The University of Newcastle, Australia

Conference examines surveillance of sexualities

Monday, 1 October 2018

More than 30 delegates from both the academic community and wider Newcastle community attended the recent Surveilling Minds and Bodies: Sexualities, Medicine and the Law in Australasian Contexts conference, held at The University of Newcastle’s NeW Space on 12-13 September.

Michael Kirby

The idea for the conference was sparked by the marriage equality debate and subsequent postal survey. Conference organising committee member Professor Marguerite Johnson said the conference provided a historical context (1950-present) for the current Australasian events surrounding, and responding to, the surveillance of sexualities, particularly gay and lesbian sexualities.

“The marriage equality debate left us wondering why did we have to vote on marriage equality? Why has it always been legal for some people to marry but not others? These types of questions got us thinking about what other forms of sexualities and what other types of gender expression are surveilled by the powers that be,” Professor Johnson said.

“The aim of the conference was to look at how in an Australian context we surveil bodies and minds, we surveil sexualities, be it through the law, medicine, psychiatry and education.”

Professor Johnosn said the conference was a success with “academics from around Australia who spoke to the problematic history of sexual surveillance, and began to build networks of support that encouraged the creation of ideas surrounding research and activism in the wider community,” she said.

Conference organising committee member Tanika Koosmen said the conference outlined a history of LGBTIQ+ activism in Australia, and began the process of moving forward with activist efforts in both academic and community spaces.

“Many speakers noted the absence of support for transgender and gender diverse peoples throughout the marriage equality debate,’ Ms Koosmen said.

“Issues previously unrecognised were discussed, such as the impact of the marriage equality debate as a traumatic experience for the LGBTIQ+ community, and the wider mental health implications.”

The conference featured keynotes from Professor Joanna Bourke, Global Innovation Chair in the History of Violence at The University of Newcastle; former High Court Justice, the Hon. Michael Kirby and Ms Michelle Lancey, Chair of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), Newcastle.

Professor Bourke spoke about her new workabout the construction of public opinion on sexual sadism in Australia from the 1920’s to 1950’s. “I started with a very important case here in Newcastle but I also looked outside Australia, and what we saw for the first time is these case were being identified by journalists and the public as being committed by a category of people called sadists,” Professor Bourke said.

“I think it’s interesting because it shows just how important suddenly the psychiatric classifications were becoming in society, people in general understood that this is a mental illness.”

The Hon Michael Kirby reflected on the marriage equality debate and shared his views on the postal survey. “We live in a representative democracy where issues are debated in our federal and state parliaments, and that is the way we make law in this country, and I thought that the marriage survey was an exception to that, and a very bad precedent in my opinion,” Justice Kirby said.

Ms Lancey spoke about how she became to be involved in the LGBTIQ+ community and her advocacy work with marriage equality. “I think it’s important for people to recognize how we got to this point and understand that with advocacy every single person makes a difference, Ms Lancey said.

“I have three children I wanted equality for all of them, one of my sons is gay and I wanted them all to have the same equal rights.”

Some feedback from conference delegates:

It was a great conference, one of the best I’ve been to. The ‘all in’ sessions brought people together across disciplines and produced really genuine opportunities to share knowledge. The conference felt very welcoming for all contributors.”

“This was an amazing conference, and honestly after many years of conferencing, one of my absolute favourites. There were so many things that made this conference great, including the interdisciplinary approach of the conference; the small size of the conference (allowing a conversation to build up across the two days); the mix of academics, activists, health workers, and students, created an incredibly dynamic space. The decision to invite the queer collective to give a panel was particularly fantastic.”

“The mix of academics with community practitioners, activists and students, was amazing. It really allowed for a deepening of the conversation.”

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