The supposed battle between LGBTIQ Australians and working class communities
For those of us with an intersecting interest in LGBTIQ rights and the labour movement, the final scenes of the 2014 film Pride are a particularly heart warming affair; dozens of Welsh trade union activists pile off a bus to stand in solidarity with their LGBTIQ comrades at the 1985 Gay Pride Parade. Of course, this is inspired by the real story of Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners, an organisation which formed in support of the National Union of Mineworkers during the Thatcher years. While these scenes are notable for the delight found in the union of unlikely comrades, how unlikely is such an alliance in 2021?
If you open the pages of The Australian or listen to the vitriol of Mark Latham and other One Nation parliamentarians, you would be led to believe that there is a war raging on every suburban street. On one side is LGBTIQ activists, ell bent on abolishing heterosexual marriage and cisgender identities, and on the other side are nuclear families with opposite sex parents clutching their pearls, shocked by the notion of marriage equality. These images drive Facebook comments and give purpose to reactionary politicians, but they sell short the nuance and complexity of the LGBTIQ experience and the makeup of the modern Australian community.
LGBTIQ people, especially trans and gender diverse Australians, are the latest in a long line of ‘others’ ridiculed by certain corners of the Australian media and political landscape. Our conservative media has been all too ready to import a culture war from the United States, with fights over inclusive bathrooms, trans girls in sports and gender affirming hormone therapy. You only need to read the most recent publications of organisations like Advance Australia to understand that anti-trans and LGBTIQ politics comes from the same toxic swirling pool of ‘wokeness’ fear and anti-’cancel culture’ rhetoric that dominates American political discourse. That a fear of trans rights is driven by the same fear that causes outrage about discussions of race, diversity and even climate change.
The use of trans, gender diverse and LGBTIQ people as a scapegoat for these fears is deeply rooted in successful cultural moments like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, anti-marriage equality arguments and the gay panic defence. While the victory for marriage equality in Australia has arguably dulled some of the energy from culture wars targeted at same sex attracted people, it has kicked anti-trans propaganda up a notch. While it seems some time ago that marriage equality was decried for creating motherless and fatherless children or equating homosexuality with bestiality or paedophilia - this energy has been channelled into generating fear of trans women in bathrooms or making little boys wear dresses without their consent at school. Fear-based politics works. It distracts us from the real issues of education, employment and the economy. It solidifies alliances between conservatives against elite progressives.
In the 2016 Australian Census, 1,260 people gave an intentional and valid sex/gender diverse response. This is an underrepresentation and the Australian Bureau of Statistics acknowledged that “people who have been treated with disrespect, abuse and discrimination because of their sex or gender may be unwilling to reveal their sex in an official document”. Even with limited data, we can be relatively sure that trans and gender diverse people comprise a small portion of the Australian community. But organisations like Advance Australia would have you believe that policy reform to enhance trans and gender diverse people’s equality is “nothing short of a full-scale assault on mainstream Australian values in our classrooms”.
Here is what it really is - fighting to make it easier for trans people to change their identity on their birth certificate, ensuring trans people aren’t fired from their jobs, upholding policies that protect trans kids at school and reducing bullying for one of the most at-risk communities in Australia. Trans people are significantly more likely to self-harm or kill themselves, they face violence for using the correct bathroom, are more likely to be homeless, be mistreated in medical care and are less likely to graduate from school due to bullying and harassment. What do we have to lose by allowing this community to win?
If you read Mark Latham’s inaugural speech to the NSW Parliament you will find the following list: “A Christian, a conservative, a libertarian, a nationalist, a working-class larrikin, an outsider from the vast suburbs and regions of our nation.” These are the people he claims to represent.
But there is a patronising myth inherent in how Australians discuss our suburbs and the people who inhabit them. Right wing politicians like Latham assure us they understand the ordinary people, the silent majority and middle Australia but as Paternoster et al. (2018) say, “their conception of ordinary Australians reduces the people that they claim to speak for to an opposing caricature as code for anti-progressivism and anti-political correctness”.. And the 2019 Federal Election result told us that Labor continues to climb an uphill battle on winning working-class suburban seats and face the ongoing challenge of balancing the perceived views of its inner city and outer suburban constituencies.
We must silence the scare campaign and believe working class communities are capable of nuance - in opinion and demography. The CFMEU publicly backed marriage equality back in 2017 and the AMWU told us that “equality is union business”. These declarations did not cause these unions to crumble. There are Rainbow Families Playgroups in Penrith, First Nations LGBTIQ art workshops in Blacktown, targeted youth services in Sunshine, PFLAGs in Port Macquarie, queer basketball teams in Darwin and aged care services with the rainbow tick everywhere from Nowra to Narrabeen.
It is simply naive to think that there are not LGBTIQ people living as part of every community around Australia and that traditional suburban communities are not capable of open mindedness. And before we start to break down our suburban communities into even smaller demography subsets to explain why anti-LGBTIQ politics makes sense – let us look at the facts. 2021 survey data from LGBTIQ+ Health Australia tells us 16% of LGBTIQ adults in Australia were born overseas and 20% of transgender and gender diverse adults living in Australia were not born here.
LGBTIQ people are not all living in Darlinghurst and trying to change the curriculums of schools in Doonside. They are community members, culturally and linguistically diverse people, parents at schools, residents in aged services, retail workers at the supermarket and patients at the local hospital. They are multi-faceted voters who elect representatives based on the quality of local infrastructure, the funding of their kids’ school and the wait time at their emergency department.
The call for LGBTIQ rights is not about pushing gender fluidity on children, ending the practice of Christianity or instilling cultural Marxism. It is about affording LGBTIQ people safety, dignity and legal protection. Equality Australia is fighting to end gay conversion therapy, streamline transgender birth certificate updates and ensure that LGBTIQ people are safe from discrimination at work. We could not find a single reference to a campaign for cultural Marxism on their website.
As progressives, we cannot pander to the fear that conservatives spread about LGBTIQ people and especially the trans and gender diverse community. We do not need to meet conservative reactionaries they are. We need to meet suburban communities where they are. To acknowledge their nuance, to allow them to hold their faith and open mindedness at one time, to acknowledge the existence of LGBTIQ people and their families in Australia’s suburbs. And finally, to genuinely see the trans and gender diverse community, their experience and what they are asking us for.
Audrey Marsh is the Co-Convenor of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby and a Senior Policy Officer at the Planning Institute of Australia.
Kiz Jackson is an activist and advocate based on Gadigal Land. They are currently working in Disability Advocacy, and studying a Masters in Teaching. @KizMJackson
Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 2
Author: Kiz Jackson, Audrey Marsh