What to do if it’s worse the Workchoices

Originally published in New Matilda on 2 June 2011 (http://newmatilda.com/2011/06/02/what-do-if-its-worse-workchoices).

As Barry O’Farrell prepares to get stuck into the entitlements of public sector workers in NSW, what lessons can be gleaned from the recent surge in union action in the US, asks Simon Copland

This February, tens of thousands of union activists took to the streets of Madison, Wisconsin to protest a budget bill proposed by Republican Governor Scott Walker.

Walker argued his budget was essential to reduce the state’s deficit. Controversial measures included capping wage increases, requiring State employees to contribute 5.8 per cent of their salaries to cover pension costs and putting another 12.6 per cent towards health care premiums.

The bill was also set to weaken worker’s rights — essentially eliminating collective bargaining rights for State employees. On top of the cap on wages increase, other measures include requiring collective bargaining units — unions — to take annual votes to maintain certification. Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and contracts for state employees would be limited to one year, with wages frozen until the new contract is settled.

Sound familiar? In NSW, Barry O’Farrell has tabled legislation which will limit the rights of public sector workers in ways that Paul Howes described as “worse than WorkChoices”. It looks likely that the union movement in NSW will mobilise against O’Farrell’s new industrial relations laws with talk of industrial actions. Are there lessons to be learned from the Wisconsin experience?

Wisconsin’s legislature is dominated by Republicans and initial forecasts predicted that the protests would be a blip in the history of the state. Workers would take to the street, organise a couple of protests, and ultimately yield once the bill was passed. How wrong these predictions were. Walker’s budget proposals were met with nation-wide protests.

The first protest led to more actions. Soon, activists were taking to the streets daily, climaxing in massive rallies that attracted over 100,000 activists at the end of February and in the beginning of March. In a dramatic escalation, all Democratic Senators from Wisconsin left the state in an attempt to deny the chamber a quorum to vote on the bill. It was this move that brought the union fight to a national stage, setting off a national debate and similar protests around the country.

Similar protests erupted in New Hampshire, Ohio, Michigan, Maine, Kansas, Oklahoma, Idaho and Indiana. The energy of the Wisconsin movement spread around the country, bringing with it activists who were willing to take to the streets to defeat a string of anti-union bills.

The Wisconsin Republicans were forced to use a technicality to bypass the quorum requirements and the bill was eventually passed. In spite of this, the movement is continuing to grow.

The unions have been using two methods to continue to campaign against the attacks on workers. First, they have taken the fight to the ballot box. With the ability to recall elected members in Wisconsin and Michigan and legislation in Ohio, unionists are running massive recall drives. Essentially these are petitions which force re-election of a sitting member, or take a piece of legislation back to the ballot box. In Wisconsin, they have successfully forced the re-election of six Republican Senators (a net gain of three seats is required to take back the House).

In Michigan, a petition-drive has been initiated to force the re-election of Republican Governor Rick Snyder. In Ohio, unionists look certain to force legislation restricting collective bargaining rights to a vote later in the year.

Second, unionists are campaigning on the ground for a growth in union membership and activity in the workplace, as well as influence in the lead up to the 2012 presidential and congressional elections. After years of falling union membership and declining union power, one of the biggest unions in the US, the Service Employees International Union, has dedicated significant resources to building a campaign on the back of the momentum built in Wisconsin. The campaign, Fight for a Fair Economy, is focused on key economic issues, raising the profile of the union movement and making an argument for increased union involvement in the American political system.

The campaign is using upcoming national flash points, such as corporate shareholder meetings, the presidential debates and the Party Conventions to raise the profile of the movement.

The strategy has a lot in common with the Your Rights at Work campaign mounted by Australian unions in response to WorkChoices. Your Rights At Work achieved the defeat of both the Howard government and WorkChoices. But the campaign has not driven many long-term benefits for the Australian union movement. Since the passage of the Fair Work Bill, union membership has again declined, although a few unions are bucking the trend. Further industrial relations reform is nowhere to be seen on the political agenda and O’Farrell’s mooted changes show how easily ground can be lost.

Australian unions can build on the American experience. Although the American movement is focusing heavily on the election of new Democrats to defeat anti-union bills, they are also mounting an on-the-ground campaign to win people over to the importance of unionism itself. Using the momentum of the Wisconsin protests, they have initiated a national discussion on key economic issues and the value of unions in society.

Unions in the United States may have few other options when it comes to asserting their agenda — there is not as strong an institutional alignment between the union movement and Democrats as there is between unions and the ALP in Australia. But doing what is necessary can also work in the interests of the movement. Australians unions can learn from this.

By initiating a broader discussion about broader economic issues and the role of unionism, American activists are acknowledging that they cannot rely only on politicians to get what they want. They must win the American people first. It is about time we had a real discussion about the value of unions in our society, one that is not just focused on specific policies and laws, but rather on the importance of unionism itself.

Obama goes the chop

Originally published in New Matilda on 14 April 2011. (http://newmatilda.com/2011/04/14/obama-goes-chop)

Obama the big spender has changed tack on his deficit reduction plans and has negotiated big cuts to pass his budget. It’s a risky strategy, writes Simon Copland

The first version of US President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget — announced way back in February 2010 — involved a $26 billion spending increase. Heavy investment would be poured into healthcare, high-speed rail, the environment and energy just to name a few.

As the negotiations came to a close however, and an agreement was reached last week, Obama was publicly celebrating a cut in spending over the rest of the fiscal year of $38.5 billion. The result was necessary, Obama claimed, as “beginning to live within our means is the only way to protect the investments that will help America compete for new jobs.”

This turnaround — from big spending to big cuts — leaves Obama with a fiscal policy debate that is being fought on Republican terms. And worse, he is fighting for cuts that could have negative impacts on the future of the American economy.

In his time in the White House, Obama has touted government investment as the key to the future economic success of the United States and as a solution to the global financial crisis. Concern for debt and deficit has been paramount since his original campaign, but Obama has fought to increase government spending in previous budgets and with his stimulus package.

This approach, Obama and many economists argue, allowed the United States to avoid the worst possible effects of the economic downturn and has saved hundreds of thousands of jobs over the last two years. This is also what many argue is still required to ensure a double-dip recession.

Recently, however, Obama has muddled this budgetary approach. He continued to campaign on government investment in the lead up to the 2010 midterm elections — but he also established the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which late in 2010 recommended policies such as a $200 billion reduction in discretionary spending (including cutting the federal workforce by 10 per cent), tax increases and an overhaul of social security programs. Obama has now adopted some, but not all, of the Commission’s policies as part of his future budget plan.

Following this, in the lame duck 2010 Congress session, Obama negotiated a tax deal with Republican leaders that saw the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy — which have a significant impact on the deficit. Hitherto the expiration of these tax cuts had been a major plank in Obama’s plan to reduce the deficit.

On Wednesday, Obama went back to this plan in his announcement of a revised deficit reduction strategy — which included proposals to increase taxes for the rich and to implement $770 billion worth of spending cuts by 2023.

Obama stayed out of the limelight during the negotiations, allowing Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to make the public pitch. His attack focus was proposals put forward by the Republican congressional leadership — and in particular the policy riders designed to end funding to Planned Parenthood and to restrict the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to regulate greenhouse gasses.

This aggressive strategy is a politically viable way to approach a budgetary fight. By campaigning against the cuts Republicans were proposing instead of focusing on their own proposals, Democrats were able to paint a picture of an extreme opposition all set to eliminate women’s rights and stall climate action. Democrats could then claim that through skilful negotiations they had been able to stop Republicans from implementing this extreme agenda. At the same time they could campaign about the effects of cuts and benefits of programs in their local communities.

This strategy becomes more difficult to implement now that Obama has turned to large spending cuts himself.

Through becoming an advocate for spending cuts, Obama opens up many potential lines of attack: “If cutting spending is so important, why didn’t he do it earlier?” Voters may well wonder why cutting spending was not in his original 2011 budget proposal. They may ask whether this proves the Republicans were right all along. Did Obama take the country down two years of irresponsible fiscal policy that actually harmed the economy instead of helped it?

It won’t be easy to be the president who is cutting spending programs he announced only recently. Compounding the difficulties, Obama now faces a Republican opposition who are far fiercer than he is when it comes to cutting spending. If Obama’s mooted budget cuts are big, the Republicans have much bigger slices in mind. In a budgetproposal released recently, Republican Paul Ryan called for dramatic cuts in health spending, including the abolition of Medicare in favour of private insurance vouchers. Ryan is showing that if cuts in spending are what the American people want, it is the Republicans who really know how to administer them.

If his spending cuts end up harming the economy, Obama will wind up with egg on his face. With the American economy still extremely fragile, cuts the size Obama and Republicans negotiated may well have a negative impact and cause big job losses. The buck will stop with the sitting president in the mind of the American public, worrying given the looming 2012 election.

Polling shows that Americans are supportive of the Democrats’ budget strategy so far. Still, Obama must be careful when he claims $38.5 billion in spending cuts as a victory. If he continues down the path he is following, Obama risks shifting the debate back to a Republican base, leaving open the question “why have a phony budget cutter in the White House, when you can have a real one?”

Fighting in a man’s sport

Originally published in FUSE Magazine, February 2011

Bianca Elmir Is Fighting in a Man’s Sport. Kickboxing isn’t a sport one often associates with women and 2012 will be the first year women are allowed to compete in it the Olympics. Yet, one Canberran hasn’t been deterred by the male dominance of the game.

Bianca Elmir has been kickboxing for ten years, boxing for two years and was recently crowned the Oceania boxing champion. With this title under her belt, she now has her sights set on London. As she heads into the next phase of her career, Simon Copland had a chat with this rising Canberran star.

What is it about kickboxing that draws you to the sport? 

I think there are many layers to my attraction to boxing. Originally it was about having a channel to put my energy into. My previous kickboxing coach tells a story of how I entered the gym and announced that my soccer coach thinks that I should choose a sport where I am allowed
to hit people!

Since then it has become a lifestyle for me — I’ve made lots of friends at my gym and it’s become my little hub. I now see my training and sport as an art form — it is like other martial arts, a dance where every intricate move put together at the right time can produce something beautiful.

What’s it like being a woman in such a male dominated sport? 

Boxing has been described to me as ‘leather and lace’ — which for me is exciting! I like pushing social norms, so the fact that it’s so “out there” is cool!

However, there are some drawbacks with being in such a small minority. For instance, it’s really hard to find matches in Australia, especially at my weight division. There are a lot of promoters who will hesitate to put you on their shows because they think that it won’t bring the crowds even if it’s in your own town. And as a woman you are less likely to be paid to fight even if you are as good as or better than your male counterparts.

Of course many people still have the attitude the ring is not a place for females. Being the only female in my gym, you have to have thick skin and put up with some pretty awful jokes, but I like that larrikin environment.

You recently became the Oceania champion and are now looking towards the Olympics — what’s it going to take to get you there? 

Winning the Oceania championship was a real turning point in my career. It was my first international competition to be in and win. The fight also proved to me that I had the ability to aim further and I haven’t looked back since.

I think being able to compete in the Olympics is the ultimate. Of course it’s about patriotism but beyond that it is about setting high goals and reaching them. The Olympics is one high goal! This will be the very first time that Women’s boxing will feature in the Olympics too so that also makes it really exciting.

I am really lucky to be living in Canberra because I have found so much support here from the community, including people at my workplace who put up with a lot. In terms of getting support so that I can train properly and look after my body, Crust Pizza have backed me a hundred per cent and I have had really good management from Martin Hodgeson — all these elements, including hard work, I believe will get me to the Olympics.

I hope that I can get a medal for Australia.

Punch him in the ring

Originally published in FUSE, February 2011. 

The scene is set. A group of young, sweaty, beaten men, stand in a dark, damp basement. The sound of dripping water pulsates through air. Brad Pitt addresses the crowd. “The first rule of fight club”, he says “is that no one talks about fight club”. “The second rule of fight club is that no one talks about fight club”.

As Pitt concludes, the men begin to fight. Without any rules of engagement, the battle sees men beat each other to a bloody pulp with their bare hands. It doesn’t matter how far you go, as long as you don’t talk about it when you get home.

Around the world, groups of young and old men are living up to the Fight Club spirit. Meeting in gyms, halls and basements, gay men are coming together to engage in the ancient art of boxing.

Whilst these clubs are not secret (although some people might not tell people they participate) and they’re no run Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, they are, just like in Fight Club, a place where men can punch through their personal and societal barriers.

This is the world of gay boxing. We asked Andrew Georigiou, a gay bloke who boxes in Sydney, if he would give us an insight into what it is that draws him, and many other gay guys into boxing.

“I love the empowerment. There is nothing like the feeling of boxing…it’s a constant sweat-fest. What’s not to love about guys getting sweaty together?”

Andrew is the brains and brawn behind ‘Punch Him in the Ring’ – a gay boxing club run in Sydney, designed to teach men about traditional boxing techniques. About ten men join the group each week, with a professional trainer teaching skills such as footwork, and the correct way to throw, block and duck punches.

“Don’t be mistaken; this is no “boxercise” class that you’ll see at your local gym. When these guys enter the ring, they aren’t holding back,” says Andrew.

This isn’t the kind of sport that most people would associate with gay men – a rough and brutal game – yet, these and many other men don’t actually fit that ‘gay men are all effeminate and soft’ stereotype.

“We get all sorts of gay guys who want to box – camp, butch, twink, femme and masculine men. It becomes a place where everyone can be themselves, make new friends and learn a sensational sport and good fighting skills,” says Andrew.

It is the fight against discrimination, bullying and stereotyping that leads many guys to join these clubs. Boxing has a long history of homophobic discrimination. In 2002, Mike Tyson famously yelled at a reporter, “I’ll fuck you till you love me, faggot!”, making it clear that he didn’t think gay men were welcome in the boxing ring.

Unfortunately the discrimination isn’t limited to the taunts of Tyson. Gay men have always been the subject of teasing about the inability to fight, both in and outside the ring. The idea of a gay fighter is foreign in mainstream society.

It is the ability to break free from homophobia and stereotypes that makes boxing appealing to Andrew Georigiou.

“I was frustrated to read about victims of homophobic violence, unprovoked and random assaults. I made a decision to empower myself and others,” Andrew says.

These clubs are about empowerment; boxing provides a social, physical and political outlet for a growing number of gay men. It is an opportunity for men to fight back, not just against homophobic attacks, but also the discrimination and stereotyping that says a gay man can’t fight. Most of all however, boxing provides men win an opportunity to participate in a great sport, to get fit and to have a lot of fun.

2010 – A year in review

Originally published in FUSE, December 2010

It is the end of another year. With a Federal Election, growing momentum from the queer movement and political and legal changes around the world, 2010 has been momentous. As the year comes to the end, it is worth looking back on some of the major events, victories, losses and changes of 2010.

So, here it goes; a brief summary of the queer year of 2010.

Australia

2010 was a unique year in Australian political history.

With a Federal Election in August, 2010 brought with it dramatic changes to the shape of Australian politics. In late 2009 Tony Abbott was elected as the leader of the opposition in a somewhat unprecedented coup. That was until June, when Julia Gillard swiftly knifed Kevin Rudd for the leadership of the ALP. Three weeks later, Gillard called the Federal Election. These dramatic changes brought with them a dramatic result, as Australians elected the second hung parliament in our history – leading to the ALP forming a minority Government.

This election was also historic for the efforts of many in the queer movement, in particular those working for marriage equality. The 2010 federal election saw queer activists mobilise around marriage equality in a targeted and effective manner. In particular, Marriage Equality Australia targeted the inner city seats such as those held by ALP members Anthony Albanese, Tanya Plibersek and Lindsay Tanner in order to get marriage equality onto the national agenda. This saw the queer activists mobilise within friendly areas to demand change; something which added to the momentum around the country of those demanding change.
There were also two other elections in Australia this year. In South Australia, the Labor Government was returned with a reduced majority. In Tasmania, the ALP was also re-elected, but only with the support of the Greens, who took two cabinet positions.

2010 also brought some significant institutional changes within Australia.

In March the New South Wales Government set an international precedent by officially recognising Norrie May-Welby as neither male nor female. The success was short lived however; as May-Welby was forced to take the case to Human Rights Commissioner after the decision was revoked by the registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. There has yet to be a resolution to May-Welby’s challenge.

Concurrently, the chief defence force of Australia ordered that the ban on transgender people serving in the defence force be lifted.

On the 29th of September, Tasmania passed a bill recognising all legal same-sex marriages performed outside Tasmania.

Issues around coming out made it into the headlines in the middle of 2010 as two major stories stirred debate around the difficulties queer people face when coming out. It all began when AFL player Jason Akermanis wrote a newspaper column arguing that any gay players should refrain from coming out as the league wasn’t ready for it. This was followed a few days later by the public outing of NSW transport minister David Campbell, when Seven News showed footage of him leaving a gay sex club.

Of course, on top of all of this activity there were the many pride events, the Mardis Gras and the regular ACT SpringOut Event. These events, along with many others around the country continued to bring people from all parts of the Australian community together to celebrate and take pride in the diversity and strength of the ‘queer community’.

International

There have been many significant political and community based changes around the world in 2010.

Both the UK and US saw significant changes in 2010 as elections took their countries back to the right. In the UK, elections in May brought a Coalition comprising of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to power.

In November, Republicans took control of the US House of Representatives and gained extra seats in the Senate to create a significantly different new political climate for the next two years.

There have also been significant changes on many legal fronts for queer people. The most important of these has been the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Fiji. This move brings the number of countries where homosexuality is illegal down to 79.

On the marriage front, Portugal, Argentina, Mexico City and Iceland all passed same sex marriage legislation. Iceland was particularly momentous as the countries Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, became one of the first to utilise the legislation marrying her partner Jónína Leósdóttir.

Whilst it technically didn’t happen in 2010, Pakistan made headlines early in the year by legally recognising hijra as an official third gender. This occurred after a supreme court challenge was upheld, making Pakistan one of only a few nations to recognise more than two genders.

In the US, two major court cases saw momentum build around Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and marriage equality. In September a judge ordered that DADT was unconstitutional. Whilst this has yet to be acted on, it has brought with it significant momentum that could easily result in the overturning of the policy. Almost simultaneously, a judge in California declared that proposition 8, the legislation that made same-sex marriage illegal in the United States was unconstitutional. This is a move that could result in the overturning of all same-sex marriage bans in the United States.

These positive results however, were still unfortunately matched by some serious negative issues.

The issue of queer mental health was also brought to attention in the United States after the suicide of Tyler Clementi after two of his roommates streamed footage of him having sex with another man on the Internet. This was the most high profile of a string of suicides from young people who had been bullied in one way or another. Following it, columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry launched the “It Gets Better Project”; a YouTube channel designed to help young queer people get through difficult times.

In Malawi two men were arrested after they held an engagement ceremony in December. After a well publicised trial, which was strongly condemned around the world, the men were eventually sentenced to 14 years imprisonment with hard labour.

2011

So, there it is – a brief story of the queer year of 2010. Whilst I’ve missed plenty of activity that’s happening around the world I hope this story paints a picture of a movement that is growing stronger, but still has lots to do.

I must acknowledge that we cannot look at these changes in isolation. Changes to legislation or advances in debate are only useful if they are met with other changes around the world. For example, there’s no point to having marriage equality, when our queer friends in Uganda face the death penalty for being out, while our trans* friends lack access to appropriate healthcare and other services because their government doesn’t recognise their gender, while kids in schools all across the world are bullied for not living up to sex/gender stereotypes. As we look back at these victories therefore, let’s remember that issues such as marriage equality are only one part of the significant changes needed in our society to create a fair and more just world.

What to expect in 2011? Who knows, but as the queer movement gets stronger, more changes to our society can only follow in the years to come.

Queer mental health

Originally published in FUSE, November 2010

On the 22nd of September, Tyler Clementi, a young man studying music at Rutgers University, walked up to the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey and then threw himself to his death. He did so only days after two of his roommates’ streamed footage of him having sex with another man live on the internet.

This tragic loss was just one of many high profile incidents over recent years. With it, the issues of queer bullying, mental health issues for queer people and the extremely high rate of suicide for queer people has once again been highlighted as issues needing urgent attention.

Growing up as a young queer man it very quickly became clear that depression was simply part of life for many queer people. For me, it began largely after I came-out as the realisation that I was living in a world where some did not accept me became a reality. With it came an immense feeling of sadness that most of the time I did not understand.

However, I was one of the lucky ones. My family was nothing but supportive and overall my friends were great too. Many people I knew however were not so lucky. Some had family that rejected them outright, others had friends who bullied them; many suffered from both. For many this lead to severe depression; a sense and feeling of being alone and isolated from a world that didn’t accept you. For some this escalated into attempted suicide (I am lucky to have never known someone who has committed suicide).

The statistics around queer mental health issues are stark. A research scoping paper commissioned by the national depression initiative, Beyond Blue, in December 2008 found that same-sex attracted people, in particular women, are the most susceptible group to depression and suicide in our community. According to the study, in any twelve month period, approximately 42% of queer people suffer from some form of mental illness (this includes affective disorders, anxiety and substance abuse), compared to fewer than 20% of heterosexual-identifying people.

The realities are the worst for young people. According to the paper, some studies show that more than 50% of young queer people have suffered from severe anxiety or depression, with approximately 42% of young queer people attempting suicide at some point in their life. The study found that young gay men were 3.7 times more like to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts; a figure that increases for same-sex attracted women and even more for bisexual people.*

Yet, even with such strong statistics, and despite increasing attention being put onto mental health issues, queer mental health has often been forgotten as an issue needing attention. Whilst many have spent decades putting huge amounts of work providing support services and running campaigns to end discrimination, funding has continued to be short and no national organisation has put any major resources into addressing the problem.

There are even reports that Beyond Blue, Australia’s largest mental health organisation has repeatedly ignored the queer mental health crisis. After re-releasing its issues paper ‘Mental Health, Depression and Anxiety in Same-Sex Attracted People’ in June 2009 (after initially releasing the report in January 2008) criticism began to flow that the organisation wasn’t doing anything to address the problem. In June 2009, queer activist Rob Mitchell argued that Beyond Blue had only released their initial report after significant pressure from queer activists and even after releasing the report they continued to refuse to put money into addressing the problem.

Even now, neither Beyond Blue, nor any other major mental health organisation, has any major projects or campaigns addressing this issue. Whilst small scale work continues from committed people across the country, there is a lack of resources to aid any form of national campaign. Whether these organisations will conduct these campaigns in the future is yet to be seen.

There are clear reasons why some queer people suffer from mental health issues more than their straight counterparts. Evidence shows that there are clear and obvious links between social stigmatisation, discrimination and isolation and mental health problems. Whilst official discrimination is now limited in Australia, there is still a high level of low-level queerphobia in the country; something that has a clear effect on many queer people.

What is unclear however is why, given the serious nature of queer mental health problems, the issue has continued to be ignored. Whilst one could easily say that it is a case of queerphobia from mental health organisations and those who fund them, there is not clear evidence that this is the case (although it much be considered a factor). It is possible that the most prominent reason for the lack of action on this issue is that tackling queer mental health issues requires a lot more work than awareness raising and providing easily accessible treatment options. Tackling queer mental health problems requires tackling the high levels of low-level queerphobia that exists in our society, particularly that targeted at young people. Possibly more than any other mental health issue, queer mental health problems require an approach that is focused on preventative health – it is not until we tackle discrimination that we are going to be able to solve the queer mental health crisis.

This has been a problem for the mental health lobby for a number of years. In the initial stages of what is becoming the mental health revolution, campaigns and funding have been focused on awareness raising, service delivery and treatment. This unfortunately forgets that a large percentage of mental health problems are preventable with the right proactive measures. In some cases this means giving people access to services such as youth groups where they are able to discuss issues in their lives, whilst for others it means tackling some of the serious social issues that still dominate our society. In cases such as queer mental health, this means tackling queerphobia within our society and particularly within our schools. This is a difficult task. Anti-discrimination campaigns require devotion to longer term change, rather than finding short term solutions. Campaigns such as this would be hard to measure and somewhat difficult to implement. The long term solutions however, would see the results we so desperately need.

However, the unfortunate reality is that there is a queer mental health crisis; a crisis that is predominately caused by the way our society operates. Tackling this crisis therefore does not just mean investing in treatment programs, but rather preventative programs aimed at ending discrimination and social stigmatisation.

If we don’t begin to tackle this problem we will continue to be shocked and saddened by deaths such as Tyler Clementi’s. I know I don’t want to live in a society where anybody feels as though they have to do what Clementi did, but I am sure that until we tackle the queer mental health crisis these sorts of stories will continue.

* Note: The Beyond Blue study was based on a literature review. This meant that some statistics were unavailable due to a lack of research and not all statistics presented are from Australia. The study can be found at: http://www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=4.1255

Election 2010: Where to from here?

Originally published in FUSE, October 2010

The 2010 federal election campaign could be summarised by one key criticism; it was boring.

The stage managed campaigns focusing on style over substance (or at least that’s how the media reported it) drew criticism from all quarters. Politics was seen to have hit its shallowest point. At one point former Liberal leader John Hewson stated that the contest was like the South Park episode, where there was a choice of ‘picking between a douche and a turd’.

It is no wonder then that the result ending up being one of the closest in Australian history. For the first time since the Second World War, Australia ended up with a hung parliament.

With the ALP on 72 seats, the Coalition on 73 (including a WA National) and 5 cross benchers (1 Green and 4 independents); the post election period saw not only intense negotiations to see who would form the next Australian government, but also intense about the nature of Australian politics. After 17 days the ALP was able to form Government with the support of four of the five cross benchers. For this support the ALP committed to a range of new policy measures, including the establishment of a climate change committee (with the Greens), the move for a national denticare scheme (with the Greens), changes to pokies regulations (with Andrew Wilkie), a regional Australia package (from Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor) and a parliamentary reform agenda aimed at giving power back to individual members of parliament.

Yet in the midst of all of these changes, criticisms of this new situation flew fast from all corners. Apparently the time it took for decisions to be made was creating political and economic instability. The new situation was also extremely undemocratic as the views of five electorates were now going dominate over the views of the rest of the country.

Many seemed unable to make up their minds. Whilst they wanted more substance in our political debate during the campaign, when it arrived, complaints arose that those who were bringing the substance should not be in the power to do so (as the country didn’t elect these cross-benchers). Apparently the independents should have just fallen in line with what their electorates and/or the country (based on 2 party preferred or primary vote depending on who you listened to) wanted. Now, instead of substance we wanted ‘stability’ instead.

What many have forgotten is how exciting this new situation is. Within one election cycle we have moved from two party system where similarities in policy are more common that differences to one where any Government will be required to genuinely negotiate with the Parliament and the people of Australia to have their policy platform implemented. In the time that we needed to wait for stability, we saw more substantive debate about Australian democracy and public policy than did throughout the entire election campaign. Finally, the substance has been brought back.

This has already resulted in fantastic outcomes. In the negotiation period following the election more significant policy changes had occurred in some areas than over the last number of years. The changes to parliamentary procedures would have been good enough, but the implementation of the new policy agenda from the cross benches will bring significant positive changes.

Hung parliaments bring great outcomes to parliaments around the world and will do so in Australia as well. After complaining about the lack of it for so long, policy substance has finally been brought back into our political system. Instead of finding the negative therefore, we should be looking at the positive outcomes this situation is going to bring. It is what we asked for and it will deliver.

The politics of coming out

Originally published in FUSE, July 2010

On the 20th of May, AFL player Jason Akermanis caused a storm after writing an article arguing that queer AFL players should not come out. Apparently, the league isn’t ready for it.

A few days later Seven News publicly outed the NSW transport minister David Campbell by showing film of him exiting a gay sex club.

Within this week, an issue that all queer people have to grapple with, coming out, entered the political sphere in an extremely public way. In doing so, these stories opened up the questions; why is it still so hard for many people to come out and is it ever okay to publicly out someone without their permission?

Coming Out

Coming out has always been an integral part of queer identity. It is something all queer people have to deal with, whether it is a decision to come out, or one not to come out. Unlike our straight counterparts, if queer person wants to be open about their sexuality they have to go through the process of coming out. In doing so, coming out is something that can cause a lot of pain, a lot of joy and a lot of growth as a human being.

I will always remember when I came out to my family and friends. It was an important and empowering time for me. Coming out made me feel accepted and loved by the people around me, in turn making me feel extremely comfortable with who I was. Telling my friends and family lifted a weight off my shoulders, not because I believed that it would ever be a problem, but because I felt like I could finally be myself.

Unfortunately however, not everyone has such a positive experience. At the same time I came out, many people I knew faced serious problems because they came out. I know of a number of people, whose family and friends had real problems with their sexuality, causing major grief in their lives. For these people coming out was a terrible experience and for many others it is considered something that is simply impossible to do.

Jason Akermanis’ Article

The week of ‘coming out’ discussion began when AFL player Jason Akermanis argued in a newspaper column that any gay AFL player should refrain from refrain from revealing their sexual identity. Akermanis argued that the AFL was simply not ready for a gay player and that any player who did come out would find life very difficult. He recounted a story of an out player he knew during his early years and the awkwardness that his sexuality apparently caused with the team. This player, whilst apparently a well respected man, causes problems in the club as uncomfortableness from other players around his sexuality was prominent.

Akermanis argued that this sort of culture had not changed in the AFL and that the public outing of a player would still make players uncomfortable, and could “break the fabric of the club”.

Akermanis’ comments revealed a lot about much of the underlying homophobia that still exists within our society. Whilst his comments weren’t overtly homophobic (i.e. he didn’t argue that all gay players were bad people), they were underlined by deeply held homophobic beliefs about what okay for people to think about queer people. Akermanis’ underlying assumption was that it was okay for AFL players (or other people) to feel uncomfortable around queer people as there are certain things about queer people that inherently make other people uncomfortable. It would therefore be the queer players fault if the ‘fabric of the club’ was broken, because he did something that made other players uncomfortable.

Therefore, whilst I can agree with Akermanis that there is a lot of underlying homophobia in the AFL, which would make it difficult for any AFL player to come out, his article was homophobic because it blamed queer people for this. Instead of arguing that it was the straight players who were in the wrong, Akermanis blamed gay men for making situations uncomfortable. By criticising anyone who wanted to come out, Akermanis was simply accepting the homophobia inside the league rather than challenging it.

Seven News and David Campbell

A few days after Akermanis’ column, the NSW transport minister, David Campbell resigned suddenly after it was revealed that Seven News had footage of him leaving a gay sex club, which they planned to show on their nightly news.

The breaking of the story brought outrage across the country as people argued that Seven News’ actions crossed an ethical line. Seven News argued that the story was legitimate, using a Christmas card that Campbell sent to constituents using a photo of his family as the reason. They argued that by using his family in his card he was campaigning on ‘family values’; something that his visit to the club apparently contradicted. This quite clearly ignores the fact that one is able to be a family person, whilst still visiting sex venues. Just because Campbell was visiting a sex club, that doesn’t mean he didn’t love his family. The fact that he has been with his wife for almost 30 years should be proof of that.

The Question of Coming Out

Within this week, the underlying homophobia that still exists within our society was brought to the front of the political sphere as people’s sexuality was put on to show for everyone to watch. In doing so these issues opened up the key question of why coming out is still such an important and difficult thing for many queer people.

Quite clearly for many people, coming out is still very difficult. Prejudice and discrimination still exist within our society and many still suffer when they come out. Given this, one can easily understand why someone may decide not to come out. For many it is a question of life or (metaphorical) death, with coming out still being something that is just too hard.

That doesn’t, however make it okay to blame queer people for that fact. Discrimination against queer people is never the fault of queer people and it should never be told that way. The only people to blame for discrimination, is those who are doing the discrimination, not those who are suffering because of it.

One the other side though, many people can actually cause damage through not coming out. People who a well known as being queer, but refuse to publicly acknowledge it, actually hurt other queer people. These refuse to publicly challenge homophobia in our society when they have an opportunity to do so, leaving many to suffer in silence. In these cases it can be argued that publicly outing people is okay as it shows that queerness in the public sphere can be considered acceptable.

As such an important part of many people’s identity, coming out is a key issue for the queer community. However, we cannot just assume that it is only a personal manner. Coming out is inherently political and whilst what Jason Akermanis and Seven News did was terrible, it at least brought this manner out into the public where it should be.

The silent queerphobia of the entertainment industry

There is an episode of Will and Grace that I always seem to remember. In this episode Jack gets excited because his favourite TV show is going to show a ‘man on man’ kiss for the first time on prime time television. When the episode goes on air however, the kiss is not actually shown, but just implied. Jack is rightfully upset and spends the rest of the episode fighting with the network over the treatment of queer people on television. The episode ends with Will and Jack kissing on Regis Live, therefore becoming the two men who have the first ‘man on man’ kiss on prime time television.

This episode sticks out for me because it manages to hit the nail on the head when it comes to the issue of homophobia in the entertainment industry, whilst doing so through a very homophobic prism.

This episode has a great narrative around the treatment of queer people in the entertainment industry. Queer people are still regularly left out of prime time film and TV, and queer sex is extremely rare and never graphic in its description (i.e. it is only ever implied, never shown). For example, after a successful run at film festivals around the world, a new film called I Love You, Phillip Morris, has recently found it extremely difficult to break through in cinemas. Whilst the film managed to get some distribution Europe, it was not until many of the gay sex scenes were deleted that it found a distributer in the US. Even after this though, the film has been delayed a number of times and when released is unlikely to be widely distributed.

I Love You, Phillip Morris, just like the characters in Jack’s show, is the victim of overt homophobia from the entertainment industry. Being a film with some raunchy ‘man on man’ sex scenes the film was clearly considered either not appropriate for mainstream consumption or at least unable to make any money for any of the mainstream distributors.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Many DVD stores now have decent queer film sections. But these films are still part of a niche genre – a niche that is normally only targeted at queer audiences and normally receive very little success. As Scott Stiffle says:

“Lesbian gay bisexual and transvestite cinema is still seen as an underground, specific genre. When it comes to Hollywood mainstream, they (film distributors) want the widest audience possible for the amount of money they spend.”

This is true, even for mainstream queer films. Brokeback Mountain for example, only grossed $83 million dollars in the US, whilst I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry [about two heterosexual men who enter into a civil partnership as part of a pension scam] was able to bring in $120 million.

Yet, this sort of homophobia, which is the most obvious, is not actually the most prevalent. The most prevalent, and the most silent, is that of the Will and Grace type. It is the homophobia that puts queer characters in a special box where their queerness is quite evident (through pushing stereotypes) and laughed at. Queer characters are rarely serious and if they are, they are pushed into the niche genre. As Scott Stiffle, author of ‘Why Hollywood Avoids Gay Movies’ states:

“Mostly straight, multiplex-going audiences don’t want to see a romantic comedy in which two dudes get it on; unless it is meant as a joke.”

Will and Grace is full of this type of homophobia. Will, one of the main characters, starts off relatively ‘straight acting’. The other gay character in the show, Jack, offsets this by being overtly camp. This creates the comedy for the show; something that would have been missing if both characters were straight acting. As the show goes on, Will get more camp – quite clearly a reaction to the popularity of Jack as a character.
Jack and Will are also never seen having any form sex, or even getting close to it. Whilst they talk about sex, they are generally only spoken about after the fact and even kissing is not shown. This is despite the fact that Grace is shown kissing and occasionally having sex (although not graphically).

This broad treatment of the gay characters in Will and Grace can be seen across the film and television industry (I say gay characters, because it is extremely rare to see Lesbians, Bisexuals, Intersex or Trans* people on mainstream TV – more about this soon).

In fact, when looking at any mainstream TV shows or movies that involve gay characters you can see that they are always put into particular boxes. Either they are a ‘mainstream’ character or they are a joke character. Mainstream characters are those who play the lead in a show – i.e. Will. These characters’ generally have very little character depth, apart from their sexuality, which is displayed in a very sexual way even though they are never shown having sex on screen (for example, Will is always shown walking around in tank tops, but never has sex). Joke characters, such as Jack, fill the comic void, through making a joke out of their sexuality. They do so through acting overtly camp and making a joke over their homosexuality. Normally these characters are the same person – they are a sexy person who you can laugh at.

These roles are generally only true for gay men. That is because other queer people are simply not shown on mainstream TV or film. Why?

Because it is considered hard to make stereotypical non-gay queer characters either sexy or funny (which is the aim of the queer characters in other genres)? For example, the stereotypical angry, butch lesbian is someone who you apparently can’t make sexy or funny. The facts that not all lesbians are butch and angry, that just because someone is butch and angry that doesn’t mean they can’t be funny and sexy or that even if they aren’t funny and angry they can still be a good and serious character, are simply ignored. There are certain roles queer characters are there to play, and according to general stereotypes, it is only gay men can do this.

This silent homophobia of the entertainment industry is present and extremely strong. Queer people are left out of mainstream television and film and when they are let in are placed into a stereotypical box that creates a character role that is focused solely on the funniness of their sexuality.

It doesn’t have to stay like this. Some queer film is now moving away from being a niche category. Films such as Brokeback Mountain, A Single Man and I Love You, Phillip Morris are starting to bring queer entertainment into the mainstream. Yet, even though these films are good, they are still narrow in their focus (i.e. they are still solely based on gay men). We should support these films, but do so in a way that encourages the broadening of the genre itself to fully reflect the diversity of queer people.

However, it is not the queer film industry that is solely going to solve the problem. We are not going to see any major change in the entertainment industry until we start to break down the queer stereotypes that still dominate our society. This is a tough challenge, but one we must rise to.

The religious left

Originally published in FUSE, May 2010

“Judge not, that you be not judged”

When looking at this statement, which comes from the extremely important collection of Jesus’ sayings, the Sermon on the Mount, it is hard to believe the root Christianity, as well as other religions, have been taken on by so many. Whether it is the Pope spouting anti-queer rhetoric or religious groups campaigning in the US against pro-queer legislation, religion is seen by many as being synonymous with judgementalism and institutionalised oppression. For so many, it is now seen that the religious right is representative as a whole.

It is therefore not surprising that it confuses people when progressive people ‘come out’ as religious. How on earth could someone who is left wing be part of such an oppressive institution; especially if they are queer or a woman? Isn’t there are direct conflict with their progressive nature and their religious beliefs?

What is often forgotten is that although the religious right may get all the attention they are not representative of religion as a whole. In fact, whether it is Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any of the many other religions, religious left groups exist and are active. In fact, many claim (and are backed up by evidence) that most religious texts are not necessarily conservative in nature, but rather have a strong progressive feel.

For example, there is a strong thread of egalitarianism in the New Testament. The Bible is in many ways dominated by present progressive issues, including pacifism, social justice, racial equity, human rights and importantly the fair spread of wealth. Many also argue that references to conservative issues such as anti-queer or women statements are misinterpreted by conservative and don’t actually exist at all.
With such readings, in mind, well formulated religious left groups have been active for centuries. By focusing on the egalitarian principles of religious texts, these groups have taken a strong social justice stance and are often as pro-queer and as pro women as progressive social groups. Yet, they are often forgotten.

This is largely it is because people in the religious left don’t necessarily organise solely around their religion, but rather with broader social justice groups. This is different to the religious right, who use religion as the sole basis for their conservative arguments. The religious right uses the religion far more than the left simply because progressive issues don’t need religious texts for their arguments. Equality and social justice have simple arguments to back them up, whilst conservative issues need something like the Bible to become relevant, even if what they are claiming is simply false.

Therefore, whilst the social justice movement doesn’t suffer, as they are simply bolstered by the influence of the religious left, the loudness of the right in church creates the perception that we have that religion is automatically conservative. If you are religious you are seen as being clearly anti-queer and anti-women. Quite clearly however, this perception is not accurate. There are many different readings of religious texts and whilst some take a conservative approach, many more focus on the progressive, social justice and egalitarian approaches to texts.

Whilst I am not religious, I have come to learn that being religious does not automatically mean being conservative. Whilst conservative religious leaders may get a lot of the headlines, progressive religious leaders are doing a lot to help progressive causes. Whilst it is important therefore to oppose and fight against many parts of the church, remember it is not religion that is the problem, it is the way conservative religious leaders have interpreted religion and used it to further their conservative cause.