With apologies to Tim Soutphommasane
Let’s take his piece on racism in the Age today and change one word – racism – to homophobia, and adjust the rest very slightly. Ring a bell?
In ignoring public displays of abuse, otherwise good citizens are letting hate breed.
Homophobia is like a cockroach of civilised society. It is vile, revolting, and it breeds prodigiously. Few things appear capable of eradicating it. It seems always to return, no matter what we do to stamp it out.
For every incident that gets recorded by someone on their mobile phone, many others go unnoticed and undocumented. But having video footage of homophobia does add a new dimension. Where once it may have been possible to avoid ever seeing the nasty face of bigotry, it is no longer.
For those who have ever suffered homophobia on a bus, tram or train – or seen it happen – there are few surprises. The genre is familiar. The perpetrators are always angry and violent, frothing at the mouth and ready to pounce. There are always the bystanders who pretend they see nothing or who, worse, enjoy the spectacle.
After all, the way we act in public is revealing of our society. It may be one thing to harbour certain private homophobic thoughts. It is another to voice the sentiment, in public, to someone’s face. Doing this requires a certain disdain and hate.
For me, this is where the real harm of homophobia lies. When unchecked, it can allow people to believe they are empowered to harass, belittle and intimidate others because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression. Those who suffer a homophobic threat, taunt or insult can often feel like a second-class citizen or a lesser person. Homophobia is repugnant because it wounds the value of equality.
This may seem obvious enough. But we frequently fail even to recognise the civic harm of homophobia. At times, political leaders appear only to recognise homophobia as bad because it damages our reputation or jeopardises our export earnings. It was striking, for example, that complaints about homophobic violence against gays in Sydney just recently were routinely met with statements affirming the economic value of Mardi Gras to the local economy..
There is another problem perhaps more fundamental. In recent years, a section of Australian society has grown to believe homophobia is a figment of the politically correct imagination. The effect of this has been to make it extraordinarily difficult to talk about homophobia in a measured way. Any suggestion of homophobia has been construed as some absolute judgment about an underlying quality in the national character. Any incident becomes a prompt for asking, ”Is Australia essentially or implacably homophobic?”
The question is nonsensical in one respect. Every country has its homophobes. And there are many countries that are guilty of much worse prejudice and violence. Australia for the most part does well. Countries elsewhere have had to deal with regular anti-gay demonstrations and widespread overt discrimination – things that we have been fortunate to avoid. But resisting self-flagellation doesn’t mean succumbing to triumphalism. Any historical achievement in acceptance of LGBTI shouldn’t invite complacency. We must be careful not to squander the gains made by past generations.
Any vigilance on homophobia must extend into our everyday lives, not least our public spaces. Civic harms require civic remedies.
By this I mean that combating homophobia involves a test of citizenship. Too often, otherwise good citizens fail to do their part. Faced with the intimidating prospect of having to stand up to verbal or physical violence, we find it easier to shrink away – to rationalise that the safest option is to mind our own business and not speak up.
Does this mean there is an obligation to put ourselves in harm’s way in solidarity with a fellow citizen or person in need? I’m hesitant to go so far. Insisting on this is easier said than done, especially if a confrontation has escalated into a potential bloodbath. Sometimes it can be enough for us to show support for a victim, to report an incident, or to bear witness.
What matters, though, is that we assume some responsibility – that we do something.
Like the cockroach it resembles, homophobia thrives on the crumbs of indifference. Improving our civic hygiene is the best response.
This is a minor rewrite of part of today’s opinion piece in the Age. Made you think? Next time you see someone abused for being gay, will you film it on your mobile and post it online?