IF there was one news story that has rallied the Australian LGBTI community together in recent weeks, it was the news that Opera Australia had contracted a soprano from the eastern European nation of Georgia.

A name really only familiar to opera fans, no one had given Tamar Iveri a second thought until a story emerged that the singer had once posted on social media the now-infamous comments that advocated for violence against LGBTI community members in the Georgian capital Tiblisi, along with labelling them “fecal masses”.

If it were not for the efforts of one Australian community activist who once occupied the number one spot in the 1998 ARIA charts, Iveri may not have met the intense public scrutiny she faced both in mainstream media and social media.

The alter ego of Sydney man Simon Hunt, Pauline Pantsdown broke onto the national stage following comments in 1998 by a particular deep-fried seafood purveyor from Queensland.

Since bringing Pantsdown back last year on Facebook, Hunt has used his creation to highlight particular causes and issues effecting the LGBTI community that failed to garner much attention within mainstream news outlets.

Many may know of Pantsdown’s work lampooning South Australian Liberal Senator Cory–or ‘Corgi’–Bernardi, who likened the push for marriage equality to efforts to legalise bestiality.

Prime Minster Tony Abbott, NSW Christian Democratic Party upper house MP Fred Nile, former Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell and many more have all been in Pantsdown’s crosshairs.

After becoming aware of the story through classical music website Limelight, there was something about the Iveri’s story that drew the particular ire of Hunt that got Pantsdown immediately on the case.

“One of the first things I did was to watch some shocking videos of the attack on the 40 gay protestors in Tbilisi by a crowd of 20,000 counter-protestors, led by priests,” Hunt told the Star Observer.

“I couldn’t believe that someone could have written something so dehumanising about gay people within hours of this taking place — explicitly backing the violence, calling gay people a cancer that needed to be removed, and calling them leftover scraps that not even her dog would go near.”

One of the targets of Iveri’s original comments that were published last year was the Georgian LGBTI rights group, Identoba. This group had originally attempted to bring the world’s attention to Iveri but struggled to get noticed by western media.

Hunt sought out the group and personally made contact with Identoba’s members in order to learn their story and check some facts in order to pursue his Australian campaign further.

Through contact with Identoba, Hunt was able to determine that initial excuses given by Iveri that included blaming her husband for publishing his own sentiments via her social media, were completely false.

“I’d found an interview from months after the initial events, where she was clearly giving reasons for having written the letter,” Hunt said.

Despite being dismissed from the French Opera due to her remarks, Pantsdown did not believe Opera Australia deserved criticism for not completely vetting Iveri before contracting her to several productions, due to the limited reporting of Identoba’s claims and the French Opera’s actions.

“I guess they’d understandably assume that someone working in an industry full of gay people wouldn’t be writing letters about breaking gay people’s jaws, and wouldn’t need vetting,” Hunt said.

However, Hunt believes Opera Australia deserves criticism for the length of time it took them to cancel Iveri’s Otello contract, along with initially accepting Iveri’s apology and explanation involving her husband.

“While they obviously needed to wait until Monday to meet with sponsors and finalise the contract release; the main problem was their brief PR statement on (the) Saturday, which escalated the public’s anger by stating that the performances were going ahead, rather than properly — and honestly — stating that discussions were being held and that the issue was in progress,” he said.

“They also blandly deferred to Iveri’s denial on Facebook without mentioning the seriousness of the claims. The sponsors did the right thing, Opera Australia got it wrong.”

Opera Australia have said that they are undergoing the “same due process” of cancelling Iveri’s contract for upcoming Melbourne productions of Tosca where she was set to play the title role. No official confirmation has been released yet at the time of print.

Hunt reflected on the passion that Iveri had brought out in the Australian LGBTI community, particular through social media and said that it was indicative of the country’s intolerance for homophobic comments.

“I think the events of (that) weekend show that the Australian public will no longer accept hateful statements like the ones that Iveri made, no matter how they’re contextualised,” he said.

“I think these events demonstrate the power of mobilising people through social media, and that not even online press, let alone print media, can always keep up with events in the same way.

“There’s a responsibility to ensure that these campaigns don’t descend into mob justice, which is why we had to pay particular attention to fact-checking, and why I had to sometimes speak against sexist language that people, in their anger, sometimes used against Iveri. We needed to stay focused.”

(Image :Pauline Pantsdown. Photo by Margarita Georgiadis)


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