Culture

Australia’s Toxic Blokeyness Is Preserving A Unique (And Dangerous) Type Of Homophobia

Even if the Yes vote wins, we need to keep fighting this.

Australians love to think of our country as more enlightened and progressive than the US. Even before the Trump era, smug commentary on American news stories seemed to be a national hobby. At least we don’t have mass shootings. At least we don’t have the Westboro Baptist Church. At least there’s no Australian Ku Klux Klan. (The latter two are arguably harder to stand by).

But the same sex marriage debate should make us think twice about this snotty elitism. Having lived in both North American and Australian cultures (six years in Canada with frequent crossings to the US, just a 40-minute drive from where I write this), I’ve found it striking how homophobia manifests itself differently in two similar societies. With the slurs and even violence that have been dredged up, Australia is no better than the US in this regard. In fact, we might even be worse.

The “Nice” American Christian

Debates for marriage equality in the US were on-and-off for over a decade as the states fought it out for seperate laws. In some places (starting with Massachusetts in 2003) the public debate was short-circuited by a court decision legalising marriage equality, but later on (starting with Vermont in 2009), some states put gay marriage to a referendum-style public vote. The debate ebbed and flowed until 2015 when a Supreme Court decision legalised it across the entire country. And, each time, the anti-gay marriage campaign seemed to hitch its wagons to biblical arguments — “the bible says a man shall not lie with a man as with a woman, etc.”

Though this wasn’t the only argument used, the public campaign in the US was driven largely by evangelicals who approached it with a very measured, almost soft rhetoric. Frank Schubert, a “mastermind” of many campaigns, insisted to The New York Times that “it’s hurtful to know that many people think I dislike gays and lesbians and wish them harm.”

In a secular state, biblical arguments shouldn’t hold water, but — regardless of how misguided it may have been — the opponents had something relatively clear to point at to articulate their stance. Unlike the Australian survey, where the debate has dipped heavily into issues around sex education and gender identity, America really stuck to a “the gays are ok! Just not married!” focus.

This approach is underlined by a weirdly muted homophobia. I once stayed at a friend’s family cabin in the US, with her Fox News-lovin’ evangelical uncle. He was the sort of man who said that, despite being an adult, I was barred from sleeping in my friend’s room (she was a woman, no such gender-mixing allowed). My queerness never came up, but after I left, my friend’s much more lefty family gleefully told him he’d spent several days in the presence of a verified homosexual. Instead of being upset, he was conflicted. He thought I was a “nice man” and seemed to hold “love the sinner, hate the sin” kind of values.

This isn’t to suggest that American homophobia or transphobia is just a misguided, cuddly entity. The smarmy faux-reasonableness is what makes it dangerous; it’s been able to spread to powerful places. And, even if the US is ahead on marriage, it’s still behind in other ways. It’s still legal to fire people for being queer or trans* in many states, for instance. Nasty anti-trans* “bathroom bills” are popping up across the country too.

Back in Australia, religion seems strangely absent from the same sex marriage debacle. Sure, groups like the Australian Christian Lobby are at the forefront of the No side but, shrewdly, they’re not leaning into the “because the Bible” argument for their campaign. Australians are much less religious than Americans. Our last census results show 30 percent of us are not religious, and a study in 2012 suggested just one in 14 Australians were practicing churchgoers. Meanwhile, some 40 percent of Americans claim to pray daily.

Historians like Manning Clark have identified a general distaste for loud religiosity amongst Australians; instead, we’re “quietly spiritual”. In short, as we learned when Frances Abbott called her father a “gay churchy loser”, bashing on a bible won’t sell Australians.

It’s because of this that groups like the ACL have focused their efforts elsewhere. They’ve been intent on amplifying a vague sense of discomfort around the idea that marriage equality will lead to a meltdown of all gender norms, and suddenly boys will be wearing dresses to school.

Think about it: if so little of Australia is actively religious (and even those active Christians say they like gay marriage), it doesn’t make sense that around a third of the population would be upset by gay marriage. Unless there’s another explanation: that Australians are culturally fixated on gender roles. And that makes for a particularly nasty strain of homophobia.

Australia: Where Blokes Should Be Blokes

From Sam Newman’s continued celebrity status to the fact that Tony “shirtfront” Abbott was electable, a sizeable group of Australians still seriously value blokeyness as a personality trait. The rough ‘n’ tumble Aussie bloke (and his fun loving brother, the larrikin) is a cultural icon — he drinks, he swears, he is more valuable to society than inner-city latte sippers, and in the words of historian Miriam Dixon, he treats women like “doormats”. He likes his beer cold, and his gender roles rigid. As media professor Catharine Lumby identified when writing about Australian masculinity, he’s not allowed to be “caring, emotional, gay”.

In my experience, these Aussie blokes also have a fixation on policing others who fail to shape up to their expectations of masculinity. Once, when I was walking down a street dressed fairly unremarkably (jeans, t-shirt, a white and purple cap) in the oh-so-enlightened inner Melbourne suburb of Northcote, a car full of men pulled up next to me and yelled “take that fucking gay hat off, faggot”. I had headphones in, and was slow to react. As a result, they parked the car and doubled down on the threat. Mercifully, they eventually drove off. I’ve drawn similar, although less-threatening reactions, when dressed in slightly more obviously gay attire (mesh! pleather!) around Australia.

Yep, this is a pretty well-established thing.

In a much gentler scenario, I recall someone at a university residence gently explaining that he couldn’t abide the gays or trans people because their lifestyles were “a square peg in a round hole” (apparently, he was unaware that cuboid penises or dildos are a rarity). Then there was the lovely high schooler who declared that he’d just love “to go out and shoot all the faggots”. For good measure, this was a farming community. He had access to guns.

This isn’t to suggest that the US is magically free of homophobic violence; the notorious Mathew Shepard murder in Wyoming is one notorious example, and worryingly, murders of trans people have been on the rise. But homophobia just doesn’t seem as tied up with gendered expectations in the States. For example, Marcus Bachmann (the husband of one of America’s most notorious Christian politicians, Michele Bachmann) manages to be both feminine (and the butt of many gay jokes), and homophobic. His homophobia is grounded in scripture; not a masculinity-fixated culture.

In my experience, slurs like “poof” and “faggot” are bandied around much more, earning bloke points.

In Australia, there’s a much greater cultural discomfort with people ‘not doing their gender right’. In my experience, slurs like “poof” and “faggot” are bandied around much more, earning bloke points. From high school into adult life, it has become abundantly clear that within certain groups of men in Australia (and such groups appear all over, from the outback through to the inner-city latte belts), social status comes from aggressively performing such blokeyness, wondering why some men “aren’t into pussy”, or why some women don’t want to fuck someone with so much masculinity. In short, showing off one’s homophobia (and misogyny, but that’s a whole other piece) through the medium of blokeyness earns cred in Australia on a far more widespread basis than elsewhere.

When that discomfort gets elevated to a more aggressive disgust — at the idea of gay sex, or people changing genders — there can be tragic results. In Sydney, police have reopened 88 murder cases from the ‘80s to investigate them as possible gay hate crimes. It’s a mind-boggling number of dead queer bodies, but it’s also matched by similar figures around Australia. “Poofter bashing” was once enjoyed by many as a sport. 

The fixation on blokes and sheilas crosses over to politics in Australia too. The Safe Schools debate has delved into gender policing, with people clutching pearls over the idea that it would promote gender fluidity or homosexuality, without ever articulating why this would be an issue. If gender fluidity means that men might tone it down and not king hit people outside clubs for looking the wrong way, it sounds like a win-win.

For comparison, in Ontario (which is in Canada, but has a relatively US religious undertone to its homophobia), a proposed sex ed curriculum which vaguely resembled Safe Schools drew complaints — but mostly from religious families who said that teaching gender identity was against their religions. They may have been wrong, but at least they could articulate something, anything, to justify it beyond the more Australian attitude of ‘faggots shouldn’t wear wigs and sequins’.

The entangling of blokey culture and homophobia is what makes it so virulent. (Disappointingly, the Yes side of the marriage debate has played into this, highlighting good Aussie blokes and sheilas who just happen to be gay as the benefactors of marriage). So, even if the Yes vote wins, it’s going to take a lot more than a postal survey to squeeze out that toxic blokeyness that keeps Australian homophobia alive.

Tim Forster is an Australian writer and broadcaster based in Montreal, Canada. He is editor of food news site Eater Montreal. In his spare time, he can be found cycling militantly, exploring urban landscapes and tweeting tacky Canadiana at @timothyjforster.