Entanglements of trauma in Australia’s divisive debate over same sex marriage

There have been some callous responses to the pain that is being felt as a result of the debate over the plebiscite (e.g. Matt Canavan’s ‘grow a spine’ remarks) and some genuinely stupid ones (e.g. Mark Kenny thinking a little bit of stress and distress is okay if the majority of gay people are better off).

There were stats released today showing a 20% increase in calls to hotlines, which doesn’t sound like much, so I wanted to write a bit about what we know about community trauma. It’s a complicated area to write about.

First of all, I’m really conscious we’re having a national debate about the trauma being experienced as a result of this single event in a high-profile community of middle-class white people, and meanwhile, we’re not talking about the experiences of Aboriginal people, families and communities, or refugees in offshore concentration camps. Secondly, it requires making careful distinctions between a bunch of related categories — while understanding how they are interlinked in our persons, our history and our modes of relationship.

The literature on collective trauma is strongly influenced by the work of Kai Erikson, a sociologist who wrote about his work with communities in the aftermath of specific events, such as the collapse of a tailings dam that swept away a whole valley in rural Buffalo Creek (see photo above). About ‘collective trauma’ he wrote:

‘“I”‘, he writes, ‘continue to exist. “You” continue to exist, though distant and hard to relate to. But “we” no longer exist as a connected pair or as linked cells in a larger communal body.’ (Erikson 1976,154).

There are further distinctions that can be made between complex trauma (in which responses to trauma become interwoven with the development of personality in a particular individual), constant trauma (which refers to the present-day experience of Aboriginal people in communities holding multiple funerals every year for their young, and probably also describes the more time-limited experience of communities grappling with deaths from AIDS in the era before effective treatment), and finally, what I call traumatised community — a mode of community that emerges in the aftermath of a shared experience of collective trauma.

People in queer communities have experience of all three, but in different measure and mixture depending on the person and the community. A queer person who has had to flee an unsafe home environment into homelessness or insecure housing may have experience of constant trauma. Someone who grew up in a profoundly homophobic family or community context may have complex trauma. Someone who lived through the AIDS crisis may have past experiences of constant trauma and may now live in traumatised community — modes of relationship that unconsciously reproduce traumatic experiences. And we bring all these forms of vulnerability into how we experience and respond to the debate being had about our human rights and dignity.

We should not expect that there will be a simple, linear, ‘dose-response’ relationship between this debate and the effects on our mental health and our ways of being together in community. It just doesn’t work like that.

Erikson, for instance, describes how experiences and practices of community can intensify in the aftermath of a tragic event, as people pull together (like a muscle contracting) to cope with the immediate, physical destruction — in ‘disaster response’. We’re seeing that in the powerful acts of resistance that queer people have undertaken — such as raising funds for queer young people’s mental health services and launching hashtag campaigns to bring much needed floof into social media timelines poisoned by toxic debate. (Both of these initiated by the incredible Amy Coopes.)

But once the initial phase of disaster response subsides, Erikson describes (in the case of collective trauma) a slow and unstoppable loss of meaning and drifting apart, as if the connective tissues of community had been denatured.

We have already seen a certain amount of tension dissipating from those bonds as the crisis around HIV/AIDS has subsided, but the queer communities haven’t by any means dissolved. I think there is, however, a generation of people who lived through the intensity of constant trauma and who can’t easily understand that even those who didn’t may still be grappling with complex trauma resulting from experiences of homophobia and transphobia. This difficulty informs the ‘toughen up princess’ and ‘special snowflake’ discourse I see from some elders.

Perhaps the ongoingness of our connection reflects the powerful strengths our communities have for artistic and cultural meaning-making in the service of joy and political resistance. Kane Race’s work on dance parties is testament to this. And perhaps we are also held together by the recognition that trauma is ongoing — in the bullying of Safe Schools by The Australian, in the experiences of the trans and queer kids that program was designed to help protect, in the experiences of queer kids in Catholic and Christian evangelical schools.

As Kilhefner argues, one of the key functions of community is to help youth become adults, and in the process, adults to become elders. The collective importance of this task may reflect the fact it contains the prospect of repair: we can’t change our own upbringings, but we can turn it into energy that we direct towards making it safer for future kids in the same boat, drawing a line under our own experiences and creating an ending to the narrative.

But traumatised community is no simple thing, and it can work to powerfully undercut these intentions — for instance, the ‘eating our young’ dynamic that pervades so many organisations long after traumatic events have passed, and that are reproduced in organisational culture, in what issues are seen as sensitive, in what lines are drawn between insiders and outsiders, long after the people who first participated in fights over those issues have left, or died. Having experienced that first-hand, I have reason to worry about the long-term consequences of this toxic debate on our practices of community.

And if Erikson is right, we should look for a wave of people feeling lost, people needing help, and people considering suicide, not at the peak of the crisis but in the years and months ahead as the immediate protective response to the current debate begins to dissipate.

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