In March 1996, three US servicemen stationed in Okinawa were convicted of the abduction and sexual assault of a 12-year-old Japanese girl. It was the first time the US military prosecuted any of its soldiers since they first occupied the island in the 1940s. This is despite the fact that Japanese activists had protested both the occupation itself, and the apparent impunity of the servicemen since one of them raped a six-year-old girl in 1955.
Those three servicemen all pleaded guilty to various charges associated with the assault. This caused ripples in a military known to be myopically protective of its own at all costs. ‘Everything from a traffic violation to rape resulted in the same verdict: innocent,’ said Okinawan feminist Nobuko Karimata in the book Women of Okinawa. The three soldiers were clearly considered expendable, a small sacrifice to make in order to placate an increasingly frustrated and fed-up population. This could have been seen as a victory, a sign of a military finally taking the sexual assault of women seriously. Except for one thing: all three soldiers were black.
Fast forward to Australia in early 2019. Rugby superstar Israel Folau, born in Australia to Tongan parents, finds himself in hot water again following inflammatory comments he made in response to a fan query on his Instagram account. ‘What are God’s plan’s for gay people?’ the question baits him. ‘HELL,’ the footballer replied. Understandably, this caused widespread outrage in a nation still reeling from a cynical and unnecessary postal survey in which the population was asked, in a non-binding and therefore useless questionnaire, whether they thought marriage equality should be made law in Australia. The campaign was fierce and ugly. Most of the major media outlets––with notable exceptions such as the Guardian who announced it would refuse to treat the issue as a thing up for public debate––printed op-eds outlining why same-sex couples should be discriminated against. Most of these used religious justifications from a range of faith backgrounds including those sharing Folau’s Christian faith as well as at least one piece in the Sydney Morning Herald from a rabbi, all urging readers ‘it’s okay to vote No.’ Here is what I wrote at the time:
The No campaign has been largely running, not on facts and evidence, nor on the singular issue of marriage itself, but on a fear-mongering platform invoking irrelevant issues of gender roles, Safe Schools, and the insistence that the religious beliefs of some citizens outweigh the legal rights of others. The public interest has not been served by this ‘debate’. Rather, bigotry is being amplified and galvanised as the LGBTIQ community, the very group whose rights are being put up for public debate, are rebranded as bullies, and our public discourse has become more polarised, ugly, and less intelligent.
When the results of the survey came in with the population returning a resounding ‘Yes’ to marriage equality, much was made of the votes from Western Sydney which has a large immigrant population. The then–PM Malcolm Turnbull even mildly scolded the Muslim population of the region, suggesting the vote placed them at odds with the rest of the nation. It was audacious: after dragging their feet on marriage equality and boasting multiple MPs who were part of the No campaign, including former PM Tony Abbott, the government had the unmitigated gall to use the survey they foisted on us to isolate and blame one segment of the population for doing precisely what the government and media had spent months reassuring them it was okay to do. The entire episode began to look like yet another case of divide and conquer: this time creating a wedge between communities of colour and the LGBTIQ community, despite the fact there is clear overlap between them.
Against this backdrop, Folau’s comments quickly stirred Rugby Australia to action. After being warned that his actions were in violation of the code’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, Folau was sacked from his $4million contract becoming as, the Saturday Paper reported, ‘the first athlete to be sanctioned for his religious views’. Rugby Australia’s decision was cheered in progressive circles, with many expressing relief that the LGBTIQ community were finally being defended. Change.org executive director Sally Rugg, who had spearheaded the marriage equality campaign for Getup, thanked Rugby Australia for ‘showing the country exactly where homophobia is bound for’. The decision was ‘a powerful demonstration of solidarity and allyship with gay people and the broader LGBTIQ community, and will have enormous social impact’.
It’s an appealing sentiment. But a naïve one. Yes, it did seem at first that Folau had the backing of the ‘free speech’ and ‘anti-PC’ brigades. Sky News presenter Rita Panahi whined in her Herald Sun column that Folau was being persecuted for his Christian faith; Lyle Shelton shared a cartoon depicting Folau being burned at the stake by an angry feminist. This fueled progressive certainties that Folau was a one of the inner circle of elite conservatism, that he was at one with the privileged, that he was power and they were speaking truth to him.
Meanwhile, Rugby Australia was doing all it could to distance itself from him—and that meant ensuring the public focus remained on his alleged violation of its social media policy. Any attempt to query—in a country that has seen prominent politicians and media commentators alike routinely scare-monger about Safe Schools and the supposedly slippery slope of marriage equality—why Folau’s comments were so particularly bad that he had to be the sole person sanctioned for them, was met with repetitive bleating about rules, contracts, agreements, and more rules. This societal obsession with rules is peculiar. For a nation of alleged larrikins, Australia seems to be unusually enamoured with following them––but only for certain people of course. This selective conformity serves a purpose: by fixating on these individual rules, we can ignore the structures that both give rise to them and that permit them to be so selectively applied.
Trying to point this out at the time it all went down was futile. No time was given for any argument that tried to both denounce the content of Folau’s social media posts and remind Australians that in a country literally built on racism and dispossession, we had to be wary of racist undercurrents driving the singling out of Folau. As I previously wrote on Twitter:
‘These are the culture wars, white society bickers over the bodies of PoC. Shelton makes a martyr out of Folau knowing he will never suffer the same repercussions despite holding the same views & being in a far more powerful position to influence policy & society.’
Sure enough, earlier this week, the Australian and the Herald Sun, who’d previously defended Folau’s free speech, made a stunning about-turn, coming out swinging after the former Rugby star made a taped sermon in his father’s church that was posted to Facebook. ‘Folau Mouthed,’ screamed the Daily Telegraph headline, ‘Israel targets gays, transgender children in latest sermon.’
This is a shocking about-face from media outlets that have long pushed the anti-trans and anti-marriage equality lines. But this is how power sustains itself. Explicit homophobia is rightly becoming less and less tolerated. Headlines like the one in the SMH that also stated ‘Folau launches fresh attack on gay and transgender people,’ transfer all guilt on to people of colour so that white society retains its pure, clean and innocent self-image. Consider that an older SMH report during the nadir of the marriage equality survey on Margaret Court, also a conservative Christian and a reverend no less, who has also spoken out against gay and trans people, described her comments as merely a ‘denouncement of gay marriage.’ Folau ‘attacks gay people’ while Court merely ‘denounces marriage equality.’
Word choices matter.
‘Folau’s demise is also our demise,’ wrote gay Samoan writer Patrick Thomsen, ‘people’s willingness to focus on burning Israel Folau at the stake represents the dominance of western thinking. One that posits that an individual is made by free will alone and is not a product of their community and environment as well.’
Missing from the public discourse is the background of how evangelical Christianity swept the Pacific Islands. This the story of colonialism and Christian missionaries and Captain Cook; of the destruction of local religions and languages.
It is the story of how all over the world, cultures that didn’t have laws or customs against homosexuality or gender fluidity could become so puritanical that they turned against their own LGBTIQ brethren in favour of the gospel as preached by their colonisers; only for the colonisers to then finally soften their own stances against homosexuality and decide that homophobia was yet another moral failing of the colonised. *
It is the story of whiteness. White society has been the global driving force behind, not only racism, but homophobia and transphobia, and yet, like racism––and indeed like sexual assault in the military which has been primarily committed by white soldiers––it somehow manages to find a way to ensure that others are sanctioned far more. Though a petition was circulated to have Margaret Court Arena renamed, it failed. The former tennis great has managed to keep her namesake stadium despite sharing the same exact views for which Folau is now being vilified.
One wonders why Folau is even making the news again. Why those who insisted the fiasco was about him ‘breaking the rules’ are still writing articles and social media posts of their own condemning him when there is no longer a contract for him to break. Sociologist Josh Cerretti has noted that the families of those three black servicemen who had been made to wear the blame for decades of abuse inflicted by US soldiers against the Okinawan population had wondered whether racism played a role in the men’s prosecution. ‘While the soldiers’ violence against women precluded coalition building between Okinawan women and black soldiers both were united in being seen by the white-dominated military leadership as expendable in comparison to the occupation.’
Like those three solders, Folau is not innocent of what he has been accused of. But that only makes him, like them, so much easier to expend. People of colour are expendable in our society. So too are LGBTIQ. What better way to ensure they both remain that way than by fomenting conditions that make it all but impossible for coalition-building between them? And so the cynical debates about Folau and free speech continue, while in the background power––white power––still reigns supreme.
* This paragraph has been altered from the first-published version for the sake of clarity.