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The long and short of it: Gay men's perceptions of penis size



Contemporary research regarding men’s body image has focused primarily on perceptions of muscularity and thinness, leaving aside other issues such as penis size. Despite pop cultural notions regarding the importance of penis size, and Western cultural notions more broadly regarding masculinity and the penis, little research has been done on men’s perceptions of penis size, and no work has been done on gay men’s perceptions of penis size. This article presents the results of three separate qualitative research projects conducted by the authors with openly gay men that considered body image and masculinity in the lives of gay men. Noteworthy is that all of the studies were conducted using the same methodology and data analysis procedures. This paper utilises rich descriptive text to highlight the issues surrounding gay men, penis size and constructions of masculinities. The primary aim of the paper is to provide a context within which future qualitative research can be conducted on issues relating to the penis among gay men, in addition to emphasising the importance of perceiving the penis as a legitimate body image issue which has rarely been discussed in qualitative research projects.
Gay and Lesbian
Issues and
Damien W. Riggs
The Australian
Society Ltd.
ISSN 1833-4512
Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review
Damien W. Riggs,
The University of Adelaide
Editorial Board
Graeme Kane,
Eastern Drug and Alcohol Service
Jim Malcom,
The University of Western Sydney
Liz Short,
Victoria University
Jane Edwards,
Spencer Gulf Rural Health School
Warrick Arblaster,
Mental Health Policy Unit, ACT
Murray Drummond,
The University of South Australia
Gordon A. Walker,
Monash University
Ela Jodko,
Private practice
Robert Morris,
Private practice
Brett Toelle,
The University of Sydney
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Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review
Volume 3 Number 2
Editorial 77
Damien W. Riggs
Queering the representation of the masculine ‘West’ in Ang Lee’s
Brokeback Mountain
Janet A. McDonald
Is there any rational basis for the existence of barriers against same-sex parenting?
An analysis of Australian adoption and family law 86
Phillip Duffey
Border crossings? White queer spirituality and Asian religion: A first person account 97
Victor Marsh
Religions beliefs or equal rights? A narrative analysis of the same-sex marriage debate 109
Jennifer N. Gill
The long and the short of it: Gay men’s perceptions of penis size 121
Murray J.N. Drummond and Shaun M. Filiault
Under the radar: And the necessity for courage 130
John Ryan
Lesbian and gay bodies in queer spaces 134
Sharon Chalmers
Book Reviews
Chasing Adonis: Gay men and the pursuit of perfection 141
Shaun M. Filiault
Bi men: Coming out every which way 143
Adrian Booth
Homosexuality: The use of scientific research in the church’s moral debate 145
Anthony Venn-Brown
Advertisements and Calls for Papers
Queer Corner: An email based information distribution and awareness raising tool
GLIP Review: Mental health and LGBT people
Feminism & Psychology: Negotiating sexualities in the higher education classroom
Gay & Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2007
ISSN 1833-4512 © 2007 Author and Gay & Lesbian Issues and Psychology Interest Group of the Australian Psychological
It seems like a long time since we have had a
general issue of
GLIP Review
: April 2006 to be
precise. Since then we have had three wonderful
special issues the first on LGBT ageing edited
by Jo Harrison and myself, the second on
methodological, theoretical and ethical issues in
lesbian and gay psychology, and the third on
parenting, family issues and heteronormativity,
edited by Liz Short and myself. These special
issues highlight the broad areas of research
currently being conducted in Australia and
beyond in specific subfields of lesbian and gay
psychology, and also draw attention to the
interdisciplinary nature of the field.
Similarly, this issue of
GLIP Review
the broad range of papers that are submitted to
the journal on a regular basis, and which come
from as diverse fields as religion studies, legal
studies, drama studies and the social sciences.
The importance of lesbian and gay psychology,
and it gradual broadening out towards what has
been termed LGBTQ psychologies (Clarke &
Peel, 2007), is largely due to its ability to
engage with such a range of disciplinary fields
and theoretical approaches. Such a breadth of
foci occurs largely as a result of the ongoing
marginalisation of issues pertaining to LGBT
people within the academy, and the continued
denial of rights to LGBT people both within
Australia and internationally. In other words, it is
necessary to engage across discriplines in order
to present multiple challenges to, and
interrogations of, heternormativity.
Important also to the field of lesbian and gay
psychology is the politics of voice. As the papers
and commentaries in this issue demonstrate,
those writing within the field speak from a range
of identity positions, and utilise these in various
ways within their work. As work in the field of
queer theory continues to demonstrate, the
‘queering’ of psychology occurs not simply by
those LGBT people who challenge
heteronormativity, but also by people who
identify as heterosexual and actively resist or
critique the normalising tendencies of academic
This issue of the journal includes five articles,
two commentaries and three book reviews. In
regards to articles, Janet A. McDonald opens the
issue with her insightful and exciting
examination of representations of masculinity
and the West within the film
Importantly, McDonald explores the
intersections of the characters, the actors, and
the filmmakers in the production of a text that
queers the Western genre at the very same time
as it asserts its normative impulses.
Moving to a quite different, yet not unrelated,
area of focus, Phillip Duffey provides an
extensive elaboration of Australian adoption law
as it pertains to same-sex attracted people, and
explores the implications of this for international
adoptions and judgments within family law as
they relate to same-sex families. In a context of
ongoing international debates and changes to
legislation about same-sex adoption, Duffey’s
paper is timely and much needed.
Victor Marsh then takes up the politics of voice
by exploring what it means to engage with Asian
religions as a white queer man. His work,
drawing as it does from his own experience, and
teamed with an insightful analysis of a broad
range of previous research and traditions,
results in an important piece of writing that
spans the academic, literary and auto-
Murray J.N. Drummond and Shaun M. Filiault
then shift our attention from voices to bodies
(and their intersections) in their analysis of gay
men’s talk about penis size and masculinity.
Drummond and Filiault’s research reminds us
that whilst social stereotypes about gay men
may promote a uniform understanding of gay
men’s relationship to their own and other men’s
genitalia, these relationships are complex and
must be situated within social contexts wherein
particular forms of masculinity are valorised.
In the final paper in the article section, written
from within the US context, Jennifer N. Gill
utilises a narrative analysis to examine pro- and
anti-same-sex marriage debates. Gill highlights
the narrative stability of the pro argument in
contrast with the anti argument that fails to
thoroughly produce narrative coherence. Gill
also reminds us of the complexity of these
debates not only amongst heterosexual people,
but also within LGBT communities.
In regards to the two commentaries, it is
important to note, as has been the case
throughout the course of the publication of the
commentaries, whilst often representing
shorter pieces of work, are no less rigorous or
theoretical in their outlook. Whilst some of the
commentaries published have included personal
reflections on current issues, most have included
important theoretical and empirical insights that
reflect the breadth of academic, peer-reviewed
research in Australia. The two commentaries in
this issue are important examples of this trend.
The first of the two commentaries, by John
Ryan, explores what it means to identify as
same-sex attracted in a regional setting. Ryan
elaborates, from personal experience, the
complexities of regional life, and challenges
those of us living in urban centers to explore
how issues of queer belonging are variously
accessible according to geographical location.
In the second commentary Sharon Chalmers
explores the meanings and contents associated
with curating a queer art exhibition. Chalmers
explores matters of community and belonging as
they relate to the Australian context, and
highlights the role that race, in conjunction with
sexuality, plays in the space accorded to
particular voices. Importantly, Chalmers
questions the ways in which normativity
queer communities, and
highlights the need for ongoing considerations of
claims to inclusivity.
The issue also includes three book reviews on
matters pertaining to the papers in the issue:
one on gay men and body image, one on the
experiences of bisexual men, and one on the
intersections of sexuality and religion.
The issue concludes with two calls for papers,
one of which is for the August 2008 issue of
GLIP Review.
Readers are invited to consider
submitting work for this as it will no doubt be an
important and widely read issue.
On the whole, this general issue coheres around
issues of voice, representation, normativity and
belonging. The articles, commentaries and
reviews both sit alongside and juxtapose one
another, an important aspect of lesbian and gay
psychology more broadly. As this issue
highlights, voices within the field are diverse and
at times contradictory, and it is this diversity
that we celebrate and welcome through the
work of
GLIP Review
Thanks must be given to the many people who
helped in reviewing papers for this issue,
including Heidi Jansen, Amy Patterson, Kathleen
Connellan, and Indigo Williams Willing, in
addition to the
editorial board. Thanks
also to Greg Fell for proof reading and for
formatting this issue.
Clarke, V. & Peel, E. (2007). From lesbian and
gay psychology to LGBTQ psychologies: A
journey into the unknown (or unknowable)?
In their (Eds.),
Out in psychology: Lesbian,
gay, bisexual, trans and queer perspectives
West Sussex: John Wiley.
Gay & Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2007
ISSN 1833-4512 © 2007 Author and Gay & Lesbian Issues and Psychology Interest Group of the Australian Psychological
The colonial construction of Western dominance
over Eastern ‘others’ features predominantly in
postcolonial theory (as do those of the North
over the South). Assumptions about
geographical placement and origin are also
sources of gendered space, especially if one
subscribes to the representation of female space
as ‘inner’ or domestic and masculine spaces as
‘outer’ or embracing of the outdoors. Popular
notions of the cowboy as an embodiment of
‘outdoor’ masculinity endorses and repeats the
colonial West as a dominant and desirable
masculine representation, which has popularly
evolved over time as a stable gender category
through the use of cowboy imagery to sell
‘manly’ habits such as smoking (Marlborough
Man), and to selling the hypermasculinised
American Masculine Dream (John Wayne). The
characters from Ang Lee’s
Brokeback Mountain
(BBM) are from the great American cowboy
traditions; the frontiering West of Wyoming and
Texas. The film uses the celebrity bodies of Jake
Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger to queer the
cowboy whilst simultaneously maintaining the
dominant homosocial attributes of the colonial
West. The actors’ actual bodies are neither
queer nor cowboy, and their celebrity status
suggests a gender performative ‘fraud’, yet the
‘star power’ of the actors alone has catapulted
BBM from independent film obscurity into
mainstream discussion and popular culture.
This paper comes out of further deliberations
about my research on the performance of actual
and fictional masculinities upon the body
(McDonald, 2006; 2007a; 2007b), which has
encouraged me to think further on the coercive
and colonial nature of constructed fictions where
embodied characters speak on behalf of the
audience. Actors are both products of culture
and cultural products (Buchbinder, 1998, p. 2),
and actor-celebrity bodies are surfaces for
maintaining dominant notions of gender
separateness. Film making institutions
‘normalise’ the actor-celebrity as a stable
category of popular culture, and the process of
grooming and ornamentalism that is involved
with plucking would-be celebrities from obscurity
and re-packaging them is a slick, embodied
marketing tool that is a repeatable act of
inscription upon the body of the actor. A recent
article in the
Sydney Morning Herald
“The New Lads Muscle In” (Abramowitz, 2007)
trumpets that the “age of the pretty boy is over”
and that Hollywood wants its young leads to
have more masculine appeal: the process of
is laid bare in this article.
The construction of the male actor-celebrity
body will be explored in this paper because
more often than not the hypermasculined set of
symbols and images that are rendered visible
can be directly linked to a dollar value in the
business; if the right combination of production
team and ornamental bodies are placed in a film
set, the returns on the investment can be very
lucrative for all involved. The Focus Features
Brokeback Mountain
(BBM) is no exception:
the combination of director Ang Lee’s reputation
for capturing intimate moments in epic-styled
narratives, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s
vision, and the celebrity bodies of Jake
Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, gave BBM the
most (eight) nominations at the 2006 Academy
Awards (winning Best Director, Best Original
Score, and Best Adapted Screenplay). BBM only
cost $14 million to produce and began with a
limited release in the USA in early December
2005. By Christmas it was declared a box-office
success as the highest per theatre gross of any
movie that year. The film grossed $83 million in
the USA alone and $178 million worldwide. It is
ranked 5
in the highest grossing Westerns
(since 1980) behind
Dances with Wolves
Back to the Future
I read this film as an exploration of
masculinities, which postcolonially queers the
notion of the most revered of all American
masculine symbols; the cowboy. Simply referring
to BBM as a ‘gay cowboy’ film is fraught with
problems of reactionary contradictions that
Rankings retrieved from Box Office Mojo website:
maintain and limit the term ‘gay as a colonial
Other to straight. This paper will explore the
interface between postcolonial and queering
processes upon the fictional American West
cowboy as represented by the celebrity bodies
of Gyllenhaal and Ledger, whose celebrity status
propelled the film’s surprising mainstream
Putting the West in Western
In postcolonial writings, geographical symbols
are used to represent and polarise difference.
Notions of Western civilisation as a white,
privileged and dominant space are well
established over the East, (just as ‘the North’ is
over the ‘the South’). Such notions employ
discourses to mark off the Other and also
polarise the perceived separateness of genders
in the traditional histories and fictions of the
American Western. The geographical grounding
of the American West began in 19
frontiers of the United States after the Louisiana
Purchase from France in 1803 when a large
proportion of men left the East of the USA
seeking new opportunities for employment and
investment (West of the Rockies was still
‘uncharted’ and under Mexican control until
1846-48). Although women (mostly wives) and
male immigrants (Irish, Chinese, etc.) also
embraced this journey, it is through the colonial
discourse of the white man that this expansion
takes on epic and romantic proportions. Thus
began the physicalisation of the notion of
Manifest Destiny, which as journalist John L.
Sullivan wrote in 1839, was a God-given right of
the US to spread the ‘great experiment of
Liberty’ throughout America. This ideology very
much anchored the explosion of the Western
genre of literature, which recounted many
masculine stories of hardship and journeys, with
an “unapologetic exclusion of femininity
(Tompkins, cited in Packard, 2006, p. 8). The
status of cowboys relies upon bachelorhood
formed around a homosocial partnership, and
Tompkins argues that this literature served as
“reactionary narratives” to the “then-popular
sentimental-domestic novels that were flooding
the marketplace and promoting ideas of female
influence at the sphere of the home” (p. 8). The
popularity of Western fictions affected the
culture of language in the USA; the phrase
‘going West’ originally meant ‘going bad’ or ‘off
the rails’ (presumably going West to get away
from trouble), yet it quickly became ‘Go West,
young man, go West’, used by New York
Tribune journalist and aspiring politician Horace
Greeley in reference to the vast opportunities
available to develop manhood along frontier USA
(Quinion, 2003).
In theatre and movie scholarship it is widely
agreed that the two most popular and organic
creative products of the USA came from this era:
the stage musical and the Western. The latter
emerging from the hyper-realistic frontiering
melodramas (such as Davy Crocket, and Buffalo
Bill’s Wild West extravaganzas that toured
throughout the 1880s-90s), which were hugely
popular throughout the 19
century both in the
USA and Europe. The Western film genre did
much to perpetuate the myth of the cowboy as
a true and stable embodiment of American
manliness; the Western remains one of the most
popular film genres of all time. The Classic
Westerns reached their zenith in the films of the
all-American director John Ford. Throughout the
60s-70s such films made John Wayne a
household name. The Western continues to
create a hyper-frontier-masculinity that is a
highly consumable and desirable product, made
manifest corporeally on the bodies of male
actors (sometimes female, but not often) who
are agents of dissemination. The Western had
and has the power to make stars out of actors;
it may even be considered a right of passage for
some American actors whose celebrity status
has certainly upturned after a stint in a popular
Western. The appeal to the larger audience is
bankable; Westerns are a good investment even
if, generally, films are not.
The American West represented in these films is
a hypermasculinised and colonial space where
notions of being outdoors, living rough,
‘conquest’ and appropriation are masculine and
dominant. The Western literature that preceded
the film genre was also a mass process of
naturalising white men into the frontiers, so that
the West represents a desirability of dominance,
particularly over the South (Mexico, not
southeast of the Mississippi). By the late 1850s
the term ‘going South’ replaced ‘going West’ as
a euphemism for situations turning sour/turning
for the worse, but also for sexual activity that
might be perverse. In American States that
border with Mexico, ‘going south’ continues to
mark off the South as somewhere where rack
and ruin awaits; where contraband can be
obtained and exploitation of all sorts can be
purchased. These Southwestern states position
Mexico with some hostility, as foreign (more so
than Canada) and abject. The character Jack
Twist in BBM makes a habit of slipping off
unseen at night across the border from Texas
into Mexico to have silent and anonymous sex
with a dark Latino male body in an alleyway.
The ‘south’ is therefore menacing, as it is
maintained as a place of dark pleasures in this
film, consistent with white colonial perspective
of the South.
Queering Cowboy, Queering Celebrity
Certainly the romantic, melodramatic narrative
used in BBM maintains and perpetuates several
binary differences. From a performance
perspective, the Western film is predominantly
in the style of a melodrama (again harking back
to its theatrical debut in the Wild West shows).
The melodramatic form is a highly coercive
narrative structure that mixes the tensions
between romantic love and the interface
between clearly delineated good and bad
behaviours. The popularity of this genre is
imbedded in the belief by the audience that
wrongs or ‘unnaturalness’ will be resolved and
righted by the end of the story or film. As it
turns out, the abject, outed ‘gay’ bodies are put
to death in BBM (the old man of Del Mar’s
memory and Twist both experience tortuous
deaths reminiscent of Matthew Shephard’s brutal
murder in Casper, Wyoming in 1998). Rural
queers it seems don’t live for long, which
increases the audience’s empathy with Ennis Del
Mar, who maintains the façade that cowboy
masculinity is definable and stable, which
automatically sets up a binary notion of gender
in the film (Petersen, 2003, p.58). The feminine
domestic sphere is in direct conflict with the
mountain scenes where Del Mar and Twist are
able to consummate their homosexual
attraction. The outdoors in BBM is a masculine-
only realm that naturalises and nourishes male-
male relationships, which then remain unspoken
and inexplicable to the women and children
occupying the domestic space. Like most
Western films before it, this duality of gendered
space is key to all the tensions in the story: once
the men enter into the domestic sphere, their
lack of independence begins to deform their
once Arcadian-like masculine existence in the
wilderness. Chris Packard in his book
(2005) tells us that the “normalising
function of marriage to women and the
domesticating influence of femininity [was] a
“deal-breaker” for those following the cowboy
code (p. 8), and BBM faithfully reconstructs this.
In the research field known as New Western
History (which is now only a decade old), the
interrogation of colonial cowboy masculinity is
dedicated to retelling and recovering history
from the view of silent (yet nonetheless coded)
‘voices’ from the American West. This field also
investigates the inherent and falsely assumed
‘stability’ of the hypermasculinied cowboy.
According to Packard, the cowboy is queer when
analysed inside a heteronormative cultural
context; “he resists community, he eschews
lasting ties with women but embraces rock-solid
bonds with same-sex partners, and practices
same-sex desire” (2006, p.3). Certainly the
literature from the West that Packard
investigates reveals a rich example of complex
male relationships that suggest intimacy that is
homosocial and homosexual. The ‘norms’ of
what constitute ‘partnerships’ are changed on
the frontier so that overt homosociality queers
the notion of a life-long partner from one that is
colonially separate (women’s domestic space) to
one that places male-male affection as a
necessity for survival. In other words, this
‘queering’ moves away from simply addressing
the complexity of cowboy homosociality as
in opposition to
female-ness, and
towards considering it as something where there
are complex amorphous notions of masculinity
at work which parallel heteronormative desires.
The writings of New Western Historians are not
dissimilar to those of contemporary queer
theorists, in that the colonial binary opposition
that underpins discussion of difference between
male/female, straight/gay gender becomes
compromised and outmoded by investigations
into the complexity of the assumptions about
duality and separateness.
Several contemporary queer theorists state their
awareness and avoidance of adhering to these
‘dualist distinctions’ when discussing difference,
although these oppositions were first presented
in early feminist and queer theory (Linstead &
Pullen, 2006, p. 1287; Petersen, 2003, p. 57;
Walters, 2005, p. 8). Petersen and Walters both
argue that maintaining a discourse of differences
empowers a normative understanding of gender
(Petersen, 2003, p. 59) that fails to move
beyond a discourse of contradictions or reactions
(Walters, 2005, p. 9). Gender is a complex social
and cultural practice where binaries are
disrupted and displaced by practices and
performances that articulate liminal spaces
beyond oppositional structures. Inside the
colonial setting of BBM, the naturalised
homosociality (instantly recognisable in the first
40 minutes of the film) becomes deliberately
and inalterably ‘queered through the act of
penetration that Ledger and Gyllenhaal embody
on the screen, taking place in a tent, on the
mountain, in the wilderness. For many audience
members, this was the line that crossed into
homosexuality and the characters quickly
became ‘gay’ and the movie known as the ‘gay
cowboy movie’. Yet, to dismiss the film in this
way denies the film any agency for the complex
queering going on. The term gay is just as much
a construction as the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’
in BBM, and thus queer theory as it is employed
in this paper is about moving away from the
dualism of difference and opening the aperture
on ‘queering’ as a process of questioning the
dominant and colonial insistence on structured
‘stable’ categories of gender, etc. Queer theory
offers a critical discourse with which to menace
and “challenge gender hegemony…[to] make
both theoretical and political space for more
substantiative notions of multiplicity and
intersectionality” (Walters, 2005, p. 11). As
such, there is a genuine connection between
queer and postcolonial theory that pursues
gender as a process of construction written
upon the body.
Just as the cowboy is queered in the New
Western History, I would suggest that the actor-
celebrity body is also a queered surface in the
postmodern world. Aspects of Judith Butler’s
notion of the performativity of gender are
somewhat compromised upon entering a
discussion about celebrity; the celebrity body is
contrived and therefore self-aware of the
performance of itself. Yet, the desirability of this
body is a significant aspect of representation
that produces what Buchbinder calls the process
of ex-citation, that is, an external citation of
gender that is rendered visible, repeatable,
coherent and natural (1998, p. 122). Before
embarking on the BBM project, the bodies of
Ledger and Gyllenhaal were already
hypermasculinised in the popular press as
objects and agents of heterosexual and
homosexual desire, which is nothing new for
Hollywood actors who are a consumerable
commodity. To varying degrees, actor-celebrities
are co-constructors of symbolic orders which are
“simultaneously productive and produced”
(Brickell, 2005, p. 37), and which can be read as
“phoney” as they represent an illusion, or a
deceit of the “actual” body (Buchbinder, 1998,
p. 123). The business of celebrity-making is
therefore ‘queer’ as the actor’s actual body
becomes a public agent for fiction. It is the
vehicle upon which the fiction is delivered and
read by the audience, and this fictional
contagion crosses over onto the actor’s actual
body creating a veneer of ‘celebrity’ that is
“something akin to the actual, but not quite”
(Bhabha, 1994, p. 86). The celebrity surface has
slippage and is highly unstable as a category of
signifying of anything precisely because it is an
abject triangulation of the actual, the fictional
and the celebrity body. The celebrity aspect
queers any simple dualistic distinction between
the ‘fictional’ and ‘actual’ body of the actor,
because their bodies are never entirely fictional
Queering as Ambivalence:
Intersectionality and Interdiction
The celebrity-cowboy body is not only queer; it
is an inscribed body that does not speak of or
for itself, but of the writers of the narrative.
Larry McMurty and Dianna Ossana (who
produced the film also) wrote the screenplay
from Annie Proulx’s (2000) short story, and thus
it may be suggested that the pre-textual
constructions that preceded the visual
representation of characters in BBM was also a
process of mimicry of the American West’s
cowboy. The deliberate location of the picture as
a melodramatic and romantic Western that
maintains the heterosexual dualism is an act of
what Homi Bhabha might call “colonial mimicry,”
which sets up a recognisable Other “as a subject
of a difference that is almost the same, but not
quite” (1994, p. 86). The potential power of the
representation of the queered cowboy
(produced through this ambivalence associated
with mimicry, which is almost but not quite the
classic cowboy) points to the constructedness of
the colonial image; it “does not merely ‘rupture
the discourse, but becomes transformed into an
uncertainty which fixes the colonial subject as a
partial presence” that is “incomplete and virtual”
(Bhabha, 1994, p. 86). The visibility of this
mimicry, of course, is inscribed upon the
celebrity bodies of Gyllenhaal and Ledger who
are neither cowboys nor homosexual in their
actual lives, and yet their mimicking of the
Western cowboy tradition must have genuine
resemblance in order to for the ambivalence to
“menace” the absolute notions of the Western
cowboy (p. 88).
The production team that constructed the
images for the screen from the script were also
agents for this mimicry as their non-Western
experiences influenced how they also read and
represented the hegemonic Western cowboy
image. Ang Lee is an ‘Eastern’ Taiwanese
national whose film work straddles Chinese/
Taiwanese and English cultures. Lee works
wholly within both cultures, yet it was his
English-subtitled film
Crouching Tiger, Hidden
(2000) that positioned him as a serious
contender (winning four Academy Awards,
including Best Director). He is described,
somewhat colonially in the popular press, as a
‘gentle’, ‘introspective’ auteur who chooses his
co-artists on films. His choice of
cinematographer for BBM was a ‘Southern’
Mexican Rodrigo Prieto who created the visual
silences and starkness of BBM (and who
incidentally, has a cameo as the male prostitute
chosen by Twist in a Mexican alleyway in the
film). In interviews about the film, Gyllenhaal
and Ledger both intimate the ambivalence they
felt was an aspect of how Lee worked with
them; that Lee’s mixture of benevolence and
manipulation was challenging and mysterious.
Nowhere have I been able to ascertain that the
actors believe Lee’s ‘difference’ was attributed
directly to his Taiwanese heritage. If anything,
interviews suggest their awareness of not
stating this as a mark of respect, but also as an
understanding of their whiteness in the
production event. Mostly they seemed to be in
awe of Lee’s particular way of ‘reading’ the film-
making process. Gyllenhaal specifically described
his and Ledger’s apparent disbelief at seeing the
final cut of the film; it was particularly
they expected from their own perception of their
performances on site (Cavagna, 2005a). They
suggest there was an ambiguity in the process
of filming scenes. Lee is quoted as saying that it
was the “unfamiliarity” of the narrative that was
attractive to him; presumably the unfamiliarity
of how his perceived ‘Otherness’ might affect
the colonial discourse around The Western
genre (Cavagna, 2005b). Lee also told reporter
Howard Feinstein (2005) from
The Advocate
that “people say I twisted the Western genre in
. I think I untwisted it” (p. 73).
And yet, the active mimicry of the straight/queer
cowboy is mirrored in the mimicry of the
Western genre by the postcolonial perspectives
of non-American, non-white males from East
(Lee) and South of the West (Prieto) who
developed the aesthetic for the film. This
mimicry is invisible to the audience as they
deliberately set out to reconstruct a seamless
Western and not ‘make-obvious’ either their
postcolonial mimicry nor their mimicry of the
hetero-cowboy (which is almost like, but not).
Characters in BBM are never in opposition to the
film’s heterosexual life, their queerness exists in
an ambivalent parallel to it because they are
complicit within its construction, so there is no
overt binary opposition to heterosexuality; the
film maintains a sense of naturalness about the
American West which ‘menaces’ our thinking
about what constitutes cowboy-masculinity.
John Ford could not have made this film. The
postcolonial disruption and queering lies in the
mimicry (importantly not mockery) of the
colonial Western genre; it exists in how close to
the genre BBM is so that a complex reading of
Gyllenhaal and Ledger’s actual, fictional and
celebrity bodies results in rendering a “visibility
of mimicry” that explores how “historically
contingent, constantly in flux and open to
contestation” (Petersen, 2003, p. 64) male
embodiment is. Homi Bhabha says that this
visibility is “always produced at the site of
interdiction, that is, a discourse at the
crossroads of what is known and permissible
and that which… must be kept concealed; a
discourse uttered between the lines and as such
both against the rules and within them…
mimicry is at once resemblance and menace”
(1994, p.86; 89).
Gyllenhaal and Ledger’s actual corporeal bodies
undertake a silent contract with the director to
visibly render the characters’ sexual relationship
visible for the consuming audience. There’s an
aspect to the process of acting that demands an
intimacy, compliance, and embodiment within
the fiction that is unlike any other performance
product. Ang Lee certainly suggested that this
was achieved in his description of the intimacy
between the actors in the tent scene as one that
crossed over into a “private moment” that he
felt he saw from his hand-held camera when
filming (Cavagna, 2005b). The actors also
suggested that the most vulnerable scenes for
them were simultaneously fictional and actual in
that their commitment to the mimicry did
transgress into corporeal reality; a sense of
leaping into the fiction as reality where the
celebrity body slips away. The intimacy between
the actors and the director suggests a
transcendence of the fiction that, like the actual
cowboys from the 19
century, remains silent
and coded for them as a site of interdiction.
Chris Packard (2006) suggests that these kinds
of constructed moments allow for an acceptable
queering in that context, where what he calls
“situational homosexuality” is the kind practiced
in all-male environments (prisons, football tours,
military, etc.) to varying degrees; its interdiction
is the locus of the queering and mimicry
processes at work inside the making of BBM.
The research of sociologist Robert Heasley on
Queer Masculinities of Straight Men
(2005) has
also produced a typology of queer-straight
males involving five (fluid) categories (2005, p.
314): straight sissy boys; social-Justice straight-
queers; elective straight-queers (or the elective
queer); committed straight-queers; and males
living in the shadow of masculinity. He states
that these categories help address the slippage
around straight men who appear ‘queer’
because they actively disrupt heteronormativity
and are problematic as ‘Others’ but, he argues,
not necessarily in direct opposition to ‘straight’
(almost like, but not quite); they queer the
notion of queer and straight because,
paradoxically, there is no language (interdiction
again) available to discuss how straight men can
disrupt dominant masculine paradigms (Heasley,
2005, p. 311). Heasley’s proposition of the
Elective Queer seems to encompass queer
performances by straight men for the purpose of
temporarily liberating the self from the
constrictions of heteronormative expectation.
They bring their “queer wardrobe into everyday
life”, but nonetheless return to “straight” without
losing power in the dominant culture (2005, p.
316). In true celebrity re-invention, subsequent
film projects for Ledger and Gyllenhaal after
BBM were
(2005) and
both hyper-masculine portrayals of
heterosexually-charged masculinity that may
well have served to re-establish a
heteronormative gaze upon their work and avoid
any labels of ‘gayness’ that may have lingered
from their BBM experience.
We can never know for sure the effect of this
elective queering process upon the actual bodies
of the actors in BBM. The notion of a contrived
‘elective queerness’ suggests the actor-celebrity
body can only remain a fraudulent pretence that
possesses little potency as a disruptive tool upon
the hegemonic processes presumably inside the
movie-making industry. However, it is the
visibility of straight celebrities representing
America’s ‘official emblem of masculinity
(Packard, 2006, p. 13) as a gender conundrum
that simultaneously exists in and subverts the
dominant colonial hegemony. The queering in
BBM takes place at the level of rendering visible
the interdiction between male-male partnerships
from the American West cowboy traditions, thus
opening an aperture to stall and expose myths
of colonial masculinity (Heasley, 2005). Del Mar
and Twist are fictional characters whose
construction does not mock the West, but rather
their West-ness necessarily remains intact (even
when it is clear that the price of overt queerness
is death) so that the resemblance of ‘stability’
invested in the West becomes brittle upon
exposure. There’s little doubt in my mind that a
film like BBM which was initially destined for
only limited release in the USA (the producers
perhaps nervous as to how it would be received)
crossed over into a mainstream audience
specifically because of the masculinised celebrity
bodies that Gyllenhaal and Ledger brought to
the film. The mimicry at the core of the
postcolonial disruption to the Western order is
also queer because the mode of delivery of this
ambivalence imbedded in the story, as well as in
the film making process, is through the unstable
agent of ‘the celebrity’ that affects our reading
of the fictional and actual body on film. As a
colleague said to me recently: "let's face it, who
doesn't want to see two gorgeous boys
snogging!?" The voyeuristic eye that consumes
the celebrity body (as well as the film’s Western
genre) made the film’s fiscal success, and not
any altruistic notions by the filmmakers to reveal
a Hollywood empathy for gay cowboy stories.
Author Note
Dr Janet McDonald received her PhD majoring in
Theatre for Youth from Arizona State University
in 1999, where she was also awarded the
1998/99 Distinguished Graduate Teacher
Assistant Award. She has been a high school
Drama teacher since 1987 and is currently
lecturing in Drama and Theatre Studies at the
University of Southern Queensland,
Toowoomba. Her current research interests
include: regional youth theatres, developing
strategies for sustaining theatre arts practice in
regional towns, as well as her ongoing research
into masculinities and actor-training. Email:
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, University of Queensland,
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Queer cowboys: And other
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Gay & Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2007
ISSN 1833-4512 © 2007 Author and Gay & Lesbian Issues and Psychology Interest Group of the Australian Psychological Society
Contestations over parenting by same-sex
attracted people are often at the heart of
negative community attitudes towards same-sex
attracted people more broadly. The issue of
same-sex parenting looks set to become one of
the many decisive issues in this year’s federal
election, with the proposed introduction of the
Family Law (Same Sex Adoption) Bill into
Federal Parliament. Suspicion of same-sex
attracted people raising children is evident
within existing Australian Law, and will become
more so if such legislation is passed. This paper
attempts to identify whether there is any
rational basis for the existence of barriers
against same-sex parenting. Firstly, in
identifying current laws that pertain to same-sex
parenting (namely in regards to adoption law
and parenting orders), the barriers that currently
exist for same-sex parents under Australian Law
and its judicial processes will be illustrated. The
rationale behind the imposition of such barriers
will then be outlined, specifically focusing on
what are identified as the presumed perceived
risks inherent to same-sex parenting. These
perceived risks will be contrasted with reference
to the extensive sociological and psychological
research on the matter, which clearly establishes
the lack of negative, and indeed many positive,
factors associated with same-sex parenting.
Finally, this paper will attempt to explain why
these well-documented truths regarding same-
sex parenting are not represented in the law,
and will explore the possibility of reform in the
foreseeable future.
Australian Family Law: The Current
In the past eight years, bans on same-sex
couples adopting have been overturned in
Western Australia, Tasmania and the ACT,
Adoption Act 1994
(WA), s20(1)
Adoption Act
(TAS), s18(1)(b)
Adoption Act 1993
NSW recently reviewing its ban on the matter
and Queensland’s adoption system also being
Such reforms come as a result of
recognition of the fact that “research over the
past 30 years has consistently demonstrated
that children raised by gay or lesbian parents
exhibit the same level of emotional, cognitive,
social and sexual functioning as children raised
by heterosexual parents” (APA, 2002).
Therefore, if discriminatory legislation such as
that proposed by the Australian Federal
Government in regards to overseas adoption is
it will not only impinge on individual
states’ jurisdiction on adoption and go against
the reforms illustrated in several Australian
states and territories, but it will also go against
the vast majority of sociological and
psychological research on the matter.
Under Australian Law, recognition of same-sex
relationships, both spousal and familial, is
currently still far from a legal reality. While the
Family Court and several states’ adoption
legislation have made some inroads towards
recognising the rights of same-sex attracted
people to adoption, same-sex attraction
continues to be stigmatised both in the courts
and more so in legislation. As Millbank suggests;
“lesbian and gay families have considerably less
access to justice than their heterosexual
counterparts” (Millbank, 1998, p. 1) In the
Family Law context, same-sex families face
many obstacles. For those wanting to start a
family, or legitimise their existing family through
adoption processes, this is made all but
impossible through the Australian adoption
system. For those trying to gain custody of
NSW Department of Community Services,
Review of the
Adoption Act 2000,
Report to Parliament (October 2006).
QLD Government, Department of Child Safety,
Legislation Review
. Retrieved 20 March 2007 from
Family Law (Same Sex Adoption) Bill. The brief
explanation for the Bill’s purpose is to amend the Family
Law Act 1975 to indicate that adoptions by same sex
couples of children from overseas under either bilateral
or multilateral arrangements will not be recognised in
children in instances such as after a break-up
from a heterosexual relationship, same-sex
parents again have to contend with the ever-
present assumption that their sexual identity is
in some way or another dangerous to children.
As will be illustrated, this assumption is evident
in adoption legislation, judicial opinions and
even anti-discrimination legislation, yet has no
foundation in empirically based research on the
Adoption Law in Australia
Unlike parenting orders dictated in the Family
Court, the adoption process in Australia is
administered by the states and territories. Each
state, with its own legislation, regulates who can
adopt, who is adopted, and what countries will
be accepted for intercountry adoptions. In the
past, adoption law neither facilitated nor
obstructed adoption by same-sex attracted
people, “as this was simply outside the
contemplation of legislators at that time”
(O’Halloran, 2006, p. 243). However, from the
1960’s onwards, states and territories across
Australia began to amend their adoption
legislation to ban same-sex couples from
adopting. This had been the case throughout
Australia until recently, where in the past eight
years bans on same-sex couples adopting have
been overturned in Western Australia, Tasmania
and the ACT.
Adoption in Australia peaked in the 1970s and
since then, as within all other western societies,
has steadily declined (O’Halloran, 2006, p. 244).
The number of adoptions in Australia has
declined to a number that is less than 5% of
what it was in the 1970’s
. This is mainly due to
a shift in public policy and community attitudes
towards single parents, unmarried mothers,
family planning, sex education and the advent of
the contraceptive pill.
Because of these factors,
it is now intercountry adoptions that are the
predominant form of adoption in Australia.
Every country that Australia currently has
agreements with regarding intercountry
adoptions, does not allow adoption by same-sex
Effectively, one could say that all the
Commonwealth: House Standing Committee on Family
& Community Services,
Overseas Adoption in Australian:
Report on the inquiry into adoption of children from
(21 Nov 2005) Chapter 1; Introduction, clause
HSCFCS Report, Chapter 1, Introduction, clause 1.3
Department for Community Development, WA,
Adoption Eligibility Criteria
. Retrieved 2 April, 2007, from,
Family Law (Same Sex Adoption) Bill will do is
simply confirm in Australia what is already the
case in other countries. But this isn’t necessarily
the case.
The Family Law (Same Sex Adoption) Bill may
affect what we know as ‘known-child adoptions’.
In cases where one partner of a same-sex couple
outside of Australia has adopted a child which is
already the legal child of the other partner, or for
same-sex couples who have jointly adopted a
child they already care for outside of Australia,
the proposed legislation may mean that as soon
as these families walk through Australian
customs, the child will cease to have two legal
parents, and one of the parents will cease to
have any legal rights or responsibilities for the
child. This could also be the case for ‘stranger
adoptions’ (adoptions of a child that is unknown
to the parents) that have occurred overseas in
countries that allow adoption by same-sex
couples. (Croome, 2007)
Whether the proposed legislation will extend to
regulate these adoptions is unclear. While this
was the original concern of critics (e.g., Bartlett,
2007; Croome, 2007), the Attorney General,
Phillip Ruddock informed Senator Bartlett that
this will not be the case and that the legislation
will only regulate adoptions from those countries
Australia has agreements with. However,
whether the government will keep their word on
this matter will only be realised when the
legislation is introduced into parliament.
The Hague Convention is the cornerstone for
intercountry adoption in Australia, and provides
the principles and conditions under which
participating countries operate.
Despite the fact
that adoption is within the jurisdiction of the
states and territories, section 111C(1) of the
Family Law Act 1975
(Cth) gives the
Commonwealth jurisdiction to make regulations
allowing Australia to meet its obligations under
the Hague Convention. However, clause 34 of
Family Law (Hague Convention on
Intercountry Adoption) Regulations (1998)
allows the states and territories to pass their
own legislation that adheres to the convention,
and in such cases, the Commonwealth
regulations do not apply. This arrangement is
consistent with the Commonwealth’s non-
interventionist policy in the Commonwealth
HSCFCS Report, Chapter 2, The legal framework for
overseas adoptions, clause 2.1
State MOU.
However, as will be discussed later,
the recommended renegotiation of the
Commonwealth-State Agreement may end up
giving much more power to the Federal
Government in regards to intercountry adoption.
As such, and as O’Halloran (2006) suggests;
“Adoption has always had a political dimension.
Its potential use to achieve political aims has
been evident throughout history and in many
different cultures” (p. 1). For example, what was
at times represented as ‘legal adoption’ in
regards to Indigenous children removed from
their families in Australia was in actuality the
government’s use of illegal adoption (or child
theft) to further its policies of assimilation
against indigenous people, the devastating
effects of which have come to be known within
the extensive literature and litigation as the
‘Stolen Generation’.
Nowadays, the Federal Government appears
adamant not to assimilate, but to separate
same-sex attracted people from the community
at large. This is evidenced by the introduction of
The Marriage Amendment Act 2004
(Cth) and
the continual failure to implement the promised
reforms of superannuation law to recognise
same-sex relationships. Now, under a façade of
attempting to ‘streamline’ the intercountry
adoption process in Australia, the Federal
Government looks set to once again use
adoption as a means of achieving their political
aims. As Senator Andrew Bartlett (2007)
suggests; “to use children and their relationship
with their adopted parents as political pawns in
an election year is setting a new low.”
State and Territory Law on Adoption
Queensland has perhaps the most discriminatory
‘eligibility criteria’ in the adoption process, still
using its legislation from the 1960’s; The
Adoption of Children Act 1964
(Qld). Adoption
by a same-sex couple is prohibited in
Queensland, as section 12(1) of the
Adoption of
Children Act 1964
specifies that an adoption
order can only be made in favour of a husband
and wife jointly. Adoption by a single person
who identifies as same-sex attracted is,
HSCFCS Report, Chapter 2, The legal framework for
overseas adoptions, clause 2.26
Kruger v Commonwealth
(1997) 190 CLR 1;
Cubillo and Another v Commonwealth
[No 1] (1999) 89
FCR 528
however, theoretically possible under section
12(3)(c) of the Act,
providing that singles may
adopt special needs children or in exceptional
circumstances. However Clause 7(2)(d) of the
Adoption of Children regulation 1999
this provision, stating that applicants must have
been ‘married’ for at least two years, effectively
prohibiting adoption by a single same-sex
attracted person. In order to alleviate the legal
concerns of a regulation attempting to override
an act of parliament, section 13AC was also
inserted into the
Adoption of Children Act
New South Wales
In NSW section 27 of the
Adoption Act 2000
permits a single person to adopt in a
situation where the Court is satisfied that the
particular circumstances of the child make an
adoption order to a single person desirable.
Section 28 of the Act allows “two persons who
are a couple”
to adopt, however it is noted in
the act that the term couple is to be given its
dictionary meaning of “a man and woman who
are married or have a de facto relationship,
effectively prohibiting a same-sex couple from
adopting in NSW. A review of this ban was
completed in late 2006, but disappointingly gave
inconclusive recommendations for reform.
In Victoria, the
Adoption Act 1984
requires that
an adoption order can only be made in favour of
a man and woman jointly who have been
together for more than two years.
applicants can adopt under circumstances where
the Court is satisfied that special circumstances
exist in relation to the child
, usually being
children with special needs. However there does
not appear to be an explicit prohibition on the
single person being same-sex attracted in such
circumstances. Recent recommendations by the
Victorian Law Reform Commission in regards to
same-sex adoption have been presented to the
government who it is hoped will consider
amending relevant laws.
HSCFCS Report, Chapter 1, Introduction, clause 3.14
Adoption Act 2000
s23(1) note,
Adoption Act 2000
Adoption Act 1984
Adoption Act 1984
See for more
information on these proposed changes.
South Australia
Adoption Act 1988
(SA) stipulates that an
adoption order can only be made in favour of a
couple who have been married for more than 5
however the 5 year limit will be relaxed
where the Court feels there are ‘special
The stipulation that the couple
be married expressly excludes the inclusion of
same-sex couples. There does appear to be
scope however for a single same-sex attracted
person to adopt as a single person, who may be
allowed to adopt where the Court feels there are
special circumstances justifying the order.
Western Australia
The Western Australian adoption criterion does
give scope for both a single person
and two
persons jointly
to adopt, with no exclusion on
same sex applicants. It has recently been
reported that a gay male couple has successfully
adopted a child in WA, believed to be the first
domestic ‘stranger adoption’ by a gay couple in
Australia (AAP, 2007).
Section 20(1) of the
Adoption Act 1988
allows adoption by a couple who have a
recognised significant relationship under Part 2
of the
Relationships Act
(TAS). As this act
does recognise same-sex relationships, adoption
is allowed by a same-sex couple in Tasmania.
Section 20(4) also allows adoption by an in
individual where ‘exceptional circumstances
exist, making no prohibition on that person
identifying as same-sex attracted.
Australian Capital Territory
The ACT allows couples to adopt who have been
in a relationship for more than 3 years,
the ban on same-sex couples being lifted in
2004 despite strong opposition from the Federal
Government in doing so (Grattan, 2004). Single
persons are also given scope to adopt under the
Adoption Act 1993.
Adoption Act 1988
Adoption Act 1988
Adoption Act 1988
Adoption Act 1994
Adoption Act 1994
Adoption Act 1993
Adoption Act 1993
Northern Territory
The Northern Territory does not allow adoption
by same-sex couples, expressly stating that
adoption by a couple is that between a man and
a woman.
Adoption by a single person may be
made in the Northern Territory in circumstances
that, in the opinion of the Minister, exceptional
circumstances exist that make it desirable to do
Federal Law and Adoption
The eligibility criteria expressed in the majority
of the states’ adoption legislation provides a
clear example of a presumption against same-
sex parenting. The criteria has been criticised on
the grounds that it is incompatible with anti-
discrimination legislation, not just on the
grounds of discriminating on sexuality, but also
on age, marital status, and impairment
(O’Halloran, 2006, p. 241). As evidenced by the
fact that only one domestic adoption of an
unknown child by a gay couple has succeeded to
this day, it is not just the discriminatory
eligibility criteria that create barriers to adoption
by same-sex couples, but also the attitudes of
the biological parents of the child. In many of
the local adoption programs, it has been found
that birthparents often make a specific request
that their child be placed with adoptive parents
in a heterosexual relationship. This has the
effect of dramatically reducing the chances for
same-sex couples successfully adopting even in
the few jurisdictions that currently allow same-
sex couple adoption.
It is of course important to acknowledge the
complex racialised and classed dimensions of
both intra- and inter-country adoption. Those
who place children up for adoption often do so
as a result of the social discrimination faced as
marginalised group members, or as a result of
living in countries who face extreme
disadvantage as a result of their location outside
of the overdeveloped West. Critical race
theorists in particular have long elaborated the
complex power relations that shape adoptions
and which continue to impact upon outcomes
for both adoptive children and their birth parents
(e.g., Eng, 2003).
In regards to adoption legislation, a review has
recently been completed in NSW, and one is
currently underway in Queensland. The review
Adoption of Children Act
Adoption of Children Act
in NSW was statutorily required
and specifically
dealt with the issue of including same-sex
couples as prospective adopting parents, but
disappointingly gave inconclusive
recommendations. The basis for the review in
Queensland appears to be a more reactionary
review based on the Federal Government
sanctioned report
Overseas Adoption in
Australian: Report on the inquiry into adoption
of children from overseas
In 2005, the House of Representatives’ Standing
Committee on Family and Human Services were
commissioned to undertake a report into how
the Federal Government could better streamline
intercountry adoptions in Australia. The report;
Overseas Adoption in Australian: Report on the
inquiry into adoption of children from overseas
gave 27 recommendations directed to the
Federal Government. However, as it is the State
and Territory Governments that currently deliver
all domestic and intercountry adoptions, the
report’s recommendations impact on their
jurisdiction on the matter.
Among other things,
the report recommended that;
In renegotiating the Commonwealth-State
Agreement, the Commonwealth shall ensure a
greater harmonisation of laws, fees and
assessment practices, including:
More general principle based criteria in
More robust, transparent and documented
practices; and
Standardised assessment across the
The report further recommends that in order to
ensure ‘a greater harmonisation of laws;’
“Responsibility for establishing and managing
overseas adoption programs be transferred to
the Attorney General’s Department in
consultation with the Department of Foreign
Affairs and Trade and The Department of
Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous
Although the report identified the inconsistency
regarding eligibility of same-sex couples for
Adoption Act 2000
(NSW) required the Minister to
report to parliament within 6 years on whether the Act
was serving the best interests of the child.
QDCS, Review.
QDCS, Review.
HSCFCS Report, Chapter 1, Introduction, clause 3.43
HSCFCS Report, Chapter 1, Introduction, clause 5.100
intercountry adoptions
, it did not make
specific recommendations on streamlining either
a universal prohibition on it, or a universal
acceptance. However, if passed through
parliament, the Family Law (Same Sex Adoption)
Bill will ensure that this will become the case.
The issue of same-sex parenting, however, is
not just confined to Adoption Law, but is also
stigmatised in other areas of Family Law
governed by the
Family Law Act 1975
(Cth). In
order to gain a comprehensive picture on how
Australian Family Law regards same-sex
parenting, it must also be established how the
issue is dealt with in regards to parenting
orders, and how this is implemented in the
Family Court.
The Family Law Act and
Same-Sex Parenting
Unlike Adoption Law, the law regarding
parenting orders is dealt with at a federal level,
adhering to the
Family Law Act
. At first glance,
the Family Court and the
Family Law Act 1975
(Cth) do not expressly discriminate against
same-sex parents. Nowhere in the
Family Law
Act 1975
(Cth) is there a definition of ‘the family’
that could be seen to exclude same-sex
relationships from the family unit. As Millbank
(1998) states:
It is notable that the Family Court has never in
20 years held that being a lesbian or a gay man
in itself
evidence of inability to parent – as
courts in England, the USA and Canada have all
done at one time or another in the past, and as
some states in the USA continue to do to this
There are also no statutory barriers to non-
biological parents being a party to an action
under the Act, and the Family Court has the
power to make parenting orders in favour of
parents and “any other person concerned with
the care, welfare or development of the child”.
Many argue that the “lack of definition [of the
family unit in the Family Law Act] could be seen
in itself to carry [different] messages; for
instance, that we do not need to define the
HSCFCS Report, Chapter 3, Inconsistencies between
state and territory approval processes, table 3.1
Millbank suggests that cases such as
In the Marriage
of Spry
(1977) 30 FLR 537; FLC 90–271 are seen as
authority for the view that there is no presumption
against homosexuality in regards to parenting rights.
ss 64C and 65C,
Family Law Act
1975 (Cth)
family because we already know what it is”
(Parkinson & Behrens, 2003, p. 31). Section
43(b) of the Act requires courts to exercise, “the
need to give the widest possible protection and
assistance to the family as the natural and
fundamental group unit of society…”. While not
expressly stating that this is to be regarded as
the heterosexual nuclear family, the implication
is evident in the use of words such as ‘natural’
and ‘fundamental.’ Such language resonates
strongly with the language used by sociologists
of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Talcott Parsons
who trumpetted the family as the natural social
group in society being that of the heterosexual
nuclear family; mum dad and the kids. Such a
definition would leave no room for alternate
versions of the family, such as those headed by
same-sex attracted people. This also becomes
more evident when looking at the first
consideration in section 43(a).
Section 43(a) ensures that when the Court is to
make a parenting order, it “preserves and
protects the institution of marriage”.
With the
passing of
The Marriage Amendment Act 2004
in 2004, Prime Minister John Howard has
ensured that the onus on the Family Court is
thus to preserve a ‘homosexual free’ version of
marriage. Whilst from a procedural point of view
parenting orders in Australia don’t appear to be
too prejudiced toward same-sex parents, the
systematic and ingrained culture of
heterosexism in Australian Family Law becomes
evident when exploring the biased and
uninformed basis on which many parenting
orders are made.
The Family Court and
Same-Sex Parenting
The absence of any provisions in the
Act dealing
with same-sex parents in regards to parenting
rights has had the effect of giving judges a very
high level of discretionary power (Tauber &
Moloney, 2002). As in adoption law, the Family
Court is given the task of enforcing the ‘welfare
of the child principle’,
ensuring that it
have regard to the whole spectrum of
circumstances. Within this spectrum, identifying
as a same-sex attracted parent has been
consistently viewed as a risk to a child.
Family Law Act 1975
Family Law Act
1975 (Cth)
In the Marriage of Doyle
(1992) 106 FLR 125;
A and J
(1995) 19 Fam LR 260
Although the Court has never expressly held that
same-sex attraction is itself a bar to custody, it
has always been seen as a possible negative
factor. This is illustrated in the judgment in
which stated that "homosexuality does
require that the Court, even taking the most
liberal view, to scrutinise the parent's way of
life". Such views are also evident in the family
reports used in Court. Research suggests that
these reports rarely challenge statements linking
negative outcomes with same-sex attraction,
and do not refer to the extensive research
challenging myths that link negative outcomes
with children raised by same-sex parents
(Tauber & Moloney, 2002).
The fact remains that the Family Court continues
to view “lesbians and gay men as a threat to
children's well being” (Millbank, 1998, p. 4). This
is despite the fact that there is not “a single
social scientist conducting and publishing
research in the area of children’s development
who claims to have found that gay and lesbian
parents harm children” (Cooper & Cates, 2006,
p. 3). Millbank suggests that “It also seems that
this data is often ignored or overlooked in favour
of the speculative views of a counsellor, or
welfare or psychiatric "expert", or indeed in
favour of competing “common sense’” (p. 7).
Risks of
Same-Sex Parenting
The issue of same-sex parenting rights has
always been fraught with significant controversy,
as suggested by the NSW Minister for
Community Services, in her claim that it “is an
area of government policy that generates
emotion on both sides of the debate” (cited in
Pearlman & Morris, 2006). Examples of such
(negative) emotions include those elaborated by
institutions such as the Catholic Church, which
suggests that all children have a right to a
mother and father, stating that there is
significant evidence about the benefits of
marriage [and de facto heterosexual
relationships] over same-sex partnerships in
regards to raising children (see Pearlman &
Morris for summary of this).
Yet it is not just conservative groups such as the
Catholic Church who are opposed to same-sex
parenting. Other critics include many
In the Marriage of Doyle
(1992) 106 FLR 125 at 277
and judges
, along with a large
proportion of the Australian population which is
reported to hold considerable prejudice toward
same-sex attracted people more broadly.
Australians, Prime Minister John Howard being a
good example, simply state that gay parenting is
not ‘in the best interests of the child,’ without
outlining the specific concerns that they have.
While groups like the Catholic Church may rely
upon the assumptions that same-sex attractions
go against their doctrine of beliefs, this also
does not address the pragmatic concern as to
why same-sex parenting cannot be in the best
interest of the child. Perhaps one of the best
examples of a comprehensive list of the
perceived risks that many hold regarding same-
sex parenting is that of the 8 Point test used by
Baker J in the case of
In the Marriage of L
decide whether or not to give custody to the
lesbian mother of the child. Although the case is
over 20 years old, the criteria have been relied
upon in subsequent cases in the Family Court
over the years,
thus giving a good insight into
judicial opinions on the topic. The list is as
1. Whether children raised by their homosexual
parent may themselves become homosexual,
or whether such an event is likely.
2. Whether the child of a homosexual parent
could be stigmatised by peer groups,
particularly if the parent is known in the
community as a homosexual.
3. Whether a homosexual parent would show the
same love and responsibility as a heterosexual
4. Whether homosexual parents will give a
balanced sex education to their children and
take a balanced approach to sexual matters.
5. Whether or not children should be aware of
their parent's sexual preferences.
6. Whether children need a parent of the same
sex to model upon.
7. Whether children need both a male and a
female parent figure.
8. The attitude of the homosexual parent to
religion, particularly if the doctrines, tenets and
Most notably our Prime Minister John Howard; “I am
against gay adoption, just as I’m against gay marriage”
quoted in Grattan
Examples are evident in judgements of
In the Marriage
of L
(1983) FLC 91–353.,
W v G
(1996) 20 Fam LR 49
In 2004, a Newspoll released by SBS World News
stated that only 38% of respondents were in favour of
gay couples being given the being given the same rights
to marry as couples consisting of a man and a woman."
In the Marriage of L
(1983) FLC 91–353.
In the Marriage of
Doyle (1992) F.L.C. 90-286; see
Millbank (1998) p. 5.
beliefs of the parties' church are opposed to
Critical Analysis of the
The first consideration of whether a child being
exposed to ‘homosexuality’ would themselves
become homosexual is perhaps the biggest
concern critics of same-sex parenting have. Such
an assertion suggests that children in same-sex
families would identify as same-sex attracted
themselves as a direct consequence of what is
presumed to be the negative outcomes of a
child’s ‘inability’ to develop ‘gender appropriate’
behaviours, something that is purported to be
an outcome of being raised without opposite-sex
role models (being the sixth and seventh
consideration on Baker J’s list).
Criticism of such a claim is two fold; firstly it is a
blatant assertion that being same-sex attracted
is in itself undesirable, and as Riggs (2007)
suggests, the idea that a child may identify as
same-sex attracted is only problematic if
identifying as same-sex attracted is itself seen
as inherently bad. This is also the case in the
assertion that a child needs a mother and father.
Such assertions are only valid if we prioritise the
concept of ‘sex differences’, and in particular,
prioritise the traditional roles of both the
‘mother’ and ‘father’ in the understanding of the
concept of family (see Clarke, 2006; Clarke &
Kitzinger, 2005 for summaries of this critique
and Kelly, 2002, for a summary of the legal
implications of the enforcement of the assertion
that a mother and father are required).
Even if debates over opposite-sex role models
are accepted as the premise for denying
parenting rights to same-sex attracted people,
some studies have found that “adult children of
lesbians and gays [show]
no difference
in the
proportion of those children who identified as
lesbian or gay themselves, when compared with
children of similarly situated heterosexual
parents” (Millbank, 1998, p. 3). In other cases
where the children of same-sex parents have
indeed identified as same-sex attracted
themselves or have showed an openness to
explore same-sex relationships, research has
suggested that this occurs as a result of living in
a family context that allows for an increased
awareness of choice surrounding ‘compulsory
heterosexuality’, rather resulting from pressure
or expectation from same-sex parents (e.g.,
Tasker & Golombok, 1997).
The second consideration on Baker J’s above list
is another popular myth surrounding same-sex
parents and is reiterated in Murray J’s
consideration in the case of
community attitudes towards homosexuality
have, fortunately, changed over the recent years,
but not... to such a degree as to ensure that the
children will have freedom from spiteful comment
from their peer group who may be influenced by
the attitudes of their parents.
Tasker and Golombok’s (1997) research,
however, suggests otherwise. Their longitudinal
research which spanned 15 years comparing the
children of lesbian single mothers to those of
heterosexual single mothers illustrated among
other things that “the children of lesbian
mothers were no more likely than children of
heterosexual mothers to be teased or ostracised,
experience anxiety or depression, or feel
unhappy or embarrassed about their mother’s
lesbian relationship” (Millbank, 1998, p. 4).
A recent review for the Australian Psychological
Society (Short, Riggs, Perlesz, Brown & Kane,
2007) suggests that whilst some children in
same-sex headed families do indeed experience
discrimination, such children “like their parents,
develop a range of strategies to prevent being
stigmatised, discriminated against, or treated
poorly”. As Riggs (2007, see also Short et al.,
2007) points out, the problem in dealing with an
issue of discrimination by dominant group
members by diagnosing the problem as lying
with the marginalised group members who
experience it is that this approach only serves to
reinforce the legitimacy of such discrimination: it
does very little to examine how discrimination is
enshrined in social institutions including the law.
Polikoff (2006) agrees with this assertion,
pointing out that stories involving ostracisation
by peers and the community towards children of
same-sex families is often exaggerated and only
serves to reinforce “derogatory attitudes against
gay men and lesbians… [thus inviting] courts
[to] place a state imprimatur on the very
prejudice that facilitates harassment.”
Tasker and Golombok (1997) also suggests that
the more open, positive and political the parent
is about their sexual identity, the more likely it is
that their children will be accepting and positive
about their family identity. Ironically, this stands
in direct contrast to the view often held by the
Family Court (and the fifth consideration in
Murray J (1977) 30 FLR 537, para 5
Baker J’s list), namely that it may be in the best
interests of the child for same-sex parents to
keep their sexual identity hidden from their
The third factor in Baker J’s list, considering
whether a same-sex parent would show the
same ‘love and affection as a heterosexual
parent’ is, as Millbank (1998) suggests,
“offensive… and the very real fear it raises is
that the humanity of lesbian and gay parents
will be denied by the legal system” (p. 1). In
fairness it must be noted that Baker J did give
custody to the lesbian mother in deciding the
case, dismissing many of the factors he used in
deciding the potential impact that the mother’s
sexuality could have on the child. However this
is irrelevant to the real issue, which is the very
fact that such a high onus is placed upon same-
sex parents to prove how ‘similar’ they are to
the heteronorm. It also serves to mask the
many aspects of same-sex parenting that are
different from that of the heteronorm, many of
which may indeed be beneficial to children.
Focusing on the
Benefits of
Same-Same Parented-Families
In the process of adoption and cases involving
decisions on awarding parenting rights to same-
sex parents, the onus has consistently been put
on such parents to prove their worthiness in
comparison to heterosexual parents. The
starting point has always been that of the
heteronorm, and has thus led to much of the
earlier research surrounding same-sex parenting
to be based upon comparisons between same-
sex and heterosexual families. Whilst this can,
as Riggs (2006) rightly points out, reinforce the
assumption that the heterosexual nuclear family
is the perfect model to which same-sex parents
should aspire, this comparative research has
served one beneficial end, namely that:
the negative assumptions about families other
than those of heterosexual married parents have
been extensively empirically investigated, and
researchers have been able to distinguish
between family factors that
contribute to
children’s outcomes and well-being, and those
that, in and of themselves,
do not
(Short et al.,
One of the benefits gained for children raised in
same-sex parented families is that such parents
are more likely to share parenting duties equally
A and J
(1995) 19 Fam LR 260
(see e.g., Johnson & O’Connor, 2002; Patterson
& Chan, 1999). This stands in contrast to the
traditional structure of the heterosexual
relationship, which has historically been one of
ingrained power imbalance. “The sexual division
of labour [in heterosexual relationships] remains
substantially intact; at home and at work, in
most contexts of modern societies, men are
largely unwilling to release their grip upon the
reigns of power” (Giddens, 1992, p. 132).
Giddens suggests that same-sex relationships
are most often not bound by such forms of
gender inequality and are therefore more likely
to result from negotiations between individuals,
rather than simple adherence to social norms
which govern marital relations.
Examples such as this overwhelmingly affirm
that there is nothing to suggest that a same-sex
parent would have a diminished parenting
capacity in comparison to that of a heterosexual
parent. As Patterson (1997) emphasises, “there
is no evidence to suggest that lesbians and gay
men are unfit to be parents or that psychosocial
development among children of gay men or
lesbians is compromised in any respect relative
to that among offspring of heterosexual parents.
Not a single study has found children of gay or
lesbian parents to be disadvantaged in any
significant respect relative to children of
heterosexual parents” (cited in Tauber &
Moloney, 2002, p. 2).
Despite this, Australian Legislation and
Australian Courts continue to perpetuate the
perceived risks of same-sex parenting without
consideration of the fact that the prevailing
sociological and psychological research in
Australia and overseas continues to assert that
there are no inherent risks in same-sex
The fact of the matter remains that the politics
of same-sex parenting, like that of same sex
marriage, “involves moral judgements not easily
influenced by the facts of social harm” (Eskridge
& Spedal, 2006, p. 221). “Social psychologists
have demonstrated that human judgement is
strongly influenced by cognitive stereotypes and
emotional prejudices that are resistant to what
lawyers consider rational analysis and
argumentation” (p. 222). In Haidt’s (1997)
extensive research on the matter of what he
calls the ‘discourse of disgust’, he outlines how
sexual taboos are particularly susceptible to
disgust-driven moral responses, rather than
rationally based harm-driven response. This
suggests that even with such strong and
authoritative evidence demonstrating the lack of
harm in sanctioning same-sex parenting (and
indeed the potentially positive benefits
associated with it), the moral response by many
who are ‘disgusted’ by same-sex attractions will
likely continue to be the dominant response.
This is evidenced by both the reluctance to
reform adoption law to remove prejudices
against same-sex couples, and by the Family
Court’s continual failure to use the substantive
and authoritative research on same-sex
parenting, instead opting for what they consider
‘common sense.’
As the many barriers against same-sex
parenting outlined in this paper illustrate, there
is a broad assumption in Australian Family Law
that same-sex parenting is not in the best
interests of the child. This assumption has been
shown to have no rational basis and is
comprehensively disproved by the extensive
research cited in this paper. While from a judicial
point of view, attitudes towards same-sex
parenting appear to be changing, more effort
needs to be taken to ensure that judicial
decisions take the rational step of basing their
evaluations on the facts regarding same-sex
parenting, and not the myths.
It is important to note, however, as mentioned
earlier, the power dynamics of adoption, both
within and between countries. A growing body
of research and testimonials by people who have
experienced intercountry adoption (e.g., Willing,
2004; 2006) suggests that whilst there may be
no rational basis for prohibiting any person from
adoption, there is nonetheless a pressing need
to examine how discourses of rationality are
used to warrant the removal of children (in lieu
of, for example, foreign aid to countries
experiencing economic crisis). Adoption, despite
‘positive’ laws to afford access to a range of
people, thus continues to be problematic for
adopted children and their birth parents.
As Eskridge points out, like prejudices, feelings
of disgust surrounding homosexuality are non-
rational responses, yet can form the underlying
motivation for our rational discourses. Such is
the case with any kind of justification for the
proposed legislation of the Federal Government.
Whether the law can rise above the irrational
presumptions surrounding same-sex parenting
remains to be seen. As O’Halloran states,
Adoption Law is “a mirror reflecting the changes
in our family life and the efforts of family law to
address those changes” (2006, p. 7). Therefore,
while the reality of the change may be apparent,
the law will not reflect this without the social,
and more importantly, political will to do so.
Author Note
Philip Duffey is a higher degree candidate at
Griffith University, Queensland. Email:
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Gay & Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2007
ISSN 1833-4512 © 2007 Author and Gay & Lesbian Issues and Psychology Interest Group of the Australian Psychological Society
As constructed by conservative religious
discourse, homosexuality is antagonistic to
spirituality, but in this paper I suggest how
marginalised subjectivities might be liberated
from toxic, homophobic discourses by ‘border
crossing’: seeking out tools from other cultural
traditions to access knowledge resources that
can support the urgent inquiry into the nature of
the self precipitated by its bruising encounter
with institutionally entrenched homophobia.
Since the 1960s many men in Western countries
have looked ‘East’ for answers to their
metaphysical concerns, counterbalancing what is
often assumed to be the one-way process in
which 'the West' exerts influence upon 'the
Rest'. The subjective repositioning that takes
place through such practice occurs not just in
cultural spaces, but also within the zone of
conscious awareness loosely called the ‘mind’ as
it recovers its roots in a transcultural zone of
being/not-being. For the purposes of my
discussion I separate the term ‘spirituality’ from
‘religion’. I see ‘religion’ as a sociological
phenomenon, entailing inclusion in/exclusion
from socially and politically valourised faith
communities. I enlist the Zen Buddhist
“What was your face before your parents were
born?” to deploy a usage of ‘spirituality’ as
concerned with a searching enquiry into the
nature of being, with an emphasis on empirical
praxis rather than belief. From such an approach
the construction of the personal self produced
by political, social and linguistic constructs is
radically re-configured, and the non-dual nature
of these Asian approaches might allow for an
accommodation of spirituality and sexuality.
Professor David Halperin, speaking at the
Asian Sites Conference
in early 2007, suggested
that there is a pressing need to find a new
language for positioning queer subjectivities
without resorting to the often pathologising
discourse of psychology. Drawing on Foucault,
he spoke of the process of self-making as the
ultimate act of freedom. In this paper, I want to
suggest one way of producing a resistant re-
narrativisation of queer subjectivities that has
been pointedly avoided by queer theory until
now – one that opens up differently ordered
pathways for queer intelligence to explore. I will
do this by providing a first-hand account of the
reclamation of certain spaces that had been
occluded by the culture of my religious
upbringing (spaces that were explicitly
unauthorised by the discursive practices of the
Church). I suggest that the language for the
reclamation might be forged from new forms of
‘spiritual’ discourse and praxis, re-framed and
detoxified of common religious associations.
Thus far I have achieved this in my own work
via a two-pronged approach: firstly, by the
disciplined and continuing practice of
introspective meditation techniques taught to
me by a guru of the Advaita Vedanta tradition of
northern India; and, hand in hand with this,
through the writing of a memoir, a work in
progress titled
The Boy in the Yellow Dress
which brings certain areas of experience out of
the culturally sanctioned silence to which they
had heretofore been banished.
As constructed by conservative religious
discourse, homosexuality is supposed to be
antagonistic to spirituality. As a counter to this I
suggest – from personal experience and from
the study of texts by other gay memoirists –
how marginalised subjectivities might be
liberated from homophobic religious discourse
by ‘border crossing’: seeking out tools from
other cultural traditions to access differently
ordered pathways of being and becoming. To
engage in such an approach, I offer a first
person account of such an assertive re-
positioning to show how men such as myself
have been able to draw on knowledge sources
(not discursively constructed around notions of
sin) that provide affirmative pathways for the
expression of queer intelligence.
The Turn to the ‘East’
In his memoir
Defying Gravity
, Dennis Altman
writes about becoming aware of oneself as part
of a larger social movement. In his words, “all
our lives mirror to some extent the larger
changes around us; we are shaped by larger
social forces in ways we do not necessarily
recognise at the time” (1997, p. 5). While
Altman might have had other, political trends in
mind, I have come to recognise that it also
applies in the conspicuous ‘turn to the East’ that
began early in the twentieth century but became
more pronounced in the 1960s and 1970s, when
many men in Western countries started looking
‘East’ for answers to their metaphysical
concerns, counterbalancing what is often
assumed to be the one-way process in which
'the West' exerts influence upon 'the Rest'. In
my own case, turning the geographical compass
about, it was to the
towards which I
looked for inspiration when I found myself
suffocating within the heteronormative spaces of
my upbringing in redneck West Australia.
With notions of self all too often dislocated by
the exclusions attendant on homophobic
religious discourse, some gay men have been
drawn to the de-centring of the personal self
common in Buddhist philosophy and practice. In
fact, as I describe elsewhere (Marsh, 2006), the
disillusionment that gay men often go through
the dislocation from spaces of belonging
produced by Family, Church, Law, and
psychological Medicine can be re-framed as a
stripping away of illusions. Further, this process
serves as a kind of initiation into a
via negativa
to use the terminology of mysticism. In such a
re-framing, alienation can serve as a kind of
cultural ‘de-programming’, precipitating a
searching inquiry into the nature of identity a
process that I propose typifies the ‘spiritual’ life
of men in a queer relationship to
heteronormative culture. This could be likened
to the Buddhist notion of ‘disenchantment’, a
shakedown that prepares the mind for a
penetrating gaze into deeper layers of conscious
awareness than are normally presented in the
foreground of attention. For the shock of
estrangement that results from the insult
(Eribon, 2004) of homophobically produced
notions of identity often goes further than mere
psychological stress, pushing the crisis into a
deeper ontological displacement.
Struggling for
oxygen, queer intelligence is compelled to seek
out spaces for its survival and finds itself asking:
‘If not this, then what am I?’ Entire schools of
rigorous spiritual practice begin with this inquiry,
the Ramana Maharshi lineage being one potent
example (Lata, 1986; Osborne, 1972).
Whereas Western psychotherapies might strive
to shore up the security of the ego-centric ‘I’,
spiritual practices more common in Asian
religions view the destabilisation of the notion of
a continuous self as a thoroughly necessary
milestone on the path to ‘Liberation’. (Parallels
with deconstructive practice are not hard to
draw, and I deal with that comparison
elsewhere; see Marsh, 2006.)
For the purposes of my discussion, I separate
the term ‘spirituality’ from ‘religion’. I’ll deal
briefly with the latter first. I see ‘religion’ as a
sociological phenomenon, entailing inclusion
in/exclusion from socially and politically
valourised faith communities. Here I would enlist
Peter Berger’s (1969) description of the
‘plausibility structures’ which typically anchor the
sense of belonging in community. “One of the
fundamental propositions of the sociology of
knowledge”, writes Berger, is that the
“plausibility” of views of reality “depends upon
the social support these receive” (p. 50).
According to his analysis, “we obtain our notions
of the world originally from other human beings,
and these notions continue to be plausible to us
in very large measure because others continue
to affirm them” (p. 50). “Plausibility structures”
are produced by networks of people “in
conversation”, as he puts it, who hold to a
common world-view and set of moral
commitments which help to maintain beliefs.
While acknowledging that “it is possible to go
against the social consensus that surrounds us”,
Berger reminds us that there are “powerful
pressures (which manifest themselves as
psychological pressures within our own
consciousness) to conform to the views and
beliefs of our fellow men.” (p. 50).
To continue in a sociological vein, Hans Mol
discusses various propositions with regard to
theories of identity that define it not as an
individual thing alone but as also strongly
Mol cites Erik Erikson’s work, in which
identity connotes “both a persistent sameness
within oneself and a persistent sharing of some
kind of essential character with others” (1976, p.
57) and he notes Berger and Luckmann’s (1966)
construction that identity is “a phenomenon that
emerges from the dialectic between individual
and society” (p. 174). Mol also cites Soddy’s
earlier (1957) definition of identity produced “as
an anchorage of the self to the social matrix”
(cited in Mol, p. 58). Mol argues that religion
provides the mechanism “by means of which on
the level of symbol systems certain patterns
acquire a taken for granted, stable, eternal,
quality” (p. 5), thus “sacralising” identity.
For a sub-set of gay men who feel rejected by
the religion of their upbringing, the ‘plausibility
I am grateful to Michael Carden for pointing me to
this work by Hans Mol.
structures’, these ‘anchorage points to the social
matrix’ – whether held together by ritual, mythic
and symbolic functions, or as institutionalised
discourses of meaning and power (in Foucault’s
analysis) – are not inclusive of them, unless they
renounce their sexuality. The normalising
functions of social cohesiveness and ‘sacralised’
identity that create a web of belonging and
cohesiveness for some people, position men like
me ‘outside the fold’
, and the reputed ‘eternal
quality’ of a socially constructed self is radically
Alan Watts – an early commentator on the East/
West crossover I noted earlier points to the
nexus between the religious and the social in the
Judaeo-Christian tradition, which “identifies the
Absolute – God – with the moral and logical
order of convention” (1957, p. 11). He describes
this conflation as “a major cultural catastrophe”,
and critiques the manner in which “it weighs the
social order with excessive authority” (p. 11). If
Watts’ analysis is correct, his corollary is
particularly telling for people marginalised by
this kind of construction:
It is one thing to feel oneself in conflict with
socially sanctioned conventions, but quite
another to feel at odds with the very root and
ground of life, with the Absolute itself. (p. 11)
‘God’, in other words, is a very big stick to wield
against others. Many gay men reading this in a
Western cultural setting would recognise the
promise of inclusiveness offered to them by
religion is predicated on a denial of their
sexuality, which is represented in the darkest
possible tones and negatively sanctioned with
the most powerful forces that discourse can
Of course there are some who offer resistance and
claim equal rights even in the churches. I refer to the
work of Michael Kelly’s Rainbow Sash movement in
Australia; Andrew Yip’s study
The Persistence of Faith
(2002), and memoirs by priests as varied as John J.
McNeill (1998) and Bernard Duncan Mayes (2001),
and earlier, Malcolm Boyd (1978; 1986), as vigorous
examples of men struggling with the ‘angel’
Church. The point remains, however, that they are
engaged in a struggle for a ‘place at the table’, to use
Bruce Bawer’s term (1994).
The misrepresentation of gay people by the Church
has not subsided in recent times. Amanda Lohrey’s
recent study (2006) carries an account of her
interviews with young university students who are
‘evangelical’ Christians and whose attitudes towards
homosexuality still carry unreconstructed, moralistic
and heteronormative assumptions.
So, if religion is deeply complicit in the
perpetuation of the ‘excessive authority’ of the
social order (Watts, 1957), I posit ‘spirituality’,
on the other hand, as another kind of practice
altogether. Let me illustrate this by enlisting the
kind of interrogation posed by the standard Zen
: “What was your original face
before your parents were born?” to deploy a
usage of ‘spirituality’ as concerned, first and
foremost, with a searching enquiry into the
nature of being.
practice is a particular technique within
certain schools of Buddhism (see Murphy,
2004a), usually carried out in a formal
relationship with a spiritual instructor, and
accompanied by intensely focused meditation
practice. For the Zen master to demand of the
student: “Show me your original face before
your parents were born” is, in its own context, a
form of deconstructive practice that engages the
inquiring intelligence in a probing investigation
of the roots of its own existence. In this setting,
the positioning of self produced by political,
social and linguistic discourse is radically re-
aligned in relationship to a more broadly based
experience of being/awareness, and one that is
not centred in the zone of what is usually taken
to be the personal self. Rather than finding the
roots of self in the complex social and political
matrices of place, class, and gender, then, or in
the narratives which emanate therefrom, or in
the inherent constructedness of language itself,
the question becomes: what is ‘I’ when all the
usual predicates of identification fall away? The
subjective repositioning that takes place through
such practice occurs,
in cultural space, and
from “the dialectic between individual and
society” (Berger & Luckmann, p. 174) but within
the zone of conscious awareness loosely called
‘mind’, as it recovers its roots in a
zone of being/not-being.
Tropes of ‘emptiness’ (Buddhist
) are
employed to evoke such states, and for Western
practitioners sometimes that encounter with the
‘Void’ can be unsettling (see, for example,
Conradi, 2004; Hamilton-Merritt, 1986). Rather
than trying to define such a zone – we might call
it a ‘Ground of Being’, as theologian Paul Tillich
did, borrowing the concept from Vedanta the
emphasis is not on representation but on
and the effect of the practice is to produce a
shift in the axis of subjective experience, re-
positioning the de-stabilised personal self in an
inclusivist re-contextualisation. Conradi (2004)
compares the Buddhist view of the self – as “not
a fixed or changeless product, but a dynamic
process always seeking an illusory resting-place
where it might finally become ‘solid’” (p. 80)
with the predicament of the characters in
Samuel Beckett’s play,
Waiting for Godot
. He
sees Didi and Gogo and the others as:
the lonely individual struggling to talk into
permanent existence, maintain and freeze
something essentially fluid and contingent.
Neither Godot nor a solid self will come to save
us. This self (ego) spends much time trying to
establish personal territory, a nest or cocoon, to
defend. (p. 80)
To pick up on my point about gay men’s
‘disillusionment’ process, when that shakedown
precipitates a searching inquiry into the nature
of being, such a process can be re-framed as a
‘spiritual’ initiation, as I am using the term;
even, perhaps, making it easier for queer folk to
‘see through’ the contingent nature of socially
and discursively produced identities. To push my
argument further, the ‘liberation’ ideal of a ‘gay
liberation’ could be re-framed under the broader
rubric Liberation’, as the term is used in Asian
religions. And, if that were true, even in their
disillusionment, gay men could be read as
‘wounded healers’, spiritual teachers, ‘way-
showers’ for others
(but that perhaps, would be
courting grandiosity).
Identity as Narrative
I would like to extend my discussion of the
destabilisation of conventional constructs of
identity with a brief look at the rise of narrative
theory as it applies to the theorising of self.
Recent theorists of autobiography have brought
together a postmodern analysis, whereby the
self is seen as a narrative construct, with new
approaches to theories of self derived from the
neurosciences. For example, in an article for the
Eakin (2004) picks up on the
argument made by Damasio (1999) “that self is
not an effect of language but rather an effect of
the neurological structure of the brain” (Eakin,
De La Huerta (1999), would make this case. Also,
anthropologist Walter Williams (1992), whose study of
the North American indigenous tradition of the
figure has inspired a generation of gay
seekers, quotes an informant, a living Hawaiian
, as saying: “On the mainland [referring to the
United States] the religion doesn’t allow a culture of
acceptance. Gays have liberated themselves sexually,
but they have not yet learned their place in a spiritual
sense” (p. 258).
2004, p. 125).
Eakin tries to tackle the
narrative identity thesis that is central to my
own discussion: viz., that we are or could be
said to be a
of some kind (Marsh, 2006,
pp. 22ff). ‘Autobiography’, Eakin writes:
is not merely something we read in a book;
rather as a discourse of identity, delivered bit by
bit in the stories we tell ourselves day in and day
out, autobiography structures our living. (p.
Eakin is prompted to pursue the line of enquiry
into the equivalence between narrative and
identity by a case study from the neurologist
Oliver Sacks, and he uses a quote from Sacks as
the epigraph for his article:
It might be said that each of us constructs and
lives a ‘narrative’, and that this narrative
our identities. (p. 121, original emphasis)
Working in the social sciences, Jerome Bruner
(1987) uses the same notion, writing that: “the
self is a perpetually rewritten story”. In the end,
Bruner says, “we
the autobiographical
narratives we tell about our lives” (p. 15, original
Narrative theory has become a useful tool in
many disciplines, including psychiatry
, for, if
self is a ‘story’, it can be told differently, and
psychotherapists have exploited the therapeutic
potential of re-narrativisations of self. (The work
of Michael White on ‘narrative therapy’ is an
obvious example). For gay men, whose sense of
self needs to be consciously re-narrativised to
reclaim it from the toxic spaces to which it is
relegated by homophobic discourse, such
autobiographical acts are powerfully politically
Damasio’s argument is spelled out in
Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain
and developed in
The Feeling of What Happens: Body
and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness
His discussion provoked an ongoing debate in the
journal (see Butte, 2005) but Butte’s response doesn’t
address this same issue directly.
Take, for example, this statement from the 2006
annual conference of the Brisbane Centre for
Psychoanalytic Studies: The search for identity is a
lifelong and inescapable challenge for every human
being. It is evident in the consulting room, in the
novel, in the fascination with biography and
autobiography, and the unwitting unfolding of a life.”
The conference brought writers together with
psychoanalysts and academics to “explore the
construction of the narrative of human experience” in
these various fields.
I would like to illustrate this discussion with a
personal example.
I am working on a memoir,
The Boy in the
Yellow Dress
, in which I trace the life trajectory
of a sissy boy growing up in Western Australia,
who undergoes bruising encounters with Family,
Church, Psychology and the Law. His descent
into madness is arrested by an encounter with a
in the Advaita (non-dualist) Vedanta
tradition who shows him that what he has been
looking for can only be found within. Whereas
the teaching of the church in the boy’s own
culture is predicated on a denial of his sexuality,
the Advaita teaching allows for an
accommodation of his sexuality with his
spirituality, with increased life, rather than
death, as the beneficial outcome.
I will provide a brief reading from the beginning
of the memoir, and then extrapolate from that
piece of text. The incident described here is
probably my earliest memory, and occurred
when I was three, or at most four years old.
Child’s Play
In the formal sitting room, the curtains are
drawn. Thick carpet and upholstered furniture
muffle all sound. The boy seeks out this place to
be alone. But first he goes into the room across
the hall, to the wardrobe where his mother's
dresses hang, awaiting their brief moments of
coming to life (all fullness and motion, then).
He climbs up into the wardrobe to reach for one
of these, which is special to him. It’s dappled
yellow, and it glows. He clambers down from the
cupboard and slips the gown over his head.
Hanging loose around him, its folds cascade
lengthily onto the floor. Silky texture is cool
where it skims his skin.
Women’s voices murmur in the kitchen.
Suitably attired, the boy returns to the sitting
room, where he twirls in the half light, gazing
down at the skirt as it rises around him.
Entranced by the golden glow, he settles down
to sit on his heels and spreads the ample folds
of fabric in a perfect circle around him on the
Eyes closed, he rests in peace, ears singing in
the silence. Dust motes float, lazy, in the light.
Sometime later, the dress is returned to its
waiting place.
But one day when he reaches into the wardrobe
the cool fabric isn’t there to meet his touch. He
wants to catch the magic feeling—wrap it
around him, disappear. He tries the cupboard
again, but even the most careful iteration of his
actions fails to make the dress appear. Instead,
there’s only a heavy feeling dragging in his
Another day: Playing in the wash-house, in the
back yard. A copper tub squats above the
fireplace where water is boiled to clean the
clothes, on Mondays. Sifting through the ashes,
he finds the charred remains of the dress… this
lovely thing banished to dust in his hands, his
magic carpet gone.
In the fowl run, a hen murmurs cluck cluck,
slow, and the heavy feeling returns to roost in
him. Inside the house, a door clicks shut.
What is the meaning of this child’s play? Perhaps
you would expect this will become the life story
of a ‘transvestite’. You would be right if you
assumed that having the dress so thoroughly
banished from his playmaking, he
left with a
sense of loss, but what
it that he loses, and
what will it take to restore him to wholeness?
And what atavistic impulse led a boy to re-create
a ritual more common in Siberian shamanism
than in suburban West Australia?
At school, he is drawn to the intricate games
with skipping ropes but, ears red with the
shaming cry of ‘sissy’, he is shooed away, in the
strictly segregated playground, to the
area, to be tortured by the bruising bounce of a
cricket ball. Sex has not reared its ugly head yet
(whatever Sigmund Freud might say). Gender
certainly has, but rather than wanting to
transform himself into a girl, or developing a
fetish for dresses, what he yearns for is the
state of undifferentiated unity which preceded
this either/or bifurcation: if this, not that; you
can’t be both. Through gender, his exile from
the place of peace his ‘homeland’, you might
call it – is complete.
I propose that in this remembrance, unity is the
primary state. Gender could be described, then,
as a secondary development (with sexuality as
tertiary?). What is queer about the sissy boy is
his perverse recall of, and yearning for, the lost
spaces of the self that the forces of cultural
conditioning are configured precisely to make
him forget.
Recalling this problem, I am reminded of the
Sufi teaching story about the woman who loses
the keys to her house. Her neighbour finds her
searching around in the street and asks her:
What are you doing?
Oh, she says, I’ve lost my house keys.
The neighbour offers to help her look, but after
an hour, when a dozen people have gathered, all
intent on locating the lost keys, someone asks
Are you sure you lost them here?
Oh no, she says, I lost them inside the house.
Then why are you looking for them out here?
they ask.
Why, because the light is better out here, of
course, she exclaims.
If what has been lost is inside, how much
energy might be wasted looking for the
connection where it never was? In the case of
this boy who wore the yellow dress, the dis-
location is a real event within the psyche, and
-location takes decades to achieve. As the
narrative of the memoir unfolds, it becomes
apparent that he will re-locate it, not by creating
rituals with a fetishised yellow dress, nor
through regressive practices in psychotherapy,
but via the meditation practices in which he is
trained by his guru.
The ‘Home’ Self
British expatriate writer Christopher Isherwood
(1971), an early, if mostly unrecognised
exemplum of the queer spiritual autobiographer,
wrote of this yearning as not so much a search
for home, as for the ‘home self’. Recalling the
loss of identity experienced when he was packed
off to an cold and impersonal boarding school,
later Isherwood was able (after several decades
of meditation practice) to write: “I suppose that
this loss of identity is really much of the
painfulness which lies at the bottom of what is
called Homesickness; it is not Home that one
cries for, but one’s home-self” (p. 285).
The Persian devotional poet Rumi advises:
This essay does not allow me the space to deal with
the potential problem of ‘narcissistic regression’, but I
do intend to defend the practice against reductionist
neo-Freudian representations in a later paper.
Once you have tied yourself to selflessness, you
will be delivered from selfhood and released from
the snares of a hundred ties, so come, return to
the root of the root of your own self. (1994, p.
The final line: “come, return to the root of the
root of your own self” is repeated at the end of
each verse. It seems that Rumi is saying that to
be delivered from a certain set of identifications
(from selfhood, in fact) is a kind of relief. Once
again, whereas the focus in Western forms of
therapy might be intended to shore up the sense
of a well-defined ego, spiritual practices
common in other cultures could be said to
actively court the dissolution of the relatively
‘illusory’ construction.
Back in childhood, the sissy boy, who lacks
access to other ways of thinking about his
condition, learns that he is not one of the ‘real’
people. He tries to fit in, hide the parts that
don’t fit, but for him there is, always, the sense
of exile. In the place of the state of
undifferentiated unity that everyone else
seems to want him to forget he is taught that
his instinct for re-union is downright
pathological, that he is fundamentally flawed;
and he learns to be ashamed. What the parents
cannot see is that, rather than signifying a
wrong-bodied desire to be a girl, the dress is a
portal for re-entry into a pre-gendered, non-
dualistic state of unified awareness.
He also learns other important ‘facts’ along the
way, both within his family, where he feels like a
cuckoo in the wrong bird’s nest, as well as from
the wider society, which labels him a freak.
From Medicine he will learn that he is a
pathology; from the Church, that he is an
abomination (Hebrew ‘toevah’); that to the Law
he is an
law. Unable to love ‘properly’, he
might even accept that he is some sort of
biological error.
Notwithstanding this, the rot set in with the
introduction of the Unconscious into Western
psychoanalytic discourse; Freud’s famous dictum that
‘the ego is not master in its own house’ was
emblematic of the shift:
[M]an’s craving for grandiosity is now suffering the
third and most bitter blow from present-day
psychological research which is endeavouring to prove
to the ‘ego’ of each one of us that he is not even
master in his own house, but that he must remain
content with the veriest scraps of information about
what is going on unconsciously in his own mind.
(Freud, 1916-17, p. 285)
So he studies early the art of concealment,
trying to ‘pass’ as one of the real people. He
watches life as through a glass, and has no one
to guide him through the maze of his own
confusing feelings. If he persists in his
perversity, he might have to learn to