Mark Kenny’s ‘lesson for same-sex couples’

Mark Kenny has an oddly peevish piece in today’s Fairfax papers, headlined ‘Naive campaign against marriage equality plebiscite made some serious miscalculations’.

pedophile scum.jpg
Source: Hannah Gadsby (7 Oct 2016)

It fits within a long-standing tradition in which gay people are characterised as infantile, emotional, short-termist, not fully rational — the same treatment accorded to women.

Kenny trots out a very tired set of descriptors. Gay people are naive, unquestioning, gleeful, and unable to assess what’s in our own interests. In need of a sober, rational, white middle-aged middle-class man to explain it all to us.

Despite its obviously self-serving nature – denied publicly but acknowledged privately by senior Labor figures – the opposition’s decision to block the plebiscite, was greeted last Tuesday with universal acclaim by the broad left including the LGBTI community, the ALP’s activist base and that of the Greens.

Mark, sweetie, we fucking know it’s political. We don’t see Labor as our rescuers. We haven’t forgotten how Julia Gillard made exactly the same bargain you describe Turnbull making — trading off support for gay marriage to win the support of her Right wing.

What grates here is the combination of an explanatory tone (“Let’s be clear… What’s more…”) with a fatuous lack of analysis, one that lumps queer people and Labor together as ‘the broad left’ who are in ‘universal acclaim’ of the ALP decision.

Um, have you ever met a lefty, Mark?

The piece excoriates ‘the left’s high-mindedness’ while ignoring the facts of Australian homophobia and transphobia. Kenny dismisses out-of-hand “the inherently unprovable claim that a public plebiscite would unleash a vile tidal-wave such that sexually conflicted and alienated youths would suffer inordinately, and would in some cases take their own lives.” He doubts that “the inevitable discomfort caused by the aforementioned hate-speech would be so profound that it would not be assuaged by the broad condemnation of said hate-speakers by civilised society.”

First of all, all predictions are inherently unprovable at the time they are made. Congratulations, Mark Kenny, you’ve discovered the arrow of time. But you can look at what happened in the past, e.g. the Irish marriage referendum, and connect it up with what we already know about predictors of distress and suicidality. Like I did in this post.

Secondly, to a kid bullied at school using words and phrases taken from the ‘No’ case in a plebiscite — i.e. exactly what is happening to Latinx kids as a result of the Trump campaign — it is no comfort that Turnbull, Shorten and Di Natale take different positions.

Kenny offers a fantasy vision of rational prejudice, where it is possible to calculate whether ‘sexually conflicted and alienated youths’ (what. the. fuck.) suffer inordinately, and to total up the nasty things in one column and the nice things in another and cancel them out to the extent they overlap. (I’m not kidding about this: Kenny refers to it as the ‘balance-of-harm consideration’.) And if people who experience homophobia and transphobia experience more pain and fear than is rational, then we should dismiss that.

To put it mildly, as someone engaged in full-time study of stigma and discrimination, that’s not how this shit works. Vulnerability is not evenly distributed. You can’t average it out across a population and calculate it rationally. People have different life experiences and live in different geographical places, religious communities, remote vs urban settings, etc. These differences pattern their past exposures and sensitivity to discrimination.

We’re not saying every queer kid will be put at risk of suicide: we’re saying we know that some will be. And what Mark Kenny is implicitly arguing is that’s worth trading for same sex marriage. And what the queer community is saying, with near unanimity, is no, we’d rather wait.

Kenny concludes with this: “A lesson for same-sex couples who right now could be further away their goal of legal marriage than they thought a few months back.”

Thanks so much for that, Mark.


Good things


In an earlier post I wrote about wanting to clear my to-do list before leaving Melbourne. However, one new thing wedged itself onto the list and refused to budge: my mother’s enduring cold rage about this post from August last year.

Mum had asked me to let her know whenever I’m leaving the country, so before my trip in December last year, I sent her an e-mail saying I was headed off on holiday, and then moving interstate to start a PhD. I got a two word reply: ‘be well.’ Recently I set off on a trip to Oxford, my first time visiting the UK, and this time I actually called, and got five minutes of liquid nitrogen. Afterwards, I sent an e-mail saying I wasn’t going to do that again, and got a reply saying at some point I’d need to forgive her and not to bother staying in touch.

It was one of those moments of misrecognition that characterise unworkable relationships. I wasn’t seeking to hold anyone accountable for past misdeeds, but rather, I wanted a present-day relationship that acknowledges we will have different perspectives on events we both experienced. That was too much to ask for.

My understanding of depression is quite different from the popular account of an imbalance of chemicals in the brain — a theory that has never been proved, nor even studied; it’s pure marketing. I understand it as contentful — it refers to something.

In my own case, it’s a reiteration of what I had to do to survive as a child with two parents who hated each other and both, in their own ways, treated their kids as an audience for their efforts to win the divorce. In short, I had to shut down the fight-or-flight impulse, numb my feelings, keep my feelings locked inside and out of sight to avoid further conflict. And as Brené Brown points out, you can’t selectively numb, it’s all-or-nothing. Solutions that work for us in childhood become limitations we grapple with in adulthood.

I got that e-mail on the same day as my Overland piece went live. That was a fairly plaintive piece, incredibly personal, and I probably overdosed on vulnerability. I spent the next two days in bed, watching Luke Cage and living on Domino’s. Then on Monday I got up and set to work finishing my presentation for my thesis confirmation, which was on Tuesday.

My week of good things

My thesis confirmation seminar went well; following some advice passed on by Will Nutland, when we caught up for coffee in London, I put myself back into it, starting the presentation by telling a story that helped the audience make sense of my topic.

Screenshot 2016-10-15 19.56.26.png

In turn, that meant (retroactively) that it wasn’t completely insane to fly to London for a workshop for four days only three weeks before my thesis confirmation. The workshop wasn’t exactly what I’d expected, but the writing I did for it set up the way I reframed my thesis.

2016-09-21 07.53.07.jpg

On Tuesday, Labor finally confirmed it would oppose the same sex marriage plebiscite.

BP confirmed it was abandoning plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight.

Former politicians lost their High Court bid to get more privileges.

My former boss and his long-term partner got married in Ireland.

I got invited to help out at an event I couldn’t otherwise attend.

A couple of friends had babies and they are both damn cute. (Not guaranteed!)

Canberra finally started showing signs it’s spring.

2016-10-15 16.20.16.jpg

2016-09-27 12.34.06.jpg

I went to my GP to get anti-depressants (a low dose of a medication that has worked for me before). Now I just need to get my lumpy gallbladder sorted (or evicted).

The lovely Zoe Bowman, feminist and writer, took me out for dinner at Monster and it was freaking delightful. Especially the waiter with an owl tattoo on his hand.

2016-10-14 21.40.26.jpg

Finally, I bought a bike and it arrived… in a big flat box. So today I put it together and went for a ride through Canberra, to get coffee, vote, and go to the gym for the first time in ages.

2016-10-15 16.03.15.jpg

Living in the upside down


I had an article ‘The undead past‘ published on Friday on the Overland blog. It is a reply to people who argue ‘one way or another’ a plebiscite is our best chance for same sex marriage. We all know it’s inevitable, but how it happens really matters.

Here’s the thing, though: when we do finally get the right to marry, we have gone past the point where we can celebrate it. Winning this right no longer fits the usual rhetoric – righting an historic wrong, recognising all love is valid – because the fight itself has given lie to all of that.

The piece has been shared a lot on Facebook. Compared to twitter, people are a bit more circumspect about what they’ll share on Facebook, because they often have old school friends and extended family members who hold divergent political and religious views.

For this piece to be shared so widely in a relatively conservative social media space suggests, to me, a growing consensus against a plebiscite. Indeed, the Guardian reports a Galaxy poll finding support for a plebiscite ‘continued to decline with only 38% of voters in favour and 44% against.’

Today, Australian researchers from University of Queensland and Victoria University have released results from a survey of 1,458 people in Ireland, asking about their experiences of that country’s same sex marriage referendum in 2015.

As reported in the Guardian, when asked if they would go through the process again, knowing how it felt like the first time, 15% were undecided and 54.5% said no.

Among the qualitative responses, as reported in the SMH, respondents said ‘”I hope no other country has to go through that … it was a dark time to be a LGBTI person”, while another felt as if they were “in shark-infested waters”.’

Among the quantitative responses, when confronted with materials from the ‘No’ campaign, 64% rated feeling distress at 5 or above on a seven point scale (from ‘not at all’ to ‘very much’) for posters/flyers and 67% for TV and radio messages. Those numbers jump to 77% for comments from local community and 80% for comments from family.

I focus on distress because it is a known predictor of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, particularly in young people. Depression is not a confounder, here, but part of the causal pathway: same sex attracted people are three times more likely to be living with depression, and the risk correlates with exposure to homophobic prejudice.

We know there is a substantial minority of people who are vulnerable; we know the plebiscite will cause them distress; we know distress is a predictor of depression, suicidal ideation and attempt. It would be irresponsible and unsafe to proceed with a plebiscite.

Grindr’s HIV-positive filter works just like Cerebro

A few weeks ago I ran a piece raising concerns about Grindr’s proposal to enable filtering by HIV status on its hookup app for gay and bisexual men. The story got picked up by CNN, and the Fairfax newspapers in Australia.

My main concern was that it enables HIV-negative men to enact a kind of ‘digital quarantine’ that they may think will protect them from ever encountering a person living with HIV on the app.

While I was in London, my Grindr app updated and the filter became available. Here’s how it works: guys on the app have always been able to identify as members of different ‘Tribes’, such as Bear, Daddy, Twink and Poz.

Now, Grindr has enabled a ‘My Type’ filter that lets Premium users see only guys:

  • with photos
  • in a certain age, height, or weight range
  • of a certain ethnicity, body type or positional preference (e.g. ‘top’ or ‘bottom’)
  • who are single or not, looking for hookups or not
  • and who belong to certain Tribes

This is how an HIV-negative guy could enact digital quarantine against Poz guys:

In the first image, I’ve ticked all the Tribes except Poz — this is the ‘digital quarantine’ mode. As an educator who’s done countless hours of online outreach, my prediction is that negative guys who fear HIV will begin to pressure Poz guys to join this tribe.

In the second image, there’s something equally concerning: what we might call ‘HIV Cerebro’, after the technology used in the X-Men movies to visualise all the mutants worldwide.


If there are only 3-4 guys meeting the criteria in my local area, the app will expand the search radius… When I set ‘My Type’ to include only guys in the Poz tribe, it showed me all the guys identifying as Poz in a search radius up to 17,000km away.

Many of those guys were out-‘n-proud Poz activists in London and the States, with profile headlines like [+u] meaning ‘poz, undetectable viral load’ or ‘u=u’ undetectable  = uninfectious (this is true).

But there were also a small number of guys in countries where having sex while HIV-positive is illegal even if condoms are used; and where homosexual activity is illegal.

Here’s the kicker. In the interviews I did with different media outlets, I noted that sites like DudesNude and apps like Hornet offer a similar ability to see other Poz members — but only if you join the Poz tribe yourself.

Grindr is unusual in allowing anyone to search the Poz tribe, as long as they have a Premium membership.

A further problem is that when you tick the box to ‘enter’ the Poz tribe… absolutely nothing happens (left image, below).

This is a missed opportunity on Grindr’s part. At a bare minimum, clicking the box should trigger a pop-up with information about the possibility of being identified, and identifying strategies for protecting themselves and local organisations that can provide support.

Most guys won’t need this, and might even feel it’s intrusive — but it needs to be made clear that joining the tribe makes you findable via ‘HIV Cerebro’.

This is important, given the app also allows people to list their Facebook, twitter and Instagram accounts (right image above) — linking people’s identities to their online activities, which might include chats about sexual fantasies they would never enact ‘in real life’. Such chats have been interpreted by courts and researchers alike as evidence.

In case that seems like a long-shot risk, remember that Grindr’s global equality initiative was only created in the aftermath of reports that security officials in post-revolutionary Egypt were using Grindr to identify and arrest men who have sex with men.

Grindr recently issued one-off messages to Egyptian users to warn of a similar crackdown on men who used Facebook to meet other same-sex attracted men.

Were you aware this is how the Poz tribe works? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

You can also join the discussion on the Bad Blood Facebook page.

This post has been updated to reflect a correction made by Mark ‘middle’ Hubbard (comments).

Stigma as metonym

Five dollar word: metonym, noun, ‘word used in place of a closely related word‘.

The Victorian Government recently launched strategies for hepatitis B and C, causing me to nearly fall off my chair — these have been ‘coming soon’ for nearly a decade.

vic hep C strategy poster
Don’t mention the war on drugs: ‘those most at risk and most affected’

A writer using the pseudonym ‘The Golden Phaeton’ has been covering the treatments revolution in hepatitis C for Harm Reduction Victoria.  Apart from being witty and carefully-observed, their articles are just beautifully written.

Writing about the launch of the hepatitis C strategy, The Golden Phaeton concluded with this incredibly sharp insight (sorry) into how ‘stigma’ gets used as a metonym within the respectability politics of the blood-borne virus sector:

It was only on the subject of stigma that I found any fault with the [Parliamentary] Health Secretary’s announcement. […] It was interesting that drug users were not overtly mentioned in the policy speech. Stigma was mentioned. Discrimination was mentioned. But never were we told against who these evils were operating. Almost as if the words stigma and discrimination were functioning as a code to be used in order to avoid having to sully the lips by actually mentioning injecting drug users.

You can read the rest of the article here and sign up for HRVic’s newsletter as well.

The end of ‘Ending HIV’

It’s done, folks, stick a fork in it.  The highly respected epidemiologist and World Bank Global AIDS Program Director David Wilson posted today that talk of ‘ending AIDS in a generation’ or ‘ending HIV by 2030’ is neither realistic nor helpful.  He writes:

The Durban 2016 AIDS Conference marks the end of “ending the HIV epidemic” as a feasible goal with the tools we have. We need new and better tools. Talk of ending AIDS has led to a widespread perception in the broader health and development community that this crisis is over. It isn’t and continued exhortations that we can end the AIDS epidemic with our existing armory may further undermine global recognition of and commitment to address this epidemic.

I have been incredibly critical of the way this discourse was premised on the idea that behavioural and social prevention strategies have failed.  Recently I acknowledged ‘Ending HIV’ was a tactical move by very experienced policy advocates to maintain global and local funding for HIV prevention and treatment in the face of the global financial crisis.  But although we have new knowledge and biomedical strategies like TasP and PrEP, the obstacles to gaining their full benefit remain, as always, behavioural and social.

Critical reflections on practice

Esther Anatolitis has a great piece offering a set of provocations to critical reflection on our own artistic and creative practice, drawn from her presentation to Regional Arts Victoria’s Expanding Artistic Horizons symposium in Port Fairy in 2015.

A friend and colleague, Natalie Hendry, posted a recollection of those long questionnaires we all used to complete on LiveJournal and MySpace, and it struck me this list is similar.

So here are my answers. Feel free to copy it and fill in your own.


What drives you?

At my best, a sense of mischief — playing in spaces and ways we’re discouraged from.
Other times, a gripping sense of rage or inadequacy. (Generative but hard to control.)

How do you make the space to understand what drives you?

I have to come at it sideways by making and taking unscheduled time for laziness and boredom.  And then understanding comes out of nowhere: oh, that’s what that was about.

And how’s your health?

It requires a lot of patchwork, at the moment, stitching together continuous care across a range of different physical, mental, financial, and spiritual providers and opportunities. 

What does your typical day look like?

I sleep as much as I can overnight — ten hours is best.  I try to drink a normal amount of coffee, get enough protein and eat enough fruit.  On a good day I do about two hours’ writing and two hours’ reading.  In good mental health I can write about 3,000 words a day.  In bad mental health I get into fights on social media all day and I struggle to write more than sentences.

When you need to think something through, what tools do you use? Be aware of how those tools structure your thinking before you’ve thought it all through.

Pen and paper.  Brainstorm first.  Then group into themes or axes.  I ask ‘what’s my angle?’ and ‘what’s my audience, purpose, tone and style?’  These are tools I’ve used since high school.  Lately I’m writing in much longer formats, arguments with more room for subtlety in them, and I’ve started using notes to self and various diacritics to coordinate that work over longer timeframes, interruptions by other work, or mental health issues.

Do you routinely reflect on what you’re making?

I have made a conscious effort to move away from writing in one hit, one big download fuelled by emotion, followed by hitting send.  I have learned to write more slowly. 

What stage is your practice at?

I’m at the stage of consciously pushing up against my limits, seeking to leave behind the naturalism and simplicity of my writing as an educator and a policy contributor, and instead develop the kind of playful control over critical language that I see in the work of my academic heroes.

Are you craving space and time for deep practice? Or are you craving instead the networks and provocations to broaden your practice?

I have both space and time for practice and the networks and provocations to draw my thinking out.  I need the constancy and discipline to make the practice actually bear results.

What is it about your practice that’s most sustainable? Unsustainable?

I can almost always hear whether there’s rhythm in my writing.  The unsustainable thing is the sense of ‘I can do this’.  It comes and goes without any rhyme or reason.

Are you able to articulate what a meaningful, productive, successful practice would mean for you?

Drawing on the sense of constancy and discipline, it would mean always writing at least 2 hours, developing the journalist’s commitment to deadlines, developing stronger faith in editors, starting to write when the deadline is still on the horizon rather than rushing up to meet me.  It would bring my collaborators into the process with me rather than hiding the writing away from them.

And how would you know?

My first thought was ‘it wouldn’t hurt so much’ but I know enough serious writers to know that’s probably not the case.  But that sense of ‘I can do this’ might not be so fickle.

Is your practice still developing?

I’m unlearning a lot of the defensive strategies and tics that I’d picked up in practice.  I’m developing my skills at interleaving personal narrative, research findings and technical discussion.

What risks are you still taking? Where is the risk in your practice?

The discomfort lies in writing the way I want to write for an cross-disciplinary audience.  The temptation is to use one of those defensive strategies — translation; pretending to speak in another language.  But I’m always so conscious, when I do that, of what things become harder or impossible to communicate.  The big risk lies in writing in language closer to my heart and hoping there will be an audience for it.

Where do your provocations to practice come from?

Often it’s the sense of ‘oh, that’s fucked!’  And then challenging myself to think it through carefully.  There are tactical pieces I’ve done, challenging e.g. The Hoopla on its attitude towards sex workers, or YEAH claiming to be the victims of homophobia, where I’ve just been so angry but I’ve worked really hard to stick to reasons and facts that an unbiased person could consider and accept. 

Are there mentors in your life? Someone in your life whose role is to challenge you – someone you already feel challenged by – someone outside of your field – more than one person – co-mentoring – formal and informal mentoring – ?

HEAPS.  There are so many people I could and will at different points mention and thank.  But there’s one person in particular, Megan McPherson, who brings a creative artist’s practiced reflection to the craft of academic thinking and writing and constantly provokes me to the same.

How do you set the most productive constraints for your work? Are you happy with the scope of your experimentations?

I try to write like Rey Chow.  I will never be as good as her, but her short, declarative topic sentences are miraculous.  Blogging is the place where I have the most freedom to experiment. 

What characterises your working style as an individual? As a collaborator? As a leader?

I want to do my thing in privacy.  I am terrible at collaboration.  Part of this is a learned habit of existential angst around writing and partly it’s the stop-start productivity of episodic depression.  Occasionally I will take the lead on an issue but I always want to ‘step up and step back’ – quickly.

How does your working style change as an individual? As a collaborator? As a leader?

A friend observed I have ‘hegemonic tendencies’… my style is not flexible.  Once I’ve thought something through I tend to have a clear vision of how a given situation works and I’ve weighed up the different pathways through it, and I can be incredibly stubborn in sticking to it.  I have often been told I need to communicate that understanding more frequently, consistently, patiently…  But that stubbornness is essential in human services work — without it, morphostatic processes kick in and organisations just do things the way they’ve always done them.  I need to develop my skills in maintaining the calmness to keep stubborn but still communicate what I want.

If you packed yourself off on a week-long retreat, what would you do? What wouldn’t you do? What could it mean for your practice? For your physical health? For your mental health? What could you make possible with that space and time? Or if you consistently dedicated fifteen minutes per day to this kind of reflection, what would it mean for your practice?

I would need to go somewhere without internet access.  I’d want to meditate in the morning and the evening.  I’d need a good chair and a desk.  A couple of those and I could knock out a book.  But I’d need a collaborator, someone doing exactly the same thing, to swap our drafts (for accountability) and read and talk about them in the evening. 

In fifteen minutes per day I could have a crack at imitating writers I admire. That’s what Stephen King recommends in his book On Writing. Hell, that’s Nam Le’s book The Boat in a nutshell.

Esther’s conclusion

It’s the arts. We’ve each chosen to live our lives at a high level of creative and intellectual intensity. If we don’t take our bodies with us, our bodies will take us somewhere else altogether. And this affects the work. And this is the work.

Make reflection a habit. Develop your commitments to your practice.

My conclusion

I’ve always argued that the work I do, getting funding for innovative programs, is creative. But I think I have a lot to learn from creative arts practitioners on how to think of my practice as something that’s separate from myself.  So many things about it would be easier were that separation clearer in my head.  This has been really helpful, and it has prompted me to re-read Twyla Tharp and Jane Bozarth.