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 information.bi 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.

 

 

Including bisexuals in LGBTI+ campaigns, including the UN’s

In 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) launched the UN Free & Equal  campaign. It aims to address prejudice towards people based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.UN_Free_and_Equal

They have just released their 2016 Progress Report, which highlights (among other things) that they have reached an incredible 1.5 billion people with their many online and on-the-ground campaigns throughout the globe.

This level of outreach for the rainbow community is unprecedented, and given the role of the UN and the esteem of the OHCHR, it is imperative that they get their campaigns right.

It is entirely appropriate that the campaign targets where LGBTI+ people suffer the worst discrimination and violence. However, in their general communications, they must ensure they do not perpetuate existing problems. There are still instances where bisexuals are erased from the community and from the Free & Equal campaign.

Again and again, research illustrates why it is critical that bisexuals’ issues are accounted for in campaigns by, or for, the rainbow community.

Biphobia and bisexual erasure mean that bisexuals have heightened concerns about stigma and are, therefore, less likely to reveal their sexual orientation than homosexuals. They suffer stigma-related stress and report a greater sense of isolation and lack of social support. The disconnection is not just from heterosexuals, but also from gays and lesbians, which isolates bisexuals from the rainbow community where they might expect support. (At the recent Pride Festival in Wellington, New Zealand, people who were ostensibly gay and lesbian openly expressed negativity towards the presence of a bisexual stall with bisexual staff.)

Bisexual women are more than three times as likely to be raped as straight or lesbian women, affecting nearly 1 in 2 bisexual women.

Given such conditions, bisexuals suffer from: internalised biphobia; a reduced sense of safety; increased rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidality; increased binge-drinking, substance abuse and heavy smoking; and lower GP awareness of sexual orientation and behaviour and, therefore, lower testing and identification of sexually-transmitted diseases. Most of these well-being indicators are worse for bisexuals than for homosexuals because of the aforementioned prejudice from within the LGBTI+ community.

[References to all of this research can be provided upon request.]

The UN Free & Equal campaign frequently uses the phrase “LGBT and intersex” as its all-encompassing language. However, bisexual erasure sneaks in a few times. In their Progress Report:

  • They use the acronym, IDAHOT, which erases bisexuals. (Page 5) An inclusive alternative is IDAHOBIT.
  • They refer to “gay” relationships being criminalised, when bisexual people can be in similar-sex relationships too. (Page 7)
  • There is a screenshot of a Tweet which says, “Homophobia and transphobia harms [sic] the mental health of LGBT youth”. Yes, and biphobia is evidently more harmful, and thus needs to have been included. (Page 9)

The campaign is doing excellent work, and I applaud them for it. It is critical, however, that the harms from bisexual erasure are not perpetuated by a programme with such massive global reach.

In fact, ideally, given how relatively poor bisexuals’ well-being is, what’s really called for is a targeted programme to deal with the specific issues of biphobia.

When the Free & Equal campaign gets bi-inclusion right, hopefully local rainbow organisations can follow suit and start really representing everyone in the sexual orientation and gender identity spectra.

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Bisexuals’ unique issues are frequently subsumed by generic LGBTI campaigns, but need to be considered separately, both in research and in campaigns like the UN’s.

unfe stamps

UN Stamps sold 150,000 of their Free & Equal sets

Migration = Assimilation

A great deal of the discussion about relocating people from low-lying atoll countries focuses on migration; a flexible but particular legal mechanism for managing the movement of individuals between countries.

But migration does not need to be the only way of moving from one territory to another. New ways are entirely possible. Ways that keep communities functioning together.

Migration as Assimilation and Colonisation

But the migration paradigm is deeply set. A new report, Tuvalu: Climate Change and Migration, is the latest example. It directly acknowledges the risks posed by migration, saying that:

“A previous study found that many Tuvaluans will not consider migration … as it will lead to a loss of sovereignty and cultural identity.” [p 64]

In spite of these concerns, the authors specifically recommend that:

“migration … should be promoted” [p 64]

The authors attempt to appease the Tuvaluans’ concerns, saying that their “perspectives need to be acknowledged in order to facilitate dignified migration”. [p 64]

First of all, it’s not a mere “perspective”. It is culture, and culture is life.

As the President of the Marshall Islands, Hilde Heine, recently said:

“Marshallese people, culture and land have a symbiotic relationship – one that can’t exist without the other. That’s why moving is not a viable option. As a nation facing cultural extinction due to climate change, we plead to stronger and major polluting countries to spare us the eminent fate of being climate refugees.”

Similarly, in an outstanding case study of the Carteret Islanders’ relocation, Sophie Pascoe found that:

“Leaving the islands is very traumatic for the Carteret Islanders because it means leaving their livelihoods, values, culture and ancestors behind.”

Migration with dignity is a noble idea. But given the scale of loss facing low-lying islanders, the forced relocation of peoples with deep cultural, spiritual and ancestral ties to land and sea is a catastrophic result of carbon pollution, no matter how well their movement is planned and managed.

Forced migration is nothing like lifestyle migration, and it should not be equated with it or confused with it.

Think of it as a kind of inverse colonisation. Instead of the coloniser coming to a peoples and forcing them to assimilate into the coloniser’s culture, they’re now forcing the peoples to come to them and integrate into wider society.

Culture is not a static phenomenon, so cultures change. Also, the people will enjoy a nominal measure of protection in their new country. (For example, in the New Zealand Bill of Rights, minorities have a right to enjoy their culture.) However, within just a couple of generations, the changes for migrant people and families in a new, dominant culture will be massive and inevitable. This is the risk that President Heine is referring to in her comments above.

Relocation: A Long-Term Enterprise with Self-Determination at its Very Core

h-c-fassett-ellice-is-1900

Woman on Funafuti, 1900 (source: Wikipedia)

Discussion on migration – despite its good intentions – almost never addresses the fact that Tuvaluans, as a peoples, have a collective right of self-determination in international law. In the new report about Tuvalu and migration, the term “self-determination” does not even appear.

Self-determination is far more than mere dignity, or simply the acknowledgement of a perspective. It is a right to autonomy, governance, and – indeed – continuity of statehood.

The collective right of self-determination is international law of jus cogens* and erga omnes* character and status. It is one of the most fundamental aspects of international law, critical to achieving all other human rights, and a basis for international peace and security.

But relocation discourse rarely entertains the concept and this must change. Focusing on migration is a massive breach of the right of self-determination, and the concomitant right for these sovereign States to continue, and to continue to give effect to the values, cultures and aspirations of their peoples.

Ensuring continued enjoyment of self-determination in the territory of another State is a challenge. But it just requires some innovating thinking.

At the most basic level, the lexicon must change from “migration”, “displaced persons” and “refugee”, to “relocation” or “human mobility”: words and phrases which don’t have particular legal meanings or any existing political baggage, to ensure our minds are open to a more creative range of solutions.

For the nations, cultures, languages, traditions, customs and – therefore – the peoples of low-lying States, relocation must then be considered as an extremely long-term enterprise, that has their collective right of self-determination at its core, along with all the substantive and procedural rights that follow.

Given that low-lying islanders bear absolutely no responsibility for climate change, this is the least we can do. If not, then we’re hitting them twice: once in the territory; once in the nation.