The evil Fred Nile. Image: ABC

Q&A’s Priscilla edition highlights equality movement’s shortcomings

Legislative change requires reasoned debate and establishing consensus, not making assertions and ignoring your opposition.

Last Thursday night (June 18th), the ABC aired a special edition of Q&A (people who are un-Australian might need a VPN or something like Hola* before they can watch) to reflect on the progress made by the LGBTQIA community in Australia since the release of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994. It was fitting that the programme would illustrate so vividly the reasons why there’s still such a thing as a “marriage equality campaign” in Australia, as opposed to a Marriage Equality Act 2015, or a Freedom to Marry Act 2014, or even a Marriage Equality (Same Sex) Act 2013.

Rightly, marriage equality advocates are feeling pretty emboldened these days: opinion polls consistently show very positive numbers, there’s a clear and growing sense of global momentum, Labor Party leaders Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek have both added some urgency to the push, and of course we’ve seen the Irish referendum, which had particular gravity due not only to that country’s reputation for social conservatism and the manner in which the reform was made, but also the Irish heritage of many Australians.

Optimism, though, is now giving way to impatience upon the sudden rediscovery of the fact that some people actually have different opinions to other people, and that this might be a significant factor where an elected Parliament is being asked to make a law about something. Whatever you think about the need (or otherwise) for same-sex marriage, the need to engage in constructive social discourse is pretty strong as well. This week’s (second) Q&A demonstrated a tendency for any opponent of same-sex marriage to be treated as a creature built out of crystallised insanity, hate, and stupidity, with the correct response to the existence of such a person being ridicule and dismissal. In my view, the episode was probably constructed from the outset with this attitude in mind, and I think this sort of thing damages the movement for marriage equality.

Let’s look at the panellists. Second on the viewer’s left we see the multi-talented performer Paul Capsis, who is well across all kinds of statistics. He seems to be there more as a link to Priscilla than anything else, but performs well (on the panel as well as musically). We also have Julia Doulman, who has a fascinating story to tell about being a transgender person in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Across the other side is Katherine Hudson, who started a campaign called “Wear It Purple”. I’d never heard of Wear It Purple before Thursday night but my research tells me it’s a bit like Jane McGrath Day at the cricket, but for gayness instead of cancer. She’s seated near Professor Dennis Altman, who was something of a pioneer in the gay rights movement. Perhaps these two will get to compare notes on what it was like to run a social justice campaign in the ‘70s as opposed to 2015 (this never eventuates).

Seated next to our special-edition host, Tom Ballard (who looks a bit like Tony Jones if you stand at a long distance and squint a bit) is perennial Q&A favourite, the Reverend Fred Nile. If you’re unfamiliar with Fred, here’s a quick intro: he’s a long-serving member of the New South Wales Legislative Council for the Christian Democratic Party (CDP), and because the ruling Liberal/National Coalition government is just short of a majority, Fred can basically tell the government what to do (it’s usually easier to get the two CDP votes than any of Labor’s twelve or the Greens’ five). He’s often quoted on issues of religion and sexuality. Also in attendance is broadcaster/writer/activist Julie McCrossin, who is both a Christian and a lesbian. This makes her a perfect fit as embarrassor-in-chief for Fred Nile, but happily that’s a role she refuses to take up.

Separated at birth! (by about 30 years)

Fred made rather a poor subject for a caricature of the Idiot Fundamentalist Christian. He failed to say anything really outrageous, merely strange things about how we should stop promoting homosexuality in schools [23:30 on the recording, if you want to refer to it], or how he’s comfortable with homosexuals existing but opposed to their performing sexual acts because of the risk of AIDS [5:30]. With Julie McCrossin’s far too warm and reasonable a personality, it was left to Katherine Hudson to confect some outrage, always responding to Fred quite breathlessly, as though he’d said something that was so deeply, insurmountably offensive that it was actually a physical difficulty to recall his statement to the extent necessary to formulate a reply.[24:30]

Fred Nile, by design, was clearly the only panellist who had concerns about same-sex marriage and the programme was built around him so that his audience and co-panellists would have a simple, familiar target for their derision, and that this would emphasise how far We’ve come. When opponents of same-sex marriage are set up and then knocked down in this manner, it doesn’t persuade people to change sides, it just alienates them further. They aren’t treated with respect, as contributors to social discourse about an important issue, they are roadblocks on the path to social justice who should be smashed to bits by Our road train of righteousness.

This attitude prevailed when the panel was presented with questions about the practical aspects of permitting same-sex marriages to occur in Australia. Fred Nile raised some examples of how Christians in the UK and the USA were being ‘persecuted’ for failing to preside over same-sex marriage ceremonies or to provide wedding cakes for gay couples.[44:30]

Now, obviously ‘persecuted’ is a poor way of describing this, especially after Sydney’s Archbishop, Anthony Fisher, marched into a swamp of disdain with his declaration over Easter that Christians were the most common victims of religious persecution in the world. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a really common concern: by advancing the rights of queer folk, we might be giving religous people the road train treatment. What protections will religious people have if they reach the common compromise between allowing all people to express their love equally, but refusing to actively participate in processes which act against their deeply-held view of marriage?

Even if you think that the people who raise these concerns are actually just bigots who are trying to dress up their gay hate in a modest, socially-acceptable frock, we need to openly discuss and resolve these issues in a way which is satisfying to as many people as possible. If we can clean up all of these dark crevasses where we think religious zealots might be hiding, the actual bigots will have no rationalisations left available, and the non-bigots will probably be convinced of the merits of marriage equality.

Philip Ruddock did a great thing for the queer community on the same show a few weeks ago (which is shocking, not only because of who Philip Ruddock is but also because of how vastly the quality of Q&A varies from week to week) when he suggested we look at the French model, which might resolve some of these problems: the state’s only role would be to recognise “relationships”, and then churches and celebrants would be completely free to decide whether or not to conduct a ceremony. There was no mention of any similar compromise on Thursday: you were either a decent human being or you were on a level with the Reverend.

People who like to dwell on the 2007–2013 federal Labor government and its Carbon Tax saga, or the current Coalition government’s 2014 Budget, often talk about the need to establish consensus and to bring the public with you when you’re making big reforms. Julia Gillard suddenly declaring that “the time is right and the time is now” isn’t going to increase public support for something which is still unpopular. Similarly, Joe Hockey telling people that “the age of entitlement is over” without explaining what he thinks entitlement is, why it might be a bad thing, and how he can fix it, was a terrible strategy which made people hate him as well as his unexpectedly harsh Budget.

It doesn’t matter how bad you think people’s anti-marriage equality arguments are, or how stupid you think it is to ignore climate change, or how entitled you think everyone is, you need to give people compelling reasons to change their mind about things. Q&A’s reflection on the queer rights movement showed us that we aren’t doing a good job of this.

Don’t get me wrong, there were bright spots in this episode: Julie McCrossin was best-placed to understand Fred’s position and did very well in explaining her point of view in a relatable way. Tom Ballard was a very competent moderator, Paul Capsis was effective when talking about his experiences growing up, and Julia Doulman was most powerful.

But the retrospective aspect of the show was largely ignored, whilst the legal equality aspect was handled clumsily. Q&A served not to demonstrate how far the movement has advanced, but how our impatience with the democratic process is slowing us down.

*not an endorsement

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