Sunday, May 30, 2010

Homophobia, Heteronormativity and the fall of David Campbell

One of the ever present temptations of keeping a blog is to turn it into no more than a vehicle for venting and rants. It's a temptation I've felt a number of times and I've probably succumbed on the odd occasion too. When NSW transport minister, David Campbell, was outed by Channel 7 over a week ago visiting a gay sex on premises venue in Sydney, I came very close to writing a full on tirade. I really wanted to let loose. After all, what Channel 7 did must have cast an icy chill over all those many people still in the closet, and those trying to live 'discreet' lives as well. And the fact is that large numbers of lesbigay people are still either closeted or discreet. We don't live in a post-homophobia world yet - I don't expect I'll live to see that as a reality even though we've made so many advances in this country and others (but not all).

It seems the 7 reporter, Adam Walters, was determined to get Campbell who is not regarded as the most effective Minister in a State gov't that is itself on the nose and probably well past its use by date (although the alternative doesn't strike me as any much better). And it seems there had been questions raised in Parl't about the whereabouts of Campbell during a recent major traffic breakdown. One of the refreshing things about Australian politics is that there hasn't really been any fixation on the sex lives of MPs as blights politics in the UK and the US. The whole Clinton Lewinsky saga seemed so bizarre and improbable from an Australian perspective while in the UK it seems that the merest hint that a senior political figure has engaged in any sort of sex outside of authorised marital relations has been enough to end that person's career full stop.

In this country however such matters have been mostly off-limits. Certainly all manner of salacious gossip has circulated when various political figures have been having difficult times but generally has never entered the public domain of the media. That's not to say there haven't been sex scandals but nothing like the US or UK experience and certainly nothing like what happened to Campbell. Well almost. We saw something like that back in 2002 with the campaign against Justice Michael Kirby by federal Liberal MP, Bill Heffernan. Prior to that in the 90s, there was Wood Royal Commission into police corruption in NSW which degenerated into a homophobic witch hunt over allegations of paedophilia. NSW State Labor MP, Franca Arena, pushed the campaign which led to the suicide of a NSW judge after she outed him in Parlt as someone who used public toilets for sex with men. Here in Qld, too, I remember homophobia being used by both sides of politics in the 80s again with allegations of paedophilia and under-age sex. Both sides were trying to use homophobia against the other, which led to the State gov't passing legislation they claimed would close down gay bars in Qld. It didn't of course, and couldn't, partly because of the wording of the Act and also because the level of police corruption meant that manner of illegal activities were going on almost in full public view a long as the police got their own payoffs. The further irony was that the then Labor leader (and Baptist preacher), Keith Wright, was subsequently sprung, and went to gaol for, sex with under age girls, after he left State parlt.

Campbell's case is most reminiscent of Kirby's, although Kirby's case relied in part on the ghosts of the Arena campaigns in the 90s. Kirby was the victim of completely false allegations. There were false allegations, or more suggestions that would turn out to be false, with Campbell too but the substantive allegation was that he went to the gay sex on premises venue. And so the issue became Campbell's double life. NSW Premier bought into it and disgraced herself by saying

she was "disappointed and angry" about the minister's behaviour but, as a woman, she was concerned for his family, "his wife in particular"."I would say speaking as a person and a Premier I was shocked, I was saddened, I'm distressed," Ms Keneally said. "As his friend I'm disappointed and angry."As a Premier ... as a woman, I am concerned for his family and his wife in particular and I cannot imagine the impact this is having particularly on his family and on him at this time."She did not think it was acceptable for him to abuse the benefits of his office, his car in particular. She said she did not think that Mr Campbell had previously thought about the impact on his family of his double life. "It is appalling that he lived a lie, and it is appalling that he lives in a society [in which] he feels he has to live a lie," Ms Keneally said.

It is appalling that such hypocrisy can be gotten away with so publicly.

The notion of living a lie, Campbell's double life, became the issue and the justification by 7 News for outing him in the first place. Apparently all his promotional publicity showed him with his wife and family. Acording to Walters, the journo who outed him:

"It's blindingly obvious that since 1999 Mr Campbell has purported to be a family man," he said."He's represented himself to the people of Kiera as a family man, even going to the extent of sending Christmas cards to his constituents highlighting the fact that he is a man of family values."This is about pretence, it's about integrity, it's about character."

As Marieke Hardy points out:
While it may come as a shock to Walters to realise that family men on occasion sleep with women other than their wives, visit prostitutes, and - yes - have sex with other family men, the fact is this does not preclude them from being loving fathers, caring partners, and upstanding members of society. Sometimes they're even police ministers.

I agree with Hardy but I'm also struck by the way the debate shifted from straight out homophobia (I won't hold my breath waiting for similar stories about Ministers being sprung with prostitutes or other extra-marital hetero relationships) to heteronormativity. In other words, Campbell isn't performing marriage, family and even heterosexuality properly and so his constituents need to be made aware of that so that he can be driven from public life.

Hardy also shows how the heteronormative shift was not confined to straight commentators but was also picked up by gay commentators trying to defend Campbell, in particular, Sydney radio newsreader Geoff Field. Field wrote a piece in Sydney's Daily Telegraph in an attempt to defend Cambell or at least to try and counter the homophobic baying over Campbell. The title says it all - "Stupid and morally wrong but an absolute tragedy" Certainly a tragedy but where the stupidity, let alone the moral wrongness? Field is determined to prevent the story turning into a gaybashing exercise, which is highly creditable, but he does so by further bashing Campbell to reinforce the regime of heteronormativity responsible for Campbell's 'double life". He says:
First and foremost I feel sorry for the former police and transport minister's family and friends. I also feel for David Campbell himself, although many of you believe he deserves what he gets. I understand that train of thought, but this man was obviously living a double life which has now been exposed to a hungry media baying for blood. Don't get me wrong, what he did was stupid and morally wrong. Not only does he have to deal with his family, he also has to deal with the full force of the media. I hope this doesn't turn into a gay bashing exercise by certain people, because what he did was wrong whether it involved going to a straight or gay sex club. I just hope there is some way that those people directly involved can get their lives back together without even more suffering. Before you condemn this man, are you perfect yourself? I'm not saying he should be allowed to get away with this, without any consequences, but let's not allow this to turn into a titillating, salacious gay scandal....

But it already is. Campbell resigned once the story was out, no doubt to spare him and his family being subjected to further prurient scrutiny but the story is a salacious gay scandal involving sex on premises venues.

Sex on premises venues are a feature of contemporary gay life. They are safe and private compared to the public toilets and parks and out of the way places where men would meet for sex in the past. Beats and sex on premises venues are and have been frequented by 'family' men as much as by anyone else. In many cases they do so because the regime of the closet required they lead a double life. I don't know whether that was Campbell's situation or whether he and his wife had worked out a different sexual arrangement. One of the 'rules' of marriage has been sexual exclusivity, the ownership of the other's body. In the past it was male ownership of the woman's body and her womb in particular, marriage is after all about guaranteeing the patriline. But over the centuries such sexual exclusivity, monogamy, has been extended to both parties, at least in theory. But it's origins lie in the control of the womb and its products by the male.

The sexual revolutions of the last few decades have meant that many couples are living marriage differently with more open (but not public) (hetero) sexual arrangements. On the homo side, many long-term same-sex relationships are likewise more open in their sexual arrangements and always have been. Some types of same-sex relationships really don't fit the monogamous marriage model at all - and nor should they. Geoff Field publicly 'married' his partner, Jason, back in 2005 and so, no doubt, subscribes to the heteronormative mythology of the institution of marriage. But the heteronormative model allows no place for David Campbell to start with (and maybe not even for Geoff Field). So rather than reinforcing the heteronormativity, and the homophobia that derives from it, it would be better to argue for an affectional plenitude and a plurality of relationship types.

Monday, May 24, 2010


I might have been 15 or 16 when I discovered that the Samaritans, mostly known through the famous Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan, still existed in the Middle East. Ever since then I have been intrigued and fascinated by this community, once quite extensive in Palestine and the Roman world (there were ancient Samaritan communities as far afield as Sicily). Ed Conrad remembers me in my early undergrad days asking questions about the Samaritans. For me I guess what was important was that the Samaritans had consistently received a bad press in the biblical narratives, hence the punch of the Good Samaritan story, but if they were still around I was intrigued to find out what their side of the story was. Why was it so infrequently referred to in the studies of Ancient Israel and ancient biblical religion? So when doing my PhD, I was determined to get my hands on whatever Samaritan texts in translation I could find. I couldn't find a lot, the Memar Marqah, the Asatir, the Samaritan version of Joshua and the subsequent history of Ancient Israel. I also read a number of studies of Samaritan religion.

For those who don't know, the Samaritans reject the legitimacy of the Temple at Jerusalem, reject the very legitimacy of Jerusalem itself as a sacred site. Instead they believe that Mt Gerizim near modern day Nablus on the West Bank is the true site intended for the worship of the God of Israel, being the ancient Mt Moriah where Abraham took Isaac for sacrifice. If Jerusalem is illegitimate so too is the priesthood that was based there. The Samaritans maintain a line of priests and high priests claiming a direct descent from Aaron, the first High Priest according to the books of Moses. The Samaritans also venerate as scripture only these books of Moses, the Pentateuch, the Torah. They have their own version of Joshua which introduces a Chronicle of the history of Israel and the Samaritans but these aren't counted as scripture. The Samaritans reject as false all the additional books of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testaments. I found the Samaritan Chronicle a fascinating read. Not only are the kings and priests of Judah and Jerusalem treated negatively (with the exception curiously of David, who while not counted as among the Samaritans is treated fairly positively notwithstanding) but also the kings and priests of the northern kingdom based at Samaria. In the Samaritan account, the Temple at Mt Gerizim was as much challenged by the Samarian kings as by the Judahite establishment. The Samaritans name for themselves means something like the Faithful or the Pure.

So I was interested to read this article by Benjamin Balint on the modern Samaritans via a link at Dr Platypus. The article describes the celebration of Passover by Samaritans this year at Mt Gerizim. Unlike Jews, for whom Passover is a household feast, Samaritans observe Passover as a pilgrimage feast i.e. it's a Temple feast and hence must be observed at the sacred site of the Temple, Mt Gerizim. The article touches on the rescue mission launched last century by a Jewish group and subsequently supported by the second President of Israel whereby Samaritan men married Jewish women who had effectively converted to Samaritanism. The Samaritan community numbered then only 140 people and was in danger of dying out. Now, while split into two communities based in Nablus and near Tel Aviv in Israel, they number some 730. I also found out from the article that Yasser Arafat appointed a Samaritan to the Palestinian Legislative Council. Nablus Samaritans aim to keep good relations with their Arab neighbours. In actual fact, I remember this fascinating story from 2007 on the now lamentably defunct ABC Radio National Religion Report program about Samaritans in Nablus. It would appear that Samaritan priests have a reputation as being effective fortune tellers and dealing with magic and consequently are in great demand from both Muslim and Christian Palestinians and some Jews as well.

While I recommend Balint's article at the same time I have some problems with aspects of it. He glosses over a key fact of Samaritan history crucial to the antipathy between Samaritans and Jews at the base of both the Good Samaritan story and also John's account of Jesus meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well. Balint says:

When the Jews made Jerusalem, some 40 miles to the south, the exclusive center of worship—a chosen city for a chosen people—the Samaritans regarded the Jewish cult as illegitimate. This initiated the ancient “temple race” between the Samaritans and the Jerusalem-centric Jews whose beliefs and history shaped modern Jewry. By permission of Alexander the Great, the Samaritans built a temple of their own, measuring 400 by 560 feet, atop Gerizim. In use for some 200 years, the temple was destroyed before the first century BCE, never to be rebuilt.

He then recounts ancient tales of Samaritan-Jewish antipathy:

The 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus reports on Samaritans who intruded into the temple in Jerusalem one Passover eve and scattered human bones to render the place unclean. The Samaritan Chronicle boasts of another episode in which Samaritans substituted rats in a cage of doves being carried to Jerusalem as temple offerings.

The antipathy ran both ways. Among Jews threatened by a rival to Jerusalem’s claim of exclusivity, a deep anti-Samaritanism prevailed. This culminated in a rabbinic ruling by Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi that, despite their scrupulousness in the observance of biblical law, the Samaritans were to be considered as Gentiles in every respect.

In Balint's acccount these attempted acts of Samaritan desecration seem odd; he gives a clear sense of them being unprovoked or due to some irrational rivalry. But he omits a key fact about the destruction of the Samaritan Temple. It was destroyed in 128/29 BCE by John Hyrcanus who was both the High Priest of Jerusalem and ruler/de facto king of the independent Maccabean Jewish state that had extended its rule over much of Palestine. Hyrcanus's son and eventual successor, Alexander Jannaeus, made it official and declared himself king as well as high priest thus restoring the old priestly kingship that hadn't been seen in Palestine since the Iron Age. In light of the facts of the destruction of the Gerizim Temple, the Samaritan attempts at desecration of Jerusalem's Temple don't seem so irrational.

Balint also cites scripture to give a picture of a long antipathy between Samaritans and Jews:

The Bible recounts that when Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem and its temple, the Samaritans tried to prevent them; Sanballat, then leader of the Samaritans, mocked “these feeble Jews” (Neh. 4:2).

I have to confess that I'm sceptical of such stories. Jews and Samaritans share the same religious origins i.e. they both share the Torah as scripture and both follow the Mosaic Law, albeit in different ways. Both were also in origin Temple religions with a shared framework of ritual and symbolism. It is a curious fact that Mt Gerizim is referred to a number of times in the Torah but never Mt Zion. The fact is we don't know who wrote the Torah or where it was written (or even when). It's generally assumed that Jerusalem was the location but can we be sure of that. Perhaps the work began at Mt Gerizim or was even a much more collaborative work across the various shrines and scribes and priests of Yahweh. Certainly the Torah represents the rewriting, the reconstruction of the older Palestinian cults of Yahweh, a process I think most likely took place in the Persian period, a process I think was an indigenous response to Persian (religious) hegemony.

We know very little of the religious world of Persian Palestine (or of Greek Palestine in the Ptolemaic and Seleucid periods either, for that matter). As Balint observes, Ezra-Nehemiah paints a picture of rivalry and antipathy between Samaria and Jerusalem. A similar sense of antipathy emerges in the Twelve Minor Prophets and there is also the fiction that all the Israelites of the north had been deported by the Assyrians to be replaced by foreigners and 'half breeds' thus making northern religiosity suspect. But we know from Assyrian archives that the north was not depopulated en masse. A substantial minority, but a minority nonetheless, were deported and replaced by foreigners but the majority remained behind. The 'ten tribes' were never lost but always remained in the land. Obviously, Ezra-Nehemiah and the Twelve Minor Prophets are written in Jerusalem or at least with a Jerusalem perspective and quite likely much later after a breach between Gerizim and Jerusalem.

When did that breach occur? We don't know but I'm inclined to think it was very late. What I find most telling is that in the 4th century BCE, the Jewish military colony at Elephantine in the south of Egypt wrote to both Samaria and Jerusalem asking permission to rebuild their own Temple. So for this ancient Jewish community both Samaria and Jerusalem had equal and authoritative status. We know that both Samaria and Jerusalem gave approval to the rebuilding of the Temple at Elephantine and gave instructions about how the cult was to be conducted there. Presumably then for these Jews in southern Egypt there was no breach. It must have come later.

The Samaritan Chronicles were written quite late, definitely after the breach, probably after the destruction of the Gerizim Temple. They read almost as a response to Kings, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles and the Twelve. I mentioned above that they give a fairly positive portrait of David. The name David means beloved and in the biblical accounts everyone loves David (he, however, is much more limited, and faithless, in his affections) and it seems the Samaritans also fell under his spell. The Samaritans also regarded the northern kingdom as apostate but in their account both Judah and Israel apostatise and only the Samaritan community, centred around the Temple at Gerizim, stays faithful. Furthermore, while both apostate north and south suffer deportation by Assyria and Babylon respectively, God protects the Samaritans and keeps them in the land.

I don't regard the Samaritan Chronicle as history, any more than I regard Samuel, Kings, let alone Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah as history. But I think all of them contain elements of history in their stories. I hope to write some more about that at a later stage.

But right now I want to say how thankful I am that the Samaritans survive and I hope that they will continue and maybe even grow. Because they follow a much more literal application of the Mosaic laws they can never be be a large community. Oddly enough I think that such Samaritan literalism may well have been an innovation because I don't believe those laws were meant to be followed en masse. They are portraits of utopia and had their strongest application in Temple practice, whether it be in Jerusalem or Gerizim (or Leontopolis or Elephantine for that matter). But to be followed by everyone and in every way, I don't think so. But that's something for another post. But I am not someone who believes in one religion for all (or no religion either). I like the mosaic of religious plurality and don't want to see religions die out, particularly small and vulnerable religions like the Samaritans, the Karaites, the Mandaeans, the Donmeh, the Parsis/Zoroastrians, not to mention the many indigenous religions. Like languages, religions express something about what it means to be human. The death of a religion, like the death of a language is an irreparable loss. Religious diversity must be fostered, encouraged, sustained and celebrated; respected.

All religions are inter-related and Christianity needs to recognise and acknowledge its Samaritan roots, to acknowledge and honour the Samaritan woman at the well, the Good Samaritan and all those early Samaritan converts mentioned in the book of Acts. To that end I think the Samaritan Torah should sit beside both the Masoretic and Septuagint versions in Christian Old Testaments. Furthermore, I think the Samaritan Chronicle should be included in Christian Bibles, perhaps as an appendix to the Old Testament, to show that there was another account of that history by another community who saw themselves, and still do, as the faithful holding on tenaciously to the religion of ancient Israel, to the God of Moses and Abraham, when all others had forsaken it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Walking Oxley Creek Common

I have been back house-sitting for the last month and a half. At Corinda, I'm looking after a big old house and its two cats, whose humans are travelling overseas the next few months. When I came down here in April, I was working full time but that job finished end of last month. I was also busy with stuff to do with the LGBT History Action Group much of my spare time that month too.

But my current unemployment has given me a lot more time, or more correctly, more flexibility in my time, as now that I'm unemployed I've been able to direct my attention back to a variety of projects, including the History Action Group stuff that had been pushed aside by the demands of full time employment. It also means that I've been able to get out and about in the neighbourhood here, at last, and explore it.

By that I mean, in particular, the Oxley Creek Common, which is not far, as the crow flies, from where I'm staying. The Common consists of old Dept of Primary Industries research farmland and includes a long walk alongside the creek ending at a grove of hoop pines, the Secret Forest, which are the remnant of an old commercial forestry that was based here early last century. Another trail branches off to a patch of wetlands known as Pelican Island. The old farmland, too, fenced off from the walk, still has grazing animals, cattle and sheep and horses, even some goats.

I first started coming to the Common when I was housesitting here in 2007. Back then we were still in the drought. The fields were brown and stubby with only small numbers of cattle grazing. The Common was only just established. There had been tree-planting along the path but most were still saplings and many were struggling to get established. Some had died, looking like long dry twigs planted in the ground. The wetlands were there but much diminished, mostly more mudland with pond, and seemed to be the home of the ubiquitous ibis rather than the pelican. But nevertheless I was captivated by the place. The mangroves along the creek were thriving and healthy and home to many birds, which you could hear as you walked along the path. What's more the Common is adjacent to industrial land and a busy link road, as well as the Brisbane Markets at Rocklea. Yet as you walk down the path into the Common, you hear all the noise of traffic and industry become muffled, until you reach a point of near silence, where it becomes distant and is overwhelmed by the sounds of breeze and bird and insect.

I managed to get back to the Common in 2008 when I was housesitting down here and also early last year so I've experienced it in all the seasons. I went there again middle of last year but it was closed because of flood damage. Over the last couple of years, Brisbane and, indeed, eastern Australia, seem to have moved into a cycle of much wetter weather (Bob Hawke jokes that the best way to end a drought is to elect a Labor government). I've been told that as far as Brisbane is concerned, we seem to have returned to a wetter period in a long term pattern of cyclical wet and dry periods each lasting for quite a few years.

So a couple of weeks ago, now that I was unemployed, I made my way to the Common. While close by it's not easy to access as the only way is to go along Sherwood Rd crossing both the railway line and then Oxley Creek itself. But whoever built the bridges only provided a pedestrian footpath on one side and each bridge the path is one the opposite side to the other. That means that pedestrians like myself are forced to cross Sherwood Rd not once but twice and over the last few years the traffic on that road has become much busier. There are no designated pedestrian crossings either. So I was hoping the Common was open, it's not a walk one takes lightly and it was late afternoon heading into peak hour traffic.

Not only was the Common open but I was amazed at the transformation. All the plantings along the path had not only grown but were thriving, tall and dense. I was astonished by how much the path had become a type of woodland walk. The grazing lands alongside in some stretches could only be glimpsed through the foliage and, what's more, there weren't just a handful of cattle grazing there now. Instead there were herds of cattle everywhere in the lush and tall green grassland. Sheep too and some goats could be seen if you looked closely enough. Along the path, there was the sound of birdsong and most surprisingly several times I had the cracking call of the whipbird. I've never heard a whipbird in Brisbane! There were turkeys too - I'd never seen turkeys in the Common before.

Pelican Island was a revelation. The mudlands were now underwater and with manner of waterbirds; the ibis were no longer dominant, ducks were everywhere and there were pelicans and I even saw a black swan! It's hard to describe the impact all this had on me. I was at first elated and then moved to the point of tears. It was all so beautiful - the scents, the sounds, the colours, even the changes in air temperature as the evening advanced and as one moved from densely wooded to open stretches of the oath.

We're also in Autumn now in Brisbane and there's something about that season here, the quality, the clarity of the light. It triggers something in me awakening impossible unconscious memories that strain against the walls of consciousness. I don't know what these 'memories' are, not mine surely, but they come with a yearning a nostalgia for something undefined, for that which never was.

That first time was late afternoon and I hurried, as the evening advanced, to get out again again before it got dark. I was surprised to find I was passing people coming in, mostly dogwalkers, as it grew darker. I've not been in there at night and the path is not, thankfully, lit. I went back twice more, once in the morning on a weekday and then again one afternoon last weekend. And then yesterday I went back again, very late in the afternoon. By the time I arrived, the sun was going down and the western horizon was ablaze. The weather has cooled over the month but this is Brisbane in the sub-tropics and so, while I wore a pullover, I can get around in shorts and sandals.

Once again I was overwhelmed by the power, the beauty, the exuberant life of the place. I heard the whipbird again and everywhere cicadas. And there were turkeys too. I walked down to the Secret Forest by which time the light was really fading fast. I should have brought a camera because the fading light on the western horizon, dull embers really, seemed to have dissolved any sense of a city around this place. I felt as if I was far away with maybe only a small country town somewhere nearby. Walking back along an unwooded stretch of the path and looking east across the pastures, Brisbane seemed to have been turned into a kind of country town. In the distance I could see the hills of Toohey Forest and between them and the Common you could only really see the scattered lights of the Rocklea industrial area and then outlines of some of the buildings. Once again I felt transported and the pangs of unconscious memory pressed against me. If these are my memories, rather than cultural ones created by text and image and shared experience, maybe they come from early childhood in Lithgow? I don't know but I have throughout my life been haunted by this sense of memory, bitter sweet as they say, and most prominently in autumn, but also on those evenings when the sky is clear and the light fades like embers in the west.

It was a half-moon last night and as I made my way along the path could see my shadow cast in the moonlight. I thought I was alone but I could hear some people in the distance coming back from Pelican Island; they had a dog with them too. I quickened my pace because the last thing I wanted was any sort of human contact in that place, at that time. It was an exquisite moment of solitude, rich with an intimacy that could only be shared by invitation.

I will be going back, especially in the evening. I look forward to it in winter. Many native trees go into bloom in July and I look forward to the tangy but musty sweet perfume of wattle especially. I might even dare to make an early rising and explore the Common as the dawn breaks. Maybe.

I found this photo of sunrise at the Common. And here's the site for the Friends of the Oxley Common.