The Cumberland City Council book ban threatens to erase queer families. It’s a threat that deserves a serious response

The Cumberland City Council book ban threatens to erase queer families. It’s a threat that deserves a serious response
  • PublishedMay 13, 2024

There’s been a lot of talk about freedom of speech in our country, about what people can read at the library, about what people should see on the internet.

But what strikes me about a lot of these various debates is that it’s often only the free speech that people align with that they are prepared to fiercely defend.

Defending the right of others to say and argue points of view, or tell stories about their own lives that some might find immoral or different or wrong seems a bit more challenging for some — but that’s the actual point.

Free speech is meaningless if it is curtailed and weaponised to shut down everyone who doesn’t agree with us — or even more obviously this week — to shut down those who we perceive to be the other, who we want to keep in the margins, who we want to treat like freaks that must be censored.

It is with this in mind that I present you with the curious case of Cumberland City Councillor Steve Christou.

a man sitting outside.
Councillor Steve Christou put forward the motion to remove books about same-sex parents from the council’s libraries. (ABC News: Jake Lapham)

When does free speech apply?

Christou is a western Sydney councillor who has railed against the “dictatorial communist regime” of the federal government’s eSafety Commissioner, saying that “Australians do not need the government to dictate to them what they can or cannot watch and post on the internet”.

Now that view could be defendable if he was a champion of free speech in the actual place he seems to have some control of: the libraries his council runs.

But Christou, who doesn’t want the government to tell him what to watch on the internet, is the one who put forward a motion at the Cumberland City Council to ban books after claiming parents had complained about a book titled Same-Sex Parents.

The motion put forward by Christou declared “that council take immediate action to rid same-sex parents books and materials in the council’s library service”.

It seemed for a minute that we’d been transported across the Pacific to the United States where these culture wars are fought with regularity.

In fact, a report published last month by PEN America found that the number of individual books banned by schools across the US surged to record levels last year.

The report, Banned in the USA: Narrating the Crisis, reports 4,349 book bans recorded across 23 states and 52 public school districts from July to December 2023.

PEN noted that more book bans were recorded during the first half of the current school year than in the entire 2022-2023 year, in which 3,362 books were targeted.

Censorship under the guise of religion

My first instinct was to laugh at the absurdity of a council trying to be the morality police and ban books that show the diversity of families that have legal status in our country.

But there is something more deeply troubling about this and this week we saw political leaders stand up against the absurdity and call it for what it is.

The use of multiculturalism as a weapon against gay and lesbian families was what struck me as the most dangerous. In a country where migrants are expected to fit in, the one exception we seem to be happy to make is when it comes to the acceptance of gay people and their families.

In this instance, multiculturalism and religion were used like a sword to humiliate rainbow families and erase them.

NSW Premier Chris Minns said the Western Sydney council’s same-sex parenting book ban was a “joke”, while calling on them to immediately repeal the decision or face consequences, including funding cuts.

Christou admitted he hadn’t actually read the book, but said he brought forward the ban to protect children from being sexualised.

Labor councillor Mohamad Hussein, one of the key votes that led to the ban, on Wednesday said he had made the decision in line with his religious beliefs and he stood by it.

And there it is. The idea that elected politicians — even at the local level — can censor access to books about queer families under the guise of religion is breathtaking. And the erasure of rainbow families from Western Sydney on the basis that they belong in “Newtown or Marrickville” is a threat to social cohesion that deserves a serious response.

These issues are more than just a political football to be used to grab headlines.

Queer families are everywhere and LGBT people are in our multicultural communities and always have been. The idea that LGBT people should effectively only feel welcome in two suburbs of Sydney is absurd.

The ugliness of homophobia is still with us

The sensitivity in this Sydney council around same-sex couples having children is even more troubling when put in a national context.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers, a father-of-three, told the Nine newspapers last week he would like to see Australians have more children.

“It would be better if birth rates were higher,” he said in an interview. But in some sections of our country, there is a policing of who is having the babies. We talk a lot about social cohesion fraying at the moment, but we see that in narrow terms.

A motion to rescind the ban will be tabled at the next council meeting this coming week after LGBT groups questioned if such a ban was even lawful.

The timing of this story comes as it was revealed Gold Coast AFL player Wil Powell abused a Brisbane opponent using a homophobic slur last Sunday and was handed a five-match ban by the AFL.

Wil Powell reaches out for the ball
Gold Coast Suns defender Wil Powell was handed a suspension for using a homophobic slur towards a Brisbane opponent recently. (Getty Images: Chris Hyde)

Powell joins Port Adelaide’s Jeremy Finlayson as the second player to be banned for using a homophobic slur in short succession. Finlayson was handed a three-week suspension after he aimed a slur at an Essendon opponent.

Gay rights advocate Ian Roberts, who was the first rugby league player to come out, has called for the AFL to invest more in anti-vilification education.

It strikes me, though, that the ugliness of homophobia is still with us.

Which brings me to Premier Minns, who declared on Saturday that 40 years after the NSW government decriminalised homosexuality he would issue a state apology to those convicted under discriminatory laws that criminalised homosexual acts.

“It’s recognition that we can do better and that we have an obligation to do so,” he said.

That obligation just became more urgent.


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