Why I Agreed to Debate Jeremy Bell

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Words || Fahad Ali

A few weeks back, I got a message from a friend – a Green – asking me to speak at a Liberal Club debate on marriage equality at Macquarie University. My friend, a brilliant videographer, had just finished putting together a short clip on Muslims for Marriage Equality, and I was happy to oblige. It seemed like a reasonable, straightforward request. Make the case for marriage equality? I could do that in my sleep.

My faith is auxiliary to the fact that I am a queer activist. There are, of course, intersections between my faith and my sexuality. I established Muslims for Marriage Equality because I recognised that there was work to be done within the Muslim community – as a young gay Muslim, I could not simply sit on my hands and despair the existence of homophobia within my community.

Much of my engagement on queer issues has not come through my faith, nor does it relate to my faith, or to any faith at all. I speak extensively about racism within the queer community, about ending HIV/AIDS, about Israel’s cynical use of gay rights to justify military occupation in Palestine, about the history of queer resistance in Australia, and about the importance of recognising that we still have a long way to go after marriage equality is won. These themes can be found throughout my writing and throughout my activism.

So when I read Angus Dalton’s article in this publication, I was disappointed that it was assumed that my activism was coming from a “religious point of view”. This is not representative of my approach to queer issues, beyond a single (but important) aspect of my activism.

Nonetheless, the ethos I brought into being with Muslims for Marriage Equality was one that recognised the reality of political change within the context of migrant communities and communities of faith.

These conversations are not easy to have. We cannot be expected to take an uncompromising approach and isolate ourselves from our families and communities. Migrant activists, in particular, appreciate that we only enjoy the rights we have in Australia today after decades of organised struggle. We didn’t go from forced lobotomies and chemical castration to rainbows and sunshine overnight, so why do we expect any kind of immediate change in migrant communities, or even overseas? We need to work within our families and communities, to have the hard conversations, and yes – make the case for marriage equality. Prohibiting us from doing so, based on the idea that certain things should not be up for debate, is grossly misguided.

I think you can generalise this to go beyond religious and migrant spaces. The success of the queer liberation movement over the last century depended very much on queer activists making the case for liberation. The Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP), one of the first queer liberation groups to be formed in Australia, recognised the transformative power of education. Their records from 1972 – years before the first Mardi Gras – describe CAMP members addressing religious meetings and church congregations, and even writing articles for the Young Liberal magazine. They didn’t throw their hands up in the air and declare that they wouldn’t debate! If these tactics were good enough for queer liberation activists who put their lives on the line before homosexuality was even decriminalised, it should be good enough for university students in 2017.

I don’t doubt that homophobia can have adverse consequences for the mental health of those within queer community. But we are not such powerless agents. For my part, I agreed with Imogen Grant’s take on the plebiscite in Honi Soit, where she argued that a plebiscite, though a loathsome process, can mobilise the queer community in an unprecedented campaign. We can build an affirming, empowering space for ourselves in spite of homophobia. There are few things that inspire self-belief more than the realisation of one’s own power to win.

Yes – it’s not a respectful debate. Did we ever think it was going to be? Was the discussion really so refined before the postal survey was announced? Of course not. The ACL and friends were spouting rubbish like “smoking is healthier than gay marriage” and “homosexual activists want to legalise bestiality” years before the plebiscite was announced.

Homophobia isn’t Tinker Bell; it doesn’t go away if you pretend it doesn’t exist. So why not take it head on? It is true that certain things should be taken for granted. But insisting that marriage equality is not a topic for debate ignores the fact that there is a national debate about marriage equality. If we refuse to engage, we will lose. If we don’t put our case forward, we will lose.

As an example: I recently met someone in the Arabic language press who was planning to vote no because she was worried that children were turning gay. I listened and responded as best I could. Within 20 minutes she had seen the light; she was going to vote yes. This reflects, I think, what CAMP once wrote in 1974: “as people become better educated they learn to accept, tolerate, and understand the differences in people.”

Obviously, not everyone will be won over by rational argument. But political progress relies on the transformation of society, and that transformation requires, by definition, a change of heart in people who hold ambivalent or retrograde opinions. This is not to say that debate should take the place of protest or civil disobedience, but rather that they should work in concert, just as they did during the early queer liberation movement.

I agreed to debate Jeremy Bell primarily as a favour for a friend. I agreed because there may have been people there who were undecided or sympathetic. But, primarily, I agreed because I would’ve won.

Unfortunately, personal circumstances meant that I had to pull out of the event. But I would gladly take on Dr Bell any day of the week.