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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The Problems With Marriage Equality…But Why We Should Still Fight for it

Currently, my girlfriend and I cannot get married. Not that we’re planning our Pinterest pages or anything, but the point is: same-sex marriage is illegal in Australia. Recently a friend shared this video, an ad in support of the “Yes” vote for the upcoming Irish referendum on same-sex marriage:

What struck me most was the emphasis on “family” made in the video created by BeLong To youth services, underscored by the tagline “Bring Your Family With You.” I was torn by this message. While the idea of parents and extended family coming out in support of their lesbian, gay and bisexual relatives is moving (albeit unrealistic for many), it also reinforces the idea that this fight is centrally about maintaining the primacy of the blood-related family in society, which only extends itself via legal marriage.

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From Paris is Burning

This idea of family is far from the reality in many queer communities, where kinship ties are made with many non-blood relatives, especially for those who are thrown out of home when they come out. This different conception of “family” in the queer community is illustrated most clearly in the 1989 documentary ‘Paris is Burning.’ Created by Jeannie Livingstone, the film reveals an underground world in New York of “drag balls” where young (often homeless) African American and Hispanic youth find belonging, joining different ball “families” who compete and perform. Ask anyone who has found belonging in LGBTIQ spaces, and I’m sure they’ll tell you that family often means much more than who your genetic relatives are or who you are legally bound to.

Some people have used unique ways such as combining handfasting with traditional marriage, to represent polyamorous union

Some people have used unique ways such as combining handfasting with traditional marriage, to represent polyamorous union

It is also important to note that within queer communities sexual and emotional partnerships are not always so clearly between two people. Campaigns for marriage equality generally seek to change the legal definition of marriage from that between “a man and a woman” to “same-sex” marriage but still for a partnership of two. This does not reflect the reality of many queer people’s lives, who may be in polyamorous relationships or who might enjoy other partnership dynamics not reflected by a dualistic definition. Add to this the fact that many transgender and intersex people are often left out of proposed “same-sex” marriage bills, and you can see that the fight for marriage equality sometimes refers to a very narrow idea of partnership and family that is in conflict with many queer people’s experiences.

1509307_675883508915_2761431560733048872_nI raise all of these points to highlight the very important fact that “marriage equality” often does not reflect the kind of relations that currently occur in queer communities, nor the central needs of these communities, and to that end is not the “final” frontier of LGBTIQ rights. However, this does not mean that marriage equality is not worth fighting for.

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Some in the queer community argue that marriage is assimilation

Every time my girlfriend and I go to a wedding we are reminded that we do not enjoy the same legal rights as our heterosexual friends because of our sexuality. Here the ban on same-sex marriage acts as a symbol of difference and exclusion. Some in the queer community argue that difference is good, and should be celebrated: assimilation is not the way. Although it’s all well and good to embrace difference, it’s quite another story when you have the law labelling you as different. Some have also suggested that gay marriage creates a situation where there are “good” (married) gays and “bad” (unmarried) ones. However, we can already see that unmarried versus married straight people are sometimes treated differently in society, which highlights that the problem here is how we value marriage altogether, not whether some people should be allowed to marry. Often I forget that I’m in a “same-sex” relationship until I get reminded by society; discrimination on the basis of having a loving relationship with someone seems utterly ridiculous.

marriage-equality-supporters-washingtonThe fact that you are legally obliged to read out the definition of marriage as “between a man and a woman” at weddings in Australia also causes our sympathetic straight friends much guilt, consternation and dismay. Often celebrants read out the law, and then at the bride and groom’s request make commentary on their rejection of the definition. While some do this quickly and quietly, the best way I have seen this dealt with is to labour on the point. When straight couples get up at weddings and say “this law is outrageous!” I think this makes the point better than “abstaining” from marriage altogether.

1_123125_122946_2081208_2087895_030903_wedding.gif.CROP.original-originalMany feminists in the West have fought against the insular and restrictive aspects of the institution of marriage since the 1960s. The gains of this have been changes to social understandings of marriage, where women are no longer seen as the property of their husbands, and where divorce is a legitimate option for those in unhappy or dangerous partnerships. While the institution of marriage is not perfect, and indeed is an institution where the law comes into the intimate sphere of a relationship, it is arguably not what it used to be. Except that is still between “a man and a woman” (in Australia at least).

20081117_lovedontdiscrim_560x375Of the weddings I have been to, what I have seen is a celebration of people in love, making a public declaration in front of their friends and family (however that is defined). Sure, queer people can still have parties that mimic this, but while discriminatory laws are in place there is ever the reminder that inequality between heterosexual and homosexual people is legally sanctioned in this country.

10809965_494942430647416_1137332444_nThe fight for marriage equality is not the end of the road for LGBTIQ rights, not by a long shot. But it is an important stone in the path to justice, and winning equal marriage in Australia would remove one roadblock that we keep getting stuck on. So let’s fight to open up this path, not stopping at marriage, and along the way take everyone with us in the fight against entrenched discrimination.

Because life ends at marriage?

Everyone loves a good wedding (BBC’s Pride and Prejudice)

I went to the movies this evening and saw what was a funny but pretty middle of the road comedy. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but let’s just say it was your normal Hollywood light entertainment piece (*talking bear cough*). The film was actually quite enjoyable, but had the most predictable and un-funny ending ever. You guessed it, a wedding.

I left the theatre wondering why it is that we don’t seem to be able to get past this neat little plot device. Maybe it’s just the easiest way to spell out “all’s well that ends well”. After all, Shakespeare’s comedies always finished with giant group weddings and frivolity. But you’d think that in this era of increasing divorce rates, surely we’d be imagining some alternate models for spelling out happiness? Much like the beloved Bechdel test, I feel like we need a rating system for romantic comedies that don’t equate true love with a wedding fest.

But then, when I tried to think of romantic comedies that did (or didn’t) end in weddings, I could only think of the most obvious ones – The Wedding Singer, Four Weddings and a Funeral, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Bridesmaids

From Miranda July’s ‘The Future’

Then I came across this excellent list of romcoms that are not your typical Hollywood fare but have done well nonetheless, and there’s not that much weddingery in sight. Films listed include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindVicki Cristina BarcelonaBefore Sunset… But what’s interesting about many of the pics on this list is that the “happy factor” at the end is debatable. Most of them have a sense of hope mixed with bittersweet realism and often just plain old sadness and loss.

In the end I say give me emotional realism over fantasy wedding bonanzas any day. I’d rather leave the cinema feeling a little heartbroken, than walk away and forget the film in much the same way that one passes apple juice- quickly and with little to digest.

Marriage “the end of [gay] history”?

I came across this great ad (that has gone viral) by Australian grassroots protest group GetUp! on the website Lesbian Dad. The ending is very moving, but bittersweet given the recent decision of the Australian Labor Party to allow a conscience vote on gay marriage, rather than incorporating a change of stance on the issue into the core party platform (this means that the bill to reform the Marriage Act is likely to get vetoed by the opposition when it comes to Parliament).

My response to this ad, and to the issue of gay marriage more generally is always one of support for reforms to the current law to remove any discrimination. I do however acknowledge the thoughts of those within GLBTQIQ circles that are vehemently against the concept of gay marriage. And this ad (after bringing tears to my eyes) got me thinking- just how can this issue be negotiated in a way that both removes discrimination based on sexual orientation, but that doesn’t detract from other political action around issues of sex, gender and sexuality. My biggest fear is that gay marriage may already be viewed as an “end of history” moment, where marriage is seen as the final marker of the equality battle. In fact, this article published in The Guardian today welcomes a “post-gay” future.

Damn straight

While many gay and lesbian people may rejoice in the possibility of marriage, many “non-heteronormative” others may find themselves left by the wayside when it comes to collective action (such as marriage within the polyamorous community- though they have noted that gay marriage would be a significant step toward possible poly marriage in the future). But the issue of “assimilation” runs deeper than the ability to win political gains- it’s a matter of the direction in which that change is won. A world in which a conservative ideology of marriage and “family values” is envisioned as the ideal end point for all relationships is concerning, because it overlooks and subsumes difference and different ways of “doing gay”. When Jane Lynch presented How I Met Your Mother star Neil Patrick Harris with the LA Gay and Lesbian Centre award earlier this year, she proclaimed that Harris and his partner had, “created the most stunning gay American family portrait“.

My hope is that with every “win” on the board we can stop and acknowledge the power of the political, and think about the way in which our new “norms” might affect those left behind.

Sydney [née Gay and Lesbian] Mardi Gras: Really?


The new "Mardi Gras" logo: I smell a heteronorm

There is some disenchantment within GLBTQIQ communities over the 2012 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras’ attempt to be “inclusive”. There has been some media coverage of the issue and  you can join the Occupy Mardi Gras Facebook group here. Some are questioning the step toward heterosexual assimilation inclusion that the organisers have now cemented through the re-naming (read their justification here). The Mardi Gras has a history of discrimination within GLBTQIQ ranks. The name “Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras” never really captured the alphabet soup (and admittedly, neither does the acronym that I am using here), and it wasn’t long ago that the likes of trans, bisexual and intersex people had to pass a “gay threshold” just to come to the after party. However, the new name change does nothing to embrace plurality as such- as some commentators have pointed out, why not put “Pride” at the front of the Mardi Gras title?

What I find most off-putting about the current re-branding shenanigan is the new symbol that has been chosen (to replace sit alongside the iconic opera-house-esque logo before it), which to me, REEKS of something like this —>

The new "Eternity" vision for Sydney: let's all move to the 'burbs shall we?

Don’t get me wrong- I’m all for “Gay” Marriage, but I’m also for embracing polyamory and other pursuits – which warrant inclusivity in the Mardi Gras celebration – that are not at all captured by the new sterile and clean cut graphic. Polyamorous people might even agree that their widely used symbol has been parodied and given a whole new meaning.The new “infinity hearts” reminds us of tiered cakes, string quartets and the bridal march- where are the whips, orgies and all manner of queer fantasy machines in that?