Something strange happened to me the other evening. I’m still not exactly sure why or how it happened—I’m still trying to unravel it all in my brain—but what I can confirm is Shadow Minister for Family Services Kevin Andrews doesn’t like me, and that his wife Margaret Andrews—a traditional marriage and pro-life advocate—likes me even less. To be precise, she thinks I’m “disgusting”. She told me this to my face, along with many other things, which I’ve recorded in loving detail below. Margaret, I’m not sure where we went wrong. For the record, I wish we could have been friends.
For the past couple of days, I’d been a guest at the national conference of FRSA (Family Relationships Services Australia), an annual event that connects various family, law and community support organisations from across the country. It took place at Melbourne’s Sebel Citigate Hotel—an efficient, business-friendly conference hub overlooking Albert Park—and the theme was “Diversity: Everyone Benefits”. Waleed Aly was there and so was High Court Justice Michael Kirby, two of my favourite people. Topics ranged from child safety to Indigenous community building, addressing domestic violence and families with same-sex parents. It was a great conference, bringing together people who work in tough, difficult jobs like family mediation and conflict resolution.
I’d been invited because FRSA had asked me to give a 15-minute speech at their formal dinner at the National Gallery of Victoria. It was one of those suit-and-gown events that cost a packet of dough to attend, the sort of social environment usually foreign to a writer like me, who works out of his bedroom in his underwear. But because the theme was diversity, they’d approached me—a young, Asian homosexual, within easy, convenient reach—and scored several minority groups in one. As I later wisecracked in my speech, I hoped I represented good value.
At the pre-dinner reception, a children’s choir sang Waltzing Matilda and hors d’oeuvres were brought around in trays and ceramic boats. The conference had managed to book speakers from across Federal political lines, including Labor’s Jenny Macklin, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert and the Shadow Minister for Families, Housing and Human Services Kevin Andrews.
As I drank a beer with FRSA’s conference organisers, I spotted Kevin Andrews on the other side of the gallery, sipping a drink and watching the choir with his usual, waxen-faced stare. (Yes: he looks like that in real life.) Through his work on the Coalition frontbench, Kevin Andrews was already familiar to me: you might remember his stint as a late Howard-era Immigration Minister, especially for his infamously grim comments about African migrants being unable to assimilate into Australian society. You might also remember how he cancelled Mohamed Haneef’s Australian work visa with canny and suspiciously malevolent timing. That’s the guy.
When I saw Kevin Andrews, I felt ill. Not just because it was Kevin Andrews, as such, but because my speech—which was on the conference’s theme of diverse families—partly railed against Andrews’ brand of conservative family politics. (Both Andrews and his wife are devout Catholics.) Because an organiser had told me there would be 410 people listening to my speech, I was already nervous, and really would have been a mess if it weren’t for the combination of beer, champagne, wine and bovine-grade codeine my doctor had prescribed for a rattling cough I’d recently picked up. Still, I mentally scanned my speech furiously, trying to find any traces of anything too incendiary. I decided it was okay and went ahead.
At the lectern, I talked about my upbringing in my own family. My parents separated when I was 12, and I talked about how, for most of my teen years, I was pretty mortified by my family and our situation, which didn’t exactly fit the ‘norm’. But I also suggested to the audience that it was stupid for us to be ashamed of our families for this reason, since the ‘norm’ was changing anyway. Marriage rates, I pointed out, were the lowest in Australian history. Divorce rates were up, but so too were cohabitation households, step and combined families, childless couples and children raised by same sex parents. For instance, one in five adult lesbian couple in Australia is currently raising children. I continued:
No one has exclusive rights over the definition of family […] So it bugs me when politicians and advocacy groups use the term “family values” as shorthand for an incredibly narrow set of political views, and a very particular model of the modern family. By throwing around the term “family values”, they’re implying that people who don’t share their vision don’t also put their Family First.
I know, I know. I’m not exactly a genius when it comes to wordplay. But let’s move on:
Kids do deserve certain things, like being loved, protected and educated. They are entitled to a good diet, occasional junk food, semi-regular tantrums and lots of naps—especially in their teen years. But the structure of a family doesn’t guarantee any these things. The proposition that some families are more capable or equipped to provide those things, by simple virtue of its structure, is weird, and implies that every other family must be a compromise. Kids deserve to be supported in whatever family they belong to, whatever their family looks like. When we lobby for legislation or create community networks to support—or legalise—particular kinds of families, we’re not doing it to socially engineer what families look like. We do it to give these families legal protections and proper support—because these families already exist.
After the speech, I got a massive round of applause. It was a nice surprise. Younger people whooped and older people patted my back and shook my hand. It was very lovely, and I felt relieved and asked for wine and drank the wine and anything else that was available on the table that would go down my throat quickly. There’s nothing quite like the relief that comes with killing off the specter of public speaking that’s been hanging around you like a noxious cloud for weeks.
As I signed books at the table, people came up and told me about their own families, something I’d encouraged them to do at their dinner tables, rather than talk about their jobs or the weather. These were all excellent, funny people who came from all sorts of social backgrounds, and had mind-boggling combinations of family members. They talked about their families with a wry, ironic sense of love, detailing their children’s bad behaviour with affection, and describing their own parenting faults by taking the piss out of themselves. These were my kind of people.
Then a woman approached the table. She was a handsome, medium-sized lady in her 50s, with short, cropped sandy hair, styled in soft spikes, and wore a sand-coloured outfit in the professional cut of a Hillary Rodham Clinton number. I didn’t know who she was, so I introduced myself.
“Hello,” I said, extending my hand for a handshake. “Are you after a book for yourself or someone else?”
She bristled. “I’m not here to shake your hand,” she said. “And I’m not here to buy your book. I am here to say something to you.”
Because I’m a bit dim, and because I’m an imbecile, I took this as a gesture of warmth and friendliness. This woman didn’t have money to buy my book, but she wanted to talk to me anyway! How lovely! How sweet. And as for not shaking my hand? Perhaps she had some sort of infectious disease, and had the courtesy of not wanting to pass it onto me. The warning bells hadn’t yet sounded.
“Oh great,” I said. “What’s your name?”
She glared at me, ignoring my question.
“I’ve been married for 30 years,” she said, slowly and purposefully.
“Congratulations!” I said. “Thirty years? No way. Were you married when you were born?”
People around me chuckled and rolled their eyes. (“Turning on the charm,” someone muttered.) To her credit, the woman wasn’t buying it.
“I’m a mother of five children—”
“Oh,” I said. “My mother has five children as well. And I know that any mother raising five kids is doing an amazing job.”
“Are you even going to let me talk?” she said, leaning into me. “Or do you just want to talk at me?
I was startled. “Oh, please,” I said. “Go on.”
“I wanted to say, that I would be ashamed of you if I were your mother,” she said. “Making a fool of me in front of people like that. And I hope you’re happy; I hope you’re pleased with yourself, sitting here selling books and making profits from your family. It’s disgusting!”
At that point, I realised this would be a long conversation. People in the queue looked at each other silently, giving each other loaded, wary looks.
“And I think,” she continued, “that what you said in your speech about families—about families like mine—were disgusting too.” (She liked the word ‘disgusting’.) “And if I were your family—”
“Well, you’re not in my family,” I managed to say, “You don’t know me, you don’t know my mother and you’ve never met my family. And: you haven’t read my book. My mother is quite happy of how she’s portrayed in the book and, in fact, accompanied me for some of my book promotion. She’s proud of me, she’s proud of the book and she’s proud of herself. So I think you’re being a little presumptuous.”
“You stand there,” she said, “attacking families like mine!”
Clearly, there had been a misunderstanding.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” I said. “I wasn’t attacking families like yours at all. I said that white, heterosexual, cereal packet families are seen in broadcast and advertising media all the time. And that many families here tonight—like yours—are exactly like that. But I also added that many other families—like mine—are not like that. But that we’re all still legitimate.”
People in the queue seemed entertained by this stage, and I felt we were both offering them a decent show. But inside, I was struggling. I’m not really good with conflict most of the time, and usually I can talk diplomatically to someone before I spontaneously combust without warning and start swearing at them using the “C” word. I really hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but I’ve learned that I can’t really trust myself, and I felt this was quickly getting out of hand. It was also immature and embarrassing. It felt like the kind of fight you’d have in the schoolyard; the only difference was that we were better dressed. I wanted to wrap it up.
“What’s your name?” I asked. “And what organisation are you here with?”
“I’m not telling you my name,” she said. She continued to talk forcefully, lecturing me about my attacks on traditional families.
“Look, with all respect, you’re not my mother,” I said. “So I’d appreciate it if you didn’t talk to me like you were.”
“But I am a mother!” she said, laughing mockingly at me. “I’m the … I’m the universal mother.”
It was my turn to laugh. “So wait, now you’re like Gaia, the earth mother? I appreciate your comments, but we really should get this line moving. It’s unfair on these people.”
She swiveled around and talked into the queue. “They don’t mind waiting! You don’t mind waiting, do you.”
She didn’t ask it like a question. Put off and intimidated, no one responded.
“Look, I appreciate what you’re saying, but we probably need to keep moving …”
“You don’t appreciate what I’m saying at all!” she said. “You want to end this conversation and get rid of me!”
“Well,” I said, fumbling for the right words, “that makes you a very astute person.”
You get the picture. After a standoff that involved each of us refusing to shake the other’s hands (she refused first; when she huffily extended her hand later, I said I wasn’t touching her), she walked away, furious. I’m ashamed to say that she genuinely rattled me. And even though I was happy that I managed to stay articulate and didn’t become gratuitously mean, my hands were shaking. It’s hard to sound dignified in situations like these, and it’s nearly impossible to maintain a steady voice. When she left, the people in the queue laughed and shook their heads, before squealing that they really liked my speech and not to worry about her.
When the organisers discovered what had happened, they were furious. They were even more furious when another delegate pointed out to them who it was. “That woman,” they told me, “was Kevin Andrews’ wife.” What could I do but laugh? The whole conference had been about diversity in families, and she felt she’d been attacked? A well-to-do white woman married to one of Canberra’s power brokers? Give me a break.
But it also got me thinking. Earlier in the day, Waleed Aly had discussed concepts of personal identity with the audience, and said that components of how we self-identify come to the fore when we’re vulnerable, or feel we’re being attacked. We emphasise our religion when we feel it’s under threat; I identify strongly as gay and Asian because that’s how I feel most marginalised. Clearly, Margaret Andrews felt that my speech had threatened her too. She was a woman, I sensed, who genuinely felt like her entire identity—as a mother, as a wife—was under attack by people like me.
I told the crowd that it was okay to come from a broken home. That it was okay to be proud of your family, even if they weren’t exactly 100% functional, and that families that seemed visibly “functional” sort of gave me the creeps and made me wonder what they were hiding. The crowd laughed at that line. And while I could not see them from my lectern, I can guess that Kevin and Margaret Andrews did not.
In the afternoon, Michael Kirby had talked about gay marriage in Australia. He worked the crowd like an evangelist, insisting it was ridiculous that not even same-sex unions were properly legislated in this country. “Could someone please tell me,” Kirby had pleaded, “how gay marriage threatens or affects anyone else’s marriage? Write to me, email me; I’d love to hear from you.” Similarly, if Margaret Andrews seriously felt like her family was under attack from my speech, I’d like her to write to me and explain exactly how. She can email me at: email@example.com Perhaps we can talk about how it feels to come from families that are marginalised. Apparently, we have that in common.
I’m all for public debate. I’m all for feisty discussion. But it has to be intelligent and civil, and not involve bizarre, stupid confrontations in the queue for a book signing. Ideally, it shouldn’t involve cheap shots either. (My only regret in this whole encounter was when I tweeted some of the highlights of our argument, and I mentioned that Margaret Andrews had a terrible haircut. I deleted the tweet and offered a retraction. It was an okay haircut. Margaret Andrews is a well-groomed woman.)
I didn’t get to see Margaret Andrews go, but I did have breakfast with a key FRSA conference delegate the next morning. Apparently, Margaret Andrews had also confronted her afterwards, furious that they’d let someone like me address the audience. “Is this the type of thing you support?” Andrews had asked. “What would children take away from that man’s message? That you should be proud of your parents, whoever they are? That if you have drug users as parents, that’s okay?” But perhaps Margaret Andrews’ most telling line was this, a little gem that she shot back at someone defending my speech, explaining that my point was that no family is perfect. “I know every family isn’t perfect!” Andrews said. “I have a cousin who is a lesbian.”
And because I get the sense Margaret Andrews is a woman who likes having the last word in these matters, I might just leave it there.
The full transcript of my speech to FRSA delegates can be found here.