Flat White

Peddling rainbows

28 June 2022

2:00 PM

28 June 2022

2:00 PM

Universities should be impartial when it comes to active ideological disagreements, and they should certainly not cede that impartiality in order to side with a position in opposition to the rights of members of their community who they have publicly claimed to support. The first is anti-democratic, the second is hypocritical and unethical.

University impartiality is important because it facilitates pluralism within the academic community.

A report on global democracy released in March found that democracy is on the decline and dictatorship is on the rise, with democracy having backslid to 1989 levels. One shift thought to be responsible for this is ‘toxic polarisation’ and one solution, according to politics professor Matthew Flinders at the University of Sheffield, is for universities to operate as ‘sites of democratic socialisation’ by committing to pluralism as part of their existing commitment to freedom of speech.

If you head into the University of Melbourne campus today, you will find the ‘inclusive’ redesigned Pride flag at every entrance to the university, as well as unfurled down the side of one of its outward-facing buildings. On the surface, the message might seem innocuous: the university supports lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (the rainbow part of the flag), trans people (the pink, blue, and white part of the flag), and ‘queer’ people of colour (the black and brown part of the flag).

Let’s focus on the pink, blue, and white part: the trans flag. This flag was featured at the ‘Stock Out’ protests lead to the resignation of Professor Kathleen Stock from her position at the University of Sussex; used by protesters who assaulted a feminist in Manchester and blocked access to a suffragette statue; and featured on posters protesting against my teaching of feminism.


With that in mind, the message of the ‘inclusive’ Pride flag is actually far from innocuous. Rather than referring to a collection of people with diverse political views, religious faiths, and moral values who happen to be gay, or trans, or queer persons of colour, the flags refer to a specific collection of ideas – an ‘ideology’ – about sexual orientation and gender identity.

One of these ideas is that biological sex is a ‘social construction’ rather than a real difference found in nature throughout our evolutionary history and across the animal and plant kingdom. Another is that because biological sex is a social construction, we should stop caring so much about it, and start caring about other things that are more important like ‘gender identity’ which is a person’s subjective sense of themselves in terms of masculinity, femininity (or neither).

Yet another is that because there are a great many gender identities, there are correspondingly a great many sexual orientations, and sexual orientations are not what we thought they were. Yet another is that identity trumps any material facts. You can be a ‘woman’ without being female, you can be a ‘lesbian’ even when you are a male who sleeps exclusively with females.

Do you see the problem? If there is no sex then there is no same-sex attraction,so there is no homosexuality or bisexuality as the gay rights struggle understood it. Recent legislation aligned with this ideology removed protection for same-sex attraction from the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act, replacing it with a word salad referring to attractions between ‘persons of a different gender or the same gender or more than one gender’. The head of Stonewall, an organization once dedicated to the gay rights struggle, now describes exclusive same-sex attraction as a ‘social prejudice’.

Supporters of this ideology rush to ‘affirm’ gender non-conforming children (who are most likely to grow up to be gay) as transgender, which greatly increases their likelihood of irreversible medical interventions. Arguably, then, this ideology is not affirming of, but rather actively undermines the gay rights struggle. The ‘inclusive’ Pride flag tells me, and all other lesbians on campus, that we are wrong to exclude males from our sexual orientations. We’ve heard that before.

Where does this leave the members of the university community who happen to be gay, trans, or queer persons of colour, and yet who reject this ideology? By flying these flags the university compromises pluralism on campus by making it more difficult for staff and students to voice a dissenting view. This is not just hypothetical: in April, in response to a social media post in which I expressed displeasure about flags put up for ‘Trans Day of Visibility’, the University tweeted:

‘This post runs counter to the views and the values of the University of Melbourne. The author has been counselled and has subsequently edited the post to remove the offensive content.’

Members who disagree with the university’s position risk censure. If most go along with the university out of fear or cowardice, and the university has taken the wrong position, then bankrupt ideologies gain a stronger foothold. And this is not the only consequence; what of the university’s commitment to inclusivity for women, and for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people?

Universities must facilitate constructive disagreement among the members of their communities. That is their obligation, given their function within democratic societies. They fail to do that when they take sides in complex and controversial debates; they fail doubly when the side they take undermines the rights struggles of other members of their community.

It’s time for the University of Melbourne to take down the flags.

Holly Lawford-Smith is an Associate Professor in Political Philosophy at the University of Melbourne.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.


Show comments
Close