Writing From Below | “Those were the bad old days”: challenging straight histories of anti-queer violence - Curtis Redd
Writing From Below

“Those were the bad old days”: challenging straight histories of anti-queer violence

Curtis Redd

In 2012 I presented at a school retreat for first year Humanities and Social Sciences PhD students. I optimistically expected that my research so far into homophobic violence in Australia would perhaps stimulate some discussion, but after the presentation I was approached by another PhD candidate who told me I had “got it all wrong” and that “homophobia doesn’t exist anymore”. Rejecting my use of scholarly sources and reports on rates of violence and discrimination, my colleague instead drew on her own evidence—that she had been friends with people in the 1980s who had gone “gay bashing” and that “they wouldn’t do that anymore” (she asserted, despite no longer knowing these people). I offered anecdotes of my own and friends’ experiences, but she was not swayed, even when I recounted incidents increasing in seriousness. My “proof” was not able to stand in the way of this unsubstantiated narrative of increased tolerance, based on nothing but the passing of time, the same kind of argument as simply stating the year—“it’s 2017!”

Over the past few years there has been a spate of government and police apologies in regards to the actions of police and state governments in perpetuating homophobic laws as well as an increase in media portrayals of past homophobic violence. There is clearly something happening in regards to the history of homophobic violence and repression in Australia, particularly with relation to the state. These apologies are about changing the story, or bringing it to light, which I’m sure those delivering them would agree. But it matters what the story is being changed to, and how it positions queers. Is it about addressing and redressing the past, or is it about rewriting it? Is the emphasis on changing the course of the future, or is it on the way future queers remember the past? These moments of negotiation – of acknowledging a history of homophobia while presenting a more tolerant present, are potentially also about negotiating a shifting straight identity. The historicising of this violence can obscure the ongoing nature of violence against queers, and this subjugation of queer knowledges can be seen as a form of symbolic violence in itself.

This narrative of progression of tolerance only through the passage of time and age is replicated in the history telling around narratives of gay bashing, in particular recent narratives around the Bondi beat murders. Representations that historicise this violence also prioritise straight protagonists—usually police, as the “heroes” who uncover this history and right the wrongs of police and governments past. There is an emerging discourse about the 1980s and 90s and police ineptitude in response to gay bashings and deaths (Feneley and Abboud 2016). There is also a growing awareness, if not acceptance, of a narrative that implicates the police (and the government) in this history—these appear both in the representation around the Bondi Beat murders and Operation Taradale and in the apologies from the South Australian and Victorian Governments and police. But there are simultaneous discourses coming from the police that deny the existence of anti queer violence in the present or place blame on the individual. This includes warnings around the risk of “beats” (places that men can meet and have sex with other men, often parks or public toilets), and advice not to “frock up” when going out and other forms of self-surveillance and victim blaming (NSW Police Public Site 2016), including the continued existence of the Homosexual Advance Defence. How do we untangle these seemingly contradictory narratives? For whom does an apology work? For whom and from whom makes it “enough” when we are dealing with a diverse range of people and experiences and the ever expanding acronym of non-hetero identities.

I propose that the historicizing of anti-queer violence is part of a larger shift—one that involves queer politics being oriented towards homonormative goals such as marriage in which queers are made more palatable, while straights become more tolerant and by extension more queer, as is shown through the rise of “ally” as an identity politic. This homonormativity can be seen in the debate surrounding the same-sex marriage survey, and as we see the “no” campaign target trans people, including children, the response from the “yes” side is—this is about marriage not gender.

This paper will explore the consequences of heteronormative entitlement to define queer histories of oppression, and the impact of these official and heteronormative voices in defining this history as well as the acceptable limits of queer anger, grief and the popular imaginary. The context of queer history telling is different than that found in many other social movements and identity based organising due to the absence of familial intergenerationality (Shulman 2009, 38). Therefore, queer history telling is significantly influenced and defined in the public imagination by heteronormative representations. Representation matters for queers, as Barbara Baird noted in 1997 in regards to engagement between gay and lesbian community groups (including anti-violence groups) and the police. Our engagement with the state will “always be discursive as well as material, that is, that contests over representation will be as important as, indeed inseparable from, the practicalities of meetings and lobbying…a struggle with a state institution over meaning and material resources” (Baird 1997, 78). Twenty years on this seems particularly relevant in the case of apologies from the police and State Governments in regards to past violence. Yet there seems little space for critique and the histories of anti-queer violence are represented as neutral despite the discursive power for these representations to override or subjugate the knowledges of queers. In the fictional miniseries of Deep Water (which premiered before the documentary), the killer is not the ordinary gay basher but a psychopathic serial killer, positioning the violence as abnormal and homophobia as an abnormal trait in the psyche of the individual. These narratives make no tangible difference to the lives of queers in the present, and perhaps even do harm in the way they position violence as abnormal or as a thing of the past, and subjugates contradicting queer knowledges of this.

A comparison between Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ apology for criminalisation, the final scene from SBS’s documentary Deep Water: The Real Story and the NSW Police response to the show, reveal similarities in their historicising of homophobic violence but also notes the progression of time as in itself an indication of change. Daniel Andrews absolves individuals and the police also:

“And it would be easy to blame the courts, or the media, or the police, or the public.

It is easy for us to condemn their bigotry. But the law required them to be bigoted […] I suppose it’s rare when you can’t even begin to conceive what was on the minds of our forebears in this place. But I look back at those statutes and I am dumbfounded. I can’t possibly explain why we made these laws, and clung to them, and fought for them.” (Andrews 2016)

In responding to the Deep Water program the police did a similar thing:

“...the NSW Police Force was a part of society - yes, there was homophobia in society. The conclusion from that is, yes, that there was homophobia in the NSW Police Force." (SBS 2016)

At the end of Deep Water: The Real Story there is a voiceover of a statement from one of the men convicted of murders at Bondi:

“8th march 2016. I am writing this letter from prison. In 1990 I murdered a gay man and seriously assaulted his companion. I was convicted of these crimes along with two other men. The night of the crime at Mark’s Park was one of dread, fear, anger, confusion. On the way to Bondi that night I was fearful, confused, yet all of this was overshadowed by false pride, teenage bravado and a desire to make others feel as miserable and lonely as I did as a kid . It did not matter if they were gay or not. Gay men were simply an easy conduit. There was no exhilaration. The most accurate way to describe what went through me emotionally and physically was release. When I drank and took drugs it opened the spillway just like a dam. I had no emotional intelligence at all so that was my mechanism for a long time. In hindsight I now see that gay people at that time in my youth were shown to be an easy target for an angry maladjusted young boy . Gay people were much maligned in the 1970s and 80s. My opinion of gay men now is one of compassion support and friendship. I believe that gay men should be allowed to marry. I believe they do the nation more justice than the rest of us do. Yes, I have gay friends, one of my closest mates is gay. He’s a good bloke. He knows my past and cannot identify the man I am now with the person I was then. ” (Deep Water: The Real Story 2016) (emphasis mine)

These statements absolve the individual of blame and place it instead on a period of time and a society past. Homophobia as a term has problems because of its location in the psyche of the individual. Warner (1999) notes “homophobia” as “a misleading term” which “suggests that the stigma and oppression directed at this entire range of people can be explained simply as a phobic reaction to same-sex love” (Warner 1999, 38). I would argue that the current articulation and (re)definition of homophobia is limited to state regulated exclusion rather than a range of discursive and interpersonal experiences that shape the lives, desires and behaviour of non-hetero bodies. Homophobia does not describe or indicate the range of ways people experience stigma, shame, aggression, isolation, ridicule, harassment and violence at the hands of heteronormative society. It does not go far enough to explaining the schisms within the broad and weak alliance of the ever-extending acronym (GLBTIQA+ at last count) not just along traditionally considered intersections of race, class, ethnicity, religion and gender, but also in terms (especially in these homonormative times) along lines and cracks we have not yet named, which we may not have yet identified, which operate to isolate and separate. An identity politics lens inevitably fails at trying to categorise or recognise the myriad ways non-heterosexual and gender nonconforming bodies are shaped by violence, including that sanctioned and perpetrated by the state. Homophobia is also something that is easy for a straight subject to be against, and has taken on an almost identity like quality of “the homophobe”—arguable the binary partner of “the Ally”.

Queer has been added to the ever-expanding rainbow acronym but is often used as an “umbrella term” rather than in the theoretical context of queer theory. I will be using the term queer as per Michael Warner’s definition in The Trouble with Normal. Warner (1999) defines queer to refer to the “many ways people can find themselves at odds with straight culture” (38). He critiques the use of the terms of reference “gay and lesbian” as “blind” to the “the subtlety of the oppressive culture and to the breadth of the possible resistances” (Warner 1999, 39). Warner even critiques the expanded GLBT (which has now been expanded further to include IQA+) as “often rightly perceived […] as afterthoughts, half-hearted gestures at being politically correct.” (39) The inclusion of Q in the acronym sits somewhat uncomfortably given its difference to the other list of identities. Warner defines queer to include a range of “sexual stigmas” that may or may not have anything to do with sex, but include:

“the ways people suffer, often indiscriminately, from gender norms, object-orientation norms, norms of sexual practice, and norms of subjective identification […] it is possible to have a concrete sense of being in the same boat with people who may not share your sexual tastes at all—people who have had to survive the penalties of dissent from the norms of straight culture, for reasons that might be as various as the people themselves” (Warner 1999, 39)

Warner’s definition of queer allows us to include the trans children and young people who in 2017 Australia were thrown under the marriage equality bus by those distancing same sex marriage from “radical” gender ideology and programs like Safe Schools and inclusive sex education. It allows us to think about those who experience being “at odds with straight culture” and “suffering the dissent” before they can articulate an identity politic (or a “radical gender agenda”). Those who the Christian lobby attack—the “boys who want to wear dresses” and the 13 year old kids like Tyrone Unsworth who kill themselves before they even have had the queer sex they are being told is so wrong it shouldn’t be taught in sex education at school. It is important to include this next generation in the concept of history telling—a looking forward as we look back. We need to make discursive place for our histories, especially our experiences of resistance in the face of violence, so that we will have a next generation of queers onto whom to pass these histories

Using Warner’s definition of queer in conjunction with Duggan’s term “homonormativity” allows a way of looking at those who fall under the LGBT banner but who have not found themselves “at odds with straight culture” or had to survive “the penalties of dissent”, those gays and lesbians who may in fact benefit from heteronormativity. Lisa Duggan identifies this normalizing shift as integral to the politics of neoliberalism calling it “The New Homonormativity”:

“This new homonormativity comes equipped with a rhetorical recoding of key terms in the history of gay politics: “equality” becomes narrow, formal access to a few conservatizing institutions, “freedom” becomes impunity for bigotry and vast inequalities in commercial life and civil society, the “right to privacy” becomes domestic confinement, and democratic politics itself becomes something to be escaped.”(Duggan 2003, 65)

This also impacts on heterosexuality, and representations of queers and violence against them as historical can be viewed as part of negotiating a shifting heterosexual subject and identity. In Gay TV and Straight America, Ron Becker analyses the emergence of gay and lesbian representation and notes how in the 1980s and 90s the appearance of gays and lesbians on our televisions was part of negotiating a shifting border between heterosexuality and homosexuality. With an increasingly socially acceptable queerness, heterosexuality must reconfigure itself and this can be seen through what Becker calls “straight panic” (Becker 2006, 15), or through a kind of pleasurable consumption of GLBT content or confirmation of socially progressive values. Networks in the 1990s also used gay characters to target what Becker calls “Slumpy” viewers—Socially Liberal, Urban-Minded Professionals and notes that “gay rights debates also gave homo-sexuality a cutting-edge allure dulled just enough by their assimilationist goals to appeal to a relatively broad base.” (Becker 2006, 81)

Becker defines his concept of “straight panic” as “what happens when heterosexual men and women, insecure about the boundary between gay and straight, confront an increasingly accepted homosexuality” (Becker 2006, 15). The impact of civil rights movements and the emergence of multiculturalism as a discourse that not only acknowledged difference but “celebrated” it, as well as homosexuality’s newfound visibility on television, caused the previously ‘unmarked’ identity of heterosexuality (among others) to become not only visible, but to have its presumptive authority questioned. Becker extends his concept of “straight panic” to:

“also identify a broader social anxiety experienced by a once naïve mainstream confronting the politics of social identity and difference. Increasingly, Straight America(ns) faced a world where being gay wasn’t so bad, where being straight wasn’t so effortless, and where social identities in general and sexual identities in particular were increasingly relevant even as the line between them became ever more indeterminate” (Becker 2006, 23)

This renegotiation of heterosexual identity through representation fits with the narrative of gay hate crimes and violence at the same period. Straight people could no longer avoid thinking about gay people, and the assertion of social difference combined with the demand for social equality was (and remains) difficult to reconcile. A way of doing this is to distance straight identity from homophobia by historicising it. The emergence of a historicising narrative around violence in the 2000s can be seen as part of a continuing negotiation and redefinition of straight identity.

In 2006 I was queer officer for the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU), which is a role that requires running collectives and organising events as well as providing some pastoral care and liaising with University services. I was asked by a campus Jewish group to take part in a Holocaust memorial service, to light a candle for the “queers, gypsies (sic) and others” that had died. Attending the service, I was struck by a kind of disconnect that I felt in relation to those I was symbolically recognising. Who were these queers that I was mourning for, whose shortened lives stood apart from mine in time and space, but to whom I was linked on the basis of potential persecution? The room was filled with those who could trace their lineages, had faces and names and stories of near escape or tragic separation. Had I been born in a different time or place I could have suffered the same fate, yet it didn’t feel like these were my tears to cry.

In Ties That Bind Sarah Schulman notes that:

“most social movements have been constructed by people who were related: civil rights and labour movements involve multi-generations of rebellion by the same families. Even feminism has tried to be a movement of mothers and daughters. But the gay and lesbian movement, like the disability movement, is made up of people who stand apart from the fate of their family members, and whose most intense oppression experiences may be at the hands of those same relatives” (Shulman 2009, 38)

The heteronormativity (and often homophobia) of families of origin has consequences for our ability to form connections both with our families of origin and with other queers. We are queered into an orphan-like subject hood, looking for our forbearers, clutching clues and scraps of paper or trawling the internet for someone like us, for our family, our history, ourselves. In After Homosexual, Daniel Marshall remembers “the familiar solo queer sleuthing work I performed as a boy, ignorant of the gay liberation struggle of the 1970s and its efforts to reimagine life and learning. Here and there my childhood curiosity would dart, piecing together assemblages, collages, of meaning and interest” (Marshall 2013, 250). As a result, mainstream and heteronormative representation can take on an important role for those who don’t know how to, or can’t, find queer community. These representations continue to be important to those of us who are lucky to have constructed queer families of choice, as we negotiate how to support and love each other outside the social scaffolding of heteronormative models of relation.

There is a gap in the transfer of knowledge and history around violence, state repression and activist responses to younger queers. We have also lost a generation to AIDS, and—as attacks on Safe Schools show—older queers engaging with other (straight) people’s children may be met with paranoid accusations of paedophilia and/or recruitment ( Safe Schools, Sniping and Senators 2016). Often in mainstream narratives of queerness the intergenerationality is left out also—when young trans people are talked about there are no trans adults, only straight parents and teachers expressing how hard it is and how wonderful they are trying to be (Four Corners 2014). As a result, straight voices tell and define this history, and institutions such as the police and the government cannot narrate this history of violence they are a part of in a neutral way. There is a legitimised state discourse that presents a narrative of progress, positioning violence—including that at the hands of police—as in the past and incompatible with current practices and culture. This is more audible than the lived experiences of queers.

The reopening of unsolved murder cases, including Operation Taradale in 2000, position “one good cop” as redeeming the institution and as an indicator of progress. This is also shown in fictional and documentary representations such as Deep Water. Since 2013 and the international attention directed at the Scott Johnson case (Kontominas 2017) there has been an increasingly audible and legitimised narrative of police incompetence, complicity and involvement with homophobic violence in the late 80s and early 90s. The shift to the rhetoric over “the bad old days” aligns with the shift to assimilationist goals such as marriage (revived by John Howard’s Marriage Amendment Act 2004 (Cwlth)), which not only fail to challenge heteronormativity but actually reinforce it (and reinvigorate it—arguably marriage had become quite unfashionable before gays and lesbians made it cool again.) This coincides with the increasing involvement of police with gay and lesbian liaison officers (GLLOs) from the 1990s—an investment from the state in being perceived as “dealing with” homophobia (symbolically if not in practice).

The representations of the Bondi Beat murders, such as Deep Water, tell the story of gay “hate crime” positioning the telling usually through the eyes of police, and through the popular and palatable framework of crime show narrative. There is a lack of remembrance of gay community responses or connections such as the use of “vigilante” tactics of recording numberplates, and patrols by Dykes on Bikes (Whittaker 2016). Instead the focus is on the brutality of crimes, the danger of beats, loss to biological family, and a society from “a different era” that created the conditions both for gay men taking risks and young men bashing gays as part of a formative masculinity. This age group (men aged 18-24) is noted in particular in most narratives, as being a stage in which most perpetrators, (except the psychopathic scapegoat as depicted in the fictional Deep Water), have moved through and past and now see the error of their ways. In a 2005 study by Flood and Hamilton, the age group of boys 14-17 was identified as showing “relatively high levels of homophobia” (Flood and Hamilton 2008, 35) in comparison to the general trend of homophobic attitudes being “most common amongst the oldest age groups, less common among younger adults, and least common among the youngest adults” (2008, 35). Flood and Hamilton state that this “declines by the time they reach early adulthood” (2008, 35) and conclude that “this suggests that a belief in the immorality of homosexuality will lessen over time as these cohorts age” (2008, 35). The closing scene and monologue of Deep Water: The True Story blames society and masculinity, and by stating that he now has friendships with gays and is unrecognisable from his younger previous self he replicates this progression. The apology acts (as is arguably its intention) to sever, to demarcate, and in doing so to imply an ever upward progression towards tolerance and acceptance, even if it takes time. This allows individuals to adopt the same narrative in terms of their own heterosexual identity, one that can go from “I used to be homophobic” to “now I’m not” with only the passage of time as any measure of change. Changes in police attitudes are likened to the changes in DNA technology. The depiction of the 1980s “Grim Reaper” ad in both the fictional and documentary versions of Deep Water acts also to place direct state-based homophobia as in the past, as it is used to demonstrate with some disbelief the values of a different era.

It is also significant that although State-based apologies (and representations of violence more broadly) are directed at the LGBT community, they are primarily apologies to gay men, with some limited reference to lesbians. Arguably gay men have been the most visibly or “officially” targeted by state repression, however this historical narrative also requires analysis as to its cultural construction, and we shouldn’t assume that because someone’s oppression is not visible or audible to us, or to straight society, it is not there. Apologies set the scene for which lives are worth memorialising, which deaths are worth apologising for, and whose repression is no longer seen as acceptable. In the context of these events being unfamiliar to young or disconnected queers, the impact of these histories being told by the authorities who perpetrated them is significant. This potentially creates a distance between those whom the state legitimises as victims or survivors and those it does not. This could cause a split, gap or schism between queers who continue to experience oppression and violence and those to whom the state (government and police) are apologising. This may end up being along generational lines, as young queers continue to be overrepresented in terms of homelessness (Lewis 2016), violence, and suicide (Beyond Blue 2018), while the most audible gay and lesbian voices in mainstream discourse advocate for marriage.

Within a police force that still continues to be violent against minorities including queers, the few “bad eggs” from the past are given the majority of blame. Violence and police corruption are situated in the past, producing a present which allows straight people to feel relieved of an oppression they don’t believe themselves to be a part of. The state takes responsibility away from individuals and individuals put their responsibility on the state—as shown in the apology at the end of Deep Water: The Real Story.

This paper was given prior to the announcement of the same-sex marriage postal survey. It seems impossible to speak of anti queer violence, the schisms within GLBTIQA “communities” and the entitlement of straight people to weigh in on queer politics and history without addressing the 2017 same-sex marriage postal survey. The range of attacks on queer bodies and politics has come into conflict with the single issue and homonormative goal of same sex marriage. Attacks from the “no” side and the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) on gender non-conforming children, the Safe Schools program and inclusive sex education, have been met largely with a distancing by the “yes” campaign and Australian Marriage Equality from these issues, and a focus on the technicalities of marriage rights versus de-facto rights and the rhetoric of “love is love”. While trans people have been used by the “No” side to evoke fear of queers, the “Yes” side has “largely ignored gender nonconforming bodies altogether in its fight” (Gallagher 2017) and trans people have been “excluded by the respectability politics of the mainstream same-sex marriage campaign” (Gallagher 2017). The singular focus of same-sex marriage as good, or important, for the LGBTIQ community as a whole ignores the far more pressing trans issues of access to health care and changes to identity documents as well as high rates of suicide, violence and homelessness. Claims that these issues can be addressed after same-sex marriage is won, or that they are separate concerns, ignores the fact that the issues are not separate in the eyes of the “no” campaign and trans people are being targeted by opponents of same-sex marriage now.

Anecdotally rates of violence have increased as a result of the 2017 postal survey, circulating throughout queer networks and social media. As is the case generally with anti-queer violence, most is not reported to police (Leonard et al. 2008, 37). As a result, the ability to collect statistics in relation to violence from a diverse and somewhat unidentifiable group is difficult. Arguably, there is no data that will be deemed to “prove” homophobia because of the strength of the discursive hegemony of heteronormativity, however even 2016 attempts by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to collect data on sexuality and gender diversity was flawed. If a person wanted to identify as neither male nor female, or transgender on the 2016 census, they were required to call the ABS and request a special log in or paper form (Karp 2016). This meant an “opt in” rather than extending the opportunity to everyone, and also raised some security concerns in regards to the name retention of the 2016 survey when matched with gender identity (Goldner 2016).

In their 2016 analysis of the cost to the Australian nation of the then proposed plebiscite Price Waterhouse Cooper used the statistic of 2% to represent the rate of GLBTIQ people in the community (PwC 2016, p 6)—an incredibly low estimate which they themselves acknowledge, noting that “other evidence suggests this could be anywhere between 2.3-10%” (PwC 2006, 5). This 2% is based on “a conservative estimate consistent with Psychologists for Marriage Equality”; the estimate only addresses the experiences of LGB people “as there was generally less information available for transgender and intersex Australians in this part of the analysis” while acknowledging that “the impacts are higher for transgender and intersex Australians” (PwC 2016, 5). Most statistics on the existence of LGBT Australians use a 10% estimate, with some slightly higher at 11% (Australian Human Rights Commission 2017). Nevertheless, even with PwC using such low stats their 2016 estimate of the financial cost of LGBTI Australians loss of productivity at work, sick days due to affected mental health and accessing mental health services as the result of a plebiscite was $20 Million (PwC 2016, 7).

These numbers do not reflect (or allow space for the truth and extent of) anecdotal and community knowledge. The Bondi Beat murders are a case in point—the extent of men being assaulted and killed was well known to gay men and other queers in the community but treated by police as unrelated cases of robbery, suicide or misadventure. It wasn’t until police made the connection between the murders post-2000 that they were officially recognised as related, and only in retrospect are these murders referred to as “hate crimes” or a “blood sport”. Similarly, during the postal survey there have been incidents of violence such as the burning of rainbow flags, rocks thrown through windows displaying “yes” posters, homophobic graffiti, and even a dog wearing a “yes” bandana being kicked (Wade 2017). However this is often positioned as an acceptable part of the debate or as “coming from both sides”; there is no recognition of structural homophobia or that this is part of ongoing violence against queers. Even as we are seeing this “shocking increase in harassment and assaults” (Hirst 2017), we are being told by politicians that there is no homophobia in Australia and we are having a “respectful debate”. This is a demonstration of why, in these times, how public discourses of homophobia are told is vitally important as the knowledge of those of us who experience violence is not legitimated or audible, often even by those within the GLBTIQA+ community. When it comes to learning and understanding the history of violence against queers in Australia it matters who is telling this history and how. With a lack of familial intergenerationality, mainstream representations take on a greater significance in the context of queer identity and organising. Those implicated in this history of violence, such as police and the state, cannot present this history neutrally. Through an analysis of media representations and state-based apologies, this paper has argued that the historicising of anti-queer violence found in these discourses has implications in terms of the absolving of individuals of blame and a shifting straight identity that can obscure the violence, and homophobic oppression more broadly, that continues today.

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