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Healing Australia's soul: leadership in queer Australia today

This address was given at the Australian LGBTIQ multi-cultural conference in Melbourne on October 17th 2004.

I have a friend who recently went on his first trip to Sydney as a newly out young gay Tasmanian.

It was the same kind of adventure for him that it is for thousands of young men in similar circumstances.

He told me after the visit that he felt he’d arrived somewhere it was not only easier to be gay, but where the meaning of gay is defined. This was a place to re-invent himself.

He promenaded, and shopped and danced, and he met a guy, the coolest guy he could imagine. One thing led to another and thus Sydney fulfilled its sexual promise as well.

And that’s where it ended. Not because the big city ceased to seduce but because of what my friend and his cool new friend talked about after they’d had sex.

They quickly discovered that their grandmothers had grown up in the Derwent Valley, west of Hobart. They shared memories of snow fights on Christmas Day, of ancient, abandoned, apple orchards where the fruit is so sweet you shudder at the taste, of fog parted by an unexpected wind to reveal dramatic vistas of looming mountains and silent forests, vistas which vanish as quickly as they appeared leaving the imagination shocked and entranced. Most of all they talked about their families; their conservatism and generosity, their homophobia and hospitality, their coldness and warmth, expressed all at once.

“A lot of these are Tasmanian things which only Tasmanians understand”, my friend said to me. “There’s no escaping who you are. You’ve just got to go with it.”

Today I want to talk about identity, and what happens when two apparently irreconcilable identities are thrown together in the one person.

My most profound experience of this is being Tasmanian and gay.

While today’s Tasmanian has some of the best laws and most enlightened attitudes on LGBT people, this wasn’t always the case.

When I came out in the late 1980s, most heterosexual Tasmanians didn’t believe there were any homosexuals in their state, and if there were any unfortunate enough to be born there they left at the first opportunity. Prominent politicians said we weren’t welcome, that we should be deported, that we should be tracked down and wiped out.

Attitudes to Tasmania amongst LGBT people on the mainland weren’t much better. When I revealed my home state to queer mainlanders in the late 80s and early 90s the responses ranged from “you poor thing” through “why would any self respecting homosexual live there?“ and “I didn’t realise there were any poofs in Tassie” to “nothing good ever came out of that place, I hate it”.

Queer Tasmanians were besieged at home and patronised abroad. Not surprisingly many kept their heads down on the island and off, passing for straight in Hobart and Launceston, and pretending to be from Dubbo or Sale in Sydney and Melbourne (this is not an exaggeration – there is a thesis to be written about the lengths young gay Tasmanians once went to on mainland Australia to hide their origins).

But some of us chose a different path. We decided to take pride in being gay and Tasmanian, affirming both as equally important parts of who we are.

I believe that, more than anything else, it was this decision that was responsible for the intense and prolonged controversy about gay law reform which shook both Tasmania and the nation in the 1990s and which led to the transformation of Tasmania’s laws and attitudes.

Since convict times being gay and being Tasmanian had been two mutually exclusive identities. Indeed this exclusivity had been central to the definition of both. Tearing down the strictly patrolled boundaries between these two identities was therefore an immensely radical act which challenged everything that many Tasmanians believed about themselves and everything that many homosexuals believed about themselves as well.

By uniting Tasmanianess and queerness we not only widened the definition of both, we helped transform both.

The decade long Tasmanian gay debate that was sparked by our decision to embrace and unite being gay and Tasmanian is not an oddity. Whenever marginalised identities which are disparate or exclusive undergo this kind of fusion the result is immense political and cultural energy.

Whether the link is between sexual identity and geographical, religious, ideological or ethnic identity the impact can be just as startling, throwing up new ideas, new literature, new activism and most obviously of all, new leaders.

To illustrate my point, let’s look at some of Australia’s best known gay and lesbian leaders and celebrities?

Dennis Altman, whose early life was suspended between the contradictions of being gay, Tasmanian and a child of European Jews.

Dorothy McRae McMahon, who has endeavoured to reconcile her homosexuality with a sometimes deeply homophobic religious tradition.

Ian Roberts, who has overcome the perceived contradictions of being gay and a rugby player.

Bob Down, who makes millions of people laugh by drawing on his disparate experiences as a gay man and a regional Australian.

Sue Anne Post, who does the same with the contradictions that arise from being a Dutch, Mormon, lesbian.

Anton Enus, who grew up in a nation riven both by antagonism both to his colour and sexuality.

Bob Brown, who today leads an LGBT friendly political party, but who, twenty years ago, found it hard to reconcile his homosexuality with some Green ideas about the future of the planet.

Robyn Archer, who faced and overcame the same ambivalence and outright rejection of her lesbianism in the feminist and left wing movements in which she was involved as a young woman.

Christos Tsiolkas, who more than anyone else has explored the fault lines between all the identities of which I have spoken.

What all these leaders have in common is that they draw great energy from the contradictions in their lives.

They have been strengthened by asserting their sexuality in a difficult cultural environment, and by the understanding of oppression that often comes from moving in that other cultural environment.

They are also people who at some point in their lives, under the weight of the contradictions and multiple oppressions, underwent the radicalising experience of letting go of all their preconceptions and expectations and turning to face the world with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Great power has risen from the cracks in the lives of all these lesbian and gay people, a power from which all of us here today, and indeed all Australians, have benefited.

This conference is about multiple identities, identities which don’t always fit together well and may even exclude each other.

This means that, if I’m right and good leadership is a by-product of negotiating and reconciling different sometimes antagonistic identities, then this hall is full of future LGBT and Australian community leaders.

At least that’s my fervent hope.

The result of last Saturday’s election was not just the return of a conservative Government.

It was a signal to homophobes, racists and bigots of every kind, that their time has come, that this nation belongs to them, and that minorities have no place.

Today’s floundering and fearful Australia needs intelligent, forthright and powerful LGBT community leadership like never before.

It needs leaders who understand the contradictions in our national soul because they have the same contradictions in their own souls.

It needs leaders who can bridge and heal the chasms which are opening up in Australian society because they are the same chasms which these leaders have healed in their own lives.

It needs leaders and future leaders like you.

Thank you.

Rodney Croome.
16.10.04


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