A NEW REPORT on Australian homophobia contains a few surprises.
Tasmania has the best lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights laws in Australia. It has the best anti-homophobia policies in education, health, tourism and policing.
In a globally-unprecedented move it has government-endorsed benchmarks for the elimination of homophobic prejudice and violence.
According to large-scale opinion polls, support for LGBT human rights has increased dramatically over the past 15 years to levels above the mainland states (for a closer look at some of these polls see the link below. Subsequent polling showed support for anti-discrimination and relationship law reform as high as 65 and 70%).
The island’s anti-gay movement, once the nation’s most powerful, has evaporated.
But according to the Australia Institute, Tasmania remains Australia’s most homophobic state.
The AI’s survey of Australian homophobia, released yesterday in its report, “Mapping Homophobia”, shows that 40% of Tasmanians believe homosexuality is immoral, and homosexual couples should not be able to adopt, a figure slightly ahead of second placed Queensland, and well ahead of the other states.
Tasmania’s North West Coast was found to be one of the country’s most homophobic regions with almost 50% of respondents believing homosexuality is immoral and homosexual adoption wrong.
Amongst Tasmanian community leaders the report has been met with incredulity. State Attorney-General, Judy Jackson, said “I find it hard to believe this is true”.
Over the next few days she and many others will look for explanations for the apparent inconsistency, for the gap between laws and policies, opinion polls and the AI survey.
Sadly, sample size and methodology aren’t factors.
The highly respected polling company Roy Morgan conducted the survey. There was a whopping 3,375 respondents from Tasmania.
One way to explain the survey results is that legal and policy change has been very rapid in Tasmania and community attitudes have yet to catch up.
It was only eight years ago that gay sex could land you in gaol for 21 years.
But I’m not happy with this take. It doesn’t explain what Tasmanians across the political spectrum and across the state have been observing for a decade past; that hearts and mind have been changing as well as laws.
An explanation that makes more sense is that we came from a really low base and profound change may take decades.
It’s certainly true that the polls showed abysmal levels of support for gay law reform 15 years ago, and there can be no doubt that Tasmania’s anti-gay prejudice has roots deep in our colonial history.
Perhaps I and others have been dazzled by changes, not only to upper level laws and policies, but to upper level attitudes.
Below a new sense of tolerance there may well lie a powerful residual discomfort.
Finally, there’s the explanation that most people will not want to consider: that what we are seeing is not intractable, low-lying, residual prejudice but something much newer and more dangerous.
Evangelical and fundamentalist church leaders have made inroads into outer urban and regional communities across the country, but in Tasmania those inroads have been deeper thanks to the tight-knit nature of Tasmanian society.
It’s the same inter-connectedness that benefited the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community when its representatives took to the road in the 1990s and first years of the 21st century, to foster support for their human rights amongst their heterosexual compatriots.
The fundamentalists are following the path beaten by LGBT people into the hearts and minds of ordinary Tasmanians, but their goal is a very different one.
Their sudden growth is obvious if you compare their failure to stop the Relationships Act in the state Upper House in 2003 to their derailing of sex industry reform in the same chamber last month.
In two short years they have reversed the political trajectory of the Legislative Council, and presumably the constituents Councillors listen to.
If it’s true that the fickle pendulum of Tasmanian public opinion is already swinging back from its gay high, the choice is clear — either we allow ourselves to again be labelled “the gay-hate state”, and “Bigot’s Island”, or we dedicate ourselves even more earnestly to the cause of social inclusion.
If the choice is inclusion, the question is how?
Whatever the cause of Tasmania’s homophobia, clearly our ground-breaking laws and policies are not enough to curb it.
Government must back up its laws, policies and benchmarks with adequate funding to ensure they are implemented properly.
Political, civic and religious leaders must openly stamp efforts to reduce prejudice and discrimination with their authority and credibility.
Heterosexual Tasmanians must take responsibility for tackling a prejudice that hurts not only LGBT people but their families, friends, colleagues and communities.
LGBT people must take responsibility for re-engaging with their fellow Tasmanians in a way many of us thought was no longer necessary.
The state must face up to, and debate, new important reforms like same-sex marriage instead of resting on our now slightly faded law reform laurels.
For decades, homophobic prejudice fostered horrific abuse, violence and state-repression in Tasmania. It drove young people away, or into drug abuse or to suicide. It tore families and communities apart.
It gnawed away at Tasmania’s prosperity, its future and its heart.
We can’t let that happen again.
For a copy of the Australia Institute report click,
For a copy of other surveys on Tasmanian attitudes to homosexuality click,
Well beyond the Australian Institute’s findings on homophobia in Tasmania, there are other AI findings which will cause great surprise.
Catholics are the least homophobic Christians, inner Perth is the second least homophobic region overall after inner Melbourne, the Hunter Valley is less homophobic than Sydney, 14 to17 year olds are more homophobic than 18 to 24 year olds, who are more homophobic than 25 to 34 year olds.
Clearly the views of church hierarchs are strategically ignored by Catholics.
Given that the churches line up on homophobia according to their levels of hierarchy (Catholics are less homophobic than Anglicans who score better than other protestant denominations with Baptists last), perhaps participating in a highly structured church is somehow good for one’s social conscience (if only as something to react against).
Clearly Sydney is not the gay-capital many believe it to be. The inner city may not be far behind leaders, Melbourne and Perth, but the outer suburbs drag it way down.
Clearly teenagers have a problem with prejudice. The AI researchers speculate that adolescents are more likely than young adults to be homophobic because of sexual and gender insecurity and peer pressure.
The Howard Generation
Possibly, or maybe they’re the Howard Generation?
The one thing that doesn’t surprise me is the unexpected way the states line up.
Tasmania, Queensland, WA and NSW all rate above SA and Victoria.
If being small or isolated determines your place on the list why is NSW above SA?
My answer is that the fundamental influence on homophobia in this country is a convict past, and all the enduring associations between homosexuality, crime, subversion and shame that brings.
I’m not the first to make the connection. Robert Hughes, Richard Flanagan and others have made it before me.
I’m simply embellishing their thesis by noting that the four least tolerant states have a carcerial history. The two most tolerant, don’t.
Last, to the most important stat of all. 35% of Australians think homosexuality is immoral and homosexual couples should not be allowed to adopt children.
35% is far too large to represent all those Australians with an ideologically-based antipathy to homosexuality.
It is mostly people who have simply never been faced with the truth of sexual diversity.
Beyond everything else, the AI survey is a clarion call to the LGBT community to reach out to these Australians, to show them who we are and why we matter, to convince them that sexual orientation has no bearing on morality and parenting ability, and to bring them to an appreciation of the fundamental importance of social and sexual diversity.
All about Rodney Croome,