In 1999, I saw American History X with a white friend. The movie dealt with violent, neo-Nazi gangs and had been billed as a hard-hitting and controversial statement against racism. My friend was certainly impressed. "Oh wow!" she said as we left the cinema, "Racism is just so terrible, isn’t it?" I, on the other hand, was left feeling somewhat underwhelmed. It seemed to me that the filmmaker had chosen an easy target.
Of course everyone’s going to come out saying that racism is a terrible thing — the people in the film are neo-Nazis for crying out loud. But if the director’s goal was actually to reduce racism in society, I don’t think he had much success, because depicting racism in such an extreme form doesn’t force people to reflect on their own more subtle racist attitudes. (A more effective film, for example, would have been one that examines why disasters always generate loads more media coverage if the victims are white and English-speaking.)
My friend came out of the cinema decrying the evils of racism, but continued to hold the more insidious and unquestioned racist attitudes that occasionally became apparent in off-hand comments that she made. And I’m sure it was possible for millions of white people just like her to watch American History X and leave the cinema believing that racism was a terrible thing — believing that they themselves were not racist while still maintaining subtle forms of racism in their outlook.
Which is exactly what I think happened with the Fred Phelps brouhaha back in February, only that time it was homophobia that was exposed, not racism. Fred Phelps is the leader of a bizarre, fanatically homophobic Christian sect called the Westboro Baptist Church based in Topeka, Kansas. He and his small group of followers believe that God punishes humans for tolerating homosexuality on earth. Members of the sect travel throughout the United States to picket funerals and other events in an effort to convince people that the reason disaster has befallen them is because God is angry at the "fag-enablers" in their community who they believe have in some way tolerated the existence of homosexuality.
On 16 February, the church announced its plans (since removed from their site) to travel to Melbourne to picket the National Day of Mourning at the Rod Laver arena. In a televised address, Fred Phelps stated that "[t]he fag-infested land of Australia is burning. The fire of God’s wrath is sending hundreds of those filthy Australian beasts straight to hell. We at Westboro Baptist Church are rejoicing and we are praying for the dear Lord to burn many more Australians alive." A more offensive, distasteful and insensitive comment is hard to imagine.
What is also striking about the Phelps’ plans is the fact that they were intending to travel all the way from Kansas in the middle of the United States, to Melbourne, down here in the South Pacific, a distance of 15,000 kilometres, just to tell us that God hates us. People in Victoria organising a memorial service for their loved ones had absolutely no effect on the lives of church-goers in Topeka, Kansas.
It was none of their business, yet the Phelpses decided to make it their business. The whole plan was bizarre in the extreme.
Fortunately, for reasons unknown, the Phelps never arrived in Australia, but their pronouncements created a small furore in the media in Victoria with many people writing to the newspaper, posting on the internet and calling talk-back radio to condemn the Phelps clan and their extreme homophobia. Wayne Swan, the treasurer, called Fred Phelps’ comments "repugnant and disgusting". I agreed with him of course, but I was also reminded of American History X. The Phelps clan is an easy target. And while it’s one thing to rail with righteous indignation against such extremists, it’s another thing to realise that you too are guilty of hurting people through your own homophobia.
The reason I say this is because many of those people who condemned the Phelpses on the one hand also oppose same-sex marriage on the other hand, and vote for parties that uphold that position: notably the ALP and the Liberal/National coalition.
When same sex couples in Australia who want to get married hear their political leaders telling them that they shouldn’t be allowed to, their reaction is pretty much the same as the reaction of most Victorians to the Phelps clan. "We’re trying to live our lives in the best way we can. If we get married, that will have no effect on you or your lives. You’ve decided to make our relationship your business, but it’s really none of your business."
Everywhere that same-sex civil marriage has been introduced around the world, courts and governments have stressed that there is simply no reason to prohibit it because it has no effect on other people. It gives rights to those who want them and takes nothing away from anyone else. So just as most Victorians found the Phelps’ plans to picket their memorial service offensive and unwarranted, so many same sex couples in Australia find their exclusion from marriage equally offensive and unwarranted.
Condemning the homophobia of the Phelpses is a good thing, but eliminating more subtle forms of homophobia at home is just as important.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.