Thursday, June 27, 2013

A response to the end of Exodus International.

Slow down internet please!

This blog has often discussed the intersections of spirituality, gender politics, and sexuality. News in that area has been coming faster than I can process it. Or perhaps it’s merely because I don’t usually follow current affairs so much that it feels this way. Just some of the events:
  • The Police in NSW, Australia are accused of shredding evidence of child abuse in the Catholic Church. This raises questions about how institutions of power support each other and how we can easily be swayed to protect the already powerful.
  • A large evangelical church planting network (SGM) in the US is embroiled in its own sex abuse scandals. The abuse appears connected to its patriarchal theology and religious freedom claims have been used to defend it from scrutiny.
  • The US Supreme Court narrowly declares the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, obliging their federal government to recognize same-sex marriages from states that permit it. What relevance for Australia does this hold?
These topics will have to wait however. I’m still dealing with the super-nova of Exodus International closing its doors.

Exodus International is the largest umbrella organization in the world for those who have historically claimed to heal people of same sex attractions. On June the 19th 2013 Exodus International announced it is closing up shop. Their president, Alan Chambers, issued an apology to the LGBT community for their past assumptions and harm. Alan Chambers has for some time now been putting some distance between himself and his previous public identity as an ex-gay man promoting an ex-gay reality for others. In 2012 Alan Chambers stated that:
The majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them have not experienced a change in their orientation or have gotten to a place where they could say that they could  never be tempted or are not tempted in some way or experience some level of same-sex attraction.

Alan Chambers has also admitted that he is himself part of the 99.9% he refers to.  He has apologized for falsely exaggerating the claims like those made in April 2004 and still published by NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality), that:
“I used to be homosexual and today I am not.….I am one of tens of thousands of people whom have successfully changed their sexual orientation.”

In his apology Alan Chambers stated;
“There were several years that I conveniently omitted my ongoing same-sex attractions. I was afraid to share them as readily and easily as I do today. They brought me tremendous shame and I hid them in the hopes they would go away. Looking back, it seems so odd that I thought I could do something to make them stop. Today, however, I accept these feelings as parts of my life that will likely always be there. The days of feeling shame over being human in that way are long over, and I feel free simply accepting myself as my wife and family does. As my friends do. As God does”.

What’s the right lens to view this event with? The most pessimistic view is that it means very little. Certainly one consequence of this organization’s closure and its earlier admittance that gay cures don’t work, has been the departure of hardliners into a new network called the Restored Hope Network. This network continues to maintain that a homosexual orientation and being a Christian are incompatible. The Restored Hope Network also maintains the probability of changing sexual orientation via its affiliated group’s courses. It’s worth noting that some of Exodus’ leaders and affiliated organizations have ended up or will end up here. Some might even continue using the name Exodus.

It’s also worth noting that not every gay-cure like organization ever belonged under the Exodus umbrella. Desert Stream, Living Waters is the U.S. based network to which Living Waters Australia belongs. Living Waters Australia uses the network’s resources and run their program. The Australian based group publicly recognizes the unlikelihood of sexuality change although they still use phrases like “sexual wholeness” and “healing from brokenness” in reference to their programs. Meanwhile their U.S. based parent states that:
Regarding sexual orientation change, we at DSM will continue to uphold change as a reasonable goal for Christians with SSA (Same Sex Attraction) who are earnestly seeking Him and who are willing to do the hard work of resolving their gender disintegration through Christ and His healing community. (We realize that not all will graduate into a state of readiness for marriage. However, that should not preclude anyone from seeking full sexual restoration.)

Alan Chambers’ apology is not the complete end to Christian groups considering homosexual attraction as inherently depraved and amenable to some form of healing. However I think something historical and profound has been marked with Exodus International closing. I disagree with people who see it as entirely a non-shift or primarily a defensive tactic against future lawsuits. I do recognize that for many people, including those personally deceived by Alan Chambers and harmed by his ministry, that this apology is probably insufficient to address their pain fully. I agree that it’s lacking in remorse of Chambers to open another ministry immediately upon closing Exodus. Even if his proposed Reduce Fear (the name may change) will be quite different to Exodus I hope Chambers shows the grace not to be its chief spokesperson.
Still, I am prepared to say that the closure of Exodus marks the positive evolution of a lot of Christians' understanding of homosexuality, including gay Christians’ understanding of them selves. I look at this as an example of how we can be optimistic about autonomous self-help movements reforming themselves over time. I have faith in this process even if organizations begin as something quite harmful and doctrinally restrained.

I believe a natural process of self-correction towards truth occurs when we privilege the voices of experience. Exodus for all its flaws and sheer arrogance has always been led by people who experienced gay desire themselves. It’s an organization which has not been well controlled by “experts” in theology or for that matter psychology. It’s my optimism that any such organization will eventually get it right because their fundamental approach to knowledge is sound. Essentially I’m making a faith claim that the truth about a condition of existence comes, through democratic organization of those experiencing the condition.

Certain factors constrain this occurring. Organizations can create bureaucratic ceilings that the people they represent can never break through. Instead the ad-men and officials take over. Sometimes the rise to a position of leadership severs a person from the class perspective they used to belong to. Organisations can also be pushed and pulled by external forces and even infiltrated by people with agendas other than self-representation. Lastly a class like “gay Christian” or any other is not homogenous. Exodus has a history of white men dominating its leadership which fails to represent the entirety of “gay Christian”, and of course it has excluded openly active gay Christians.
One religiously specific obstacle to organizations growing in the direction of their members’ truth is an allegiance to scriptural fundamentalism. Alan Chambers has made himself vulnerable and open to change by listening to his own heart and to the voices of those affected by his previous actions. He might call that listening to God and I hope this spirit continues to move him. In doing so he is going to be accused of turning his back on God by those evangelicals who equate listening to God to obeying a certain reading of the Bible. There is an enormous debate about how God speaks and how we listen to God that is happening here. It will fly under the radar of non-Christian observers but it will dominate the topic for many Christians.

This doesn’t mean that Alan Chambers is going to be marching for gay pride soon. It might mean that his proposed new ministry Reduce Fear becomes more like an organization like Centrepeace. Centrepeace is a Christian organization which makes no clear public statement about the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality and yet focuses on sexuality in its ministry. Centrepeace seems to make a bigger deal out of the exclusion of gay people from church communities than the morality of gay sex itself. It gets very confusing trying to know exactly whether Centrepeace thinks gay relationships should be honoured or condemned, enough so that I worry it might be a Trojan horse for the latter position. That same confusion comes through in Alan Chambers’ apology:
“I cannot apologize for my deeply held biblical beliefs about the boundaries I see in scripture surrounding sex, but I will exercise my beliefs with great care and respect for those who do not share them.  I cannot apologize for my beliefs about marriage. But I do not have any desire to fight you on your beliefs or the rights that you seek.”

That’s all well and good Alan (and Centrepeace) for the postman, but speaking for a ministry specifically relating to gay Christians in some way, don’t you have to take a more prescriptive position than that? Maybe not; Alan Chambers might be seriously proposing a single table in which gay Christians can dialogue across different opinions about homosexuality:
Moving forward, we will serve in our pluralistic culture by hosting thoughtful and safe conversations about gender and sexuality, while partnering with others to reduce fear, inspire hope, and cultivate human flourishing.”(from Alan Chambers’ apology)

Even if Reduce Fear is not the single table itself, Chambers may be hoping for a seat at it. He may be representing a relatively conservative view. Even so he will have moved further than many other conservative groups in hoping to collaborate with “unrepentant” homosexuals. This would probably be with the Gay Christian Network. This international network “includes both those on Side A (supporting same-sex marriage and relationships) and on Side B (promoting celibacy for Christians with same-sex attractions).” It noticeably does not include members which claim to cure homosexuality.

It was at a U.S. meeting of the Gay Christian Network when Alan Chambers made his “99.9%” comment. In fact I would wager that Chambers is going to make the following pitch. It’s consistent with all his statements and with his own personal situation (married with kids). Chambers is going to say that heterosexual marriage and same sex attraction are not mutually exclusive. He will reject the idea that same-sex attraction can be eliminated but he will argue that heterosexual attraction can be increased or developed in some people. Chambers will ask for Reduce Fear to be a voice in the Gay Christian Network with that “message of hope” for gay Christians who want to be parents. I’m less certain whether the Gay Christian network will accept this position. It’s very close to the ex-gay message of old.

Chambers made a very strong concession in his address to Exodus International’s last conference. These comments were profoundly pluralistic;
"All sorts of people may live in all sorts of ways. Including ways you might not endorse or condone. But let me let you in on a secret - You're not God. And it doesn't matter what you think anyways. Only God is God and he alone will judge the human heart."
This feels like an offer of peace to precisely the people who make up the Gay Christian Network. But is it a world view that Chambers is committed to? One where people are encouraged to listen to and obey God but where wildly different outcomes of that process are respected as integritous? I find that possibility more fascinating than any other but an unlikely direction for Chambers.

In such an environment people might need to hear other people’s decisions without laying them over their own life. When a straight person says that God wants them to be celibate then others are already able, generally, to hear this as being only about that person - not an ideal for everyone. However when a gay person says that God wants them to be celibate and another says God wants them to pursue a gay relationship can these opinions also be heard as the person just talking for themselves? I don’t see why not, depending on how those decisions are explained.

Problems occur when people claim that their decision - to pursue a gay relationship, to be celibate or even to be in a “mixed orientation marriage” – is connected to general principles that do apply to others’ lives. Quite frankly such a problem is the rule rather than the exception in discussions over homosexuality. Andrew Marin of the Marin Foundation believes it is not only possible but essential to include such perspectives as well. (Please check out his personal story here – it’s very interesting.) The Marin Foundation hosts Living In the Tension Gatherings with the goal “that non-Christian LGBTs, gay Christians, celibates, ex-gays, liberal and conservative straight Christians and straight non-Christians all willfully enter into a place of constructive tension, intentionally forming a community that peacefully and productively takes on the most divisive topics within the culture war that is faith and sexuality.”

In a powerful way this format goes beneath the immediate issues of faith and sexuality to address the culture of division and dismissal that usually plagues this conversation. This is not going to be an easy approach for everyone to take. Gay people, who have suffered the one-way monologues of people opposed to homosexuality for decades, may feel that now that Exodus is closing, it is time to celebrate and cement victory – not to listen. They might argue “What courtesy do we really owe our enemies?” Meanwhile hold-out ex-gay organisations continue to refer to the gay agenda as the work of their enemies – enemies of the gospel and God.

However the fault lines of different opinions on homosexuality run through friendships and families – including loving families. It is many people’s reality that those who disagree with them on this issue are not and can never be their enemies. For some people Andrew Marin’s approach is their best hope at preserving the relationships that are most important to them. It also speaks to the reality that people can see in each other a faith or compassion that unites them despite having different views on sexuality. I wish The Marin Foundation the best of success in its work.

Finally, a word of caution; It’s worthwhile to hear Alan Chambers alongside the similar apology of John Paulk, author of Love Won Out, a popular “story” of becoming ex-gay. These two and others like them identify as both ex-victims and ex-perpetrators of the ex-gay movement. They admit they failed to tell their whole truth at the very time they were being the poster-children for the “truth” that homosexuality can be cured.  We should have some sympathy that since their early adult years they have been living weapons in a war against their own acceptance. They have felt obliged to tell the truth-that-suits over and over again as the price of their own acceptance by God. 

A larger question emerges here about the nature of testimonial cultures. What does it mean when people are in a role of spokesperson for change, often before the same families and congregations that required the change? This testified change can be regarding sexual orientation, use of porn, recovery from sexual and physical abuse, escape from addiction, and suicidality. It can range from generally accepted mental health concerns and powerful trauma, to behaviour that is only problematized in certain communities. I hope the closure of Exodus encourages an investigation of what this kind of culture expects of people. I would hope there would be some reluctance to making poster-children of any cause to come from this. This also applies to John Paulk and Alan Chambers and anyone else who might become poster-children for the ex-ex-gay movement. Let’s let these people live their own lives for a while. They oughtn’t be trophies of any side in any war.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Somebody's watching me.


It has come to light that ordinary citizens of western governments are the real target of their anti-terrorism powers. The wake-up call for those in America who voted for the Patriot Act has been the release of information about government surveillance by Edward Snowden. Even relatively conservative news outlets are reporting;

If there is one thing we can take away from the news of recent weeks it is this: the modern American surveillance state is not really the stuff of paranoid fantasies; it has arrived. – The New York Times

I don’t agree that Government spying on its citizens has “finally” come to light. Ignore the fresh astonishment of the short media cycle. This is hardly a new revelation. It has nothing to do with an over-reaction to 9/11. That is merely its latest excuse in much the same way that Reds under the bed once drove McCarthyism.

Here in Australia, domestic surveillance of ordinary citizens was publicly revealed long before any planes flew into New York skyscrapers. In 1997, the Age Newspaper revealed that a multitude of groups had been infiltrated by the 'Protective Security Intelligence Group', a division of the Victorian Police force (previously the “Special Branch”). The groups infiltrated included Greenpeace, the Council of Single Mothers, Koori Information Centres, and that dangerous society, The Friends of the ABC, amongst many others of equal threat. Undercover police were even involved in producing Radio programs at stations like 3CR and Triple J. (Fitzroy Legal Service, 2012)

That’s only the unpunished actions of a single state police force. Above them we have ASIO, The Federal Police and the Defense Intelligence Branch. They are assisted by such private organizations as NOSIC who admit to looking out for “emerging patterns and trends in activism”.  While ASIO’s own website states that “ASIO does not investigate lawful protest activity” one wonders how you find out if protest activity is lawful or not without investigating.

Here is one example of ASIO breaking this pinkie promise to us. In 2005 an ASIO assessment was used to refuse a visa to Scott Parkin, a peace activist and community college history teacher. Not only was Scott not allowed to engage in the perhaps explosive public talk schedule he had planned in Australia but he was detained in solitary confinement for five days. Upon landing in Los Angeles he was informed that he owed the Australian government $11,700 for his imprisonment and flight home.

For people with slightly longer memories its worth recalling exactly how ASIO was officially given its responsibility as our country’s chief investigator of domestic terrorism. This occurred in 1979 after the Sydney Hilton Hotel was bombed the previous year. The bomb blast was during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Before it, there was serious consideration of whether ASIO would continue under a Whitlam government. After this unique event in our political history the organization was given a fresh direction to look into groups with a potential for politically motivated violence.

There is good reason to suspect that the Hilton Hotel bombing was in fact engineered by ASIO.  The ABC has produced a documentary airing these suspicions and the evidence for them. In a rare show of bipartisanship the New South Wales parliament has unanimously called for a joint state and federal inquiry into the bombing both in 1991 and 1995. This was refused by the Hawke-Keating Federal Governments. The perpetrators of the Hilton Bombing have never claimed responsibility or been identified.


All of this is fascinating history but from an activist perspective it isn't necessary. The paper trail that reveals our spy-state is incomplete but it only confirms what is evident on the ground, at actual blockades for example. Here the use of Agent provocateurs is recognized as a long standing tactic to end protests. An Agent provocateur is simply an undercover state operative who, pretending to be a protester, deliberately acts violently in order to create the justification for police action. This phenomenon is well recognized in activist culture; it is a kind of joke that if your protest planning group includes a white adult with no facial tattoos who proposes confrontation with police, then that person is probably a cop. There are even attempts to expose the regular infiltrators ( here and here).

To appreciate the functionality of Agent provocateurs you have to consider how immensely difficult it is to break up an actual peaceful protest. Obviously to get an environmentalist out of a tree-top in an old growth forest, or to move Amnesty International members from the front of a Nike store takes some force, if they don’t want to go. The police are in a bind, obliged to enforce the property rights of either loggers or shoe sellers but also obliged by political interests to ensure that protesters don’t gain the sympathy of the wider public. No police chief or minister wants to see “regular citizens” capsicum-sprayed on television.

An agent provocateur is useful in two ways. Firstly their intemperate politics alienates many people. If they can become a spokesperson for a group then they can really damage its wider credibility; a lot more people will support fair trade than will support the bloody overthrow of capitalism. That gets rid of the “regular citizens”. Secondly agent provocateurs provide the legal excuse when drastic police action is required. Have you ever seen a protest on the news that was peaceful on Monday but on Tuesday attracted “hooligans” that wanted a street battle with police? Notice the media informing you of the necessity of police action given the change in the protest’s culture? When the arrests happen where did those hooligans go?

Activist groups have responded to the threat of agent provocateurs. On a basic level using shop stewards and marshals can be effective barriers. Direct action groups in particular have also developed attempts to organize into affinity groups. The history of such organization can be traced back to the 19th century however it spread across the western world after its success in organizing the U.S. Seattle protests of 1991. Protests at the G20 in Toronto, Canada and the World Economic Forum in Melbourne, Australia also used affinity organizing.

Under an affinity group model everyone engaged in a protest organizes themselves in small groups of friends. Those small affinity groups co-ordinate quite successfully without any central authority using large meeting procedures derived from anarchist principles. Basically nobody, not even a majority of affinity groups can dictate anything to a single other affinity group. Each group merely talks about what their affinity group is willing to do for the protest i.e. provide first aid, record information for legal defenses or so on.

An Anti-Nuclear Protest Affinity Group.
The bonus of affinity groups is that everyone knows each other in each one. One affinity group might have played Dungeons and Dragons together for the last ten years. Another group might be a share house or a group of work colleagues or a book group. These people intimately know each others’ strengths and limitations enabling more creative protesting than a large group can plan for. Importantly these people are genuine friends making their affinity group highly resistant to infiltration.

Affinity groups also make the whole protest resistant to agent provocateurs. When a single state operative pops up in the middle of a blockade and tries to move a protest towards violence they stand out for being alone. They also stand out because they are trying to affect more than just their own friends – of which none are near them. I have seen affinity groups organized so successfully that undercover police are laughed out of blockades before they can provoke anything.


When the world trade towers were brought down affinity group organizing became decidedly less popular. Part of this was the war footing that the western world was shifted to. War always obliges citizens to get behind their governments. The patriotic propaganda machine of George Bush Jnr’s “You’re either with us or against us” began to wail. Public protesting became muted. This is despite the fact that as the Banking Crisis shows corporate greed didn’t take a break for war.

The war on terror also created an environment hostile to affinity group organizing in particular. This is because affinity group organizing looks and feels like the organization of terrorist groups. Both are cellular, both are vigilant about surveillance and infiltration and both are orientated towards action – they plot and plan to do something. I remember when the world trade towers fell feeling the fear of what the U.S. would do next. Nobody wanted to look like they were doing anything at all like terrorism – like meeting secretly to discuss even the most peaceful political action. Guatanamo Bay and secret renditions were underway after all with mixed public approval.

The War on Terror is now many news cycles old in America. The recent Boston Bombing is only partly being understood as a terrorist action. The surviving suspect will be tried under criminal law rather than as an “enemy combatant” and the crime seems less motivated by politics than by their personal alienation from U.S. society; the Chechens look to America as the enemy of their enemy, Russia.

Since the war on terror began we have had the Global Financial Crisis occur. The phrase ‘too big to fail’ has become a measure of corporate hubris. The 99% and Occupy movements are very reminiscent of the pre-2001 anti-globalisation movement. There is the very same reclamation of space and an indefinite timetable. There is an appetite for discussion amongst themselves more than with the media or the government. There is the same broad appeal to people outside of the usual activist circles and those people are encouraged to organise in affinity groups.

We are seeing the limits of government control being tested by ordinary Turkish citizens at the moment. We’ve also had the Arab Spring as a demonstration of people power. Both Muslim and Christian people are refusing to be thrown against each other and are instead identifying common oppressors based on peace work forged in political struggle. The Bush-Al Queda war is being recognised as a distraction for all. Activism seems viable again.

There is an Indigenous poltical awakening across the whole American continent particularly connected to environmental issues. Idle No More in Canada and occupations in Brazil are the highest profile actions. This is part of a global recognition that our governments are not going to save our planet. The natural explosions of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2013 have been the two most expensive storms in US history. The Head of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, Kevin Trenberth has connected both these storms to global warming by predicting a future in which they can be expected more often. Then there is the world wide endangerment of bees. Honestly I can’t even type that without feeling panic. Direct action to create change particularly to do with concerns like Fracking and Monsanto feels supremely relevant.

This is the context in which the huge coverage of surveillance programs like Prism makes sense. The challenges to global capitalism from the movements of the late 90’s are going to be heard again because they have to be. Intercepting and ultimately manipulating personal communication is necessary to control such activism. Small affinity groups are too hard to infiltrate and co-opt in the usual way.

Affinity organizing and counter-terrorism strategies are like two enemy technologies evolving in relation to each other. That isn't to say that there aren't some real terrorists around to justify programs like Prism. It’s just that governments have never been interested in the distinction between alleged terrorists and all of their citizens. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Persistent Argument – Gay Marriage and "Non-Biological" Family creation.

There is an argument against the removal of gender from Australia’s’ marriage legislation; changes that would permit same-sex couples to be married. This argument usually uses obscure language like “the grammar of society” to make certain dog-whistle points that you either will agree with or not understand. Still it has considerable currency. For example it was recently published on the ABC Religion and Ethics page. It is possibly the second loudest argument against gay marriage after just quoting religious texts out of context.

I’ve attempted to improve the arguments’ clarity and have identified it as having three steps;
1. Reserving marriage as a rite for heterosexual couples maintains “biological” family creation as normal over other forms,
2. This is a positive effect.
3. Therefore marriage legislation should continue to prevent same-sex couples from being married.

My goal is to lay out what in the real world the argument is actually describing and whether it makes any case for reserving marriage as a rite for heterosexual couples in Australia.

To discuss point one we need to recognize that there are many ways in which an adult can be in the parenting role with a child. A man and a woman can “love each other very much” as we like to tell children and their horizontal dance in bed can summon a stork in the traditional manner. These two people can maintain a relationship together in which they fairly exclusively co-parent the child. In lieu of a better term I’ll call this “biological family creation”.

Foster care and adoption are obvious alternatives to this. Blended families are even more common and can produce situations where a child has more than two adults who play some kind of parenting role, and where clear definitions of what mum and dad means and who holds those roles, don’t hold up. It can be up to the children as they age to say who their “real” parents are based on who does the parenting. They may nominate more than two.

In a much smaller number of cases people enlist IVF technology to assist in reproduction. Some of these technologies through the use of donor sperm mean that one genetic parent is never involved at all in parenting or legally defined as a parent even before conception. There is also the use of surrogate mothers where women bear children for other couples to raise. Sometimes the child is genetically unrelated to the woman who bears them, through artificial insemination, but it is also possible that the woman’s own eggs are fertilized by one of the parents-to-be.

All of these forms of family creation, from the most common of blended families to the least common use of surrogacy, can occur in opposite-sex parent families. However, heterosexual relationships can mimic successfully the mum-dad-stork situation regardless of how they came to parent (foster, IVF, blended families). Outsiders are able to simply assume that the mother of a child born in another woman’s womb, or the father of an adopted child are in fact biological parents. This is not disrupted by single-parent situations either. Biological family creation can be assumed whether or not it has occurred.

Same-sex-parent families are different. They can’t successfully mimic families that are “biologically created”. (Note: I am really disliking this term but struggling to come up with an alternative). It’s obvious that a child with two parents of the same sex is part of a family that has been created through foster care or adoption, or as a blended family or with some form of assisted reproduction. This means that same-sex-parent families oblige schools, other institutions and the general public to recognize non-biological families in a way that all the heterosexual versions never did.

The particular role that gay marriage plays is that it makes same-sex-parent families public and undeniable. The last defense for people who wish to minimize acknowledging families created by non-biological means (after reading heterosexual parents as biological parents regardless) is to simply deny the homosexual family. The mothers’ partner is not accepted as the child’s parent - as their mother - but merely as the mother’s partner. This can be done even despite gay marriage but it’s harder to do with it. Certainly there is some obstacle that has been removed – at an institutional level – when gay parents can use the word marriage in terms of the recognition of their families.

Now that we’ve drawn the long bow between gay marriage and the normalization of non-biological family creation we have to ask the question, is this a bad thing? The answer to this lies partly in separating out two meanings of normalization.

On the one hand normal is a label and a description that justifies certain default privileges. This is generally a sucky situation for anyone who lies outside of the norm. For the children of non-biologically created families being treated as ab-normal is not great.

On this level if extending marriage to same-sex-parents does something to normalize and oblige the celebration of the non-biologically created family it would do a good thing for those families. This will be of benefit to heterosexual parents and their children of non-biologically created families too. Furthermore, the cost for biologically created families will only be the loss of bullying privileges, not an “ab-normalisation” of their own situation. It’s a win – win for the children because normal is being broadened not merely shifted.

On the other hand, normalisation is the establishing of norms – the limits of our usual choices. (Where the first type of normal is descriptive, the second is prescriptive.) Norms can be simply such matters as talking in turn or how much of the human body can be seen in public. We have successfully “normed” breastfeeding in public from a previous norm of huddling in change rooms. People can still make choices outside of norms – it’s just harder to do because you have to confront a tide of expectation and surprise. It also simply doesn’t occur to many people to go against norms. At their strongest norms are internalized and assumed. 

At the moment it is a norm in Australia for people to biologically create their families.  By this I mean that most people assume that to have a family they will have heterosexual sex with someone else and subsequently co-parent with them. Some people anticipate fostering or adoption rather than having their own kids but most don’t. Gay men and lesbians often assume that they will not have kids because this “normal” option is not open to them.

Changing what is considered normal in terms of family creation will potentially change people’s expectations and thus their choices. The increasing normalization of foster care hopefully means more people consider this an option when starting their own families. That’s the explicit intent of the advertising by foster care agencies. Given the terrible shortage of parents prepared to foster compared to kids in need this must be considered a great thing.

But could it go too far? To an extent the stolen generations or the historic forced adoptions placed on unwed mothers in this country are cases of fostering / adoption becoming a greater default than is desirable. However, to a greater extent those tragedies are borne of the racism and lack of consent that polluted them. Still they affect our imagination when we consider what an increased trend towards fostering and adoption as means of family creation might look like.

And what about IVF and surrogacy? Could that become increasingly popular if norms privelaging biological family creation were relaxed? The economic conditions for such a situation are there given that the best age biologically for pregnancy is currently the worst financial time for it. Economically it might make sense if women paid their way through higher education by bearing children for people like themselves with a decade of post graduation income to raise the child with.

Most of us would not be comfortable with these kinds of situations becoming more normal however. Whether a child’s separation from their genetic parents is due to fostering, or IVF or surrogacy we recognize this includes issues for children. This may just be in such a simple matter of access to medical history, but also for some people in terms of identity. Surrogacy raises additional concerns about the commodification of pregnancy and the exploitation of the poor. IVF technology has its own unique bio-ethics concerns.

Fostering and adoption can also move children from poor to rich families when a more just solution would be to address people’s poverty. Given the overlay of class and race in Australia, fostering and adoption can have implications for indigenous self-determination in particular. The national rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care in 2012 was 10 times the rate for non-Indigenous children (AIHW, 2012). This is only partly remedied by a focus on kinship care where children are placed by priority with extended family members.

Whether or not a ballooning in other methods of family creation would eventuate from the de-norming of biological family creation involves huge speculation. What can be said is that the norming of biological family creation may be part of what restricts these kind of scenarios. Of course numerous other restricting norms can be imagined including ones specific to surrogacy for example, or to some fostering situations but not others for example. Overall norming non-biological family creation may be a good thing (making many more kids feel normal), but we can imagine it could have some negative effects we will need to address.

This brings us to the final point. If gay marriage has some correlation (albeit a weak one) to norming non-biological family creation and norming non-biological families might have some negative effects is this sufficient to oppose gay marriage? I think the answer to that is no based not only on the gaps and stretches in the steps taken so far but on the fact that this last step is not a necessary conclusion.

Firstly it is disingenuous, in the context of arguing against gay marriage, to suggest that marriage is only about family creation. Marriage is a public measure of commitment and “seriousness” for any relationship. Marriage, as a commitment to one’s partner for life, has historically legitimised sexual activity and you only have to consider the use of contraception in married relationships to realize that most everybody knows sex is about more than making babies. It should be clear that restricting marriage to heterosexual people is entirely consistent with some group’s expectation of celibacy for homosexual people. This shouldn’t be something that the state gets involved in. Churches can use their own specific marriage rites to legitimize sexuality according to their religion.

Furthermore marriage is a public act which communicates to the wider community your relationship status and thus draws on community support for that relationship. It’s taking yourself and partner off the market by “putting a ring on it.” If same sex relationships, their communities and their children will benefit from greater social support for permanence in relationships then we should enlist marriage as way to provide this.

The reality is that the big drivers for non-biologically created families are not gay and lesbian couples wanting to marry. Denying same-sex marriage because we anticipate some dystopian future in which the problems of non-biologically created families overwhelm us – like something out of Brave New World – strikes me as simply making lesbians and gay men the scapegoats of society’s direction. We have created an economy that requires study and work through ones easiest childbearing years just in order to think about home ownership. We have created the often racially based inter-generational poverty that partly drives kids into fostering and adoption situations. It is heterosexual couples who first sought the technologies of IVF and for whom they have been developed. None of this is affected by withholding a potential benefit to same-sex couples, their families and their communities.

Personally I think we went wrong when we normalized nuclear families and made an idol of parents’ rights. This model of raising kids requires people to have their “own” kids to be in the child-raising game. That’s a tragic loss of the gifts of many people unless they create their own families, non-biologically if necessary. It seems stupid that we have created this forced choice though to be fair we were encouraged by marketers to do so. Nothing consumes like a society in nuclear families.

Ultimately I think gay marriage has become inevitable because too many high profile people have compared same-sex relationships to dog fucking for people to accept anything less. The debate has been almost entirely framed by what people think about homosexual sex, in the nastiest of terms. Now too much “face” is affected by the issue for a continued restriction of marriage to be heard (by either side) as anything other than a win for homophobia.

When we consider the issue from a direction other than a disapproval of homosexuality as this argument tries to do I’m still unconvinced. Although this argument gets a lot of airplay I don’t think it shows that we shouldn’t remove gender from Australia marriage legislation. We should address our concerns about non-biological family creation in other ways. I’m certainly open to the opinion that we should remove all marriage from the state all together –some congregations of different faiths will choose to marry gay people and some wont - but keeping gendered marriage preserved in our legislation and preventing gay marriage is something I hope will soon end. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Effects of Discrimination.

‘Discriminate’, in its earliest meaning, just meant to distinguish between two or more things. Over time, as many words do, discriminate gathered a more complex meaning. In this post I am referring to this accumulated meaning – the unjust prejudicial treatment of a person or group.

I’m of Maltese-Irish background and Australian born. I’m a cis-gendered male. Other than my loose and incomplete dentures I don’t have any visible physical disability. I did well in mainstream schooling backed by the support of middle class parents.

All the above adds up to the fact that I hardly ever face discrimination in Australia in 2013. Now that doesn't mean I get everything I want – I miss out on jobs I apply for all the time because I stuff up the interview or the other applicant is better qualified. Sure I've copped meanness at times from complete strangers for looking too queer or non-white. I've also been encouraged to hold some feeling of abnormalcy because in Australia only Anglo-Saxons are allowed to permanently feel normal.

None of that is really discrimination though. In my opinion, for discrimination to be worthy of the name it needs to be operating in the context of someone’s power over me – the shop that refuses to serve me, the employer who fires me or the landlord who won’t rent to me. In Australia when discrimination happens it’s often on the basis of race and put simply people of mixed Mediterranean descent like me are “white-enough” today to be free of any but the most absurd discrimination. This “white enough” status has yet to be granted Arabs and remains impossible to Aboriginal people.

I am excluded from applying for some jobs because of positive discrimination.  There are jobs working with women’s victims of male violence for example that require applicants to be women. That obviously needs to be so and I support those decisions. Hence I call it positive discrimination. Sheesh, it’s embarrassing to even bring it up as if it was discrimination given the context of the victims’ stories. The only effect of that positive discrimination on me is a very limited reduction of opportunity.

Unjust discrimination however has a very different set of effects. On the one hand there is also the reduction of opportunity. Unchecked, over time or when choice is limited then that can be brutal. I recently learnt that our local Vic Roads (the only one for a large area) has a reputation for being extra tough on Indian drivers. This is in a regional town where public transport is inadequate. The risk to employment, education and recreation from not being able to get your license is significant.

However the second and third effects of discrimination are both the worst and are often overlooked by others. They are something you just don’t feel from positive discrimination. The “making sense” aspect of positive discrimination nullifies these effects. These effects are hard to perceive for people who don’t experience discrimination much itself or carry much empathy for those who do. 

Firstly discrimination takes a piece of you – maybe your ethnicity or your gender or your transgender status – and uses it to evaluate your whole person. That feels horrible, partly because you can be dragged into hating that aspect of yourself by this process and partly because your more complete self is being ignored. We should have a special name for this type of damage to a person. To encourage someone to put all of their complexity and beauty to one side in light of their eye colour or what’s between their legs for example is a very special cruelty to their personhood.

I wish our culture had a better idea of this personhood concept. We tend to think of the self either in terms of an inert psychology passively affected by external feeds or we use the word ‘soul’ which is so otherworldly as to seem untouchable. I’d rather we mined poetry a little more to remember our selves as living things – which can both recover from terrible trauma and yet fade from slight neglect in unpredictable ways. It’s this organic self that is wearied and warped by the prejudice of discrimination.

The third effect of discrimination is almost impossible for people of privilege to realize. I think of it as the bully effect. When a person is discriminated against, that means someone in power has taken the reasonable restraint off their prejudices that we all need to live together. This is an act of violence in itself but also a threat of more.

Discrimination is usually emboldened by organization. The shopkeeper knows the police and advertises in the local paper and employs other people all of which gives them a part of a community’s institutional power. Discrimination is when they use that power to shape their community to exclude you and others like you in some aspect. The threat inherent in this is that by once shucking off the restraint that would keep a person’s prejudice away from their power, there may be no end to this anymore. Today a shop doesn't serve you, tomorrow a newspaper refuses to run your ad, the next day the police beat you up.

This bully effect of discrimination is why it absolutely has to be opposed for a person to be a healthy member of a society. When the discrimination isn't opposed then a person simply isn't able to remain a member of that society without accepting their inferiority. Their membership of the society thus becomes poisonous to their personhood. Eventually their personhood has to transform to be increasingly anti-social to survive as anything with integrity with itself.

This is the point in which we can begin to decide when certain groups in society ought to be left alone in their discrimination. Are they attempting to define the whole of society? Do the make it hard for people to leave their group freely? Are they proposing that their certain group should lead the whole of society along the same path? Do they claim being a member of their group as the basis of privilege in wider society? If the answer to these questions is yes then I think it becomes unhealthy to tolerate their discrimination no matter how private their organization claims to be. The answer doesn't have to be legislation but can take the form of excluding the discriminators from our forums, our public schools, as much as possible from their victims’ lives. Essentially their bullying has to be called out because you can believe they are organizing for more power whilst we continually cut them slack. Podium sharing with a private discriminating organization is an unhealthy response.

As I've said I have rarely endured discrimination like this. It has however happened recently but the rarity of this event makes me reluctant to make a big deal of it. After all there are people who get their guts kicked daily. What about the people of Indian background for whom Vic roads is extra tough? For those of us who aren't Indian that statement could be read and shortly after forgotten. We could consider it a shame and that’s about it. For Indian people those words a solid page ago are still stinging. It is still coiled inside them, causing their personhood damage. The lack of response from others, the complicity with which the broader community interact with Vic Roads, is continuing the harm.

In light of this injustice does it matter if I cop some singular discrimination? Is it selfish of me to put my rare issue onto this blog when I have said so little about the discrimination others experience in my home town until now? Or should I, in fact must I, speak up in order to restore my healthy belonging to my community? I think the answer to all those questions may be yes.

I may not write about my particular experience. I don't know if I can do it calmly enough. I don't know if the public nature of a blog is the best place to raise the topic either. Ideally I'd like to figure out a response to my discriminators that springs from a peace work approach. An angry blog might undermine that. As I couldn't let it entirely rest I wrote this piece.