Heterosexuality the expected norm?

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Anthony Venn-Brown
Joined in 2005
June 29, 2009, 23:05

This is an assignment done by Yvonne Rush

‘Despite the high profile of individual gay and lesbian Australians in public life Australia remains a society in which heterosexuality is the expected norm.’ Discuss.

This discussion considers the profiles of some prominent gay and lesbian Australians and reflects on their positions in Australian society, in order to shed light on whether there is a standard community attitude towards homosexuality and heterosexuality in this 21st century. As a starting point, the discussion looks at common positions in society’s attitudes to sexuality, and then takes into account the changes in the social order regarding these sexual issues in the past few decades, and concludes by asking ‘what is the norm today?’ As it is impossible and erroneous to generalize the attitudes of society, variables such as decade, age, educational standard of individuals and other such flexible circumstances will be taken into account, as I hypothesize whether Australian society does have a sexual orientation expectation. For ease of understanding I will at times use the term ‘GLBTI’ to denote gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender sexual, and intersex people and issues.

This discussion on sexual norms commences by defining the term heterosexuality: ‘A heterosexual person is attracted to, and may have sexual experience with, the opposite sex.’ (Healey, J. 2007, p.18.) In a similar defining fashion, is a comment by Anthony Venn-Brown, a high profile homosexual who tried to live a heterosexual life for over twenty years, (including marrying and fathering two daughters) ‘just as it is impossible for a heterosexual not to think about the opposite sex, the homosexual is attracted to and may have sexual experience with the same sex; it’s the way we [homosexuals] are wired, psychologically and emotionally.’ (Venn-Brown, A. 2009, personal communication.) The social process that culturally categorizes and normalizes sexual desire brings about the idea that we all have a discrete and classifiable sexuality, ‘yet, it is these very processes that… [normalize] judge and accord a value given to a sexual practice that underlies animosity towards those sexual preferences that do not fit the norm, such as homosexuality…’ (Mason, G. 2002, p.8.) In this light, it follows that it is important to define the norm, and look at how the values which accord this standard have morphed over the past decades.

When asked how he saw high profile gay and lesbians in Australia, and if he thought Australians take heterosexuality as the norm, Rodney Croome, prominent gay activist in Tasmania (declared one of the most important Tasmanians of the decade) (Willett, G. ibid, p. 232.) stated: ‘Even high profile gay and lesbian Australians suffer from heteronormativity. Most have to struggle harder to be taken seriously, while some discover to their dismay that it is much easier to fall from grace.’ (Croome, R. 2009, personal communication.) This gives light to the struggle that the GLBTI community grapple with, living in a society which Croome perceives as having heterosexuality as the norm.

Looking at what constitutes the norm of sexuality in Australia reveals that there continues to be debate over what causes a person’s sexual preference, ranging from ‘social, environmental, genetic and hormonal factors.’ (Healey, J. ibid, p. 18.) Despite not knowing why people have different sexual preferences a fairly recent Bulletin magazine poll found that: ‘47% of Australians said it should not be illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians.’ (Healey, J. ibid, p.19.) This indicates that many Australians regard homosexuality as so far from the norm that they should not even receive the same ‘legal and social rights as married or defacto heterosexuals.’ (Healey, J. ibid.p.19.) Interestingly enough though, regarding the point of looking for the causes of sexuality, The Hon. Michael Kirby who ‘outed himself’ (a term used to describe a person publically revealing their homosexuality) in 2008, warned in an article in the Melbourne Age newspaper of the dangers of genetic research in trying to discover the ultimate source of human sexuality. “Is there a danger that the search for the cause of may one day become the search for the means of extinction?” (Farrant, D. 2004, citing Kirby, M. ibid. p. 1) He cites past and recent history to ‘show this possibility cannot easily be eliminated.’ (Farrant, D. ibid.)

In the 1950’s and 1960’s and in previous times as well, there was an accepted view that to be GLBTI meant you were either ‘bad, mad, or sad.’ (Willett, G. 2000, p. ix into.) This is partly true, due to discrimination and prejudice. The people who fitted the category of GLBTI certainly believed this. ‘…The homosexual scene was almost entirely an underground and apolitical structure.’ (Willet, G. EBSCO, 2009, pg.4.) The churches regarded them as sinners, on their way to Hell, and psychiatrists labelled homosexuality as a mental illness. Much of the research and academic writing by psychiatrists around the 50s, described homosexuals in derogatory terms like: ‘mentally ill, if not criminal; unreliable, seditious, hedonistic and sexually obsessed.’ (Jackson, S. & Sullivan, S. (eds.) p. 2.) These academics supported anti-gay discrimination, especially in the light of the actions taken by the newly established gay rights lobby groups. High Court’s Justice Michael Kirby, when referring to the recent nature of the medical profession’s treatment of homosexuality as a disease or problem, stated that the problem lay with the people who practise “bigotry, legal discrimination, social stigmatization and personal hatred who need help.” (Farrant, D. 2009, p. 1.)

In the 50’s, when Australia was focused on family values in the post-war period, (Jackson, S. & Sullivan, S. ibid, p. 2.) although GLBTI people were still largely unseen, they constituted a perceived threat to the nuclear family of the time, so ‘…to be a homosexual in Australia was to be feared, hated and persecuted.’ (Willett, G. 2000, p. x, intro.) Sally Morrell from the Melbourne Herald Sun commences her article on the gay Mardi Gras by saying how amazed she was that almost half of all Australians still cannot tolerate gay people. (Morrell, S. 2009, Herald Sun.) Although, in contrast, noticeable change is still occurring in Australian society.

One clear change to note is that by the 90’s the GLBTI population was far more noticeable and importantly, positively and favorably so. (Willett, G. ibid, p. 239.) But still as recently as 1994 ‘…young lesbian and gays like everybody else look[ed] for positive role models on which to build their lives. But in school, on film, radio, television, advertising, drama, sport, all the models [were] presented as heterosexual.’ (Griffin, J, cites Williams, D. 1994, epilogue p. 76.) Changes and debate about these changes still occur in these educational and high profile celebrity areas. Looking positively, there are now ‘school based programs to challenge homophobia…and the NSW Anti-violence Project has drawn upon celebrities from all walks of life to ask “what are you afraid of?” (Willett, G. citing Croome, R. 1989, p.8.) Anecdotally, an episode of Play School that showed mothers as lesbians caused public outrage. Yet on the other hand, only recently, in 2009, the ‘soapy,’ Home and Away gained a lot of viewers by showing a lesbian kiss. Also some sports celebrities, from divers to footballers, are now not as afraid to ‘come out’ as GLBTI’s. ‘Anti-gay ideas still exist in society, of course, but a basic liberal tolerance is the dominant mood.’ (Willett, ibid, x intro.) I wonder why Willett had to include his ‘of course?’ It suggests to me that he believes that GLBTI people are not the norm.

Currently, whether GLBTIs are publicly seen depends largely on your postcode. An inner suburb in Sydney, Darlinghurst, has a GLBTI population of about 35%, and it is commonplace to see same-sex couples showing their affection openly. Heterosexuality is not the only norm in that area. However, geographically, moving a few suburbs out, or further, into rural Australia, the situation drastically alters. There is a high rate of young male suicides in rural areas, many of which are a result of community attitudes of non-acceptance of gays. In rural areas the ‘GLBTIs are four to six times more likely to suicide than other young people.’ (Venn-Brown, A. 2004, foreword.) It follows that prejudice against GLBTIs prevents any public display of their affection, it would be intolerable, and could result in their being attacked. (Venn-Brown, A. ibid, p.c.)

This animosity towards GLBTI’s is also common in ethnic communities, especially where the religious or cultural expectation is to marry in order to continue the family name and line. (Venn-Brown, A. ibid, p. c.) In multicultural communities ‘[GLBTI s] experience limited support as they deal with culturally shaped attitudes towards homosexuality.’(Jackson, P. & Sullivan, G. 1999, p. xvi. Intro.) Although, more optimistically, it is not uncommon, [for GLBTIs] ‘to report…a greater degree of acceptance in Australia of homosexuals than in their country of origin.’ (Jackson, P. & Sullivan, G. ibid.p.15 Intro.)

Anthony venn-Brown, (who was named in the inaugural list, 2007, of the 25 most influential gay and lesbian Australians) believes that heterosexuals are not more normal, just more common. He wryly commented that had he ‘come out’ in the year he was born, 1951, he would have been labelled a criminal and been ‘treated’ by aversion therapy. ‘Not long ago, not far away, Anthony Venn- Brown would have been stoned to death or burned at the stake, imprisoned or universally shunned.’ (Venn-Brown, A, 2004, citing Kirby, M. 2004, forward.) This is the case in Iran today! GLBTIs were indeed persecuted in the 1950s and were seen as a threat, so far from the norm that the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation, ASIO, stated as their policy to federal cabinet ‘… that homosexuals ought not be employed in public service positions where they might have access to sensitive national security related matters.’ (Willett, G, ibid. p.10-11.)

Forty years ago some people dared to ask, “Can a person be gay or lesbian and a Christian?” A question, amongst others, that was a catalyst for transformation in the church. (Venn-Brown, A. 2008, Celebrating our Future, p. 2). Venn-Brown believes the church is the last bastion, regarding society’s attitude to homosexuality, but also that it is slowly changing. In Australian churches today there is quite a big GLBTI population. He particularly cites modification in the statements issued from the Assembly of God, (known as the AOG, the church in which Venn-Brown ministered for many years as a high profile evangelist) particularly from 1991 (the year when Venn-Brown resigned from the ministry) to contemporary times. However the change was not sufficient to prevent a well known ‘Christian’ bookshop from banning his book, A Life of Unlearning. On the other hand, heterosexual music celebrities like Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian, are willing to openly offer their support to the GLBTI community, and challenge some outdated views in church leadership and hierarchies. (Venn-Brown, A. ibid, p. 5.)

The Hon. Michael Kirby, who wrote the foreword to Venn-Brown’s book, indicates that Australians take heterosexuality as the norm, as ‘heterosexuals do not generally feel a need to proclaim their sexual identity as such. It is just taken for granted. Society and its institutions are built around it.’ (Kirby, M. 2004, p. 7.) Rodney Croome, a highly visible GLBTI, agrees with Kirby when he states that ‘Australian society still considers heterosexuality to be the norm, from the denial of same-sex marriage through to the assumption by most parents that their children will be straight.’ (Croome, R. personal communication, 2009.)

A survey taken in 1995 noted different attitudes could be seen in varying groups, for example, ‘women are more tolerant to homosexuals, men more hostile, older people more hostile than younger people, and [people] with more formal education are more tolerant and atheists rated homosexuals higher than Christian people…the Labor party more tolerant than the Liberal and National Party. (Jackson, P. & Sullivan, G. ibid.p.16 Intro.) This lack of tolerance in the Liberal ranks was clearly seen in their leader, John Howard. In the Herald Sun, Howard is quoted saying ‘he would be disappointed if one of his sons was gay, and that [he had] not met a parent yet who wants their children to grow up gay.’ (Moscaritolo, M. 2001.) Moscaritolo also cites Greens leader Bob Brown, who ‘came out’ in 1976, [who] said Mr Howard had been ‘left in the wash of a sea-change that had arrived a long time ago.’ Maybe Howard’s views are representative of older ‘mainstream’ values?

Lesbians have been less visible in society than other homosexuals, but Emma Healey boldly analyses lesbian psyche and sexuality and declares it is ‘just as much an act of courage to be a lesbian in the 90’s as the 50’s or the 1970’s.’ (Healey, E.1996, intro. p.5.) In addition, Healey sees great change in society’s attitudes to lesbians and ‘how women perceive themselves’ and she even positively claims that ‘this has been the century of the homosexual.’ (Healey, E. ibid. p. 17.) Penny Wong, minister in the Australian Federal Government, makes a telling point when she says that she can now focus on her chosen field rather than becoming a spokeswoman for her sexuality. (Wong, P. 2009, Samesame.) Striking a cautious note, senior lecturer in Women’s Studies, Imelda Whelehan observed that it is still commonplace for the media to label all radical feminists lesbians, in order to undermine them and link all radical feminist politics with lesbians. (Whelehan, I. 1995, P.19.)

This manipulation by the media is also notable in the reporting of Sydney’s Mardi Gras, where the media highlighted the extravagant costumes without showing the 70% of the parade which constitute community groups. In a radical shift of police policy, Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon joined Melbourne’s annual gay pride march and ‘was hailed as ending an era of fear.’ (Mickelburough, P. & Burstin, F. 2009. Herald Sun.) Also on a positive note, Doctor Kerryn Phelps, Australian Medical Association president, has revealed her public outing helped her career as her honesty is admired by her colleagues. (Hudson, F. 2009, Herald Sun.)

In conclusion, ‘[although] there is still a lot of work to be done…the lives of GLBTI people are immeasurably better than they were forty years ago.’ (Willett.G, ibid. p.264.) Nevertheless, one survey, reports The Age newspaper, reveals homophobia is still rampant and a ‘staggering 84% of Victorian gays and lesbians have experienced discrimination or abuse ranging from insults hurled from a car to severe beatings. [But] the incidence of gay bashings has fallen compared with a similar survey five years ago…from 19% to 7% of respondents.’ (Kissane, K. 2009, The Age.) There is change occurring in Australia. To finish on an optimistic note, probably the best known of Australian gays, Senator Bob Brown says, ‘The personal attacks in the street I used to get – those threats have stopped. Homophobia has gone.’ (Karvelas, P. 2006, The Australian.) So the norm today is still heterosexuality, but homosexuality has undergone a reformation towards full acceptance. Whilst it is still not classified as the norm, it has become less marginalized and in the past few decades it has become one of the groups that are largely accepted in Australia.

Joined in 2006
July 10, 2009, 09:23

Far out, a very insightful read, it is interesting to have it all laid out before you like that. It seems for sure that both politically and church wise although things are changing, theres still needed room for more and it is visually forthcoming.

Anthony Venn-Brown
Joined in 2005
July 10, 2009, 21:43

some places we are just mopping up….other places the work has just begun.

Joined in 2008
July 13, 2009, 19:33

Finally academic Australia is starting to take us seriously. Of course some always did though, but this is awesome.

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