Rodney Croome: What is the Sydney Hindrance?

OPINION: Rodney Croome AM is a long-time LGBTIQ+ advocate

I recently wrote an article in which I referred to “the Sydney Disease” holding Australia back on LGBTIQ+ human rights. Because some people in Sydney took issue with what I wrote I appreciate this opportunity to clarify. Offense was taken by the word “disease” so I’ll call it the Sydney Hindrance. But that makes it no less serious or frustrating.

In a nutshell the Sydney Hindrance is this: Western Sydney is cynically exploited as an excuse for anti-LGBTIQ+ policy-making and the rest of Sydney is too scared to stand up to that cynicism and exploitation. As a result, Australia is held back on LGBTIQ+ equality.

Now let’s break that down.

The West

Some cynical politicians, church leaders and editors beat up the stereotype that Western Sydney is deeply homophobic and transphobic, a convenient conservative counterpoint to the Mardi-Gras loving east.

Sadly, this exploitation of the West also includes actual fanning of anti-LGBTIQ+ prejudice, as some religious and political leaders did during the marriage postal survey and have done again during the religious discrimination debate.

The result was unusually low marriage Yes votes in Western Sydney electorates in 2017 and unusually low support for protecting students and teachers from discrimination in polling in 2022.

This stereotype of Western Sydney has entered the political debate as a fact and has then been used by cynical political leaders to justify their homophobic and transphobic policies, from John Howard’s same-sex marriage ban to Scott Morrison’s Religious Discrimination Bill.

For writing about this I have been criticised for stereotyping the West and dog-whistling racism and Islamophobia.

That’s wrong.

I have a long, close acquaintance with some LGBTIQ+ community advocates in Western Sydney.

Their work to change attitudes is some of the most innovative and effective in Australia.

That’s because they can’t take anything for granted and have to take risks to make progress.

They don’t live in a queer cultural bubble and have to reach out to those with different views. That’s the point at which the most radical, transformative change happens.

These communities are showing the rest of us the way forward.

I also repudiate the slur that particular ethnic groups or religions are more likely to harbour prejudice.

In the marriage equality and religious discrimination debates I worked closely with minority ethnic and religious communities precisely because many members of these communities understand at a deep level the link between the prejudice they face and prejudice faced by LGBTIQ+ people.

For that I was subject to intense criticism from racist gay men who consider particular ethnicities or religions “inherently homophobic”.

One of my core, lifelong principles is that no one is inherently homophobic or transphobic.

We all have the capacity to accept and embrace LGBTIQ+ people no matter where we are from or what God we worship.

As a Tasmanian I know what it’s like to be sneered at, stereotyped, patronised and blamed for making the nation look bad.

I know because that’s exactly what we went through in the 1990s when Tasmania was the last state to decriminalise homosexuality and was mired in a divisive battle on the issue that was reported around the world.

I would never do that to others.

I also know from my Tasmanian experience that real, transformative, community-wide change of hearts and minds is possible.

I would never give up on the same happening in other places.

To sum up, the Sydney Hindrance isn’t about ethnicity or religion. It’s about power: the abuse of power to fan prejudice and divide people, as well as some people giving up on the power of education.

On that note, let’s turn from the west of Sydney to the rest.

The Rest

Nowhere is Western Sydney more loathed and stereotyped than in the rest of the city.

The cynical politicians and editors who try to turn the west against the rest, do the same in reverse.

Too many people I know in inner-city Sydney see the west as a black hole of anti-LGBTIQ+ hate and discrimination which can never be changed.

In response to this scary, mythical monster of LGBTIQ-phobia, they lower their expectations of what’s possible or give up trying to make change altogether.

I have endured this defeatism for thirty years, and believe me it’s much more of a problem than anything I’ve seen in Western Sydney.

On almost every major LGBTIQ+ issue I have worked on, from decriminalising homosexuality through discrimination law and marriage equality to blood donation, the biggest brakes on taking strong and effective action have come from organisations in the inner-city of Sydney.

Yes, there are individual and groups in Sydney that are strong, brave and progressive on LGBTIQ+ equality. I honour them and wish them all strength.

But Sydney’s big LGBTIQ+ organisations, the city’s Labor Party and its Human Rights Commission, are imbued with such an ethos of caution, incrementalism and don’t-rock-the-boat-ism that I can only understand it in light of their fear of the West, or at the least their fear of the forces that have created the stereotyped West.

During the postal survey, did they provide the resources that could have helped Western Sydney advocates effectively counter the deliberate fanning of hate and given the region a fighting chance of strongly voting Yes?

No, they rolled up into a small target, and did far too little to counter No campaigning in Western Sydney just like they looked the other way when the No campaign attacked trans people.

Did they subsequently reach out to Western Sydney so the post-marriage equality myth that the region is homophobic and transphobic couldn’t be used as a stepping stone to the federal Religious Discrimination Bill or Mark Latham’s nightmarish anti-trans bill?

No, they build rainbow paths because that’s much easier than making real change.

The day after the marriage survey result was announced I wrote that among those people not celebrating would be young LGBTIQ+ waking up in No voting Western Sydney electorates and thinking (wrongly) that everyone in their world hated them.

I urged the national LGBTIQ+ community to reach out to those young people and their communities; to show support and to not demonise them.

That hasn’t happened in the way I hoped. We have all failed those your people and their communities, but most of all the rest of Sydney failed them.

A real rainbow path

Whether you like it or not, it’s a fact that the worst LGBTIQ+ laws and attitudes in Australia are to be found in Sydney.

That is because, with some rare and heroic exceptions, the Right in Sydney is more LGBTIQ-phobic than in other states and the Middle and the Left are less willing to stand up to that.

The Religious Discrimination Bill showed just how deeply this affects the rest of us.

The Bill was almost entirely a product of the Sydney Hindrance I have identified. But its impact fell most heavily in other states and territories.

For example, almost all the progressive state laws the Bill overrode were in Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and the ACT.

The Sydney Hindrance is a problem for all of us.

I know I can’t overcome the Sydney Hindrance by whinging about it.

But I hope that by naming it I might encourage future leaders to consider taking Sydney down a real rainbow path.

That path would require the whole city to ditch those who divide it, and work together to lift itself up.

If that happens Sydney might once again lead the nation on equality and inclusion, instead of winning the wooden spoon.

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