13 December 2010
Gay rights activist and advocate, community agitator, Mardi Gras ’78er, anti-discrimination campaigner, serial litigant, serial pest, media whore.
These are just some of the terms that have been bandied about to describe Gary Burns, the Sydney-based juggernaut whose strident defence of his community has brought him national and even international renown.
But what term does the man himself prefer?
“I’m all of them,” says Burns.
“Yes I’m a gay activist, yes I’m serial litigant, yes I’m a media whore – I’m all those things.
“I have to be. If I wasn’t a media whore I wouldn’t get my work done. By being a media whore I’ve built up a public profile – and that means people listen when I bring instances of homophobia to light. I can bring attention to things.
“Yes, I’m a serial litigant. I make no apologies for going after people in the public eye who promote homophobia. That’s what I do.
“Sometimes I hear people say, ‘Oh, he’s a serial litigant’, and they mean it as an insult but I’m proud of what I do.”
And why shouldn’t he be?
Burns has a strong record of fronting public interest cases against high-profile figures and media establishments who have engaged in homosexual vilification.
By way of his anti-discrimination cases, he has managed to get the likes of John Laws (the most powerful broadcaster in Australian history) and radio presenter Steve Price to publicly apologise for ridiculing gay men on Sydney radio station, 2UE.
In 2008, 2UE paid Burns $10,000 over the affair. Burns promptly donated every cent to HIV/AIDS charity, the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation (BGF).
This year, after Channel Nine presenter Eddie McGuire ridiculed flamboyant young ice skater Johnny Weir during Nine’s Winter Olympics broadcast, Burns met with McGuire and brokered an agreement which saw McGuire pen an article on gay youth suicide in Australia’s highest-circulating newspaper, The Herald-Sun.
McGuire, who lauded “maverick” Burns, affirmed that he was not homophobic, that ridiculing gay youth was wrong, and urged action on the “horrific” rate of gay youth suicide, bringing an issue mainstream Australia rarely thinks about to the fore.
So there’s no doubt that Burns is an influential figure in the gay rights debate and that he gets results.
Why is it, then, that the activist is so hated by Gay Inc.? Because make no mistake: while Gary Burns has many admirers at the grassroots level of the queer community, the gay establishment in his home city of Sydney hates him with a passion.
This was underscored in May when what can only be described as a Gary Burns hate group was set up on Facebook.
The ‘Gary Burns Does Not Speak For Me’ group was made up of many prominent Gay Inc. figures including members of gaystream organisations such as GLBT health body ACON; New Mardi Gras, the corporation that controls the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras; the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby; Sydney’s oldest gay newspaper, The Sydney Star Observer; Australia’s largest GLBT publishing company, Evolution Publishing; and Twenty10, which describes itself as a group that “supports and works with young people of diverse sexualities”.
The Facebook group, whose avatar was a picture of Burns’ face with a giant red cross through it, attracted many disparaging and outright hateful remarks, as Gay Inc. identities set upon Burns like a pack of dingos might react to Lady Gaga in her meat dress.
Burns, however, simply issued a matter-of-fact media release asking for assurances that the attacks (many of which were made during regular business hours) were not being made on work time – a valid query, especially since many concerned were employed by organisations propped up with government funds and generous donations from the public.
Within hours of the media release, the Facebook group mysteriously disappeared.
Another example of this curious case of gays shunning one of their own is the almost total lack of reporting on Burns’ high-profile work in Sydney’s gay media in recent times.
While a quick Google search will find Burns’ litigation and advocacy work drawing column inches across the Fairfax and Murdoch spectrums, Burns is now conspicuously absent from the pages of Sydney’s queer press.
So respected is Burns’ take on gay issues that he’s become a regular ‘talking head’ on queer topics on Channel Seven’s The Morning Show – while at the more serious end of the media landscape, journalists from Australia’s national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), regularly contact him for comment on gay affairs.
Yet his work is apparently deemed un-newsworthy by Sydney’s gay media.
Why? The editors of the publications concerned – City Voice, The Sydney Star Observer and SX – did not respond to questions on the matter.
Sydney gaystream organisations were only slightly more forthcoming when approached about Burns. Asked about staff involvement in the anti-Burns Facebook group, a NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby spokesperson told The Scavenger: “It’s not the business of the Lobby what our members or employees do in their private time. The Lobby had no involvement with the Facebook group concerned and does not endorse its content in any way.”
Other groups failed to respond by deadline.
For his part, Burns has a theory about his pariah status in the upper echelons of Gay Inc.
“I’m an outsider,” he says. “It’s that simple. These people have corporatised themselves to the point where they think they’re above the community. They are nothing more than a self-appointed Gay Government.
“So when they see someone like me doing my work they think: ‘How dare he? He’s not one of us. He doesn’t have the authority to speak. We didn’t give him permission!’
“And what they don’t realise is that I don’t need their permission to do what I do. None of us do. No gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans or intersex person needs anyone’s permission to be an active member of our community.”
In fact, Burns doesn’t even believe he speaks for the GLBTI community.
“I don’t believe I do, no,” he says. “I’m an active member of my community but I don’t claim to speak on behalf of the community. I don’t have that right and neither do any of those groups. We might do work that benefits our community – but anyone who thinks they can speak for everyone is having a lend of themselves.
“My litigation is taken by me as a single complainant. I do seek public interest remedies so that gay people generally can benefit from my work, but I’m not a spokesperson for anyone but myself.”
Another reason for the gaystream’s distaste for Burns is pure jealousy, the activist surmises.
“I think there’s an element of ‘that should be me’ when the media contacts me for comment,” he says. “Yes, I think there’s a bit of the green-eyed monster there.”
Burns does acknowledge, however, that he might be partly to blame for his pariah status in some gay community circles.
“Look, I’m not Saint Gary and perhaps I haven’t helped myself in some ways,” he admits. “I don’t piss around the tree. Sometimes I’ve said things these groups wouldn’t like. I mean, I’ll tell you right now, I don’t have much respect for these boardroom sitters who call themselves gay rights activists but only ever speak out on safe issues like gay marriage.
“I actually do think gay marriage should be allowed for those who want it but I don’t want it myself. I want something that recognises that I share my queen-sized bed with another man, not something that pretends I’m just like Mummy and Daddy. So I guess when I say things like that, it raises their hackles.
“I’m also not backwards in coming forwards in defending myself, and people don’t like it when you throw shit back in their faces,” he continues.
“And I guess the gay newspapers don’t like the fact that I refer to them as the ‘dance bunny press’,” he chuckles. “But they are! It’s exactly what they’ve become. Pick up the gay rags these days and they’re full of stories about dance parties and even stories on their own advertisers! What happened to news? What about the community?”
But no matter what Australia’s gay establishment thinks of Gary Burns, one thing’s for sure: Burns will keep on keeping on.
“I have been hurt by things people have said and sometimes I get very discouraged and think: ‘What’s the point?’ But the feeling is only temporary because I’m not doing my work for recognition, I’m doing it because I believe it’s right.
“You can say what you want about Gary Burns but at the end of the day, I don’t get one cent for what I do. Most of those people in large gay organisations get paid to do what they do [and] some of them are on big, fat six-figure salaries. They wouldn’t even fart without getting paid.
“So say what you like but I’ll keep doing my work and I can hold my head high because my motives are true.”
To that end, Burns has lodged an appeal against the recent NSW Anti-Discrimination Tribunal (ADT) decision that dismissed his case against Channel Nine’s The Footy Show, for a skit which saw a fictitious gay brother of football stars Andrew and Matthew Johns ridiculed and taken to hospital for being “faulty”.
Burns is also proceeding with a case against One Nation candidate John Cunningham, who described gays and lesbians as “unfortunates” and said they should undergo “psychiatric counselling” during his failed bid to win a seat at the 2010 Australian Federal Election.
So while Burns might wish certain sections of the community would support him from time to time, he doesn’t need their approval.
“When it comes to homophobia, I’m going to keep banging like a dunny door in a windstorm,” he affirms.
Peter Hackney is associate editor at The Scavenger.
Images of Gary Burns second one with his beloved cat Ivory, courtesy of Gary Burns.