Last night, an American citizen carried out an attack in a gay Orlando nightclub, killing 50 and leaving 53 injured. It is the the most devastating mass shooting in recent history in US history. Families grieve, a nation mourns; Islamophobia has another heyday in vile Presidential tweets and Prime Ministerial statements.
For those in the LGBTQI community, and those that support them, there is anger. For in the response to the massacre, political leaders, pundits and media representatives in Australia and worldwide have sought to evade, deflect and mollify the following unequivocal truth: that this tragedy was both an act of terrorism and a deliberate hate crime against the LGBTQI community. It was an act of violent and extreme prejudice against queer individuals, who have been persecuted, vilified and dehumanised throughout history in a systemic network of hate which goes beyond religious and national boundaries. This was not a ‘random’ attack; this was not an anomaly. There is no cause or reason for ‘shock’. This vile crime was born in the toxic ideas and attitudes that our own neoliberal leaders espouse and ferment, both in their language and in their policies.
This morning, the Pride Department along with Pelican sent independent emails to the Vice Chancellor Professor Paul Johnson. Our request was this: that in open declaration of the university’s support and compassion for the LGBTQI community worldwide, UWA temporarily take down the WA State Flag and replace it with the Pride Flag, to be flown at half mast for the remainder of the week.
“We believe that it is the duty of institutions such as UWA to make visible its leading principles of freedom, tolerance and peace” Pelican wrote. “To fulfil this duty, both words and actions are needed. We must take a lead in expressing open solidarity with oppressed and attacked minorities, whoever they may be.”
Disappointingly, the Vice Chancellor has declined our request. His email response published here:
“Dear Kate and Hayden,
Thank you for your email. I share your abhorrence at the vile act of terror and hate perpetrated against patrons of the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando. This university fosters the values of tolerance, fairness and responsbility [sic], and is proud to be in the forefront of Australian universities in promoting LGBTI inclusion. UWA is the only university to have been included in the top 10 list of employers for LGBTI inclusion by the Australian Workplace Equity Index every year since the inception of the awards six years ago. Bigotry and intolerance have no place on this campus, and we will continue to support our students, staff and alumni in their endeavours to promote tolerance and inclusiveness nationally and internationally.
I have given considerable thought to your request that the University fly the Pride flag at half mast for the remainder of this week to demonstrate solidarity with the LGBTI community as a response to the hate crime in Orlando. I am conscious that this is far from being the only hatred-induced mass murder to have been perpetrated in recent times. There have been hundreds of deaths this year of civilians who have been murdered solely because of their faith, or their behaviour, or their ethnicity. These are abhorrent acts of violence which are consciously designed to terrorise civilian populations, and this university despises the perpetrators, regardless of where, or against whom, they conduct their outrages. However, in terms of recognition of loss and demonstration of support, the University, along with most other public institutions in this country, will limit its actions to circumstances which involve numbers of Australian citizens and residents or which occur in this country.
Whilst we commend our university leader’s rhetoric in support of tolerance and inclusion, we cannot condone his final decision. In essence, Paul Johnson has refused to fly the Pride Flag under the following logic. As the massacre has not taken place on our soil, or caused the loss of Australian life, we have no immediate connection to the crisis, and so a response is not merited. If we give way for a moment to PJ’s paranoiac imagination, to concede to one moral commitment is a gateway into a terrifying plague of future moral commitments, innumerable in number. It is a future which presents an inconvenient disturbance to the Vice Chancellery’s peace.
Well, sod the VC’s peace, because a more selfish and untrue statement could hardly be uttered. It imitates and cleaves to the increasingly nationalist, insular attitudes operating in our parliaments within both major parties, which sanction the incarceration of queer Middle Easterners on Nauruan and Manus Island detention centres, which sees militarisation take the place of humanitarianism, which sees the relentless ‘Othering’ and degradation of queer individuals in the conservative bipartisan club-footedness to legalise gay marriage.
The Orlando nightclub shooting was not an attack on a nebulous American or liberal ‘freedom’. It was a homophobic attack. To raise the Pride Flag over UWA would hence would not be an isolated campus waving a fist for a far-off country. It would be an act which would stand against a specific global and local hatred for the LGBTQI community with a symbol of love. It would demonstrate we are a university that strives to create a society which is equal and safe for all that comprise it.
Currently, UWA does not even fly the Rainbow Flag during Pride Week. Our Vice Chancellor’s reasoning for this is that, well, it is just one of many causes. Declaring it equally significant, he categorises it as equally unimportant – in denial of the specificity of hate. Mincing down the path of least resistance, he hamstrings the university and its students to a damaging cowardice. Unlike our sibling higher education institutions such as Curtin and Murdoch, gay pride is not celebrated; it is swept quietly under the carpet. The fact that Pelican received a response to their email petition from the Chancellor, yet the Pride Department still has yet to, is an outrageous testament to this.
It is time UWA came out to show its support for LGBTQI individuals.
Words by Kate Prendergast
You too can email the Vice Chancellor to submit a request for action. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org