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Monday 4 July 2011

When it comes to marriage equality, hold the nuts. By Drew Sheldrick

There has been much discussion and debate recently surrounding gay marriage. I enlisted Drew Sheldrick, journalist for gay and lesbian newspapers Sydney Star Observer and Southern Star Observer (you must follow him on Twitter via @DrewBoyTweets) to write a piece on the topic. I invite you to share this link, and comment.

When it comes to marriage equality, hold the nuts. By Drew Sheldrick
In March this year, Kerri-Anne Kennerley’s morning show hosted a debate between Australian Marriage Equality’s Alex Greenwich and Christian Democratic Party candidate Peter Madden.

At the conclusion of the discussion between the same-sex marriage advocate and the anti-gay Christian, Kennerley turned to Greenwich and confidently told him that she hoped he “appreciated the fairly good even spread of information here”. I was struck by the comment.

While no one expects the kind of soft-news/lifestyle programming of Kerri-Anne to be on the front line of balanced current affairs debate, Kennerley’s perception of what constituted an even playing field in discussing GLBTI issues – and particularly marriage equality - is indicative of a wider problem with Australian media outlets.

Why are we turning to the likes of Madden expecting reasoned argument in these debates? A self-confessed sex addict who told media outlets that he’d visited brothels and hired prostitutes, Madden one day decided to become a Christian pastor and run for state parliament on what was mostly an anti-gay platform of shutting down Mardi Gras and upholding the ‘sanctity of marriage’.

He’s in good company in the early morning hours. Channel Seven’s Sunrise is more a fan of former Family First candidate-turned-Australian Christian Lobby spokesperson Wendy Francis. Francis once compared same-sex marriage to “legalising child abuse” and has these days turned her attention to taking down safe-sex advertising campaigns claiming they’re hurting children.

This week, in light of the passage of same-sex marriage legislation in New York, News Limited ran two anti-marriage equality opinion columns on the same day. One was in the Courier Mail and the other on The Punch. Both were from representatives of two separate ‘family’ organisations and the Courier Mail piece went as far as labeling the children of same-sex couples as a new ‘stolen generation’ and implied homosexuality was something that could be cured.

The Queensland paper went on to post a counter opinion on the same page as the piece, but not until hours after it was originally put online and disgust had spread through social media at the decision to publish at all.

Dr David van Gend, the writer of that particularly abhorrent op-ed, is a spokesman for the Family Council of Queensland, and the author of The Punch’s piece was Tim Cannon, the media spokesperson and national research officer of the Australian Family Association.

Through inviting the representatives of these groups on respected news and current affairs programs or into mainstream publications to discuss marriage equality, their opinions are being elevated to the level of what is considered rational discourse, when they really have no right to be.

In the US, CNN has come under continued pressure from advocacy groups for continuing to invite representatives of these religious groups masquerading as all-embracing family advocates.

Popular guests of the network include members of the Family Research Council (FRC), a group that claims higher rates of teen suicide among gay teenagers is simply because homosexuality is “abnormal”.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLADD) see their continued media platform as an unfair equation of viewpoints on GLBTI matters.

Take the debate between the FRC’s Peter Sprigg and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) repeal activist Alex Nicholson on the network in January this year.

Nicholson’s qualifications in regards to the military ban on openly gay servicemen and women was clear. He was an openly gay, former army intelligence officer, who could give firsthand accounts of how the discriminatory policy played out in the daily lives of gay and lesbian service members.

Sprigg came exclusively from his job at the FRC and in pairing him with Nicholson, GLADD argued that CNN told its millions of viewers that both these men should be seen as equally valuable to the discussion.

FRC representatives are also invited onto American news networks such as MSNBC and Fox News on a regular basis. There they continue to quote lies about the GLBTI community and their families from discredited “research” groups such as the American College of Pediatricians, which was started by notorious ex-gay therapy promoter George Alan Rekers, a Baptist minister caught holidaying with rent-boys in 2010.

GLADD’s issue is not that the media is taking on these groups; in fact they strongly support exposing their archaic views on television for what they truly are. No, GLADD believe that the media are elevating the hurtful messages and attitudes of people like Sprigg, claiming they are somehow equally weighted with someone like Nicholson’s real life experience and firsthand facts.

I’m the first to admit that it makes for entertaining - if occasionally infuriating - television, but that doesn’t make it a legitimate source of opinion. It’s time we jumped on board with the Americans and called for these invitations for comment to end.

This is not a matter of denying the right of free speech to those whose views one doesn’t agree with, it’s about what constitutes balance. It’s time for producers and editors alike to raise the bar when inviting commentators to debate. It’s not just lazy journalism, it’s potentially harmful.

The discriminatory and hateful rhetoric of people like Madden and Francis does nothing but make young people in the GLBTI community feel even lower self-worth. They represent a viewpoint on marriage equality not grounded simply in tradition, political or legal opposition, they speak for pockets of prejudice and bigotry in their chosen religions.

While the US still has some resistance to interracial marriage – as witnessed in 2009 when a Louisiana justice of the peace refused to officiate a civil wedding for an interracial couple – you’d be hard pressed to find a network willing to invite a white supremacist on the air for a robust debate about decades of anti-miscegenation law reform.

You want to have a debate on marriage equality, let’s do it. But let’s stop giving the hate-speech of these extremists more oxygen than it deserves.

Drew is a journalist for gay and lesbian newspapers Sydney Star Observer and Southern Star Observer. Follow him on Twitter via @DrewBoyTweets

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