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Melbourne, Australia


In a week where the media were accused of a witch hunt for checking if MPs have been constitutionally elected, we wrapped up an unpopular eight-week marathon debate on the private lives of LGBT people.

We’ve all had our fill of the debate over marriage equality in Australia, but the legacy of the last eight weeks has been a portentous taste of life on the front line of a factional politics, more familiar to us from U.S. presidential elections.  Cleavages and splits in the workplace, between family members and in online discussion threads were on full display, as Australia contemplated its simple, binary choice. 


The question put before Australians became a proxy for other concerns, an excuse to demonise people you didn’t like anyway, and before we knew it, easy-going Aussies were behaving like a bunch of Americans.  

You could be forgiven for taking a bit of a break from social media over the last few weeks but the end is in sight with 77% of those eligible having had their say.  Plenty of people though have engaged with the debate online with many “vote yes” campaign taking pride in a message of love and inclusion.  Despite polling that shows most Australians in favour of marriage equality, “media monitoring company Streem found that the "no" campaign was mentioned almost four times as much across more than four-thousand news stories in mid-September covering print, online, TV and radio;” even those in the most cavernous echo chamber might have noticed the disparity. 

Senator Penny Wong

Senator Wong and Geraldine Hickey

Photo credit: David Murphy

Photo credit: David Murphy

“When Lyle Shelton comes out and says “this will lead to the destruction of the family” or when a Catholic archbishop says “we can’t have the state getting into people’s bedrooms, people are like “but that’s what you do! What are you talking about you big hypocrite?” says Toby Halligan, media advisor, comedian and formerly of Channel 10’s The Project.  “So that leads to people clicking on the article.”

“I think most Australians support gay rights and gay marriage and individuals are willing to share yes messages partly because they support their position and partly because they’re overwhelmingly positive.  They’re not nasty, they’re not saying that if you vote for gay marriage it’ll lead to children being trained to wear dresses, which is a lie and isn’t that much of a problem in any case.”


“All this homophobic and transphobic garbage which means that people, even if they weren’t inclined to support marriage equality don’t want to share it on Facebook or Twitter because the messages are nasty and toxic.”


Trolls get a a lot of mileage out of behaving outrageously and occupy many different positions in public life.  As if we didn’t have enough trolls here in Australia, Milo Yiannopoulos will make his way here at the end of the month as a guest of Penthouse 'Make America Great Again'zine and is literally hosting a tour called “Troll Academy”.  


“The people want to host him?  100%,” says Adrian Brooks, 20, from Sunshine, when I asked him whether Milo should be given a platform.  “I tend to disagree with him, though it is worth noting that I am sort of a fan wherein I hate everything that he believes in, but I do watch him, so in the sense that I do know who he is. He’s not playing for ideas anymore, but I thought he was initially.  He’s definitely a provocateur more than he is a journalist, which is what he calls himself.  


“Even if someone’s wrong - or what I consider to be wrong - even if you disagree with someone and you yell at them, they’re not going to change their mind … if you have the anonymity of the internet, all you’re seeing is the opinion, not the person behind it and you might find that opinion so dislikable that you feel like you’re only attacking that.  If you’re with someone in person and you’re looking at them in the eye and seeing them smile, you would feel like you are also in some way attacking them.  


“I tend to dislike words like bigot, because if they may be true, they’re never going to convince anyone and they’re only going to make people more annoyed at you.  You’re shifting the argument away from the issue to the person which isn’t what you should be talking about.  You’re saying is this person bad, or is this person not bad?  It doesn’t matter.  You’re talking about the idea; the issue behind it."


That laid-back Australian sensibility might just be the cure for all that trolling and fake news; whether Russian-backed, American-imported or homegrown.  Our media seems to celebrate outrageous behaviour and often fails to interrogate moments, caught on video and shared online throughout the course of the campaign, of dubious provenance.  Even in what passes for the online gay press misreported that  “yes” campaigner had headbutted Jesus-loving Tony Abbott, when in fact his motives here not that complex. 


The conflating of fact and fiction and appeal to prejudice in the pursuit of an irresistible headline gives us a taste of a future that Americans are really living every day.  President Trump’s unrestrained campaign rhetoric has continued apace since taking office and, indeed, it’s the very reason he’s there. Candice Cole, a local news reporter in Washington, D.C., reflected on a clash between white nationalists and antifa protestors at Charlottesville in Virginia, and the role that public rhetoric, amplified by the media, had played. 


“What happened in Charlottesville is absolutely disgusting,” she said. “ I don’t know if you had a chance to look at what Vice did, they sent a reporter in, she was embedded with the white nationalists who were there.  It should never have gotten to that point.  Maybe this is a bit controversial but Heather Heyer - it was terrible what happened to her - you had this crazed idiot who drives through a crowd of people but I have to beg the question, would that incident have gotten as much attention and even as much sympathy had Heather Heyer been a woman of colour? 


“There’s a lot of different things to be taken away from that.  We had photographers who were sent to Charlottesville who were beaten over the head from people on the other side; from the Antifa folks. So, on one point neither party is right but, if you come after me with a pitchfork and a torch? I have to arm myself.”


“Unfortunately we have a President in office who has made it okay and made it commonplace for these sorts of ugly, despicable attitudes and behaviours to become commonplace.”


In office, Trump’s poorly articulated and bigoted views, amplified by breathless coverage, on Muslims and immigrants have already affected the visa status of hundreds of thousands of young people; to all intents and purposes American.  It has caused many more from Muslim-majority countries to play a game of chicken with U.S. immigration, fearing the rules for them might suddenly change.


In the race for votes, as we have learned, politicians In Australia and the U.S. outdo themselves to reduce swathes of their population to a set of intractable issues.  The marriage equality debate has been only the latest example of a question of parity for one group being presented as an attack on society.  A zero-sum game is a situation in which one group’s gain is equivalent to another's loss, so the net change in wealth or benefit is zero.  So it goes if you have marriage equality, you subtract from religious freedom. Or if you have more immigration you will have fewer jobs.  In this narrative of a society divided into two camps by globalisation, education and social attitudes, progress through mutual gain appears as a distant aspiration.


“The way in which those discussions are telescoped into a discussion about race which is precisely what the hard right in Australia wants us to do,” says Senator Penny Wong who spoke recently at an event in Melbourne called “LGBQIT Rights and The Road Ahead”. “


“So, if you listen to [Pauline] Hanson, the world would be fine except the Muslims have arrived and they’ve replaced the Asians as the reason for all ills.”


“We have to stand up very strongly against that. We cannot allow them and people who advocate those views to gain more support in Parliaments than they already have.  I see One Nation every day in the Senate; she sits across from me, and her views are not the views I think this society can or should uphold. We have to always be pushing back against them because they are about division.  No society has ever made itself stronger or more secure by turning on a group.  And that is their teaching.  It used to be us, and now it’s Muslims.”


What if Hanson’s views became genuinely popular?  Maybe if she could put one of those slogans on a hat, like ‘Please Explain’ or ‘Are You a Muslim?’, or ‘Make Australia Great Again’; living in the shadow of commentary from the U.S., we can almost imagine it.  


“When I think of 'Make America Great Again’,” says Candice Cole, “and what that might actually stand for, you mentioned nostalgia and I think of what does that nostalgia actually represent? Because from what I feel like I’ve interpreted … [it] is a time of old where we go back to segregation and we go back to ‘white is right’ and those sorts of sentiments.  


“So, when I hear 'Make America Great Again' and everything that comes with that, I don’t see it as moving us forward.  'Make America Great Again’? What does that mean?  When did we stop being great?”


“They’re messages that people want to believe in,” says Toby Halligan, “and they’re message that don’t rely on facts.  This is a really important point on the weaponised narrative idea is that facts have become irrelevant because individuals don’t have the resources to scrutinise the “facts” that are constantly being thrown at them and so they turn to institutions, but those institutions are being discredited by those larger cultural narratives.”


In the Melbourne CBD, rainbow flags adorn advertising kiosks and flutter prettily from awnings. The flag was a product of the 1960s counterculture movement and symbol of world peace but was first used for the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco in 1978, the same year Paramount released Saturday Night Fever.


But the backdrop to these green shoots of liberation was a sense of an America in decay. Cities hollowed out by a crippling economic downturn and white flight were represented on TV news broadcasts as monuments to crime and racial polarisation.  Conservatives that had been long out of power exploited the febrile mood. Their message of traditional values against what were seen as the threat of permissiveness and an often chaotic modern society, resonated with many, as it does on the right of politics in Australia today.


The following year in July, rock music fans in Chicago and listeners of Robert Dahl, an anti-disco campaigner, flocked to the White Sox stadium to burn disco records in effigy at a "Disco Demolition Night" event, with thousands of fans, donning Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath t-shirts, storming the field until being dispersed by riot police.  Described at the time as an expression of bigotry, Rolling Stone reported that "white males, eighteen to thirty-four are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks, and Latins, and [are] the most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security.”


It was more than a stunt, or a radio station changing formats, it was a chance to push back against a changing world and say "disco sucks!”  As Ben Myers writing for The Guardian put it: “it was a pyrrhic victory. Disco spawned house music and the club scene and impacted upon the then-emerging hip-hop culture. In short, disco's influence is everywhere.”  Then, as now, when you feel under siege it is easier to be against something than embrace a nuanced argument for change.  We are long way from the U.S. in the 1970s but what shows us is that we have been here before.  Australian LGBTQI people have seen this in the rhetoric that has characterised the “no” campaign.  What should have been a straightforward vote in the Australian parliament became an advisory note to a compromised leadership. 


"It is better to be born in depraved times", said Baudelaire, "for one is reckoned virtuous at little cost to one’s self." The same has been true for much of the centre-left in recent decades, as taxation shrinks, deficits rise and flat wages bear down on the average Australian. “I think that there are different drivers for some of the political outcomes that you've identified,” says Penny Wong, referring to the international trend for right-wing demagogy.  “One of them for me is inequality and … the sense that people have that the current system is not making sure that they get a go.  


“People’s aspirations are many and varied, but most people want to make sure that the next generation has at least as good or better outcomes or better opportunities as we do.  I think most of us, if we wanted to talk about how we envisage how our society works, we might talk about it in those kinds of aspirational terms, we might want to hand over something better to our kids than we inherited, and that kind of contract has for many people, they feel that’s not happening.


“You can see and there’s a whole range of statistics I could talk about around inequality and around the world - the U.S is the most obvious example - but also in Australia where it has been alleviated to some extent because frankly we’ve had Medicare and a whole range of social structures and social safety nets.  I think Brexit can be seen in that way too, where people say “I don’t reckon what you talk about - in term of trade and open economies - is actually helping me.  So what do we have to do about that? 


“I don’t believe in closed economies or closed borders or closed ways of thinking about the world.  So what does someone like me have to do?  We have to listen to people’s concerns are, and we also have to address some of their legitimate concerns whether it’s around access to education or employment.”


In Australia we enjoy a quality of life unmatched in many other parts of the world, but societies are perfectly capable of self-immolating without that which we would take for granted. Though not of America, we see ourselves in its dark mirror.  


“I put it to you like this, my passport is current,” says Candice Cole, “and I have emergency cash, just in case.  So you know, I’m hopeful but I’m also not naive.  It feels like things are - it doesn’t feel like that here in DC for me, personally, it feels like nationally we are about to hit a tipping point … things have been brewing overall,  and I feel like at one point or another the bubble is going to burst and I just, I hate to say it but, and as a black woman, as a woman of colour in America, I have to always be on guard.  


“I’m never not on guard.  I don’t know if that’s a symptom of being black in America or of just being a journalist and seeing bad stuff happen all the time, but I just feel like people are not going to sit back and continue to let these sorts of things happen.  I don’t really want to feed into conspiracy theories and the threat of another civil war and all this but, I believe that people should be ready and alert. So much so that my mom bought me a box of ‘MREs’.”


‘MREs’ are freeze-dried ready meals for survivalists. 


Australia is not so divided as a society as that but we can augment our own experience with that of the Americans, both present and past.  The marathon marriage equality debate might portend a more divided Australian politics for the future but, as we have seen before, the arc of history bends toward justice.  


“Progressives have won in a lot of social areas of policy and identity politics, says Toby Halligan. “For all the whinging that its caused has been very successful at pushing humanising narratives about marginalised groups.”


“So if you look at over the last thirty or forty years the emergence of gay rights and the mainstreaming of gay rights and if you look at the all the huge hurdles that continue to exist for women there are now substantial media narratives around say pushing back at sexual harassment, around dealing with sexual assault, around the equalisation of pay, around maternity leave.  


“Over the course of our lives, gay rights have changed enormously.  When I was born, homosexuality was illegal in a couple of states in Australia and, I was born in ’84; around that time, between the 70s and the 90s around 90 gay men were just murdered in Sydney in acts that were obviously gay hate crimes, and that were never investigated by the police, and the police were quite possibly involved, certainly in bashings.”  


“Gay rights has come a huge way and that’s because people came out, and everyone realised they knew gay people and began talking to their gay friends and gay family members, and they were seen as humans.”

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