Sydney’s rainbow community need to head west

The majority support for marriage equality in Australia is, of course, something to celebrate. And yet, at a deep personal level, I feel gutted.

At the national level, there are some exciting statistics. For example, 78.2% of people aged 18 to 19 voted in favour. Also, every State and territory voted in favour, and every single electorate voted in favour in the ACT, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

If I still lived in Australia (I’ve been in New Zealand for over a decade), perhaps I’d feel it differently. But, from here, 61.6% doesn’t feel like a “landslide” to me.

4,873,987 individual adult Australians, that is, 38.4% of those who submitted their survey, voted against the human rights of LGBTI+ people.

Many of those people live in Western Sydney.

I grew up in the suburb of Greystanes, which is about seven kilometres west of Parramatta, and in the electorate of McMahon that also includes Blacktown, Penrith and Fairfield.

McMahon had Australia’s third highest “No” vote: 65% of its residents voted against the equal treatment under the law of LGBTI+ people.

When I was in fourth class, at Beresford Road Public School, Culture Club were the big thing. After we’d gotten our heads around Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit in compulsory recorder lessons, the class was allowed to choose a popular song, from a limited list, that we’d learn to play. As a 9 or 10 year old boy, I was already hesitant to admit I wanted to do the Culture Club song, but it seemed most of the class was keen. So, I worked around my internal tensions and raised my hand at the right moment.

Unfortunately for me, “most of the class” turned out to be all the girls. The 9 and 10 year old boys in the class teased and bullied me mercilessly for being a “poofter” and a “girl”, and shoved me around the playground in the breaks. This went on for days, and the name-calling and ostracization continued for years: through until about year 11. Pure and simple, that moment in fourth class defined me as a “fag” – the guy who “gets a hard-on doin’ a shit” – even after that particular class was long forgotten (by the bullies).

Those school years – at Beresford Road Public School, Greystanes High, and Newman High (since renamed St Pauls Catholic College) – were torturous and left scars.

It is reasonable to expect some positive cultural shift, even in Sydney’s west, flowing from the survey result and the eventual passing of legislation (that, hopefully, won’t be bastardized by the conservatives).

But, for my mind, the results in Western Sydney are appalling.

Right this minute, as you read this, there are bisexual, gay, lesbian and/or transgender people of all ages who will be dealing – loudly or silently – with heinous treatment – directly or indirectly – by their families, friends, and peers.

As I imagine them, I can’t feel the excitement that so many others are enjoying because of the overall survey result.

So, enjoy the moment, and then, dear Sydneysiders, head west. LGBTI+ people there need a community where they are respected for who they are. Reach out to them and you will save lives and heartbreak.

Stanczyk during a Ball at the Court of Queen Bona after the Loss of Smolensk by Jan Matejko 1862

“Stanczyk during a Ball at the Court of Queen Bona after the Loss of Smolensk” by Jan Matejko (1862)

It’s Literally (not Figuratively) Erasure

Twitter has applied a “sensitive material” filter on the word “bisexual”, with the result being that a search for that word finds no results under Twitter’s categories of “Photos”, “Videos” and “News”.

Put the shoe on the other foot: imagine the response if all results were filtered when people searched Twitter for “Catholic”, or “MAGA”, or simply their favourite sports team.

There is abundant research showing that, compared to their straight and gay counterparts, bisexual people suffer dire outcomes in terms of mental health, suicidality, substance abuse, and unsafe sexual practices. These outcomes are caused by a unique form of prejudice, biphobia.

Biphobia is manifested in a number of ways, but relevant here is bisexual erasure. Erasure involves denying the existence of bisexuality altogether (“there’s no such thing”). Alternatively, it may involve situations where the revelation of a person’s bisexuality is met with assertions that they’re not; that they’re actually straight, gay or lesbian, or just “going through a phase”, and other such claims.

An insidious form of erasure is the literal removal of bisexuality from LGBTI+ vocabulary (“gay marriage”), research (“gay men”, when referring to all men who have sex with men), and participation in LGBTI+ organisations and events.

Removing “bisexual” as a search term in a global social media platform literally erases bisexual people’s existence, and cuts off a central resource for community and erasureTwitter has not yet explained its reasons, so we can only speculate that this action was conceived of, developed, and implemented to stop something less desirable than, for example, climate change denial and white supremacy, which are discussed liberally on the platform.

This buys into another form of biphobia: negative stereotypes. If Twitter were attempting to filter out hyper-sexualised content tagged with “bisexual”, then removing all bisexual content perpetuates the myth that bisexual people are promiscuous and indiscriminate.

The blunt policy choice speaks volumes of the biphobia at Twitter, since the company surely could have rolled out nuanced filtering systems.

Even after two days of outcry by bisexual users all over the world, the search capability has not been restored, even though online bullies, misogynists, racists and bigots can have their account up and running again within 11 minutes after something goes awry.[1]

Scholarly research on what enhances bisexual people’s wellbeing finds that an important factor is access to online social networks.[2] The web offers a community and a sense of belonging. It’s a source of information and resources for bisexual people and people exploring their sexual orientation, so #bisexual matters.

Twitter’s simpleton policy — implemented without ex ante consultation or warning, or ex post explanation or correction — literally removes this important source of wellbeing.

Rubbing salt into the wound, at the time of writing, the problem does not seem to have been reported on or discussed on social media by any New Zealand-based LGBTI+ organisation, except Beyond Binaries (of which I am a founding trustee and operate the Twitter account).

All together, this paints a picture of deep biphobia.



On Environmental Guilt

Christmas carols are loathed by many, but I love them. It’s got nothing to do with any musical or religious values. Instead, like the smell of sunscreen, these songs signal the end of the year’s labours: functional, intellectual, social and emotional. No matter how good or awful, Bing Crosby, Band Aid, Michael Bublé and Wham all bring a sense of delightful nothingness; sincere relaxation.

reading - Henri Roger Viollet.jpg

(Reading by Henri Roger Viollet)

Stress-free time with family and friends deepens this feeling, as do new books and CDs, board games, old episodes of QI, the long summer days, and briefly ignoring my paunch.

In spite of what critics sayincluding my inner, righteous voice (the only part of me that can still appear youthful)Christmas sales shopping is fun, too.

Those of us who understand environmental non-sustainability are often prohibited from such simple pleasures by our own knowledge and principles. But I’m far less imprisoned by these things nowadays.

Logic and ethics are clearly against gratuitous consumerism, but there’s no escaping the fact that it feels nice to buy books and CDs, and to have new clothes and household items, even when we have ample selections already.

How do we reconcile these pleasures against our desire to act in accordance with nature?

Individual Action

There’s a lot going on when we’re implored to make environmentally-conscious spending decisions. We know it’s right and hence we feel empowered when we act consistently with ecological facts. We control certain environmental outcomes, and this satisfies our desires to be persons of ethical integrity and to show our peers that we’re intelligent and principled.

We should remind ourselves of these positive feelings so we can decide in a rigorous way whether or not to mine non-essential goods from the open-cast shops.

Unfortunately for nature and those who are most affected by non-sustainability, those positive feelings of integrity may not be as strong as the pleasures we derive from buying stuff like The Beatles’ back catalogue, as I did on Boxing Day.

Collective Action

However, feeling guilty when we make ecologically impure decisions is counter-productive.

When we claim ownership of environmental problems as individuals, we are at the same time removing responsibility from those who have the greatest powers for minimising the impacts of human beings’ naturally-inclined behaviours: governments and industry.

The decline of all environmental indicators over the 50+ years since Silent Spring* proves that our decisions are doing very little to solve the biodiversity, water and climate crises. They are assisted, slowed down and delayed, but clearly not stopped or reversed.

The potential benefits of centralised decision-making eclipses that of individuals’ collective actions.

Take transport, for example. At a recent meeting of a climate change-focused NGO, a participant suggested that the organisation should look at making everyone use bicycles. I asked, “And how will I get my daughter’s rowing team to regattas?” and the well-meaning young chap slumped back into his chair and said, “I guess I didn’t think of that.”

Whilst walking, cycling and public transport are critical parts of the overall puzzle of sustainable transport, the problems are systemic, not individual. An ethical government could quite easily implement a suite of policies aimed at making our carstechnologies that are absolutely essential for 21st Century urban liferun on sustainable energy, whether renewable electricity (electric cars), renewable liquid fuels (biofuels), or both.

Take electricity as a second example. I’ve written previously on how solar energy does nothing in New Zealand to reduce a home-owner’s carbon footprint and might, in fact, increase the global carbon footprint. The idea of generating your own renewable electricity sounds powerful, but you’re only avoiding the use of centralised renewableshydro, wind and geothermaland therefore saving no greenhouse gas emissions. If New Zealand decides to progress from its current 80 percent renewable electricity to 90 or 100 percent then, again, an ethical government could quite easily implement a suite of policies that make that happen.

In these examples of sustainable transport and electricity, the benefits of individuals’ actions are negligible, at best, and pale in comparison to the potential of government intervention.

That’s not to say that our individual decisions don’t matter. They absolutely do. As much as I enjoy V8 cars, I would never buy one because they are plainly unethical. As much as I enjoy hamburgers, eating beef is plainly unethical. Our individual decisions have some effect on the demand for non-sustainable goods; they satisfy our sense of self; and they help educate the people around us. We should continue to make ethical individual decisions.

At the same time, however, we should be alert to the fact that most causes of our non-sustainability are systemic and, critically, could be solved by the ordinary machinery of government policy-making. Quite easily, in many instances.

For example, the decision to subsidise insulation has led to, in just 7 years, nearly 300,000 homes (about 20 percent of all New Zealand households) being warmer and healthier, and demanding less electricity. The impact of this large-scale programme has included reducing New Zealand’s demand for electrcity at peak times (morning and evening), thereby removing any need for new large-scale generation. Without that government intervention, perhaps a few thousand households would have done this on their own accord. Instead, the centralised policy decision created these enormous private and public benefits.

Collective Responsibility, Not Individual Guilt

Instead of feeling guilty about hopping into your car and zipping into town to replace the coffee table you’ve had since you were a student, remember that the question of ecological integrity rests with government and industry far more than it rests with us because of the simple matter of their powers compared to ours.

Balancing our needs for global responsibility and personal pleasure in an informed and ethical way helps us live with integrity, but more happily. And it reminds us that, ultimately, we need to put the onus on governments to intervene scientifically in environmental stewardship.

Dreaming or October by Maxfield Parrish 1928.jpg

Living in harmony with nature is fulfilling as an individual, but essential for the collective powers of governments and industry. (Dreaming of October by Maxfield Parish, 1928)


Don’t overlook the positives of Disney’s Moana

Below is a piece I wrote – originally published on, 19 September 2016 – about the importance of global representation of Pasifika nations and cultures in the climate change era. I was concerned that that representation would get lost to concerns about cultural appropriation.

Today, my views were vindicated a little more. Opetaia Foa’i and Julie Foa’i of the musical group, Te Vaka, were  interviewed on Radio New Zealand. They contributed to the soundtrack of Moana.

Opetaia and Julie were asked about cultural appropriation, “You think they’ve learnt their lessons with Pocahontas and so on?”

Julie responded, “Oh absolutely. But in saying that, you’re never going to please everybody but they were sincerely moved by their own experiences in the South Pacific and they wanted to reflect the beauty that they discovered for themselves. The producer, and the directors and various other people had toured around the islands for a couple of years before we were on board. They’ve done a lot of development and investigation and all the things that they do to make what you’re going to see shortly.”

The concerns about cultural appropriation are entirely valid. I just hope that those concerns don’t drown out representation of nations that so desperately need to be seen and heard right now.

Here’s my original editorial in full:

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