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Awakening to LBGTIQ - experience, disagreement & acceptance


BRISBANE – Walking into the State Library Queensland early one morning in September this year, I made a beeline for the elevator that would take me to the Green Room of the Brisbane Writers Festival.

Despite being well ahead of the suggested 45 minutes arrival time, the weight of the day and our Papua New Guinean women writers presentation had me flustered.

I hadn’t even thought that I might transit into the same confined space and breathe the same air as writing royalty, in this case the author and journalist Benjamin Law (The Family Law and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East).

Floundering in panic at the sight of brilliance and Law’s pleasant and boyish smile, I catastrophised; eventually managing a delayed, goofy grin.

Law’s own presentation at the festival occurred just after the publication of his controversial Quarterly Essay, Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal.

Well-researched and balanced, its 20,000 definitively argue that schools should be an environment where student’s learning is promoted and individual differences acknowledged, respected and supported.

Benjamin Law
Benjamin Law

Moral Panic 101 is mandatory reading for people who wish to better understand the arguments countering the push against making available Safe Schools a national program to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LBGTIQ) students, as well as their straight peers and the teachers who need to address homophobia within the school setting.

The first Safe School initiative was introduced in Victoria in 2010 following consistent findings that LGBTIQ Australians have the “highest rates of suicidality of any demographic in the country”. The program recognised that “all school communities have a responsibility … to ensure that teaching is inclusive and relevant to the lived experiences of all students, including students who may be same-sex attracted, gender diverse or intersex”.

Despite seeking a collaborative approach to providing this support mechanism for students, Safe Schools was to have to endure a tumultuous social and political furore as it became part of Australia’s culture wars.

There was eventually parliamentary debate, followed by a review and an announcement by the federal education minister that funding for Safe Schools would not be renewed, although Western Australia, South Australia, the ACT and Victoria committed to continuing its delivery in some form.


An acronym for words I am not convinced I fully understand. I am no expert on gender or sexuality, nor do I for a minute pretend to put myself in the shoes of LGBITQ people.

However, as a person pre-occupied with fairness, justice and equal opportunity for all people, I adamantly support the rights of my LGBITQ sisters and brothers in Australia and in Papua New Guinea.

It is inevitable that, in my taking this public stance to advocate the rights of LGBITQ people, some will reduce me to the role of a Papua New Guinean woman speaking out of turn: an affront to the heterosexual, ‘Christian’ majority.

But before the near-embarrassing claim of “we are a God-fearing country” is wheeled out yet again, it is worth considering why listening to another’s point of view may benefit when in disagreement.

Recently, American journalist Bret Stephens delivered the keynote lecture at the Lowy Institute Media Awards, later published in the New York Times as ‘The Dying Art of Disagreement’.


Stephens focused on the role of journalism and perspectives of disagreement as presented by the media and the audience’s responsibility, which he summarised as “shut up, listen up, pause and reconsider and only then –speak”.

“Free men and women do not need to be protected from discomfiting ideas and unpopular arguments” Stephens said, urged people to allow for the possibility of persuasion by what the other person may say.

For those (like me) whom find themselves often disagreeing with the majority, Stephens was most encouraging when he said that to say ‘I disagree’ is an act that “defines our individuality, enlarges our perspectives, re-energises our progress….” At the same time, it reminds me of the importance of acknowledging the thoughts and opinions of others and its role in broadening my own understanding of the societies I transit between.

That said, in light of the prevailing anti-LGBITQ speech vocalised by Papua New Guineans, to say ‘I disagree’ is important.

Equal opportunities should be afforded to and enjoyed by all. To denounce another individual’s sexual orientation and us it as the basis for exclusion demands reflection by every person of who they are, the question Benjamin Law posed in closing his Quarterly Essay:  “What is it to live in the world seen exclusively through the lens of those around you, and not as you see yourself? Is that a life worth living?”

Now is an opportune time for Papua New Guineans to examine closely how Australia resolves its own fraught debate (through a postal survey of all things) about the rights of a minority group in its society which wants to equalise its right to marriage.

Our observations should be twofold: how PNG’s conversation with Australia may be affected, if at all, by the outcome relative to the PNG government’s lack of progress in the same area; and whether the PNG diaspora in Australia will influence a more considered conversation in PNG about LGBITQ rights.

When I reflect on these matters, I keep coming back to one word. Acceptance.

As a child of the PNG diaspora, my late primary school years in Australia resembled those of Benjamin Law; although in my case I was singled out because of the colour of my skin, the texture of my hair and my accent, but subjected to a similarly atrocious derogatory name-calling.

At that time, racial attacks commonly targeted student who didn’t embody the features of the school’s predominant Caucasian demographic.

It was hurtful. Sometimes stomach-weakening. But mostly students, teachers and parents were intolerant of and clamped down hard on the perpetrators. Also on my side was Australia’s push towards multiculturalism, cross-cultural awareness and the introduction of public symbolism like Harmony Day during that time.

And – looking back on it from this distance - being a part of a minority early in life can teach valuable lessons about empathy, compassion and tolerance.

After reading Law’s essay, I couldn’t help but wonder how the Safe Schools debate would resound with Papua New Guineans. In this context, I believe Moral Panic 101 is a crucial text for Papua New Guineans with children in the Australian education system.

Understanding how young people may feel, think and make decisions when immersed back in PNG society is crucial, especially if it can be said that PNG’s current attitude towards people of LGBITQ orientation is seen as hateful, cruel and unjust.

Growing up in a conservative, Lutheran home, I had little (if any) exposure to homosexuality. It wasn’t discussed and I don’t recall my family having any friends or acquaintance who would fit the description LGBITQ.

At the same time, neither was there condemnation or derogatory references. It made for a transition from childhood into young adulthood with a decent amount of tolerance intact.

It was at high school in Australia that I was introduced to language and imagery depicting homosexuality, with a small handful of students quietly identifying as being lesbian, gay or bisexual. I felt uncomfortable but not angered.

Sure it conflicted with my weekly Sunday teachings and what I understood of PNG culture but, within the school setting, there seemed a general willingness to overlook it as simply ‘experimentation’.

That’s not to say there was acceptance of LGB students. Rather they were considered as not causing harm to the majority. Besides, inter-school fighting driven by racism was at the forefront of schoolyard issues.

However, since this time this mood has darkened in the present generation of school students. As Law recounts in the opening of his essay, Tyrone Unsworth at just 13 years old ended his short life by suicide, after repeated attacks from fellow students because of his sexuality.

When reading social media comments by Papua New Guineans about LGBITQ, my overwhelming reaction is sadness. The speedy references to the Bible, various understandings of morality, PNG being a ‘Christian country’ and personal condemnation to some form of hell depict hypocrisy, cruelty and inhumanity.

The iron refusal of those Papua New Guineans who continue their frenetic anti-LGBTIQ-speak despite the thoughtful objections of their fellow countrymen illustrates a failure to cultivate the personal habits of useful disagreement that Bret Stephens urges for us all in debate.

But let me return to the fact highlighted by Law that LGBTIQ Australian have the highest rates of suicidality of any demographic in the country.What about Papua New Guinea?

What statistics do we have about the prevalence of suicide in our country? We know about the endemic violence, there is overwhelming physical evidence, but what of the invisible impacts of suicidal ideation, self-harm and suicide attempts? How often are LGBITQ Papua New Guineans engaging in acts of suicidality and what is being done to prevent this?

Here’s the thing. Some Papua New Guineans seem fine with encouraging our children to not accept LGBTIQ so as to not be ‘corrupted’ or ‘converted’ from heterosexuality, as if that were possible. Yet I wonder if these same people are as vigilant in shielding young people from witnessing (or partaking in) horrendous acts of violence against others, especially girls and women.

Safe, supportive and inclusive. Three words that are repeated and emphasised throughout Benjamin Law’s Safe Schools essay.

The Safe Schools Coalition says “it’s the experience of homophobia that is harmful. That this experience can lead to self-destruction, self-harm, suicide is what we should all, as a society, be in fear of.”

Safe Schools matters to me as I have young children growing up in a time where the Australian education system has available the option of providing students a program that promotes a safe school environment that includes teacher-led student support for gender diversity and addressing schoolyard homophobia.

It matters to me as an adult in constant transit between two societies.

Australian society is willing to bring to the forefront of national conversation the rights of a minority group. But Papua New Guinean society rejects this same minority group receiving recognition and acceptance within our communities.

Only time will tell how Papua New Guinean young people who are exposed to both societies and paradigms will address the current climate around LQGBTIQ rights in PNG. With the aid of supportive and inclusive adults, like those of my own primary school days, we may just may get there faster.

Benjamin Law writes of the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda playing host to an annual event for students with same-sex partners. Here, in the safety of like-peers and adult advocates, deflated self-confidence, bullying and depression are overshadowed by love, affection and a genuine sense of connection amongst 17 year olds.

If we permit ourselves to focus on the human experience and the emotions that come with it, individual differences of gender and sexual orientation should not be a barrier.

Being made to feel safe everywhere is for everyone.

Acceptance is for everyone.

Love is for everyone. 

Human rights is for everyone.

“No freedom until we’re equal. Damn right, I support it” (Same Love, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis).


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Rashmii Bell

Thanks Bernard. Further reading from Dennis Altman here in The Conversation:

Altman, whom also responds (balanced), in correspondence to Law's 'Moral Panic' refers to the term used in human rights discourse; SOGI - sexual orientation gender identity.

This term I think captures what I tried to highlight in my own piece that as a heterosexual, (most importantly, a human being) I come to the issue viewing it as the 'human experience'.

Bernard Corden

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it - Evelyn Beatrice Hall from The Friends of Voltaire (1906)

Rashmii Bell

I've just read the correspondence relating to the essay 'Moral Panic' in the current Quarterly Essay issue (68). In the words of Amy Middleton, " I commend him (Benjamin Law) for amplifying the voices that are truly crucial in this discussion, over those that, frankly, we could stand to hear a lot less."

Lyle Shelton's response is in there somewhere.

Given Minister Fierravanti-Wells' recent comments and backlash, issue 68 seems a timely read.

It includes Hugh White's 'Without America: Australia in the New Asia'. An extract of the blurb: "America is fading, and China will soon be the dominant power in our region. What does this mean for Australia's future?.... We (Australia) are heading for an unprecedented future, one without an English speaking great and powerful friend to keep us secure and protect our interests..."

Daniel Kumbon

Papua New Guineans need to know and understand such topics as Rashmii discusses here. We cannot continue to hide behind the façade that ‘we are a christen country’ or that sex is a taboo subject for open discussion.

Same sex marriage, woman’s rights, gender equality and freedom of choice etc are discussed more openly in the modern era. We need to know and understand the type of society we are living in and the different groups of people we will interact with.

Many of our children particularly students and athletes are venturing out away from our shores for further education or compete in international sports tournaments. They need to be protected and made aware of problems they could encounter.

I googled to find out what ‘intersex’ meant and came across Caster Semenya, a South African Gold medalist runner who was subjected to sex verification tests by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) to assertion if she was female.

Having beaten her previous 800 m best by four seconds at the African Junior Championships just a month earlier, her quick improvements came under scrutiny. The combination of her rapid athletic progression and her appearance culminated in the IAAF asking her to take a sex verification test.

The IAAF says it was ‘obliged to investigate’ after she made improvements of 25 seconds at 1500 m and eight seconds at 800 m – ‘the sort of dramatic breakthroughs that usually arouse suspicion of drug use.

On 6 July, the IAAF cleared Semenya to return to international competition but the results of the gender tests were not released. But some results were leaked in the press resulting in claims about Semenya having an ‘intersex’ trait.

Caster's ‘intersex’ condition of hyperandrogenism gives her testosterone levels that are three times those usually found in women and approaching those of a man.

She was born with no womb or ovaries and instead, due to a chromosomal abnormality, internal testes.

She spent 11 months on the athletics sidelines while she had tests but was cleared to compete in 2010.

By this time the IAAF had set a testosterone threshold. It meant Caster could run again if she took medicine to suppress her testosterone levels.

The ruling was then challenged by Indian runner Dutee Chand, who also has hyperandrogenism.

In 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended the rules for two years, meaning Caster could come off the medication.

Critics agree the way she has been treated has shamed the sport, and harks back to 1966 when female competitors at the European Athletics Championship were subjected to a ‘nude parade’ past three gynaecologists.

In an interview with South African magazine YOU Semenya stated, "God made me the way I am and I accept myself." Following the furor, Semenya received great support within South Africa, to the extent of being called a cause célèbre.

The British magazine New Statesman included Semenya in its annual list of "50 People That Matter" for unintentionally instigating "an international and often ill-tempered debate on gender politics, feminism, and race, becoming an inspiration to gender campaigners around the world."

Some commentators expressed concern about Semenya's testosterone levels.

Eric Vilain, a medical geneticist, said in an interview, "if we push this argument, anyone declaring a female gender can compete as a woman... We’re moving toward one big competition, and the very predictable result of that competition is that there will be no women winners."

Other commentators, such as bioethicist Katrina Karkazis, point to statements by losing competitors as evidence of discriminatory treatment.

Semenya, 26, recently married her long-term partner, Violet Raseboya, 30, while wearing a ‘Prince Charming-style’ outfit of embroidered jacket, gold breeches and velvet slippers for the ceremony as Violet wore a full-length white lace and appliqué dress.

Sharing a string of intimate photographs of the event on instagram, the South African runner referred to her bride as ‘my heart’ and used the hashtag #ourperfectday to sum up their union.

Rashmii Bell

In the conversation and activities towards 'reducing inequalities' in PNG, the rights of LGBITQ should be included. The main reason for writing this piece.

Thank you Phil and Gary. Gary - your last sentence sums up my overall view.

Keith has done (once again) a brilliant job at editing this piece that in its original version is my practising at building up my long form essay writing.

That version is some 3000 words. It opens with reference to Brokeback Mountain- Annie Proulx's novel, adapted to screenplay/film directed by Ang Lee, then goes on to giving an overview of Law's essay of Safe Schools debate (history, development and funding), weaving my thoughts in between.

Happy to forward that version on to anyone who's like to read it. Email [email protected]

However, I do recommend having a read Law's work in the current issue of Quarterly Essay.

Garry Roche

Rashmii, it takes a lot of courage to venture forth on this topic of LBGTIQ. As Phil relates, he got quite a negative reaction when he raised the topic a few years ago.

I must admit that I had to look up “intersex”, I was not aware that there was such a category in addition to bisexual and transgender!

I am heterosexual , I do not pretend to understand what the personal consequences are for those individuals who are either lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or queer.

But I do accept and believe that these individuals have the same rights and obligations as the rest of us, and hopefully I have treated all in such manner.

I have read convincing arguments that there are genetic reasons why some people may be lesbian or gay etc. In other words from this viewpoint, it is not a person’s choice to be heterosexual or homosexual or bisexual or what-ever, but rather it is the complex genetic-hormonal –chemical composition of our own bodies that determines our sexual orientation.

At the same time, a recent (April 2017) article in Scientific American stated:

“As it stands, sexual orientation research will continue to evoke widespread interest and controversy for the foreseeable future because it has the potential to be used—for better or worse—to uphold particular sociopolitical agendas.

"The moral acceptability of homosexuality has often hinged on the idea that same-sex desires are innate and immutable and therefore not a choice. This is clear when we think about how previous beliefs around homosexuality being learned were once used to justify now discredited attempts to change these desires. …

"The cross-cultural similarities evinced by the Lethbridge study offer further evidence that being gay is genetic, which is, in itself, an interesting finding.

"But we as a society should challenge the notion that sexual preferences must be non-volitional to be socially acceptable or safe from scrutiny.

"The etiology of homosexuality, biological or otherwise, should have no bearing on gay individuals’ right to equality.”

There are indications that some churches are changing their approach to homosexuality.

Perhaps what is important is that no matter what our orientation we sincerely try and treat each other with respect, avoid abuse, avoid harassment, avoid bullying.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The cutting of funding by the federal government to the safe schools program seems to be symptomatic of Australia's regression on many issues over the last couple of years. I'd classify the outrageous allocation of money to the school chaplains as also a regressive development.

It would seem to me that if Australia sees fit to decriminalise homosexuality it is axiomatic that it also recognises rights that logically fall from that decision, like marriage for instance.

One day, next century maybe, PNG will decriminalise homosexuality. Perhaps it will also acknowledge the rights that a decision like that bestows on people.

I must admit, I don't fully understand the violent opposition to homosexuality in PNG, particularly since it was not uncommon in traditional societies. The only thing I can put it down to is the influence of the Christian churches.

With respect to Bret Stephen's essay and the right to disagree being a sign of a healthy society I can't help thinking about Donald Trump, who is hell bent on making sure people don't have the right to disagree, especially with him.

Trump, I think, is perfect proof that Darwin's theory of evolution is not just something in forward motion, it is quite possible for the human race to evolve backwards. Some Australian politicians want us to evolve backwards to the 1950s. ISIS wants us to evolve backwards to the dark ages.

It's a strange world that we live in I think.

Philip Fitzpatrick

A couple of years ago, pursuant to Bret Stephen's ideas about the value of disagreement and a touch of my own tendency to provocation, I wrote a couple of articles for PNG Attitude about homosexuality. Neither as eloquent as Rashmii's effort.

The first was about the need for PNG to legalise homosexuality. The kick back from this was surprising and shocking. It was the first time I had ever encountered such a virulent and violent reaction to something I had written. This concerned me a great deal, especially since I have some gay friends in PNG. It made me actually fear for their safety.

Amongst those virulent reactions was an undertone that suggested that gay men in particular suffered some sort of biological disability that rendered them weak and ineffective.

With that in mind I followed up with an article about gay kiaps. I figured that in the minds of many PNGs kiaps were seen as wholly competent individuals, extra masculine in fact.

The reaction to that article was deafening silence. It took me a while to figure that one out but a reading of Stephens puts it nicely into perspective.

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