Last week was a long week in politics, and it all reached a crescendo when Julia Gillard was subjected to an inquisition by broadcaster Howard Sattler about the sexuality of her partner, Tim Mathieson.
The source of this suspicion? The fact that Mathieson is a hairdresser.
The video of this exchange makes for awkward viewing. As is her trademark, however, the Prime Minister remained calm and identified the absurdity of the questions for what they were.
Commentators have uniformly damned Sattler’s conduct. Lauren Rosewarne emphasised its sexist underpinnings, noting how male Prime Ministers would never be subject to such questioning.
This was a breach of privacy that would be inconceivable were it directed at a male (and married) Prime Minister. Insinuations and intrusions into her private life did not begin with her prime ministership, but they have certainly progressively escalated since.
Also humiliated in all likelihood is Mathieson. His profession was used as a way of both emasculating him and calling into question his heterosexual identity.
However the homophobic dimension of Sattler’s logic has been less remarked upon. Of course the assumption that all hairdressers are homosexual is homophobic. But there is a danger in too heavily emphasising the humiliation that Mathieson may be experiencing.
While Gillard and Mathieson are indeed victims in this episode, particularly due to the disgraceful incursion into their relationship, we need at the same time to avoid assuming that there is something humiliating about homosexuality itself.
The assumption that insinuations of homosexuality are humiliating has a very long and sordid cultural and legal history in this country. Indeed, this perception of humiliation has led the courts to partially exonerate men who respond to homosexual advances with fatal violence. At the heart of this “homosexual advance defence” has been the assumption that such advanced are a humiliating affront to male honour.
It is a dangerous sentiment. Effectively, the cost has been convictions for manslaughter rather than murder, as well as the broader expressive statement by the courts that a sexual advance humiliates a heterosexual man’s identity.
While Sattler’s conduct is of course uniquely different to those men who respond to homosexual advances with lethal violence, both originate from the same source: homophobia and the view that there is something abject about homosexuality.
In many respects this episode reminds me of another scandal in federal politics, albeit of a somewhat different configuration. In 2002, Senator Bill Heffernan notoriously (and erroneously) accused then High Court Judge, Justice Michael Kirby, of having engaged youths in fee-for-service sex, amongst other allegations.
While Justice Michael Kirby was certainly the victim of this attack, as with Howard Sattler’s disgrace yesterday, there is a broader perverse logic at work that underpins these attacks. The author and philosopher Didier Eribon has written of the manner in which gay subjectivity is marked by insult, “the insult that any gay man or lesbian can hear in passing at any moment of his or her life, the sign of his or her social and psychological vulnerability”. These insults, he reminds us, are not simply words. They are traumatic events when they occur, and which also remain in the mind.
To return to Sattler’s interview with Gillard, it is not simply the humiliation of her or her partner that requires condemnation, but also the assumption that homosexuality itself is a humiliating insult.