DID property developer, Stephen Roche, decide to quit Penguin because of intolerable homophobia?

That’s the view of human rights advocate, Julian Punch.

According to Punch “in many rural and regional areas of Tasmania…an old, dominant homophobic culture reigns supreme and unopposed”: HERE

Not surprisingly the continental media is making hay with such strident statements. They reinforce its favourite demeaning stereotype of Tasmanians as rednecked hicks, and in the process exonerate its own audience from any implication that it might be homophophic too. They also undermine the work by community and government representatives who have striven in the decade since homosexuality was decriminalised to improve Tasmania’s reputation. HERE

Fortunately, Roche himself paints a different picture.

“The community’s been very good. Apart from a very small group in the community, I found most people to be very open and accepting. It (prejudice) is not the motivation for leaving”. HERE

So who’s right? Is homophobic hate, discrimination and abuse an unchallenged and ubiquitous social ill or an increasingly isolated remnant of another time?

It’s tempting to take Roche at his word. After all, he is very close to the community in question, and he no longer has anything to lose by speaking his mind.

A year ago he was subject to far nastier hate than he suffers today. 

He decided then to stay and defy it. At the same time, the hate he endured was strongly condemned by a swath of local public figures including conservative mayors and Liberal politicians, and by the local newspaper. This was unimaginable a decade ago. Indeed, many of the people who occupied the same positions of authority back then were the very people responsible for the hatred. In at least one case we’re talking about the very same person; the hatred Roche suffered prompted Tasmanian sporting icon, David Foster, to publicly repudiate his own former public prejudices and become an advocate for equal rights and respect. It’s because of Roche’s courage and the anti-hate advocacy of local community leaders like Foster that public homophobia against Roche has abated.

In the light of this, Roche’s decision to leave now, on his terms at a time of his choosing, is a defeat for homophobia, not a victory.

Equally, the groundswell of support for Roche shows how much regional Tasmania has changed, not how little.

On the other hand, Roche may be exceptional because of his high profile, and if anyone should know about prejudice against people like Roche it’s Julian Punch. As the spokesperson for Coming Out Proud, a Tasmanian gay rural network, Punch is one of the people to whom gay immigrants in rural areas turn when things go wrong.

So what’s the truth of the gay immigrant story?

According to the last Census, Tasmania has recorded one of the highest increases in same-sex couples in the nation, far higher than Sydney or Melbourne. Many of these people moved here for a rural sea- change, and because Tasmania’s laws and attitudes have markedly improved.

Given the sudden influx of so many gay people to communities which often have a grim history of non-acceptance, I’m frankly surprised there hasn’t been more trouble. We should be acknowledging how quickly these communities have adjusted rather than simply condemning them wholesale like Punch. But back to the immigrants themselves.

Some have found the warm and friendly acceptance these changes promised. In a surprising number of cases this acceptance far exceeds what they experienced in the big cities they come from. There is ample evidence of this. Some new gay settlers have been moved to write or speak out about how happy they are with their new small community.

What comes through these stories is the gay immigrant’s appreciation of a new-found sense of community. They often contrast this with the loneliness and atomisation of the urban centres from which they have come. Another common theme is how younger gay couples are “adopted”  by older residents whose own children fled Tasmania in the 70s and 80s, or how gay entrepreneurs receive the passionate loyalty of their employees and their employees’ families. I’ve written elsewhere how these new strong bonds are radically reshaping the values and voting patterns of rural and regional Tasmania.

Of course, not everyone’s experience is so rosy. Some gay immigrants have encountered extreme hatred and violence. Sometimes, like Stephen Roche the same people have found both, but more about this in a moment. Abuse can take the form of anonymous grafitti, shouts from kids or hoons and they ride/skate/drive by, or, most frequently harassment by a neighbour to whom the gay couple next door is an easy target. This harassment can range from snide words across the fence, to full-scale min-terror campaigns of property damage and threats of murder.

We are very lucky in Tasmania to have two much stronger remedies to such violence than the other states. Under retired-Commissioner Richard McCreadie, Tasmania Police developed a police gay community liaison system, involving designated liaison officers across the state and a liaison committee, which outshines most other jurisdictions. Unlike the other states, we also have an Anti- Discrimination Act whose discrimination-in-accommodation provisions punishes bad treatment by neighbours as well as landlords.

But these are only remedies for discrimination, not preventatives. 
For this, we need to dig a little deeper into the homophobic prejudices in rural and regional areas.

The dominant pattern I see when it comes to acceptance and rejection is the link between these experiences and economic and social tradition and change.

Most of the stories of acceptance come from towns with an economic base in farming, fishing and most recently tourism. The transformation of these towns by tourism is an obvious explanation for why they embrace gay residents, particularly those involved in the tourism industry. But there’s another factor, one that explains why they attracted tourists in the first place, and why they are adept at re-inventing themselves. The Irish poet and folklorist, WB Yeats, pointed out that Irish towns based on both farming and fishing always have a deeper and richer folklore. In my experience the same applies in Tasmania. In a word these places are “dreamier”.

Dreamy is not a word we could apply to those places from where most of the stories of rejection emerge. Many of these places are based on extractive industries. Some people might consider this enough of an explanation for a more macho and homophobic culture. But just as the tolerance of some places has historic roots, so the intolerance of others is influenced by very recent events. I believe some rural communities, or more accurately communities of interest, have grown more hostile to difference in direct reaction to the rest of the island growing more tolerant and taking pride in this transformation.

Here I’m talking about communities of interest based on forestry, mining or around certain churches. In both cases these communities of interest feel besieged by economic, social and cultural change and form a tight, closed cultural identity and world-view based on this sense of not belonging anywhere else. Ironically, this new species of identity politics has much in common with the gay identity politics of the 70s and 80, although it considers itself antithetical to homosexuality. The existence of a forestry-based cultural identity is also how I explain the continued disproportionate influence of this industry in Tasmanian politics. It is an easily galvanised electoral bloc, much like evangelicals in the US, which the major parties cannot afford to alienate.

Of course, many people in these industries or churches do not turn their work or worship into an entire cultural identity. But those who do, do it passionately. For them, homosexuals are a threatening other, the epitome of everything that is wrong about Tasmania. Timber Communities Australia may have authorised anti-gay elections ads for political reasons but it fell easily into the role for cultural ones. 
David Foster may have become an unlikely spokesperson for tolerance for his own reasons, but it’s hard not to see his views as a bright light in a rapidly darkening place.

The growing polarisation between acceptance and rejection of sexual difference in rural and regional Tasmania is easiest to see when we compare towns or outer suburbs which lie close together but have very different economies and experiences of cultural change. In the first of the pair an influx of gay immigrants has been the result of social and economic change, and has accelerated this change. In the latter there has been no such change and sometimes a net loss of gay residents. Here I’m talking about the stark contrast between Stanley and Smithon, Swansea and Triabunna, Cygnet and Geeveston, Strahan and Queenstown, Derby and Scottsdale, Campbell Town and Oatlands, Taroona and Kingston. Those places on the cusp of change like Huonville, Sheffield or Penguin are where the experiences of gay immigrants are most likely to be mixed (of course, my list also generalises. I was touched recently by the story of a gay son of Geeveston whose partner’s eulogy to the gay son’s mother left not a dry eye in the Geeveston Catholic Church).

What all this cultural analysis tells us is that it almost impossible to make generalisations about rural and regional Tasmania. Thanks, in part, to the rapid economic and social transformation it is either embracing or reacting against, it is too fractured, too diverse. But there may be other ways of approaching the issue from which we can draw some broad conclusions. Perhaps statistics show whether Tasmania has changed, and how it compares to the nation as a whole?

Studies which compare rates of gay-hate abuse in Tasmania with national rates paint a gloomy picture. These surveys show that gay Tasmanians experience hate-based abuse or violence at twice the national rate (around 40% of gay Tasmanians experience abuse or discrimination in a one year period compared to around 20% nationally). This correlates with the Australia Institute’s finding in 2005 that Tasmania, as the oldest and most rural Australian state, is also “the most homophobic”, although Tas rates quite favourably against other parts of regional Australia, especially in Queensland and NSW.

The drawback with these studies is that they were all one-offs, and don’t give us an idea of whether things are improving or staying the same.

For this, we need to turn to opinion polls on gay rights. They show a steady increase in support for gay human rights over the last 20 years. They also show that this support now exceeds the national average. For example support for decriminalising homosexuality went from 15% below the national average in 1988 to 15% above ten years later, with higher support in Hobart than in Melbourne or Sydney. Our anti-discrimination laws have similar high rates of support while polls on same-sex entitlements have returned unparalleled 70% support for equality, not in Hobart or Launceston but in Devonport and Burnie.

Does the disparity between these sets of figures show a strange disconnection between attitudes and behaviour? Does it show that hate is limited to a minority, but a very active one? We won’t know until more detailed research is done.

The other important question which may give us an overview of rural homophobia is the one raised by Julian Punch’s assertion that it has gone “unopposed”. Is this true? Again the answer is more complex than a simple “yes” or “no”.

On top of the obvious and powerful advocacy against prejudice which is occurring at a local level in places like Penguin, there are statewide projects which impact on rural and regional Tasmania.

The studies I’ve cited were the basis for Tasmania Together benchmarks aimed specifically at reducing sexuality-related abuse and discrimination. They were the first of the kind in the world.

Individual agencies like Education, Police and Health have implemented some globally ground-breaking policies and programs in order to reach these benchmarks. The impact of these policies and programs is already quite profound, but they are held back by chronic under-funding.

In an attempt to address this lack of resourcing and to ensure coordination across government agencies, the Government has established policy frameworks which are, again, unprecedented anywhere in Australia. But so far this is has failed to live up to its promise of delivering resources, and changing practises and culture where it matters.

What typifies the Government’s response for me is the fact that it passed the world’s best relationship laws in 2003, but since then hasn’t spent a cent on educating the public about the benefits of these laws, or training public authorities to respect them.

While the Government rightly takes pride in Tasmania’s transformation, it has so far failed to acknowledge that this transformation has created a set of new problems that require urgent attention. At the very least what we need is a specific, targeted and fully-funded strategy for local, grass-roots integration and inclusion. The development of such a strategy should be one of the top priorities for the State Government’s new Social Inclusion Unit.

Part of the problem is attitudinal. If we are to overcome gay hate we must also stop making excuses for it or blaming it on others.

A typical excuse is that Tasmania’s come far enough. “It can’t be expected to go any further”, some say, adding “at the least we deserve a little rest”. It’s true we have come a long way. But isn’t that proof that we are perfectly capable of meeting new challenges? 
As for having a breather, as long as gay Tasmanians live in fear of abusive neighbours, bullying bosses, or attacks on the street, complacency is complicity.

Another common excuse is that we’re doing quite well compared to other regional and rural areas of Australia (see above). Apart from the fact that prejudice is a problem no matter how deeply it runs, unlike these other places Tasmania has the political structures and economic resources to make change if its wants. A better comparison would be, say, Ireland, where self-deprecating rural stereotypes were long ago abandoned as an excuse not to modernise.

As for blame, I often hear southern Tasmanians blaming northerners for homophobia, or city-dwellers blaming small-towns, or established gay couples blaming immigrants for moving to the wrong town, or activists blaming each other for having the wrong priorities.

Gay hate is a problem across the island, in cities as well as towns, in the south as well as the north, and it has not one solution, but many.

Having considered all of the above, are we now in a better position to say who’s right about the acceptability and prevalence of homophobia, Roche or Punch?

Again, yes and no. The duality in cultural identity, public attitudes and policy-making offers no easy answer. But it does point us to a way of understanding this issue that is more important than identity, statistics and public policy.

The differing perspectives of Stephen Roche and Julian Punch fall into a broader debate about the nature of Tasmanian society.

Some people maintain that our island has re-invented itself as the New Tasmania of tolerance, inclusion, creativity, innovation, globally-famous food brands, top-end restaurants, inspiring wilderness, and much-loved native animals.

Others just as stridently denounce the state as an Old Tasmania of silence, exclusion, conformity, fear, poor food, poorer service, denuded hills, poisoned rivers and endless roadkill.

Who’s right?

Neither is right because both are.

As I’ve already shown, Tasmania, like every society, is full of contradictions. But unlike most other societies, Tasmania’s contradictions often lie side-by-side, or reveal themselves suddenly at the same moment in the one place, scene, word or gesture. And unlike many other societies our contradictions are almost impossible to reconcile. They are starker, more extreme, more polarised and polarising. For many Tasmanians, this creates intense emotional responses and poses profound moral challenges. Sometimes we plunge into these feelings and challenges and go a little mad. Sometimes we turn away and go a little blind.

In social terms, Tasmania’s embrace of her sons and daughters is as fierce as her rejection. Both are quite unpredictable, and often accompany each other. Tasmania can clutch you to her breast at the same time as she spits in your face. As famous children like Richard Flanagan know, you don’t have to be gay to be subject to this strange, intense, disorienting love/hate. But as people like Stephen Roche show, it helps.

In a recent editorial, senior Advocate journalist, Sean Ford, writes,

“The North West has changed a lot since the days when homophobia was virtually fashionable. Sadly, abuse and sometimes violence still occur throughout the state. Police have appointed gay community liaison officers. That is a good thing in itself, but the fact they saw the need proves problems still exist.”

Radical change and frustrating inertia, friendly acceptance and violent hatred: these are the bewildering contradictions all Tasmanians live with, gay and straight.

Only by admitting to these contradictions, and understanding their origins, their impact, the limits they set and the opportunities they offer, does it become possible to foster what’s good about Tasmania, and thereby transform it into the truly free, open and creative society we know it can be.

Rodney Croome.

Rodney Croome

In social terms, Tasmania’s embrace of her sons and daughters is as fierce as her rejection. Both are quite unpredictable, and often accompany each other. Tasmania can clutch you to her breast at the same time as she spits in your face. As famous children like Richard Flanagan know, you don’t have to be gay to be subject to this strange, intense, disorienting love/hate. But as people like Stephen Roche show, it helps.