Rainbow Apathy

A dear friend emailed me last night. A gay man, he’s a passionate advocate for LGBTIQ health, equal rights and same-sex marriage. When there’s a letter to be written, a submission to be made, a politician to be educated, a hearing to attend, a seminar to be planned, a rally to be organised or a meeting to be convened, my friend is there – ‘pink jackboots’ and all – putting in 200 per cent to make a difference. He’s a firecracker.

But last night, his mood was low as he wrote that he was stepping back – for a while at least – for the sake of his ‘mental health and well-being’. I knew he was burning out – I’ve been worried about him for a while now. But, the final straw came this week when, leading yet another gallant charge for equality, he paused to look behind him –  and found there was no-one there. His rainbow army had somehow fizzled away – too busy, too tired, too distracted, too apathetic to help him fight for their rights. He is hurt, bewildered and, frankly, bereft.

It’s not a problem confined to the gay community, of course. Apathy is the curse of our nation. But, it’s particularly sad to see it in a community which has so much to gain and is so close to getting there.

Of course, the LGBTIQ community has done some amazing work over the past few years – especially in the area of marriage equality. Remember how excited we all were when, after  the senate called for submissions on marriage equality, 46,400 of the 79,200 submissions received argued in favour of same-sex marriage?

But, as my friend pointed out at the time, this represents only a small percentage of the number of LGBTIQ people in Australia – and even less if you count their families and friends!

A survey conducted in 2001-2002 found that 1.6 per cent of Australian men identify as gay and 0.8 per cent of Australian women as lesbian.  A smaller percentage of men and a larger percentage of women identify as bisexual.  It seems likely this study represents the bare minimum of Australian homosexuality with 8.6 per cent of men and 15.1 per cent of women admitting to at least a degree of same-sex attraction. But let’s take the conservative road and do a little crude number crunching.

According to the last census, Australia has 11.2 million females and 11.1 million males. If the figures from 2001-2002 still hold, that means our population includes at least 89,600 lesbians and 177,600 gay men. So, the bare minimum number of single-gender attracted homosexuals in Australia is 267,200. Even assuming that every single senate submission supporting marriage equality was written by one of this cohort – (clearly not the case!) –  that’s a bare 17 per cent who bothered to stand up for their own rights. In reality, the figure is much, much smaller.

How much further ahead would we be today if the Senate had received submissions from even half the LGBTIQ community, their family and friends? Instead of 46,400, they may have had to deal with half a million to a million supportive submissions. That would not have been so easily voted down!

Now, let me just pause a moment here for a quick word to any fundamentalists and homophobic bigots who may be skulking through this article looking for some salacious statistic to cherry-pick;  BACK OFF!  Your mob is no better. With ‘the future of marriage’ at stake and civilisation as we know it about to crumble and despite a number of well-funded, high profile campaigns from conservative churches and the Australian Christian lobby, your apathetic lot managed less submissions than ‘teh gays’!  So don’t go using this article to argue the LGBTIQ community don’t want marriage equality or I will use exactly the same argument to insist that your side don’t much care whether homosexuals are allowed to marry or not.

The point is that people – gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, black, white or brindle, theist or atheist, are generally apathetic.  It’s not that we don’t care, it’s just that we seldom care to do anything about it. That’s why we have Julia Gillard for a Prime Minister, Tony Abbott for an opposition leader, and Alan Jones still on air!

Let me make it clear – I’m not arguing that the gay community is unusually apathetic;  they’re probably about as apathetic as the rest of us. The problem is, given the urgent and pressing need for issues of LGBTIQ equality and discrimination to be addressed, and the shocking human cost of the failure to do so, rainbow apathy is something our communities (gay and straight) simply can’t afford.

Considering the passage of California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage, blogger, Jonathan Beitel  laments:

In my time dealing with gay rights activism apathy is consistently the largest monster I’ve come up against, worrying me far more than organized religious institutions possibly ever could. The repeated mantra of ‘hey, we’ll get marriage eventually, what’s the fight over!’ rings in my ears even today. It gets difficult trying to explain that in civil rights struggles, the minority doesn’t get tossed equality  ‘eventually’,  it happens after unrelenting demands for it. Yet so many in the world are content to let others fight the battle for them and lift no finger of their own.

(And, again, for the lurkers, let me point out that, speaking on the same issue, Catholic Bishop  Thomas J Tobin, castigated Catholics for their ‘abysmal’ apathy in opposing those who are ‘fiercely determined’ to ‘impose homosexual marriage’. )

Here in Queensland, the indomitable Shelley Argent of PFlag confronted rainbow apathy as she helped lead the charge for Civil Partnerships legislation. We got there, but I suspect that, at the end of it, Shelley was as wrung out and burned out as my friend who’s just temporarily thrown in his rainbow-hued towel.

It’s so easy to think that your single letter, email or phone call won’t make any difference anyway. It’s easy to think it’s a waste of time; that nothing will change. It’s easy to find excuses not to join the campaign, the rally, the march or the lobby group. It’s easy to think that your $50 donation won’t make or break the campaign.  It’s too easy to let someone else fight your battles for you.  And it’s so comforting to blithely believe that somehow – without you exerting any effort whatsoever – things will just magically turn out all right.

I recently wrote a scathing attack on a local politician who failed to support same-sex marriage. One of his gay constituents commented on my blog, assuring me, “We have faith that karma will take its course.”

Karma? Karma???? Really????  With barely controlled frustration I replied:

 …  sitting around waiting for karma to hit is hardly a practical solution to the problem … It’s time to fight for a better candidate, not wait for karma!

As a straight woman speaking to an LGBTIQ audience, I’m aware I may be pushing my luck with this article. But, I’m not saying anything new here. Leading gay-rights activist, Rodney Croome, says his one message to young people is:

Don’t let negativity shake your sense of purpose – though it does happen to us all. Our biggest enemy isn’t hate crimes or homophobia … Our biggest enemy is apathy, bitterness and cynicism.

Gay rights and marriage equality are only inevitable if everyone – and I mean everyone – maintains the rage. Now that the bills in parliament, the senate and Tasmania’s legislative council have been defeated, now that there’s an evangelistic LNP government in Queensland, now that we are absolutely certain that Julia Gillard will not budge on her irrational opposition to same-sex marriage, it would be easy to return to normal and leave it to the likes of Argent, Croome and Alex Greenwich to keep fighting on because, after all, that’s what they DO, isn’t it?

Well, it’s what my friend did, too. But, he found that without some foot-soldiers behind him, it just got too hard, too discouraging, and too damn lonely. So, I beg of you, next time you get an email saying,  “I need a hand with this … ” stop and consider that this is someone fighting for your rights, your welfare, your benefit – and get off your arse and give them a hand.

And, if your own self-interest is not enough to motivate you, consider that they’re fighting for the rights, welfare and benefit of LGBTIQ youth who really need to know they have a whole community in there, pink jackboots and all, fighting for them – not just a few lonely, burnt out voices in the wilderness.

So to hell with rainbow apathy. Let’s get behind our rainbow warriors and maintain the rage.

Chrys Stevenson

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About the author

Chrys Stevenson is a freelance writer, speaker, blogger, historian and secular and skeptical activist, better known online as Gladly, The Cross-Eyed Bear http://thatsmyphilosophy.wordpress.com/. She has a BA and first class honours degree in Australian history, literature and cultural studies.