Oxford Street: An Open Letter to the Golden Mile

OPINION

Dear Oxford Street,

Thanks for another great Mardi Gras. As always, LGBTI people, our families and allies enjoyed being cheered on by your thronging crowds.

But I was not a fan of the campaign run in your name by the ANZ in the lead up to Mardi Gras, the one where rainbows, unicorns, pink flamingos in sailor hats, and arrow-pierced love hearts were distributed to other Oxford streets in rural and regional Australia.

The point of that exercise was to take some of your “safety” and “equality” to people who live far away from you.

That was a terrible idea. Here’s why…

Australia is a huge nation with a diverse population. The challenges LGBTI people face vary, as do our responses to them. There are many different ways to be LGBT or I across our broad country, and that’s a good thing.

Imposing a single, narrow, clichéd, glitter-spattered view of what it means to be queer on the rest of us dismisses our diversity, and the creativity and beauty that arises from that diversity.

For decades, in places like Rockhampton, Bunbury and Launceston, LGBTI people have been pioneering new ways of challenging prejudice, of celebrating who we are, and of just being queer.

We don’t need your plastic installations to help us towards “safety and equality”. We’re doing it for ourselves already.

I’m not saying things are perfect in rural and regional Australia, just that we are better placed to solve our own problems.

Neither am I being an anti-rainbow curmudgeon. My point is simply that there’s so much that’s wonderful and precious in rural and regional LGBTI Australia, so much that the rest of the nation can learn from.

Let me give you just one example among hundreds: In recent months an LGBTI mental health training package that was developed in the Tasmanian farming town of Sheffield is being delivered by LGBTI trainers from Sheffield to community and government sector employees in Melbourne.

Sheffield has 2000 people and was once an anti-gay stronghold in what was the nation’s most homophobic electorate.

Yet, Sheffield has not only transformed, it is now providing Melbourne with a better LGBTI service than Melbourne can provide itself.

For Oxford Street to ride to the rescue of rural and regional LGBTI people, while ignoring what we have achieved, is just flat out patronising and condescending.

Unfortunately, from there it just gets worse.

If we’re being frank, you are not in a position to model “safety” and “equality” to anyone.

Remember the gangly boy who was chased down your footpaths by some shouty homophobes in August 1994?

That was me.

I have been all over Australia as a gay equality advocate, to almost every town large and small, and I have never been attacked for being gay like I was that night.

Luckily, my attackers were too drunk to catch me, because none of the onlookers seemed to care much.

Sadly, I see it’s still happening. So much for “safety”.

You score even worse on “equality”.

In 2005 I spoke at a meeting in Sydney about state marriage equality laws…well, at least I tried to speak because those LGBTI leaders present shouted me down.

Again, I have spoken about marriage equality, and LGBTI equality more broadly, in almost every major Australian city and town, and I have rarely been abused for it like I was that night.

There’s a pattern to this. LGBTI advocates from Oxford Street and surrounds have tried to slow down, delay, compromise on, or just flat out oppose, most of the major steps forward on LGBTI equality in modern Australian history.

I can give you examples where this happened in regard to same-sex civil unions, the Howard ban on same-sex marriage, the Red Cross gay blood ban, removing exemptions from discrimination law, enacting hate speech laws, opposing a plebiscite, enacting marriage equality and transgender equality.

Let’s face it, as fun as you can be, and as iconic as folks may think you are, when it comes to legal equality you have too often been a millstone around the neck of LGBTI Australia.

I’m the first to acknowledge there are plenty of strong, brave, uncompromising activists on Oxford Street, activists who have inherited the mantle of the 78s. But they tend not to be the ones we hear from.

The nation hears from Oxford Street advocates who, I guess from years of sitting in board rooms, are so habituated to compromise they think it’s the right way to go.

If you think I’m being harsh, consider NSW’s discrimination laws.

There are LGBTI people treading your footpaths who still live in fear of life-destroying discrimination because they are students or teachers at faith-based schools.

Compare this to Tasmania where LGBTI students and teachers at religious schools are legally protected from that kind of discrimination.

If you think, well, that’s just one example, then consider the postal survey.

People celebrated the Yes vote in your bars and clubs but what were they actually celebrating?

They were celebrating a Yes vote that was dragged upwards by precisely the places you think need your pink flamingos.

The result in Sydney and NSW was the worst in the nation.

Your guys have so forgotten how to challenge prejudice and make change, they have so deeply drunk at the well marked “it’s all fine on Oxford Street”, that they let the western suburbs slip back to 1950s-level homophobia.

Do you get it yet? Proximity to you is the problem, not distance from you.

Twenty kilometres from your Golden Mile is the busy Sydney seat of Blaxland which voted 74% against marriage equality.

5,200 kilometres away lies the sprawling, dusty, rural and regional Western Australian seat of Durack which returned a 59% Yes vote.

Keep your pink flamingos, you need them much more than the rest of us.

It was apt the theme of this year’s Mardi Gras was “fearless”.

Those of us who live in regional and rural Australia understand precisely why it matters to put our fear aside.

By doing so we have changed the nation.

But you, Oxford Street, need to re-learn what that word means.

You need to re-learn how to overcome prejudice rather than ignore or appease it.

You need to re-learn how to achieve to real change rather than settle for second-best.

You need to move beyond the notion that a sequined rainbow cape is “fearless”, and find the real courage to engage your fellow Australians, face-to-face, heart-to-heart.

Perhaps most of all, you need to face up to your declining pre-eminence and accept other places can do it as well or better.

Then, and only then, shall you be worthy to be counted among Australia’s genuinely fearless Oxford streets.

Rodney Croome


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