QUARTERLY ESSAY 67 Moral Panic 101



Denis Altman

For those of my generation there’s a bittersweet tang to reading Ben’s essay. As he reminds us, difference in sexual identity or gender expression has been the target for persecution, discrimination and hate throughout our lifetimes, and there are significant forces, both religious and political, determined to perpetuate this. The moral panic to which the essay refers is one in a long series of similar attacks on anyone seen to threaten the taken-for-granted assumptions of rigid gender and sexual binaries.

I am writing this during the increasingly heated campaign around same-sex marriage, almost certainly the most expensive opinion poll in history. I can only imagine the scene in the government party room after the results are posted, and the rush from both sides of a bitterly divided party to assure us that their side has won.

The question that Ben’s essay pushes us to ask is whether there have been fundamental and irreversible changes towards acceptance of sexual and gender diversity. As he demonstrates, the assault on the Safe Schools program was part of a larger ideological push by the Murdoch press and the right wing of the governing parties to defend cultural values they claim are under threat. In the current debate on marriage, the spectre of Safe Schools undermining gender roles is a constant theme, and one that the Turnbull government has allowed to grow unfettered.

Any respect I might have had for the current prime minister was lost when, following the conclusion of an inquiry into the Safe Schools program by Minister Birmingham, Turnbull ignored its recommendations and announced the program would end anyway.

The opponents of Safe Schools are both opportunists and true believers, but social change has blunted their rhetoric. Even opponents of the LGBTI movement feel impelled to proclaim that they are against any form of bullying, and that they recognise the worth of same-sex relationships. When Reverend Fred Nile, our last remaining Old Testament prophet, proclaimed on Q&A last year that homosexuality should be recriminalised, even his supporters gasped.

As Ben suggests, fear of gender fluidity rather than homosexuality has become the rallying point for the right. One might point out that the carefully choreographed images of lesbian and gay male couples produced by the equality movement almost always reinforce conventional gender stereotypes, but in the popular imagination the categories blur, and most of us live happily with that confusion.

But not, it seems, Tony Abbott, the Catholic Church or the busy cultural warriors at the Australian. Ben points to the volume of stories they have produced on the threat of Safe Schools, but the story of harassment by media and threats to anyone associated with the program goes even further than he indicates. In a time of dying journalism, the resources employed to police gender in our schools suggest we are dealing with a threat second only to rapacious international terrorism.

Having assured us that marriage is not a primary concern for most voters, the Australian gives it constant attention, even though some of its regular columnists have been advocating for a “Yes” vote. Ben attributes this to a desire for readers and for political muscle. I think there is a third dimension, which is the panic felt by many believing Christians that the world they have known is collapsing around them.

At the official launch of the “No” campaign, former Liberal Cory Bernardi insisted that he was on the right side of history. His team has seized upon religious freedom to justify opposition to both marriage equality and Safe Schools, although it is never clear exactly what religious freedoms are threatened. What they really fear is the loss of an unchallenged Christian hegemony, supported by the state, despite protestations that ours is a secular society.

David Marr has regularly pointed to the many ways our political system favours organised religion. The school chaplains program, which would seem to contradict the basic assumptions of a secular state, remains well funded by the same government that axed Safe Schools (although the current agreement expires next year). The largest source of school chaplains is Access Ministries, which describes itself as “an ecumenical body committed to the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.”

OECD data shows that Australia has an unusually high proportion of students in private education, which is overwhelmingly religious. How far anti-discrimination laws apply to religious schools is complex, but anecdotal evidence suggests that deep-seated prejudices against any form of sexual or gender deviance is common in fundamentalist schools of all faiths.

In understanding the passion to preserve conventional assumptions of sex and gender we should not underestimate the strength of religious belief within the Liberal Party. That the Victorian Liberals have switched from backing Safe Schools to opposition reflects a wider shift, namely the growth of religious fundamentalist influences within the party.

I am writing this as passions on both sides of the marriage debate become increasingly bitter and polarised. But there is a false equation here: those who are persecuted do not begin from the same position as those who persecute. Unlike a referendum on becoming a republic, this is not a debate in which everybody has an equal stake.

The underlying theme of Safe Schools is one of inclusion, of allowing a safe space to kids who are discovering that their sexuality or gender identity differs from that of early-evening commercial television. One of the striking aspects of the marriage debate is how many people say that it has unleashed memories of bullying, subterfuge and fear from their school days.

The first Quarterly Essay appeared in 2001; this is the first essay to be devoted to unpacking the fraught politics of sexuality, specifically of homophobia, in our history. But as with politicians like Barack Obama and Julia Gillard, who became strong advocates for same-sex marriage, one welcomes the latecomers.


Denis Altman is emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. His most recent book (with Jon Symons) is Queer Wars.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 67, Moral Panic 101. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 68, Without America.


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