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Niceness means nothing

There’s a lot of talk about “respect” and “civility” at the moment. In case you were unaware, Australia’s federal parliament is trying to decide whether literally every Australian should get to vote on same-sex marriage. In Australian political discourse this kind of vote is called a plebiscite.

There’s something particularly emotive about the plebiscite. It feels like a public opinion poll on whether LGBTI people have a legitimate place in society, so it’s no wonder everyone is keen to appear polite and reasonable. The stakes are too high to be accused of foul play.

Earlier today I had a bit of at Twitter conversation with Josh Taylor from Crikey, about Dr David and Ros Phillips from FamilyVoice, who I know from the annual Australasian Religious Press Association (ARPA) conferences.

It’s true, they are unfailingly polite. They’re softly spoken, sweet and kind. Your heart warms to see them together because their love for each other is obvious. And yet they would eagerly throw me under the metaphorical bus in the continuation of their social agenda.

BuzzFeed reporter Lane Sainty experienced this too when she attended the launch of Dr David van Gend’s book, Stealing From A Child: The Injustice Of ‘Marriage Equality’. Her piece recounting the experience, published today, is well worth a read.

When introducing the enabling legislation for the plebiscite, the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull said holding a plebiscite “respects [the Australian people’s] intelligence, their civility, their capacity to express and make a decision and above all, it respects the fact that each and every one of them can have a say.”

It’s as if regardless of what you say it is inherently worthy of respect so long as you are polite about it. Further, so long as you heed the pleasantries of regular face-to-face interaction, your actions appear to be irrelevant.

There’s no inherent connection between politeness and goodness, or that a civil discussion is really being conducted in good faith. It seems self-evident to me, but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard “but they’re so nice!” used to excuse appalling behaviour elsewhere.

Niceness means nothing. What good is niceness if that person won’t stick up for vulnerable people when they really need it? Worse, what good is niceness if that person is going to actively work against your wellbeing?

It makes me think of the Parable of the Two Sons, in which a father asks his two sons to work in his vineyard that day. The first says no, but later thinks better of it and goes. The second says yes, but never gets around to it. Which one actually did what his father wanted? I think about this parable often.

Not that we should go out of our way to be abrasive or rude, but respectful dialogue and sweet words don’t necessarily produce outcomes. In fact, insincere platitudes mask apathetic and obstructive behaviour. I’m seeing a lot of this from our parliamentarians in this debate, and I’ve had enough.

Overlooking someone’s civility to point that out might not be nice, but it is necessary.

Ian Thorpe is not dead! He’s gay!

Ian Thorpe in 2012. Photo: Eva Rinaldi

Photo: Eva Rinaldi

Ian Thorpe, the Australian Olympic hero, has come out. In an interview with Sir Michael Parkinson the former swimmer said “I’m comfortable saying I’m a gay man. And I don’t want young people to feel the same way that I did. You can grow up, you can be comfortable and you can be gay.”

It’s unsurprising that a person with that level of celebrity coming out in such a public way has set the media abuzz. Everyone (including me, now) wants to give their two cents. The internet is awash with opinions. Some have been great, but one in particular put a bee in my bonnet, and if you’d indulge me I’d like to talk about it here.

I find Lauren Rosewarne’s piece, Thorpedo and the rewriting of history on ABC’s The Drum, pretty troubling. On Twitter I called it “by far the nastiest thing I’ve read today and that includes [what I read on] Facebook“. I should clarify that I don’t think Lauren is nasty, but the article is deeply problematic in that it perpetuates myths that (I hope) she would actually rather see extinguished.

Lauren asks, “If Ian Thorpe is a role model for coming out, is he not also a role model for lying about sexuality on the journey to the top, and proving that homosexuality is so shameful in our culture?”

Ian’s closeted-ness is the reason this story has whipped up such interest. He’s denied being gay for 15 years, and even denied it in writing. Ian says it himself: it was a lie. It’s okay to acknowledge that he lied—that’s what being in the closet means—but my problem is in the implication that being closeted is somehow a malicious deceit: that he made it to the top by pulling the wool over the nation’s eyes.

“Is he not also a role model of keeping mum until you’ve got nothing left to lose?”

Although supportive of out LGBT people, the article clears room for the idea that being closeted is a stain on your character. Ian could have been braver. He could have been more honest. What were his motivations for lying, really?

The commenters have jumped right into this breach. Ian withheld information about his sexuality, they say, so he is no longer trustworthy. But you don’t stay in the closet to screw other people over, you’re there to protect yourself from a culture hostile to anyone outside the cishet norm. Ian’s closeted life caused him serious emotional damage. Why on earth would he be in the closet voluntarily?

We often lament the dearth of out, gay sportspeople to be role models for the next generation, but when someone does come out they are greeted with suspicion and called a coward.

Honestly, I know what the author is getting at. The source of Ian’s problems lies with the shame our society attaches to homosexuality and there would be no need to come out if that shame didn’t exist.

The problem is the article goes on to reinforce that shame. There’s a bizarre expression of “devastation” from the author about “the sad loss of a gender diversity icon.” The idea is that because Ian “did manhood differently and elegantly and showcased that there were innumerable ways to speak as a man”—yet he was still sexually attracted to women—”he gave hope to all those people whose sex sits uncomfortably with social expectations.”

Sure, but Ian Thorpe is not dead! He’s still here—he just happens to be gay. He still represents an alternative model for manhood regardless of who turns him on. But the author discards Ian’s model of masculinity on the basis of his sexuality saying, “in the Parky revision, the Thorpedo becomes less revolutionary and much more of a stereotype.”

The implication here (intended or not) is that gay men are not “real men”. Only masculinity, (alternative or not) practiced by heterosexual men is valid and praiseworthy. Alternative models of masculinity practiced by gay men are silly stereotypes which can be safely ignored.

But Ian Thorpe continues to do manhood differently and is he is gay. Coming out doesn’t invalidate that! He can still be admired for being soft-spoken and avoiding sexual scandal. Those admirable traits didn’t disappear when he came out. Ian is still a gender diversity icon and young straight men can still emulate him without compromising their masculinity. Gay men are not toxic to straight men.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Lauren, the author, is reading this and rolling her eyes saying “Of course I don’t believe gay men are toxic!” She’s a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne in the School of Social and Political Sciences. She regularly talks sex, gender and feminism in the media. Surely—surely!—it’s a miscommunication. I wouldn’t bother writing this if I thought she was genuinely mean-spirited. But this article casts suspicion on the character of gay men who have been closeted, then dismisses any admirable traits they still possess on the basis of sexuality.

It’s not ok. If we’re going to talk about LGBT people in the media we can do it better than this.

My charmed, gay life

Tonight I went to Freedom2b, which is a support group for LGBTI people from Christian backgrounds. I don’t always go, but this month we watched The Cure—a documentary about gay and lesbian Christians who went through ex-gay programs.

It feels strange for me to go to f2b sometimes, because I’ve lived a pretty charmed existence as a gay Christian. Watching the movie, it really reinforced the sense I have that I dodged a bullet. I never wound up in an ex-gay program. My parents weren’t openly hostile to gay people while I was questioning my sexuality and took my coming out really well. I even had a primary school teacher who set me up to handle coming out in a Christian environment (although I didn’t realise that’s what was happening at the time).

How did I get away with it? I didn’t do anything to make any of this happen. How could I?

Perhaps it was divine intervention. Perhaps I was just lucky. Either way, my gratitude is so deep I’ll never be able to fully express it.

Also, it’s not over yet. Charmed lives don’t always last.

On Being an Ally

Today (or maybe yesterday? I’m behind) my friend Amanda made a short post on Tumblr that I love so much I’m just going to repost it here in its entirety.

The thing is that feeling good and moral and righteous for being The Politically Correct one perpetuates relationships of oppression. If your political correctness brings you attention, you’re doing it wrong—it’s still a dominant group exploiting an oppressed group for personal gain. Performing your political correctness means using the oppressed group as a soapbox.

Political correctness and sensitivity are about removing obstacles to equal participation in the discussion. Dominant groups ought to be seeking to extricate themselves from the conversation—to clear some space, finally, for those to whom space and voice have been denied. Allies ought to redirect attention to those who can speak from experience about oppression and prejudice. Being an ally means taking a slice of humble pie and making oneself small in order to let others stand up.

My oppression should not make you feel good about yourself. If it does, you’re doing it wrong. Dominant voices continue to dominate the conversation when political correctness becomes “This is how those people want us to talk about them.”

Let us speak.

Like, can I get an amen?

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“Being Gay is a Gift from God”

A year or so ago I came across a video on YouTube from the Oprah Winfrey Show, in which the eponymous host was interviewing religious figures. It was all very Oprah-style, self-helpish philosophy, and one minister, on the topic of homosexuality said, “Being gay is a gift from God.”

Oprah was shocked and visibly impressed. I was incredulous.

Although I was out to all the important figures in my life and relatively comfortable with my own sexuality, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. A gift from God? Seriously? My orientation was a given; God could do with it whatever he liked, and I wasn’t expecting it to change. All the same, being gay didn’t feel like a gift from God, it was a thorn in my side.

If I wasn’t gay I could’ve dated a girl and had a wedding like my friends at home.

If I wasn’t gay I might’ve avoided the rumors and bullying that dogged me all through school.

If I wasn’t gay I wouldn’t have woken up one morning to find an email from family friends asking me why I hadn’t come out to them yet—they’d heard on the grapevine months prior.

It was to me then an inconvenience, and if you had asked me if I would take a magic pill to make me straight, I probably would have said yes. If I was straight my life would be easier, but I figured I would just have to make the best of it.

Since that time my perspective has changed. It hasn’t been one thing in particular, but many small things that have made me think differently. I’ve discovered communities of interesting, thoughtful people like me through the internet and by visiting churches scattered across two continents. It’s meant I can empathise with other people who don’t fit in at churches for some reason or another. I’ve also been able to speak more openly about my faith, often in places that are resistant or hostile to any sort of spiritual discussion at all. Sometimes I speak through the lens of my sexuality, sometimes not.

I see a lot of gay Christian bloggers express a similar sentiment to what I had back then, that being gay is something that only makes their lives difficult and is something you just have to suffer through. Sometimes that’s true, and I understand where they are coming from, but I also have this growing sense that, yes, my sexuality really is a gift from God. I have unique opportunities not open to other people. I have challenges too, but I can live with that.

Back before I came out, I didn’t expect or even want to be in the place being gay has put me. I think a lot of people feel that way about all sorts of parts of their lives, not necessarily their sexual orientation. But even though this isn’t where I thought I’d be, I know it’s okay for me to be here. My circumstances are a privilege, and I want to honour them and the God who has placed me in them.

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Pushing for an Equitable Society

Well after yesterday’s post about Zac Efron wrestling a crocodile I felt like I should try a bit harder today. Someone even pointed out to me that the creature Zac Efron was wrestling was not, in actual fact, a crocodile. It was an alligator. As I said, I wasn’t trying very hard.

URUGUAYLast night I was thinking about Uruguay. On Wednesday Uruguay became the third country in the Americas to legalise same-sex marriage. Mostly I was quoting Homer Simpson to myself, but I was also thinking about how marriage equality isn’t the end game. In the same way that women and racial minorities are still discriminated against in particular ways, gay, lesbian and bisexual people are not going to be magically accepted by everyone once same-sex marriage is permitted. For example, I’m sure couples in Canada, Argentina, etc would still tell you about certain times and places they aren’t able/comfortable to hold hands in public. Understanding and acceptance of trans* people still has a long way to go.

My recent traipsing around from city to city has meant I’ve visited a lot of different churches—everything from Hillsong London and New York to MCC San Francisco. I don’t know what the “end game” is for LGBT people in churches. I thoroughly enjoyed the service at MCC, but I’m not convinced every LGBT-friendly church needs to look or act like that one.

Whatever it is, my prayer is that I will never lose my passion for making churches a safe place for people who don’t fit in, even after I personally feel safe in every church I attend. I hope the LGBT community doesn’t begin to rest on its laurels as acceptance of LGBT people increases. Perhaps it’s too much to hope for, but I’d like to think LGBT activists will continue to push for a more equitable society generally long after they have achieved equality for themselves.

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