Friday, July 29, 2011

Personal Safety and Personal Freedom

Back in January of 2011, a police officer from Toronto got up to deliver what he thought was an important safety message. His message echoed around the world: “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised”. I think the reason the police officer said what he did is that he had a picture in his mind of the 'typical' rape: a young woman wearing a little black dress in an alleyway. The problem is, he had it all wrong: there is no 'typical' rape, and even that exact scenario is not about the girl in the dress. It's about a criminal, and a desire for power and domination; wearing jeans and a jumper won't change that. But I'm not here to write that article: plenty of others have already done that.

I want, instead, to look at a different issue. I want to deliver the message that police officer should have delivered.

Life is about risk, not safety. When we step outside our home, we expose ourselves to risk. If we stay inside, we expose ourselves to different risks. If we play sport, or we travel, or we fall in love, we're risking. We risk our emotions, our health, and our safety every day. When a gay teenager comes out to his classmates, he's risking. When someone asks their lover if they will marry them, they're risking. And yes, when a girl wears a short skirt, she is risking. She is showing off who she is, and risking how people will take it. When a guy shaves his legs; when a girl shaves her head; whenever we are ourselves, we risk.

Risking is living. The risks we take, and how we take them, make us who we are. When that police officer told women not to dress like sluts, he didn't only demean women for how they dressed; he asked women to give up their freedom, their identity. Even if dressing conservatively could protect women from assault - and it can't - it's not an OK trade. It wasn't just the wrongness of the idea that made it so bad, or even the insult. What made it worse was that the very police force that trained that man and put him on the stage that day exists for the opposite reason: it exists not to constrain our freedom in return for safety, but to protect our safety, as we remain free.

In light of that, what can a woman to do if she wants to improve her safety? It's a delicate question, and the answer is both everything and nothing. You could fortify your house, hire armed guards, and never go out; you'd be very safe, but you wouldn't be living. No risk, see? No life. Conversely, you could change nothing; you'd be less safe than you might be, but you'll be being you. That's not my advice either, though.

There are things you can do to improve your safety without compromising who you are. In fact, some may even enhance who you are! A good example might be taking a self-defense class. I've been studying taekwondo for nearly fifteen years now; I took it up for the self-defense aspect, but I grew to love it, and it's become very much a part of who I am. Most martial arts will not only boost your abilities and fitness, but also your awareness and confidence, and you get to meet new people and have fun at the same time! If you don't like the idea of a formal martial art, there are plenty of classes aimed specifically at teaching women self-defense skills: Brisbane City Council is currently providing free classes about personal safety.

There are lots of things you can do to be safe, but they should all work to protect who you are, not to smother you. The first step is to be yourself, and don't let fear become a prison. Thinking about going for a run by yourself at night? It's a risk. If you're the sort of person who enjoys a run at night, go for it! If you don't really want to anyway, but feel you should 'to keep fit', you can look for less risky ways to keep fit. Or, you know what? We're in a modern, mostly-safe society. Go for that run anyway! Perhaps you have a neighbour with a dog you could offer to take out. Look for ways to improve your safety which fit in with who you are.

The final thing I want you to keep in mind is that these are the things you can do to improve your safety. Can. If you change the question to "What should I do to improve my safety?" the answer becomes even simpler: nothing. There is nothing you should do. Be yourself. Live life. Bad things happen, and so do good things, and ultimately there is no guarantee. If you want to take a self-defense class, or start running with your neighbour's dog, go for it! If you want to stay how you are now, do that. We're all different, and it's our diversity that makes us a society worth living in.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why not Civil Unions?

Warren Entsch wants to bring in civil unions instead of same-sex marriage. On the face of it, it doesn't sound like a bad idea to many listeners - the religious lobby will stop objecting, and gay people get their recognition. Bam! Problem solved. Except that it isn't, and I'd like to tell you why.

The number one goal (to my mind, as a straight guy) of allowing same-sex marriage is to normalise being gay. Let's dig into that for a moment. Being gay is a born-that-way kind of thing: your kids won't be "recruited" during high school, and normalising homosexuality isn't going to result in more (or fewer) gay people. What it is going to do is mean that gay people are more accepted and less bullied, and that means those people who are born-that-way-gay are going to have an easier time growing up, be less likely to commit suicide (the rate is much higher than among the straight population,) and generally tend to be happier, healthier citizens. That's not to say that gay people aren't often happy, healthy contributors to society: lots of them are. But we could make it better.

I touched on one common fear back there: the "recruitment" fear. For a start, all of the science says that gay people are born, not made, but the myth persists. The Globe and Mail recently quoted a gay parent talking about the questions they were asked during the adoption process, and one was "... if we expected her to be gay". A lot of straight people just can't understand or relate to being gay, and so they'll believe things like this. The reason gay people may seem to 'become' that way during their high school years is the same reason lots of people 'become' different things during those years. During the teenage years, you're discovering your adult self. I didn't 'become' a musician or a martial artist so much as I discovered that I loved those things. Nobody recruited me into being a bookworm: I discovered books, and nobody could keep me away from them! At the same time, no amount of 'recruiting' could have made me prefer boys: it just isn't in me. Here's a fear to replace the one that your kid might be 'recruited' into being gay: they may actually be gay, and end up bullied, perhaps driven to suicide, perhaps trapped in a miserable sham straight marriage because they're trying to pretend they're not gay (even to themselves!) If they're going to be gay regardless, wouldn't you prefer they be a happy gay? Wouldn't you want them to be able to dream about that special day they marry the love of their life? Wouldn't you rather that we normalised who they are, so they can be accepted?

There's another very good reason for allowing same-sex marriage, rather than coming up with a different word for it, and that's for all the straight kids affected by it. Like it or not, gay couples raise kids: many places (including parts of Australia) have been allowing gay couples to adopt for a long time now; male couples can use surrogacy services; and lesbian couples have even more options. In fact, the research says that you should like it: gay couples tend to raise the same sorts of healthy, happy kids that straight couples do, and when they adopt, gay couples who raise kids are making those kids' lives much better than they might otherwise have been. Now, I promised to tell you how letting gay couples get married helps these kids, so here it is: kids with gay parents have parents whose relationships are stigmatised. Society is telling these kids that their parents' relationship is different to the relationships of all the other kids' parents. Different is certainly not necessarily bad, but we should let these kids struggle with differences that are important to them, not differences we create by setting up another word for the love their parents share. A recently emerging trend is that gay couples are more likely to adopt when they're allowed to marry, and that means more previously-unwanted kids placed into loving families - another nice bonus.

Here's a further reason: Australia doesn't exist in a vacuum. Countries all over the world are legalising same-sex marriage. Even the counservative United States have legalised it in several states, and more look set to follow. When we send our civil-unioned gay citizens abroad, what's their status? Are they married, or not? Do they need to marry again if they move overseas? Will they not be allowed to be married, because their relationship has already been solemnized in Australia? What about their kids? What about immigration laws? Can the married couple even move overseas, or will one be sent back, unable to get residency as a married couple because they're not married? How about arriving migrant gay couples who were married overseas? What do we do with them? The simple fact is that using a different word will create a world of confusion.

Arguments aside, people do point out to me that civil unions are an easier sell, and that we could just take that now, with fewer objections. But what we see is that the people making the noise don't really care about marriage; they care about making sure gay people are NOT normalised. They have latched onto the idea that gay people are wrong and need to be oppressed, and they just won't let go of it. It doesn't matter if we talk about some other aspect of gay rights: whether it be anti-discrimination laws, or parenting, or marriage, you can see the same lobby groups making the same noises. Joel Osteen, the pastor of the Lakewood Mega-Church in Houston Texas, actively campaigns against same-sex civil unions. Archbishop Malango heavily criticised the Church of England for their support for same-sex civil unions. A number of US Catholic Bishops have expressed their dismay at the legalisation of same-sex civil unions. And lest you tell me that, of course, the church will be against this, the United States division of the United Church of Christ not only voted their support for the legalisation of same-sex marriage, but also encourages member churches to celebrate those marriages in Christian ceremonies. A Lutheran minister in the United States preached in his Mothers' Day sermon, "I have a very hard time finding any reason to be afraid of what is happening in Massachusetts and Iowa and elsewhere. The institution of marriage is strong; it cannot be damaged by extending it to others who want to get married. On the contrary, marriage is strengthened by doing so." The anti-gay lobby will always object, whether we're campaigning for marriage or merely for some other sort of union, but we're increasingly seeing even religious groups coming out in support of marriage equality.

There's another simple fact that we mustn't lose sight of: legalising same-sex marriage is an inevitability. You cannot consider the progress made over the past twenty years, and come to any other conclusion. What is in doubt is whether it will happen in one year, or ten. A recent nation-wide poll found that 75% of Australians believe that same-sex marriage is inevitable. It enjoys majority support, across the board, and the numbers only get higher if you look at younger generations. In twenty years' time, our parliament will be filled with a new generation who grew up with a much better awareness of gay people. They will know gay couples who have been together for years, and they will look forward to going to their weddings. No lobby group will be able to raise enough objections to stop this. And because of that simple fact, creating a whole 'nother institution is a profoundly wasteful thing: it will all be thrown out down the track anyway, when we do allow gay marriage, only we'll have the complication of all those couples who got gay-civil-unioned on the way through. Do we just default them to marriage then? Do we make them get married? It's the Australia-isn't-a-vacuum problem all over again.

What it gets down to, ultimately, is that the institution of marriage is a tremendously valuable thing. You simply can't match the social value of marriage with anything else. "Separate but equal" is not equal. Can you really picture telling your fifteen-year-old daughter, in love for the first time, that she won't be able to get married, but that she can have a civil union when the time comes? A wedding, the marriage of two people in love, is something that everyone can relate to, and something that many many young people dream of. It's at the core of the hopes and aspirations of each generation, and it holds the promise for the next one. Let's stop excluding people, okay?