Forty years ago this October, the public leader of an US lobby group called “Save our Children”, Anita Bryant was holding a press conference in Des Moines making the argument against the march of gay rights, such as they were in 1977.
After speaking in support of employers who were able to fire gay employees for choosing to “flaunt it” in the workplace, Bryant copped a strawberry-rhubarb pie in the face from gay activist Thom Higgins.
The image of Bryant getting the pie in the face has become one of the iconic images of the gay rights movement globally. It was the first image to come to mind this week when Qantas CEO Alan Joyce copped a pie in the face from a man due to Qantas’ advocacy for marriage equality in Australia.
It’s much harder for employers to fire people for being gay (except for religious organisations), and it’s now expected in Australia that companies, as good corporate citizens, will support LGBTI rights. But there still seem to be some people trapped in 1977.
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The “pie man”, former farmer Tony Overheu, claimed in a series of bizarre rants sent to radio and print news outlets that he was motivated to pie Joyce at the event in Perth because “middle Australia rejects corporate bullying aimed at social engineering”.
He claimed that Qantas’ “propaganda” on social issues was insulting to passengers, and then listed off a number of other companies supporting marriage equality like Airbnb, Holden, and now Coopers like he was reading an Australian Christian Lobby press release. So affronted by it all, Overheu thought his only solution was to humiliate the most high-profile gay man in corporate Australia.
Police have not pressed assault charges at this stage, but in a press conference in the Senate courtyard in Parliament House specifically called to discuss the matter on Wednesday, Joyce said he intended to seek charges against Overheu to send a message — despite Overheu emailing him to apologise. Joyce said the incident strengthened his resolve to be vocal on issues that were important to him.
“I have every intention of continuing to be vocal on those social issues. It’s important for our shareholders, our employees and our customers. It’s called ‘good corporate social responsibility’,” he said.
While Bryant got her pie in the face for her activism that promoted the damaging trope that gay people were somehow a danger to children (which conservatives have since adapted to now fight against transgender rights), Joyce’s sin was simply suggesting that LGBTI Australians should be treated equally under the law. What in 1977 was an act of courage by a persecuted minority literally in the face of bigotry in 2017 is a heterosexual man as sour as the lemons in meringue trying to put a gay man back in his place.
The CEO, brandishing his orange lobbyist pass on his hip, was in Parliament on Wednesday for Treasurer Scott Morrison’s National Press Club address following the budget. This would normally would have been the focus of a press conference business leader on the day after the budget, but, with the issue of marriage equality still not resolved, tensions have reached a boiling point. Between the pie incident and a cat-and-dog wedding to promote the cause on Real Housewives of Sydney this week, the debate has reached peak absurdity.
The “Where Are The Moderate Muslims?” established protocol of the culture war demands those who are on the same side as whoever has done something condemn-able must condemn whatever happened quickly and in the strongest possible terms.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was quick off the mark and issued a strong condemnation of the pie thrower before the full details were public, suggesting he might have understood the man’s motives and might have suspected his “stick to your knitting” comments to Joyce might have provoked the assault.
Eric Abetz also condemned the attack but inserted a “but what about what the other side do?” in his own press release. The ACL’s Lyle Shelton tweeted once condemning the incident in a brief interlude from his usual role of playing the victim.
It is not difficult to imagine that if someone had done this to Shelton or another marriage equality opponent, conservative media would be running on it for weeks, shouting from the rooftops that it was a sign that the “LGBTI brigade” were fascists and couldn’t be trusted to tolerate different views. But it was a “devout Christian” — as he was described by The Australian — said he couldn’t even stand the sight of Airbnb ads in Canberra airport calling for marriage equality.
I would be completely unsurprised if the response this week from conservative columnists is “but it would be much worse for Joyce to be a gay man in a Muslim country” or “but Joyce was the real bully”. This is the current standard of debate from conservatives on LGBTI rights in Australia.
The budget this week reiterated the government’s support for continuing with the policy for holding a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, should the legislation ever be passed by the Senate. It remains unlikely that this is how it will be achieved, but those calling for the plebiscite now have to admit, this incident alone should show it won’t be a “respectful debate”.