It’s not often that the proceedings of a local council meeting make national headlines. But when more than 100 far-right activists descended on a recent meeting of the Monash City Council, it was right to pay attention.
The protesters included Christian conservatives, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and neo-Nazis, backed to the hilt by Senator Ralph Babet of the United Australia Party. Their goal was to pressure the council into cancelling a drag story time event scheduled for the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) on 19 May.
The council rightly stood firm at the time, refusing to cave before the avalanche of bigotry thrown at them by the right-wing mob. But they have since capitulated, citing “direct threats of violence involving the event itself” as the reason to call it off.
As an isolated incident, this would be bad enough. However, the Star Observer reports that no less than five separate LBGT related events have been called off in Melbourne in the last six months, with three in April alone.
Each of these cancellations was made following aggressive lobbying and protest by the far right. At the heart of the campaign are groups such as My Place and Reignite Democracy Australia, which emerged from the anti-vax and anti-lockdown demonstrators of yesteryear, but have been looking for new causes since they got their way on COVID public health measures.
These bigots describe LGBT events that aim to help young people understand and celebrate diverse sexual and gender identities as instances of “grooming” that put young children at risk of predatory paedophiles. This appalling language echoes the slogan chosen by the neo-Nazi contingent to the recent rally organised by British transphobe Kellie-Jay Keen: “Destroy pedo freaks”. This campaign of bigotry and hate is inspired by similar scenes in the UK and US, where LBGT rights have increasingly become an obsession for the conservative and fascist right.
After hearing about the controversy at Monash Council, the National Union of Students and the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism got together to plan a defence of their planned IDAHOBIT event. It was time to draw a line in the sand: we know that LGBT rights are supported by an overwhelming majority of people, and we were determined not not to let the fascistic rabble get away with their campaign of intimidation any longer. Our goals were to ensure the drag storytime event could go ahead safely and to make a broader show of support for the LGBT community.
We were excited to be working in collaboration with local organisers, who had already pulled off a small but important solidarity action at the council meeting that was swamped by the far right.
The response to our initiative was heartwarming. Within two days, more than 500 people had indicated they were interested in turning up to show their support for the drag storytime. Socialist students at nearby Monash University had been plastering the campus and nearby train stations with supportive material. The Australian Services Union, which represents council librarians, agreed to endorse the event. Union delegates had begun discussing how they could support the event and combat the harassment they had been subject to from these far-right freaks.
In other good news, Senator Babet, My Place and Reignite Democracy had all called on their supporters not to show up on the day for fear of being confronted. Only a small group of neo-Nazis led by Tom Sewell were planning to press ahead, but the left has consistently outnumbered them on every occasion we’ve tried.
So the council’s subsequent decision to cancel the event turned what would have been a festival of community solidarity and LGBT rights into a massive victory for the far right.
You could describe this whole affair as an unfortunate tragedy except that it was a political choice, and a terrible one at that. The council is dominated by Labor, with the second biggest party being the Greens. Councillors were reportedly given a plan on how to organise these events safely by Victoria Police, a plan which they refused to enact. Alternatively, the councillors could have reached out to anti-fascist activists to coordinate a community defence.
Instead, a statement by Greens councillor Josh Fergeus attacked the brave activists who organised both the pro-LGBT contingent to the council meeting and the defence rally for the day itself. Cr Fergeus was “disappointed that some groups and individuals saw fit to continue to promote counter-protests in support of the event”, the obvious implication being it would be better if we stayed home and allowed the far right to run amok.
This argument that the best response to the far right is to ignore them is as old as it is mistaken. We know from history that when the far right is given the space to organise, they can grow to terrifying proportions. Their success in getting so many pro-LGBT events cancelled – in progressive Melbourne! – is proof that the authorities cannot be relied on to stand up to their bigotry.
The next time such an event is mooted, councils and the community need to be ready to take a stand, whatever the risks involved. The alternative is to create a situation in which LBGT-themed events are effectively banned from council premises.