Gayby Baby: are you feeling the propaganda yet?

By Senthorun Raj

While hovering in a state of semi-consciousness during a flight to New York, I watched the latest Hunger Games film. Putting aside the radiating desire to own Katniss’ Mockingjay outfit for a moment, the film reminded me about the way political propaganda (or “propos” as it’s called in the film) becomes necessary to cut through the enduring political noise and galvanise public emotions. Katniss, as our eponymous saviour, comports her body, voice, and rhetoric in “unscripted” encounters in order to mobilise the masses to translate their collective feeling of injustice into social action. Feeling (outraged) can be seductive.

From popular culture to (un)popular politics, we should pay closer attention to the ways in which the media and governments work to cultivate public feelings.

Last month, The Daily Telegraph ran a front-page panic that children in schools were being “brainwashed” by pro-gay programs in schools. Burwood Girls High School’s decision to screen Gayby Baby, a documentary about children in same-sex families, became the centre of a broader public debate about curriculums and the “parameters of tolerance.” Gay propaganda, Piers Akerman revealed to us, was infecting young minds with ideas of social inclusion (how dangerous!) that threatened the universal privilege of heterosexuality (how daring!). Here, displays of homosexuality that escaped the confines of closets or bedrooms become seen as injustices against vulnerable heterosexual (school) publics. Far from being an original homophobic rant, however, Akerman’s piece was rather pedestrian. In fact, it mirrored a front page in The Daily Telegraph three years earlier where columnist Miranda Devine took issue with anti-homophobia programs in schools that dared to acknowledge that not every child was heterosexual.

Fictionalising a so-called “gay agenda” is designed to provoke a mix of fear and anger. Public discussions of non-heterosexual or gender non-conforming behaviours at school become points for Helen Lovejoy-inspired propagandists (also known as “conservative columnists”). This would be amusing if it were not so toxic. Galvanised by these journalistic provocations, the NSW government issued a ban on screening the documentary during school hours. This was done in spite of no actual complaints from “concerned parents” at the school. The government nodded to “tolerance” but indicated that the curriculum should be kept to the “essentials.” Or, as I like to call it, “heterosexual propaganda.” After all, what else do you call having to read numerous novels in English about heterosexual romances or learning in science that sex refers just to penile-vaginal acts geared towards procreation? If that’s not about encouraging a heterosexual lifestyle choice, then I do not know what is!

My immediate response to the confected controversy about Gayby Baby was some disgusted grunting which was then followed closely by some rage tweeting. I thought that if the government intended to stop content “politicising schools,” then logically it needed to scrap schools showing Easter and Christmas films too (along with the compulsory religious education). Oddly enough, that was not on the agenda.

I, along with many others, was outraged by the hypocrisy of it all. In particular, I was outraged at the attempt by some in the media to spark outrage against attempts by schools to encourage inclusion of queer kids or those living in queer families. For those of you who read my columns, you will know that none of this is new. These days I feel that I live in a cycle of annoyed gestures when it comes to homophobic propaganda: slow claps, face palms, and head desks.

But, responding to homophobic injustices should not be about fetishising my gestures of anger. Instead, we should be disrupting the injustice of propaganda itself. We must shatter propaganda that makes heterosexuality seem natural, inevitable, and good while punishing those who refuse to conform to it. Borrowing from The Hunger Games, it’s time to up our Gay Propos. Now, to go stockpile more glitter…

Senthorun Raj is a visiting doctoral fellow at NYU Law School and a Right Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @senthorun

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This column has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.