Sit back and listen

Reflections from tonight’s VAC forum on Navigating Sexuality, Gender, Culture and Religion, moderated by Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli (Deakin University) with speakers Gilbert Caluya, Monique Hameed, Lia Incognita, Raina Peterson, Nur Wasame and Shinen Wong.

As I walked in the door, convenor Budi Sudarto sighed theatrically, ‘it’s the same old suspects’. Way to make a guy feel welcome! But in fact it wasn’t: pretty soon the room was packed, with an audience of mostly ‘community people’ — not the usual crowd of academics and project workers. Also, the panel included queer speakers from African and Muslim perspectives and counting the moderator it was more than half women. Monique Hameed noted her experience in ‘coming out’ was marked by a lack of ‘brown and gay’ role models. This panel was significantly more inclusive than similar events I helped organise about five years ago, and Monique’s remarks underscore the importance of that — so full credit to the organisers and the panellists for that.

These are just some fragmentary reflections from moments that resonated with me personally — any errors are on me (please feel free to point them out or add your thoughts in the comments).

  • Maria asked if queer is a Western concept.
  • Shinen traced the imaginary geography of Australia’s cultural identification — calling ourselves ‘Western’ traces a lineage back to Europe.
  • Raina described looking to the historical record of Indian culture for affirmation in images and texts about same gender desire.
  • Gilbert pointed out how if we see queer as a moment of breaking away from Gay liberation, we can forget how much the earlier homophile movements looked for validation in anthropological records of same gender desire in other cultures.
  • Lia noted the risk of erasure when we look back and claim historical people and practices as queer.
  • Shinen contrasted the Western secular atheist notion of history as progressive with the cyclical conceptions of time prevalent in Buddhist thinking, and noted how the conditions we establish today in the name of justice will be future conditions of repression
  • Maria asked the panel about the politics of coming out and what it feels like.
  • Monique noted that ‘mainstream services targeting LGBTIQ people often focus on coming out as a defining moment after which you get to experience being truly gay and true to yourself.’ (quotes to indicate close to verbatim quotation)
  • Nur noted that ‘coming out’ is very, very serious in his community: ‘it’s your life on the line’.  But he sees it as important for the young people — not just young gay Muslims but to reach non-gay Muslims as well.
  • Lia described her concern with overly literal responses to the problem of invisibility — simply getting seen more is not an answer to invisibility of particular intersections of identity, such as femme lesbians or black women in fashion photography; it just leads to a proliferation of the same visual stereotypes encoded in problematic ways.
  • For Lia greater visibility was not an answer to the question of how to find and how to recognise each other.
  • Gilbert noted one of the most challenging things for his partner, a white man, was having to think about race when he’d never had to before being partnered for ten years with another white man.
  • Maria asked the panel whether privileged people have a responsibility to help — but also how they can do that without taking over or appropriating.
  • Raina differentiated anti-racist discourse, with its focus on structural racism, and the Australian multicultural identity of ‘we all have differences’.  She noted how ethnic communities adopt a low profile as they settle, trying to avoid attracting abuse.  She suggested, and this is my takehome for the night, maybe white people can do that, for a change: ‘try to be a bit quiet’.  She said she was tired of being a focus group participant for white people making their career in multicultural policy.
  • Lia recounted how she’s done a few of these forums lately and often there’s a question from the audience, ‘what can white people do?’  She suggested, you know, put a bit of effort into it and find the answer for yourself, but also noted that under oppressive structural conditions there’s no ‘better’ course of action: all the available paths are marked by those unequal power relations.
  • Monique described majority-white mainstream organisations wanting access to her project’s participants; funding arrangements that anticipate partnerships that are enacted in inequitable ways; and trying to engage with staff who have no lived experience of what’s at stake for ethnic queer people: you know, ‘maybe it means you’re not the right person for the role.’
  • An audience question made a really great point, that ‘diversity isn’t a substitute for justice’.

There was the usual smattering of audience questions, including some from people who missed Raina’s takehome point, and the event closed.  If you want to be kept informed of upcoming events, like the Australian GLBTIQ Multicultural Council on Facebook!

Feel free to comment but remember, if you find this stuff ‘really interesting‘, it probably means you’re not a member of the group who have the most at stake with this issue, so please frame your response to show respect for that.