WTF’s the problem

May 26, 2012 in General

Mid-1980s law reform protest. Photo credit: Ian Mackley,

For some time now, the “c” word has been levelled at some in our communities, and the word is “complacent”. editor Jay Bennie even went so far as to pronounce the death of activism in a recent editorial about the AIDS Candlelight Memorials.  He has a point.

In remembering those who died in the first phase of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, we should remember what they were up against.  This was a country where homosexual sex was illegal, no provisions were in place to stop you being fired from your job, kicked out of your home, refused treatment from a doctor or service from a business because of your sexuality or HIV status.  Relationship recognition wasn’t even on the radar.

As friends and partners died, and people lived under daily threat of arrest or discrimination with no legal redress whatsoever, a grass roots movement organised under the banner of another “c” word: “confront”.

Bennie writes:

“…against the kind of odds which are almost unimaginable today they were incredibly successful. They got laws changed, society awakened, organisations created and results achieved. They built networks and resources and projects and saw them through to exhilarating and well-earned success.

“In the new millennium most of the lessons they taught us by their heroic examples are forgotten by, or unknown to, most glbti people.

“… let’s ask ourselves what are we, as individuals and groups of all kinds, actually doing now, in 2012, to make life better for those who still need our wider support to achieve their own liberation from repression, doubt and state- and society-sanctioned bigotry.

“Are we already so fragmented, isolationist, or self-absorbed, or blinkered, or complacent that the answer for most glbti New Zealanders is: ‘Fuck all’?”

It’s that empowering, enough-is-enough anger that has lit the fire under a new awareness and fundraising campaign from Rainbow Youth and Outline, WTF.

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Rainbow Youth’s Sam Shore, one of the main forces behind the campaign, says that they’ve openly modelled the idea on successful overseas campaigns, particularly FCKH8 from the United States.

“We looked around the world and saw what campaigns were really successful and what people have been responding to,” he says.  “And it was FCKH8, Give A Damn, and It Gets Better.  We wanted to do something like that, because it hasn’t been done in New Zealand.  We wanted a phrase that would help the campaign stand out from the background and also be empowering for people.”

The campaign has been launched with what is to be the first of several videos.  It features a range of well-known New Zealanders, gay and straight, drawing attention to issues of inequality and asking “what the fuck” is up with this?

It’s been viewed over 40,000 times on Youtube in a matter of days, and hundreds of comments have been left – as you would expect, not all of them positive.  There’s barely literate homophobic rants which illustrate just why such a campaign is needed in the first place.

But the negative comments that are perhaps most surprising come from gay people themselves.  Blogger and former Good Morning co-host Steve Gray has launched several missives at the campaign, which are at best bewildered and, at worst, misinformed.

“This campaign is not about ending discrimination, it is about raising money for Rainbow Youth and Outline services. They should at least be honest about this from the start than do some ‘KONY2012′ ‘clickactivism’ con that donating to these groups will end discrimination in NZ.”

OK… so we’ve compared New Zealand’s biggest organisation that supports gay young people and their families through education outreach in schools, a drop-in centre, and peer support groups all over Auckland (Rainbow Youth); and a nationwide gay telephone counselling service and mental health advocacy organisation (Outline) to…

…an American organisation (Invisible Children) that works to raise awareness of child exploitation in Uganda, backed by money from anti-gay Christian organisations who have links with politicians trying to exterminate gays in that country.


There’s more…

“There is talk about discrimination, but the examples are we cannot marry, (marriage is not a right), Doctors don’t understand your want to transition, (get a better doctor), and gay teens are far more likely to top themselves that straight teens.”

Marriage is not a right?  Sounds a little bit like this Virginia lawmaker who refused to appoint a lesbian judge, adding the missive “sodomy is not a civil right”.

“Getting a better doctor” works well if you’re in a big city and have money, but not so much if you’re young and in Gore.  That’s presuming you’ve got the guts to challenge your doctor in the first place because you’re already marginalised by the system – the kind of marginalisation that helps lead to gay people “topping themselves”.

Jesus, with friends like Steve, who needs enemies?

” Well, I can’t stand the ‘FKH8′ campaign and I totally loath this cheap, yet just as nasty version. i do NOT want people swearing as if this is a way to get any kind of message across. It is not cool. It is crass. It is so tacky and classless.”

This from a man who has used the phrase “kick her in the c**t” on his blog.

But, to be fair, he’s not the only person perturbed by the use of a profanity in the campaign.  Some people think it’s counter-productive and alienating.

I’m sure there were people in the 1980s who thought that storming a church hall rented by the Salvation Army and other anti-gay groups to stir sentiment up against homosexual law reform was counter-productive and alienating.  It was this infamous moment in New Zealand history that saw the late Invercargill MP Norm Jones screaming “go back to the sewers” at gays from the stage.

The mere fact of making gay issues visible seems to make some gay people upset, and perhaps they are right to be afraid.  Activist Bill Logan remembers that through the whole period of homosexual law reform there was an increase in anti-gay violence, and the community was fractured on what tactics would work best:

“Logan also remembers a situation when there was a move to have a particular public demonstration in Wellington “and some of the people here thought ‘No, we’ve got to stop this demonstration thing… demonstrations look radical, people don’t like demonstrations… not a good idea.’…That demonstration eventually went ahead.”

25 years on, and there’s still no consensus on how we should best approach awareness campaigns.  Sam Shore thinks they’re on the right track with WTF, but acknowledges that the campaign was never going to please everybody.

“We aren’t attacking people with WTF, we’re saying New Zealand is better than this. At one point we were leading the world when it came to human rights,” he says.

“This first video is a starting point.  We’ll see what people respond to and try to adapt to that for the rest of the campaign.  We’re a non-funded organisation with not many staff, and this is the first thing we’ve done like this, so we’re learning a lot.

“We also want people to see what we’re doing and that will be built into the website.  We want to show people where the donations are going – I think that’s really important, that they see the money is not going into a black hole.”

Perhaps the most bizarre backlash has been from gay people, including Steve Gray, who object to the presence of straight people in the campaign:

“I have never needed straight people to fight my battles. FFS, this patronising idea just seems so ‘gays can’t help themselves, better get white straight people to do it for them.”

[NB: Gray seems to be colour-blind as well as numerically challenged.  There's not just white straight people in the video, and elsewhere he claims that Rainbow Youth received $400,000 from Dancing With The Stars "years ago...and they don’t seem to have had any visibility since then".  It was actually $260,000 in 2009 - it doesn't take a great deal of maths to see that amount of money isn't going to go very far in doing nationwide outreach work.  Also, hint: just because an organisation isn't on television doesn't mean it isn't doing effective work in the community.  Rainbow Youth was my first port of call when I came out in the mid-1990s, pre-Internet, and I don't know what I would have done without their support groups.]

Shore is perplexed by these objections.  “A big push for us was to build awareness in the straight community that these issues do affect you, because it’s your family and friends.”

Having worked with agents myself in casting gay-themed short films, I was surprised that some had not voiced their objection to their clients appearing in a gay campaign.  Shore says that most were fine, but some were not.

“I won’t say for who, but some performers stood up and said I’m going to do this whether you tell me I can or not, because I believe in it.”

And it seems that quite a lot of others do as well.  While it’s too early yet to start counting the donations, Shore says the response to the campaign has been far greater than they expected.

This could be the start of something good.

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