Karl Stefanovic

Yesterday, certain of the nation’s progressives expressed their outrage by social media. This was largely on account of it being a day that ended in the letter “y”. But those objecting to the decision by ACON (formerly the AIDS Council of NSW) to nominate broadcaster Karl Stefanovic for an award did have a bit of a point. We’ll get to that shortly. Unfortunately for you, this demands a recap of a dreary story that began on one of our dreariest “news” programs.

You may recall that in July, breakfast television host Stefanovic was reprimanded by many of the aforementioned progressives for his cross with a correspondent in Rio. The set-up was that Nine reporters had been threatened with robbery. Hilarious already. Then — can you believe it? — we learn that these alleged assailants were gender-nonconforming. All those on air chuckled as Stefanovic used the term “tranny” repeatedly and suggested that one of his male colleagues knew quite a lot about “trannies”, nudge, wink, retch, etc.

The thing that most persons found “problematic” with this cross was that Stefanovic in particular had used a term that official LGBTI organisations deem unacceptable. It wasn’t that producers at Today had clearly prepared for this foul exchange with graphics and music taken from the movie Priscilla. (Now, there’s a top-of-the-meter cultural reference.) It wasn’t that Karl so easily maligned the masculinity of his co-worker and a more general taste for the outre. It certainly wasn’t that these oblivious tools chose, as much of the world’s worst media did, to overlook Rio de Janeiro’s crushing poverty, which inevitably leads to crime. It was that Stefanovic had not read his guidelines from the not-for-profit progressive industrial complex. The use of the word “tranny” was the primary problem.

[At-risk LGBTI people don’t need marriage, they need mental health care]

We can be pretty sure that during this scuffle with Nine staff, no representative of the criminal class had time to say, “I am not a tranny, I choose to identify as a transwoman and I ask that you respect this when you giggle about my criminal desperation and perceived lack of attractiveness on the telly tomorrow.” Even so, that Stefanovic, who has been busily making a name for himself as a champion of the marginalised, would elect to use one of the most antiquated and offensive names for a gender-nonconforming person was something to which we might reasonably object.

So, Karl, who has a keen interest in maintaining his progressive credentials, apologised. The apology for the “gag” was applauded by progressive social and traditional media for being “solid”. It was Stefanovic alone who apologised and the single regret that he expressed was that he had used a term now considered offensive by the LGBTI bureaucracy.

No producer apologised for approving the prepared segment. Karl didn’t apologise for deriding those who might find a “tranny” a suitable sexual partner. Damn those sickos. Karl didn’t apologise for finding a mugging hilarious. Damn the fear its victims might have felt or from which its perpetrators might have acted. He just said he was sorry for using the word and then, he explained that he knew that “transpeople are fun-loving, life-celebrating people”. You know, just like Aboriginal people are all deeply spiritual, Italians are all passionate and women are all naturally nurturing.

How this, with its cowering moral elevation of a people so freshly reviled, was ever considered a “solid” apology was always well beyond me.

But it’s not beyond ACON, who hands out gongs for people who have done good for the LGBTI community in a range of categories, including media. They found the apology “ground breaking and earnest”. Many have pointed out that to award a mea culpa is aiming very low.

This, of course, is entirely correct. ACON is not bound by external rules and if it binds itself to a moral dimension in which an entire team of dickheads can do something openly foul and send one of the dickheads forward to apologise for it, then we may as well give up on any hope for the future. ACON could be utopian and bold. Instead, it chooses to be what it sees as “practical” and reward members of a disappearing media class for its adherence to official naming guidelines.

I mean. So what if Stefanovic has learned that “tranny” is an unacceptable term? He has not learned that it is unacceptable to poke fun at transgender sexuality –“Glenny’s no stranger” — and he has, somehow, never considered that it is idiocy to describe an entire category of people as “fun-loving” and “life-celebrating”. A marginalised category of people, by the way, much more likely than the general population to be forced into criminalised activity — you know, like mugging — that they are disproportionately incarcerated, ergo, perhaps not so uniformly “fun-loving” as Stefanovic’s interactions, presumably limited to Priscilla, would have him believe.

Stefanovic has done bugger all to correct his mistake. He may have been earnest, but he was certainly not ground-breaking. Well, unless it is ground-breaking to accept the diminished ambition of professional homosexual organisations and agree to use whatever they’ve decided are the acceptable naming categories.

[Media elite’s free speech obsession a self-serving wank fest]

This, apparently, is all one must do to improve the lot of marginalised peoples: utter the right words; not consider the background in which those words were produced; not pause to consider that transpeople are often part of a criminalised class or that they deserve, at the very least, not to be derided as “Glenny’s” peccadillo. Where was the apology for finding the financial desperation of gender nonconforming people hilarious? Where was the apology for making anyone who has enjoyed the company of a transgender sexual partner feel dirty? Where was the moment that caused, as ACON said it did, a positive cultural shift?

Apparently, when he learned to use the right word. Good one. We can change the world by describing it in moderate language.

A social problem like transphobia has neither its point of origin nor its final, or even its partial, cure on a show made by stupid people and consumed by people more interested in making toast. A social problem like transphobia has neither its point of origin nor its final, or even its partial, cure in respectful naming strategies.

I mean. Has everyone gone bonkers? I understand that there are even quite serious academic persons absolutely convinced that language and media representation is somehow “key” in creating reality and only has a very minor role in describing it. I also understand that my complaint will be met with the response “Don’t you understand we can do two things at once?”. But, shit, if you can’t see that we do NOT do two things at once and, in fact, that we are nearly always occupied with the work of finding better words than a better reality, I have no idea how to convince you otherwise.

And I am certain that you will not be swayed by my proposal that an intense and primary focus on the correct words and representations eclipses a reality, even to the degree that ACON, an organisation very much in the business of recognising discriminatory language, can overlook the fact that Stefanovic’s apology itself was completely inadequate. Because he learned to use the right word.

This is not “social change”. This is another case of mutual back-scratching between traditional not-for-profits and traditional media, each meek liberal organs who hope for little more than the production and use of a nice glossary. Which is not, of course, to forget the life-saving, practical work that ACON has done and continues to do, even if such organisations are required to get into the “awareness” business to financially survive. But it is to remember that we are going completely potty when it comes to “social justice”, apparently something that just needs to be described properly in order to happen.

Look. I don’t give a crap what Stefanovic said, what he recanted or whether the homosexual industrial complex approves, because none of this will change the lives of transpeople, a minority physically and psychologically tortured by institutions to a degree that does my head in. I’m only telling you this as another reminder that, really, it’s not that easy to do two things at once.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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