Instead of celebrating International Human Rights Day on December 10th, many gay Australians are asking why their country’s commitment to equality is so weak.

When they look overseas they see significant progress on human rights.

On Thursday New Zealand passed a new law giving same-sex couples legal equality. Three weeks before, Britain did the same. In recent days, the Canadian and South African Supreme Courts have delivered strong pro-gay marriage decisions. Even the conservative Israeli Government has announced it will give gay couples key legal rights.
Turning their gaze back to Australia they see a Federal Government banning same-sex marriage and adoption, the WA Opposition proposing a roll-back of that state’s progressive reforms, the SA Parliament stalling gay equality, and increasingly nasty anti-gay comments from public figures like John Laws and Sam Newman.

With virtually no anti-bias protections or same-sex couple recognition in federal law, Australia now has arguably the worst record on gay rights of any western country, except the United States.

It’s no surprise, then, that some gays turn to the United States when they want to allocate blame for Australia’s embarrassing record.

The US administration has certainly set the trend when it comes the electoral manipulation of gay issues.

Senior Whitehouse strategist, Karl Rove, contributed significantly to Bush’s re-election by ensuring fundamentalist and evangelical voters turned out en masse to support 11 state ballots opposing same-sex marriage.

John Howard’s same-sex marriage ban, and WA Liberal leader Colin Barnett’s proposed gay rights roll-back, are taken straight from Rove’s instruction manual on mobilising the Christian right.

But clever political tactics don’t, in themselves, explain the sudden upsurge in anti-gay hate speech in Australia, and increased reports of verbal and physical abuse against gay Australian.

Neither does Howard’s corralling of the fundamentalists explain why the Labor Party is so timid on gay rights that it still hasn’t endorsed the kind of civil union scheme which has been enacted elsewhere as an alternative to gay marriage?

When it comes to Australian homophobia there are forces at work that go far beyond a handful of neo-conservatives.

Here are three examples of how profound these forces are.

Prosecutions for homosexuality in the twentieth century were higher in Australia than in other countries with a British legal heritage.

Australia was alone amongst western countries in not having a gay rights movement prior to gay-lib in the early 1970s.

Today Australia has fewer openly gay sportspeople, entertainers and elected officials than any other comparable country.

Clearly, there’s something exceptional about this country’s anti-gay prejudice.

This would come as no surprise to Salmon Rushdie. In Imaginery Homelands he writes,
“Even if prejudice has roots in all societies, each malodorous flowering of the plant occurs in specific historical, political and economic circumstances. So each case is different, and if one wishes to fight against such triffids of bigotry, it is the differences that are important and useful.”

If this is true, what has made Australia’s response to gays and their rights different to that of other countries, including near-identical New Zealand?

Robert Hughes has no doubt it’s our convict origins.

In the Fatal Shore, he argues that free settler hysteria over the prevalence of homosexuality amongst the convicts, damned both the convict system and same-sex relationships well into modern times.

“There could be no better breeding ground for the ferocious bigotry with which Australians of all classes, long after the abandonment of the (convict) system, perceived the homosexual.”

No-one stressed the link between convictism and homosexuality more than the church ministers and newspaper editors of the anti-transportation movement.

From their rhetoric sprang those notions of Australian democracy and national identity which many Australians still hold dear today.

But their sermons and editorials were also white-hot with homophobia. The nationalism they gave birth to not only sought to exclude homosexuals, but, unlike its counterparts elsewhere, required the elimination of gay people as a pre-requisite for its existence.

Sceptics will ask whether there’s more solid evidence that modern Australian homophobia somehow grew out of traumas 160 years old?

There’s nothing concrete, just as there is nothing concrete linking the globally-regressive state of Australian indigenous self-determination to the uniquely tragic circumstances of their dispossession, or the racial insecurities of our transplanted European forebears to Australia’s internationally condemned refugee policy.

But there are hints of a deep connection between contemporary and historic injustices, not the least of which is the way those Australians who self-consciously believe themselves to embody something quintessential about the country, are often the first to shout, in the words of Monty Python, “no poofters”.

If Salmon Rushdie is right that bigotry can only be fought if we understand its specific historical roots, then we owe it to ourselves to inquire more deeply into what these roots might be.

If by so doing, we can finally free ourselves of preconceptions and anxieties which have hardened the nation’s heart for generations, the effort will have been worthwhile.