Crikey news today reports that the ‘No’ campaign in the current postal survey on same sex marriage has specifically targeted the leaders of Asian communities in Australia, who are thought to be more likely to reject the proposal. (http://www.crikey.com.au) There is much that would support this expectation. First, because many of the societies of origin are publicly intolerant of homosexuality and those who have come to live in Australia are often from the more conservative streams of those societies anyway. Another factor is that many migrant communities are deeply grateful for the opportunities afforded them in this country, so are less likely to support changes. They appreciate it how it is.
These factors, however, are far from the whole picture. The reality is that Asian communities are made up of human populations with the same breadth of human expressions as other societies. It is nonsense to imagine that there are no homosexuals, lesbians or transsexual people in Asian communities. What is more likely is that these people suffer greater discrimination, persecution and alienation than might be the case in some western cultures today. In our news recently we heard of two Indonesian men who were ‘caught’ together and publicly punished for their loving relationship, as an example to others that gay love will not be tolerated. Such an example would hardly be necessary if there were no (other) gays in the rest of that community!
I have participated in a public gathering involving people from many parts of the world, when open discussion around same sex relationships was held. What was evident that night was that the more educated of those people were able to engage with the conversation and consider different aspects of the question, while many others (who often needed matters to be explained to them in translation) were quick to reject any possibility of affirming same sex relationships. Their experience and perhaps their deference for those in authority in their church led them quickly to say ‘No’. Here I am reporting on a conversation involving a group of perhaps 15 of us, of whom 10 or so were recent immigrants from South East Asia, and this amongst a wider conversation of several hundred people made up of similar groups. I took the time, through colleagues and friends, to enquire about the reasons for this response. So I am not making a sweeping generalisation here. I am reporting upon specific experiences. Those who are new to this community are indeed far more likely to ‘vote’ No, if at all. Those who have learned to relate to the broader Australian society and cultures were in fact more likely to be open to same-sex relationships.
What implications do I see here? The first is that those who wish to recruit support for the No campaign are right to expect a positive response from (many) recent Asian immigrants. In my view, however, this is to paint them all with a broad brush that fails to recognise the nuances of their home communities, let alone their situations here in Australia. It has to be recognised that many immigrants come here precisely to get away from the intolerance of their home communities, of various kinds, not only political and economic.
Then, too, I would say that anyone wishing to address such immigrant communities, and this includes church groups of all kinds seeking to evangelise amongst them, has a profound obligation NOT to exploit their innocence, limitations in language and perhaps education, and their willingness to respect and comply with the dominant culture of the country to which they have come. If anything, we have a profound obligation to encourage critical thinking and analysis of our culture, and to welcome their responses without seeking them to agree with our current or proposed policies. In short, both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns have a special responsibility to respect and to educate, rather than proselytise and recruit support from such peoples. And if that means that we end up helping people to adopt a view we currently do not support, nonetheless we have served such people well and encouraged them to be real members of our democratic society. Maybe next time they will support the view we hold; or just maybe we will have learned something from them.