How Western Sydney Got Dragged Into The Religious Discrimination Debate

"To pin the blame for this harmful bill on the communities of Western Sydney is shameful and racist."

Western Sydney

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Western Sydney residents have hit back after suggestions the area was culpable in the popularity of the Religious Discrimination Bill being pushed by Australian politicians.

The controversial proposed legislation around faith-based institutions, sexual orientation, and gender identity was discussed in Parliament House last week in a rushed attempt to uphold a historic Coalition election promise ahead of the next federal election.

Widespread advocacy and outrage from the general public and LGBTIQ community led to the bill being indefinitely shelved on Thursday. However, amid the vested interest between politicians, lobby groups, and schools, an unsuspecting target was thrown into the mix — Sydney’s ‘third city‘, the West.

Why Was Western Sydney Pulled Into The Conversation At All?

In an opinion piece arguing how the bill in the form debated in Parliament last week would unravel Tasmania’s staunch anti-discrimination efforts, former national director of Australian Marriage Equality Rodney Croome vowed to hand back his Order of Australia medal if it was passed — a gesture that given the circumstances no longer needs committing to.

He wrote last Tuesday that the bill was being dangled to nab voters and clutch onto electoral seats out West, as part of his view of wider Sydney being unable to fully stand up for LGBTIQ rights in comparison to the rest of the country.

“If the Government proceeds with the bill, and the Labor opposition supports it, they will have done so simply to keep or win those electorates that returned strong No votes in the 2017 marriage equality postal survey,” said Croome in his article. “Tasmania will be the sacrificial lamb on the altar of winning votes in Western Sydney.

“To be absolutely clear, the Sydney Disease is not about religion or ethnicity in the West…It’s about the powers-that-be turning the city against itself in a culture war that entrenches existing positions and allows little room for positive change,” he wrote later in the piece.

But members of the LGBTIQ community from the West disputed Croome’s message. Trans woman and advocate Amity Mara told Junkee that his comments were hurtful to read. “Rodney Croome has a big platform, and for him to use it to pin the blame for this harmful bill on the communities of Western Sydney is shameful and racist.

“All the evidence points to how this bill is being driven by rich, white, Christian institutions, and political conservatives. There was no big campaign for this bill from communities of colour, no huge outpouring of support, nothing,” she said, referencing how the Coalition backed away from the Religious Discrimination Bill on demand of the Australian Christian Lobby who were unhappy with protection amendments, describing them as doing ‘more harm than good’. 

“This bill doesn’t even actually protect communities from religious vilification, such as acts of Islamophobia. This bill is white nonsense,” she said.

The Ghost Of The Marriage Equality Survey

Western Sydney is often terribly stereotyped as conservative and bigoted, with the shadow of a majority ‘no’ vote in the 2017 same-sex marriage postal survey still hanging over its corresponding electorates to this day.

The area is culturally rich, with people coming together from more than 170 countries, sharing over 100 languages, while a high number of residents are from low-income backgrounds, according to Western Sydney University. The latest census data reflects that while the majority of Australia’s population identified as having no religion, Catholic, or Anglican as the top three percentages in descending order, Western Sydney reported identifying as Catholic, having no religion, and Muslim comparatively.

“Western Sydney is home to 2.5 million people — around half of Sydney’s population,” community activist and co-founder of the Muslims for Marriage Equality campaign group Fahad Ali told Junkee. “There’s not a single political position you can ascribe to ‘Western Sydney voters’.

“The majority of people who live in Western Sydney are of white European descent, and although Westies are typically more religious, it’s impossible to generalise a population so big, who live in an area half the size of the entire country of Lebanon.”

“White spaces, even white queer spaces, are so unsafe for queer people of colour…”

A dozen electoral seats span widely from the inner-west’s Reid, to Lindsay in the Blue Mountains, and the ‘mythical Western Sydney vote’ as the ABC describes, is as “sprawling, diverse [and] dynamic” in its landmass as is its people. To put it in perspective, every one in 11 Australians lives in the Greater Western Sydney area.

Mara said it’s important to look at the numbers of the plebiscite vote within context of how the marriage equality campaign ignored communities of colour. “All the ads were of mostly cis-looking white people,” she said. “All the work was for white communities.”

“The campaign explicitly excluded our communities, and then blamed us for not overwhelmingly supporting them.” She said this continued false perception wrecks havoc on Western Sydney residents’ mental health and their sense of connection to those around them — which is exactly what people outside the area are pushing for.

“White people constantly want brown people to disavow our communities. The message is if you’re queer you have to turn your back on your communities, your culture, your family. You have to assimilate,” she said. “But we know white spaces, even white queer spaces, are so unsafe for queer people of colour. So it keeps people — particularly young people — vulnerable because it disconnects us from our community.”

Croome’s Clarification

Croome denies painting the area poorly, and says he was instead trying to shed light on how Western Sydney is used as a chessboard piece by powerful players to hold Australia back from true equality.

In a statement to Junkee, he said that false narratives of Western Sydney are intentionally exploited by them to push an anti-queer narrative for political gain. “For writing about this I have been criticised for stereotyping the West and dog-whistling racism and Islamophobia,” said Croome. “That’s wrong.”

“I also repudiate the slur that particular ethnic groups or religions are more likely to harbour prejudice,” he continued. “In the marriage equality and religious discrimination debates I worked closely with minority ethnic and religious communities precisely because many members of these communities understand at a deep level the link between the prejudice they face and prejudice faced by LGBTIQ+ people.”

He said both sides of the political spectrum should instead be held to account — “forces that have created the stereotyped West” and the opposition who’ve failed to counter that narrative. On the latter, he called out Labor, LGBTIQ organisations, and human rights groups for looking the other way, and failing to provide counter-resources when the No campaign was being peddled in the region.

He also challenged conservative voices like church leaders, the media, and politicians for perpetuating the post-marriage equality myth of Western Sydney being homophobic and transphobic to serve in their favour, especially in debates over the federal Religious Discrimination Bill, and Mark Latham’s anti-trans bill.

“As a Tasmanian I know what it’s like to be sneered at, stereotyped, patronised and blamed for making the nation look bad,” he said. “I know because that’s exactly what we went through in the 1990s when Tasmania was the last state to decriminalise homosexuality and was mired in a divisive battle on the issue that was reported around the world.

I would never do that to others.”

Continual Scapegoat

While the Religious Discrimination Bill might be on hold, misconceptions around the progressiveness and make up of Western Sydney is next on the list of things to be tabled.

“There are really two Western Sydney’s — the actually existing West, and the stereotype of the West that exists in the minds of much of the country,” said Ali, who said the biggest point of difference between the two is that the West usually scores lower on the socioeconomic indicators in comparison to the rest of Sydney, despite having some pockets of affluence.

“I think a lot of the negative portrayal of the West actually stems from unspoken class prejudice. Middle-class liberals have always found it convenient to externalise the blame for social ills on to the working class, who they perceive to be homophobic, conservative, and ultimately — different.”

It’s this disparity that continually sees the area thrown under the bus more broadly. During the peak of Sydney’s second lockdown last year, Western Sydney once again found itself unfairly targeted in the state’s handling of public health orders, with tougher restrictions imposed on local government areas of concern there.

A heavy police presence dominated the area, which already faces over-policing issues, to enforce lockdown restrictions — despite not even the source of the outbreak. Helicopters were constantly flying overhead, and come August, the army was then brought in for backup.

“The state government had lost control of the outbreak, and had to be seen to be doing something. It was convenient to pin the pandemic on Western Sydney, because of that pre-existing negative stereotypes that we’re all poor, dumb hicks,” said Ali.

The Future Of Western Sydney

Ali — who grew up in Western Sydney during the late ’90s and early 2000s — says a lot has changed since then. His experience as a gay Muslim man in the area has not always been positive, but he said it’s wrong to pretend it’s fixed in time and unable to change, noting a burgeoning queer scene and visibility that would be unheard of a decade or two ago.

For Mara, who moved to Western Sydney at 18-years-old as a runaway, she couldn’t imagine a more accepting and liberating environment to be in, surrounded by a community of accepting queer people of colour who helped her overcome the hurdles of social transitioning, and helped her find her feet.

To the voices who misconstrue what is possible and what is happening in their hometown, both firmly agree that you can’t put ‘Western Sydney voters’ in a box for any homogenous viewpoint or political position. “The communities remember,” said Mara. We remember when you sell us out, when you see us as the villain for your own gains, when you abandon us. We see you for who you are.”

Millie Roberts is Junkee’s social justice reporter. Follow her on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Jayfel Tulabing Lee/Twitter