An Open Letter to Peter Abetz in response to his disparaging comments about homosexuality and anti-bullying measures to be rolled out in Western Australian schools:
“really not an anti-bullying program”
“in fact, when you look at it closer, it really is little more than a gay, lesbian, transgender lifestyle promotion program”
“the militant gay lesbian lobby is trying to get this into our schools to ‘normalise’ what they consider the LGBTI agenda”
“to try and make … heterosexual the abnorm, that is just crazy and defies common sense”
Peter Abetz’ comments are no doubt concerning to the gay, bisexual and transgender segments of the LGBTI community but Listening2Lesbians is a lesbian specific site and will consequently discuss the implications of his comments for lesbians only.
Dear Peter Abetz,
I was disappointed to read that you oppose the introduction of an anti bullying program in Australian schools.
I understand that there are different ways to tackle bullying. Some methods attack the basis on which kids are bullied (in this case being LGBTI) and some methods attack the behaviour itself, such as more generic anti bullying campaigns that promote diversity without addressing the specific basis for the bullying. It sounds like a simple choice, but I do think it’s more complicated than is often assumed. American legal academic, Martha Minnow wrote about the dilemma of difference and concluded that “the stigma of difference may be recreated both by ignoring and by focussing on it… The problems of inequality can be exacerbated by both treating members of minority groups the same as members of the majority and by treating the two groups differently.”
Whether a campaign that highlights a single realm of difference can end bigoted bullying or not, in the context of a broader lack of representation and ongoing structural discrimination is, therefore, debatable. It is certainly possible that in highlighting the differences between these kids and others, stigma and a feeling of otherness could be exacerbated, rather than diminished.
But the well being of LGBTI kids wasn’t your real concern, as it was reported. You seemed to be worried about the contagious effect of this program, that it might infect straight kids, stating that the Safe Schools anti-bullying program is “little more than a gay, lesbian, transgender lifestyle promotion program”. You also stated that most LGBTI youth grow out of same sex attraction.
This sounds a lot to me like you are arguing that there is a “militant gay lesbian lobby” spreading sexuality-based propaganda, which may corrupt youth, who left alone would be heterosexual.
The “militant gay lesbian lobby” leading kids astray?
This is pure misrepresentation. The only sexuality based propaganda that is widely disseminated in Australia is heterosexual. By the time lesbians become adults, they have experienced 18 years of codified training into heterosexuality that has begun at birth, with expectations clearly expressed in all elements of our society, from legal structures to social expectations.
The training towards heterosexuality is part of the training children receive to meet gender stereotypes, and has specific implications for girls. We are taught at home, at school, and in the community, how to be the “right kind” of girl and, later, woman. Compulsory femininity and compulsory heterosexuality are intrinsically related through constantly reinforced gender stereotypes.
The net consequence is that kids and adults alike understand what the “correct” and socially acceptable way to be a woman or girl is, how she should behave, and what the range of choices available to her are. While the spectrum of acceptability is more diverse than it once was, there are also ways in which the situation has worsened.
In any case, the forced adherence to gender stereotypes can have particularly significant effects on lesbians, specifically those who are gender non conforming and who do not display the minimum levels of “femininity” expected by society.
It may not be apparent to you, as a straight man, but there are hundreds of tiny ways a week that we are reminded that heterosexuality is the default and preferable and that society is not structured to support our lives. Everything from government structures to social commentary and media representation fails to tell lesbians that our lives are OK, with the effects particularly toxic for young lesbians.
A survey of same-sex attracted and gender questioning teenagers conducted by La Trobe University 2010 found that 60% had experienced homophobic verbal abuse and 18% had experienced physical abuse. It found that respondents were twice as likely to self-harm or have suicidal thoughts if they had been verbally abused, and three times as likely if they had been physically abused.
Eighty per cent of that abuse occurred in schools.
THESE are the young kids I am most worried about. Straight kids have everything around them supporting, promoting and validating them. They aren’t going to be affected by a single poster campaign, because we aren’t contagious and neither is homosexuality. Despite your claims, heterosexuality is not about to be the “abnorm”.
Society provides few positive role models for gender non-conforming women and lesbians, with social structures strongly prioritising the clear expectation that women’s lives will centre around a relationship with a man, the formation of a family and the performance of motherhood. The position of women in our society is still clearly secondary, with abuse of and violence against women ongoing issues.
The effects of living in a society that does not value women, and more so lesbians, results in grim rates of suicide and depression, particularly among our youth. This tells me that far from being a society in which we need less pro-lesbian propaganda, we need to be working harder to change social structures and attitudes towards lesbians, and gender non conformity in general.
Representation matters – we need to see a full spectrum of what it can mean to be lesbian, if we want to improve how lesbians, most particularly young women, see themselves and are seen by broader society.
So, militant propaganda? I WISH we had some, because it would take decades of it to counter the effects of growing up in a culture where heterosexuality is as promoted and socially enforced as it is.
It’s just a phase
Beyond this though, your comment on homosexuality being a phase was so disappointing. Kids aren’t born with a manual explaining their sexuality, and for some it can take time to work out and accept it. A significant amount of delay in coming out is based on growing up in a culture that promotes heterosexuality so strongly and punishes homosexuality. So, while there are undoubtedly some kids who are not sure about their sexuality – largely based on being young in a society that vilifies, others and belittles lesbians – sexuality is not a phase. There is no natural innate heterosexuality within ourselves that we are failing to conform to.
I’m not prejudiced but…
“I think in Australia most people are quite tolerant. Most people know someone among their relatives or workmates who is a lesbian or gay or whatever, and they don’t bat an eyelid – they just accept them as human beings with inherent value and you treat them with dignity and respect.”
I’m not sure how convincing this is.
After having launched into a moral panic argument which both framed positive representation as an attempt by some “militant lesbian and gay lobby” intent on leading the youth astray, you claimed that much same sex attraction among young people ‘was a phase’. How is it possible for anyone to defend statements such as yours as being anything other than homophobic?
You claim that most Australians are OK with lesbians and gay people, but I suspect that this means that they are OK with the lesbian and gay people who look and sound like them, and don’t challenge their view of the world. That doesn’t really indicate embracing diversity and it isn’t enough to make us safe or welcomed. A begrudging non-discrimination is no basis for full and equal social participation.
It is perhaps easy to speak from a position of social power and criticise efforts to improve the lives of some of our more vulnerable children, but it’s sadly lacking in compassion and speaks to a disregard for the welfare of LGBTI kids, some of whom will be your friends’ kids, your constituents’ kids, perhaps YOUR kids. More importantly, LGBTI children are human beings worthy of your concern in and of their own right.
You may have concerns about this particular campaign, but please don’t mistake our need to tell LGBTI kids that they are OK for propaganda that seeks to influence or confuse straight kids.
None of us have any intention of confusing kids at all. We want to support them to live emotionally healthy and socially engaged lives, whatever their sexuality. Despite your message of grudging tolerance, in criticising this campaign, you have just demonstrated exactly why it was needed.
The subtext of your comments about a militant lobby rendering heterosexuality the abnorm is clear: Be lesbian and gay if you must, but don’t be obvious about it and don’t expect support. Most of all, don’t work to support kids who are discovering or coming to terms with their sexuality.
I reject that.
Growing up lesbian or gay can be very lonely without representation and support. We won’t condemn our kids to that, even if you would.