In the great circus of Australian politics, it seems that One Nation’s Mark Latham has once again taken the role of the clown – or perhaps, more fittingly, the loose cannon. His recent childish tweet in response to a gay colleague has rightfully sparked an outcry across the country, with even Pauline Hanson condemning it as homophobic.
But while Latham’s tweet was way out of line, and well deserving of condemnation, it’s worth asking, why did he think something like this would fly in the first place? The sad reality is, this is far from the first time the conservative movement has tested the waters of anti-LGBT sentiment – it’s simply a rare case where they’ve really gotten their fingers burned. In fact, I’d wager that in the eyes of his conservative colleagues, Latham’s real crime isn’t his message, but what they are really offended by is his delivery. In their eyes, it’s fine to be intolerant, as long as you wrap it up in the pretense of morality and concern for the greater good.
It has not gone un-noticed that right-wing rhetoric in the last two years has slowly been ratcheting up the anti-LGBT sentiment, and in that context it’s easier to understand why Latham and the recent appearance of Nazis in Melbourne have mistakenly started saying the quiet part out loud. Their fault, if anything, was more an issue of timing than message. Steeped in the cesspool of online hate, where a narrative is running rampant that “anti-Christian trans and gay activist are on a crusade to groom defenceless children”, they are simply further down the pipeline than their ilk, and didn’t realise that unlike sections of America, we have not yet moved on to accepting public hate-speech or calls for outright genocide, outside of select online bubbles.
But the groundwork for this ideology is already here in this country, festering away below the surface of public debate. When One Nation called Safe Schools “legalised grooming”, when a senator called for Courtney Act to be banned from PlaySchool by equating reading a bedtime story to a sex crime, when News Corp editorialised that Disney is “pushing radical gender ideology onto children” aren’t they contributing to the same toxic atmosphere that Latham’s tweet did? When trans healthcare legislation is more likely to be influenced by Murdoch’s newspaper columnists willfully spreading lies to boost sales, instead of being directed by seasoned doctors and psychologists, how is that any less harmful? When the ACL, a small but vocal anti-LGBT ‘christian’ lobby is given regular airtime to claim things like “homosexuality is as harmful as smoking”, how are we surprised when someone finally feels emboldened enough to start throwing around homophobic slurs?
It’s all too easy to dismiss the buffoonery of Latham’s tweet as a singular mis-step by an unhinged fringe MP, while overlooking what is being whispered behind closed doors in right wing spaces across the country, or in one recent riot, spilling out onto the streets. It wasn’t that long ago that leader of the opposition Peter Dutton banned LGBT acceptance events in the military, and former PM Scott Morrison boycotted the vote that passed same-sex marriage into law. And let’s not forget Katherine Deves, the outspoken anti-trans activist who received the full support of The Liberal Party when she ran for office last election. It’s not hard to believe that these people would be just as happy to spew the kind of hate Latham dropped publicly, if the Overton window were to shift just a little more in their favour.
And it’s not just reserved to politics. Prominent social media personalities, like The Spaniard, have recently come out in full throated support for the ‘grooming’ myth, while other, more wiley creators continue to push the same toxic narrative to their fans under the guise of defending against “rainbow flags”, “woke culture”, or “the LGBT mafia”. Many have co-opted legitimate concerns about pink-washing by corporations to back their calls for less LGBT people in public life. The recent school shooting in America has even been leapt upon by sections of the right to paint their anti-trans rhetoric as justified, with those who previously claimed that shootings are “not a time for politics” apparently happy to play politics if the victim is not their access to semi-automatic weapons.
All this is not to say that is was wrong that people like Latham have been called out for their opportunistic hate against the LGBT community, but rather that we shouldn’t be accepting equal amounts of intolerance from people smart enough to dress it up in the framing of “debate” or a nebulous moral panic. The truth is, the conservative right isn’t upset with the core message of Latham’s tweet – they’re just upset that he didn’t disguise it in the usual trappings of faux concern and moral superiority, where cries of “woke” and “cancel culture” can be deployed to shut down any critics. But if we don’t start calling a spade a spade when hatespeech weasels its way into public life, it won’t be long before views like Latham’s do become the new normal, and that is a very dark path to be headed down.