News / Council

Council backs Queer community against abuse and threats

Cancelling drag story time events would allow far-right to win, say councillors

Mark Phillips

MERRI-BEK Council has vowed it won’t take a backward step against any groups that try to intimidate or force the cancellation of LGBTIQA+ events in Brunswick and other parts of the city. 

The move comes after some Victorian councils have been forced to cancel drag events, including storytime activities in libraries, and close their public galleries following homophobic and transphobic threats of violence from far-right groups. 

At their monthly public meeting on June 20, councillors unanimously endorsed a resolution to repudiate “attempts by the far right to shut down LGBTIQA+ and other community events”. 

The resolution, which was put forward by Councillor Sue Bolton, determined to continue holding inclusive activities and events that celebrate the city’s diversity of gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, religion, colour, disability, cultural and language backgrounds, including events such as drag story times. 

“Council will demonstrate to the LGBTIQA+ community that they will always have a place in our communities and at our libraries,” it said. 

Cr Bolton said the motion had been prompted by harassment by far-right groups that had forced the cancellation of LGBTIQA+ friendly events at other Victorian municipalities. 

“I think it is really important [the council makes a stand] because some of the councils pursuing this approach of just cancelling events is basically cancelling our free speech,” she said. 

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According to one LGBTIQA+ organisation, over the past year more than 10 public events have had to be cancelled or postponed after far-right and neo-Nazi groups targeted council staff, organisers of queer events, performers and community members. 

Last month, the City of Port Phillip cancelled a family-friendly drag story time event scheduled to be held at the St Kilda Library because of “security and safety” concerns after far-right groups targeted council staff, councillors and drag performers with hate messages and threats.   

This prompted a fierce response from bisexual Port Phillip Councillor Tim Baxter that the council was “letting terrorists win”. 

In April, the City of Casey in Melbourne’s outer south-eastern suburbs scrapped a series of Drag events over concerns for the safety of participants and organisers. 

This came after a group barged into a council meeting and flung homophobic and transphobic comments throughout the room.

And in a third incident, City of Monash councillors were called paedophiles and a council meeting had to be temporarily suspended when it refused to cancel a drag story time event in Oakleigh.

In response, a volunteer organisation called Rainbow Community Angels has been established to create a visible presence at events that have been threatened.  

“So far … Merri-bek Council hasn’t cancelled any events and I certainly hope it doesn’t and I would certainly resist any attempts by Merri-bek council to cancel any events,” Cr Bolton said. 

“But the Nazis have turned up before; they turned up at the Day of Mourning ceremony on January 26 this year and did Nazi salutes. We kept going with that event although it was shifted indoors so it is very important for us to make a stand against the far right.” 

Neo-Nazis told to stay away

Cr James Conlan, who identifies as a member of the Queer community, said it was important to avoid the “risk averse approach to just cancel things”. 

“The worst thing we can do is basically what the far-right is asking us to do, which is cancel these events,” he said. 

“Those kinds of wins for the opposition embolden them and they encourage them to increase their attacks to go harder and broader which is what we’re starting to see across Melbourne when successive councils started cancelling these events. It seemed to really inflame the situation.” 

Cr Adam Pulford, who is also Queer, said the attacks on events like drag storytime were part of the culture wars waged by the far right. 

“I understand why some councils have cancelled their events with safety concerns for their staff and their community but unfortunately I think it does send the exact opposite message of what these Queer inclusive events are designed for which is they are meant to be fun, inclusive community based events that celebrate our diversity.

“Instead it sends a message [to the LGBTIQA+ community] that this is dangerous or people out there don’t support you or you’re not welcome, you’re not able to participate fully in public life as is your right so I’m proud that Merri-bek hasn’t cancelled any events.” 

Austin Fabry-Jenkins, co-convenor of the Victorian Pride Lobby, commended Merri-bek for its commitment to continue holding LGBTIQA+ events in the face of far-right extremism. They said it contrasted with the response from the State Government, which had been “underwhelming to say the least”.

“There has been a significant rise in abuse and vilification of the LGBTIQA+ community in the last eight months, but every LGBTIQA+ event that has been cancelled in response has emboldened extremists and made this problem worse,” they said.

“The antidote to bigotry has and always will be pride, that’s why inclusive council programming must continue.”

The council resolution also calls on the Victorian government to conduct a state-wide audit of public library safety to identify emerging threats, risks and best-practice, and to create a taskforce on library safety that would include unions, police and the Victorian Pride Lobby. 

In May, the council adopted a three-year action plan to improve the wellbeing of the LGBTIQA+ community in Merri-bek. 

This story was amended on July 9 to include comments from the Victorian Pride Lobby.

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