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A minority community can be its own enemy

On Wednesday Express magazine published an article about Paul Heard, confirming his resignation from the New Zealand Aids Foundation in the wake of a racist Facebook post. The community reaction was immediate, vitriolic and problematic, writes Sam Brooks.

Paul Heard is a former owner of Urge bar and was until very recently community engagement manager for the New Zealand Aids Foundation (NZAF). He is, indisputably, a pillar of the LGBT community. In early May, Heard and his partner were assaulted on Karangahape Rd by multiple men while eating a kebab. He then later made a Facebook post about it, saying that he and partner were attacked by “arsehole Polynesians” and attacked while they were prone on the ground.

The post went on to say, “I wanna remind you arseholes. Māori then European and you are the interlopers. How fucking dare you. And if you think you can take control, I’ll introduce Trump to our so called paradise. Or better still, fuck off back to your island in the Pacific.”

That’s racist. That is unequivocally, hugely, problematically racist. Regardless of who you are, what minority you come from, who your friends are, or what happened to you or your partner – that is racist. You can be a pillar of the community and still say something racist, and being a pillar of the community doesn’t make what you say any less racist or mitigate any of that racism.

The post was later taken down and amended, with Heard saying, “I don’t care what this is perceived as.” These statements were later reported on the (now defunct) GayNZ website.

Later that month, Paul Heard resigned his position at the Aids Foundation. It’s not the most difficult game of connect-the-dots to link these two things together. If you’re a community engagement co-ordinator, and the majority of the community you’re engaging with belongs to a minority, it is absolutely unacceptable to be making these comments about another minority. (When contacted for this article, the NZAF replied with, “No comment”).

It’s 2017. If you say something bigoted – and being a gay man who has experienced discrimination does not excuse you from saying something bigoted – then there are consequences to that. If this incident wasn’t the cause of Paul Heard’s resignation, then it absolutely should have been. It’s horrible that hate crimes continue to be perpetuated against the LGBT community. It’s also horrible that racist views are held by many in this community. One does not, and cannot, excuse the other.

On Wednesday, Express, a free magazine that focuses on LGBT issues, published this article by Sarah Murphy, explicitly linking the Facebook post with Heard’s resignation. I got in touch with Murphy shortly after the article was published.

“I was asked to write the piece when I was freelancing, following the closure of Gaynz,” she wrote back. “Having started working at the publication this week, the decision was made to take another look at the piece and publish when I was onboard as an employee. An executive decision regarding the angle and balance of the piece was made that followed the ethos of my new workplace.”

The Facebook comments have been almost unanimously in defence of Heard, with many viciously attacking the journalist for writing it in the first place. The comments also place much of the blame squarely at the feet of Express magazine.

Other gems include:

“This is vile, gutless journalism. Shame on you.” – 35 likes. “You can’t help it can you, a bunch of shit-heads.” – 32 likes. Express. Taking the community out of community magazine. There’s enough hate in the world without your petty articles. There’s a reason no one bothers to pick up your magazine that’s free.” – 36 likes.

To put it delicately, Express magazine has a strange standing in the LGBT community. It’s a free magazine, which is, and I’m being generous here, about half ads and half editorial. You can pick it up from your local K’ Rd supermarket or gay club. The negative reception to this article – given that it covers a friend to a lot of the community, and negative news about this friend – is not surprising.

The piece is a little strange, to be frank. It has a large focus on Paul Heard’s now two-month old comments, already covered in a GayNZ article, and makes a not unreasonable link between them and Heard’s resignation. There’s little focus on Heard’s contributions to the community, or anything to give context to who he is as a person, except a small paragraph towards the end which gives a dig at the ‘failure’ of Urge bar. It smells of publisher interference and oversight.

However, the points it makes remain valid.

Small communities also have a tendency to be harder on themselves than outsiders. We criticise what we know, because we know it well and we know it can be better. Express comes under fire from the LGBT community because we know what it is, and we know – or at least believe – it can do better. We want it to represent us accurately, we want it to talk to us, we want it to be everything it can be and more.

When a publication like Express criticises a pillar like Paul Heard, the pile-on begins. Express becomes an easy, and an apparently acceptable target. When it comes to this specific incident, the issue of small communities needs to be considered once more.

Express’ ad-filled homepage.

As minorities, we have a tendency to gather around each other. This is admirable, and is a valuable survival tactic. If you attack one of us, you attack us all. It’s what got us through high school, what got us through childhood, it’s what gets us through life. The upside of this is that it builds a tight-knit community, where your fee for joining is your experience and your pain. The downside of this is that criticism becomes difficult to dish out, and harder to receive; we’re so used to defending ourselves from the outside that it becomes an unthinkable act to defend from the inside. We respond quickly, viciously and we shoot to kill.

We can debate the character of somebody who says racist things until the house burns down around us, but racist words are racist words, regardless of who says them. It’s unlikely this community would be as forgiving of somebody using homophobic or transphobic language.

Murphy adds in her statement: “I am surprised that the same people stating that the piece regarding Paul Heard is unfairly targeting and degrading him are now sending me harassment messages and directing degrading comments toward me. While I understand not everyone is comfortable with the role of journalism, and that there is still a lot of discomfort when discussing race issues, the amount of people that have reacted negatively to the issue, and attacked me personally, is startling.”

What concerns and distresses me is that not only are the personal attacks against a journalist in our own community, but the lack of concern or consideration for the things that Heard said. The general opinion seems to be that, yes he said racist things, but think of all the good he has done for the community. There is no denying that Heard has done good, but there is also no denying what he said was incredibly racist, and incredibly racist towards parts of his community, the very community it was his job to represent.

This is emblematic of a darker, uglier side to the LGBT community, especially prevalent among white gay men. There’s a reason why ‘no fats, no femmes, no Asians’ is a punchline, and it’s because it’s a true and hurtful punchline: people say this, and people genuinely mean it. Similar to the criticisms launched against white feminism, there’s an aspect of this that reeks of ‘things are okay now – so why are you complaining?’ When Paul Heard said “fuck off back to your island in the Pacific,” it was a highly racially-charged statement that was aimed at not just the men who assaulted him, but other people in his own community.

Someone criticising our community, or actually reporting on the community – especially a journalist like Murphy, with an established history of covering serious LGBT and gender diverse issues – shouldn’t lead to them being treated like the enemy. It’s small-minded and dangerous.

If the places were reversed, if a pillar of the Polynesian community had said homophobic things, we would not allow them to forget it. The LGBT community would make sure we remembered what they had said, and were held accountable for it. It is entirely unreasonable and unacceptable to not take responsibility for the actions of one of our own, and to not hold them to account.

People contain multitudes. Nobody is a saint. You can have done great things for the LGBT community and you can also have said something deeply racist. The latter doesn’t invalidate the former, the former doesn’t excuse the latter. Paul Heard said something inexcusable. We shouldn’t be excusing it.

Being absolutely transparent here, I wrote for Express a few years (and many editors) ago, and have been interviewed by them once for publicity reasons. I don’t read the publication, and this is the first time I’ve engaged with any of its content for some time.


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