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Edition 41

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Essay

The promise of belonging

MARDI GRAS IS a time of high emotion. When a Tasmanian contingent marched in the parade for the first time in the mid-1990s, a Sydney reporter wrote that the crowd's reception 'was like thunder rolling up Oxford Street'. Tasmania was then the only Australian state still to criminalise homosexuality. The campaign to repeal those old laws had involved the UN, the Federal Parliament and the High Court. It had been reported around the world and had even sparked a boycott of Tasmanian products. The crowd had found its favourite.

But I have a stronger memory from that march than the thundering throngs. It is of men and women stretching out their arms across the pedestrian barriers as if to touch the Tasmanians, or at least catch our attention. But these weren't celebrity seekers. These older men and women had tears rolling down their cheeks. One called out 'I'm Tasmanian and I had to leave twenty years ago.' Another shouted 'I had to get out and I can never go back.' These were sexual refugees. Oxford Street had given them asylum, and I'm sure they were grateful for that. But Oxford Street's promise of freedom was not fulfilled. They were cut off from the place that had made them who they are. They carried with them always the prison from which they'd fled.

Tasmanians are attached to the island for many reasons. They are struck by its beauty or fecundity. They are touched by its warmth and hospitality. They submerge themselves in a safe self-containment of island life. My attachment to Tasmania was forged in childhood. The vivid tales my parents and grandparents told of times past, often involving one or more of our forebears, were always attached to a particularly beautiful mountain vista, forest glen or river bend. In this way the Tasmanian landscape became a map of life's origin and meaning. My family did such a good job weaving these people and places into my life it was hard for me to tell where mud on my boots ended and I began.

The fulcrum of my sense of place was Mount Roland, the dramatic peak that rose over our dairy farm. Sometimes the mountain would glare at me sternly for some misdemeanour that had prompted my grandmother to scold me with the delightful Tasmanian survival word for a naughty child, 'nointer'. But mostly it would reassure and protect me. In the words of Tasmanian romantic novelist, Marie Bjelke Petersen, who metaphorised the mountain in a way that appropriately recalls medieval myth:

Roland shot his great rocky form high into the sky, one of the ancient, undaunted knights who always stood up for what was good and right.

Through a hundred such ideas, images and stories, Mount Roland and the land at its feet held out the promise that I had a people and place, that I would always belong. But that promise was broken in my early adulthood on the streets of Hobart. I had moved there to study and to come out. In 1988, within weeks of first admitting to another person that I liked other men, I found myself at a meeting about Tasmania's anti-gay laws. Only a few weeks after that I was staffing a gay law reform stall at Salamanca Market. The Hobart City Council which ran the market objected to the stall, declaring 'homosexuals have no place in a family market'. It banned us, and brought in the police when we said the ban was discriminatory and we wouldn't budge. I was arrested for being gay before I'd even danced with another man.

I should have expected something like this would happen. When I attended my first gay community meeting I was warned that the police may be outside when I left, taking down the car registration numbers of those attending the meeting to add to a list of known homosexuals. Only weeks before the fracas at Salamanca, then premier, Robin Gray, told the national media that everyone was welcome in Tasmania, even greenies, but not homosexuals. Tasmania's most prominent greenie, Dr Bob Brown, as Tasmania's only publicly acknowledged gay man, attracted a constant stream of hatred and invective. This repression had a long pedigree. In the twentieth century Tasmania's anti-gay laws were enforced more than in the other states. In the nineteenth, Tasmania was the last place in the western world to hang men for sodomy. The association between homosexuality and convictism that had proven so useful in the campaign to end transportation was a cause of guilt, fear and loathing in many Tasmanian hearts for a very long time.

In my jail cell I faced a choice many had made before me: leave and live at least the semblance of a normal life, or stay and keep my head down. My mother had anticipated this choice when I came out to her. She assumed I would move to Melbourne. Some elected officials responded to the sudden public emergence of the gay community during the Salamanca arrests in a similar if less sympathetic way, proposing the government buy us all one-way tickets to the mainland. In their minds there was a line separating gay and Tasmanian identity as thick as the line around Salamanca Market I had been arrested for crossing. But despite the hate, I did not choose to leave. My cell was in the same building where one of my convict ancestors had served time. He was a machine breaker who paid the price for protesting against the loss of his livelihood by being transported to Van Diemen's Land. But this did not cower him. For breaking curfew he was sentenced to a week on the treadmill just beneath where I was incarcerated. Once emancipated he illegally distilled and sold brandy in one of the many back-country pubs colonial officials tried in vain to stamp out. The one photo of the machine breaker that has survived was taken just before his death, four years shy of him becoming a citizen of a new nation. In it he beams pride and contentment. In my cell, reflecting on his life, I realised there was another option before me. I could stay, fight and defeat the suffocating boundaries between which I was meant to live. I could be gay and Tasmanian and proud of both. A new promise replaced the old. The emancipist had set me free.

 

I DID NOT realise then how difficult it would be, or how long it would take, for we gay Tasmanians to stake our claim on equality, dignity and respect. Our campaign for decriminalisation sparked hate campaigns of the type never before seen in Australia. At large, rowdy anti-gay rallies crowds chanted 'kill them, kill them'. Politicians proposed increasing and broadening the penalties for homosexuality. Gay film festival audiences were threatened with arrest and all discussion of homosexuality was banned in schools. Hate in Tasmania was matched by condescension on the continent, with commentators asking why any self-respecting homosexual would live in Tasmania. But there were many who, like me, were inspired by a sense of place and wanted Tasmania to fulfil its promises. 'If we leave we'll never be free' became a commonplace catchphrase among gay activists and literati in Hobart. The slogan 'we're here, we're queer and we're not going to the mainland' was to be found on stickers and T-shirts across the island. Inspired by these sentiments, supporters of reform undertook a concerted community education campaign, speaking to whomever would listen about what our lives were like and about the value of inclusion and fairness to the entire community. Attitudes transformed, with support for decriminalisation rising from one-third at the time of the Salamanca arrests to 59 per cent when decriminalisation finally occurred in 1997. This shift of hearts and minds was powerful enough to reach beyond decriminalisation. It led subsequently to the enactment of Australia's most progressive anti-discrimination and relationship laws, and ultimately to Tasmania being the first state to introduce and debate same-sex marriage. To use a very Tasmanian metaphor, with decriminalisation the dam of prejudice burst. Within a few short years Tasmania went from having the worst laws for same-sex attracted people to having the best.

Most poignantly of all, the transformation of Tasmania led the Hobart City Council to make amends for ordering our arrests at Salamanca Market. At a special ceremony in 2008, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the arrests, then Lord Mayor, Rob Valentine, apologised for the discrimination the Council had perpetrated and fostered. Then in May this year, to cement those words, the Council unveiled a permanent commemorative art work at Salamanca Place. Embedded in the footpath, alongside a plaque describing the events of 1988 and the apology in 2008, are two sentences which glow brightly at night and which pedestrians must choose to cross just as we had to choose to cross the line a quarter of a century ago. The glowing messages are the personal response of the artist, Justy Phillips, to the history I have outlined: 'Forgive me for not holding you in my arms,' and 'In the wake of your courage I swim'. It is this public recognition of some of the deepest and most personal forces for good in our lives which makes the new Salamanca memorial perfect for the transformation it commemorates.

My experience of being Tasmanian and the long reconciliation of this experience with being gay have shaped my perspective on the purpose of gay law reform and the direction of the gay community. As I first realised when I saw those grieving souls at the Mardi Gras, it is impossible to be truly free until we are free in the place that has shaped who we are. These men and women went in search of the great dream of the twentieth century: self-expression, self-fulfilment and a place to be 'oneself'. But that dream has yielded to something new and more fulfilling, the twenty-first-century hope that we can truly belong.

 

IT IS THIS hope that inspires me to campaign for marriage equality. Allowing same-sex couples to marry promotes inclusion because marriage is such an important social institution. To be admitted to such a valued legal and cultural space is a sure sign of belonging. But the link runs deeper than this; it is about features inherent to marriage itself. Marriage is not just a legal contract between two partners. It binds them more closely to each other and to their families. It admits them to a universal language of love and commitment. For same-sex couples, the value placed on marriage is the most powerful antidote there is to the poison of prejudice and criminalisation same-sex relationships have endured for so long. In times past, the law's recognition that women, servants, prisoners, people with disabilities and Aboriginal people were mature and responsible enough to choose their own marriage partner, rather than have that decision made for them by others, was the key to the recognition of their full humanity. It is the same today for same-sex attracted people. The kind of choices, commitments and sacrifices marriage entails run to the core of what makes us human. In the words of a young gay man, Jackson Tegg, in a letter to the Hobart Mercury published last year: 'marriage equality is important not because of what the law says I can't have, but what it says I can't give.'

Old-style gay liberationists are suspicious of marriage equality. In their eyes marriage represents the sexism, homophobia and religious dogma they defined themselves against. Indeed, their definition of being gay, which was formed in response to deep intolerance, remains stubbornly outside the mainstream, dwelling on the faults of society to justify its exclusion. They have built what US gay writer, Andrew Sullivan, calls 'a gilded cage' of gay exceptionalism of which the Mardi Gras is an excellent example. But both marriage and society have changed since liberationism was in its prime. The former is now a more equitable institution where married partners are legally equal and approaching cultural and economic parity. Heterosexuals now have the choice to opt in or out of marriage more easily than in the past. When the majority have such choices, it is natural to ask why the minority should be denied them. Society too has changed. It is more tolerant, thanks in part to the efforts of the liberationists. As a result, more and more gay and lesbian people are now choosing to live in suburban and regional Australia rather than in traditional inner-city ghettos, in turn, accelerating the trend towards acceptance. As gay people become increasingly integrated into the everyday lives of other Australians, it is inevitable the demand for them to be integrated within the institution marriage will grow as well.

I don't fear this integration as liberationists do. They say it will rob gay people of the outsiders' view that makes us special, and rob society of the uniquely creative contribution we can make. But I say look at what flowed from the emancipation and integration of Jews in nineteenth-century Europe or blacks in twentieth-century America. In both cases, integration unleashed immense intellectual, artistic and economic energies that benefited both those who sought society's embrace and those societies that embraced them. The same will happen when gay and lesbian people fly from our gilded cage.

These broad, inevitable social trends are important, but in the end what matters most to me is the moral element of inclusion, that part that matters regardless of where history's compass points. To be at home among the rocky peaks and verdant valleys that are the contours of your soul, to be as one with the people who nurtured and shaped you, these are some of life's greatest gifts. Correspondingly, to be driven out and cleaved from these sources of meaning and strength is to suffer a type of violence. Belonging matters all the more because it can neither be seized by those who are excluded, nor granted by those who exclude. When the promise of belonging is broken, as it was in Tasmania for so many for so long, it is only through the myriad daily interactions of all who lay claim to a contested identity that a sense of belonging is rebuilt and renewed. This is what has happened in Tasmania over the past quarter century and it is what will happen nationally as we negotiate our way to marriage equality.

 

IN 2009 MY mother and I were invited to the closing service of the Baptist Church in the farming hamlet I had grown up in. My family had links to the church going back to the middle of the nineteenth century. But like so much else, these links had been disrupted by the decriminalisation debate. Many of the church's parishioners attended the awful rallies I've already mentioned. My mother was right to declare the invitation 'a big step forward'. We responded to the church's overture of reconciliation by attending its service. Much to my delight, tables groaning with the cream-filled cakes I relished as a child were carried out after the service. But what really caught my attention was something my mother and I, and every old farmer and devout matron, did as we departed the church that day. Each of us, as if by reflex, looked up at Mount Roland and smiled. The ancient knight was still there, defending us, looking over us all, pointing us to a shared past and a common destiny. Our deference to him was a reminder that however much some people have been excluded and demeaned in the past, there are some links which can never be broken and it is upon those bonds reconciliation is built.


From Griffith Review Edition 41: Now We are Ten © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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