Homophobia and racism: the Australian media prove they can do two things at once

There was a bit of a controversy on Sunday when The Daily Telegraph, which is apparently still passing for a newspaper, put up a story called “PM Julia Gillard and Senator Pansy Wong – a reluctant embrace of an emotive issue; gay marriage”. Here’s the story in question. Let’s be very kind and move past the coding as gay of everyone who wants to marry someone of their own gender, and also the punctuation, (I know, I know, I can hear the baby semicolons crying, too) because the real ?!?! moment was, of course, the reference to the only openly gay minister, Penny Wong, as Pansy.

Homophobia ahoy? Well, many Tele readers thought so. Happily, after several hours, there was an update to the article:

thetelegraph.com.au apologies for mistake in a headline that appeared online today. The headline was not intended to be a play on words but was in fact a mix up by a web producer from New Zealand who confused Senator Wong with NZ MP Pansy Wong.

Claire Harvey, who wrote the article, tweeted:

Genuine mistake. Careful readers will see we editorialised in favour of gay marriage today. Everyone else stop being sensationalist.

Colin Espiner, the web editor in question, also took to Twitter:

Sorry conspiracy theorists but the Pansy Wong headline was an honest mistake – I’m the (Kiwi) journo who wrote it. She’s an NZ pollie.

Okay, that’s fair enough in its way. I can well believe that a tired, overworked editor, one new to Australia, as Espiner is, one who must have spent a lot of time writing about former New Zealand minister Pansy Wong, could have mixed them up by mistake. It’s a really unfortunate mistake, but the homophobia is incidental rather than a bad joke. I’m not a fan of the objections about sensationalism! and conspiracy theorists! and see how we are so not homophobic! because Harvey, Espiner and their bosses should really have dealt with this more sensibly, but okay. There was an apology at least.

What they – and, it seems, a lot of people who objected to that headline – have missed is the racism. I’m feeling some pretty strong vibes along “Asians are interchangeable” lines. I’m feeling it all the more strongly because of how the surname Wong is routinely manipulated to represent Asians and Asian stereotypes – you know, like the “two Wongs will make it white” shirts? Irrespective of whether that was intended or not, I think that the semblance of racism is as well worth apologising for as the semblance of homophobia. Moreover, intent and semblances are besides the point when we take a broader look: an apology is necessary because the headline plays into systemic racism, because that headline has got to have hit a lot of East Asians hard.

But it wasn’t only the Tele stuffing up. The word from Melbourne is that the Herald Sun’s headline – I can’t find a copy on the website – was “Right Wonged”. Okay, so I think we all get that that’s really racist. But also: sense it does not make. Firstly, Penny Wong didn’t rush through and save the queer day by changing Labor’s same-sex marriage policy all on her little lesbian lonesome. Plus, given that whoever dragged that headline up from the swamp of inarticulate pain was playing on the bad, bad joke of switching Wong and wrong, that translates from unclever casually racist copyediting speak to English as “right wronged”. Possibly I should not look for sense in Herald Sun headlines, but the closest thing to sense that makes is saying that the sacred right to marriage has been wrongly dealt with by potentially perhaps maybe letting those same-sex attracted people in on it. Racism and weird sort of editorial subliminal bias for the lose.

I am almost beyond giving these people any more time, but one more, and it’s with Brisbane’s Courier Mail, so you know it’s going to be bad. So help us, the Courier Mail offered “Not so gay for Prime Minister Julia Gillard”. There is a picture just below it, captioned ‘awkward moment’ because LOL or something. The picture chosen was one in which the Prime Minister and Senator Wong are embracing, but only Julia Gillard’s arm is visible around the Senator. The PM is smiling while the Senator is in one of those moments when your expression is changing and you inevitably look a bit displeased. Get it? The idea is that Penny Wong is the super gayest lady ever, and would totally hit on her colleagues and stuff, but not Julia Gillard! Because it’s not as though queer people are ever seen as constantly inappropriately sexual because some straight people can only see a big pink glittery threat rather than human beings! And it’s not as though Ms Gillard’s sexuality has been constantly denigrated throughout her time in politics as overbearing, inadequate, or, you know, secretly queer, as though that would be a bad thing!

Homophobia, racism, misogyny: these things are rife. The media’s vicious little jokes perpetuate it, as do the honest mistakes that are not quickly and thoroughly accounted for. Let’s get same-sex marriage passed and make this country a better place, and show the media that they’d do better to stop giggling to themselves over their own rubbish. They should start giving us reportage of a decent quality such as befits our efforts towards an increasingly decent nation.

Categories: media, social justice

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18 replies

  1. Great post 🙂
    Just a little fix – Senator Wong isn’t the only openly gay MP, Bob Brown is openly gay also, and Louise Pratt has a transgendered partner ( I don’t know whether she considers herself to fit into any given category, but she stands in the same boat on same sex marriage as those with same sex partners.)

  2. Thanks for digging down into the festering pits on this one, Chally.
    I’m really quite over journalists huffing “how very dare you notice that I’m holding this obvious dogwhistle and just lowering it from my lips”.

  3. “how very dare you notice that I’m holding this obvious dogwhistle and just lowering it from my lips”
    And their close cousins, “you’re the real bigot for noticing my remarks were bigoted” and “being called a bigot is as bad or worse than being targeted with bigotry.”

  4. What a great post, Chally. (I really ought to come around to Hoyden a bit more often 🙂
    In my mind, an “apology” followed by “you’re oversensitive / sensationalist / a conspiracy theorist” is not an apology. “I’m sorry” is all that should be said.
    On the insidious nature of racism: I’m sorry to say that I didn’t see the racism in the Daily Telegraph headline until you pointed it out. If white folk would just look at ourselves a bit more and admit to just how often we let racism slip on by without even recognizing it, let alone challenging it, then the kind of defensiveness that the DT staff displayed wouldn’t happen so much. Really, a simple non-defensive apology isn’t that hard.

  5. Thanks for writing this – it’s all so depressing. Here is Paul Zanetti’s little piece of misogynist and homophobic crap for the St George Leader:
    Also, The Leader are quite happy to publish extremely homophobic reader comments on any articles they print on the subject. For example, “When can we marry our pets?”

  6. In my mind, an “apology” followed by “you’re oversensitive / sensationalist / a conspiracy theorist” is not an apology. “I’m sorry” is all that should be said.

    Absolutely. And I would have been annoyed if both elements had come from the same people, but probably the higher ups wrote the apology rather than those two. Hopefully they were commenting in a private capacity, but it’s still not great that I’m sorry/it’s your problem came from people in the same organisation.

  7. Chally I was wondering if you could expand a bit on why you think the first daily telegraph article was racist? I agree that the later examples certainly are and they have form for writing racist headlines previously, but I didn’t see it in that article.
    Wong is one of the most prominent Asians in Australia, though my impression through the lens of the media is that its not something she really campaigns on which as someone of asian origin see as rather a good thing.

  8. I don’t think the article was, I was again just referring to the headline. It plays into the whole idea that “those Asians all look the same” and are basically interchangeable with their foreign foreign names of foreignness, you know? I think it’s about as racist as it was homophobic – it really wasn’t meant to be, but it’s strikingly similar to a lot of statements that are, and intention =/= effects.

  9. Chally – I’m struggling to see it, but thank you for the explanation.

  10. Like Chris, I’m not sure about the alleged racism in the first heading.
    “Pansy Wong” appears to be deliberate homophobia until it is rendered innocent by the explanation of a mix up with an actual Pansy Wong in NZ.
    But the suggestion that the heading is racist because Penny got mixed up with Pansy because of their surnames and they both happen to be Asian is different from the apparent homophobia in the heading because the logic of it being a deliberate play on the “all Asians look the same” idea can only make sense after we already know the explanation about the mix up, by which point we know the mistake was innocent.
    If the charge is that the apparent racism is not deliberate but results from casual racism by an ingrained view that “all Asians look the same”, then with respect, this seems to me to be searching unnecessarily closely for racism where none exists. Would you call it racism against whites if someone got mixed up between Julie Bishop and Bronwyn Bishop?

  11. I don’t think the explanation of the mistake necessarily excludes the possibility of having mixed them up due to unconscious racism, too. Either way, it’s hardly rendered innocent, because the terms of the explanation itself – having mixed two Asians up – plays into a history of supposed sameness. That’s the difference between the Wong and Bishop examples: there isn’t a history of white people being figured as identical or interchangeable. The apparent homophobia is pretty much dealt with by the explanation, but the same explanation succeeds in securing the hint of racism – whether that was actually going on consciously or subconsciously, or whether it just reinforces existing discourse.

  12. Chally – ah I finally understand what you mean. Though given the names are so close and the circumstances described, I’d tend to give them the benefit of the doubt and say it was an honest mistake. Because of the Telegraph’s stuff up if you now google for images of Pansy Wong, one of photos that comes up is of Penny Wong – so may well see more confusion in the future from those not familiar with Australian politics….

    That’s the difference between the Wong and Bishop examples: there isn’t a history of white people being figured as identical or interchangeable.

    Not in Australia, but you don’t have to look for very long in Asia to find Asian people who say that all white people look the same. FWIW fundamentally I think the view just comes from people not having met enough say Asian or White people and it is sometimes more than just a racist joke.

  13. Yes, I know :). It’s kind of hilarious as a counter to the white supremacy that also facilitates white people saying they can’t tell the difference between Asians.

  14. Chris, I don’t think “exposure” is necessarily the main or most common explanation for mix-ups in general. It may well be, but there are other possibilities that shouldn’t be ruled out.
    I’ve found that some people sort of “switch off” and make assumptions when they see colour. I’ve been asked about my “accent” in relation to where I must be “from”(like many Aussies, I’m simply in the wilderness between Bryan Brown and Alexander Downer). I live in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne (and I study in the city), so “exposure” to people of Asian descent is not really a rare occurrence for folks not as dark as me.
    Years ago, my semi-Filo sister and I were often assumed to be the sisters of a Sri Lankan bloke who worked in the same factory as us, despite the fact that he was opposite-end-of-the-make-up-shelf darker than us, and didn’t sound any thing like us.
    Also, I have difficulties with this, and exposure and unconscious racism/assumptions do not form part of the explanation. I’m a POC, half my family is white European in extraction. While I sometimes have trouble recognising/telling Asian people apart, I more often experience difficulties in relation to white people.
    I think it forms part of my social ineptitude (recognition of people I know is often less than instant), but there is a weirdly inequitable slant in the numbers. I imagine other people have similar difficulties.
    For example, it was really difficult to recognise whether the tall, skinny, bespectacled, brown-haired white bloke I spotted in the uni library is the same tall, skinny, bespectacled, brown-haired white bloke I often sat next to in one of my tutes.

  15. To add a completely facetious point to the idea that unconscious racism, at the very least, played a part in the “mix-up”, Alec Baldwin and Adam Baldwin are both masculine deep-voiced white guys with only 3 letters’ difference in their names, and I have absolutely no problem distinguishing between them.

  16. Perla – sure there are probably quite a few contributory factors. I guess what I was trying to say is that for some people it is actually more difficult for them to distinguish between people of one race than it is of another. Or even to recognise say different races within a general category (say Asian).
    For example my mum who grew up in Asia seems to be able to easily recognise whether someone is Vietnamese or Malaysian or Korean etc. Whereas I grew up in Australia and I’m pretty hopeless at it and I have wondered if I would have been better at it if I grew up in an environment where there were lots of people from different Asian races around me.
    I think it’d be rather interesting to find out if there are areas where the differences in facial features that our brain uses to distinguish between people varies differently in different races. Eg. Do our brains need to learn different techniques?
    QoT – I don’t know about Adam Baldwin, but I often mix up the Baldwin brothers 🙂

  17. Just a gentle nudge to make sure this thread doesn’t stray off topic.

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