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Dec 1, 2010

Benjamin Law: I’m not even sure I really like rainbows

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, straight people get the raw end of homophobia too. For LGBT people, one of the hardest things is to make straight people care, but it’s the only thing that will effect proper change, writes author and freelance writer Benjamin Law.


As part of our 15th birthday celebrations, we’ve trawled through the archives to bring you some of the best, weirdest and most salacious articles published on Crikey since our launch on February 14, 2000.

*This article was originally published on December 1, 2010.

Like typical guys, my boyfriend and I put off living together for as long as humanly possible. We both valued our private space, liked our time apart and enjoyed our respective sharehouses. But after experiencing some low points in sharehouse living — think fleas in the carpet and mushrooms growing out of the shower (my place); Canadian flatmates who didn’t use toilet paper (his place) — we decided to make a joint emergency exit. In the end, moving in together was as much about survival as anything else.

We ended up scoring an affordable, old apartment in Brisbane’s most gay-friendly suburb. It overlooked the river, and nearby, there was a floating walkway made up of a series of connecting pontoons. After dinner, we’d go for walks, recapping the day, talking inane sh-t, doing horrible impersonations of people we knew and cracking hideous jokes. The walks were intimate, but hand-holding was a rarity. My boyfriend always maintained he wasn’t the hand-holding type, and I maintained I didn’t really care. But looking back, our concerns probably lay elsewhere — like, say, trying to avoid getting the living shit bashed out of us.

Perhaps that’s melodramatic, though. After Sydney and Melbourne, Brisbane is Australia’s most tolerant capital city when it comes to gays and lesbians. At the same time, it’s the capital of Queensland, a state recently confirmed as being the nation’s most homophobic. A third of all Queenslanders consider homosexuality “immoral”. Bob Katter lives relatively close by. It doesn’t really matter where you live, though. When it comes to something as simple as hand-holding, most same-s-x couples know what I’m talking about. The American writer and broadcaster Dan Savage wrote about the same conundrum in his memoir, The Kid:

“For same-sex couples, taking a lover’s hand is almost never an unselfconscious choice. You have to think about where you are, whether you’re safe, and you have to look. By the time you determine you’re safe, you’re not even sure you want to hold hands anymore. The genuine moment has passed, but you’ve invested so much energy and angst that now you can’t not take your lover’s hand. You wind up holding and the only reason you take your lover’s hand is to prove that you can.”

On the rare occasions my boyfriend and I did hold hands, we’d break off as soon as we saw people approach us. Most of the time, it was just easier to let go.

Some gay and lesbian couples are more gung-ho about this stuff. You’ll see them at kiss-ins and parades, pride marches and floats. A lot of these couples would have attended the recent Equal Love rallies around the country, and I wish I could have been there with them. Instead, I was scheduled to talk at TEDx, a public lecture series that was being held at the State Library of Queensland. TEDx is its independent offshoot of TED: a live, streaming, global, educational love-in, the kind of event that discusses non-profit ventures, sustainability, digital innovation and online connectivity. Think intellectual evangelism for the non-religious.

Because I knew the Equal Love rallies were taking place that day, I decided to do my part and use the opportunity to talk about LGBT rights. Knowing the audience would be predominantly straight, I realised my talk would be similar to accosting people off the street and telling them about your passion for the whales or the plight of the Falun Gong. It was going to be a hard sell. Before I started, I tried to reassure everyone of a few things:

  1. I had not come with any banners or placards;
  2. It was still relatively early in the day, so I’d left my megaphone at home;
  3. I would not stage a kiss-in (even though I thought they were sort of hot); and
  4. I had not baked rainbow-frosted cupcakes that were secretly laced with broken glass.

To prevent any potential hostilities, I wanted to reassure everyone that I liked straight people and supported straight rights. In fact, I even dedicated my entire talk to straight people. But because heterosexuals are such a diverse and varied people, I narrowed down my discussions to straight guys.

Straight guys, it turns out, are interesting. One study from the 1980s examined the behaviour of hundreds of primary school boys, and how homophobic language affected their interactions. When they started school, young boys were observed holding hands on their way to class, or hugging each other at recess. By the age of 10 — when epithets such as queer and faggot were starting to creep in — they were mock-punching each other and high-fiving instead. By the time they were teenagers, the amount of anti-gay slurs had reached a peak. Boys would go to cinemas together but sit separately, in case they were seen as gay.

Even now, in Brisbane, it’s common for me to get on a bus and see boys sitting with the entire aisle between them, in case people get the wrong idea. Homophobia, as I told the crowd, doesn’t just affect gay people. If “gay” is still one of the worst things you can be in the schoolyard, that inevitably affects the way we behave and interact. We stop listening to certain music, in case it’s gay. We stop playing certain sports, in case it’s gay. We stop talking to each other in certain ways — and avoid making friends with certain people — in case it’s gay.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, straight people get the raw end of homophobia too.

For LGBT people, one of the hardest things is to make straight people care, but it’s the only thing that will effect proper change. Gay people might be everywhere, but there’s still a reason why we’re called a “minority”. There are few of us compared to them, and that’s evident every time I tune into ABC’s Insiders and see gay marriage discussed by a panel of exclusively white, heterosexual middle-aged men. It’s disheartening, but weirdly reflective of the political process too. There are so few openly gay politicians on a state and federal level. And from experience, we already know that having openly gay MPs doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll feel comfortable championing the cause.Queer folks can only do so much. And beyond that, some of us are incredibly lazy. I know I am. I don’t want to the one constantly writing whingeing op-eds draped in a rainbow flag, mainly because I’m not even sure I really like rainbows. We need straight people behind us signing petitions and writing letters. Brad and Angelina, for instance, have decided to hold off their own wedding until there are equal rights for all. However, some of you come from immigrant families or have impatient parents, and I don’t think you should boycott marriage altogether. (For the record, I want to come to your wedding and drink your alcohol.)

Perhaps you could show your support in other ways, such as ensuring all the services you use for your wedding — from florists to dressmakers, wedding planners to photographers — are gay or gay-owned. (Think about it. It really wouldn’t be hard.) Straight teachers: it’s up to you to speak out against anti-gay bullying in the schoolyard and staff room. Straight parents: explain to your kids what “gay” actually means, before they kids inevitably hear that it means “lame” or “stupid” or “crap”.

For our part, my boyfriend and I are getting better at holding hands. On one hand, I think it sends straight people a good message: we’re not that threatening. On the other hand, I think we’re also getting to a nice stage in our relationship where we’re beyond giving a sh-t what people think. It’s important to me to try to keep holding on, even if the people approaching us are wearing wife-beater singlets and driving a ute. But if I do let go, maybe I’ll try to wave.

This essay is part of Crikey’s Big Ideas series. We’ve had enough of sound bites set on repeat, glib slogans and half-baked committees – we’re looking for the vision thing. One Crikey subscriber will also get the chance to share their Big Idea with our readers: send us a three-line pitch, on an issue of national importance that gets you fired up, to boss@crikey.com.au with “Big Ideas” in the subject line.


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26 thoughts on “Benjamin Law: I’m not even sure I really like rainbows

  1. EKDV

    Thank you for writing this beautiful article.

    My husband and I were in Buenos Aires about two weeks after gay marriage was legalised in Argentina and while we were in the city the first wedding ceromony was performed. There was national TV coverage, and the mood seemed to be one of dignified rejoicing. We did not see any negative protests or outbursts at all. If there was a homophobic reaction, the TV networks did not seem to feel the need to cover it for the sake of “balance”.

    What struck us most was that gay couples did freely hold hands and make out along the riverside, just like any other straight canoodlers, and it made us straight folk feel safer and damned happy to be there. There didn’t seem to be the need to have designated “gay makeout spots” or “Straight makeout spots” in the way that we have “safe zones” for gay people here. Kissing by the river is just what people do.

    I suppose it helps that Argentinians are generally more demonstrative in their affections, gay or straight. It was quite common (and lovely) to see police officers – straight, burly and armed to the hilt – greet each other with warm smiles and kisses to both cheeks. In short, we were fascinated at how easily a somewhat conservative Catholic country adjusted to the legalisation of gay marriage and I am staggered that this country can’t seem to cope with the idea without getting the vapours.

  2. Stevo the Working Twistie

    Well said Ben. I have always had gay male friends, at least since I was about 15 when my best friend at school came out to me. He was worried I would blank him, but instead I was flattered that he chose me to confide in. In a way I had to come out too, as a straight guy who has a gay friend, and I copped a bit for it too. Even now, when we all should be grown up about it, and in the supposedly gay-friendly Sydney, I get agro from homophobes who just cannot comprehend that someone could associate with gays and not be one themselves.

    Oh well, I know who has the richer life 😉

  3. misscackle

    And this is the part where I wipe the tears from my eyes again (only just got over the Pixar video). Awesome post. ‘Nuff said.

  4. David

    Top article Ben and great responses particularly Stevo, thanks.

  5. Andrew Bartlett

    Good article and an interesting angle to focus on the impact of homophobia on straight people.

    I hope the TEDx audience weren’t as unsympathetic as you feared they might be. I would thought the audience at those events are far more likely to be open minded.

  6. SusieQ

    It is a great article and interesting observations from EKDV too. I think (and I hope) that a lot of straight people are doing what they can – I have signed petitions and will be emailing my MP about the matter. To me, it is a simple matter of equality – you wouldn’t think it would be that difficult, especially considering we currently have a PM who has exercised her choice not to get married yet denies that freedom of choice to other Australians.

  7. Michelle Imison

    …but then, SusieQ, is the PM not also a woman who has recently demonstrated that she can’t bring herself to lead on equal pay for women (i.e. should we be so surprised?)…?

    Although political leadership is (should be) key here, I think the way this will eventually happen is through enough simple recognition that ‘people’ now want marriage equality in Australia; politicians who then should have lead from the front will then have little choice but to follow (and kudos here and now to those who already *do* lead on the issue).

    Forty years ago you could lose your job for being outed in the press. Thirty years ago families didn’t speak about their gay and lesbian kids (John Howard’s ‘parental disappointments’, anyone?). Twenty years ago to be queer was (largely) still to mean not having children of one’s own within a same-sex relationship. Now all these things have shifted culturally – yes, far too slowly – mainly because individuals met gay and lesbian people and saw that they did not have ‘a’ ‘lifestyle’, but mortgages and jobs and cats and mundane concerns – and relationships… much like everyone else.

    I could write reams (more) on this, but I won’t. Thanks Ben, another terrific and thoughtful contribution to various debates. And as a TED fan, I dips me lid to you for your being invited to speak!

  8. William Fettes

    You are brilliant Ben. The second-guessing of hand-holding I found particularly provocative; I’ll think about your experiences the next time I read one of those stupid pieces about gay pride being counter-productive and excessive.

    Your perspective on the effect of homophobia on straight male relationships was also insightful and refreshing.

    More of this please Crikey.

  9. commish

    I really hope to read more articles of this quality on this particular subject.
    An aspect that needs to be addressed is the way Queensland Police sworn members – the CIB – are the worst offenders ;- closely followed by newly sworn in testosterone charged young male uniforms – most of whom swing themselves after six stubbies.
    Both Academics like Paul Wilson and Terry O’Gorman could relate thousands of incidents where young gay guys are picked up in Fortitude Valley – under the threat of arrest – by police in uniformed cars and CIB units and driven to New Farm park where both oral and anal sex is demanded and received in the Band Rotunda or the young guys are taken to the Roma Street Watch house – with a joint or two mysteriously ‘ found’ after a random pat down search.
    So what is worse; giving a copper or three a blow job or worse or ending up with a criminal record after a night being molested in the Drunks Tank at the Watch house. A no brainer really despite some young guys requiring surgery after too rubust a session with the ‘boys in blue’. While Qld. is the worst by far, NSW is a close second with the lads in the blues and twos getting their action the same way at Tweed Heads, Lismore, Grafton, Coffs, Port Macquarie and so on.
    The Pollies and Magistrates know it goes on – BUT NOTHING IS DONE. Having bent people at the top of the triangle, SAAB driving, Kenmore living Judiciary and members of the star chamber mean that the GAY future in Qld. remains very bleak indeed. …….COMMISH

  10. MLF

    Yeah, I’ll ditto everyone else, particularly EKDV & William. Nice stuff, Ben.

  11. Blair Martin

    Ben, wasn’t quite sure where you were going with the article at first, my initial impression was it was about to be another one of the self-loathing, why don’t you all stop being so “out and aggressive” and just accept things and let things change by osmosis (ala comedian Josh Thomas’s recent interview in DNA magazine).

    Thankfully, I read on and am really happy to hear about the challenge you gave yourself at TEDx. It’s forums like that which really need to hear our voices. Sure, Pride Marches, Same Sex Marriage Equality Rallies are important and valuable, but getting into areas where our voice is heard amongst others who aren’t from out community is vital.

    Also, congrats on the hand-holding thing. I will admit, I’m bloody militant (or “bolshie” as I was called earlier today). I don’t accept that I cannot hold my lover’s hand or kiss him in public, just like any other straight couple (such as my parents) can do. (Not that I have a lover as such currently, but there’s always hope!) Suppose, even though I suffered bullying of both the physical and verbal kind as a teenage, these days I seem to be a bit immune to that and probably don’t share much of the fear many gay men have with being so open – the fear of being stalked and bashed. Being 193cm, 105kg and (as one friend put it) imposing and intimidating in appearance does have its advantages!

    Finally, not really sure where Commish was going with his post. I’ve never heard anything of the sort, well not in this century anyway. You are talking about 2010, not 1980, aren’t you Commish?

    Thanks Crikey for this platform – hope we can expand the influence you have to those that think Crikey is an expression a deceased media personality uttered ad nauseam.

  12. zut alors

    Thanks Ben, this is good material on the subject.

    Incidentally, prior to moving to Brisbane I used to like rainbows – until I saw one straddling a Stefan salon.

  13. maxd

    Fantastic article, really lovely. A great perspective that I hadn’t ever considered and will now go off and think a bit about.

    I was just quickly wondering, where did that beautiful old photo come from that was used on the home page? It’s stunning!

  14. commish

    Blair Martin ASKED: You are talking about 2010, not 1980, aren’t you Commish?

    Commish replies : That is a big Roger – today, tonight, this week, December 2010!

  15. Darrard

    Thanks from me too Benjamin for this article. The hand-holding illustration of the internal conflict I can have about publicly showing my feelings for my partner is spot on. My partner and I live in a small rural town and we are out. We do dance togther at our local tavern on occassions but I must say we rarely hold hands. This is perhpas just not a hand holding kind of place anyway?

    I am, however, in public life as an elected member of local government and I am convinced of the importance of being just who we are because we actually never know just who this might help. My partner and Ihave had feedback from a local teacher who has told us that class discussions have ocurred about us and that this has been a good opportunity for young people to discuss same-sex relationships.

    When I go to our “Men’s Shed” each week I don’t match the every second word expletives of those I’m working with as I never learned that skill. This old dog is learning but does not aspire to the sheer artistry of the other old dogs .

    One guy at “the shed” has taken the opportunity to ask me questions about being gay and even to tell me, in his own indirect way, that he is trying to stop calling things that don’t work, a “poofta”.

    My value is to live honestly and openly, you never know who is looking and what they are thinking. They may still be locked in their restricting homophobia, they may be struggling to get out or they may be a young person who is looking for some kind of example of being who they are in a “normal” sort of way.

    Well done.

  16. Amber Jamieson


    The photo is from Flickr.


    Glad you liked it, I certainly did too!

  17. Blair Martin

    Commish: Ah, Today Tonight….’nuff said.

  18. adr0ck

    Nice article.

    I do object to this though:
    “…they were mock-punching each other and high-fiving instead.”

    There’s nothing wrong with masculine culture per se – some things that commonly accompany it perhaps.

    Sorry but every other comment was so damn supportive I just needed to create some debate!

  19. Rick M.

    Thank you for a riveting piece.

    Of course I can identify with the holding hands thing and yes my little brother calls things ‘gay’ all the time – I’m doing my best to educate him…but apparently it’s such a cool word!

    Personally I’m also a person that doesn’t really feel the need to fight for gay marriage. I firstly want acceptance and that usually comes with mutual respect. At this point I think most people are up to ‘tolerance’ but if I were to get that little piece of paper that said married I’d want it to come with blessing (not necessarily religiously) so I know it actually means something.

    I think the term ‘fight for gay marriage’ and a video I recently saw on YouTube having kids say ‘F*&% You’ to non-believers does nothing to earn respect and actually puts the cause of acceptance backwards.

    In the style that Nelson Mandela brought races together in a passionate proud supporting Rugby country, I think ‘our’ side needs to first work on acceptance from straight people so that one day gay people can have a partnership recognised with a term of marriage or anything else that is respected for the dedication it means…not just to prove we can.

    Thanks for your writing and the chance to share my opinion.


  20. ghost rider

    I’m sure you meant to be ironic/satirical/clever …… whatever you like, when you said that Katty Bob lived nearby. It didn’t work. It wasn’t funny. Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean that every thing you say is clever. If you wish to write witty columns go out and learn how to do it. Forget about being a professional “person of a certain life style.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean. If you want to be treated equally, a good point to start would be in behavng “equally.” A good line will get a smile regardless of your inclination.

  21. zut alors

    It’s interesting that Rick.M mentions the younger generation using the word ‘gay’ to describe things, possibly in a detrimental manner. But the homosexual movement had already shanghaied the word from popular usage many years ago.

    ‘Gay’ used to describe something bright, happy, cheerful until it was commandeered to collectively cover homosexual men and women – although I note the latter are mostly referred to as lesbians which doesn’t sound nearly so affirming or positive.

    Back in the 1960s the word ‘camp’ described homosexuals (of both genders) – this was used freely by homosexuals and straights often elaborated further with ‘camp as a row of tents’.

    I’m curious to know the background to ‘gay’ becoming the acceptable and preferred term. Anyone…?

  22. Rick M.

    Good point Zut. I think it’s that transformation because the ‘camp’ guys were so bright, happy, cheerful. Was it because of that it became adopted which means it is a great word but then the problem with the way my younger brother uses it (he’s 12) is that the intention is to highlight that it’s not tough and because of that is inferior.

    Would be interesting to know that history though!

  23. Noodle Bar

    Benjamine articulated perfectly an issue I’ve been reflecting on for a while. Straight male deportment has always struck me as so fettered in Australia. Men may only wear a limited range of colours and styles of dress, unless they want to make some sort of “statement” -more than any other country.

    Straight men here have to be a bit careful about their enjoyment of culture/the arts to ensure they aren’t conveying the wrong signals. Straight men who do have jobs such as hair dressers, have to take the same care – and might even think twice about becoming hair dressers or florists or other such jobs. Straight men generally have to have a lot of physical space around them unless they are with a girlfriend. Straight Australian men tend to be much less demonstrative with each other than their equivalents in every other country in the world. The list goes on and on.

    This is not intended as a put-down, although I’ve always been really glad that I’m an Australian female, not a male, for that very reason. My deportment is culturally fettered too – for instance there are issues around whether I want to wear bright pink, and how much of my skin I reveal, but the issues are not as restrictive as they are for men – and it’s all grounded in homophobia, as Benjamine has perfectly spelt out.

    Hopefully it’s getting better. I do think teenagers and people in their 20s are less fettered by all this than people my age – although I think the body language/personal space stuff is the same.

  24. Nathan Jones

    Brilliant article. It’s nice to see someone articulate the notion that homophobia affects all of us, not just homosexuals.

    As for weddings, I kinda like the idea of straight couples holding off until there is equality, but I’d also like to see more gay couples have weddings. Sure, it would be better if the wedding resulted in a legally-recognised marriage, but it’s still an opportunity to say “we have the support of our family and friends, so homophobes-be-damned, we’re getting married and will celebrate with a wedding”.

    I’m sure some people would worry that this would set back the cause – that law-makers would think “they’re already getting married, so why go to the extra effort to change the law and make it official?”. But on the other hand, it could help shift people’s thinking, resulting in the feeling that “they’re already getting married, so why not make it official?”.

    Archaic marriage law needs to change, but the real enemy is the homophobia that surrounds that law. It may be hard to feel comfortable holding hands in the street, but it should feel okay to kiss your partner at your wedding. And the more that straight people are invited to the weddings of gay couples, or simply exposed to such weddings by hearing about them, the better the chance of breaking down – or breaking through – the culture of homophobia.

  25. Queerbeing

    Very well written. One thing that struck a chord with me was the astute observations on male childrens’ behaviour.
    My son is 6 years old and just last week spent the entire school assembly cuddling his close male friend. I hope his ability to have affectionate relationships with men does not change as he gets older regardless of what sexuality he eventually identifies as. We have tried to raise him with an open idea of sexuality and gender and it will be interesting to see if he is as open minded when he is in year 6 or 7 or if he too will bow to school/peer pressures.
    I believe parents have a responsibility to educate their children to be open minded and to challenge our heteronormative society.

  26. Little Boo

    Ben – thank you so much for having the courage to write about these things. I love how honestly and accurately you managed to describe such a simple thing like holding hands with your partner.
    Personally, I was a straight woman until earlier this year when I met a woman who changed my life. I never imagined that I would ever date a girl, but somehow found myself head over heels for her. She makes me happy and I wouldn’t change any of it for a second. However, I certainly know the feeling of making that choice as to whether or not you hold your lovers hand.
    Although I love your article, I couldn’t help but notice that the focus (even in the discussions) has been very much on gay men. I understand that they are potentially at more risk; for some reason bashing the daylights out of gay men seems to be the obvious solution to this perceived threat, but not gay women. Is this possibly because the idea of 2 women together is somewhat exciting for heterosexual men and therefore we are more accepted in society?
    Whilst we may not be judged as being a threat and therefore a target worth bashing, I always feel as though I am judged as meat. A potential threesome for the heterosexual man.
    My heart was warmed today when I saw two young women getting on the train very openly holding hands and hugging. They just looked so relaxed with each other, and I wished I could feel in public the way they looked. However, this was short lived, as a man (obviously heterosexual) quite loudly announced “I love seeing that. I love seeing two girls together! It makes me so excited. I just want to get a part of it”. I know it is not ALL straight men, but it is a vast majority of them that react this way. Why do they think that our sexual preference means they have a greater chance of getting a threesome? Do they not realise that we have no interest in them and they therefore have less chance of getting that threesome?
    For me, the decision of holding hands in public is not a question of “do I feel like risking being bashed today?” but more a question of “do I feel like being objectified again?” I look forward to the day that I can hold my lovers hand without hesitation.


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