Court’s statements are not unique. Irrespective of her position on marriage equality, her comments reflect broader social prejudices shared by many who believe that homosexuality is an affliction or lifestyle choice that can (and should) be ‘cured’ using reparative therapies.
So why then protest about Margaret Court at an international sporting event?
Sport occupies a privileged space in our national culture. When our revered athletes speak, we usually listen.
Is it any wonder then, that when sporting greats like Margaret Court forcefully remind us of the homophobia that continues to exist, we need to sit up and take notice?
Court’s views are not innocuous. This became crystallised when she claimed that Victory Life Centre Church, to which she belongs, had been able to assist same-sex attracted people to ‘overcome’ their ‘abominable sexual practices’ and live as heterosexuals.
‘Ex-gay’ therapies, as they are commonly referred to, are expressly repudiated by professional psychological and psychiatric institutions in Australia. These ‘therapies’ are premised on the idea that same-sex attraction is a developmental social defect that can be corrected with ongoing treatment.
Specifically, these treatments encourage particularly coercive techniques aimed at disciplining the body. This often translates into encouraging abstinence, disciplining physical comportment (how you walk, talk, etc) and providing peer-support networks to enforce the boundaries of ‘appropriate’ intimacies that can be shared between people of the same and opposite sex.
Pathologising being gay or lesbian not only undermines the emotional wellbeing of individuals, it promotes a culture where being different is something to be stigmatised or made shameful.
If anything, this debate should serve as a warning that homophobia remains a systemic problem in our communities. Whether it comes from an esteemed public figure, or a friend or family member, we must challenge bigotry wherever it manifests.
Tennis Australia made a commendable statement just prior to the Championships stating unequivocally that discrimination against a person on the basis of their sexual orientation is unacceptable.
Whether or not you think sports should be a place of politics, every person has the right to live with dignity and respect.
It is easy to think that being openly gay is no longer a problem in Australia. However, if we take a closer look, it is not difficult to find the gay elder coerced into hiding their relationship to access aged care; or the young person teased in the playground for not being ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ enough.
In a society that still demands people’s sexual identity be visible, if they are not heterosexual, coming out has become a double bind. Either a person must be public about their sexuality and risk social ostracism and discrimination or, as Court’s comments evince, be shamed or coerced into remaining silent or repressing feelings to fit with a parochial idea of being ‘normal’.
In a recent consultation on discrimination faced by sexual and gender minorities, the Australian Human Rights Commission expressed concern that about 80 per cent of same-sex attracted students felt that their school was either homophobic, or did not actively seek to address homophobic bullying.
Of the young people interviewed, more than 30 per cent recounted some kind of suicidal ideation or had attempted suicide because of their sexual feelings.
For children living in same-sex families, homophobic rhetoric also undermines the love and care that many thousands of same-sex couples selflessly provide. Despite changes to Commonwealth laws to recognise same-sex families, some states and territories still have discriminatory parenting laws, such as in the area of adoption.
Even in the Commonwealth legislative sphere, Australia still lacks federal anti-discrimination laws that proscribe discrimination on the basis of sex, sexuality and gender diversity. Broad ranging faith-based exemptions under most existing state and territory discrimination laws also permit the exclusion of sexual and gender minorities from accessing vital public services. Religion is used to mask what is effectively public administration.
When it comes to intimate citizenship, same-sex couples are still denied marriage equality. Despite the fact that marriage laws in Australia confer no religious or reproductive mandate, this rhetoric continues to shape discriminatory relationship recognition.
So as the rainbows adorned the various arenas at the Australian Open, let us make sure that we remind ourselves, and indeed our politicians, that not everyone has access to a fair go.
We must be more willing to speak out against homophobia, wherever it manifests, if we are to build a community that respects the human rights and dignity of all people, regardless of who they love.
SENTHORUN RAJ is the Senior Policy Advisor of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby.
© 2012 Senthorun Raj