Mark Kenny’s ‘lesson for same-sex couples’

Mark Kenny has an oddly peevish piece in today’s Fairfax papers, headlined ‘Naive campaign against marriage equality plebiscite made some serious miscalculations’.

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Source: Hannah Gadsby (7 Oct 2016)

It fits within a long-standing tradition in which gay people are characterised as infantile, emotional, short-termist, not fully rational — the same treatment accorded to women.

Kenny trots out a very tired set of descriptors. Gay people are naive, unquestioning, gleeful, and unable to assess what’s in our own interests. In need of a sober, rational, white middle-aged middle-class man to explain it all to us.

Despite its obviously self-serving nature – denied publicly but acknowledged privately by senior Labor figures – the opposition’s decision to block the plebiscite, was greeted last Tuesday with universal acclaim by the broad left including the LGBTI community, the ALP’s activist base and that of the Greens.

Mark, sweetie, we fucking know it’s political. We don’t see Labor as our rescuers. We haven’t forgotten how Julia Gillard made exactly the same bargain you describe Turnbull making — trading off support for gay marriage to win the support of her Right wing.

What grates here is the combination of an explanatory tone (“Let’s be clear… What’s more…”) with a fatuous lack of analysis, one that lumps queer people and Labor together as ‘the broad left’ who are in ‘universal acclaim’ of the ALP decision.

Um, have you ever met a lefty, Mark?

The piece excoriates ‘the left’s high-mindedness’ while ignoring the facts of Australian homophobia and transphobia. Kenny dismisses out-of-hand “the inherently unprovable claim that a public plebiscite would unleash a vile tidal-wave such that sexually conflicted and alienated youths would suffer inordinately, and would in some cases take their own lives.” He doubts that “the inevitable discomfort caused by the aforementioned hate-speech would be so profound that it would not be assuaged by the broad condemnation of said hate-speakers by civilised society.”

First of all, all predictions are inherently unprovable at the time they are made. Congratulations, Mark Kenny, you’ve discovered the arrow of time. But you can look at what happened in the past, e.g. the Irish marriage referendum, and connect it up with what we already know about predictors of distress and suicidality. Like I did in this post.

Secondly, to a kid bullied at school using words and phrases taken from the ‘No’ case in a plebiscite — i.e. exactly what is happening to Latinx kids as a result of the Trump campaign — it is no comfort that Turnbull, Shorten and Di Natale take different positions.

Kenny offers a fantasy vision of rational prejudice, where it is possible to calculate whether ‘sexually conflicted and alienated youths’ (what. the. fuck.) suffer inordinately, and to total up the nasty things in one column and the nice things in another and cancel them out to the extent they overlap. (I’m not kidding about this: Kenny refers to it as the ‘balance-of-harm consideration’.) And if people who experience homophobia and transphobia experience more pain and fear than is rational, then we should dismiss that.

To put it mildly, as someone engaged in full-time study of stigma and discrimination, that’s not how this shit works. Vulnerability is not evenly distributed. You can’t average it out across a population and calculate it rationally. People have different life experiences and live in different geographical places, religious communities, remote vs urban settings, etc. These differences pattern their past exposures and sensitivity to discrimination.

We’re not saying every queer kid will be put at risk of suicide: we’re saying we know that some will be. And what Mark Kenny is implicitly arguing is that’s worth trading for same sex marriage. And what the queer community is saying, with near unanimity, is no, we’d rather wait.

Kenny concludes with this: “A lesson for same-sex couples who right now could be further away their goal of legal marriage than they thought a few months back.”

Thanks so much for that, Mark.


Good things


In an earlier post I wrote about wanting to clear my to-do list before leaving Melbourne. However, one new thing wedged itself onto the list and refused to budge: my mother’s enduring cold rage about this post from August last year.

Mum had asked me to let her know whenever I’m leaving the country, so before my trip in December last year, I sent her an e-mail saying I was headed off on holiday, and then moving interstate to start a PhD. I got a two word reply: ‘be well.’ Recently I set off on a trip to Oxford, my first time visiting the UK, and this time I actually called, and got five minutes of liquid nitrogen. Afterwards, I sent an e-mail saying I wasn’t going to do that again, and got a reply saying at some point I’d need to forgive her and not to bother staying in touch.

It was one of those moments of misrecognition that characterise unworkable relationships. I wasn’t seeking to hold anyone accountable for past misdeeds, but rather, I wanted a present-day relationship that acknowledges we will have different perspectives on events we both experienced. That was too much to ask for.

My understanding of depression is quite different from the popular account of an imbalance of chemicals in the brain — a theory that has never been proved, nor even studied; it’s pure marketing. I understand it as contentful — it refers to something.

In my own case, it’s a reiteration of what I had to do to survive as a child with two parents who hated each other and both, in their own ways, treated their kids as an audience for their efforts to win the divorce. In short, I had to shut down the fight-or-flight impulse, numb my feelings, keep my feelings locked inside and out of sight to avoid further conflict. And as Brené Brown points out, you can’t selectively numb, it’s all-or-nothing. Solutions that work for us in childhood become limitations we grapple with in adulthood.

I got that e-mail on the same day as my Overland piece went live. That was a fairly plaintive piece, incredibly personal, and I probably overdosed on vulnerability. I spent the next two days in bed, watching Luke Cage and living on Domino’s. Then on Monday I got up and set to work finishing my presentation for my thesis confirmation, which was on Tuesday.

My week of good things

My thesis confirmation seminar went well; following some advice passed on by Will Nutland, when we caught up for coffee in London, I put myself back into it, starting the presentation by telling a story that helped the audience make sense of my topic.

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In turn, that meant (retroactively) that it wasn’t completely insane to fly to London for a workshop for four days only three weeks before my thesis confirmation. The workshop wasn’t exactly what I’d expected, but the writing I did for it set up the way I reframed my thesis.

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On Tuesday, Labor finally confirmed it would oppose the same sex marriage plebiscite.

BP confirmed it was abandoning plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight.

Former politicians lost their High Court bid to get more privileges.

My former boss and his long-term partner got married in Ireland.

I got invited to help out at an event I couldn’t otherwise attend.

A couple of friends had babies and they are both damn cute. (Not guaranteed!)

Canberra finally started showing signs it’s spring.

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I went to my GP to get anti-depressants (a low dose of a medication that has worked for me before). Now I just need to get my lumpy gallbladder sorted (or evicted).

The lovely Zoe Bowman, feminist and writer, took me out for dinner at Monster and it was freaking delightful. Especially the waiter with an owl tattoo on his hand.

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Finally, I bought a bike and it arrived… in a big flat box. So today I put it together and went for a ride through Canberra, to get coffee, vote, and go to the gym for the first time in ages.

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Living in the upside down


I had an article ‘The undead past‘ published on Friday on the Overland blog. It is a reply to people who argue ‘one way or another’ a plebiscite is our best chance for same sex marriage. We all know it’s inevitable, but how it happens really matters.

Here’s the thing, though: when we do finally get the right to marry, we have gone past the point where we can celebrate it. Winning this right no longer fits the usual rhetoric – righting an historic wrong, recognising all love is valid – because the fight itself has given lie to all of that.

The piece has been shared a lot on Facebook. Compared to twitter, people are a bit more circumspect about what they’ll share on Facebook, because they often have old school friends and extended family members who hold divergent political and religious views.

For this piece to be shared so widely in a relatively conservative social media space suggests, to me, a growing consensus against a plebiscite. Indeed, the Guardian reports a Galaxy poll finding support for a plebiscite ‘continued to decline with only 38% of voters in favour and 44% against.’

Today, Australian researchers from University of Queensland and Victoria University have released results from a survey of 1,458 people in Ireland, asking about their experiences of that country’s same sex marriage referendum in 2015.

As reported in the Guardian, when asked if they would go through the process again, knowing how it felt like the first time, 15% were undecided and 54.5% said no.

Among the qualitative responses, as reported in the SMH, respondents said ‘”I hope no other country has to go through that … it was a dark time to be a LGBTI person”, while another felt as if they were “in shark-infested waters”.’

Among the quantitative responses, when confronted with materials from the ‘No’ campaign, 64% rated feeling distress at 5 or above on a seven point scale (from ‘not at all’ to ‘very much’) for posters/flyers and 67% for TV and radio messages. Those numbers jump to 77% for comments from local community and 80% for comments from family.

I focus on distress because it is a known predictor of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, particularly in young people. Depression is not a confounder, here, but part of the causal pathway: same sex attracted people are three times more likely to be living with depression, and the risk correlates with exposure to homophobic prejudice.

We know there is a substantial minority of people who are vulnerable; we know the plebiscite will cause them distress; we know distress is a predictor of depression, suicidal ideation and attempt. It would be irresponsible and unsafe to proceed with a plebiscite.

Grindr’s HIV-positive filter works just like Cerebro

A few weeks ago I ran a piece raising concerns about Grindr’s proposal to enable filtering by HIV status on its hookup app for gay and bisexual men. The story got picked up by CNN, and the Fairfax newspapers in Australia.

My main concern was that it enables HIV-negative men to enact a kind of ‘digital quarantine’ that they may think will protect them from ever encountering a person living with HIV on the app.

While I was in London, my Grindr app updated and the filter became available. Here’s how it works: guys on the app have always been able to identify as members of different ‘Tribes’, such as Bear, Daddy, Twink and Poz.

Now, Grindr has enabled a ‘My Type’ filter that lets Premium users see only guys:

  • with photos
  • in a certain age, height, or weight range
  • of a certain ethnicity, body type or positional preference (e.g. ‘top’ or ‘bottom’)
  • who are single or not, looking for hookups or not
  • and who belong to certain Tribes

This is how an HIV-negative guy could enact digital quarantine against Poz guys:

In the first image, I’ve ticked all the Tribes except Poz — this is the ‘digital quarantine’ mode. As an educator who’s done countless hours of online outreach, my prediction is that negative guys who fear HIV will begin to pressure Poz guys to join this tribe.

In the second image, there’s something equally concerning: what we might call ‘HIV Cerebro’, after the technology used in the X-Men movies to visualise all the mutants worldwide.


If there are only 3-4 guys meeting the criteria in my local area, the app will expand the search radius… When I set ‘My Type’ to include only guys in the Poz tribe, it showed me all the guys identifying as Poz in a search radius up to 17,000km away.

Many of those guys were out-‘n-proud Poz activists in London and the States, with profile headlines like [+u] meaning ‘poz, undetectable viral load’ or ‘u=u’ undetectable  = uninfectious (this is true).

But there were also a small number of guys in countries where having sex while HIV-positive is illegal even if condoms are used; and where homosexual activity is illegal.

Here’s the kicker. In the interviews I did with different media outlets, I noted that sites like DudesNude and apps like Hornet offer a similar ability to see other Poz members — but only if you join the Poz tribe yourself.

Grindr is unusual in allowing anyone to search the Poz tribe, as long as they have a Premium membership.

A further problem is that when you tick the box to ‘enter’ the Poz tribe… absolutely nothing happens (left image, below).

This is a missed opportunity on Grindr’s part. At a bare minimum, clicking the box should trigger a pop-up with information about the possibility of being identified, and identifying strategies for protecting themselves and local organisations that can provide support.

Most guys won’t need this, and might even feel it’s intrusive — but it needs to be made clear that joining the tribe makes you findable via ‘HIV Cerebro’.

This is important, given the app also allows people to list their Facebook, twitter and Instagram accounts (right image above) — linking people’s identities to their online activities, which might include chats about sexual fantasies they would never enact ‘in real life’. Such chats have been interpreted by courts and researchers alike as evidence.

In case that seems like a long-shot risk, remember that Grindr’s global equality initiative was only created in the aftermath of reports that security officials in post-revolutionary Egypt were using Grindr to identify and arrest men who have sex with men.

Grindr recently issued one-off messages to Egyptian users to warn of a similar crackdown on men who used Facebook to meet other same-sex attracted men.

Were you aware this is how the Poz tribe works? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

You can also join the discussion on the Bad Blood Facebook page.

This post has been updated to reflect a correction made by Mark ‘middle’ Hubbard (comments).

Straight hatred

A Perth woman Rebecca Britten makes the news for a Facebook post quoting a website where gay men talk about hooking up for sex in toilet cubicles, claiming they are seeking to expose their sexual activities to children and therefore labelling them paedophiles.

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Ben Lawlor from State Government of WA

A Sydney man is arrested at a private club where men go to have sex with other men.  He was allegedly caught putting hydrochloric acid in a lubricant dispenser.

An American man is sentenced to 40 years in prison for pouring boiling water over two gay men as they lay sleeping on a mattress in the house he shared with their family.

And Malcolm Turnbull presses on with a plebiscite on whether same sex people — totally ignoring transgender and intersex people — should have the right to marry our partners.

That’s just a day’s reading about how some people feel about my community.

Mrs Britten thinks men having sex with men in toilets is outrageous… she is incapable of understanding that ‘beats’ use emerged as a cultural practice out of a long history of men who have sex with men having nowhere safe or private.

Update: I contacted Mrs Britten about her Facebook update and got the following reply. Britten uses the ‘some of my best friends are gay’ defense and claims that a post about guys seeking other guys for sex is not a reference to gay sex. Okay then.

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Of course, since the irate Facebook post includes verbatim quotes it is trivial to search for key phrases and identify the forum Mrs Britten quotes from.

Mrs Britten is apparently unable to read.  The reference to ‘jailbait’ that Mrs Britten uses as foundation for her claims about paedophilia is a joke, one user teasing another, a woman who quickly replies ‘No I prefer my men more mature lol’.  The woman in question actually talks about ‘change room fun’, which makes me think she must be talking about a change room in a department store, since toilets are sex segregated after all.

There is one user who says “Hey 15 here, Message me on [redacted]” and their post is immediately followed up with a reply saying “Sorry have to be legal :)”.

Mrs Britten’s claims about ‘jailbait’ and ’15’ are not supported by the threads she quotes.

Her post makes the following clearly inflammatory remarks:

Exposing a child, your child, my child, to this sort of shit as far as I’m concerned makes you no better than a paedophile.

Most of you will recognise the name Dante Arthurs. Even more will recognise his name linked with the sexual assault and murder of eight-year-old Sofia Rodriguez-Urrutia Shu. An eight year old who, just over 10 years ago, walked down a corridor into a female toilet on her own while shopping with her uncle, brother and sister and when she came out, was grabbed from behind, dragged into the disabled toilet and subjected to the most unspeakable horrors. Her brother looked for her, even knocked on that toilet door which was locked but her cries were muffled by Arthurs, her larynx crushed in the process.

Comparing the private sexual activity of consenting adults to paedophilia and child murder is irrational and I can only conclude it reflects homophobia.

Legally, when a toilet door is closed, the cubicle is a private space.  As private as a hotel room.  Men have been using toilets for sex for a long time, and most are incredibly careful to hide their activities from other people using the toilets — because they want to avoid security being called.  Mrs Britten’s claim these men intend on ‘exposing a child, your child, my child’ is without a shred of evidence.

Mrs Britten, you can be better than this.

garbage cannot.


Stigma as metonym

Five dollar word: metonym, noun, ‘word used in place of a closely related word‘.

The Victorian Government recently launched strategies for hepatitis B and C, causing me to nearly fall off my chair — these have been ‘coming soon’ for nearly a decade.

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Don’t mention the war on drugs: ‘those most at risk and most affected’

A writer using the pseudonym ‘The Golden Phaeton’ has been covering the treatments revolution in hepatitis C for Harm Reduction Victoria.  Apart from being witty and carefully-observed, their articles are just beautifully written.

Writing about the launch of the hepatitis C strategy, The Golden Phaeton concluded with this incredibly sharp insight (sorry) into how ‘stigma’ gets used as a metonym within the respectability politics of the blood-borne virus sector:

It was only on the subject of stigma that I found any fault with the [Parliamentary] Health Secretary’s announcement. […] It was interesting that drug users were not overtly mentioned in the policy speech. Stigma was mentioned. Discrimination was mentioned. But never were we told against who these evils were operating. Almost as if the words stigma and discrimination were functioning as a code to be used in order to avoid having to sully the lips by actually mentioning injecting drug users.

You can read the rest of the article here and sign up for HRVic’s newsletter as well.

The end of ‘Ending HIV’

It’s done, folks, stick a fork in it.  The highly respected epidemiologist and World Bank Global AIDS Program Director David Wilson posted today that talk of ‘ending AIDS in a generation’ or ‘ending HIV by 2030’ is neither realistic nor helpful.  He writes:

The Durban 2016 AIDS Conference marks the end of “ending the HIV epidemic” as a feasible goal with the tools we have. We need new and better tools. Talk of ending AIDS has led to a widespread perception in the broader health and development community that this crisis is over. It isn’t and continued exhortations that we can end the AIDS epidemic with our existing armory may further undermine global recognition of and commitment to address this epidemic.

I have been incredibly critical of the way this discourse was premised on the idea that behavioural and social prevention strategies have failed.  Recently I acknowledged ‘Ending HIV’ was a tactical move by very experienced policy advocates to maintain global and local funding for HIV prevention and treatment in the face of the global financial crisis.  But although we have new knowledge and biomedical strategies like TasP and PrEP, the obstacles to gaining their full benefit remain, as always, behavioural and social.