Inside Story

Gay rights and the glass ceiling

How much has changed over the past four decades, asks Dennis Altman in this extract from his new book, The End of the Homosexual?

Dennis Altman 29 July 2013 3632 words

Progress in politics: Labor senator Penny Wong and former Greens senator Bob Brown, shown here in 2009. Alan Porritt/AAP Image

I BEGAN my first book, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, with the words, “To be a homosexual in our society is to be constantly aware that one bears a stigma.” The nature of that stigma has changed considerably – in Western societies, at least, homosexuality is no longer criminalised, nor in most cases is it regarded as illness or pathology. (Among many religious believers, of course, it is still regarded as a sin.) Clearly, much has changed since the days of the first gay liberation demonstrations, forty years ago. Yet, as the historian Shirleene Robinson wrote, only a few years ago, “It might be easy to feel that homophobia is no longer an issue for the majority of the queer population, and that the gay and lesbian liberation movement has successfully eradicated prejudices once so strongly held... this is not the case.”

Even so, by the turn of the twentieth century, it seemed that homosexuality had largely been incorporated into mainstream society, although there was a constant and uneasy balance between acceptance and disapproval. In Homosexual I wrote of the difference between tolerance and acceptance: the former is consistent with retaining disapproval and stigma, the latter is a recognition that difference does not imply any form of inequality. Over forty years, Australia moved from a general atmosphere of disapproval to a grudging tolerance, and then to the current mood of cautious acceptance. Homosexuals – at least, those who do not too blatantly break with other taboos – are now seen as part of the broader society, both as consumers and citizens. In a capitalist society, maybe the former leads to the latter. The 200th issue of the magazine OutRage (coincidentally published in January 2000), for example, contained advertisements for Yamaha bikes, Volkswagen cars and vodka, as well as more specifically gay businesses (sex venues, accommodation), along with lawyers, doctors, electricians and even carpet cleaners who catered to a gay clientele.

But the creation of a certain commercial space does not, in itself, mean the end of heteronormativity. Only last year, mX newspaper could still run a banner headline “Open the Closet: Study Finds Coming Out Still Hard to Do.” Both the language and the tone of the article are worth pondering. It followed a special radio program co-broadcast by JOY FM and the popular commercial radio station 3AW and hosted by Neil Mitchell, focusing on gay youth and depression, which drew on a study funded by the Beyond Blue Foundation, established by former Liberal Victorian premier Jeff Kennett to counter depression. Kennett now talks freely about the need for open discussion of sexuality, a considerable shift for a man who had previously been clearly uncomfortable with the subject; for some years he resisted acknowledging queer issues within his foundation. (Indeed, some years ago I hosted a film screening for the AIDS Trust attended by the then premier, whose body language communicated a strong impression that the whole issue was deeply embarrassing to him.) In the radio program, one could see the contradictions at work: yes, there have been huge strides towards greater acceptance, but these have not eroded the idea of a separate and discrete set of sexual identities.

In thinking about (homo)sexuality in the current moment, several themes come together: the ever-changing assumptions about sex, gender and their interaction; the persistence of homosexuality as the basis for identity, even as certain forms of gay and lesbian identity become “normalised”; the persistence of religious and cultural fears and prejudices while levels of acceptance are rising across the Western world; and the globalisation of debates about sexuality, in which homosex itself is often the central battleground.

There is little doubt that public attitudes to homosexuality, and perhaps to transgender identities, have shifted in major ways in most Western countries. Before the 2000 presidential election, the political scientist Alan Wolfe observed of the United States: “No other issue taps into... potential conflict more than the issue of homosexuality,” although he did also see significant changes occurring that would make the issue increasingly less divisive. Gay rights – and specifically support for same-sex marriage – have become a fault line between Democrats and Republicans, but in the 2012 presidential election it turned out to be a minor issue. Even so, there were still attempts by some to make opposition to gay rights central to the Republican Party’s campaign, and Mitt Romney was forced to demonstrate his anti-gay credentials by sacking an openly gay adviser.

In Australia, issues of discrimination remain, and legal battles have occurred over recent decades around parenting, adoption and marriage. But the ground has shifted: homosexuality is no longer widely regarded as sick, evil or deviant, even if it remains easy to find examples of people who still use that language. I noticed real changes over the past decade among my students, who spoke of gay and lesbian issues as if they were an unproblematic part of their world, and when free queer newspapers showed up in local shops and cafes alongside rock mags and advertisements for gyms and health foods. What once could not be discussed in public is now part of general discussion, so that proclaiming one’s sexuality no longer seems a particularly radical act, however difficult or even traumatic it might be for the individual.

Every week brings new evidence of major shifts in social attitudes towards homosexuality, at least in Western liberal societies. In October 2010 the British Equality and Human Rights Commission reported that the biggest gains in tolerance over the past twenty years had been the “dramatic shift in attitudes to homosexuality.” Also in Britain, at least one researcher, Eric Anderson, claims that homosexuality is becoming largely accepted: “Young people have disassociated themselves from homophobia the way they once did from racism.”

I think Anderson is partly right, even though it is equally true that racism is not dead, nor by any means have all young people disassociated themselves from it. Perhaps the biggest change is the openness with which many people, at least in Western urban societies, now discuss sexuality, so that being homosexual is no longer something shameful, hidden or, often, even remarkable. In contrast to older stereotypes, media representations now present a romanticised view of homosexuality, which is often more squeaky-clean than is believable – as in the movie Beginners, in which a married man in his seventies can, after the death of his wife, suddenly surround himself with new gay friends and find a boyfriend half his age. Would that my future were as rosy as Christopher Plummer’s.

This growing acceptance is also reflected in public opinion polls, although tracking them is difficult because questions and samples vary dramatically over time. (A number of published studies seem to be based on surveys of American college students, which perhaps tells us more about the laziness of researchers than it does about social attitudes.) In the 2002 national Australian survey of sexual behaviour, which does provide a representative sample of adults aged between sixteen and fifty-nine, a clear majority refused to describe homosexual behaviour as “always wrong,” with women more accepting than men, although men were far more accepting of two women than two men having sex. However, a third of the men and a quarter of the women surveyed felt that male homosexuality was wrong – a far higher percentage than those always opposed to abortion – which suggested that change still had a way to go. This finding was supported by a somewhat different survey conducted by the Australia Institute in 2005. Not surprisingly, acceptance of homosexuality in Australia is higher than in the United States, where white evangelical Protestants remain strongly opposed to it, although opposition is weakening among younger respondents.

But it is easy to read too much into these figures, which may tell us more about superficial norms than lived realities. Few whites will today express overt hostility towards other races, but those who are black or Arab live every day with the reality of real and painful prejudice. It has become more difficult to express overt dislike of homosexuality, but this does not mean deeper hostilities have disappeared, only that it has become less acceptable to express them.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating responses to David Marr’s claims in his Quarterly Essay about Tony Abbott’s homophobia was the almost instantaneous claim from Christopher Pearson, himself openly gay but also a conservative Catholic, that Abbott is in no way homophobic – a recognition that such a claim would be politically damaging to Abbott. Pearson ignored Abbott’s own public admission on television two years earlier that he felt threatened by homosexuals, a remark which he later retracted, but which appears to be a view held by some of his conservative colleagues. In the final episode of the ABC talk show Q&A in 2012, the Nationals’ senator Barnaby Joyce clearly struggled with his discomfort in talking about homosexuality on a panel with the openly lesbian senator Penny Wong.

Even so, homophobic prejudice is always a lurking possibility in mainstream politics. When the speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper, was accused of sexually harassing a staffer, James Ashby, in 2012 – a case that was thrown out by the courts, with a federal judge determining that Ashby’s claims were vexatious and motivated by political aims – at least one observer saw the whole matter as a “homophobic horror show.”

I was less convinced; indeed, I thought that most commentary around the case was very conscious of not stressing the homosexual angle. Rather, what seemed to be played out was a clash between two men of very different generations, neither of whom came out of the affair well. Slipper, who was conventionally married, had fallen for a younger man and seemed clumsy and incautious in pursuit, making him easy prey for Ashby, who appeared eager to manipulate the situation for political and possibly monetary gain, having employed a legal firm that had won considerable damages in previous high-profile cases of sexual harassment. But despite some rather nasty attempts to smear both men through the media, including references to Ashby’s earlier history with younger men, the matter seemed no different from many other attempts to destroy politicians – Bill Clinton, Silvio Berlusconi, a string of US representatives – for perceived sexual misconduct.

Like Eric Anderson, I would like to believe that hostility and prejudice have disappeared, but every now and then one is jolted by the extent to which it remains, often in unlikely quarters. When, during the same-sex marriage debate in 2012, the South Australian Liberal senator Cory Bernardi suggested that the next step would be to recognise marriage between people and animals, he was forced to step down from his party’s front bench, yet that very evening an ABC radio interviewer tried to get me to discuss these comments as a serious argument deserving of airtime on what most conservatives regard as the most left-wing of our national radio stations. I was amused, rather than offended, but several people told me later that they found the whole style of questioning deeply offensive – and inconceivable if we were discussing any other group in Australian society.

In a similarly unthinking vein, when I was invited to deliver the Dunstan Memorial Oration in Adelaide in 2012, on the topic of forty years of gay liberation, it was only at my urging that any community leaders were included on the guest list for the dinner. Interestingly, too, the event organisers seemed to depend on me to indicate who would be appropriate, even though I have little direct knowledge of Adelaide’s gay community.

IT IS not difficult to find far more direct and offensive attacks on any form of sexual diversity, often from members of parliament and religious leaders. As I write this, the current Victorian MP for Frankston is being reported as claiming that there is no difference between discriminating against homosexuals and discriminating against convicted sex offenders and child molesters. In the world of federal politics, Liberal frontbencher Kevin Andrews’s opposition to same-sex marriage clearly reflects a far deeper distaste for homosexuality. An American book called A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality has been in print for over ten years, with endorsements from a number of senior psychiatrists, and some psychologists still offer “reparative therapy” to change sexual orientation, despite the admission of one of its founders, Robert Spitzer, that it is largely ineffective, and the recent ban of the practice in California for minors. Since 2000, the Australian Psychological Society has recommended that “ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation.” Even if the practice is increasingly discouraged in Western societies, it is finding new ground in other parts of the world, as Benjamin Law has described in Malaysia and India.

For teenagers, coming to terms with sexual feelings remains fraught, even if social attitudes appear to have changed enormously. There is considerable evidence that teenagers are frequently teased, and sometimes abused, if they are suspected of being homosexual, and that fear about their sexuality drives some to suicide. “That’s so gay” can be a term used affectionately, but also as a prelude to serious bullying. It’s hard to get accurate figures, but American estimates are that up to forty per cent of homeless kids are gay or trans. We don’t have very good Australian data, but youth workers believe there are certainly more “queer” youth among the homeless than their overall numbers might suggest. Even in the Netherlands, the country that most prides itself on acceptance of sexual diversity, recent evidence suggests that considerable numbers of teenagers are hostile to homosexuality, with a third of Dutch secondary students reporting that they would feel uneasy at too much contact with a homosexual classmate.

“Poofter-bashing” remains a reality, and may in fact be increasing as homosexuality becomes more visible; as many incidents are not reported it is very difficult to get accurate figures for any sort of analysis across time. Only recently has it been acknowledged that there was a significant wave of murders of gay men in Sydney in the last part of the twentieth century, with one estimate suggesting about fifty gay-hate murders in New South Wales between 1985 and 1995, which may well be an underestimate. It would be naive to assume such violence does not continue, and it doubtless remains underreported. Indeed, the awareness of those assaults followed a dogged private investigation of a supposed suicide, which almost certainly was a murder of a young man at an isolated stretch of Manly known for gay cruising.

There is persuasive research suggesting that depression, anxiety and substance abuse are more common among people who are homosexual or gender nonconformist. Several people, most notably the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, have tried to use these figures to suggest that the problem lies within homosexuality itself – which is to deny the known links between self-doubt, low esteem and social stigma and a tendency to self-abuse of various kinds.

Most significantly, the majority of organised religions maintain that homosexuality is unacceptable. At the time of writing, the official position of the Catholic Church remains that homosexual acts are “acts of grave depravity” that are “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to the natural law,” and it has called on homosexuals to devote themselves to chastity. There is no reason to expect any change to this position with the elevation of Pope Francis in March 2013. The Salvation Army proclaims that homosexuality is “unacceptable to God,” while the Exclusive Brethren, who have played a significant role in supporting conservative politicians, are deeply hostile to any expression of homosexuality, regarding it as clearly “against God’s word… people get themselves so perverted and they just can’t think morally.”

Similar views are expressed by fundamentalist Protestants, Orthodox Jews and almost all Islamic clerics, and in a country where increasing numbers of children are being educated in religious schools, these views cannot simply be dismissed. As long as exceptions for prejudice are allowed by law on the grounds of religious beliefs, and as long as state-funded institutions can refuse to employ homosexuals, it is hard to deny that homophobia continues to be protected in legal and institutional ways that would not be tolerated in cases of racial discrimination, for instance. The Australian government’s support for “school chaplains” – who are largely recruited from fundamentalist religions, even though they are not expected to provide religious instruction – leads one to ask how far our school system is promoting conservative religious views of homosexuality, while researchers have had considerable difficulty accessing the more conservative religious schools. There is considerable variation in the state systems, with Queensland seemingly lagging behind other states in its willingness to address issues of sexuality within its schools.

When Acceptance, an organisation for Catholic lesbians and gay men, was founded in Sydney in the 1970s, I was invited to an organisation dinner and expressed my cynicism that the church’s attitudes would change. Almost four decades later, unfortunately, my cynicism seems all too well founded, although the current members of Acceptance have found one local church in Sydney where they are welcomed to attend mass. But outside some parts of the Uniting Church and a few liberal Jewish congregations, genuine acceptance by organised religion remains extremely rare. For an unbeliever like myself, this is not surprising. I remain sufficiently convinced by a Freudian analysis to think that strong religious beliefs are based on the need to repress certain desires, which is why sexuality and gender are such difficult issues for believers to confront.

CERTAINLY in Australia, the most overt discrimination has vanished. We have become accustomed to openly homosexual politicians, several of whom – above all Senators Bob Brown (Greens) and Penny Wong (Labor) – have become significant national figures, as has former High Court justice Michael Kirby, who came out publicly by listing his male partner in Who’s Who in 1999. Anti-discrimination laws began to include homosexuality from the 1980s on (for a short period, remarkably, New South Wales forbade both discrimination on the grounds of homosexuality and homosexual acts between men) and those provisions have largely been extended to all areas of social policy. There are still very few openly homosexual business leaders, although Alan Joyce, the controversial head of Qantas since 2008, is one exception. As late as 2012 there were no openly homosexual CEOs on Fortune’s Top 100 list of companies.

Increasingly in Australia, as in other Western countries, refugees are seeking asylum on grounds of persecution for their sexuality in their home countries. Establishing both that one is homosexual and that fears of persecution are real can be very complex, and can founder on judicial interpretations of both an individual’s sexuality and the fears of persecution in the country of origin. I recently was asked to provide evidence to support what seemed to me well-grounded fears of people from gulf states that they faced considerable persecution were their homosexuality known back home and was shocked at the ignorance revealed in the original judgement denying asylum.

The Rudd–Gillard government can claim credit for systematically removing most remaining anti-homosexual discrimination from federal legislation and administration. Legal changes are important both because they create real benefits, in areas such as access to superannuation and health benefits, but also because they are symbolic statements of social attitudes. Other than marriage, the only remaining area of legal uncertainty is around access to IVF for lesbians and same-sex couple adoption, which is only legal in several states at this time. However, despite Labor’s achievements, proposed legislation will still allow religious institutions to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexuality; David Marr has called this anti-discrimination legislation “a bigot’s charter” because it exempts religious schools, hospitals and charities from hiring those whose sexual or marital status infringes church teachings, even when such institutions receive public funding.

Media panics around homosexuality have largely vanished in Western countries, although they are real in many other parts of the world. Some Australian states still allow an alleged homosexual advance to be argued as a mitigating factor in murder trials, and a “gay panic” defence has been invoked as a mitigating factor in several trials this century. Some older men still have criminal records for convictions under now-repealed laws, and there is growing pressure to expunge these, as has been done in Britain. But in general the panic that led public figures such as NSW police commissioner Colin Delaney to proclaim that “homosexuality was the greatest social menace in Australia” only sixty years ago has disappeared.

All these examples suggest that, despite the undoubted progress of the past few decades, homosexuality has not been normalised in the ways that phrase “the end of the homosexual” might suggest. On Easter weekend 2012, both major national weekend newspaper magazines carried cover stories relating to ambiguities around the place of homosexuality in modern Australia: “the secret lives of gay Arabs” appeared in Fairfax’s Good Weekend, while the public “coming out” of Tony Abbott’s sister was reported in the Australian. The following day, the Sunday Age ran a long cover story on the failure of Christian conversion programs aimed at “saving” homosexuals. Homosexuality remains contentious even though in some ways it appears to have been normalised. •