Lawful Neutral

18 May 2018

Luke Macaronas talks with Benjamin Law about gay voices in journalism and hate-fucking politicians

Since September 2017, Benjamin Law has been the subject of a smear campaign led by some of the nation’s most influential commentators. Across the Murdoch press, in Australia’s national broadsheet and local tabloids, Miranda Devine and Andrew Bolt headed a beat-up that accused Law of every ethical misdemeanour from glorifying rape culture to promoting hate speech. His transgression? Twenty-four words on Twitter.

It’s no surprise that the attack on this risqué tweet coincided with the release of Law’s Quarterly Essay, Moral Panic 101, on the failures of Australian journalists—in particular those at News Corp—in fuelling the media scandal that came to surround the Safe Schools program.

As Law would later justify, on Twitter and to me, “hate-fucking” involves consensual sex for the mutual gratification of two resentful parties. Characteristic of Law’s online presence, the tweet was a caustic gag that satirised the comically disingenuous anxieties of those politicians opposed to marriage equality.

Speaking with Law about the last six months, which have been marred by the messy ideological clash that came to engulf both the Safe Schools program and the marriage equality debate, I realise that the significance of Devine and Bolt’s response is twofold. First, it serves as a testament to the validity of the case Law makes in Moral Panic 101. The fact that even the chief detractors of Safe Schools refused to engage with his argument is an admission of their own guilt, says Law: “The worst thing that could happen is if they tear my essay apart and they find a flaw in it—and they didn’t, and they couldn’t. So they go after bad words on social media. Or they completely misrepresent you, hilariously, thinking that no-one can google what hate-fucking actually means. For all of people’s complaints that traditional news media is dying—it’s like, well, your traditional reader base is dying off and you’re not engaging young people in good faith. You’re not even willing to be across their language. You’ve got no right to complain really.”

Conservative pundits wanted to make the debate over Law’s tweet about political correctness, but their reaction to his writing hints at something broader: a deep-seated determination to talk over those voices that fall outside the palatable walls of convention. In both his Quarterly Essay and his tweets, Law had transgressed the same limits Safe Schools had threatened, promoting a perspective that was frank about the sometimes-funny, sometimes-bleak realities of LGBT life. Ironically, Law found himself the subject of the same inflammatory and homophobic reporting he sought to call out. The conservative response became an attack on the explicit pride in Law’s work as a gay, Asian-Australian Queenslander. His refusal to apologise is a refusal to undermine the struggle to have gay voices heard. “I can’t disentangle myself from my sexuality,” he says. “It’s not like I’m conscious of writing in a queer way; I just am queer and that’s my neutral. I’m sorry if it’s not yours, but it is mine … When we talk about ‘queer perspective’ … there can be a subtext that the heterosexual cis voice is a neutral, and I just don’t think that it is.”

For all the rambunctious tweeting and irreverent reporting that defines Law’s playful public identity, in person he is more sincere than facetious. Approaching his work with earnest, Law resists my attempts to complicate or dramatise his experiences. When I ask about some of his most harrowing interviews, he brushes off my sympathy. “You’re exhausted and shattered because these people have led exhausting and shattering lives, so what right do you have to be exhausted and shattered? … You’re not living their trauma—they are.”

Having travelled from the sun-soaked beaches of Bali to the bleakest corners of Myanmar, speaking to some of the most powerful people in Australian politics and most demonised children in the country, Law has become a kind of ethnographer of modern gay culture—his Twitter is simply one part of a writing that continuously centres queer voices, from his gonzo-style memoirs to a sex advice column written with his mum, Jenny Phang, for The Lifted Brow. Telling powerful stories with simple words, it is a writing that refuses to talk down to its audience. Instead, Law explains, “I expect readers have come to my work because they are curious. And when I’m a reader I expect there to be a little bit of work there for me as well; it’s not just a passive experience.”

Reiterating a passage from his Quarterly Essay, Law recalls attending the Minus 18 Formal in 2017—a student ball designed to give queer kids what their high schools don’t. “There’s one per cent of you that really hates them for having it, because, ‘How dare you have this thing that I would have killed for.’ And then 99 per cent of you is just utter admiration for their courage and their joy of just being able to enjoy who they really are.” I feel like Law’s outward-eye has missed the impact his own writing has had on other people in the same way. Even in researching this article I’ve been told how Law, from some of his earliest writing in Frankie, or in his memoirs, had a significant effect on other people’s lives. He plays a huge role in celebrating queer voices, helping to build a community where we feel heard. And Law understands the power of each person’s story he writes: “It really is an honour that someone has trusted you so much to do it, and you better fucking get it right.”

Art by Ayonti Mahreen Huq.

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