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Gay rights with Dennis Altman

Dennis AltmanDennis Altman
d.altman@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast, I will be your host, Matt Smith, and I'm here today with Professor Dennis Altman from the Politics Program. He's also the director of the Institute of Human Security. Thanks for joining me today, Dennis.

Dennis Altman:

A pleasure.

Matt Smith:

Recently, the current president of the United Nations General Assembly, Libya's - maybe I'm going to get his name wrong here, Ali Abdussalam Treki, did I pronounce that right?

Dennis Altman:

I am not an expert in Arabic pronunciations, Matthew. [Laughter] So, your guess is as good as mine!

Matt Smith:

He proclaimed that being gay is not acceptable. When did being gay not become acceptable?

Dennis Altman:

Oh, well, I think what he's really pointing to is that for a majority of governments representing the United Nations, being gay is not acceptable. I mean, it's easy and in fact I have done this, to attack Libya specifically, and part of me feels it's quite appalling that a regime like the Libyan regime is able to have their ambassador sharing the General Assembly of the United Nations which in a sense is the closest thing we've got to a body speaking for all human beings, but the reality is he's expressing views that would be expressed by a majority of governments in Africa, Asia and the former Soviet Union. And I think what is really happening is a growing gulf between the western and the non-western world in attitudes to sexuality.

Matt Smith:

So, he wasn't getting up and just espousing his own opinion; that was the opinion of the majority.

Dennis Altman:

I think the closest way we've got of measuring that is that over the past couple of years, a number of governments, not only western first world countries, Brazil has actually taken a lead in this in a way that's extremely interesting, but a number of governments have been trying to get the United Nations to include discrimination on the grounds of sexuality as something that should be regarded as an infringement of human rights. Now, most people in countries like Australia today though, not 20 years ago, would agree with that position. And it's against that background that I assume the Libyan ambassador made those comments.

Matt Smith:

When you say that, it should become an issue of human rights because gay people tick as many of the boxes that would constitute being a human as everyone else. Why is that open to debate?

Dennis Altman:

Oh, Matthew, I think that most of the governments who would not take your position are governments from countries where there is strong religious fundamentalism, and the position you just took is not the position that would be taken by most organized religions of any sort. After all, we've just gone through an argument in the state of Victoria where the Christian churches, led particularly by the Catholic Archdiocese, have been very clear that they should have the right to discriminate against people who are homosexual in running their own institutions.

So, it's by no means universally accepted not even in western countries, but remember in pretty well all the Islamic world outside probably Indonesia, which is a rather different case, there would be very strong disapproval of any expression of homosexuality. And in many countries in Asia which are not Islamic, there would also be very strong disapproval, and the oddest thing is when you come to the Pacific and those small island countries, they will share the strong disapproval in the name of Christianity which of course was part of 19th century colonialism.

So, the irony is you've got a very strong puritan Christianity in the Pacific which has long ago been, to some extent, transcended in the home country so that Britain and Australia support the inclusion of sexuality in the human rights terms, many of their former colonies opposed it.

Matt Smith:

Would it be an issue of the fact that with a lot of countries there isn't as strong a separation between church and state?

Dennis Altman:

It's not so much the formalities because after all, the United States which has the most constitutionally guaranteed separation between church and the state, was very reluctant over the last decade to support these measures. Now, things have changed dramatically with the new administration and one of these significant shifts came when Hilary Clinton as Obama's Secretary of State, made a speech a few weeks ago in which she called for an action in the United Nations to include sexuality in the human rights discourse.

But that is a marked shift from the Bush administration which of course was very close to fundamentalist right-wing Christians and had often lined up on issues of morality, ironically, with countries like Iran, who in other situations of course, they regard as some - "the enemy" and in fact "agents of satan".

You have some very satanic alliances here. When the Vatican, George W. Bush and Iran, and voting on the same side, was actually quite common over the last decade.

Matt Smith:

That sounds like there's a joke in there somewhere.

Dennis Altman:

There are many jokes there, what, George Bush, the Pope, and the Ayatollah going into a bar together.

Matt Smith:

Yes, that's right.

Dennis Altman:

But of course the Ayatollah would not be allowed into a bar and would refuse to be seen publicly with either of them.

Matt Smith:

Very true, very true. Should somebody like Kevin Rudd or Barack Obama be more vocal in their opposition to these sort of claims?

Dennis Altman:

Well, this is where I think the politics become very interesting because Obama has been. Remember in the United States, the gay and lesbian movement is a very powerful constituency in the Democratic party and so, in the run up to the elections in the nomination battle between Obama and Clinton, they both went to have it their way to walk a tight rope between strong support for gay rights, but opposition to gay marriage which is seen as political suicide in the United States and you can argue whether or not it would be, but that's how it was seen.

And I think there's no doubt that the Obama Administration is going to take a line on this in which they're aligning themselves up with a number of countries who've already taken leadership at an international level, and this is what I find really interesting. And it runs against what most people's understanding of the world is, but Brazil and some of the other South American countries, Argentina, Mexico, have been very strong proponents of expanding the definition of human rights.

And of course the first country to include protection of people from discrimination against sexuality in their constitution was South Africa. So, it's important to remember that it's not always the rich western countries who are leading this debate. Now, going specifically to Australia, I think Australia, while we have always voted for these measures, has not been particularly vocal.

I couldn't find any statements by either Kevin Rudd or Foreign Minister Stephen Smith. What I find interesting is that when Hilary Clinton made her speech saying, "This is now an issue the United States is going to take forward." she identified it as something the U.S. would do in partnership with similar countries and she named Brazil, France and Sweden.

Now, given the closeness that we are constantly told exists between Australia and the United States, I would have hoped that one of the instructions to our U.N. Ambassador Kim Beazley was to get Australia on that list. It's consistent with Australian policy, and I think Australia could play a really important role because we do have some influence in Southeast Asia and the Pacific where there are a number of countries and whose support becomes crucial

Matt Smith:

What is the Australian's attitudes to such a thing there? What sort of responses have you been getting?

Dennis Altman:

I think Australia is a very interesting case because, I mean, in my experience which goes back quite a long time of being involved in gay politics in Australia is that basically most Australians, I think, have the attitude to begin with.

There's a strong sense of fair play and because Australia does not have the same extent of right-wing fundamentalism as the United States, although there is some opposition, most Australians according to public opinion polls are strongly in favor of - in the discrimination measures around homosexuality. Australian governments over the last 15 years or so have actually been pretty progressive on most issues.

I think it is not seen and has not been seen by the least or the previous government as an issue or priority in international affairs in a way that it has been by some other countries and in addition to the ones I named, the Dutch, the British, the Germans now, are all saying this is something we actually see as an important part of our foreign policy push. And I think that's the missing step that we're not getting from this government.

Matt Smith:

So, internally, is there a big issue? Is there a big gap between human rights at all?

Dennis Altman:

I think at the moment it would not be a difficult issue. I mean, the one thing that there is clear - a division in Australia around, is gay marriage. Even though the public opinion polls suggest that a slight majority of Australians are actually in favor of it, political leaders are clearly not willing to risk the political damage and what they privately think, I'm not sure. But in terms of raising larger questions of homosexuality in human rights, it would actually be a very good time politically because both the Labor government and the opposition, particularly the leader of the opposition, would be strongly in support. Remember Malcolm Turnbull, well, by the time this goes to air Matt, Malcolm Turnbull may not of course be leader of the opposition.

But Malcolm Turnbull as currently, while we're sitting here of the 5th of October is leader of the Liberal Party, leader of the opposition, Malcolm Turnbull has a very good record on gay rights partly because he comes from one of the two electorates in Australia. Where it is believed the gay votes is sufficiently big that it could determine the outcome. And in the last election, Malcolm Turnbull was very, very assiduous in courting that vote. So, there is no way that he would oppose moves by the Australian government.

Remember in Australia that a lot of the shifts in attitudes in Australia came about as a result of AIDS in the 80s and 90s and the bipartisan response of Australian governments and the inclusion of homosexual organizations in the various government responses to HIV/AIDS where Australia for a while seemed to be a model that other countries were following.

The one person who really stands out as opposing that bipartisan response was Wilson Tuckey when, for a brief period, he was shadow Minister for Health during the Hawke government. Wilson Tuckey of course today is taking exactly the same attitude towards climate change. They took then towards gay rights. But as a said, I think in larger political term, it would not be a difficult issue for an Australian government to raise.

The interesting question is, how Australia might actually influence a number of its neighboring countries who have not been supportive in the U.N. As a state more because of a sense of solidarity with other third world countries than because of deep, firm hostility to the idea that some issue be basic protection of human rights. Now, varies from country to country. The Indian High Court has just overturned the remaining British sodomy laws and this is seen as a huge step-forward in India.

On the other hand, those laws still remain in Singapore and Malaysia. And of course in Malaysia, they have been used quite consciously to try and push on whether - Abraham out of politics, and were used, remember, by Mahathir at first and now there's another accusation against Anwar. So, those laws have proven to be very useful for a rather corrupt Malaysian government.

Matt Smith:

So, for there to be a definite change in something like this, it's got to be something that the people themselves do it. Governments can take a step forward and change their laws, but the thinking of the people themselves has to change as well.

Dennis Altman:

And of course you can get huge discrepancies, I mean, South Africa is an interesting case where the government clearly, in some ways, in being - taking up gay rights at which the ANZ did when they came to power and when they wrote the new South African Constitution after the end of apartheid, probably were running ahead of majority opinion. In other countries though, and I think this is what's really interesting, that in a number of Asian and African countries, homosexuals have become a useful scapegoat. They're identified with westernization and they become targets for rather nasty governments.

So that the worst time of phobia currently, and we're not saying worst time of phobia, I mean people being literally killed and right with the connivance of police, military and government officials is going on in Iran, Iraq, probably Afghanistan, who knows what's going on in various parts of Afghanistan. And there you have history of the unhappy collusion between fundamentalist religion and a very oppressive concepts of masculinity. And changing those attitudes is a very difficult and complex issue.

In other countries, you can see very big changes. In Indonesia for example, the last AIDS, Regional AIDS Conference in Bali last month, the president of Indonesia, in the opening speech, and quite specifically talked about welcoming gay and transgender networks as part of the Indonesian response to the epidemic.

That's a huge shift and remember, the president of Indonesia is president of the biggest Islamic country in the world. So, changes do happen and certainly in Indonesia, changes are happening very fast. And it does seem to be a pretty good correlation between democracy and greater acceptance of diversity and greater tolerance.

Matt Smith:

Professor Dennis Altman, thank you for your time.

Dennis Altman:

A pleasure.