Gaslighting in the Marriage Equality “Debate”

1503573387549Like many in the Australian LGBTIQ community, I am exhausted by the marriage equality “debate” that we are being subjected to.  The nature of this atomised survey is that we’re supposed to stay positive and upbeat, to try and convince everyone that we’re “normal” and have no other agenda than “love”. But being glass-half-full optimistic in this situation takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. That’s why it was so deeply infuriating to see our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull—the person whose cowardice means we even have to endure this survey—on TV suggesting that the ‘yes’ campaign needs to lighten up about homophobia.
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Turnbull appeared on The Project last night, commenting on the “controversy” over whether Macklemore should sing his chart-topping song Same Love at the NRL Grand Final. The religious right leading the ‘no’ campaign have suggested that Macklemore’s “same-sex anthem” has no place in sport. Turnbull defended against censoring the song, in the name of “free speech” and “artistic expression”. But when host Waleed Aly pressed him on the issue, suggesting that it was unavoidably political and an “incendiary intervention” in the current climate of homophobia, Turnbull dismissed him saying “oh no don’t…everyone’s focused on the football”. When Aly continued, Turnbull sighed, “we were just having fun Waleed, why do you have to be such a downer?!” Turnbull dismissed the recent spate of homophobic attacks and abuse being levelled at the LGBTIQ community amid the survey as a “tiny percentage”.

malcolmIt’s important to take a step back here and recognise Turnbull’s comments for what they are: gaslighting. Indeed, the comments coming from the ‘no’ campaign and even many liberal ‘yes’ voters also involve gaslighting. This is not simply a case of homophobes vs. supporters, because there are many “supporters” that are contributing to a discourse that punishes LGBTIQ people and puts the blame back on them for being upset. It’s important to recognise and name this behaviour for what it is, because when you are upset by all the small comments being made it’s hard to understand why it affects you so badly unless you connect it up to the bigger picture.

Gaslighting is an emotionally abusive tactic that undermines the confidence of the person being targeted, where they are made to feel like what they are experiencing isn’t “real”. Here’s the “11 signs of gaslighting” as demonstrated by Turnbull (and similar others) in the marriage equality debate:

  1. They tell blatant lies
    Last night Turnbull defended the survey as “democratic”, referred to it as a “plebiscite”, and suggested any nastiness was just the same as what you would see in a federal election. Not only is this survey disenfranchising many, a complete shambles, not statistically rigorous, and not an actual plebiscite, this is a survey on the legitimacy of recognising same-sex couples as equal, qualitatively different from a federal election in every way.
  2. They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof
    Turnbull is now a great defender of the postal survey as democratic, even though he is on the record as previously stating (in the debate around an Australian Republic) such a method “flies in the face of Australian values”.
  3. The use what is near and dear to you as ammunition 
    Because he has to defend the survey, Turnbull has been highlighting things we ought to value (including: democracy, respect, fairness) and using these values against the LGBTIQ community’s critiques of the survey. He has suggested that we “cannot ask for respect from the No case if you’re not prepared to give respect to the No case”. In other words, you have to respect people disrespecting you, otherwise it is *you* that is disrespectful.
  4. They wear you down over time 
    The fact that this survey has been stretched over a timeframe of more than two months says it all—who among us has the energy to stay fighting the whole time. Turnbull is now encouraging us to stop caring about the issue, even as it goes on and on: have “fun”/stop talking about this/don’t be such a “downer”.   
  5. Their actions do not match their words
    Despite not allowing a free vote in Parliament (presumably because it would have threatened his leadership in the Coalition), and subjecting us to the postal survey, Turnbull has come out supporting ‘yes’. Now I guess we’re supposed to be appreciative of his “support”. In a classic gaslighting move his words (tacit support) and actions (creating this mess) do not match up.
  6. They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you
    One minute Turnbull is suggesting the survey is hard on LGBTIQ people, “This is a time to put your arms around them, to give them your love and support”, and in the same breath he states, “The vast majority of people who do not agree with same-sex marriage are not homophobic and do not denigrate gay people”. It is clear that the main prerogative of the ‘no’ campaign is precisely to denigrate gay people. Turnbull’s positive “support” means nothing, except for adding to the confusion about how we should feel grateful for this “democratic” opportunity to have our say.
  7. They know confusion weakens people
    Despite nominally supporting the ‘yes’ campaign, Turnbull has defended campaign tactics from ‘no’ in the name of “free speech”. Rather than suggesting that the most important thing is showing support for the LGBTIQ community (which is what I would expect from a ‘yes’ campaigner), he claims that “mutual respect” is the number one priority. It’s confusing to have someone on “your side” defending the opposite side and simultaneously chastising you for getting upset by the debate. Further adding to confusion, Turnbull has said that the will of the people reflected in this survey is only binding if it’s a no, but not if it’s a yes. Wait, which side are you on again Turnbull?
  8. They project
    Turnbull keeps telling the LGBTIQ community to be “proud” and confident, yet, we know that it is Turnbull’s cowardice that has created this drama. It seems like the person who really needs to hear the mantra “believe in yourself” is Turnbull, not us.
  9. They try to align people against you
    Instead of suggesting that we should protect against discrimination of the LGBTIQ community in this survey, Turnbull has commented that “The only way to stop people from saying things that you find hurtful is to shut down free speech”. In other words, *protecting* those who would discriminate in the first place is the number one priority because “free speech”.
  10. They tell you or others that you are crazy
    While stating again and again that only a “handful” of Australians are homophobic, Turnbull was one of the first to condemn the attack of Tony Abbott by a random anarchist and use it against the ‘yes’ side: “They are not helping their case by engaging in violent conduct. They are not showing respect for others”. In other words, Turnbull suggests we ignore the homophobic attacks happening, but is the first to use a random attack (even though the accused man has stated this had nothing to do with the marriage issue) on a Liberal as a reason to condemn the ‘yes’ side. In sum: the LGBTIQ community is crazy for feeling vilified, but Tony Abbott and co are legitimate in their fears.
  11. They tell you everyone else is a liar 
    This is what we saw on The Project last night: Turnbull suggesting that being concerned about homophobia in this debate is a media beat up. Apparently the only person we should trust on this is Turnbull, who tells us to forget our troubles and have fun. Gosh what a lot of fun it is.

Rainbow-Malcolm-TurnbullWhat all of this reveals is that whatever the outcome of the survey, Turnbull is firmly not on the side of the LGBTIQ community.

Instead of accepting the abusive logic of the marriage equality survey where we are told to be politely grateful for every ‘yes’, we should remember the liberatory politics of LGBTIQ activism past: we don’t just want equality, we want freedom; we want more than words, we want action; we don’t beg, we demand. And most of all: we are not the problem.

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Hope and Glimpsing the Future in the Marriage Equality Debate

This short paper was presented at the Feminist Utopias Conference held at the Australian National University on 8 September 2017. 

UntitledAs Gayle Rubin wrote in 1984, “…it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality” (143). In the midst of the contemporary nuclear crisis, the never ending debate about marriage equality seems a fitting topic to apply the theoretical questions I’d like to explore today, about whether we can and should – and indeed how we should – hope for a better world.

UntitledSo the story goes: “it gets better”. This is a common refrain of LGBTIQ youth services in Australia. “It gets better” refers to the promise that when you leave school, you won’t have to deal with bullies any longer – you’ll be free to live your life as a happy LGBTIQ person. Now, for many of us, this isn’t totally wrong. Leaving the social intensity of the schoolyard and becoming independent from family units, can mean that we are able to find new communities of acceptance.

UntitledBut how cruel might this hopeful promise be, when bigotry can be canvassed as state-sanctioned “legitimate debate”, as we are seeing now? When homophobic and transphobic ideas are not originating from the schoolyard itself – as we know, people aged 15-24 are the most avid supporters of marriage equality – but are being shown on television during the nightly news? Perhaps the promise to our children of “it gets better” is a cruel one.

UntitledAs Lauren Berlant writes, “When we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us” (2007, 33). For the “yes” campaign, marriage equality has become the object of desire that contains within it a cluster of promises: a hope about what will get better and for whom.

UntitledBut cruel is the optimism of the segments of the “yes” campaign that refuse to confront the homophobia and transphobia emerging in the debate, and instead seek to win hearts and minds on the basis of respectability, normality, and the idea that “love” is indeed “love”. As Berlant argues, it is a cruel optimism that operates where we live with the toxic conditions of the present labouring under the view that the future will “somehow” deliver something better.

UntitledAnd indeed it is cruelly optimistic to imagine what that future will entail if we do not question the social constitution of futurity in the first instance. As Lee Edelman (1998) argues, it is the child that acts as the pervasive cultural “emblem” of the future, the ultimate signifier of the hope of tomorrow. Edelman explains that while the left operates under a liberalism that sees the elasticity of this signifier extend – children can still signify the future despite queer family arrangements – conservatives cling to a more intense vision of social rupture, that must preserve such signifiers at all costs. The child is not only a symbol of a future horizon, but also a concretely heterosexual future, where heterosexuality is to reproduction is to the child is to the future operate in a circular and spectacular logic.

UntitledThis is precisely what we have seen playing out for over a decade, albeit more sharply in recent times, in the marriage equality debate. While the right have repeated the refrain, “think of the children”, the left too have taken up this mantle, constantly leaning on statistics about the welfare of queer youth or children from queer families in order to make a point of the utter sameness of the child under queer circumstances. In this envisioning, the queer child doesn’t queer the future, rather, the queerness of the child is contained in order to suggest that there is very little threat – only a slight extension – to the more conservative vision.

UntitledAs the recent GetUp ad for marriage equality suggests, in the words of the mother in the heterosexual nuclear family unit, “kids learn their values at home, from their parents, that’s why we’ll vote yes in the upcoming marriage equality vote. And if she asks, we’ll tell her it’s about fairness and kindness”. In this ad there is the removal of the threat of queering of the child, who is represented as safe from having to learn about sexuality or gender diversity because she learns her values from “the family” rather than through programs like Safe Schools. We learn in this ad that marriage equality is no challenge to the social logic of heterosexual normativity: this is the vision of transformation under marriage equality – total preservation of the existing social order.

But Edelman suggests a different approach to this logic is possible. As Edelman writes: “fuck the social order and the figural children paraded before us as its terroristic emblem; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Miz; fuck the poor innocent kid on the ‘Net; fuck Laws both with capital ‘L’s and with small; fuck the whole network of symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop” (1998, 29). Edelman utterly refuses the “sweetness” of hope and investment in a future, and instead endorses a queer negativity soaks in the bitterness of the present.

UntitledWe might wonder about the astringency of Edelman’s anti-social thesis, in light of the fact that attachment to “same-sex marriage” is currently being enacted by many as a mode of survival. Many have thrown themselves into fighting for a yes campaign precisely in order to assist a striving toward a “getting better”. We might also question the limits of Edelman’s radical presentism and anti-futurity, and if a different kind of future envisioning might be possible without a cruel investment in inevitable progress.

As some have pointed out, Edelman reduces ‘a’ version of the future to ‘the’ version of the future – more radical imaginings of opening up spaces of possibility for queer lives are rendered as as problematic as hegemonic dominant visions of how the future “ought” to be conserved (White 2013, 33). Could there then be a glimmer of a different set of possibilities, a transformed social order, and another logic, to be found? Rather than a cruel and unrupturing hope, can a queer hope be possible?

UntitledAs José Esteban Muñoz offers, “Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present” (2009, 1). Here Muñoz suggests that we might adopt a concrete utopian imagining where, “the hopes of the collective” are connected to real, lived struggle in the historical present. In other words, we might have “educated hope” (3). In contrast to Edelman, Muñoz insists on the importance of hope as a critical tool, where “hope is spawned of a critical investment in utopia…profoundly resistant to the stultifying temporal logic of a broken-down present” (12).

However as Teresa de Lauretis (2011) also contends, we must read Edelman’s point about negativity not as a call to negativity as the political act, but rather the reflection of a condition of society, the death drive at the heart of it all, where there is always the attempt to overcome and resolve this with positivity and hope. Edelman’s imagining is heterotopic as he reflects this death drive back at us, but argues against its resolution.

UntitledSimilarly Anne Cvetkovich’s (2007) work extends this heterotopic view of society, to get to the “depression” at the heart of things, that is, not the negativity and negation of life, but more specifically the feelings that are part and parcel of occupying this world. As feminists have long argued, “the personal is political”, and we might also extend this to say that we feel politics at the level of the body. Cvetkovich argues that affective states like depression can be political – because while they can be antisocial (in quite a literal way – through withdrawal), there is also the possibility that a new sociality may form through making-public these affective states.

UntitledBut in making the negativity at the heart of things public rather than private, we can also become targeted as the problem rather than merely pointing out the problem. As Sara Ahmed illustrates, the figure of the feminist kill joy who offers critique and anger can be seen as the source of unhappiness: “Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy?” (2010, 582). In other words, unveiling already circulating – but hidden – negativity is risky business.

UntitledWhile we focus solely on concepts like fairness and kindness, positivity, good stories, the “good homosexual”, or the “unqueer queer child”, the bad feelings at the heart of the marriage equality debate remain occluded and politically impotent. To fail to recognise and name the homophobia and transphobia that are proliferating under conservative discussions in the marriage equality debate is to inadvertently reiterate a narrative of a heteronormative future where “it gets better”. To engage in a queer hopefulness then, is not to shy away from negativity, but rather, to embrace the possible world that it reveals to us.

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 5.56.32 PMIt is only in confronting those elements of the present that we would rather deny, from which a truly utopian vision might emerge. In this case, my educated hope is that we will have a marriage equality debate that confronts homophobia and transphobia, that embraces gender and sexual diversity, and that makes space for the LGBTIQ community well beyond the question of marriage.

Review: Jamila Rizvi’s Not Just Lucky

9780143783534Jamila Rizvi’s recently released book Not Just Lucky is basically a very long riff on the old saying, “carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man”. This is a very useful adage, which works as a reminder of the ways that women are socially conditioned. I find myself repeating this saying to women in my life frequently, and it’s useful to have a  book that spends time unpacking ways that women are brought up with negative self-beliefs.

Rizvi is intent to present “solutions” not just “problems”, and so the book also provides a lot of extended advice on how to speak, dress, think, and act in ways that might get you ahead as a working woman (even though the book claims it’s not a self-help book, but a “career book”). It’s funny and well-written. I also appreciated the very organised bullet-point lists of recommendations – I daresay Rizvi and I are a similar collection of letters on the esoteric Myer-Briggs test.

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Obligatory selfie of me reading Not Just Lucky

But while I found myself nodding along to many of the passages exploring the sexism that women experience in the workplace and beyond, Rizvi’s solutions fall short. What is offered is at best a band-aid to the problems described, and at worst, a cruel promise that working hard and undertaking individual self-betterment can lead to certain success.

To be fair, Rizvi acknowledges from the outset that her book doesn’t have the solutions for fixing structural problems like childcare and the wage gap, but simply offers ways women can change their thinking that has resulted from structural enculturation.

I’m on board with women undergoing some gender-CBT, heck my job is literally to talk about gender and double standards and how things we think are innate are in fact social.

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I am more than ready for the “lady boss” obsession to end. Please end.

But presenting the antidote to women’s ills as endeavoring to be “brilliant” and offering a blueprint for how to succeed as a “lady boss”, is not what we need right now. In this day and age, when humans are staring extinction in the face, capitalism is in a late and hideous form, and there are right-wing forces mobilising around the world, these kind of liberal feminist solutions feel a little like over-prescribing antibiotics. Sure, it might help you feel in control of getting better, but it will make all of us more unwell in the long run.

I don’t want to sound like a broken record here, but the biggest blind spot is: you guessed it, class. While Rizvi acknowledges her own privileged upbringing as a limit to her ability to empathise, what is needed here is not an alternative individual view but rather a different analysis of how to fix a broken system. Of course proposing a workable solution requires identifying the underlying problem. If you ignore class, then you’re destined to merely tinker around with the symptoms.

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Rizvi’s book is similar to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In

The thing is, all our problems don’t just boil down to how we are socialised. Rizvi claims that “the challenge for each of us is to rise above our own conditioning”. But thinking about the pitch of my voice at work, or asking for a salary increase, isn’t really going to make a huge difference – except of course, for me as an individual. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question gender norms, but it does mean that we might have to go beyond ways of individually speaking, dressing, thinking, and acting, if we want to make substantive change.

I was a little surprised that Rizvi stayed so closely to discussing things individuals can do, given that she claims in the beginning of her book the work is “unashamedly feminist”, and also notes at the end that “it is only together that we can change the world”. These words remain, for the most part, vague gestures. I can well imagine my grandma reading this book and saying to me “we were talking about these issues in the 70s”. That’s the point isn’t it: gender inequality is a persistent problem. If you want to acknowledge the changes in our lives for the better that have occurred, you have to talk about the struggles and the tactics that have gone before.

ednext_20124_guthrie_openerWhat’s interesting here is that Rizvi and I are the same age, and we went to the same university, at the same time (and did student politics together – I was in the Labor students club that she was the leader of). Unlike Rizvi though, I came from a very poor single-parent family. Yet, we both were able to get stellar educations. Despite my low SES background, there were quite a few structural supports in place such as public housing and welfare support, as well as decent free primary and secondary schooling, that meant I could get a leg up. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that some of these structural supports were targeted by the very Gillard government Rizvi fondly remembers working for.

Rizvi does suggest that there are policies that need to change in order to best address gender inequality. Rizvi also makes one note about unions, and a worker’s strike in Brisbane in 1912. These pages provide a short breath of fresh air in the discussion about how to make change. But strangely Rizvi moves seamlessly from discussing the importance of joining your union, to how to treat the symptoms of an unfair system which includes how to be a great boss.

I think is somewhat of an indicator of what’s wrong with contemporary Labor politics. It’s not really about representing the working class, because the interests of bosses are seen as equally important. Rather than seeing how being in the position of boss under capitalism necessitates exploiting those below you, not attending to class at all means you can’t acknowledge nor resolve that power dynamic. Here’s the rub: CEOs and working class people do not share the same interests, even if they share the same gender identity.

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Rizvi brings up Elsa quite a bit so this feels relevant

This book is explicitly inspired by the Sheryl Sandberg Lean In idea: the cruelly optimistic notion that you too can succeed, if you employ the correct tactics. But in a world that is becoming more and more unequal in terms of the distribution of wealth, where a handful of corporations own pretty much everything, and where capital and profit is valued over human and environmental well-being, success cannot be measured by how well you individually survive the fire.

Rizvi proposes that it’s not really luck but hard work that gets you ahead as a woman. We would do well to question whether the ceiling is really a class one that needs to be broken, in order to make lasting change for the lives of women at large.