“Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.”
― from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, 2017.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” – Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird.
What does a women’s conference in Saudi Arabia or the Australian marriage equality plebiscite have to do with the current Australian Voice to Parliament referendum?
In 2013, a picture circulated social media regarding the attendees of a women’s conference in Saudi Arabia – and everyone was male, none of whom has ever suffered the disadvantage about which they claim special expertise. In 2023, those closer to home who use their influence in public discourse to oppose the Australian Indigenous Voice to Parliament are entitled white people who likewise have never experienced anything other than privilege. In both cases, it is not hard to see that what they debate is not the elimination of oppression for others, but how to protect their own privilege.
A Voice From the Heart
“Sometimes a decade arrives when nations have the chance to turn away from bigotry and selfishness and turn to their countrymen and women and embrace them as loved members of the human family. But do we have the ticker for it?” ― Bruce Pascoe, Convincing Ground: Learning to fall in love with your country
(Pascoe was Australian Humanist of the Year in 2021. His words here speak of justice for all, and generically apply to – but are not specifically aimed towards – the issues in the Indigenous Voice referendum).
“It would be a permanent body representing First Nations people that would advise government about policies affecting Indigenous people.”
The Voice would be an advisory body, but it would not have powers to overrule parliament, commonly known as “veto” powers.
This sounds fair – taking a group of Australians who have been invaded, killed, discriminated against, paternalistically condescended to, disempowered, and ignored for centuries – and finally allowing them to have some input into laws and policies that would directly affect them… a form of allowing victim impact statements to be used to inform our Parliament before they make influential decisions. Natural justice at last! A fair go for all, not just for affluent white people.
So naturally, some affluent white people oppose it.
Fearful of Change
“The only constant is change.”
Opponents of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament Referendum play semantics with the concept of racism, or argue that giving one group of people will ‘racialise‘ our Constitution.
They also ignore the reality that Australia is already divided on racial grounds – and if you don’t believe that, try walking for a while in the shoes of someone whose skin colour is not white.
Some white people hesitate to support the “Yes” vote because they see that some indigenous people are also unsure about the final direction of the movement. To me, this indigenous uncertainty is not a weakness. It demonstrates that plurality and healthy debate are a vital component of discussion within indigenous communities, who represent a diversity of over 500 communities and cultures who were originally here before European invasion.
Where To From Here?
What has all this to do with the original question I asked about comparing the Indigenous Voice referendum to Marriage Equality?
On one hand, I see that the prominent individuals and media sources that opposed Marriage Equality in 2017 are the same ones who oppose the Indigenous Voice today. While that doesn’t necessarily disclaim their arguments immediately, it does possibly suggest the perspective from which their arguments arise – being fearful that change may alter the power structures that have granted them privilege their whole lives. Such fears are irrational and prejudiced.
But most of all: in 2017, I appealed to my heterosexual friends to support the Marriage Equality plebiscite, arguing that an oppressed or disempowered minority (by definition) cannot win the popular vote unless their friends and allies – and others who support human rights – also take a stand. Marriage Equality ultimately won the plebiscite because enough people voted to positively change the lives of others. The same principle applies today – we can change the future of fellow Australians for whom the past (and the present) have been oppressive.
In the spirit of universal human rights, I hope that everyone will vote “Yes” in the upcoming referendum. It is up to our indigenous brethren to decide the final form and nature of their voice – in the meantime, they have been denied a voice for 250 years. It’s time.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
The Kampala Syndrome: Why Have We Failed to Learn From History?
On a significant AIDS anniversary, a young lesbian refugee reminds me of how we forged nobility in the tragic past, but ignore those lessons today.
Forty years ago today, Australia began its fightback against an epidemic. No, not COVID, nor monkeypox, not SARS nor flu – but a virus that was much harder to catch than any of these others, and many times more lethal.
This virus had attacked the world by stealth, first appearing in impoverished nations and then in disempowered or marginalised communities in the western nations: gay and bisexual men, women and related paediatric cases, trans people, CALD communities, injecting drug users, blood or organ donor recipients, and haemophiliacs. Australian activist Dennis Altman later summarised the problem:
“That AIDS was first diagnosed and named among homosexual men in coastal American cities and not in central African villages, where it probably originated, is hardly surprising, and is due to the dominance of western biomedicine. Dying villagers in Zaire or Uganda were unlikely to be seen by oncologists or dermatologists who could draw the necessary conclusions to conceptualise a collapse of the immune system due to an unknown infection.” (Altman, 1997, p. 182.)
By the time this virus was discovered within the relatively affluent gay male communities of New York City and San Francisco, it had infected and affected many people – and its mortality rate was close to 100%. In March 1983, gay activist Larry Kramer wrote an article for the New York Native about the mounting AIDS crisis. Entitled, 1,112 and counting, the article challenged gay men to rise out of their complacency:
“If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.” (Kramer, 1989, p. 33.)
The US government was conducting its own campaign of “malignant neglect” concerning AIDS (Stryker & Buskirk, 1993, p. 93), but the gay community was rising to the challenge. The gay community began to publish and distribute its own health information, and AIDS Awareness campaigns and Candlelight Vigils commenced. Although gay men were the dominant cohort of those affected, lesbians in also became involved in AIDS activism: some women donated blood in order to assist gay men who might need blood transfusions. Others, who were nurses or social workers by profession, helped to run the first Kaposi’s sarcoma clinic and the Shanti Project.
The Australian Situation
“I know that prejudices will surface. At times, although I hope not, there will be sounds of ‘poofter bashing’, if you’ll excuse the expression. I guess we will hear from people who think it is God’s revenge for some sort of abomination.” – Journalist Derryn Hinch, 1987, p. 3.
Any LGBT person in Australia over a certain age will undoubtedly recall incidents and events of that era which hark back to times of stigma, homophobia and discrimination. I recall certain politicians calling for the quarantining of all gay men on an otherwise unoccupied island and leaving them there to die, while others called for homosexuality to be outlawed in order to protect children or ‘normal’ people. I recall workers refusing to work with people they suspected of being gay, and hairdressers or ambulance attendants similarly refusing to attend to such clients. Restaurants smashed crockery that may have been used by gay people, and funeral directors refused to bury those suspected to have died of AIDS. Public walls were decorated with slogans like “GAY = Got AIDS Yet?” or “AIDS = Anally Inserted Death Sentence”; one newspaper targeted a front-page headline to a dying gay man: “Die, You Deviate!” Religions proclaimed that “God hates gays” and that homosexuality was unnatural; and they called for laws to reflect their heterosexist morality because of the presumed superiority of their religious views. Families, schools, churches and communities rejected their LGBT children, teachers, clergy, and community members. Families even lied at funerals and proclaimed that their ‘lifelong bachelor’ son (even those who had been in long-term gay relationships) had actually died of cancer or car accidents.
In the gay community, gay venues emptied as rumours and fear spread. Where was Johnny – had he died in Fairfield Hospital? Could we get AIDS from a drinking glass in a gay venue, or from shaking someone’s hand, or from breathing the same air? Many people stopped going out socially. If they got sick, they simply ‘disappeared’ and died alone and in shame. Gay partners were denied hospital visitation rights, inheritance rights, superannuation rights of deceased partners, or even the right to return to their shared home once the estranged biological family of the deceased claimed legal next-of-kin status.
Gay refugees had fled homophobic families and cultures in country towns and sought safety and a new life in the big cities. Tragically, they found themselves part of a deadly locus of concentrated viral infection. Whole friendship networks died out.
The mainstream press filled with almost daily stories of how many gay or bisexual men were suffering from symptoms that might indicate they had ‘prodrome AIDS’ – a suspected, undiagnosed form of the disease in the days before HIV testing became available. It would not be long before the LGBT community rallied here to form care teams, activist movements, and to use its independent LGBT media to publish accurate and unbiased information that was largely absent from the mainstream media. In response to homophobia and hysteria, gay authors tried to alleviate panic within their community by publishing articles with headlines like “Will We All Die of the Gay Cancer?” while trying to actually address the issue in an informed and calm manner. Finally, following the confirmed case of an overseas visitor being diagnosed in Sydney in March 1983, and a forthcoming July 1983 AIDS death in Melbourne, the times were right for a public groundswell in support and response.
Sydney – The AIDS Action Committee
“Silence equals Death” – Old slogan from ACT-UP.
On 15 May 1983 – two months after the brief but turbulent visit to Sydney of someone who was later known to have died of AIDS, and a few days after the NSW blood bank called for gay men not to donate blood – a public meeting was held at the Sydney Gay Centre at 41 Holt Street, Surry Hills (Brass & Gold, p. 101; The News (Perth), 1983).
Fifty people came together to discuss AIDS. Dr. Harry Mitchell-Moore spoke in defence of the Blood Bank’s position and this reportedly “provoked lively debate”, especially after activist Lex Watson postulated that AIDS was being used as a political weapon against gays (Johnston, 2000, p. 3).
Activist Alison Thorne was the lone lesbian in attendance. Although AIDS was an issue predominantly affecting gay men, she voiced her concern that AIDS was a lesbian issue as well:
“…I know that lesbians have been feeling the effects of the media hysteria and the homophobic jokes. We cannot stick our heads in the sand and say this is a ‘boys’ issue’. An anti-gay backlash will affect us all. As lesbians, we have a lot to contribute to gay community action around the AIDS issue.” (Thorne, June 1983, pp. 3 & 39).
She reported in the gay press that a number of outcomes arose from this meeting. Those present agreed to form a number of working groups to assess the available literature on AIDS, and to provide financial and emotional support to anyone with the condition. They also resolved to call upon the State and Federal Health Ministers to convene a meeting of all relevant groups to help meet the challenge posed by AIDS (Thorne, August 1983, p. 5).
Decades later, the AIDS Action Committee (quickly renamed the AIDS Council of New South Wales, or ACON) has overseen medical, health advocacy, and LGBT rights activism that has helped to save countless lives and change civil rights across the country.
Further action was underway: as one man lay dying in hospital, public meetings were held in Melbourne in June and July 1983 to establish the Victorian AIDS Action Committee (VAAC) – later the Victorian AIDS Council and now known as Thorne Harbour Health.
Other AIDS activist groups were started across Australia, and joined with Sydney and Melbourne to save lives and reshape civil rights to this day. Such organisations – arising from emergency, empowered by activism and anger, helped to change the course of the epidemic, save lives, and introduce new and enlightened attitudes into a homophobic, misogynist and elitist world. They stood alongside the marginalised, the stigmatised, the rejected and those who were dying – and, in doing so, they represented life at its noblest, and humanity at its most vital and vibrant and aspirational. There were many heroes in this epidemic.
Such activists and activist groups deserve a special place in history, and as another generation of LGBT+ and other oppressed peoples face new challenges, we can learn from the accumulated wisdom of these pioneers and the hard lessons of their times.
But are we?
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
People today living in lucky countries might be forgiven for thinking that the human rights they enjoy today are the norm. But such gains were only achieved at great expense. We owe those who suffered and died for the relatively good life we enjoy today. Everything from anti-discrimination legislation to marriage equality, from needle exchange programs to the public sale of condoms, from dying with dignity to inheritance laws, have been shaped by HIV/AIDS activism. It look a lot of sacrifice and suffering, but we ultimately learnt a lot from the tragedy of those heroes and those times. It took a worldwide tragedy to help create a better world.
Medically, our world has been transformed by the response to HIV/AIDS. Dr Anthony Fauci, who gained expertise tackling AIDS before he became involved in fighting COVID, acknowledges that government-funding of HIV/AIDS programs probably saved twenty million lives. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, acknowledges the sea-change in medicine wrought by AIDS activism working collaboratively with the medical fraternity: “We now see steady progress in controlling the [Monkeypox] outbreak based on the lessons of HIV and working closely with the most affected communities.”
Even things that went badly during the era of AIDS could ultimately help us to learn today from our mistakes. As activist Bill Bowtell recalls about the Australian experience:
While there were many lapses in judgment, and many unfortunate stories about HIV/AIDS that gave vent to ignorance and prejudice, the Australian mass media’s coverage of HIV/AIDS was a crucial factor in shaping public opinion to support enlightened and effective national HIV/AIDS policy-making.
But sadly, the ugliest aspect from those times – bigotry and religious-based homophobia – lives on in certain unenlightened minds today, across the world from Kentucky to Kampala. Most dangerously, a lingering after-effect of toxic religious cross-cultural contamination can be found in one of the early epicentres of HIV/AIDS, which today remains a locus of another form of unnecessary suffering and death.
The Kampala Syndrome
“Am I really as evil and unnatural as my parents say I am?”
A couple of years ago, a young lesbian woman sought a confidential discussion with me by social media. Rejected by her family and community, and fleeing her nation for fear of her life, she had wound up in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where her life and safety remains in danger today. She timidly asked me a painful question: “Am I really as evil and unnatural as my parents say I am?” It’s hard to know how to respond – surely the most unnatural thing on earth is for parents to reject a child.
But the homophobia I remember in Australia when I was this young woman’s age, the stigma, the discrimination, the victim blaming of those being bullied and persecuted, the hatred and violence, the association with disease, the declared sin against man, god and nature, the smug assumed superiority of heterosexuals, and the judgementalism against LGBT+ people as openly proclaimed from pulpit to Parliament – this was her reality today. Kenya and Uganda and Tanzania and aligned (disproportionately Commonwealth) homophobic nations may be geographically far from me, but they are a generation behind the civilised world in terms of political and human rights culture.
While we commemorate the worthy anniversary of local community activism against a biological virus, President Museveni of Uganda and his Parliament seek to spread a lethal mind virus by enacting ‘the most extreme anti-gay laws in history‘ – a deliberate genocide that could potentially kill more than 10% of all Ugandans – greater than the number of Ugandans killed by Idi Amin or AIDS. Encouraged by this bigotry, in neighbouring Kenya (where only 14% of the population accepts homosexuality), the govrernment proposes to institute a similar law. Echoing bigotry from a generation ago, Ugandan and Kenyan churches today proclaim that “God hates gays” and that homosexuality is unnatural; and they call for laws to reflect their heterosexist morality because of the presumed superiority of their religious views. They even call for homosexuality to be outlawed in order to protect children or ‘normal’ people…. and this is in 2023 – not 1983.
Meanwhile, I see LGBT+ communities across the western world today look elsewhere – they are too busy enjoying affluence, narcissism and comfort. Local queer networks are dominated by religious elites who speak for maybe 30% of the LGBT+ communities that they claim to represent, and who respond to human rights abuses (such as those today in Uganda and Kenya) by arguing over whether or not their god really does hate gays. Dennis Altman notes the disparity between affluent nations and the rest of the world, epitomised by a recent LGBT+ walk over Sydney Harbour Bridge with the Australian Prime Minister, even as Uganda enacted a terrible law that promotes hatred and death towards LGBT+ Ugandans, and while countries including Russia, Ghana, Afghanistan and Indonesia all wind back sexual freedoms and diversity.
Seriously, do we care today about our queer family in Africa and elsewhere? Do black lives really matter? Does our compassion for humanity stop at a border?
Silence Still Equals Death
Our response to a pending genocide in Uganda should surely reflect the words of Holocaust survivor Halina Strnad: “Learn of past evils and say NEVER AGAIN. Check your prejudices.” And if you wonder about the rise of homophobic and transphobic prejudice around the world, ask yourself why Ashraf, Sheila or Trinidad Jerry are not as well-known as George Floyd. Perhaps we need to re-read and ponder anew the relevance of gay activist Larry Kramer’s words, which still challenge us from forty years ago:
“If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, [LGBT+ people] have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.”
Here is one chance to possibly save a life today*:
It is now over 50 years – more than a generation – since humans last walked on the Moon.
The Apollo 17 mission, from 7 to 19 December 1972, was the only Apollo mission to launch at night, and the only mission to explicitly feature a scientist as an astronaut – and our sciences continue to benefit from that mission.
Those were the days when only straight, white men were considered as having ‘the right stuff’ to be US astronauts. When Moonwalkers Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt left the lunar surface on 14 December 1972, their departure marked the end of the Apollo Moon mission era, and no humans have returned to the Moon since then.
But our world has changed.
Astronauts these days include a range of people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, genders, nationalities, and sexualities, many of whom have flown on space shuttles or the International Space station, all of them in lower Earth orbit. When the Artemis program returns humans to the Moon starting around 2025, NASA proudly boasts that this will include the first women and the first people of colour to walk on the Moon.
But the biggest change can be found here on Earth. Our smart phones, Wi-Fi, GPS, computers, entertainment streaming services, agriculture and food processing, medicine and medical equipment, everyday and sporting footwear and clothing – everything from the Internet to smart watches, from weather forecasting to traffic control – all these modern technologies came out of the scientific boom that was needed to send men to the Moon. We live in a space age world that was created by Apollo. We are the first genuine space age generation.
Sadly, that same cynical generation of young adults – too young to have lived through the space race – are happy to interact with the space age technology in their daily lives while expressing doubts that it ever happened. Their disbelief borders on the edge of that twilight zone where critical thinking battles scepticism and loses – such as believing that aliens built the pyramids because of a (somewhat racist) doubt that a pre-modern (non-white) human civilisation was capable of astonishing feats of engineering.
We must remember that people are capable of great feats of science and technology, and we do not need conspiracies to inflate our achievements. Our world, and our daily lives, are testimony to the explosion of technology that the space age birthed. Moon hoax conspiracies are as fantastical as are flat earth theories or the proposal that Australia is a fake place full of paid crisis actors.
The space program has touched our lives in practical ways that are ubiquitous. It must now also touch our understanding and our hearts. We are children of the space age, and we need to recognise our place in this new world.
“Space is for everybody. It’s not just for a few people in science or math, or for a select group of astronauts. That’s our new frontier out there, and it’s everybody’s business to know about space.” – Christa McAuliffe.
Her Excellency Caroline Kennedy
US Ambassador to Australia
Yarralumla ACT 2600
Re: US FOREIGN POLICY ON HUMAN RIGHTS IN UGANDA AND KENYA.
I have the honour to write to you as an Australian citizen in the spirit of friendship and mutual respect between our two countries. Culturally and tactically, our nations share mutual perspectives and interests on issues ranging from human rights to long-term regional peace and strategic planning.
The United States prides itself on being a staunch advocate for human rights. Living up to this ideal is challenging, but commendable efforts are made.
For example, the US Department of State declares on its website that: ”The protection of fundamental human rights was a foundation stone in the establishment of the United States over 200 years ago. Since then, a central goal of US foreign policy has been the promotion of respect for human rights, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” They also indicate that “a wide range of tools” is utilised to advance this “freedom agenda” – including bilateral relations, foreign assistance, and economic sanctions.
In support of the same principles, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, criticised human rights abuses against Uyghurs in China and told CNN on 6 February 2022 that: “Human rights are front and center in our Foreign Policy. We don’t play down human rights violations anywhere in the world.”
US allies also see the necessity to speak out against horrific oppression and threats to vulnerable populations. For example, in response to the latest anti-gay Bill in Uganda, it was reported on 20 April 2023 that the European Parliament “deplores President Museveni’s contribution to the hateful rhetoric about LGBTIQ persons, adding that EU-Uganda relations will be at stake should the President sign the Bill.” Four days later, it was further reported that the EU Parliament called for “targeting and instituting sanctions against all those who instigated and supported the anti-gay Bill, including politicians and religious leaders” if the Bill becomes law.
Such principles and sentiments are consistent with the fundamental proposition upon which the US was founded: “We the people…” – opening words from the US Constitution wherein humans (and therefore human rights) are recognised as being paramount and pre-emptive. Marginalised people comprise an important component of this principle, as the modern world recognises the increasing importance of diversity, equity and inclusion.
In further support of such values, I am mindful of the intersectional nature of human rights. While we all admire and support the #BlackLivesMatter principles, we must also recognise that this US-based social movement encompasses diversity and inclusion of all who are marginalised. On their website, BLM state unambiguously:
We affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. Our network centers those who have been marginalised within Black liberation movements.
We are working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise.
These human rights values should make the US feel justly proud.
By contrast, however, U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman, recently stated publicly that every country “has to make their own decisions about” LGBTQ and intersex rights. According to the Washington Blade, on 3 March 2023, she told reporters that the $123,124,278.40 (16 billion Kenyan shillings) in aid the U.S. has given to Kenya for food and drought relief “is not connected to the country’s LGBTQ and intersex rights policies.” This disconnection of human rights from foreign aid would appear to be an abrogation of US foreign policy and a capitulation to homophobia.
Her comments also contradicted a tweet that the Ambassador later issued on 15 March, in which she declared: “The US proudly advances efforts to protect LGBTQI+ persons from discrimination & violence and will continue to stand up for human rights & equality.” Such inconsistency in her public statements confuses the otherwise fine human rights principles of current US foreign policy. This ambiguity is unhelpful to those whose human rights are at stake.
Accordingly, out of respect for universal human rights, and in defence of the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for LGBT+ people across Africa, I respectfully ask you to please convey to your government my following requests:
1. That the United States revisits aid to Kenya, Uganda and aligned nations, not to hurt the ordinary people of those nations, but rather to keep human rights violations as “front and center” and to sharply focus on the corruption of those leaders who seek to deflect domestic attention away from their own shortcomings by scapegoating the LGBTQ+ community. A limited and targeted form of sanctions, along the lines of those proposed by the EU, might be one wise and ethical approach.
2. That a review be undertaken of US foreign policy statements and practices. Please take the opportunity to ensure consistency in all future deliveries, in word and deed, linking US foreign policy and human rights.
3. That the USA take a leading role in overseeing the prompt resettlement of LGBTQ+ refugees/citizens currently living in Kenya, Uganda, and associated Eastern African nations. This might include nations such as Tanzania, South Sudan, Zambia, Ethiopia, DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.
• Such resettlement would enable your nation to lead the world by demonstrating its uncompromising and principled stand for human rights, and its protection of minorities under threat.
• It would also reinforce the commendable principles of increased humanitarian refugee resettlement announced by President Biden on 3 May 2021.
• This would be beneficial for international relations between all nations involved, as it would save lives by removing vulnerable people from threat, and defuse the political powder-keg of homophobia in nations where political and religious cultures remain intolerant of LGBT+ people.
• It would serve an educative role around the world regarding the inherent dignity and equality of LGBT+ people, it would reinforce the principle that #BlackLivesMatter, and it would elevate African nations onto the world stage as active and involved members of the modern world community.
• History would record this initiative as averting a genocide in slow motion, and being a decisive step towards the total abolition of modern-day forms of Black Holocaust.
I feel confident that if the USA led the way on these matters of universal human rights, its allies (including Australia) would move quickly to assist with this resettlement scheme under US leadership.
Madam Ambassador, please accept that I make these requests purely in the spirit of respect for universal human rights and in recognition of the mutual friendship between our allied nations. We both live in countries and cultures that value humanity, seek to uphold human rights, and work to protect the disadvantaged and empower the oppressed. I am confident that you share these values and that your work is motivated by such noble sentiments.
I hope that your government will seize this opportunity to demonstrate their world leadership in human rights.
Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to receiving your reply to inform me as to your government’s response.