All Queer on the Western Front
SYDNEY: The ‘offensive’ gay signage controversy that engulfed Parramatta last week has revived concerns about the attitudes of those in Western Sydney towards LGBTIQ people.
It was supposed to be a family fun day by the picturesque Parramatta River to help celebrate Parramatta City Council’s recent reactivation of the waterway which flows all the way to Sydney Harbour. The Rediscover the River event on Thursday, January 17 was billed by Council as a day for the whole community, one which would pay tribute to the diversity of the area which could perhaps lay claim to be the true “melting pot” of Australia.
A scandal on the day over something seemingly innocuous involving the city’s mayor and claims of ‘offence’ however would last week create growing outrage – in Parramatta, across Australia and overseas – and much soul-searching on whether Western Sydney had actually moved on from its recent past as a cultureless pit of boredom and violence where life for many LGBTI people consisted of being hidden lest one be publicly called a ‘faggot’, ‘poofter’, or become the victim of anti-gay violence.
Amongst all the kid’s activities, the video games booth and various workshops that had set up in the morning at the banks of the Parramatta River was also queer youth support agency Twenty10. The organisation, which has been helping young LGBTIQ people for over 30 years, came to the event to hold kite flying classes with children and parents and to also create a friendly presence to share information about queer youth issues. Their stall was highlighted by a banner that read: “Support service for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people, their families and community” and “A place to be me, with the support I need”.
“In going out there we were expecting a quiet and uneventful day,” Twenty10’s acting general manager Terence Humphreys tells SX. “We certainly weren’t expecting any concerns around it and we’ve certainly never had complaints about our banners before.”
Not too soon after they had set up for the day, Twenty10 staff were ordered by an advisor to Lord Mayor John Chedid to remove their signage as apparently a number of people had found it “offensive”. The actions would lead to Twenty10 packing up and leaving the festival due to fears over safety before a huge groundswell of community support and a massive social media campaign – including a 12,000 signature petition – forced the Council and Chedid to personally apologise to the youth support group but not until almost a week later.
Justin Koonin, co-convener for the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, tells SX it is simply not true that being LGBTI-friendly is somehow mutually exclusive to being family-friendly.
“There are many different ways a family can form beyond the traditional nuclear definition, and LGBTI people are just as capable of being in a family as other people,” he says.
“Visibility is key and events like the Parramatta Pride festival do much to showcase these welcoming aspects of our community.”
It’s a point that Leichhardt Mayor Darcy Byrne agrees on strongly. Earlier this year, Leichardt Council, which governs suburbs in Sydney’s inner west, announced its intentions to extend its 2011 Community and Cultural Plan to proactively connect to local LGBTI residents and issues.
The Council will hold a workshop for LGBTI residents in coming weeks, fly the rainbow flag on top of Town Hall for at least the next three years during Mardi Gras as well as investigate new ways to make LGBTI people feel a part of the inner-west and beyond.
“Twenty10, for example, are a great group and very active,” Byrne tells SX. “They’re a big part of our local Youth Interagency, where our local youth service providers come together to share information and plan services for our local young people.”
Parramatta City councillor Lorraine Wearne, who was the Council’s previous mayor, tells SX she was saddened by the unsavoury events of this month as she and other council members had worked tremendously hard in recent years to transform the image of Western Sydney to show it as the dynamic and diverse area that she believes it is.
“I think maybe 30 years ago there was a perception about Western Sydney that may have had some validity but I believe in the last 15 to 20 years we’ve become more sophisticated – we’ve all grown up,” she says.
“We’re a very gay-friendly city in many ways. We have the film festival as part of Mardi Gras, we have all sorts of things. International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) was held in our Town Hall. What happened here was an aberration.”
In coming months, Wearne is also expected to move a motion that will see Council formally acknowledging IDAHO every year on May 17.
“I think it’s a shame that what’s happened here is an incident that’s left a really bad taste in a lot of people’s minds and it’s just so distressing that such a limited view held by very people could then breed this idea that Parramatta is no good,” she says. “I think that’s tragic.”
Though the controversy and attention has taken a toll on Twenty10’s small but dedicated staff, the entire episode seems to have actually given it much more recognition in mainstream communities – including Western Sydney. Since news of the initial incident spread the organisation was inundated by calls from local residents and parents, many of whom were heterosexual, asking how they could get involved or help.
“That’s the irony of the entire thing,” Humphreys tells SX. “Being asked to take down a banner with 20 words on it, those 20 words have now been quoted in news articles all around the globe.”