A history lesson from Berlin

Originally published in FUSE, February 2010

On recent travels through Europe I made a stop through Berlin. One of biggest reasons people visit Berlin is explore the history of and pay their respects to the victims of the Holocaust. Yet, when doing so one can notice something missing in the stories of this terrible crime.

In the centre of Berlin there is a massive monument; the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’. The monument is the biggest holocaust memorial in the city and attracts thousands of visitors every day.

Across the road lies another monument; that to the murdered homosexuals during the holocaust. This memorial is small, obscure and receives very few visitors. Memorials to the murdered Roma people, Jehovah’s witnesses, black people etc. are similarly obscure, non-existent or just being developed. This is common throughout Europe. When it comes to the Holocaust what has been called by some a ‘hierarchy of victims’ has been created; where the suffering of the Jewish population is placed above that of other victims. Not only do non-Jews get less coverage, in most cases their suffering is simply written out of the history.

Ensuring that the holocaust it is a fully Jewish story is in part done to help garnish support for the Israeli state. It breeds guilt about what occurred and therefore makes people more accepting of Israel. As a state created directly after the Holocaust it is important for Israel’s support that the Holocaust is remembered solely by Jewish suffering. If not, people may question why for example a Jewish state exists, but no queer or Roma state.

Yet, this is not the only reason non-Jews have been forgotten from the Holocaust. Whether it is persecution or the positive role played in society, all oppressed minorities have had to fight for recognition of their history. This is no different for queers.

Reading about the role of queer people and queerness in our history books is a rare thing and when it does occur, it normally focuses on gay men, leaving even further behind the stories of lesbians, bisexuals, trans*, intersex and other queer people. This creates a history in which queer people simply didn’t exist and a feeling that ‘queerness’ is a new phenomenon.

Bending history like this is a systematic part of the heteropatriachal society. In an unequal society the dominant structures not only have dominance in the present but are also given dominance of the past. In doing so, it is easier to re-enforce these structures and give them the legitimacy they require to survive. This gives these structures the perception of being both the only long lasting structures, but also the only ones to have had a (positive) real effect.

However, this does not mean that other stories are not there, nor that they shouldn’t be told. Just as other groups are fighting for their place in history so should queer people. This means not only discussing the fact the queer people, along with many others, died in the Holocaust but also investigating the role of queerness and the queer movement within our own society. These sorts of stories exist all around the world. Knowing and telling them can provide one way to help break the back of the heteropatriarchal society. As long as we let the heteropatriachy dominate our history it will be harder to stop it dominating our future.

There are many organisations and groups documenting, discussing and educating people about queer and other minority people’s history. The Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, a volunteer organisation, documents Australia’s queer history. You can visit them here: http://home.vicnet.net.au/~alga/

It’s time to reconsider our political alliances

Originally published in FUSE, January 2010

In November, the ACT Legislative Assembly passed Greens legislation providing legal ceremonies for same-sex couples entering a civil union. Two weeks later, the federal ALP decided that unless changes were made, they would veto the law.

Apparently, ‘legally binding ceremonies’ made them uncomfortable. As Kevin Rudd made this decision, one became thing increasingly clear; the ALP is a conservative, anti-queer party and looks likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. The only way we can create a progressive future therefore, is through active opposition of the ALP.

When the Coalition was voted out of office in 2007, hopes of sweeping changes ran throughout the country. It seemed as though it was the end of Howardesque policies. Yet, after two years of ALP rule, it has become clear that these changes are not going to occur. Policies on climate change, refugees, workplace relations, and indigenous issues just to name a few, have all shifted very little as our Government has changed.

On queer rights the story is similar. Whilst the ‘same-sex omnibus bill’ provided often unrecognised gains for same-sex couples in Australia, in other areas the ALP continues to fail.

Whilst one may point out the continued failure to support same-sex marriage, the biggest issue here is the continued anti-queer rhetoric coming from ALP members. This has come in the form of Julia Gillard spouting homophobic comments in the House of Representatives, Senate ALP members voting against motions of condemnation against international anti-queer moves and the continued support of the anti-queer religious right by many in the ALP.

For many the answer to this problem is to change the ALP from the inside. This means voting for ‘progressive’ politicians such as Andrew Barr of Kate Lundy, who will then work from the inside to make the ALP more progressive. Such a strategy however, is fatally flawed.

First, it covers up the lack of principles from progressive ALP members. Key principles of the progressive movement, such as social and economic justice, environmental sustainability etc. should be considered non-negotiable by progressive parliamentarians. Yet, when Barr and Lundy join the ALP and vote against progressive policies, they say to the public that these principles are something that they are willing to compromise over. This is unacceptable.

Secondly, the fight for progressive principles needs to take place out in the open; not behind closed doors. When it moves into the dark the conservative movement is allowed to dominate public space, giving them more power and legitimacy. This creates an impression of Australia as an inherently conservative country where progressive goals are unrealistic. This impression is only valid because, by staying silent about progressive issues, ALP politicians and their supporters (including those in social movements) allow it to occur. In the end, this perception becomes the reality.

If we want to make Australia a progressive nation we need a movement that is willing to take the fight out in the open. This involves, amongst other things, both holding our government to account and supporting politicians who principally fight for progressive policies. You will not find these politicians however in the ALP. We therefore must not only voice our anger at ALP positions, but also support a party, such as the Greens, who are principally progressive. As the ACT experiences shows, a strong Green Party can make positive changes in society and this is possible throughout the country. In the end, when given the choice, ALP politicians will always pick their party over their principles, whilst Greens’ politicians will never be given that choice.

New oppressive law in Uganda

Originally published in FUSE, December 2009

On the 14th of October the Uganda Parliament introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2009. Building on previous legislation that enforces up to life imprisonment for ‘homosexual acts’ this bill follows years of increased pressure and oppression against the queer community in Uganda.

The new law attacks queers in two areas. First, there is increased punishment for ‘homosexual activity’. This includes a criminalisation of obtaining same-sex marriages overseas, punished with lifetime imprisonment, as well as the introduction of a new category of criminality called ‘aggravated homosexuality’, which met by the death penalty. Those who fit this category include ‘repeat offenders’ of ‘homosexual acts’ and those who participate in ‘homosexual acts’ that are HIV-positive.

The second attack is on the rights of civil society. This includes a ban on any activity that is deemed to ‘promote homosexuality’; including the criminalisation of any speech or peaceful assembly that advocates the rights of queer people. Added to this is a legal requirement for all people to report LGBT persons to police within 24 hours of learning about that person’s queerness. Failure to do so could result in fines or imprisonment for up to 3 years.

This law complements increased oppression of queers by the state, media and society in Uganda. Reports state that queer people and activists have come under increased pressure over recent years with regular death threats and violent attacks in the country. This law is particularly scary therefore, as it will make any attempts to improve this situation by queer activists almost impossible, leaving the Ugandan queer community facing an extremely unpredictable future.

The role of international anti-queer activists in its inception is the second particularly scary part of this legislation. The push for this law began in earnest during a conference held in March by the ‘Family Life Network’. Attending the conference was two prominent anti queer activists from the United States, Don Schmierer and Scott Lively. This is part of an increasing trend for anti-queer activists becoming active in international anti-queer fights, especially in the ‘developing world’. American conservatives are now making more appearances in countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and South America in an obvious attempt to ‘internationalise’ the extreme anti queer movement.

Such an internationalisation of the anti-queer movement needs to be countered by a continued internationalisation of the queer movement. It is essential that people from around the world join together to oppose any attempts to oppress people (whether queer or not) anywhere in the world. In late October, the Labor and Liberal Party rejected a motion in the Senate from Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young condemning Uganda for the introduction of this legislation, saying it was not the role of the Senate to comment on international issues. With this legislation looking certain to pass the Ugandan Parliament it is our role to support our comrades in Uganda to end their continued oppression and to demand that our government does the same through condemning the Ugandan parliament for this action.

Should we abolish sex discrimination from sport

Originally published in FUSE, November 2009

At the start of 2009 Caster Semenya was virtually unknown.

Now, she is one of the most famous athletes in the world, not only due to great running, but also her identity. After her victory in the World Championships, Semenya was forced to take ‘gender tests’, which after being leaked revealed that she is intersex. This has created a huge debate over the rights on intersex people and has led many to ask the question ‘what is the use of the sex binary in sport?’

The justifications for the sex binary in sport range from the idea that women cannot deal with the aggressiveness of men in competition to that sex discrimination is no different than ‘weight classes’ due to inherently different abilities that women have compared to men . Sex discrimination is justified through the idea of ‘fairness in competition’.

However, this is extremely problematic. Firstly, it leaves out people such as Caster Semenya, who don’t fit into the set sex binary. Semenya, and other intersex people, expose the myth that there are only two biological sexes. There is actually significant diversity among humans in sex definers such as genitals, reproductive organs, chromosomes, and hormones. The rigid male/female sex binary does not fit the reality of sex and gender diversity. This leaves intersex athletes with the options of either giving up competition or undergoing intrusive medical procedures to ‘correct’ the issue. Second to this, sex discrimination in sport perpetuates the image of men as being ‘more athletic’, ‘stronger’, ‘faster’ and better in a whole range of ways than women. This greatly enhances the societal image of women as being ‘the weaker sex’.

But isn’t this true? Aren’t females in general not as strong as males and therefore not able to compete as well in sports? There are two problems with this idea. First, even though testosterone does advance muscular growth, its levels differ naturally within all people, leaving many with different physiques than what is expected from a member of their sex. A general separation based on a sex binary, therefore ignores many of the physical differences that exist within all sexes (something that separation based on factors such as weight or height would not do).

Second to this, even if males are in general ‘stronger’ than females, this does not mean that they are more athletic. Strength should be just one element in the definition of skill in sporting competition, something that current sporting competition forgets. Too much emphasis is now placed on strength in sport (e.g. the increasing role of a strong serves in tennis), perpetuating the image of females as being ‘less athletic’ by focusing athleticism around a predominately male attribute.

The stereotype of the weaker ‘sex’ is a prevalent and destructive one. To remove it we must remove sex discrimination in sport and allow people of all sexes to compete freely using an array of skills as the tester of athleticism. We can no longer accept the image of women as being the ‘weaker, less athletic sex’ or an imaginary binary determining what athleticism is. Removing sex separation and discrimination in sport would be more inclusive for intersex athletes, and address sexist attitudes to women. If we really want to create ‘fairer competition’ we must stop assuming someone isn’t good enough because they don’t have a pair of testicles and focus on people’s actual skills instead.

Lithuania’s moral fabrication

Lithuania’s parliament has recently passed a new law aimed at censoring information available for children.

The legislation, called the ‘Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information’ identifies nineteen separate fields of information that are to be censored in order to protect the “mental well-being” and “intellectual or moral development” of the countries youth. These nineteen fields include information ‘that agitates for homosexual, bisexual, and polygamous relations’, images of heterosexual sex, the rendering of explosives, information on the paranormal and hypnosis and depictions of bad eating habits. In other words, from next year (when the law comes into effect) it will be illegal for the Lithuanian media and other information providers to depict positive images of homosexuality and bisexuality as well as 18 other fields of information.

Although passed by a large majority in June, the legislation has and continues to face an uncertain road to its eventual enforcement. When first passed, it was vetoed by the then President Valdas Adamkus. This meant that the legislation had to be sent back to the parliament, where the veto was overridden and a new law was passed (that strengthened the anti-queer measures) by a vote of 87-6. This new law was then sent to the new President Dalia Grybauskaité, who has constantly criticised the legislation and refused to sign the bill.

According to the constitution Grybauskaité will now be forced to sign the law, although it is unclear how she will react to its presentation, with talks of her attempting to amend the legislation and/or challenge it at a constitutional court sometime in the future.

However, even if it comes into force, there are still major problems with the legislation that could make it defunct. The two biggest of these are that the law does not define what the most important term in the legislation, ‘public dissemination’, means and it does not provide any penalties for those who participate in these act. In effect, this could mean that the law has no effect. Even with these problems, however, one cannot ignore the seriousness of this law. As an assault on the fundamental rights of freedom of press, speech and sexual identity, this law is an extremely serious attack on the Lithuanian population (focused on queer people). Apart from its initial effects this will mean a continued oppression of Lithuanian queer people who will be forced further underground in order to live safe and happy lives.

Unfortunately, this law is a sign of what looks like a new wave of anti-queer sentiment in the Lithuanian state. This major piece of legislation could possibly be the first in a series of anti queer actions, with a growing movement discussing the banning of homosexuality in the country. Whilst this probably won’t occur in the near future and would definitely receive a veto from countries president, it certainly is a possibility and one that cannot be ignored.

Assimilation is not the answer to queer liberation

“Part of the parade is to show people we’re not extremists, we‘re real people”? When asked who she considered to be extremists, the response came “Drag queens and butch women”.

A sentiment that you would normally expect from a conservative. However, this didn’t come from the Right, but instead from a member of the queer movement. They’re words spoken by one of the organisers of the Winnipeg Pride Parade, after a debate about making the parade ‘less confronting’ and more ‘family friendly‘. This may be shocking, but in reality this statement is not surprising; its a symptom of the direction many in the queer movement are taking. An increasingly powerful section of the queer movement argues that to achieve better results we need to present queer people as members of society who are no different from anyone else. We need to present ourselves as ’normal’.

By acting ‘normal‘, some believe that we can change the minds of those who find us ’confronting’ and ’strange’. Why would be society want to discriminate against queer people once they realise that ’we’ are just like ‘them’? These tactics are considered especially useful in debates regarding legislative change, such as same-sex marriage or adoption laws. However, it also goes far beyond that. Many, especially those in the leadership positions, are now beginning to use the idea of normalcy as a way to try to squash fears of the more dramatic changes that are the aim of many in the queer movement. ‘Normalcy’ is being used to create a perception of a queer movement that is designed to fight for acceptance into current society, rather than to change the way society is organised. This is where this tactic has become extremely dangerous.

The politics of “normal” is so dangerous for one reason; it dramatically changes the goals of the queer movement. By adopting a tactic of presenting normalcy the queer movement is moving away from having a position that is critical of the heterodoxy in to one that not only accepts, but for many embraces it as an inevitable part of society. This is creating a scenario where instead of its deconstruction, assimilation into the heteronormative society is becoming the goal of the queer movement.

The problem? This leaves out the ‘drag queens and butch women’ – and everyone else who to falls out of the mould. All this tactic does is let a few more people in the hetero-club (generally those who come closest to fitting the hetero-mould, i.e. ‘normal looking’ bio-male gay men and bio-female lesbian woman) – while still leaving some (trans* and gender-variant folk, polyamourists etc) out. This is the essential problem of “normal“; – as long as there is “normal“, there will be “abnormal“. Whilst in this scenario some are better off, this tactic sells out not only those who will continue to be excluded, but the queer movement and its principles as a whole.

For full queer liberation to occur we can’t simply claim that the rules about gender, relationships, sex, family etc apply to us as well; we must aim to change them. As long as we aim to be ‘normal’ these changes and the deconstruction of the heteronormativity in society simply will not occur.

If we just aim to be ‘normal’ we are setting our bar too low. We must aim to change our society. Assimilation is not the answer to queer liberation.

Obama scared of taking action on queer rights

Alongside healthcare is was pinned as one of the key issues that created chaos for Bill Clinton in his first years, lead to the rise of the right and the eventual Democratic defeat in the 1994 mid-term elections.

The issue was allowing queer people to serve in the military; a debate that lead to the development of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, which allows queer people to serve, but not openly. Now, in 2009, Barack Obama seems to be scared that if he tackles the same issue head on, along with many others important to the queer rights movement, he will also succumb to the same fate of Clinton in the 90’s.

Obama has always had good rhetoric regarding queer rights. Throughout his campaign and presidency he has promised action on a majority of the key issues on the queer agenda, including repealing the two most controversial queer policies; the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy and the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) (which federally defines marriage being between a man and a woman and allows states to refuse to recognise same-sex marriages performed elsewhere). Obama has also agreed to sign laws that will enhance hate-crimes legislation, ensure queer adoption rights and outlaw discrimination in the workplace.

However, in the first six months of his presidential tenure very little work has been done on achieving these key issues. Not only has there been no legislative action on any of these items (except hate crimes legislation), Obama has also caused frustration through refusing to sign an executive order halting the enforcement of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy until it is officially overturned. This leaves open the question, is Obama just talk on queer rights or is he scared that tackling the issue will cause him political problems?

Whilst there are probably a number of reasons for Obama’s inaction, it seems almost certain that the biggest thing holding him back is a fear of a similar backlash to what Clinton received. Although Obama has been positive about queer rights, he often does so in a hidden manner, leaving positive actions largely unannounced and speeches to queer activists out of sight from the media. In other words, Obama is attempting to give the queer community exactly what it wants, but is attempting to do so in a way that won’t outrage his conservative adversaries (who he believes could make a political issue out of it).

Obviously, this is having a number of effects. First and foremost it is now delaying the attainment of extra rights for queer people. Second, and possibly more damagingly, it sends a clear message that discussing queer rights and taking positive action in a strong manner is still a difficult area for progressive politicians, therefore leaving others cautious about taking positive action in the future.

By not standing up and fighting loudly for these rights Obama is saying that it is still okay for there to be an opposition to queer rights and is making this opposition legitimate, in turn creating further equality problems in the future. Last, As long as Obama continues to delay, he will be making it harder for him to make the changes as required. With political landscapes changing quickly, opportunities to change policies can often be lost quickly and as long as Obama continues to delay he will make it harder for these policies to be changed. It is therefore important that continued pressure is placed on the Obama administration to affect these changes sooner rather than later, before it becomes too late.

Major step for Indian queer rights

It has been described as ‘India’s Stonewall’, an ’historic ruling’ and ‘a major victory in the long battle for equality on the sub-continent’.

On the 2nd of July, 2009 the New Delhi High Court in India overturned a 148 year old law, which banned ‘homosexual acts’ as ‘unnatural offences’ and imposed 10 year gaol sentences for those participating in these acts. The ruling, celebrated by many and angering others, is an historic moment for queer rights and is evidence of how strong the queer rights movement is becoming in India, but also of how much work needs to be done.

The previous law, called ‘article 377’ was devastating to the queer community in India. Whilst convictions under the legislation were extremely rare (with none for the past twenty years) the ban made being an openly gay person in India extremely difficult. Reports from queer activists have stated that this legislation has been used widely as an excuse for state and community sponsored harassment of queer people and activists. Whether being threatened to be charged by the law from police or family, being harassed whilst participating in activist activities or being unable to seek medical help if one suspects they are infected with HIV/AIDs or other STIs, this law left many in India fearful of coming out as an openly queer person.

The importance of this ruling therefore, is not just one of removing legal discrimination, but is also about the metaphorical ‘coming out’ of the Indian queer community. As a movement that is quite young (with open groups only emerging around 15 years ago) the Indian queer rights movement have gained a large amount of strength and support in the past ten or so years. Sending a message that it is okay to be queer, the movement has provided LGBTIQ people in India with a strong support system in the face of difficulties provided by the homosexuality ban. This has lead to an increased opening up of Indian society, where more people are feeling okay about coming out as well as questioning the continued discrimination in Indian society.

This is clearly evident in the decision by the High Court. Whilst this ruling was based around the constitutionality of this legislation, there was an underlining theme in the decision stating that this was not just about constitutional rights, but also about removing stigma and increasing inclusiveness for India’s queer population. In other words, the panel, who were clearly influenced by the change in attitudes created by the queer movement, recognised that the removal of the homosexuality ban was an essential move to remove discrimination and create more acceptance of the LGBTIQ community in India. In the long run, the question will be whether this ruling can create this effect.

There is no doubt that this ruling will have an impact. Although it does not remove all discrimination in Indian legislation and will not bring an end to stigma within the Indian community, it will provide some extra momentum for the queer rights movement in the country. With no longer being threatened with the possibility of imprisonment and/or state sponsored harassment if one comes out as openly queer, it is likely that this decision will encourage more openness towards homosexuality, whether people are feeling more confident to come out as a queer person themselves or know someone who has. This in turn is likely lead to a growth in acceptance of homosexuality in India, which will only add to equality.

Equality comes after many steps and India certainly took a large one in July.