…love is queered not when we discover it to be resistant to or more than its known forms, but when we see that there is no world that admits how it actually works as a principle of living.
Lauren Berlant – “Love, A Queer Feeling”
As the sun beats down on a very dusty Musgrave Park, the crowd is hushed in respect for the elder addressing us. It is Pride Fair Day and we are listening to the story of how this place has been a home for queer and black people throughout Brisbane’s history. Like so many others, this park has been a place of refuge in times when Boundary Streets marked the lines aboriginal people couldn’t cross to enter the genteel heart of Brisbane’s commercial district. The street names remain today, and even if movements across territory are somewhat less constrained, a manslaughter trial taking place nearby reminds us of the surveillance aboriginal people still suffer as a result of their refusal to stay off the streets and out of sight in homes they don’t have. In the past few years, Fair Day has grown in size. It now charges an entry fee to fence out unwelcome guests, so that those who normally live here have been effectively uninvited from the party. On this sunny Saturday, we sit and talk about these things, and wonder at the number of spaces still left in this city for spontaneous, non-commercial encounters and alliances. We could hardly have known that in the course of just a few weeks, the distance separating us from others would grow even further.
During the course of Brisbane’s month-long Pride celebrations in 2007, two events affected the rights agendas of both queer and black Australians. First, The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Report, Same Sex, Same Entitlements, was tabled in parliament. Second, the Federal government decided to declare a state of emergency in remote indigenous communities in the Northern Territory in response to an inquiry on the state of aboriginal child abuse. (The full title of the report is “Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle”: Little Children are Sacred, and the words are from the Arrandic languages of the Central Desert Region of the Northern Territory. The report’s front cover also explains the title in relation to traditional law of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land.) While the latter issue has commanded the most media and intellectual attention, and will be discussed later in this piece, the timing of both reports provides an opportunity to consider the varying experiences of two particularly marginalised groups in contemporary Australia. In a period when the Liberal Party has succeeded in pitting minority claims against one another as various manifestations of “special interests” (Brett, Gregg) this essay suggests there is a case to be made for queer and black activists to join forces against wider tendencies that affect both communities.
To do this I draw on the work of American critic, Lauren Berlant, who for many years has offered a unique take on debates about citizenship in the United States. Writing from a queer theory perspective, Berlant argues that the conservative political landscape in her country has succeeded in convincing people that “the intimacy of citizenship is something scarce and sacred, private and proper, and only for members of families” (Berlant Queen 2-3). The consequence of this shift is that politics moves from being a conversation conducted in the public sphere about social issues to instead resemble a form of adjudication on the conduct of others in the sphere of private life. In this way, Berlant indicates how heteronormative culture “uses cruel and mundane strategies both to promote change from non-normative populations and to deny them state, federal, and juridical supports because they are deemed morally incompetent to their own citizenship” (Berlant, Queen 19).
In relation to the so-called state of emergency in the Northern Territory, coming so soon after attempts to encourage indigenous home-ownership in the same region, the compulsion to promote change from non-normative populations currently affects indigenous Australians in ways that resonate with Berlant’s argument. While her position reacts to an environment where the moral majority has a much firmer hold on the national political spectrum, in Australia these conservative forces have no need to be so eloquent—normativity is already embedded in a particular form of “ordinariness” that is the commonsense basis for public political debate (Allon, Brett and Moran). These issues take on further significance as home-ownership and aspirations towards it have gradually become synonymous with the demonstration of appropriate citizenship under the Coalition government: here, phrases like “an interest rate election” are assumed to encapsulate voter sentiment while “the mortgage belt” has emerged as the demographic most keenly wooed by precariously placed politicians.
As Berlant argues elsewhere, the project of normalization that makes heterosexuality hegemonic also entails “material practices that, though not explicitly sexual, are implicated in the hierarchies of property and propriety” that secure heteronormative privilege (Berlant and Warner 548). Inhabitants of remote indigenous communities in Australia are invited to desire and enact normal homes in order to be accepted and rewarded as valuable members of the nation; meanwhile gay and lesbian couples base their claims for recognition on the adequate manifestation of normal homes. In this situation black and queer activists share an interest in elaborating forms of kinship and community that resist the limited varieties of home-building currently sanctioned and celebrated by the State. As such, I will conclude this essay with a model for this alternative process of home-building in the hope of inspiring others.
Home Sweet Home
Ever since the declaration of terra nullius, white Australia has had a hard time recognising homes it doesn’t consider normal. To the first settlers, indigenous people’s uncultivated land lacked meaning, their seasonal itinerancy challenged established notions of property, while their communal living and wider kinship relations confused nuclear models of procreative responsibility and ancestry. From the homes white people still call “camps” many aboriginal people were moved against their will on to “missions” which even in name invoked the goal of assimilation into mainstream society. So many years later, white people continue to maintain that their version of homemaking is the most superior, the most economically effective, the most functional, with government policy and media commentators both agreeing that “the way out of indigenous disadvantage is home ownership.”(The 1 July broadcast of the esteemed political chat show Insiders provides a representative example of this consensus view among some of the country’s most respected journalists.) In the past few months, low-interest loans have been touted as the surest route out of the shared “squalor” (Weekend Australian, June 30-July1) of communal living and the right path towards economic development in remote aboriginal communities (Karvelas, “New Deal”). As these references suggest, The Australian newspaper has been at the forefront of reporting these government initiatives in a positive light: one story from late May featured a picture of Tiwi Islander Mavis Kerinaiua watering her garden with the pet dog and sporting a Tigers Aussie Rules singlet. The headline, “Home, sweet home, for Mavis” (Wilson) was a striking example of a happy and contented black woman in her own backyard, especially given how regularly mainstream national news coverage of indigenous issues follows a script of failed aboriginal communities. In stories like these, communal land ownership is painted as the cause of dysfunction, and individual homes are crucial to “changing the culture.” Never is it mentioned that communal living arrangements clearly were functional before white settlement, were an intrinsic part of “the culture”; nor is it acknowledged that the option being offered to indigenous people is land that had already been taken away from them in one way or another. That this same land can be given back only on certain conditions—including financially rewarding those who “prove they are doing well” by cultivating their garden in recognisably right ways (Karvelas, “New Deal”)— bolsters Berlant’s claim that government rhetoric succeeds by transforming wider structural questions into matters of individual responsibility. Home ownership is the stunningly selective neoliberal interpretation of “land rights”. The very notion of private property erases the social and cultural underpinnings of communal living as a viable way of life, stigmatising any alternative forms of belonging that might form the basis for another kind of home.
Little Children Are Sacred
The latest advance in efforts to encourage greater individual responsibility in indigenous communities highlights child abuse as the pivotal consequence of State and Local government inaction. The innocent indigenous child provides the catalyst for a myriad of competing political positions, the most vocal of which welcomes military intervention on behalf of powerless, voiceless kids trapped in horrendous scenarios (Kervalas, “Pearson’s Passion”). In these representations, the potentially abused aboriginal child takes on “supericonicity” in public debate. In her North American context, Berlant uses this concept to explain how the unborn child figures in acrimonious arguments over abortion. The foetus has become the most mobilising image in the US political scene because:
it is an image of an American, perhaps the last living American, not yet bruised by history: not yet caught up in the processes of secularisation and centralisation… This national icon is too innocent of knowledge, agency, and accountability and thus has ethical claims on the adult political agents who write laws, make culture, administer resources, control things.
(Berlant, Queen 6)
In Australia, the indigenous child takes on supericonicity because he or she is too young to formulate a “black armband” view of history, to have a point of view on why their circumstance happens to be so objectionable, to vote out the government that wants to survey and penetrate his or her body. The child’s very lack of agency is used as justification for the military action taken by those who write laws, make the culture that will be recognized as an appropriate performance of indigeneity, administer (at the same time as they cut) essential resources; those who, for the moment, control things. However, and although a government perspective would not recognize this, in Australia the indigenous child is always already bruised by conventional history in the sense that he or she will have trouble accessing the stories of ancestors and therefore the situation that affects his or her entry into the world. Indeed, it is precisely the extent to which the government denies its institutional culpability in inflicting wounds on aboriginal people throughout history that the indigenous child’s supericonicity is now available as a political weapon.
Same-Sex: Same Entitlements
A situation in which the desire for home ownership is pedagogically enforced while also being economically sanctioned takes on further dimensions when considered next to the fate of other marginalised groups in society—those for whom an appeal for acceptance and equal rights pivots on the basis of successfully performing normal homes. While indigenous Australians are encouraged to aspire for home ownership as the appropriate manifestation of responsible citizenship, the HREOC report represents a group of citizens who crave recognition for already having developed this same aspiration. In the case studies selected for the Same-Sex: Same Entitlements Report, discrimination against same-sex couples is identified in areas such as work and taxation, workers’ compensation, superannuation, social security, veterans’ entitlements and childrearing. It recommends changes to existing laws in these areas to match those that apply to de facto relationships.
When launching the report, the commissioner argued that gay people suffer discrimination “simply because of whom they love”, and the report launch quotes a “self-described ‘average suburban family’” who insist “we don’t want special treatment …we just want equality” (HREOC). Such positioning exercises give some insight into Berlant’s statement that “love is a site that has perhaps not yet been queered enough” (Berlant, “Love” 433). A queer response to the report might highlight that by focussing on legal entitlements of the most material kind, little is done to challenge the wider situation in which one’s sexual relationship has the power to determine intimate possessions and decisions—whether this is buying a plane ticket, getting a loan, retiring in some comfort or finding a nice nursing home. An agenda calling for legislative changes to financial entitlement serves to reiterate rather than challenge the extent to which economically sanctioned subjectivities are tied to sexuality and normative models of home-building.
A same-sex rights agenda promoting traditional notions of procreative familial attachment (the concerned parents of gay kids cited in the report, the emphasis on the children of gay couples) suggests that this movement for change relies on a heteronormative model—if this is understood as the manner in which the institutions of personal life remain “the privileged institutions of social reproduction, the accumulation and transfer of capital, and self-development” (Berlant and Warner 553). What happens to those who do not seek the same procreative path? Put another way, the same-sex entitlements discourse can be seen to demand “intelligibility” within the hegemonic understanding of love, when love currently stands as the primordial signifier and ultimate suturing device for all forms of safe, reliable and useful citizenly identity (Berlant, “Love”). In its very terminology, same-sex entitlement asks to access the benefits of normativity without challenging the ideological or economic bases for its attachment to particular living arrangements and rewards.
The political agenda for same-sex rights taking shape in the Federal arena appears to have chosen its objectives carefully in order to fit existing notions of proper home building and the economic incentives that come with them. While this is understandable in a conservative political environment, a wider agenda for queer activism in and outside the home would acknowledge that safety, security and belonging are universal desires that stretch beyond material acquisitions, financial concerns and procreative activity (however important these things are). It is to the possibilities this perspective might generate that I now turn.
One Size Fits Most
Urban space is always a host space. The right to the city extends to those who use the city. It is not limited to property owners.
(Berlant and Warner, 563)
The affective charge and resonance of a concept like home allows an opportunity to consider the intimacies particular to different groups in society, at the same time as it allows contemplation of the kinds of alliances increasingly required to resist neoliberalism’s impact on personal space. On one level, this might entail publicly denouncing representations of indigenous living conditions that describe them as “squalor” as some kind of hygienic short-hand that comes at the expense of advocating infrastructure suited to the very different way of living that aboriginal kinship relations typically require. Further, as alternative cultural understandings of home face ongoing pressure to fit normative ideals, a key project for contemporary queer activism is to archive, document and publicise the varied ways people choose to live at this point in history in defiance of sanctioned arrangements (eg Gorman-Murray 2007). Rights for gay and lesbian couples and parents need not be called for in the name of equality if to do so means reproducing a logic that feeds the worst stereotypes around non-procreating queers. Such a perspective fares poorly for the many literally unproductive citizens, queer and straight alike, whose treacherous refusal to breed banishes them from the respectable suburban politics to which the current government caters. Which takes me back to the park.
Later that afternoon on Fair Day, we’ve been entertained by a range of performers, including the best Tina Turner impersonator I’ll ever see. But the highlight is the festival’s special guest, Vanessa Wagner who decides to end her show with a special ceremony. Taking the role of celebrant, Vanessa invites three men on to the stage who she explains are in an ongoing, committed three-way relationship. Looking a little closer, I remember meeting these blokes at a friend’s party last Christmas Eve: I was the only girl in an apartment full of gay men in the midst of some serious partying (and who could blame them, on the eve of an event that holds dubious relevance for their preferred forms of intimacy and celebration?). The wedding takes place in front of an increasingly boisterous crowd that cannot fail to appreciate the gesture as farcically mocking the sacred bastion of gay activism—same-sex marriage. But clearly, the ceremony plays a role in consecrating the obvious desire these men have for each other, in a safe space that feels something like a home. Their relationship might be a long way from many people’s definition of normal, but it clearly operates with care, love and a will for some kind of longevity. For queer subjects, faced with a history of persecution, shame and an unequal share of a pernicious illness, this most banal of possible definitions of home has been a luxury difficult to afford.
Understood in this way, queer experience is hard to compare with that of indigenous people: “The queer world is a space of entrances, exits, unsystematised lines of acquaintance, projected horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies” (Berlant and Warner 558). In many instances, it has “required the development of kinds of intimacy that bear no necessary relation to domestic space, to kinship, to the couple form, to property, or to the nation” (ibid) in liminal and fleeting zones of improvisation like parties, parks and public toilets. In contrast, indigenous Australians’ distinct lines of ancestry, geography, and story continue through generations of kin in spite of the efforts of a colonising power to reproduce others in its own image. But in this sense, what queer and black Australians now share is the fight to live and love in more than one way, with more than one person: to extend relationships of care beyond the procreative imperative and to include land that is beyond the scope of one’s own backyard. Both indigenous and queer Australians stand to benefit from a shared project “to support forms of affective, erotic and personal living that are public in the sense of accessible, available to memory, and sustained through collective activity” (Berlant and Warner 562). To build this history is to generate an archive that is “not simply a repository” but “is also a theory of cultural relevance” (Halberstam 163).
A queer politics of home respects and learns from different ways of organising love, care, affinity and responsibility to a community. This essay has been an attempt to document other ways of living that take place in the pockets of one city, to show that homes often exist where others see empty space, and that love regularly survives beyond the confines of the couple. In learning from the history of oppression experienced in the immediate territories I inhabit, I also hope it captures what it means to reckon with the ongoing knowledge of being an uninvited guest in the home of another culture, one which, through shared activism, will continue to survive much longer than this, or any other archive.