ON Sunday, Penguin households received an anonymous leaflet warning of an “influx” of “cashed up Sydney gay men” and urging residents to “think of your children”.

The clear and deplorable implication is that gay immigration is a bad thing, and gay men are a threat to children.

Like so much else Tasmanian, this incident will seem inexplicable at first glance, and will be dismissed by many people as just another example of small town / North West Coast / island backwardness (given the Oscar results it will also inevitably inspire a stream of gay dancing penguin jokes).

But if we peel back the layers, the pamphlet begins to make some sense.

The first layer is economic development.

Several years ago a gay couple, Stephen Roche and Keith Westerby,  fell in love with Penguin, relocated to the town from Sydney and set up a market that drew customers from far and wide and boosted employment.

Not everyone was happy. Complaints were made about a lack of parking,  too many tourists, and an end to Penguin’s sleepy seclusion from the world.

The development debate intensified when the couple proposed a residential development on the waterfront. Development opponents moved to heritage-list a swath of waterfront properties. It didn’t help that the local council was deadlocked over whether to grant approval.

In typically Tasmanian fashion the development debate grew bitter,  obsessive, polarising and ever harder to resolve. For several years now not a day has gone by without some mention of the Penguin problem in the letters page of the Burnie Advocate. To their credit,  opponents of change made it clear they had nothing against “the boys” … until now.

The second layer is murder, specifically the murder of a Penguin father and son by the son’s former same-sex lover.

The murder caused a great deal heartache in Penguin, as did the revelation that one of the murdered men was gay. Suddenly Penguin had to deal not only with its go-ahead gay future, but with its closeted gay past.

The third layer is the intense public homophobia of late 20th century Tasmania, homophobia which focussed on the decriminalisation of homosexuality, which saw Tasmania labelled “Bigot’s Island” in the world press, and which was centred in the two larger towns either side of Penguin, Burnie and Ulverstone.

Both towns were bases for militant and well organised US-style anti-gay groups, the first of their kind in Australia. They not only resisted reform, but sought to reshape Tasmania as gay-free. They failed to block law reform, their homophobic vision was discredited,  and partly due to their excessiveness, Tasmania opted for much greater acceptance of sexual diversity. But the core anti-gay activists are still there, growing ever more irritated by Tasmania’s transformation.

The fourth layer is one of the least noticed elements of this transformation. Beyond a dramatic shift in laws and attitudes,  Tasmania has witnessed a demographic transformation with hundreds of same-sex couples moving to the state’s regional and rural areas from interstate and overseas. Many of these couples have started small tourism and food production businesses, established strong links to their adopted districts and profoundly impacted on local attitudes to same-sex relationships.

Sometimes there is a backlash to this impact. But just as often gay immigrants are embraced. Indeed the intensity of both responses often match. Of this, there is no better example than Penguin.

In short then, Penguin lies on the fault line in Tasmanian identity.  Whenever the tectonic plates we call the old and new Tasmania shift Penguin quakes.

Given that Penguin is a window on our collective past and future, how concerned should we be about the hate material distributed at the weekend?

Is it the final gasp of last century’s homophobia, or could it mark the resurgence of that homophobia? Does it show that Tasmania hasn’t changed at all, or does it highlight how much we’ve changed?

The second question is easiest to answer. Gay hate materials circulated in the 1990s were always proudly signed by their authors.  They were also far nastier than the Penguin pamphlet. Today these materials are both illegal and unacceptable.

The other indicator of change is that the local Mayor and representatives of Tasmania’s three political parties condemned the pamphlet within hours of its appearance, the local police gay liaison officer promised a full criminal investigation, and even renowned anti-gay campaigner and Ulverstone councillor, Rodney Cooper,  declared this opposition to discrimination. This would not have happened ten years ago. Indeed, in the 1990s civic leaders were often the worst offenders when it came to inciting gay hate.

But as important as condemnation by public figures is, it is not enough. Whether the pamphlet will open or close the door on hate depends as much on how ordinary Tasmanians receive it.

When it comes to public opinion nothing can be taken for granted,  especially on Tasmania’s North West Coast, identified in a national survey in 2005 as one of Australia’s most homophobic regions.

That’s why everyone concerned about the Penguin pamphlet must begin to consider how to address, at a grass roots level, the prejudices to which it appeals.

In two months Tasmania commemorates the tenth anniversary of gay law reform. What better opportunity to develop plans and programs for creating an even more tolerant and inclusive island community.

Rodney Croome
27.2.07

For more on …

The potential impact of the pamphlet: http://tglrg.org/more/250_0_1_0_M/

Penguin’s perennial development debate: http://www.rodneycroome.id.au/comments?id=2018_0_1_0_C

The Penguin murders: http://www.rodneycroome.id.au/comments?id=1907_0_1_0_C

Tasmania’s new gay immigrants: http://www.rodneycroome.id.au/other_more?id=2051_0_2_0_M2

Statements by Tasmanian political leaders: http://tglrg.org/more/251_0_1_0_M/ & http://www.news.com.au/mercury/story/0,22884,21293914-921,00.html

The police investigation: http://nwtasmania.yourguide.com.au/detail.asp?class=news&subclass=general&story_id=560701&category=general

The national homophobia survey: http://www.rodneycroome.id.au/comments?id=1801_0_1_0_C

Rodney Croome

In short then, Penguin lies on the fault line in Tasmanian identity.  Whenever the tectonic plates we call the old and new Tasmania shift Penguin quakes.

Given that Penguin is a window on our collective past and future, how concerned should we be about the hate material distributed at the weekend?