This post was first published on the ANMF (Victoria) website, on February 6th
In 2013 I marched, for the first time, under the banner of my union, in Melbourne’s annual Pride march, honouring and celebrating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) members of our communities. I marched for my patients, colleagues, friends, and lovers who belong to these communities, and for those whose friends and families don’t or won’t support them.
I found marching a unifying, affirming act, and a public declaration of something I hold dear – the ongoing fight by unions for the rights and equity of marginalised groups: the right to be treated fairly, without bias or discrimination, without stigma or prejudice. That’s core union business, as much as fighting for women, for migrants, for 457-visa holders to have equal pay, rights and access.
And, I must confess, I found it gratifying to hear calls of “Here come the nurses!” “And midwives!” accompanied by cheers. It also felt good to be marching for something, in celebration, rather than against yet another attack on wages, conditions, or on those of us with least.
So it was with considerable regret that, for family reasons, I had to be overseas during Pride, both last year and this. I thought of Pride when Sunday morning (AEST) rolled around, marching in spirit though my body was in Colorado. And I visited the ANMF (Vic branch)’s Facebook page to see their post about this year’s march.
I was a little disappointed to find, among the positive comments, a couple of posts from people who felt that
● “no workplace union should be out there marching for moral issues”
● this kind of celebration is “a bit difficult, it’s all a bit Daffyd The Only Gay In The Village, look at me look at me”.
● “perhaps members should be consulted” before staff and members marched under the union banner, because “this is still a very controversial issue”,
● “gay rights etc is not a work related issue as such,”
● “Are we going to march for every single minority out there??? Either we march for all or none” and
● we have higher priorities than supporting Pride, particularly “access to health services”
This post is not at all intended to attack people who feel this way; that’s not helpful. Instead I’m writing this post to address the issues raised by these commenters – I don’t know if they’re members, but I’m certain there are members of our union who have similar positions. As I read it these concerns come down to:
1. there is something controversial about LGTQIA rights, or campaigning for them, or about LGBTQIA people
2. members should be consulted before ANMF endorses, supports or champions something controversial
3. union business is about work related issues, and ‘gay rights’ aren’t work place concerns
4. LGBTQIA people are a minority, and if we support one minority group we should support them all
5. there are more important things to fight for
First of all, I agree (as one of them went on to say) that “Gays should be accepted as just normal people with a different sexual preference, not as a race apart” though I’d word the sentiment differently. Unfortunately, though, that’s not yet where we are, and until sexual orientation and gender identity are treated as neutrally as eye colour or arm length, there’s work to be done. I’d like to take you through some of the other concerns that were raised.
Controversy and morality
It’s true that there is controversy in some segments of Australia about any kind of ‘lifestyle’ that isn’t heteronormative (one man and one woman, in a monogamous, preferrably married, relationship) and cisgendered (people whose identity, body, and gender assigned at birth are all the same). It’s hard to know from what was posted which aspects of LGBTQIA people the commentators have an issue with – I suspect, from discussions I’ve had previously about this, that there are a few, wrapped up together.
The first is that LGBTQIA people have wilfully chosen their orientation and/or identity to be difficult, controversial or subversive. To which I say: talk to the very many survivors who spent in some cases decades hating themselves, harming themselves, and planning suicide because of truths about their core identitites that they couldn’t change, however hard they tried. One of my friends sent me his story yesterday – for years the fear of being rejected by his family and the small town he grew up in cast such a deep shadow over his life that he was so deeply depressed he planned a one way trip, the only way Al could see to escape his “pain and torment.” It was chance and wonderous good luck that he was shown another path, to realisation of his potential, a man “full of fight and compassion and living a life of service, supporting and caring for others.” This is a reality for many people, especially young people, who feel different from the mainstream, and it’s not about who they are, it’s about not being accepted by those who should most love them.
The second, as illustrated by the Daffyd comment, is that marches like Pride are showboaty, prideful, and unnecessary. ‘Why,”some people wonder, ‘can’t they just get on with life like the rest of us?’ I would say for three reasons – the first is that, after years of hiding who you are, concealing key parts of who you are from family, friends, colleagues, community, there is joyous liberation in being able to say who you are, aloud, in public, and have it be celebrated. The second is to show young people, like my friend, who feel as though they’re alone, that there’s a wider world out there – that there are alternatives to spending your life pretending to be someone you’re not until the pain of hiding who you are is greater than the pain of claiming it, or ending the pain. And marches give people and organisations who support diversity, and the rights of all of us to live lives as full and productive as possible, to show that there are people and groups who’ll embrace them for who they are, without judgement.
The third is because they believe marriage ought to be reserved for straight couples (in some versions this is justified as being about rearing children). There is not space here to discuss this argument, as my response would double the length of this not short piece. What I’ll say instead is that the most recent survey of Australians’ positions of marriage equality shows 72%, or just under three-quarters of all Australians, support marriage equality.
Regardless of how one views the question of the morality of non-heteronormative, cis-gendered people, it’s true there’s still some controversy. Of course, I can’t think of anything that isn’t controversial – medical marijuana, asylum seekers, vaccinations, funding public health care, climate change – and for some of them debate will continue without resolution, however long we talk and whatever evidence comes in. ANMF (Vic) also has positions on all of these, any way. If we waited we’d never act on anything.
Consultation with members
ANMF (Vic) is a union, designed to act on behalf of its members – if we don’t, we’re no longer functioning as a representative body. We’re fortunate to be a very large union, with over 71,000 members at the time of writing, and individual consultation isn’t possible, so we have substitutes – work place representatives, who may choose to attend an annual delegates meeting, and elected officials. In addition, any member may make a submission to the union, directly, through their job rep, or through an organiser.
Last year, for example, I suggested we support the campaign to legalise medical marijuana – it’s a health issue, so if affects our patients, and it’s currently an industrial issue, as some members have become ensnared between the law and parents administering marijuana oil to hospitalised children, so it falls into our purview on two counts. And it’s controversial, because the majority of evidence is annecdotal, and it involves a drug that’s surrently illegal, which is why an email was sent to members asking for their response – fewer than 1,000 members replied, overwhelmingly positively, and so we’ve added our voice.
In 2012, at the Victorian branch’s annual delegates meeting, a motion was put that ANMF (Vic) support the campaign for marriage equality. The delegates present voted overwhelmingly in support the campaign for marriage equality. The members who moved, seconded, spoke to and voted for the motion are representatives of their workplace members. On this, the question of supporting equal rights for LGTQIA people, the members have already spoken.
What constitutes union business
Unions are about collective bargaining, improving work conditions (eg OH&S, pay and benefits, career structure), and equity, so supporting populations who are discriminated against is very much union business. Much of the progress made in work place gender equality, including equal pay and paid maternity leave, has come from the work of unions.
Perhaps, more than anything else, unions are about solidarity – about us being stronger together than we are separately, that united we have power and apacity to make change that doesn’t exist if we act alone. A key part of union solidarity is that we stand up for those who need their voices amplified. That’s why, at the last members meeting of our 2011/12 EBA campaign, Lisa Fitzpatrick told us about the NUW strike at Sigma Pharmaceuticals in Rowvill, and why some of us went along to support blue collar men and women whose work is nothing like ours, and whose fight was the same.
If we cared, and fought, only for those issues that we were directly affected by, there wouldn’t be a union movement – and so much of what we take for granted, the rights we have every day, wouldn’t exist. Why would men care about women being able to work after they were married? Or maternity leave provisions? Why would teachers care about deaths on construction sites? Why would Australian workers fight for the rights of workers in Sri Lanka? [link: http://www.sigtur.com/latest-stories/union-protest-embarrasses-ansell.html – photo, if we have one?]
Solidarity is why ANMF (Vic) staff and members marched alongside teachers, fire fighters, paramedics; why we’ve marched for asylum seekers, World Peace day, marriage equality, secure work, maintaining funding for WorkCover, and for Medicare funding. Because all of these things matter, and we are part of all of them – as my friend Benjamin says: “Solidarity means you march and support those groups who are still in many ways at the bottom of the pile socially, ecomomically, culturally and politically.”
However, even if that were not the case, this is also a health issue – stigma, persecution and discrimination are strong contributors to the high rate of depression, anxiety, suicidality and substance abuse among people who are LGBTQIA, and that makes it very much an ANMF issue. As does the fact that our members include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, intersex and asexual nurses, midwives, patient attendants and students. Participating in this march shows people that it’s okay to acknowledge who you are, that you’re not alone (however much it may feel otherwise), and that you’re supported and accepted by the wider community.
And that, I hope, also addresses the question about whether we’re going to support other (or all) minority groups – if they’re discriminated against, if they have access to fewer rights, lesser conditions, then yes, we will.
What we should fight for
Late last year Victorian Trades Hall hosted a film night to thank volunteers involved in the election campaign. The film screened was Pride – it tells the true story of how a small group of London lesbian and gay men decided to support the 1984 Welsh miners’ strike:
It is a brilliant film that illustrates far more eloquently, ably and upliftingly than I just how LGBTQIA rights and union fights intersect, though the miners’ union took a year to come around to that position. Indeed, the fit is so natural, so apparently self-evident, that I was genuinely shocked it took until only thirty years ago to be embraced in the UK.
In Australia, though, some of us got there a little sooner – in 1973, five years before the first Sydney mardi gras, and 11 years before the events recounted in Pride, members of the Builders Labourers Federation working onsite at Macquarie University went on strike in support of a gay student activist who was excluded from the university because of his refusal to repress his orientation and “seek help.” I wrote about solidarity – it’s a core union value, and always has been.
It’s hard to think of many groups less likely to support a gay tertiary student than early seventies construction workers, but “It’s the principle of the thing. They shouldn’t pick on a bloke because of his sexuality.” – Bob Pringle, then-BLF President (NSW branch). Read more here) And they went out again, the next year, when Penny Short’s scholarship was withdrawn because being a lesbian made her “medically unfit.”
There are higher priorities
Finally, the concern was posted that LGBTQIA rights are outweighed by other, more direct concerns facing nurses and midwives, including cuts to health care funding, inadequated aged care services, and poorly served rural and remote communities. And it’s true that there is an increasing demand for health care services, and Mr Abbott’s attacks on Medicare certainly warrant a strong and decisive defence.
I won’t ask if the person who posted this comment fought against the privatisation of Victoria’s public aged care beds, or has campaigned to save Medicare, though I’d like to note that I have, and I’ve been proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with my union’s executive and staff while doing so. Instead I’ll point out these two things. First, like sexuality, this isn’t a binary state – we can champion more than one injustice or cause at a time. Indeed, we must – if we only focused on one issue, however worthy, we would have trouble achieving anything. And for the second I will once again cite Benjamin:
Being part of any group larger than just ourselves means there will be things we don’t completely agree with – compromises for an overall win, fighting on behalf of people who are happy to reap the rewards of a campaign without participating, or agreeing to step back on one point for an intact and united front. Nobody is asking anyone else to participate in, or to personally endorse, anything they don’t agree with, and though I am a member, a long-time job rep, and a new branch councillor, I don’t speak for ANMF – in this piece, on my blog, to the media or on social media.
That said, I know I speak for ANMF (Vic) branch, for ANMF federally, and for the union movement as a whole when I say – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, intersex and asexual rights are human rights, and they are most definitely a union fight, a health issue, and ANMF business.
Note: I am indebted to those friends who responded to my request for comments as I was writing this, including my anonymous friend for allowing me to use his story, Benjamin for drawing my attention to the case of Jeremy Fisher and for permission to use his words, and to Julie Wearing-Smith for both her support and for encouraging me to expand a Facebook response into a rather lengthy essay. And while I’m at it, thank you to my wonderful union.