PLEBISCITE - THAT'S SO STRAIGHT!
(A LOOK AT THE LINK BETWEEN LANGuaGE AND MENTAL HEALTH)
Let me ask you a question: how many people reading this will admit that they have used the term, “that’s so gay” as an insult? I won’t pretend to be innocent in that regard, when I was younger I often used to use it. Generally speaking when we make gay jokes, when we call people a fag or a dyke, or say that something bad is “so gay,” we aren’t thinking about the implication behind our language. These are commonplace insults, they are synonyms for annoying or stupid. A lot of people might argue that their intention is not to offend LGTQI+ people with these insults and that is worth acknowledging. Unfortunately if someone gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer or questioning hears these insults and feels isolated because of the language choice it doesn’t matter what the original intention was. I personally find this issue similar to performing in Black-Face; despite what someone’s intention is people who aren’t Black don’t get to decide whether it is offensive or not, or whether someone is allowed to take offense.
So what is the fundamental problem with this language choice? To answer that you have to look at the statistics around mental health in the LGBTQI+ community. 35% of LGB people have had suicidal thoughts in their lifetime and 36% of LGB people have had an anxiety disorder within the past 12 months. This is compared to 13% and 14% of their heterosexual counterparts, respectively. When we look at gender identity, 36% of transgender people have had a major depressive episode in the past 12 months compared to 7% of their cisgender counterparts. Part of the reason for this division in mental health is because our society is heteronormative, meaning that what is heterosexual and cisgender is predominantly displayed and normalised. The rights and images of minority groups often aren’t front and centre, or are token displays, and this creates isolation.
Language is an extension of this. By using words like fag, dyke and “that’s so gay” as insults we are separating these groups out as different. In other words, we are normalising heterosexuals. If this wasn’t the case why don’t our insults extend to phrases like, “that’s so straight?” Once again even if someone is not intending to create a divide between these groups, this language choice implies division. Someone who is gay, bisexual, queer or questioning is subconsciously or consciously going to feel ‘lesser than’ because that is what your language is implying. To use another example, this is true of words like ‘bitch’ and ‘slut.’ These are terms that are designed to make women ‘lesser than’ and create separation between men and women.
The reason I was compelled to release this video and essay was due to the current lack of marriage equality in Australia. This is in and of itself ridiculous; it’s 2016 and opinion polls show that around 70% of Australians support marriage equality. We are now one of the last developed countries to recognise this human right. Beyond this, our current government is planning to introduce a plebiscite. A plebiscite is a nation-wide, mandatory vote which poses a question that people will respond to with ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The question might be something like: do you support a law that allows people of the same sex to marry? This vote is expected to cost approximately $160million.
I have a lot to say about this. I think the plebiscite is one of the worst ideas in Australian history (and there have been some shockers). First of all the vote is non-binding, meaning the government are not bound by the outcome and don’t have to introduce any reform as a result. Therefore the plebiscite is a glorified opinion poll whose outcome is redundant as we already have opinion polls showing a majority of Australians supporting same-sex marriage. Furthermore resorting to a plebiscite is not a regular practice in Australia. Our last plebiscite sight was around 100 years ago and revolved around our national anthem, which was something that actually affected the majority of Australians and didn’t concern human rights. If we haven’t ever used a plebiscite for other issues of social justice, such as equal pay between the sexes, removing the White-Australia policy or land-entitlements for displaced Indigenous people, why on this issue do we think every Johnny-Citizen deserves an input? The role of the government is to act as a representative of their citizens and protect and promote the rights of minority groups. If the Howard government didn’t need a plebiscite to amend the Marriage Act in 2004 why do we need one to change it now? This issue could easily be rectified with a simple vote in parliament.
These are all valid reasons that the plebiscite is ludicrous. More troubling however is that a plebiscite will involve public campaigns for and against marriage equality. If we look closely at Australian history we can see a lot of hate speech towards the LGBTQI+ community during these kinds of campaigns. Recently during the Safe Schools debate politicians and the general public were broadcasting awful, hateful things disguised as rhetoric. The same thing will happen during a plebiscite; sections of the general public and the government will say ugly and destructive things about this community and disguise it as campaigning. In doing so we will witness a version of the kind of damage language can have on mental health on a national scale. If even one young person is affected by what they hear and harms themselves or suicides, will it be worth it? Imagine the trickle-down effect: a parent believes something awful or untrue they hear from their local member, they teach this philosophy to their kids, these kids become bullies and another young person becomes a statistic about LGBTQI+ suicide or self-harm.
As a nurse however it is not in my nature to focus solely on the negative side of things. There are solutions, there are avenues for change! First and foremost, start simple. Change social dialogue by changing people’s vocabulary. Don’t use words like fag, dyke or ‘that’s so gay’ as insults and don’t let other people use them as insults. Of course this will be difficult but I guarantee it will be worth it. I used to let people say it, or say it myself to show I was “cool with it”. Recently I realised that this headspace came from shame and a need for validation. I’m not apologising for who I am anymore. When we question people on their thoughtless word-choices, we are at best going to create a wide-spread change in social dialogue or at the very least make them aware of other people’s viewpoints.
Finally if the plebiscite does go forward and you are feeling anxious, depressed or overwhelmed by anything you are hearing I encourage you to speak to your GP. If you’re not out to your doctor, or you don’t feel comfortable discussing your mental health with them, research a ‘gay friendly practice;’ these can be found all over Australia. Once you have found a doctor you are comfortable with, discuss whether you are eligible for a Mental Health Care Plan. This Medicare initiative will allow you to have 10 sessions with a psychologist at either no cost or a reduced cost. It is understandable if this period of time challenges your mental health and no one is expected to endure that alone. See a professional for help in managing your mental health! This will also allow you to demonstrate strength and resilience and enable you to become a beacon for other people who are struggling.
If we don’t have a plebiscite the current government have announced that marriage equality will not be on the cards for at least 3 years, until the next elected government. Personally, I’d rather wait. I feel violated and disgusted having my life and my love being discussed so publicly and I fear for the mental health of the community I love and take pride to be a part of. I want all LGBTQI+ people, young and old, to have fortitude and know that you don’t have to apologise for who you are. There is nothing wrong with you; you deserve equality.
The Hot on Health motto has never been more true than it is right now, “there is no healthcare without self-care.” Work hard to love yourself and good mental health will follow.
References/ Suggested Reading:
AME 2015, ‘Marriage equality facts at a glance’, Australian Marriage Equality, Australia, accessed 20th August 2016, < http://www.australianmarriageequality.org/get-informed/quick-facts/>.
Beyond Blue 2016, ‘Factors affecting LGBTI people’, Beyond Blue, Australia, accessed 20th August 2016, < https://www.beyondblue.org.au/who-does-it-affect/lesbian-gay-bi-trans-and-intersex-lgbti-people/factors-affecting-lgbti-people>.
Rosenstreich, G. 2013, ‘LGBTI People Mental Health and Suicide’. Revised 2nd Edition. National LGBTI Health Alliance. Sydney
QUAC 2016, ‘LGBT Health & Wellbeing: Fact File’, Queensland Aids Council, Queensland, accessed 10 June 2016, < http://quac.org.au/sites/default/files/LGBT_Health_Fact_File.pdf>.
Woodford et al 2012, ‘ “That’s So Gay!”: Examining the Covariates of Hearing This Expression Among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual College Students’, Journal of American College Health, vol. 60, pp. 429 - 434.
The Velvet Rage, a book by Alan Downs, is a must-read. His exploration of shame and validation in gay men was life-altering for me.