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Queer Power/Queer Panic

In the age of the individual, why is it still so risky to be different?

Illustration by Leo Walton

In the era of clickbait, an outrageous picture holds unprecedented power. Sure - your story might be worthy and truthful and uncompromising and important – but does it lead with a shocking image? If you want any attention, you better go find one. A confronting image can start conversations. It can spur change and it can travel around the world. Earlier this year, one such image did just that.

Unless you’re some sort of news buff, you probably don’t remember the names Melania Geymonat and Chris [surname withheld]. You probably do remember the looks on their faces, however, moments after a group of young men savagely beat them up on a night bus. The image of their dejected, stoic, bloody faces went so viral, several people I know asked their friends to stop sharing it. It was genuinely triggering.

Of course, as Melania and Chris have rightfully pointed out, their story is just one of many and it doesn’t compare to the thousands of hate crimes that don’t go viral. Chris put it very poignantly in a statement to media: “Well it is, regardless of who is in it, a very striking picture. Two bloody faces … And it certainly doesn’t hurt that we are both white, both conventionally attractive. I think it begs the question: why do we need this sensational, clickbait-y, graphic to engage people in a story like this? Because we got hit in the face. Other people get murdered or mutilated, or disabled for the rest of their lives.”

Chris poses a pertinent question: what about the frequent hate crimes committed against queer people who aren’t white? Who aren’t ‘pretty’? Who aren’t cisgender? And what about the victims who didn’t manage (or think) to take a picture?

Attacks on queer people are prominent. An eminent Auckland gay man, known for his striking fashion, has been twice brutally beaten for the crime of walking home alone at night. And as recently as 2009, the colloquially-known ‘gay panic defence’ was used as partial defence in a New Zealand murder trial. This defence inferred that if a queer person (usually a man, transgender, or non-binary person) had made sexual or romantic advances on their murderer, they were partly to blame for their own death.

In 2007, Auckland pensioner Ronald Brown was beaten to death by Hungarian tourist Ferdinand Ambach. Ambach argued that Brown, a gay man, provoked him by making unwanted sexual advances. The ‘panic’ this struck into Ambach was apparently so severe, it caused him to fly into a homicidal rage. His sentence was successfully reduced to manslaughter and he served eight years in prison. In 2016 he went home to Hungary. In December this year, he will be legally allowed to return to New Zealand.

The partial defence of provocation was abolished in New Zealand in late 2009, after the trial of Clayton Weatherston for the murder of Sophie Elliott. In Elliott’s case, the defence was unsuccessful. Weatherston is today behind bars. Ambach is today a free man. There are numerous factors to contend with in these two examples, but the ‘gay panic defence’ has been known to reduce prison sentences, even today, even though it’s illegal.

Melania and Chris say they can’t remember what originally provoked the attack on them, but that they “must have kissed” to indicate they were on a date. This is the risk that accompanies PDAing-while queer. Imagine having to read the room every time you wanted to pat your partner’s bum or kiss their forehead. It’s like being a teenager keeping your relationship from mum – except everyone is your mum and the consequence could be death.

When queer people speak of 'pride', it means pride in defiance of the odds. While we don’t always have the most power in the room, we persevere. We keep existing loudly, proudly, colourfully, powerfully.

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