News & Comment
Putting hate away
Where I look a little deeper into the religious right's victimhood narrative.
Daniel Stanley had a big weekend. He went to Victoria. It was the first time he had been outside his house for three weeks.
At the beginning of the month Daniel was the victim of an anti-gay bashing in his home town of Ulverstone.
Unfortunately, such attacks are periodic in Tasmania.
They have even been given the name of "fag running" by some perpetrators and often go unreported.
But Daniel stood his ground and reported the crime to the police and the Burnie Advocate in the hope of averting further attacks, and despite threats from his attackers.
The response was immediate.
There was a flood of comments to the Advocate praising Daniel's bravery.
The State Government condemned homophobia.
The Police quickly laid charges.
In letters to the editor and on talkback radio there was the usual debate, so characteristically Tasmanian, about whether or not we are more prone to homophobia.
I was pleased to see some perspective entering that debate, perhaps for the first time.
Many ordinary Tasmanians noted that while hate is still a problem we have clearly come a long way because here we have a newspaper and a government taking effective action against hatred where only fifteen years ago they were the ones enabling it.
On behalf of the Tas Gay and Lesbian Rights Group Yours Truly called on the State Government to allow harsher penalties for hate crime, gather hate-crime statistics and implement anti-homophobia programs in schools.
There was a quick and welcome response to the first of these reforms, with State Attorney-General, Brian Wightman, responding to questions about the attack in Parliament by committing himself to seriously consider laws allowing judges to take hate into account when sentencing.
To his credit, Liberal Opposition leader, Will Hodgman, also gave in-principle support to such legislation.
The Police threw cold water over the collection of hate-crime stats because distinguishing hate as a motivation for crime to be too "subjective", even though other police services have long collected such data based on well-established criteria for identifying hate as a motive.
Unfortunately, class-room anti-homophobia programs, the most important of all three responses to hate crime, got lost when the hate-crime debate took an unexpected turn.
Burnie-based Labor MP, Brenton Best, accused Launceston Liberal, Michael Ferguson, of inciting anti-gay hatred when the latter was involved in the Tasmanian Family Institute in 2003.
Not only did Ferguson denounce the incitement claims, he threatened legal action against Best and Premier, Lara Giddings, unless they were withdrawn.
Best disappeared and despite our best efforts so did the issue of school anti-homophobia programs.
Yesterday, saw a resolution of sorts in the stand-off between Best and Ferguson with the latter declaring he will not pursue legal action.
But he also withdrew from an up-coming marriage equality debate at the University of Tasmania.
What's more, his fellow team members, Jim Wallace from the Australian Christian Lobby and Terri Kelleher from the Australian Family Association, also withdrew.
Their shared concern is fear of "personal attack and vitriol".
That's despite the University's insistence on strict debating rules and professional security staff.
Their decision was disappointing and bewildering.
When reaching for an explanation it's tempting to place this decision squarely in the religious right's victimhood narrative.
I recently wrote quite scathingly about this narrative.
By claiming it is being discriminated against, the religious right conveniently diverts attention from the discrimination it is upholding against LGBTI people.
In particular, by refusing to debate and claiming victim status instead, the religious right is bidding for public sympathy while avoiding any proper public scrutiny of its case against equality.
As it becomes obvious that same-sex marriage doesn't destroy the world, the victimhood narrative also provides conservative church-goers with a new enemy to be feared and loathed - gay "Gestapo"-like activists.
All this sets the religious right up to claim exemptions from whatever new non-discriminatory laws are enacted.
But the very negative public response to the debate withdrawal (if talkback radio is anything to go by) has prompted me to look at this issue a little less clinically.
Wallace et al must have known they would look petulant, and would open themselves up to claims they lack the courage of their convictions, yet they withdrew nonetheless.
Does this suggest they sincerely believe they are actually victims?
It's easy to see how leaders of the religious right, used to preaching to the converted (literally), may be a bit thin skinned when facing public criticism.
Perhaps their hearts aren't in public debate at all because the only people they really need to preach to are the converted.
The 20-25% of the population conservative religious leaders can claim to represent seems to be holding back change without any need for these leaders to reach out to the remaining 75%.
Seen in this light, the Launceston debate withdrawal is another dip of the conservative Christian see-saw where purity sits at one end and proselytisation at the other.
Then there's the possibility leaders of the religious right genuinely believe they deserve credit for curbing hate in their ranks.
Jim Wallace has almost single-handedly created a new and much more successful Christian political movement in Australia, one where overt hate is not immediately visible.
Michael Ferguson grew up in a Tasmania riven by overt gay hate. For all I know he may detest that overt hatred for ruining the conservative Christian cause, as much as I detest it for ruining LGBTI lives.
Of course, too often prejudice lurks just under the surface of statements from the religious right, statements like "demeaning marriage" and "the slippery slope to polygamy".
The skeptic in me wants to argue that Wallace and Ferguson react so strongly to claims of anti-gay hate because they don't want the acceptable veneer of the movement they have created cracked open to reveal the reality of prejudice beneath.
But perhaps JW and MF see it as achievement enough that they have put hate away.
Perhaps they are angry because they have not been acknowledged for this achievement, particularly by those people most affected.
I can never know this, and may be canned for even suggesting it.
In my defence, I consider it a possibility because I find it hard to imagine how so many people could be so disingenuous for so long in the name of what for them is the ultimate truth.
Anyway, what I do know is this.
Daniel Stanley may have had a few days away from small-town scrutiny.
His bruises may almost be healed.
But he cannot escape from the nightmares he still has, or the panic he still feels.
In this shifting and uncertain world, where it is sometimes impossible to know what is pretence and what is real, Daniel's pain is an incontestable reality.
In the context of this debate, the easing of that pain and its prevention in others is the most reliable indicator of who the truest victims and aggressors are, and where courage, conviction and the road to tolerance are really to be found.
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When an individual is responsible for setting up an organisation such as the Tasmanian Family Institute for the purpose of denying certain equalities to a particular section of our society, it does not require a great deal of deduction to recognise that that individual is in no small way responsible for the actions of that organisation and the people within as well as those who are in the control of the people within. Bigotry begets bigotry and is passed on to the next generation by bigoted parents who hide their distasteful hatred within the veils of religion. The claims of victimisation by these odious creatures are easily seen through by those that can think clearly but unfortunately, there are many in our communities who would not recognise a rational thought if they fell over one.
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