One of the biggest fears for the proposed plebiscite on marriage equality is that it will give conservatives oxygen to spread their “hate speech”.
Sharyn Faulkner, from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, has said that the plebiscite will be a “platform for hate”. ALP Senator Penny Wong agrees, stating: “I know that a plebiscite designed to deny me and many other Australians a marriage certificate will instead license hate speech to those who need little encouragement.” This hate, it is argued, will isolate and harm those who are most vulnerable in our community.
These concerns are genuine and real. Yet, at the same time, I wonder whether we are better off ignoring this ‘hate speech’, and in turn denying conservatives the oxygen they are so desperate for?
We have seen an emboldened radical backlash against the queer community over the past year, and it is having a real impact. The push for a plebiscite is an indication of the strength of conservatives within the Coalition Government, as is the recent attacks on Safe Schools. This is something we should be genuinely worried about, and prepared to fight against.
Yet in recent months, it seems as though much of the queer community has become fully obsessed with ‘hate speech’, and in turn that we have lost focus on our agenda. With a plebiscite looming, every flier, media release or Facebook post by a social conservative is being spread through social media and the news like wildfire. We seem to feel the need to respond to every attack, no matter how big or small, giving each instance significant levels of coverage.
There are some good reasons for this; queerphobic attacks can always have an impact, and ignoring them can amount to giving them permission to occur. If we ignore queerphobia we are ignoring those who suffer from it in silence. However, I increasingly think that by focusing so much on the attacks of minority right-wing groups we are giving them too much space, and in turn, taking away space to talk about the issues that matter.
The reality is that while social conservatives such as Cory Bernadi are feeling emboldened within the Government, their base within the broader community is very weak. Polling has consistently shown that the vast majority of people support same-sex marriage, something that is not going to change any time soon. The same is true for Safe Schools. While queerphobia clearly still exists, the hate speech we are concerned about has much less resonance within our community than it used to.
In focusing so heavily on these attacks therefore I think we've ended up falling for the trap the right has set for us. In constantly emphasising their opinions we've given them exactly what they want — a significantly stronger voice in the community than they deserve. In reacting with anger and fear at every provocation, we have made those provocations more powerful, allowing hate speech to filter through the community in ways it would not have if we just left it alone. If we just ignored many of these attacks there’s a good chance they’d stay where they belong — in the dark corners of the Internet to be read only by a few fanatic conservatives and no one else.
There is an alternative to this approach. Yes, of course we must react against queerphobic attacks, especially those that come from within the Government. We must also make demands of the plebiscite, primarily that public funding is not provided to either side of the debate. In a time of heated discourse we should protect young queer people as best we can.
But the best way to do this is not necessarily to spread every instance of ‘hate speech’ as a reason why we should not have a plebiscite. Instead, we must look to the ways in which we can use this political situation to redirect the conversation. While we fear the space a plebiscite will create for the right to spread their ‘hate speech’, it will also give the queer community significant oxygen as well.
The old saying goes that the best defence is a strong offence. The plebiscite gives us an opportunity to go on the offence, putting queer issues on a national stage like never before. Instead of talking about hate speech we could talk about the vast array of issues important to our community — from same-sex marriage, to queer mental health, homelessness and poverty, religious exemptions in discrimination legislation, safe schools, and discrimination in the workplace, schools and sporting organisations, among many others.
More importantly than this, this debate gives us the chance to create stronger networks to build the power of our community. With a national focus on queer issues, we can work to make allies with queer and straight folks alike, ensuring that every queer kid has people around them for support when the attacks come. Through reducing the vulnerability of queer kids, this positive approach would stop the impact of right-wing attacks before the fliers and media releases are even written.
In focusing on ‘hate speech’ we are engaging in a debate framed solely in conservative terms. Instead of making this debate about our issues we are making it about conservatives, giving them significant oxygen that they simply do not deserve. We must fight, but often the best way to fight is to ignore, divert, and to go on the offence. That is what this time calls for.