-leading legislation around gender identity passed only months after the marriage victory.

Of course the Irish example is different from Australia’s current situation, primarily as Ireland required a national vote for marriage equality to become a reality, where Australia does not. Yet, in attempts to win the fight against the plebiscite, we are once again ignoring the real positives a vote could have, and throwing away an important historical moment for queer people in the process.

The Irish Referendum was an extremely significant moment in the history of marriage equality, and in the queer movement in general. It is the first time a national population voted in favour of queer rights, a moment that is even more important because of the overwhelming nature of the vote in a country known for its social conservatism. It should be a point of celebration, a moment we look back on with pride. But instead, in Australia we are working hard to negate its legacy, all in an attempt to win a political fight. While that may lead to a short term victory against the plebiscite, in the longer term we will have lost a really important moment for the queer community — a moment that only comes our way every now and then.

This article was originally published on SBS News. Click here to view the original. © All rights reserved.

In defence (sort of) of gay conservatives

Simon Copland examines the reality of queer politics, and why being queer doesn’t automatically mean you’re left-wing.

Man withdrawing a wooden card painted as the gay pride flag from his suit pocket, close up of his hand.

Originally published in SBS Sexuality, 26 October 2016

Following an interview with two gay men at a Trump rally, the idea of queer conservatives has bewildered – and apparently angered –  quite a few in the past week; the men in question have apparently received multiple death threats since the video appeared.

Gay conservatives have also recently been a topic of debate in Australia. Recently, commenter Mia Freedman took aim at Josh Manuatu, the gay advisor to Eric Abetz, arguing he must suffer from ‘internalised homophobia’.

There is often an assumption that to be queer is to be progressive, with bewilderment at anyone who breaks this mould.

I am not conservative, and my sexuality is integral to my politics. At the same time, the idea that sexuality should automatically link to left-wing views is patently ridiculous. I therefore feel a need to defend these queer conservatives.

The assumption that all queers must inherently be ‘progressive’ is based – at least in our modern perception – on the history of conservative forces blocking and resisting moves for equality and sexual liberation. The problem with this is multi-layered. 

The attacks on Manuatu have been based on the idea of him having a ‘cognitive dissonance’ in being gay and at the same time working for someone who doesn’t believe in ‘his rights’.

This ignores the history of so-called progressive organisations in opposing queer rights. Why do we attack Manuatu, for example, when we are quick to excuse Penny Wong, who also has a history of opposing marriage equality?

Furthermore, the argument ignores the fact that being queer does not automatically mean agreeing with the agenda of mainstream queer organisations. As Manuatu explains, he actually agrees with his boss that the Marriage Act should not change—a position that may be confusing to some, but that can also be entirely consistent with his existence.

Even if queer people do agree with issues such as marriage equality, that does not mean they consider them important above all else. The two Trump supporters stated they were “tired of the bulls–t Government”, and that Trump would “bring more jobs to the country.” This is an expression of the economic anxieties facing many in the United States—anxieties that are rightfully considered to be more important than the identity-based issues that dominate much of queer politics. On these issues, Trump clearly presents an appealing alternative. I can see, therefore, why some would overlook his multitude of anti-minority statements if it meant an opportunity to restore some economic security. Whether it’s creating economic security, or holding onto existing wealth and power, there are a range of issues queers may find more important than queer ‘equality’.

This leads us to the bigger – and broader – reality of queer politics. In past decades, mainstream queer campaigning has become more identity focused, presenting a narrow view of equality based on the capacity for all of us to be able to express our sexual identity however we want. This can be seen as a good thing, as it allows for a breadth of diversity within the queer community (making the confusion around queer conservatives quite ironic).

On the flip side, however, it is a form of politics that has become completely divorced from other issues, in particular with economics and class. As is the case with other issues of minority oppression, the left has been unable to develop an effective narrative that explains how sexual and gender oppression are inherently connected with poverty and economic insecurity.

In divorcing ourselves from economics, it therefore makes sense we see a queer population that is seemingly increasingly diverging in its political views (although these splits have always existed). Sexual and gender identity are not a strong enough bind to create a coherent economic or political philosophy.

This is why the reactions to the Trump supporters, and Josh Manuatu, are so misguided, and frankly gross. If we want people to be left-wing we can’t simply assume their sexual or gender identity will be enough. We actually need to make a coherent case. Saying people are suffering from ‘internalised homophobia’, or sending them death threats is not going to achieve that. 

This article was originally published on SBS News. Click here to view the original. © All rights reserved.

The history and importance of gay beats

Often disregarded as a thing of the past, beats are still around and very much a part of gay culture, writes Simon Copland.

(EyeEm / Getty Images)
(EyeEm / Getty Images)

Originally published in SBS Sexuality, 17 October 2016. 

A place for those with nowhere else to go

Beats have a long history within gay communities. In years past when the vast majority of men who have sex with men (MSM) faced violence and ostracism, the confidentiality and access of beats made them the only space some people could use to get their rocks off. In the ’60s and ’70s – and probably long before – the beat scene exploded with men gathering in parks, toilet blocks, reserves, and any space they could find to get some good sex.

Although they were an opportunity for fun, beats also became a space of violence. Many of the gay bashings and murders recorded in Sydney during the ’80s and ’90s occurred at popular beats. The murder of George Duncan – which sparked a movement for South Australia to become the first state to decriminalise homosexuality – occurred at a famous Adelaide beat. As Deep Water: The Real Story shows, beats were also a place for police violence against MSM.

As homosexuality has become more accepted and MSM have been able to find sex more openly in bars, sex-on-premises venues and on apps, it’s generally accepted that we’d give up the beat for safer options.

As a gay man, I have always been intrigued by beats, and yet, I’ve never actually gone to one. I’ve thought of them as a culture long-gone; places now only frequented by those desperately holding onto a dead scene. This perception, as well as the availability of options generally considered safer, have always stopped me from venturing to the beats in my area. And yet, while the predominant narrative today may be that beats are a long-gone culture, this is not the reality.

A culture that continues on

Many of the MSM I speak to agree that beats still provide an important place to gather, have fun, and get to know each other. Within the culture, there appear to be two distinct groups.

Sam, who attends beats on a semi-regular basis, rejects the idea that beats are dated or a thing of the past, saying: “I’ve heard arguments in the past that beats are a generational thing, and because it’s easier to be out these days than it was 20, 30, or 50 years ago, MSM don’t need to visit beats anymore”.

“That argument doesn’t take into account that it’s simply become a part of gay culture and some men – despite being able to find someone nearby on Grindr to f–k in the comfort of their own home – prefer to go cruising at a beat because that’s what turns them on,” he continues, adding that it also ignores men who are in the closet, “because of their religion, homophobia within their ethnic group or the fact that they’re married!”

Aside from being important for MSM who are not open about the fact they have sex with other men due to oppression from family or the broader community, beats are also important for MSM who identify as straight.

Michael Whelan is the co-coordinater of the Sexually Adventurous Men (SAM) program at the Victorian Aids Council, which aims to provide sexual health advice to men who attend beats, among other things. Whelan explains:

“In 2016 beats are frequented by MSM who don’t necessarily identify as gay. It’s their way of stepping into exploring their sexuality with other men. They don’t feel comfortable attending [Melbourne gay venues like] the Laird or the Peel, or even your designated sex-on-premises venue. They don’t feel connected to a certain queer community or gay community, so it’s their way of stepping into that.”

Whelan explains that this group presents a whole range of sexual health risks, primarily because they do not have a “backlog” of sexual education that is available to other gay men. There is also no capacity to provide that education on-site at the beat. This is one of the challenges the SAM project – and their website Down And Dirty – is trying to address.

Yet it’s not just closeted or straight men who are regular beat attendees; they’re also still regularly attended by young gay-identifying men who want to maintain the culture.

Zac* explains that while “it’s true that a lot of guys who cruise are older,” there are still “plenty of young guys who will keep beat culture alive.”

This second group frequents beats for various reasons. Some get off on having sex in a public space, others find beats more convenient than the alternatives, while others enjoy the thrill of meeting someone completely anonymously.

And it’s not just a few people. Steve Spencer, describing one beat he visits in Melbourne, says that “come 5pm on a Friday afternoon, it literally becomes five levels of fun.”

“There are beats in the basement, and levels one, three, five, and seven. At times every cubicle at each toilet on those floors will be full, so the staircase linking them all becomes a cruise space in itself. It’s quite surreal!”

It’s not all just quick and dirty fun, though (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Beats are also places where MSM can meet different types of people and have experiences different from those you’d find in other gay spaces. Peter* used to attend beats quite often and says that “one of the most rewarding experiences was a very non-sexual experience.”

“I’d gone to this park quite out of my way,” he recalls. “I ended up going into some thick bushes somewhere and this one guy came up to me and it started off with this most incredible hug. If I was looking online I would never have stopped to connect with him, because he didn’t really appeal to me at all. What I think he found more rewarding than sex was the contact with another man, which he probably would never ordinarily have.”

Safer, but still not a space space.

With broader changes in society, safety issues have changed as well. The mass violence of the ’80s and ’90s certainly seems like it is a thing of the past. We’ve also seen changes in the law, like in Victoria, where judges have ruled that sexual behaviour “can only be considered an offence if it takes place in a public place and could reasonably be expected to be seen by a member of the public.” As most beat behaviour occurs late at night, in dark corners, bushes, or toilet cubicles, this ruling has effectively stopped beat users from being prosecuted. This trend is being seen around Australia, and the world.

Yet, despite this, risks still exist. Steven Spencer says that wherever gay men go for enjoyment, “there is always a risk.”

He explains: “We saw at a cruise club in Sydney recently, a homophobe went into the venue and put hydrochloric acid into the lube dispensers. We see people going into bars and shooting us up, we see people lure gay men on Grindr to bash them up, and we sometimes see people get harmed at beats.”

There is both hard and anecdotal evidence to back this up. In 2009, for example, a gay man was bashed to death at a popular beat in Centennial Park in Sydney, while in 2014 at least three men were bashed at a beat in Newcastle. There is talk in the community about these sorts of incidents remaining relatively common, with many not coming forward after facing violent attacks.

Part of the issue is that despite changes, there are still concerns about police behaviour. In 2008, a number of gay men in Sydney launched the “Beat Project” following reports of “men being searched, chased, threatened and manhandled by police or visited at their homes the next day — despite not being charged with any offence.” The project has worked with the NSW police to end police harassment and work toward the police protecting beat users instead of prosecuting them. With scandals such as violence at the 2013 Mardi Gras andblunders in dealing with gay bashings and murders, many in the queer community remain wary of police.

Beat It

Beats have an important history in MSM communities. They have served as places of great illicit fun, but also represent some of the areas of the worst violence against gay people. Despite this often ongoing violence, and claims that apps are killing beats, the culture remains strong.

Beats are a lot more than just a place for quick fun, and with many young gay men still visiting, will remain an important part of MSM culture for a long time to come.

This article was originally published on SBS News. Click here to view the original. © All rights reserved.

The importance of teaching queer history in schools

It’s LGBTI+ history month for school students in Victoria. Simon Copland discusses why this is an important step forward for queer kids everywhere.

Toronto, Ontario - JUNE 27, 2015  The rainbow painted  crosswalks on Church Street reflect the feet of passersby after heavy rain. Participants in the Toronto Dyke March did not let the heavy rainfall dampen their spirits during Pride Toronto 2015. JUNE 27, 2015.        (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Toronto, Ontario – JUNE 27, 2015 The rainbow painted crosswalks on Church Street reflect the feet of passersby after heavy rain. Participants in the Toronto Dyke March did not let the heavy rainfall dampen their spirits during Pride Toronto 2015. JUNE 27, 2015. (Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Originally published in SBS Sexuality, 10 October 2016

School students in Victoria will be learning about and celebrating LGBTI+ History this October, as part of a program launched today. Following the campaign against the Safe Schools Program over the past twelve months, the initiative presents an opportunity to expand LGBTI+ education beyond the confines of anti-discrimination material.

An initiative from the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria, Minus18 and the Australia Lesbian and Gay Archives,LGBTI History Month provides resources for teachers and students to bring to life the history of the Australian LGBTI community. Mel Gaylard, a Project Officer at the Safe Schools Coalition in Victoria said the history month will allow schools and students to celebrate the deep, often untold, stories of Australian LGBTI people. As she says:

“LGBTI+ stories are as important and fascinating as those we commonly learn about at school. LGBTI+ History month invites schools to celebrate this. Our resources provide them with material and ideas to make queer history visible, during October and beyond.”

“The purpose of the month is to recognise the rich and diverse histories of LGBTI+ people. We want teachers to be inspired to bring these stories into their classrooms and students to consider creative ways to celebrate them in their schools.”

The initiative, originally announced in September, comes after a year-long attack on the Safe Schools Program, which resulted in the gutting of the program nationally early this year. The overarching Safe Schools Materialshave a relatively narrow approach, largely focusing on bullying, discrimination and inclusivity in an attempt to make schools a ‘safe space’. While this anti-discrimination material is obviously important, it has its limitations. First, it assumes discrimination and works from a potentially negative framework. In turn, this makes it about counteracting discrimination rather than embracing queer people, our stories and our history. It potentially creates a somewhat shallow system of toleration and acceptance, which for queer kids can often mean very little. While it may reduce overt discrimination (very important!) queer kids still do not get the opportunity to learn about queer history, queer sex (in sex ed), or queer culture. At a time when much of our discussion about queer history often doesn’t extend prior to Stonewall, this effectively means many young queer people come into adulthood having no idea about their own history.

This is what LGBTI History Month aims to address. In the lead up to the launch, all Victorian schools have been sent an education toolkit and set of posters to help develop lesson plans on LGBTI history. The toolkit includes case studies of LGBTI history, interviews with LGBTI people, ideas of ways students and teachers can take action in their schools, and a list of other resources available for teachers and students alike.

The materials include case studies of a broad range of important Australian LGBTI figures. Posters feature the stories of Captain Moonlite, a suspected gay bushranger; Val Eastwood, the “flamboyant and openly lesbian” proprietor of Val’s Coffee Lounge, which was a haven for queers in Melbourne in the 1950s; and John Ware and Christabel Poll, who formed one of Australia’s first modern LGBTI organisations, CAMP — Campaign Against Moral Persecution.

Materials also look at major events and organisations within Australian queer history, documenting the first ever Mardi Gras in Sydney in 1978, alongside the Gay Teachers and Students Group, who from the ’70s onwards worked to end discrimination against LGBTI people in schools. In many ways a precursor  to Safe Schools, Gay Teachers and Students developed the book ‘Young, Gay and Proud’ in 1978, “which was about letting young gay people know that they were not alone and that they should feel good about themselves.”

Chief Executive of Minus18 Micah Scott said LGBTI History Month was designed to teach staff and students that queer history extends well before the modern era of Stonewall and marriage equality:

“LGBTI History Month teaches the community that LGBTI people have been achieving amazing things for a really long time,” Micah said. “It demonstrates that LGBTI people have strength and resilience – a message that’s important now more than ever.”

More than anything Micah sees it as a celebration:

“The purpose of the month is to give a platform to positive representations of LGBTI people. We’ve achieved so much, but sometimes those achievements might not always be visible. LGBTI+ History Month helps to unearth this, and celebrate our culture.”

This is the real value of the initiative. The attacks on the Safe Schools program are part of a long history of conservatives framing the discussion of gender and sexuality around children as being inherently dangerous. Talking about sexuality around students automatically results in queers being labeled paedophiles or arguments that we want to ‘recruit more gays’. LGBTI+ History Month ignores these criticisms, instead encouraging positive discussions in schools about gender, sexuality, and campaigns for liberation.

This is an important step forward. While the curriculum is not particular challenging, and while there is definitely a lot of work to do, in particular around sex education, LGBTI History Month is an important initiative. It is a step away from negative approaches of school programs that focus solely on discrimination, to one that celebrates queer people and our history. It moves ideally from frames of tolerance and acceptance to a frame of full embracement of queer people, culture and history. Organisers have already indicated they intend for this to be an annual event. Let us hope it spreads to the rest of the country.

This article was originally published on SBS News. Click here to view the original. © All rights reserved.

Memorial for Bondi gay hate victims will commemorate those who lost their lives

ICYMI, you can watch episode one of ‘Deep Water’ online now.

4e757b1f-a981-44cc-9ebb-66bd92de27fa_1475714769

Originally published in SBS Sexuality, 6 October 2016

A memorial for the victims of gay hate crimes in the Bondi region has been announced, to remember the gay men who were assaulted – and in many cases murdered – in the late ’70s through to the ’90s. The memorial – to be located in Bondi’s Hunter Sculpture Park – will be developed by the Waverley Council, in conjunction with the NSW-based, LGBTI health organisation ACON.

Bondi was the site of a number of high-profile gay hate crimes, including the cases of John Russell, TV presenter Ross Warren and frenchman Gilles Mattaini. The area around Marks Park in Bondi was a popular beat for gay men, and was a place of regular violence against gay men from the late 70s through to the early 90s. While in 2005 the then Deputy State Coroner Jacqueline Milledge found both Russell and Warren were murdered in hate crimes, all three cases officially still remain ‘unsolved’.

The memorial in Hunter Park – close to Marks Park and the site of the murders – is seen as one step in the healing process for LGBTI communities. ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill explains:

“SBS’s Deep Water content serves as a chilling reminder of a time in our state’s recent history when the LGBTI community was confronted not only with the devastating impact of HIV and AIDS, but also this horrific spate of murders,” Mr Parkhill said.

“The willingness from so many quarters to support the planning, commissioning and construction of a memorial to honour and bring justice to the victims of these events recognises how we far we have come as an inclusive society.”

The memorial is still in the early stages, with ACON and Waverley Council announcing they will soon enter into a community engagement phase. This consultation will allow members of the LGBTI community – as well as victims’ family and friends and local residents – to provide feedback on the purpose and parameters of the memorial. Waverley Mayor Sally Betts said that it was the right thing for the memorial to go ahead, in order to pay respect to the people who lost their lives.

“It’s a long-term project,” Mayor Betts said. “It’s at the very early stages but we are committed. We need to do a lot of preparatory work and ACON intends to raise the money for the artwork.”

The memorial is one part of a broader process within local LGBTI organisations, who, in conjunction with the release of Deep Water, have announced they are “ramping up” efforts to deliver justice for gay hate crimes. ACON has also announced that it is working with the Inner City Legal Centre (ICLC), the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL) and Dowson Turco Lawyers on a broad-ranging response to the crimes.

Alongside the memorial at Bondi, ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill has said there are three key elements to this process.

Firstly, organisations are working with NSW Police on Operation Parrabell – a police operation established in 2013 – which has reopened 88 unsolved murders in the Sydney region to determine if gay hate was a motive. Operation Parrabell is due to close in the coming weeks, and while Parkhill has said they cannot comment on the outcomes of the Operation, organisations “expect to then further work with NSW Police and other agencies to ensure that justice is delivered to the victims and their families.”

In addition to this, ACON is conducting its own investigation into these crimes, based on data available from ACON’s Anti-Violence Project Report Line, as well as other community-based data and information. Parkhill has said that “this is an important process in ensuring that all relevant data – and context circumstances – are taken into account when determining what has actually happened to these men.” ACON is intending to report its findings to community partners.

Finally organisations are working within their own networks and communities to encourage anyone with information relating to these crimes to come forward. Parkhill says he believes there are still people out there who know something about these crimes, and organisations are working hard to encourage people to come forward and assist police with investigations.

These community responses seem essential at a time when NSW police continue to face criticism for their handling of the crimes. While the outcome of Operation Parrabell is yet unknown, an investigation by SBS has revealed a number of ‘blunders’ by the NSW Police in recent years, including the dismissal of a potential gay-hate murder due to a simple spelling mistake. Worryingly, Superintendent Tony Crandell, who is overseeing Operation Parrabell, was not aware of many of these blunders until alerted of them by SBS.

Once again, this highlights the need for communities to be involved in this process, to ensure justice for the victims for murder and violence. It is LGBTI communities and the family members of victims who have kept these murders on the agenda, and announcements yesterday will aim to ensure continued community involvement in the process. This includes LGBTI people being involved in police investigations, and in a process of healing for communities. The Bondi Memorial is an important first step in this process.

This article was originally published on SBS News. Click here to view the original. © All rights reserved.