28 January 2015

How Prince Phillip Got His Knighthood

SCENE: mid-January, a meeting at the office of Prime Minister Tony Abbott to discuss who shall be appointed to a knighthood under the revised Australian honours system. Present are the Prime Minister himself; his Chief of Staff Peta Credlin; secretary of the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Michael Thawley; Abbott's Chief of Communications Mark Simkin; Deputy Secretary Dr Heather Smith; adviser on Honours, Symbols and Territories, Peter Rush; and numerous administrative and advisory staff.

The decision to award a knighthood to retired airforce chief Angus Houston was met with general acclaim, but the issue of who else is to be honoured has stalled after several hours of at times heated discussion. Everyone is looking forward to getting out of there when Credlin says "I don't know, why don't we just give it to Prince Philip or something?"

There is general mirth in the room. Abbott sits quietly for some long seconds, a half smile on his face, his eyes slightly glazed and his head bobbing in that way he does, before joining in with a chuckle. "Look, I think that's a really wonderful way to honour his service to the country".

The room explodes with laughter. Sweet baby Jebus, Abbott thought they were being serious. Finally, Thawley manages to splutter out between gasps of laughter, "mate, it was a joke!"

Again, Abbott is silent for some moments until he realises the mickey has been taken out of him. A dark thought comes to mind. I'll show them, he vows to himself.

23 January 2015

No, we can't all just get along

Something we're hearing a lot as Australia Day approaches, with the attendant debates on whether it's appropriate to celebrate given what the day means for Indigenous Australians, is "come on guys, we're all equal! Why can't we all just get along?"

Here's why not.

Saying that race doesn't matter and we've moved on sure sounds plausible to the sort of people who believe that unless you're spouting off on Facebook that Aboriginals are all drunken layabouts that trash the palatial houses the government provides them, you're not racist. But in fact insisting we're all equal is perhaps the very definition of white privilege. It's denying the racism that is still a very real factor in the lives of black people in Australia today.

How do I know this? From reading and listening to the lived experiences of black people. And they're under no obligation to present those experiences in a warm and fuzzy way to alleviate whitey guilt. They have a right to express their truth however they choose, with no obligation to educate us or keep us on side. We though have an obligation to listen. And there's something about watching white people deny the experiences of black people and tell them off for being angry that makes me a little bit sick and ashamed.

Listen. If you don't see race, realise that's because you have the choice to not acknowledge racism as a factor in society today. You have white privilege. Check your privilege and listen to what the people who actually do experience racism have to say about it.

17 January 2015

Is a Serial Killer Targeting Sydney's Gay Men?

Media speculation is growing that the deaths of 61 people in the Manchester canals in the last six years cannot be explained away by accidents and may be the work of a serial killer - a killer who is possibly targeting homosexual men in the gay district of Manchester surrounding Canal Street.

It can take many years before a pattern becomes apparent in a string of unexplained deaths, and a noteworthy case in Australia is the so-called Bondi Gay murders. The Bondi Murders were a string of up to 80 unexplained deaths of gay men and transgender women, largely in Sydney's beachside suburbs, stretching from the 1970s to the 1990s; you can also view a documentary on the case here.  The deaths included bashings, stabbings and most notably, an unknown number of men thrown off cliffs at Sydney beaches, often near known "gay beats" where men would meet for sexual encounters.

The wave of violence was not recognised as a coordinated campaign against gay men at the time; the deaths and disappearances from beachside cliffs were often dismissed as suicides or accidents, such as the case of Wollongong newsreader Ross Warren, who vanished from a Bondi clifftop in 1989. Mr Warren's friends and family were adamant he did not disappear voluntarily, however the police investigation, described as "woefully inadequate" by the coroner in 2005 in declaring that Mr Warren was likely murdered, concluded his death was accidental.

The case received widespread media attention in 2013, led by a series of investigative reports from Sydney Morning Herald journalist Rick Feneley, acknowledging the work of Detective Sergeant Stephen Page and the first Gay and Lesbian Consultant to the NSW Police, Sue Thompson, in finally bringing these cases to light. And whilst many offenders were convicted, up to thirty of these deaths were never solved.

The accepted belief is that the Bondi Gay murders were a product of the atmosphere of the times, and were contained in the period from the late Seventies to the Nineties. However, in looking at a series of disappearances and deaths of gay men in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs in recent years, it seems things are unsettled - and unsettling. Did the murders ever end? Is there a killer or group of killers targeting Sydney's gay men to this day?

There are some disturbing cases:

Matthew Leveson, 20 from Cronulla, who was last seen leaving Sydney's ARQ nightclub, just off the famous Oxford St strip, in September 2007. Mr Leveson's boyfriend of two years was tried and acquitted of his murder in 2009; his body has never been found. There is a $100,000 reward for information leading to the discovery of his body.

Anthony Cawsey, 37 from Redfern, who was found murdered in Centennial Park in Sydney's east in September 2009. Mr Cawsey was described as having a "secret gay life", not openly identifying as homosexual. Mr Cawsey left his home the night before the murder after returning from work, possibly travelling to Centennial Park where there was a known gay beat. Police have denied Mr Cawsey's death was a gay hate crime or linked to any other murders; it remains unsolved.

Simon Knight, 32 from Redfern, who was last seen at the Crown Hotel in Surry Hills in July 2005. Mr Knight, lived openly as a gay man and was said to be suffering from depression; there was also speculation that he had been recently diagnosed with HIV around the time of his disappearance. Police stated in 2013 that they believe he is alive and well; however, there is now a $100,000 reward for information regarding the circumstances of his disappearance.

Ahmed Ghoniem, 27 from Elizabeth Bay or Potts Point (accounts vary; the two areas adjoin), found seriously injured in his burning apartment in October 2012; he died of his injuries shortly after. Mr Ghoniem was an Egyptian national who moved to Australia to live openly as himself without fear of persecution. Mr Ghoniem was a regular at nightclubs on Oxford Street including Phoenix and ARQ. Following his death, Mr Ghoniem's wealthy family refused to have his body returned to Egypt due to his life as an openly gay man, and he was buried in Rookwood Cemetery. No one has ever been charged in relation to his death.

Speculation about a serial killer has been circulating in the gay community for several years, dismissed by police, referring to gay activist Gary Burns who contacted police regarding the theory, as "a lunatic" (for which the assistant commissioner later apologised). But then of course the initial wave of deaths were written off as accident. The relationship between police and the gay community has improved enormously since then, but doubts and questions still remain. I hope someone is taking a good look at these cases and asking difficult questions.


14 January 2015

Making Circumcision a Men's Rights Issue is a Mistake

As someone who's been opposed to infant male circumcision for many years, I was somewhat startled to see a new voice in the debate recently; men's rights groups claiming that it's feminism's fault that cutting baby boys' genitals is not taken as seriously as when it happens to girls. It's frequently said that "you can't compare female genital mutilation to male circumcision", mainly by people from cultures where male circumcision is normalised, and not wanting to carry on the idea that if the latter is okay, the former must not be so bad either; actually, there are a lot of us who think both are pretty terrible.

Not according to the men's rights movement though; it's feminists who have trivialised and stifled debate on circumcision, and the idea is getting airtime not just on MRA forums, but in the mainstream media, such as this article from the UK's Telegraph, where the writer blames acceptance of circumcision on:

"...the world of nitwit feminism in which males are of no consequence at all...If, therefore, boys and men could be seen to suffer some adversity solely by reason of their gender, the entire canonical edifice of feminism might wobble on its foundation stones."

Feminists apparently don't care about issues faced only by men, which is why we're in the streets every weekend demanding an end to the treatment of testicular cancer. Really, this is the "angry lesbian" view of feminism - that feminists cannot be wives or mothers or caring about anything except establishing a female supremacy. Not true, of course (even the angry lesbians I know are actually pretty nice people who can't abide suffering).

But I don't like the men's rights movement, and by making circumcision into an MRA issue, it runs the risk of alienating allies and supporters. The issues surrounding the intactivist movement - the right to bodily autonomy, to make one's own decisions on healthcare, that it is just wrong for the bigger, stronger person to unilaterally make decisions on behalf of the smaller, more powerless people - are also central ideals of feminism. I have seen a post on a parenting forum by a father stating that his 3 week old son's circumcision, using ineffective EMLA cream which did not prevent the boy from howling in agony, would "toughen him up".

What feminist would want that? We are against the notion that men need to be strong, impervious to pain, releasing their emotions only through alcohol and their fists. But being for the concept of bodily autonomy? Absolutely. Men's rights groups do themselves no favours hijacking the issue of circumcision. But they really hurt the little boys they're trying to protect.

12 January 2015

The Two Types of Climate Skeptic

There's two types of climate change skeptic you see in the depressingly frequent "debates" on this issue.

The first lot aim for an (non-warming) air of legitimacy, with sites such as Watts Up With That and the very official sounding Non-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. They have their celebrity spokespeople such as Lord Monckton, and their own science too, with claims of manipulated figures, heavy use of phrases such as "anthropogenic", "natural cycles" and "global cooling", claims climate scientists are only in it for the money, and of course the oft-repeated claim that global warming stopped in 1998. (And it's always adorable when online commentators lose track of how many years it's been). They're a small group with a hell of a lot of funding on their side.

The second lot, though...they make no pretence at evidence or credibility; they simply don't see the need. They say things like "well I don't think the world is getting hotter I remember very hot days when I was a child but people call you dumb for having a different opinion!" (there's usually more than just one exclamation point, but I'll spare you). When I first heard someone say "climate change is rubbish, I remember lots of hot days when I was younger", I actually thought it was a joke, but it's true; these people honestly think their memories and anecdotes are equivalent to the weight of scientific evidence, that one can have feelings and opinions on scientific facts. John Oliver said it best:


I wouldn't care, except that these people vote, and they helped to vote in a government with a disastrous record on the environment, and they are utterly incapable of understanding why this is wrong. Where has the education system fallen down that the most basic concepts of logic and deduction are beyond these people?

It's hard to say which group are worse. The ideologue brigade, for all their money and influence, are thankfully dismissed as kooks by most in the media and government. The "I knows what I knows" crowd might actually be worse, unshakable in their convictions that they are entitled to an opinion on climate change and the whole thing is bunk by so-called experts whose doctoral degrees aren't worth anything compared to memories of hot days in childhood. There will always be lots of stupid people, and in Australia they're compelled to vote, and we see the disastrous results (God help us all if the libertarian anti-vaccination movement gets traction).

What we need is better education. Not just the kind of teaching climate science as fact which leads to howls of "brainwashing!" from the right, but education on the basic concepts of logic and deduction, how to distinguish opinion from evidence, feelings from facts. This would have other benefits, too - how do people who can't distinguish emotion and logic serve on juries, for instance? Alas, this change to the curriculum is unlikely to happen under the current government - and until that changes, on this and so many other matters, god help us.

09 January 2015

Donald Trump, the Duggars and Guns In America

The rather odd attitude of sectors of American society to gun ownership could be summed up in this picture:

Image from Duggar Family Blog


It's Jedidiah Duggar, of the Duggar family of 19 Kids and Counting reality TV and evangelical fame, posing with the gun he was given as a 16th birthday present. Whilst the picture has attracted much criticism, defenders of the Duggars want you to know it's all okay. The official endorsed Duggar family blog posted that the controversy misses a key point, the Duggars' stance on gun safety:

The Duggars understand the importance of teaching their kids how to safely use firearms in order to prevent or minimize the likelihood of accidents. 

 Here is what Jim Bob Duggar said about the issue when it was brought up by the media in 2011: 

 "We believe it is important for children to learn safety about guns and knives. To learn how to use them properly and to learn not to use them to hurt others but to use them as a tool." 

 The Duggars, who defend their constitutional right to bear arms, only allow their older children who have been instructed in gun safety to use fire arms.

So, that's okay then? Well, no it isn't. Wouldn't it be a heck of a lot safer to just not have the gun in the first place? Even if he felt the need for a firearm for "personal protection", there's no way that thing he's holding is for protection. It's to kill stuff. And no doubt also to prove to liberals that ain't no one taking the Real America's guns away. Guns are seen as inevitable. Best learn how to use them safely.

But there's little point trying to appeal to the pro gun lobby on the issue of gun safety. It's been provenover and over again, that having a gun in the home greatly increases your risk of violent death, and they don't care. They, the good guys, need their guns to defend themselves against the bad guys with guns. Donald Trump had at it this week, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre:



Again, guns are inevitable - so law-abiding citizens should expect gunfire to break out at any moment and be equipped to start shooting back. One of the most prominent proponents of this stance is former member of the Texas House of Representatives, Suzanna Hupp, who survived the 1991 Luby's Massacre, in which her parents and 22 others were killed, and believes she would have been able to stop the slaughter if she had been legally able to carry her .38 revolver in her purse. Hupp became an outspoken opponent of gun control, writing a memoir titled From Luby's to the Legislature: One Woman's Fight Against Gun Control, and stating: "How a politician stands on the Second Amendment tells you how he or she views you as an individual... as a trustworthy and productive citizen, or as part of an unruly crowd that needs to be lorded over, controlled, supervised, and taken care of".

It makes a neat soundbite, and gets at the heart of how gun control opponents see society. While most of us would view constantly having to be vigilant to respond to random gunfire as warfare, not civilised society they view it as well worth it to preserve their rights to bear arms. It doesn't matter if the bad guys have guns, the good guys can fight back!

To which I would ask, just how many innocent bystanders - collateral damage, if you will - are you willing to sacrifice in the time between when the bad guys start shooting and the good guys respond?

How would you prevent a Sandy Hook? An armed guard on every campus - whom the shooter takes out first? An armed guard in every classroom - at what expense? Each teacher keeping a loaded gun in their desk - to what risk to the children? If it was locked away, surely it would be useless if an armed intruder burst in? What if the gunmen took out the teacher first?

In a time where teachers are overworked, underpaid, struggling with quotas and standardised testing and changing curricula and children with varied special needs and training children for careers in an economy that doesn't exist yet - and now they have to  add another duty to their roster, armed defence of the children in their care?

Is a continuous stream of gun massacres, smaller in death toll as they may be if, as you propose, the good guys get to shoot back - worth it for gun freedom?

Or wouldn't it just be a better idea to try and stop everyone, the good and the bad, from getting the guns?

07 January 2015

I'm Also Done Apologising

When I was 18 I travelled with a large group of other Australians to Tokyo. I know - lucky kid, huh? What a great way to celebrate adulthood and finishing the HSC. All that culture, electronics, great food - I should have had the time of my life.

I hated it, and I couldn't quite fathom why. I remember getting a subway to Ginza, standing in a six-story electronics department store, and freaking out, tears rolling down my cheeks. It was awful. It was too much. I couldn't cope, and I couldn't understand why everyone else was having such a great time. I assumed everyone found Tokyo, the world, life as overwhelming as I did, but they handled it better; I was just a spoilt brat, weak, wrong.

I didn't know I was different. Oh, well of course I knew. I was always told I was weird, boring, that no one liked me, that my meltdowns were the sign of a bad character, that I was just wrong. No one made allowances or took any of my quirks into consideration; it was all my fault and it needed to be disciplined out of me.

I didn't know that I wasn't, after all, defective. I didn't know what was almost certainly wrong with me had a name - Asperger's Syndrome. I am planning to get a formal diagnosis in the next year, but until then, I've been thinking. And when I read the awesome Carly Findlay's blog post about how she's done apologising for her skin and her cream, I thought I'm going to stop apologising, too. I'm going to stop apologising and just be honest about how autism affects me and how I interact with the world.

There's still so much misunderstanding about Asperger's Syndrome, especially how it affects adults, especially how it affects women. Reactions from people have been mixed, from the well intentioned (suggestions of counselling from people who believed it is a form of mental illness) to the plain horrible (labelling my meltdowns and hand-flapping as crazy). But deep down, I don't think a lot of people take it seriously. Yes, we understand you have Asperger's, but couldn't you just cope with this wedding/shopping trip/moving house if you really wanted to? You know, just hold it together for a few hours? Well, some of us can, but let me tell you it is an enormous effort. I spent the first 25 years of my life trying to "act normal" without even knowing that's what I was doing, and it made me miserable and depressed - from meltdowns at school pick up time in primary school, to drinking to cope with adult parties to try and dull the noise of the sensory overload assaulting my head.

I'm not going to just cope any more.

If I feel the need to refuse a party invitation, I will. If I go I'm not going to apologise for sitting on the sofa by myself for a chunk of time. I'm not going to apologise for my aversion to bright lights, loud noises, for the facial cues I miss. If a stranger touches me without asking, I'll tell them in no uncertain terms that that is not okay. And if colleagues find out that Nico is a great target for jokes that take the piss ("she always believes you!") I'm going to speak up right away, not let it go on for months.

I can pass, pass as normal, which is not an option for many people with disabilities, but I'm tired of having to. It's exhausting and frustrating. And I believe I have a duty not to; I have a duty to speak up, educate, to make life a bit easier for those who come after (having gone through the hellish experience of learning to drive last year - having to spend many hours in a confined space with a stranger who is closely examine you do something unfamiliar that requires co-ordination and spatial awareness, as Aspie's worst nightmare - I do wonder what happens when the kids in the current so-called autism epidemic start learning to drive? Changes needed there certainly, though I'm not sure what).

Anyway, we are not spoiled, or difficult, or crazy (well, some of us do have mental issues, but that is separate to the autism). We have accessibility needs too (one I thought of recently was autism friendly shopping hours at supermarkets, with slightly dimmed lighting and no muzak or announcements) and we need to speak up, politely but firmly, that this is for real and we're not apologising.

03 January 2015

Halal Choices

New year, renewed to-do about Halal foods in the supermarket. Although many common food items have been Halal certified for years, the bigots and racists are only making a fuss about it now. Of course, they deny being racist on the grounds "Islam is not a race!" even as they refer to "ragheads" and "sandn******" who need to go back to their own country, said country not being Australia, which is apparently reserved for whatever they have deemed to be the Australian race. Okay...

Anyway, they want you to know they have really good reasons for boycotting Halal food:

  • Halal fees fund terrorism (really? Any evidence of that? Well, don't just post it on your Facebook pages, contact the federal police). 
  • They resent having to pay an extra fee for Halal certification of foods, even though such a fee is so negligible as to be laughable - you'd have to buy over 100 jars of Vegemite to pay a cent towards Halal certification (would you bother to pick up a 5c coin you saw dropped in the street?). 
  • Halal slaughter is cruel (weren't you the ones calling leftists bleeding hearts when live cattle exports to Indonesia were banned after claims of animal cruelty? What about non-meat Halal food, what's your problem there? And while we're at it, do you boycott sweatshop clothing? surely you're also concerned about cruelty to women and children working in third world sweatshops).
  • They don't want to eat food sacrificed to a false God (Allah is simply the Arabic word for God; Arabic Christians pray to Allah - who is the same God worshipped by Jews as Hashem and Christians as God; the Catholic church has stated there is no reason for Catholics to not eat Halal food).
  • They don't want to support any religion (okay, well I'm assuming you actively boycott Christmas and Easter, work on Sundays, and...)
  • They object that we have to pander to a minority (you mean the minority who have a problem with Halal food?).
But strangest of all is when they try to pretend their fear of Muslim germs in the form of Halal food is some sort of human rights issue. "I have my own reasons for wanting to buy non-Halal food", they complain, if they've not already flounced off after their above reasons have been debunked, "shouldn't I have a choice?". They're deprived of this choice, and it's not fair; it's an Islamic violation of their god-given rights as Australians.

Well, if we have a right to our choices, here are some I'd like:

I'd like the choice to walk down the street or drive my car with the windows open without being hit with second hand smoke.

I'd like the choice to navigate public spaces without the fear of sexual harassment or assault. I'd like to know others have their choice to negotiate their lives without facing homophobia, bigotry or racism.

I'd like the choice to walk the streets, board a train, or sit at a cafe without having to see the filth of a Murdoch tabloid.

I would like the choice, when buying clothing, to have it clearly labelled as using sweatshop labour; when buying cosmetics, to know if they were tested on animals, when buying eggs labelled as free range, to know what standard that means.

I would like the choice to send my child to public school without having them exposed to religious instruction against my will.

I'd like to the choice, when filling my car with petrol, to know that the petrol was not actually funding terrorism; that our defence forces, funded through my actual taxes, are not purchasing oil from the very enemies we are supposed to be fighting. 

If I could have those choices, then maybe I'll get on board the anti-Halal civil rights bandwagon. If we could have those choices, maybe I'll accept that "choice" is what this is really all about.