Last month, PM Tony Abbott generated frenzied rebuttals when he claimed that the government should not subsidise the “lifestyle choices” of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples who wished to remain on their Homelands. A number of responses focused on the concepts of land, culture, community and personhood to contest the idea that living on country was a “choice” akin to deciding whether to go on holidays to New Zealand or Bali.
The PM’s troubling choice of words, however, invites us to ask some broader questions: when does a basic human right become a “lifestyle choice” and who gets to define what those are?
As a gay man, I’m used to people referring to my sexual orientation as a “lifestyle choice.” I’ve also been amusingly described on one hand as being a “militant homosexualist” through to being a “gay fascist” on another for daring to speak against homophobia. Lobbying for formal legal equality (such as the ability to get married or access anti-discrimination protections) – a concept that is hardly queer – has been described as a demand for “special rights.”
In contrast to my purported lifestyle choices, heterosexuality is positioned as natural. Let’s just consider a response to anti-homophobia initiatives in schools. In one article, Miranda Devine described it as “designed more for indoctrination and propaganda than to eliminate bullying.” Attempts to talk about diverse sexualities or gender identities are simultaneously seen as an attack on heterosexuality and an attempt to indoctrinate young people about “alternative lifestyles.”
The “no homo promo” sentiment mobilised in curriculum debates is not new or unique. But, it does reveal how the language of choice is articulated in a way that effaces asymmetric relations of power: heterosexuality warrants unthinking protection because it occupies an invisible, privileged position while homosexuality only warrants limited toleration because it is not “normal.” That’s why no one ever bats an eyelid over books in libraries that portray heterosexual relationships but introduce a book about same-sex families and suddenly you are flaunting some insidious gay lifestyle. (Though, I must admit that I do flaunt myself quite vigorously to students when I teach by shedding copious amounts of glitter.)
We must also remember that the government enforces its own lifestyle choices on queers. The government willingly subsidises religious chaplains to offer pastoral care in schools, instead of trained counselors. In addition, a number of anti-discrimination laws enable publicly funded religious organisations to exclude sexual and gender minorities at whim without having to publicly disclose that they discriminate. The Marriage Act gives legal recognition to a particular heterosexual relationship arrangement. Yet, far from seeing these administrative or legislative decisions as subsidising lifestyle choices, they are seen as inherent to the social fabric.
Lifestyle choice rhetoric is brutally familiar to other marginalised groups. It is often invoked at the moments where claims for justice are about to be dismissed. Maybe I’m generalising unfairly but I’m often struck by how claims for justice advanced by the privileged few are carried under the umbrella of “basic freedoms” while the dispossessed have their claims for justice dismissed as “special rights” or “lifestyle choices.”
Instead of immediately characterising identities or activities that are outside our personal zone of experience as “lifestyle choices,” we should reflect on what is at stake in them. Culture, personhood, identity, language, conscience are not “choices” that we make at whim and nor can be easily disregarded.
There are, however, a number of other lifestyle choices too. Colonisation is a lifestyle choice. Homophobia is a lifestyle choice. Ignorance is a lifestyle choice. Let’s stop subsidising those.
Senthorun Raj is a doctoral researcher at the Sydney Law School and a Right Now columnist. Twitter: @senthorun
Feature image: Shanna Waller via Flickr.
This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.