Book review: The Gentrification of the Mind

For queer communities the 1980s and early 90s were defined almost solely by the HIV/AIDS crisis. The disease rocked gay communities around the world, literally taking hundreds of thousands of lives in its wake.

While the immediate ramifications of the HIV/AIDS crisis are clear, there is also a lot more to it than just the loss of life that occurred. For a burgeoning community that was just finding its feet and its voice, the HIV/AIDS crisis didn’t just destroy human life, it also did a lot to destroy the growing political and social movements of the time.

This is a topic that Sarah Schulman explores in her excellent book The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, which I read over the summer break. Part political treatise, part memoir, Schulman’s book presents a compelling argument that the HIV/AIDS crisis created a process of gentrification within queer communities that continues to have an impact to this day.

Schulman’s thesis starts with a description of physical gentrification. Using important historical analysis that documents the return of people returning to city centres in the 1980s following a range of economic shifts, she argues that the HIV/AIDS crisis opened up swathes of prime real estate (due to the deaths of so many people), allowing for the gentrification of city centres such as those in New York and San Francisco to occur. This was particularly pronounced as it was often the poorer and more sexually adventurous gay men who died during the epidemic, creating space from what was often poorer, gayer, neighbourhoods to be redeveloped.

But Schulman argues that this gentrification process went well beyond physical changes — it was also a process of the gentrification of the mind.

Schulman discusses this thesis in a number of ways, focusing on what she calls the ‘gentrification of creation’ and the ‘gentrification of our literature’, but it is on the gentrification of politics that I’d like to focus briefly. What Schulman argues is that the 1980s saw a significant loss of vision and creativity within queer movements. A radicalised edge was loss with a desire to be banal. Schulman argues that this very process was one caused, at least in large part, by the HIV/AIDS. She argues, for example:

I think it is obvious, though unexplored, that this terrible moment of lost vision is a consequence not only of America’s lost vision but also of the unexplored impact of the AIDS crisis on the gay and lesbian self. Contextualise this with the homogenization of cities where gays and lesbians’ political imagination once thrived. And most importantly, with the relationship between these two events: the unexplored trauma of the AIDS crisis, and the loss of the radical culture of mixed urbanity. Set it all against the backdrop of the Reagan/ Bush years, and we discover how we got here. To a place where homosexuality loses its own transformative potential and strives instead to be banal.

Schulman argues that this gentrification was the result of the very thing that gays were fighting for at the time: increased recognition. HIV/AIDS made it impossible for the general population to ignore gays and lesbians any longer — we were on TV shows and in newspapers every single day. To deal with this the mainstream sought out “representative homosexuals with whom they were comfortable, and integrate them into some realm of public conversation.” Because, as Schulman argues: “if they didn’t, the gay voice in America would be people with AIDS disrupting mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.”

This, Schulman argues is a clear process of gentrification:

This is a classic gentrification event. Authentic gay community leaders, who have been out and negotiating/fighting/uniting/dividing with others for years, the people who have built the formations and institutions of survival, become overlook by the powers that be. They are too unruly, too angry, too radical in their critique of heterosexism, too faggy, too sexual. The dominant culture would have to change in order to accommodate them. And most importantly they are telling the truth about heterosexual cruelty. The dominant culture needed gay people who would pathologize their own.

This gentrification however did not just occur due to external forces, but was internally driven as well. While many queers fought back against this process, for many others HIV/AIDS became a way (not necessarily on purpose) to mainstream queer communities and queer fights.

Part of this was due to a physical reality. Those queers who were more sexually adventurous, and therefore more likely to be sexually radical, were also those who were more likely to die, leaving more conservative or mainstream counterparts to take their positions within the movement.

But HIV/AIDS also had a mainstreaming effect for those who survived. This likely occurred at two levels. First it left many queers stuck putting all of their energy fighting for their lives, making it far more difficult to be radical and imaginative when it comes to queer liberation. We were forced to appeal to Government forces for medical help, making it far more difficult to be able demand the overthrow of these very institutions. More importantly the HIV/AIDS created increased space for people to be able to attack the very sexual freedom that was the backbone of much of the queer liberation movement. It became easy to blame sexual liberation, and in turn sexually free people for the crisis (strangely ignoring the role of Government, for example), creating a backlash against these movements and sexual practices. Sexual liberation had not just failed, according to this thesis, it had created an epidemic that almost wiped out an entire community. It was therefore something queers must reject.

This, I believe, is an extremely compelling thesis and does a lot to explain how queer movements and communities have changed and developed since the HIV/AIDS crisis. Through the framing of gentrification Schulman provides a unique perspective on the HIV/AIDS crisis and its long term impacts. She does so through a moving narrative that is full not just of political insight, but of her own grief and attempts to deal with what occurred.

For anyone interested in the HIV/AIDS crisis and its long term impacts this is very well worth the read. 

On how the AIDS crisis of the 80s united the queer community

A look at how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.

Originally published in SBS Sexuality, 2 February 2017. 

It was a decade defined by a disease. 

First reported in the United States in 1981, and then in Australia in 1982, by the end of the 1980s AIDS had become a global epidemic, killing close to 90,000 people in the US alone. 

For the queer community – and gay men in particular – this period was especially difficult, with queer hotspots like San Francisco, New York, Berlin and Sydney being decimated as tens-of-thousands of people died within the space of years, making the ’80s one of the toughest periods in queer history. For a community that was just gaining its voice, AIDS pummelled through like a wrecking ball. But the period also marks one of strength and resilience that continues to this day. 

The period prior to the AIDS epidemic was crowned by a new sense of self-confidence for queer people within our political, personal, and sexual lives. In many ways AIDS slammed on the breaks. With the infection of five gay men in Los Angeles being the first reports of the disease, AIDS was initially labelled a ‘gay cancer’ or ‘gay plague’, or later in official terminology Gay-Related Immunodeficiency (GRID). In turn, AIDS was capitalised on as a way to halt the sexual revolution of the 1970s, turning what was once a liberating force into a tool to be used against us.

As Jennifer Power explains: 

“HIV/AIDS was depicted as a disease of immorality and deviance. Conservative media painted a picture of gay men as irresponsible and dangerous, guilty not only of their misdirected sexual predilections but of their potential to infect and kill ‘normal’ Australians.” 

After 15 years of social progress, AIDS was used as a way to turn back the clock. It was soon suggested that gay and lesbian events be banned, that there be compulsory HIV testing for all gay men and that people living with HIV/AIDS be quarantined.

Meanwhile, public violence towards homosexuals spiked, with queer bashings and murders becoming increasingly common. Many Governments did little to halt the trend, instead perpetuating this discrimination. The Ronald Reagan Administration, for example, largely ignored the epidemic, delaying progress on containment and drug development and at one point even joking about the deaths of gay men. 

Yet, at the same time, the AIDS crisis also represented something else: a time in which queer people stood up once again to fight for our lives. 

This fighting spirit was a global phenomenon, but was led in many ways in the epicentre of the disease, the United States. In 1987, a group of queers met together in New York to form ACT UP, a direct action organisation advocating for people living with HIV and AIDS. 

ACT UP took AIDS action to the streets, protesting at Wall Street, Cosmopolitan Magazine (following the publishing of an article with significant misinformation about the disease) and even the US Post Office. In probably its most successful action activists shut down the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for an entire day, demanding greater access to experimental drugs that were being delayed by the Agency.

ACT UP didn’t just use direct action for the sake of it. It chose its targets very strategically and, like other AIDS organisations, was based on a strong ethic of putting the community first. With a limited official response to the disease, gays, lesbians and other HIV/AIDS-positive people took action into their own hands. People researched and became experts on the disease and potential treatments, using this as a tool for campaigning. Activists created community-based solutions, including prevention campaigns and ‘buyers clubs’; collectives of people who would, often illegally, pool their resources to import experimental drugs. These clubs represented a form of community-based medical intervention, with HIV/AIDS-positive people bypassing official structures that were to leave them to die.

When they were diagnosed, HIV/AIDS was seen as a death sentence: the Grim Reaper. But medical science eventually found ways to hold AIDS back. Long-term survivors, some now feeling a survivor’s guilt, recall preparing to die – and remember the many who did.

In Australia, the story was similar, although slightly different. With Labor in power, Australia had a more progressive approach to the disease, with the Government working more actively to contain the spread of HIV/AIDS and to find a treatment. However, this community-focused approach was still required, with organisations such as ACON and the Australia Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) taking a lead within this Government response to ensure community needs were met. Branches of ACT UP also sprung up around the country late in the decade, with Australian queers organising their own Buyers Clubs, and taking targeted action toward the Australia Drug Evaluation Committee, which was responsible for the distribution of drugs at the time.

The action of activists in the US finally put HIV/AIDS on the national agenda, resulting in the passing of the Ryan White Health Care, which provided funding for low-income and disadvantage people living with the disease. The 1990s saw the development of new drugs to treat HIV, with the highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) becoming a new standard that allowed people to live with HIV with an increasingly lower threat that it would lead to the development of AIDS. This combination of drugs, developed in part due to the knowledge and activism of AIDS activism, remains the most common treatment today. HAART has effectively stopped the progression of AIDS in developed countries to the point where in 2016 Australian medical professionals declared AIDS to no longer be a public health issue.

In Australia, activism from gay and lesbian organisations made our country’s response one of the most effective around the world. The ‘Australia model’ – considered extremely egalitarian in its approach – contained the spread of the HIV/AIDS so effectively compared to other countries that is was lauded by the UN as a best practice way of dealing with the epidemic.

Many also argue the benefits of AIDS activism go well beyond these medical outcomes. Jennifer Power argued the epidemic gave gays and lesbians “unprecedented opportunities” to “construct public knowledge about homosexuality”.

She argues:

“Before this, media and political debate on homosexuality in Australia had been dominated by criminologists, psychiatrists or the church. Gay men and lesbians were spoken ‘about’ but rarely spoken ‘to’.

“In response to HIV/AIDS, gay activists built a legitimate public profile for the gay community, allowing gay men and lesbians, as well as people living with HIV/AIDS, a human face and encouraging a more sympathetic attitude toward HIV/AIDS.”

In many ways the legacy of the 80s is mixed. While much of the sexual conservatism preached during the AIDS crisis has become ingrained within queer consciousness, the fighting spirit of the 80s does live on.

This is best represented by the recent development of Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) – a medically proven preventative treatment for HIV – which has once again faced obstruction from global Governments. In response, many queers have acted as they did during the peak of the crisis, forming community organisations and collectives that have built knowledge about the drug, advocated for law reform, and shared information about how people can legally access the drug at affordable rates. This has all been community-run, with queers taking responsibility where Government Agencies have often fallen down.

Despite this progress, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still a major issue. While doctors have declared the ‘end of AIDS’ – at least in Australia – HIV infection rates remaining stubbornly stable. Globally, the AIDS epidemic has moved from gay centres to attention being focused on developing countries. While AIDS related deaths have fallen a massive 45% since 2005, with people in particular having greater access to treatment, global HIV infection rates remain steady. With over 36 million people currently living with HIV/AIDS, there is still a lot to do.

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

Celebrating David Bowie: the closest thing to the concert I’ll never get to see

When David Bowie died last year one of the most devastating parts for me was the final realisation I would never get to see him perform live. This weekend I got the attend the closest thing possible to real deal.

I was first introduced to Bowie in 2005. Just a year earlier he had been traveling the world on what would be his last ever tour, abruptly halted when he had a heart attack on stage in Germany in June 2004.

After I was introduced to Bowie I became desperate to see him live. He was known for his creativity on stage, and his engrossing, entertaining presence. It was something I really wanted to see. For years I waited with virtually no hope. After his hear attack he had stopped making music and rarely made public performances. It looked liked he’d basically retired. When he surprisingly released The Next Day in 2013, and Blackstar in 2016, I was given new hope. Rumours swirled about a tour and I kept a close eye hoping for an announcement any time soon. From what I understand there were talks of a tour in the making. Then, with his death, the opportunity was gone forever.

This weekend however I managed to get as close as I could to a Bowie concert by going to ‘Celebrating David Bowie’ at the Sydney Opera House. The concert was part of a world tour led by musicians from Bowie’s band. Taking in London, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and finally Sydney, this an epic performance that represented the best celebration of the man possible.

Holly Palmer Performing Lady Grinning Soul

In many ways the show was built off the depth of local talent available. Sarah Blasko performed an epic and haunting version of Life of Mars, Chris Cheney rocked out to Rebel Rebel, and Bernard Fanning was amazing on both Space Oddity and the closing song of the show, Under Pressure.

More than anyone however two stars stood out. Paul Dempsey’s version of The Man Who Sold The World was only upstaged by his rendition of Suffragette City, that had everyone up in the tight concert hall out of their seats dancing. The surprise packet was Angelo Moore from the band Fishbone. In performing Ashes to Ashes and Moonage Daydream Moore brought a level of quirkiness, excitement, flair and energy, that was exactly what was needed for a Bowie tribute. More than anyone Moore sounded like Bowie as well, making it feel as though for a brief moment that he was right there on stage. 

However more than the local talent it was Bowie’s band that stood out for me. The charge was led by Mike Garson — Bowie’s pianist — who both MC’d the show, and performed his groundbreaking piano solo from Aladdin Sane without fault. Garson regularly intervened to showcase his skills on the piano in a way I think Bowie would have been proud. Earl Slick, Bowie’s guitarist throughout much of his work presented himself as a cliched rock star, but one who, on tracks like Ziggy Stardust managed to bring the concert to life.

It was not just the band members, but the singers as well. Unfortunately the amazing Gail Ann Dorsey was not available due to illness, but she was replaced effortlessly by Gabby Moreno, whose version of Wild is the Wind was as close as you could get to one of Bowie’s favourite songs to sing live. A stunning song Moreno brought Wild is the Wind to life, leaving the concert hall dead silent in her powerful rendition. My favourite however was Holly Palmer. Palmer started the show in style with her performance of a song that Bowie never performed live, Lady Grinning Show. A tough song to sing Palmer pulled this classic off without fault. But in my mind she stole the show in the first song of the encore when she was joined by Gerry Leonard to perform Loving the Alien. A perfect song to celebrate the legend, Leonard and Palmer played with the arrangement to create a song that was very different to the way Bowie performed it himself. In doing so they didn’t just create a beautifully haunting rendition, but they highlighted a ‘love for the alien’ by playing with his music in the very way Bowie would have done himself. 

This was what was so special about the concert for me. This was a concert led by his band — the people who had performed and collaborated with Bowie, who knew him, and knew what sort of concert he liked to performed. I felt they brought that spirit into the show. They played with arrangements, experimented and toyed with the songs, exactly as Bowie used to do one stage. They performed and entertained, just as Bowie was known to do. Most of all they produced an epic three and a half hours, not much different to the epic concerts Bowie used to give.

The only thing that was missing was Bowie himself. And while that may seem obvious it was actually an outstanding achievement. This was not some hack-job of artists who really like David Bowie, but had no real connection to him, and so didn’t quite know what they were doing. This was the real thing — or at least as close as possible as you can get to the real thing. They created a show that could have easily been a concert that Bowie himself would have put on. And as someone who always wanted, but never got the opportunity to see David Bowie live, for that I will always be grateful.

Bride and Prejudice: Why does reality TV continue to disappoint?

Following five couples whose families stand in the way of their dream weddings, this conflict-obsessed drama deals with subject matter that’s ripe and relevant, which makes its failure all the more depressing.

Originally published in The Guardian, 30th January, 2017.

It seemed the limits had been reached for reality TV last year when Nine released The Briefcase – a TV show widely condemned as “exploitative” and “poverty porn”. When Channel Seven announced the release of Bride and Prejudice: The Forbidden Weddings, I hoped they’d attempted to do something different with the genre. Unfortunately I’ve been disappointed yet again.

Bride and Prejudice follows five couples as they organise their dream weddings. There is, however, one thing standing in their way: their families.

In episode one we are introduced to three of the five pairings: Donny and Marina, Courtney and Brad, and Grant and Chris. Marina’s mum, who is Russian, does not want her daughter to marry someone with Donny’s cultural background. Brad’s mother thinks he is marrying too young. Chris’s parents, who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, believe his homosexuality is a sin. The show follows its stars from the moments of engagement until their big days, asking all along whether their parents will give up their prejudices to support their children’s happiness.

Read the full article here.

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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.