Homophobia is real and it is always ugly and it can be terrifying. I know this firsthand. It was this deep revulsion in the Western psyche for non-normative sex that delivered me, as a teen, to the office of a “corrective” psychologist. It pursued me as an undergraduate through the back streets of Newtown -- arguably our nation’s queerest postcode -- yelling, “Die, dyke!”
Since then, the Western world changed a little for middle-class queers, and I’ve become far less keen on asserting my identity in an age of pure identity politics -- being liked for being queer is sometimes as annoying as being disliked for it. So, I don’t really cop it anymore. But I know those who don’t have my comfortable life or collection of expensive queer theory books really do cop it.
After Orlando, a massacre of the marginalised, how could anyone not know this?
Crikey’s Josh Taylor was right to call this atrocity homophobic. So were the many, many other commentators who said that we must read this as the most brutal expression of a society threatened by sex acts outside a codified range. The measure, inter alia, many of my peers propose to diminish homophobic violence is to bring queer inside that official code of acceptability. Teach people about agreed-upon categories of sexuality. Spread the message of love.
I can’t agree.
Of course, there is nothing that is less than wonderful about love. Tenderness is our species’ noblest quality, and only a fool would deny this. And it would only be a fool of Trumpian proportions who would say this week that people, especially LGBT people, cannot mourn in any public way they wish.
Like many, I am so sad and shaken for the queer and Latino communities of Orlando and beyond. I would not think to prescribe the correct kind of grief and I would not suppose that even journalists or other public people could contain it. I know, very intimately, that LGBT people and their allies feel threatened. I know that our gay bars, now disappearing along with our radical will, are sites of deep historical and personal significance. I ran into a gay bar to escape that Newtown homophobe. Much more meaningfully, the Western gay lib movement itself surged from one.
I know all of this and I know that love is, in this moment, a good folk medicine.
What I also know, thanks to that costly book collection, is that the problem with love is that it doesn’t function beyond the point of intimate acts, such as mourning.
Like many human qualities, love cannot be deployed politically. Of course, it can be used to justify certain political statements and, in recent days, it really has. In a galling move, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton appeared in front of Stonewall, the most significant of all our gay bars, to make the case for a loving NYPD. The architect of the city’s stop-and-frisk policy, to which poor queer people of colour are often subject, and a man who had marched just two years ago in a St Patrick’s Day Parade that forbade any visible evidence of homosexuality was celebrated by many in liberal media, but booed by more radical queers at the rally. An unnamed activist, who had been at the original Stonewall action, said he was disgusted by the pronouncements of Bratton, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, all of whom mentioned the usefulness of “love”.
WA Greens candidate Aeron Blundell-Camden posted on Facebook that “love trumps hate” and set forth his party’s support for same-sex marriage and the Safe Schools program in mourning the dead. While this politician is far more meaningfully allied to the LGBT community than those brutal hypocrites in New York -- and, no, de Blasio hasn’t turned out to be the friend to progressives that many had hoped -- so may claim more entitlement to mourn, what he cannot do is make “love” a political tool. That, by the way, is not an ethical judgement; it’s simply a statement of fact.
Love can be legally expressed no more than it can be taught. While tolerance, love’s milder cousin, may, in some cases, survive the classroom, it cannot be meaningfully deployed in a social or political context. Love and tolerance -- which are, again, personal qualities that LGBT people and their allies are entitled to champion this terrible week -- make no dint of policy difference. “The personal is political” is a meaningless slogan when you consider the differences visibly illustrated in this recent atrocity between a structural hatred and a personal one.
This is not to say that there is no connection between the bigotry that is personally expressed and that which unfolds politically. But it is to say that there are clear and important differences. And in these cries for personal things like love and hate to explain or justify political things, that distinction is lost.
There are plenty of cruel idiots picking pennies from the eyes of the queer dead. I have no wish to name these opportunists, well and widely described as failures in a political Rorschach test. My interest is not in how our leaders respond to this atrocity; I’m old enough to know that they will respond only in the interests of their class. My interest is in how the queer activist community will respond to this moment politically -- after mourning it first, as they must, very personally.
Personal homophobia, rather obviously, may lead to violence. But something that leads inevitably to violence is the criminal justice system. In LGBT and broader community calls for the atrocity to be named a “hate crime”, there is an implicit plea to give more power to the punitive state. There are so many calls for this to be called a “hate crime”. Which I understand personally, but refute politically.
Setting aside the bald fact that most violent crimes are predicated on hate, we need to ask: do we really want more homophobes in prison? Particularly in the US criminal context where the “hate crime” classification carries a greater penalty, this will be the result. I understand the personal grief that leads many to urge for this political result. I also understand that queer and gender-nonconforming people are over-represented in the enormous US prison population. As are, of course, people of colour, people with a mental illness, and just about everybody but well-to-do white men (the largest growing group for the immensely profitable “sector” is currently black women). To urge for ever-tougher hate-crime legislation is not only to permit, but to force, the access of violent bigots to their targets.
This, I know, is an unpalatable and impersonal argument. But it’s a practical one advanced by many queer academics. For all the personal feelings about vengeance we might have right now, we must be careful not to let these inform future political manoeuvres.
You can’t make people love and you can’t meaningfully legislate for its absence. What you can do, in a few months from now, is look at the complex of events and institutions that continue to marginalise and punish minorities. These include, very obviously, the militarised police. While we can be soothed in the present by the serious pronouncements of Florida’s Finest, we might do well to remember just how they responded to the death of the black teenager, Trayvon Martin.
And we might ask why in hell a police department in a liberal democracy is armed with a Lenco BearCat. We ask, as we should, why US citizens have such easy access to military-grade weapons, but we rarely ask the same of police departments. And this is in spite of the fact that many movements, including US radical queers and Black Lives Matter, recite the names of the marginalised, often unarmed, victims of police assault.
And we might ask what role the planet’s largest security firm played in training and arming their bloodthirsty employee. And we might ask why that company is so lavishly subsidised by the US government. And we might ask why prison populations, largely comprised of minorities, continue to grow even as our calls for love and tolerance become more persistent.
And we might ask, perhaps, if the very tolerant and loving nature of our public discourse -- however needed personally in the present -- does not in some part mask ongoing institutional brutality. Love is no prophylactic for a nation locked in an internal arms race and economically dependent on its systems of domestic and international “justice”. Love has this week become the sweetest expression of securitisation.
Love is not the answer. Its absence doesn’t explain the deaths and the marginalisation of queer people and other minorities any more than Islam explains the atrocity at Pulse nightclub, where another armed guard now stands.
Personal homophobia is real and it is terrifying. But it is not quite so equipped to do damage to queers as the impersonal punitive state.
Burnside, as you likely know, is a barrister, a refugee advocate and a man with an honourable alphabet of letters appended by others to his name. He's also a fighter and dogged correspondent who seems to thinks a lot about death.