Bully For Us

It’s come to my attention, courtesy of more than one person (some quite close to me), that my online presence has shifted subtly from being that of an atheist secondarily concerned with the issue of marriage equality to a gay man secondarily concerned with that of secularism. I’ll not name these people and am quite convinced they meant nothing by it, but I’ll still take the opportunity, given that this is my own greatly neglected blog space, to deny it as vehemently as I can without – perish the thought – inadvertently coming off as (unduly) confrontational.

The political landscape in Australia, as it stands, is going through a bit of an exciting phase. It’s not up to me to say whether or not this phase has any legs – suffice to say that I hope it does – but it is, nevertheless, undeniable. Gay marriage, marriage equality, is getting more and more mainstream attention. So much attention from our National Broadcaster, in fact, that it has earned a new nickname from at least one (although one could assume this implicitly means more than one) Liberal MP. Don Randall is not the only one to have noticed this. Allow me to digress to personal anecdote for just a moment.

I work in a fairly unremarkable industry performing a fairly menial job with fairly average Australians. That is to say I believe I work with a decent cross-section of the community that have an interest in politics equal to, or perhaps slightly above, that of your average Aussie. One of the more communal activities we enjoy is, of a Tuesday morning, deconstructing the material discussed during the ABC’s Q&A from the previous night*. I recall a recent conversation with my boss over the final episode of Q&A, during which the topic of gay marriage was raised once again. My boss – a father of four, twice married – lamented that he was quite tired of the issue being brought up week in and week out, in his opinion derailing important issues more worthy of our attention than this ‘no-brainer’, as he puts it (though I strongly suspect his idea of ‘no-braining’ it is to dismiss the issue out of hand altogether). It was a personal opinion, not one that I took too personally or to heart, but it stuck with me. The previous post on this blog, posted some months ago now, referred to the irksome argument against gay marriage that goes along the lines of the following:

I’m sick of this issue constantly coming up when we could be talking about more important things. Why don’t gays ever discuss THOSE issues?

I invite you to peruse that post for my response to this weak argument. For the purpose of this post, it will suffice to note that it seems for many straight people the issue of gay marriage is more a bother than anything else. It’s that troublesome side-issue that will not go away. That polarising topic that can’t be brought up around a dinner table or water cooler without someone getting offended or self-righteous, and as such is best avoided altogether.

The conversation continued. ‘I think,’ my fellow average Australian continued, ‘that Tony Jones must be gay. He does, after all, give the gay marriage issue a lot of press. It comes up every week on Q&A and he will not let the issue drop. I just get the feeling that he must be gay.’

Fellow average Australian is not quite net-savvy enough to check Wikipedia for the definitive answer to his musings. However, his comment highlights something that I think could be instructive to everyone. What he did, without realising it, was illustrate the exact reason why the gay marriage debate does not have a slew of straight allies lining up to speak out on its behalf. In a nutshell, he demonstrated exactly how pervasive bullying can be in our everyday, rational, adult lives. He didn’t realise it, I must stress, but he had just handed any bully looking to tread on the lives and rights of the gay community all the ammunition they need to conduct a standover campaign that has stunted, and continues to stunt, acceptance and progress right across the world.

It Gets Better. Sort Of.

Anti-Gay bullying has been in the news for quite some time now. As a direct response to this, Dan Savage launched the invaluable ‘It gets better’ project for gay youth. I made a video for it myself. I’ll not hear a negative word said against it – had I stumbled on a resource like this on YouTube in my youth, things might have turned out differently. I may have been more confident, more outspoken, more comfortable. Happier.

But it does fail to address one particular thorn in the gay community’s craw that, as far as I’m aware, is not really dealt with by anybody in the mainstream media. The fact is that, as much as people like to trumpet their acceptance (or, as a compromise, their tolerance), and for as much as I can point people to poll after study after poll that indicates 70-odd percent of Australians are in favour of marriage equality, the bullying that most of us went through during our school years has never really left us. It’s still there, and it’s more subtle, and it’s affecting us in a way that we might not be properly dealing with.

Straight people, and straight men in particular, are reluctant to declare their support for gay marriage in an open and up-front way. I have tried to analogise this for others when it comes up in debate, and the best way I found was to think of it as follows:

Imagine that a poll exists that definitively gauges support for gay marriage. There are three options. ‘(a) I support gay marriage’. ‘(b) I am straight and I support gay marriage’. ‘(c) I do not support gay marriage’. Can any of you envisage a straight male – to a similar extent, a straight female – that would be willing to select option ‘a’ over option ‘b’? Unfair, you might claim. The wording is misleading. In fact you might consider that a straight male choosing option ‘b’ was being yet more selfless than he selecting option ‘a’ by declaring that he has no vested interest in the outcome of the poll. ‘Though I do not stand to benefit, I support the rights of others’.

But I suspect I know the real reason that they would not select option ‘a’. I’ve already mentioned it. It is because most people in this country – most average Australians, male and female – are terrified of the bullies.

To elaborate:

Recall the assumptions made by my, I must insist, overwhelmingly open and considerate boss about Tony Jones. A man shows a little support for gay marriage and you can see the suspicion begin to creep in to the thoughts of the undecided or unaffected. To the mind of the average Australian, support is not the default response. It becomes easy and comfortable to rationalise support away as being driven by a personal stake. ‘His interest in the topic is so strong – by virtue of the fact that he holds an interest at all – that he must surely be batting for the other team’.

This is not an unusual assumption. Hearsay and personal experience ought to confirm it enough for any individual reading this, though if you are still in doubt I can only refer you to the screenshot posted below this paragraph. Adam Bandt is the Greens MP who has brought the issue of gay marriage to the fore in the last 24 hours of writing this. I just had a feeling that the question may have been asked before. Call it clairvoyance**.

To voice one’s support of gay marriage without some kind of explicit mandate is immediately assumed to mean that one is of the gay persuasion one’s self. The assumption can be as baseless as those made in regard to Tony Jones and Adam Bandt – it’s still painting a target on the forehead of the person voicing their support for the bullies to commence hurling their muck. For a straight man or woman to announce support for gay marriage is to opt-in to the kind of day-in, day-out bullying that gay people are subjected to constantly. And why on earth should a straight person want to do that?

Before I raise too much ire: I am by no means suggesting that there are zero examples of straight men and women who offer their unequivocal, wholehearted, unconditional support for gay marriage without care for the mudslinging they are signing up for. There are innumerable individuals one might point to – Adam Bandt and Tony Jones being but two of them. Nor am I saying that the support offered by those straight people comfortable enough to declare their wholehearted but separate solidarity is meaningless or somehow devalued. I do not think this. Any support for gay marriage is valuable, appreciated, and above all moral. It is not the fault of any heterosexual individual that bullying of the homosexual community is so steeped into society, so casually accepted by legislators and social figureheads, that it makes them want to distance themselves from it as much as possible.

I am saying, however, that if we do not acknowledge that this is a major reason why there is not more support for gay marriage from otherwise righteous and upstanding members of the community then we are doing the bullies a favour by allowing them to operate unhindered. We empower these bullies to continue to maintain their desired status quo – that of unequal rights, social injustice and intolerance of anything different to themselves. I have up until now refrained from identifying these bullies and I don’t wish to implicate any one particular group as being more responsible than the other. You can assume, however, that I am referring primarily to groups whose morality is dictated by a higher power and who still control a sizeable portion of the public discourse of what is right and what is wrong. Churches. Religious lobby groups. You can nominate your favourite anti-gay group here and the thrust of the argument will hold up.

Dan Savage was right. It does get better after high school. But the bullying doesn’t so much abate as it goes to ground, shrouds itself in moral umbrage and demands to be taken seriously. If you still doubt the validity of this argument, consider the strong support that gay marriage receives from the atheist and sceptical communities. Why so much stronger the support from these quarters? Quite simply, it is because these people are used to dealing with the bullies that presume to dictate to normal people what is and is not acceptable. It’s what they (that is to say, we – I am writing with my atheist hat on here, after all) do. Disapproval from the church or from a group of people less concerned with secular principles is part and parcel. The bullies, for atheists, are a mostly defanged adversary because their disapproval means nothing.

The same cannot be said for many – dare I say most – average Australians. The ones who hear Tony Jones speak out on gay marriage and immediately assume he must be ‘one of them’. The ones who google ‘is Adam Bandt a gay’. The ones who denounce both of those things, but would still make a business of checking the ‘I’m straight’ box in that imaginary poll so that, if there be any bullies about, they will be shielded from the worst of the thuggish, subversive harassment and discrimination doled out for the gays. Disapproval from friends, family and community has got to be at least one reason why some straight men are reluctant to be strong supporters of gay marriage. It has got to be at least one reason why several people have pointed out to me that I’ve been extremely rabid in pursuing this gay marriage issue recently, whereas my tweets used to be ‘more balanced’. It has got to be one reason why we still find ourselves, in 2010, having this argument.

I’m Sorry

Having said all of these things, I do need to apologise if I have offended any heterosexual readers who feel I’ve been harsh. I appreciate I’ve taken a strong stance here, perhaps one that could be considered unreasonable. In my defence I can only reiterate my intention in a more succinct way.

I have no wish to demonise, marginalise or dismiss any heterosexual human being that is willing to offer their support to gay marriage in any capacity whatsoever. Despite my words today, I’ve no expectation that support needs to be all-or-nothing, or that partial support is worthless. Likewise I do not believe that those who do not proudly break forth from community bullying are somehow cowardly and need to ‘man up’, as it were. People will support – or oppose – the issue of gay marriage in their own way, and I’m not going to presume that I am in a unique position to judge whether or not they are doing a good enough job.

The only people that deserve to be demonised, marginalised, dismissed, ridiculed and shamed are the bullies that make this kind of thing okay. The bullies that never quite got over high school, that spout their own version of morality with the absolute authority of a zealot and foster an environment that makes it difficult and, yes, in some cases, impossible for the average Australian to support gay marriage as fully as they might like. My intention here is to point out that these bullies exist and that their influence is far-reaching and very strong. My hope is that if this kind of bullying can be recognised – if we can spot it, and call it out, and not allow it to dictate how we or those we are close to will respond to incredibly important social issues, we might stand a chance of making it better after all. It might be worth pointing out that Tony Jones is not automatically a homosexual simply because he has pursued the issue of gay marriage on the ‘GayBC’.

Anti-gay bullying is not fine in high school. On that, we are all agreed. But we’ve a fair distance to go before we eradicate anti-gay bullying out in the big, wide, adult world. Don’t put up with it. You might be straight, you might be gay, you might be anything in between – the bullying is going to target you one way or another. Make your high school self proud and stand up for yourself.

Even better, stand up for someone else.

*  While it was on, obviously. It’s a crying shame that Q&A should end so early, particularly given the political climate we inevitably find ourselves in the lead up to Christmas every single year.
** He isn’t, by the way.


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