Introduction by Croakey: The past year has seen a rise in protests and backlash against Pride and other LGBTIQA+ events, instigated by far-right groups.
Pride events play an important and positive role in society and cancelling or adjusting these events to appease protestors has wide-ranging impacts on the LGBTIQA+ community, according to Joe Ball, CEO of Switchboard.
As well as being a celebration, Pride events are a “vital expressions of love, acceptance, and solidarity”.
“They are a lighthouse to LGBTIQA+ people who are looking for their people,” he writes below.
Joe Ball writes:
Following complaints, harassment and threats of violence, in July 2022 the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance cancelled its plans to light up the Victorian site of remembrance with the rainbow flag.
The lighting had been planned to coincide with the opening of the Shrine’s exhibition honouring LGBTIQA+ people who served in the armed forces, many dishonourably discharged and discriminated against just for being themselves.
This cowardly act of aggression against queer veterans marked the beginning of a cascade of far-right activism against Pride events across Victoria.
Between July 2022 and June 2023, at least 26 Pride events were cancelled across Australia, with the vast majority being cancelled in Victoria. These included Drag story times in council libraries and Rainbow Youth events.
As history has long shown, attempting to appease bigots through concessions and cancellations does not work. Instead, relenting to their behaviour can have the effect of legitimising their threats and abuse, and further embolden them.
Recently in Victoria, conversations between local councils, LGBTIQA+ leaders and organisations have centred around ways to continue holding Pride events while avoiding cancellations. One proposal is to make them harder to find by reducing publicity and ensuring events don’t include words like “drag” or “rainbow” that would alert the tiny protesting minority to an event’s existence.
While this attempt to sidestep bigotry has good intentions, it would drive these events — and the LGBTIQA+ community with it — underground again and back into the closet.
With many Pride events organised by local councils and youth groups, the onus to deal with abuse and threats has fallen to government employees and community volunteers who undertake risk assessments before deciding if the events will or will not be hosted in community spaces.
However, risk assessments come with serious limitations and biases – they tend to prioritise risks to the organisation over the potential harms that cancellations cause to LGBTIQA+ people.
They are presented as “neutral” tools to determine risk, resulting in statements like “we conducted a risk assessment, and the person or event poses too much risk”. Unfortunately, this approach neglects to consider the perspectives of those who are most in need of support and services.
Perceived risk is seldom determined or informed by those who require the response the most, leading to the denial of services due to reliance on these screening tools.
If an organisation intends to employ a risk assessment to evaluate the viability of a Pride Event, whether to cancel it or consider alternative arrangements, it is crucial that such an assessment is developed with meaningful input from the LGBTIQA+ community.
It is vital to acknowledge that LGBTIQA+ input, like all lived experience expertise, should not be limited to just one preferred or easily accessible perspective. Instead, it must include voices that hold genuine accountability and connection to the wider community.
In the context of Pride events, this consultation process should actively involve an LGBTIQA+ community-controlled organisation, pride network, or advisory group. These entities possess the necessary knowledge, understanding, and lived experiences that can ensure the risk assessment truly reflects the concerns and interests of the community.
Pride events have a profound positive impact in our society – they are more than just celebrations – they are vital expressions of love, acceptance, and solidarity for the LGBTIQA+ community.
The death of 13-year-old Onyx John by suicide last month in Queensland after being bullied at school because he was transgender emphasises the importance of supportive and inclusive events like Pride, especially for young people.
They are a lighthouse to LGBTIQA+ people who are looking for their people, and also a marker of how far we’ve come as a society. Unfortunately, the protest against them is an indication of how far we still have to go.
If Pride and other events celebrating LGBTIQA+ communities continue to be cancelled or sent underground, young people won’t have access to vital support that could make meaningful impact on their wellbeing, particularly in regional and rural areas.
In the LGBTIQA+ communities, we are fortunate to have many inspiring examples that empower us to fight back against attempts to cancel our events. One such powerful example lies in the long history of Feminist activism, defending abortion clinics against far-right Christian protesters.
In Australia, we have achieved significant victories in these battles, leading to legal bans on far-right activists from obstructing access to abortion clinics through the implementation of exclusion zones around the facilities.
These victories were not achieved by relocating clinics to hidden locations or limiting access through the making contact details harder to find.
Another notable example that has left a profound impact on our LGBTIQA+ communities is the legacy of the Community Angels. Their story began in Wyoming, United States, in 1998, following the tragic murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who became a victim of a vicious homophobic hate crime. He was brutally bashed and left to die in a field in Wyoming.
The infamous far-right Christian nationalist church, Westboro, organised protests against homosexuality at Matthew’s funeral and during the subsequent court case.
In response, a group called the Angel Action network emerged, dressed as angels with their wings serving as curtains to shield Matthew’s family and friends from witnessing the protest as they attended his funeral. These brave individuals blocked out the protestors, providing a protective space for those grieving and honouring Matthew’s memory.
The Community Angels resurfaced in 2016, following the devastating mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, where 51 people lost their lives.
Once again, Westboro church attempted to protest a funeral of one of the victims, but the Angels were present to block their hateful messages from sight. They offered a symbol of hope, protection, and support for those in mourning and showed that our communities can come together to shield each other from harm in the face of bigotry and violence.
In 2017, Minus18 organised a Queer formal in St Kilda that faced threats from far-right Christian protesters.
To protect the Queer formal from disruption, community members were inspired by the overseas Angels and came together to form a cordon line of Angels. Their presence ensured that the event could proceed without alterations or disturbances caused by the far-right protesters.
If issues like reputational risk or receiving complaints are given higher priority than the mental health and overall wellbeing of LGBTIQA+ individuals, it raises concerns about a council’s overall suitability in overseeing these events.
In May, the City of Monash cancelled a drag queen story-time event after protestors complained at a council meeting ahead of the event. Around 200 people attended the council meeting, with only a portion there to protest the sold-out event. While any complaint must be considered, when put into the context of the population of the City of Monash – which is around 195,000 people – the protestors represent a nominal portion of the area’s residents.
In May 2023, the Rainbow Communities Angels proudly reformed in Melbourne and affiliate groups are forming nationally. The Rainbow Communities Angels are committed to actively participating in Pride events whenever possible.
By attending events they aim to, once again, block out bigotry, inspire courage, solidarity, and hope among all attendees. Pandering to one vocal minority comes at the expense of others, and usually to those who need community support the most.
If an organisation intends to employ a risk assessment to evaluate the viability of a Pride event, whether to cancel it or consider alternative arrangements, it is crucial that the LGBTIQA+ community be involved to collaborate and provide knowledge, understanding, and lived experiences.
While it’s true that there may be a risk to the event organisers, there’s arguably even greater risk in cancelling.
Joe Ball is an LGBTIQA+ advocate and CEO of Switchboard Victoria – an organisation that provides peer-driven support for the LGBTIQA+ community.
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See Croakey’s archive of articles on LGBTIQA+ health matters.