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Stigma: Past and Present

Fri 13 Nov 2015 In: Politics and Religion View at Wayback View at NDHA

As a Stage I sociology student back in 1981, two concepts particularly intrigued me - 'stigma' and 'spoiled identity.' How relevant are they to New Zealand LGBT communities today? As it turns out in the current affairs arena, markedly so. This was four years before the fall of Muldoon, the election of the Fourth Labour Government and the passage of Fran Wilde's Homosexual Law Reform Act, so gay male sex was still potentially criminalised under the Crimes Act 1961, except in the cosy, warm and frenetic confines of Christchurch's Columbo Sauna, long since closed and its site demolished in the Christchurch quake. When I read Tearoom Trade(1966) as a naive nineteen year old, I was startled to discover a side of gay male sexuality that I previously hadn't realised existed. Apparently, other gay men resorted to sex in the cramped environs of cold, smelly and unhygienic public lavatories. While that definitely wasn't my own preference, I didn't feel compelled to moralistically condemn them for making alternative sexual choices to my own. The author, Laud Humphreys, was not only a gay man and sociologist, but also an Episcopal (US Anglican) priest, involved in the sixties gay, African-American civil rights and antiwar movements. But times change, and apparently, al fresco 'public sex' is dying out, rendering the participant observation work of Humphreys from that era a matter of historical interest. The causes of this phenomenon are the legality of gay sex, the convenience and availability of metropolitan sex on site venues and the advent of online or mobile phone hook up apps like Grindr. When Humphreys wrote Tearoom Trade, almost all gay sex was still criminalised and lesbian and gay liberation had yet to emerge as a social movement after Stonewall. The social context that once surrounded the symbols, objects, gestures, behaviour and ephemeral sexual interactions has changed markedly, given the presence of LGBTI communities and ongoing legislative reform and social change. It's all very well to romanticise the marginality and 'transgression' of yesterday, but the lived experience was that of constraint, psychological repression and compartmentalised lives. Another relevant work of the same period was Erving Goffman'sStigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity(1970). Goffman's work explained how 'deviant' individuals like disabled people, sex workers and IV drug users negotiated their 'precarious identities' and managed, confronted and resisted stigma, discrimination, criminality and social exclusion from dominant social interests.   For it is dominant social institutions that do the stigmatising, whether religious institutions, law enforcement agencies, local neighbourhood vigilante groups or other such organisations. However, as with the current reception of Tearoom Trade, the social context of the above has changed. Needle exchanges and IV drug user social networks are vital to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS. In New Zealand, the Prostitution Reform Act decriminalised sex work in 2003. And as for people with disabilities, their lives have been revolutionised by a mass social movement that angrily resists anti-welfare initiatives in the United Kingdom, perceived as an attack on their rights to full citizenship and social participation. Indeed, attributing stigma can be a fraught process these days. LGBT communities have benefited from the decline of religious institutions and observance and our legislative reform agenda has been buttressed by strategic alliances with professional sources of expertise and social authority such as scientists, medical practitioners and social scientists.   Unfortunately, the process of stigmatisation hasn't ended- but the targets have changed. In early November, New Zealand-born former criminals were detained in the charnel house Christmas Island Detention Facility, pending deportation from Australia. When the Labour Party raised concerns about the conditions within that Serco facility, Prime Minister Key accused the Opposition of "solidarity" with rapists, murderers and pedophiles- which is not the case with the current group of detainees, according to Justice Minister Amy Adams. Moreover, the Prime Minister's stigmatisation attempt backfired- and he has been particularly criticised by several brave female MPs from Labour and the Greens- Poto Williams, Metiria Turei, Catherine Delahunty and Jan Logie- who 'came out' as survivors of family violence and sexual assault who complained about the Prime Minister's opportunist and incorrect statement and were censured by Speaker David Carter. Sexual abuse confers stigma on its survivors and it is through acknowledgement and resistance to victim-blaming that it is best fought. What does this have to do with us? Jan Logie is an out lesbian. Even if she wasn't, human decency demands that we combat the Prime Minister's opportunist scaremongering and attempts at stigmatisation and social exclusion. Craig Young - 13th November 2015    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Friday, 13th November 2015 - 8:31am

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