IN all the hoopla following the decision this week by Telstra to rescind their Queensland Business of the Year award from coffee entrepreneur Phillip Di Bella, I believe many in the LGBTI and wider communities failed to see what lay at the heart of the issue: the fair treatment of/equal reaction to inflammatory comments, the effects of language, and notable public people expressing such comments in an open forum.
Firstly, I’ll address the homophobic nature of his comments. There’s nothing wrong with using heated language in the moment of passion. But what language you use defines you. If Mr Di Bella had used racist or anti-Semitic slurs in the “heat of the moment”, would everyone telling the LGBTI community and everyone else to harden up really be saying the same thing?
Good luck trying to convince people and make that argument stick. There’s been a little bit of a problem brewing in Europe over the past few years around people hurling racist abuse towards football players and officials during matches. You may have read about it. Last I heard, people generally do not like that.
The problem that I have found with the Di Bella situation – based on comments in response to the media reports since the story broke last week – is that homophobic language is generally not held to the same standard as racist, anti-Semitic or Islamophobic language. Why the hell not?
Anti-gay remarks continue to seep into the public lexicon and as much as some try to tell people sensitive to such language to “toughen up princess”, the negative language does filter through to young LGBTI kids struggling with their sexuality.
If you are not offended by terms such as “cocksucker”, well then snaps for you. But it may surprise you that many are, and our LGBTI youth are particularly vulnerable to this.
It really seems that continuous messages pumped through mainstream and gay media that LGBTI youth who commit suicide or attempt self-harm do so at higher rates than their straight counterparts – up to 14 times – just continues to fall on deaf ears. Remember, language is power. But hey, you just want to yell out ‘cocksucker’ with impunity right? Masculinity, grr!
What’s more disheartening is that even within the LGBTI community these dismissive voices exist. How the hell can we ask the wider community to hold homophobic language up to the same standard as racist slurs when we can’t even do it ourselves? We should all stand up for our community. Especially for the community members who can’t do it themselves.
And just to those who don’t consider “cocksucker” to be anti-gay: when was the last time that was directed towards a woman? It’s a term primarily used to degrade, demean and emasculate straight and gay men because apparently, only weak women suck cock, right? The term itself is a horribly sexist one. Here’s an idea: let’s try to make “pussyfucker” an insult. Good luck. As for Mr Di Bella, he was directing the comments towards straight men.
Secondly, the issue of public forums and “heated” speech. This is just a no-brainer. You’re a public figure? You hold several public positions? You are in a position of influence in the community? Good for you! But guess what? Your conduct is by default held to a different standard than your average punter on the street. Mr Di Bella was misguided enough to post expletive-laden remarks to publicly viewable social media accounts.
Stupid. Anyone in public relations worth their salt would probably say the same. Even Mr Di Bella acknowledged it in his numerous apologies. Yell whatever the hell you want in your lounge room but be prepared for feedback if you yell it from the rooftops, which publicly viewable social media essentially is. Especially if you’re a public figure, that’s just how that world works.
Mr Di Bella has also expressed questionable views and comments over social media before. This all isn’t just confined to the last Origin match. Mr Di Bella failed PR101.
And let’s not forget that Mr Di Bella has advocated for the use of child labour – well, at least his own definition of it – on coffee plantations in South America.
Mr Di Bella has apologised profusely and I do not doubt the sincerity of his remarks. He personally contacted me after the news broke last week and his words were earnest and heartfelt. Mr Di Bella is not a homophobe, and is hardly comparable to a certain Georgian soprano who incited hatred. However, his actions were completely inappropriate for a man in his position.
Telstra made their decision based on their values of equality, inclusion and professional conduct. Again, if Mr Di Bella had used racist or anti-Semitic slurs, would anyone really be questioning why Telstra rescinded the award based on poor conduct, professionalism and character?
Among everything else in Mr Di Bella’s expletive, foul-mouthed remarks on social media during the State of Origin match, Telstra saw the problem of holding homophobic comments to a different standard and acted appropriately.
It would be nice if wider society, and some in the LGBTI community, could at least do the same.
David Alexander is Star Observer’s Queensland journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @davidFalexander