Don from Keilor didn’t mean to be offensive. “No qualm with you, Jon. Not at all,” he said. “Just that commissioner woman.”
Don was referring to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, Kristen Hilton, who was a guest on Jon Faine’s ABC Radio show in Melbourne.
A moment earlier, Don had celebrated the systematic killing of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. This is the tenor of “respectful debate” in this country.
“Hitler had concentration camps for these gay people – one of the two good things he did,” the caller said. “The other one was build the autobahn.”
There is no real point to the postal survey on marriage equality except this: it licences hate speech and gives platform to views that are otherwise so despicable as to be absent from public debate. Faine denounced the caller, but he was still put to air.
The head of the Australian Christian Lobby, Lyle Shelton, does not believe homophobia “exists much in our country”. He lives in a house without mirrors. Shelton is the public face of a campaign based on homophobia.
This entire debate is an excuse for homophobia. It began as a stalling tactic and grew into an opportunistic assault on all queer people. It is not simply an assault on same-sex couples; it is an assault on queer children, on trans and non-binary people, on anyone living in a way that makes a twisted knot of social conservatives feel uncomfortable.
This month, the writer Benjamin Law released his Quarterly Essay on Safe Schools. The program has become a proxy for the debate on same-sex marriage because it allows bad and backward people to demonise gender queer children. Their safety and their happiness is not so much collateral damage as it is ammunition. The cruelty of this is genuinely sickening.
Law is an imperfect advocate for marriage equality in the same way Shelton is a perfect advocate against it, which is to say they are both flawed. The Australian has begun a campaign against Law, a trademark now in the culture war that plays out in News Corp’s potting shed.
There is no defending a joke of Law’s, in which he wondered if he might “hate-fuck” politicians who rejected marriage equality. But the government has spent more time condemning this than it has spent condemning homophobia. It says a lot about proportionality and about values.
There is an important distinction here: Benjamin Law’s joke was crass, but it was a joke. He had no wish to “hate-fuck” anyone. When the “No” case likens same-sex marriage to bestiality or links Safe Schools to paedophilia, however, they do so with dead-eyed seriousness. This is what they believe and they want others to believe.
New legislation seeks to curb specific vilification in this debate. Its very presence goes some way to underscoring what is now obvious about this pointless survey: that it exists as a compromise of both politics and morals, one more chance for queer lives to be put on trial, for talkback radio to muse openly on the murder of gay people, for social decency to be put on hold so that the past and those who live there might take one more shot and spit in the face of the future.
Sometimes our politics can appear hapless. In this instance, though, the tragedy is that it is so very deliberate.
This piece was modified on September 17, 2017, to make clear that Jon Faine denounced the caller's views.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 16, 2017 as "Keilor scarring". Subscribe here.