On Karl Stefanovic, Non-Apologies, and Fickle Straight Allies
By Matilda Douglas-Henry
The world continues to crumble. I am convinced an implosion is imminent. Soon, nothing will be left of this planet except for a lock of Donald Trump’s toupee, or one of Tony Abbott’s ears – a testament to how earth’s final days were rife with conservatism, backwards logic, and straight white men who resemble behemoths.
Following traditions that we have become so accustomed to in the ~progressive~ ~age~ of 2016, this week saw Karl Stefanovic being nominated for an LGBTQIA award; honouring his apology following a tirade of on-air transphobic slurs. Of course, this wasn’t the first time Stefanovic has said something deeply inappropriate on television.
I watched the original incident when it first aired, as well as the public apology that came after. I observed a few things. Perhaps most crucially, Stefanovic’s transphobic rhetoric rolled comfortably off his tongue. The word ‘tranny’ was repeated like a stutter he’d had his whole life. The hate speech was clearly familiar to him, and from his privileged perspective, it was also entirely acceptable. While his apology was considerate and well-spoken, it also felt scripted – thought out, written, re-written, mulled over; a re-worked statement to ensure that he came out on top. Someone like Stefanovic – so publicly associated with going off the cuff on national television – shouldn’t be celebrated for the ability to follow a script. He’ll end up improvising anyway, and therein lies the danger.
Straight, prominent media figures typically have a fickle relationship with queer rights. More often than not, they say a lot of misguided things – hurtful generalisations are made, genders are presumed, and rigid binaries are perpetuated – but ultimately, they support us. Since majority of their audience see their ‘hearts to be in the right place’, straight people are applauded for the mistakes they make. It’s as if they get a gold star (or, in Stefanovic’s case, a bloody award nomination) for simply acknowledging the existence of the queer community. Similarly, a crass remark – followed by a public backpedal – has the world rapturously impressed with such a progressive and thoughtful straight person.
Last week, when Matt Bomer was cast as a trans sex worker in the Mark Ruffalo-produced film Anything, there was a totally justified amount of backlash. Ruffalo – a passionate advocate for queer rights – responded with a tweet that was a pseudo non-apology; an acknowledgement of the problem, but a refusal to change the casting decision (in fact, he publicly endorses Bomer to a sickening degree). It is a classic move within the framework of straight people supporting minorities – Ruffalo thinks he is nailing it as an ally, when really, he’s perpetuating queer erasure as much as any homophobe.
Perhaps this is the real reason why Stefanovic’s apology was nominated for a queer award – because doing so in the public eye is an anomaly. Traditionally, nobody actually says sorry explicitly, with Ruffalo’s tweet a pretty solid example of how these things tend to go down. It’s much like how gay rights are now one of the central pillars of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, but in 1996 she supported both Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defence of Marriage Act – two of the biggest blows to the progression of queer rights in recent history. Clinton’s conversion to a dedicated queer ally pretty late in the game is something a lot of people are aware of, but she never apologised for her initial beliefs. I’m pretty sure the extent to which she addressed the situation was simply saying “I have evolved”.
Unfortunately, when it comes to straight semi-allies who sort of, but not really, apologise, Clinton’s statement doesn’t apply. Nobody is evolving. Instead, a dated and vicious cycle keeps on turning. If we live in a world where Karl Stefanovic is apologising for being the worst and that warrants a celebration of his achievements, we’re operating at an abysmally low standard right now. Cripes! Straight people have really got to get it together.