Monkeypox in Australia

Over the last 2 years it has become common to refer to the covid-19 pandemic as an ‘unprecedented’ event –  the first major epidemic of ‘our lifetimes’. I have heard colleagues, pundits and high distinction students describe covid-19 as ‘the first global pandemic of note since the Spanish flu’, or make statements to similar effect

For anyone whose life, intimate relations, friendship circles or social world have been touched by HIV/AIDS – I would venture to say that is most of us, whether we care to acknowledge it or not ­– such remarks are jarring. 

But this habit of recollection also presents an opportunity to reflect on the discursive systems that structure what is considered to be ‘of note’ (meaning consequential, worth mentioning), and the kinds of people presumed and prioritized by those systems.

How can a virus that is estimated to have killed over 40 million people worldwide and infected up to 100 million people over the past 4 decades elude the attention of educated observers?

The answer has to do with the symbolic, psychic and scientific practices that serve to locate and contain the threat of infectious diseases within dominant social imaginaries. 

HIV is routinely associated with homosexuals, people who inject drugs and other marginalized groups in Western consciousness – and not without justification, since for much of the epidemic, gay and other MSM have constituted roughly two thirds of infections in Australia, North America and Western Europe.

Meanwhile, though it accounts for about 20% of HIV infections in Australia, the possibility of heterosexual transmission tends to be constructed as the distant experience of developing countries, most evident in the figure of ‘African AIDS’ (Brotherton 2016, Patton 1992). 

In 1987, Simon Watney drew attention to how the formation of the ‘general public’ in media discourses of HIV/AIDS basically excluded ‘everyone who stands outside the institution of marriage’ (Watney, 1987) Other HIV critics have worried about how the epidemiological construction of risk groups mapped onto gay and other stigmatized social identities, playing into the tendency of dominant culture to distance itself from the risks and responsibility of HIV. 

In the early years of the crisis, North American AIDS activists responded to this situation by arguing that HIV education programs should prioritize ‘acts over identities’ (Jagose, 1996). In the context of the extraordinary neglect and rampant homophobia that characterized governmental responses to AIDS in that country, this counter-claim made sense, and it also usefully generalized the need for prevention.

This is a universalizing strategy[i] that cites a claim that is technically true to counter what it sees as the homophobic, epidemiological, minoritizing patterning of risk and infection. Let’s call it the ‘anyone can get it’ rebuttal. 

When I run university classes on community responses to HIV in Australia, I am often struck by the coyness, if not outright resistance of many students to the claim that sex between men has been a principal route of HIV transmission in this country – as well as a key site of cultural, social, political, and practical innovations that seek to prevent it.  

They think saying so is discriminatory, and so it is, but discriminating between real-world circumstances of risk and transmission is necessary for the effective distribution of care, prevention and responsiveness, historically and presently.

The risk of identification

On 23 July 2022, the WHO declared monkeypox (‘MPX’) to be a ‘public health emergency of international significance’.  By that time, over 16, 000 infections had been recorded in 75 countries since May 2022, with the vast majority of cases (98%) identified in men who have sex with men (‘MSM’).[ii]

The WHO tweet mentioning ‘the outbreak is concentrated among men who have sex with men, especially those with multiple sexual partners’ was met with hundreds of replies accusing the organization of homophobia, with many drawing comparisons to the stigmatization of gay men during the early AIDS crisis.  

MPX is rarely fatal, but the spectacle of a disfiguring viral infection spreading primarily among gay and other MSM recalls devasting, painful memories and horrifying images of the AIDS crisis for many. 

The ‘lessons’ people are drawing from this history, while trying to recover from the losses and disruptions caused by another zoonotic virus (covid-19) are variable and disconcerting. 

While many of WHO’s critics are rightly concerned about the anti-gay sentiment the official identification of MSM as a risk group may provoke, a prominent concern in some of this commentary seems to be that the focus on gay men is part and parcel of a homophobic refusal to acknowledge that anyone can get monkeypox, by virtue of its various modes of transmission, which (unlike HIV) are not limited to sex and needle-sharing. Why should vaccine programs single out MSM and not them they ask, presumably on behalf of the ‘general public’.

We have all dutifully accumulated a collective imaginary of unwitting airborne infection over the course of the covid-19 pandemic, a disposition that looms large in the above reactions. But these responses are also informed by the universalizing ‘anyone can get it’ rebuttal that can be traced, ironically enough, to the well-meaning efforts of educators to counter the phobic aversions embedded in framing HIV as a ‘gay disease’.  

The version of HIV history invoked by WHO’s critics could certainly do with a bit of contextualizing, as a number of commentators have pointed out. The most egregious, homophobic aspect of early governmental responses to AIDS was not the identification of risk groups per se, but the systematic inaction and shameful neglect of the health crisis under the US Reagan administration and in Thatcher’s UK. The epidemiological identification of gay men and other marginalized, despised groups as ‘HIV risk groups’ was used to justify this murderous neglect: these lives were expendable, these deaths could be ignored, no crisis necessary.

Origin stories

MPX was first identified as a source of disease in humans in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1970, with a case fatality rate of 3-6%. While small outbreaks have been identified in other countries and populations since 2003, including outside the African continent, they have generally been confined to very small case numbers and quickly contained. 

Before this year, the largest outbreak on record began in Nigeria from 2017, when 200 cases were identified, predominantly among young adult men, a number of whom presented with genital ulcers and other sexually transmitted infections. (Ogoina et al. 2019). 

The present international outbreak was first detected in early May in the UK and within a few days cases were reported in Europe, North and South America, Asia and beyond. Some experts have attributed the international spread of the virus to specific ‘superspreader’ events – specifically, two massive gay dance parties held in Europe over the northern summer. 

The US and UK governments have been criticized for their tardy, uncoordinated responses to the present emergency, exacerbated by the chronic underfunding of sexual health services in the UK and other epidemic hotspots. In Australia criticism has so far been more restrained, though gay men have been watching anxiously as the virus runs rampant overseas and local case numbers creep upwards. Recent history has trained us to endure long waits for imported vaccines, it would seem.

The unfolding of this public health emergency internationally raises pressing questions about the priorities of global public health. Why have outbreaks in Central and West Africa over the past decades not garnered international attention or spurred vaccine manufacturers to step up production and distribution to this region? Why was an international emergency not declared earlier, enabling countries to trigger their emergency public health mechanisms and mobilise the necessary resources? And in our efforts to devise an effective strategy to prevent the further spread of MPX, how can the damages induced by stigmatizing responses be countered and avoided?

If the charge of homophobia can be levelled at the WHO response at all, it does not relate to their specification of the emerging epidemiology of the international outbreak. Instead, one might point to the relatively slow pace of their response. By the time WHO declared MPX an international emergency, some US officials were already worried ‘the window for getting control of this has probably closed’.[iii]  

In Australia lately …

As with other global epidemics, the tyranny of distance and the seasonal lag between the Northern and Southern summer have so far worked to our advantage. When I asked the staff of a Sydney gay sauna whether they had noticed a drop-off in clientele in response to MPX, they told me things have been quiet, but no quieter than usual for this time of year. At the time of writing, 70 cases have been recorded in Australia (and 32 000 worldwide, which represents a doubling of global incidence in just 3 weeks).  

A week after the WHO declaration, Australia declared MPX a ‘Communicable Disease Incident of National Significance’. In early August the Federal Health Minister announced they had secured 450, 000 doses of the vaccine Jynneos ­ from Bavarian Nordic, its sole manufacturer, in a highly contested global market. While older smallpox vaccines exist, Jynneos is a third-generation subcutaneous vaccine which is safe for people living with HIV. 

In Sydney and Melbourne, people are already being vaccinated. But only 20% of the vaccine doses are slated to arrive this year, and with Sydney set to host World Pride in February 2023 ­–an event expected to attract 500, 000 international participants ­– the task of vaccinating enough Australians quickly enough to avert a major outbreak over summer seems formidable, Herculean even – at least in Sydney.

Meanwhile, Australian governmental websites remain cagey about naming MSM as most at risk of contracting MPX, no doubt overly wary of stoking stigma.[iv] The limited supply of vaccines has nonetheless made it necessary to triage vaccination based on epidemiological risk profiles. 

The online form that NSW Health has set up to register interest in MPX vaccination asks me about my sexuality, number of casual sex partners, whether I attend sex venues or group sex parties, and whether I engage in chemsex, among other questions. A payoff situation is created in which eagerness for the vaccine must be weighed against how much self-incriminating information one is prepared to disclose to a government website. Only the brave will qualify, it seems.

Reaping and sewing

In stark contrast to the shameful legacies of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, the Australian response to HIV/AIDS is internationally acclaimed for pursuing a different, far more effective strategy. Federal Health Minister Neal Blewett and key advisors brokered a bi-partisan approach to the emerging crisis whose centrepiece involved working with advocates from affected communities to develop programs and policies – imagine that! making ‘junkies, poofters and whores’ policy partners! 

These risk groups were better constituted as ‘affected communities’ and they were funded to form community organisations that were tasked with delivering carefully targeted education programs and support services that were ‘in touch’ with the subcultural lives and worlds in which the virus was circulating, about which governmental and medical officials agreed they knew little. This approach – which John Ballard (1998) characterized as ‘government at a distance’ ­– proved highly effective and later became known as ‘Australia’s partnership approach to HIV’. 

The radical new approach to HIV prevention did not go uncontested. A more traditional approach was favoured by a number of top medical specialists and governmental advisors, who recommended standard measures such as mandatory testing of risk groups, compulsory notification of test results, quarantining those infected and the use of law enforcement to restrict their activity and movement: ‘test and contain’ as Paul Sendziuk (2003) characterizes this strategy. 

Some of these advisors called for the closure of gay sex venues and saunas and the abandonment of Mardi Gras until the epidemic was over. Gay community activists had a different perspective: they situated these venues and events as vital opportunities for engaging and educating members of these ‘hard-to-reach’, affected populations about safe sex and other care practices. This reframing was effective. In 1985, a top medical advisor who in 1983 had called for the cancellation of the Mardi Gras party, describing it as a ‘Bacchanalian orgy’, completely reversed his position, stating ‘Mardi Gras would provide a perfect forum for large-scale education about AIDS’ (Race 2018)

The forms of top-down public health we have endured over the course of the covid-19 pandemic tend to misfire when an epidemic is concentrated in stigmatized sexual communities and other marginalized groups. They push those most affected further underground, away from vital education and services. So significant are the impacts of stigma on collective capacities for care that they necessitate a complete rethinking of public health strategies along the principles and lines first elaborated by the Australian partnership approach to HIV, which I have discussed in terms of ‘counterpublic health’ (Race, 2009). 

How then to weigh the risks and benefits of minoritizing strategies – which draw on epidemiology to better target those at risk but in the process run the risk of dropping off the radar of public care and attention – and universalizing strategies – which generalize responsibility for disease prevention but may neglect to direct appropriate care and limited resources to those most in need, those most affected?  It is a balancing act with no easy answers. 

The tension itself is perfectly embodied in the infamous Grim Reaper campaign of 1987. Regarded by some as a wonderful success for keeping HIV on the public agenda –a matter of public concern in need of continued resourcing – others detest it for its ghostly incarnation of the threat of HIV in a figure far too easily mistaken for that of the HIV-positive gay man, thus redoubling on phobic mass stigma (Sendziuk, 2003)

Far less deadly, but more easily transmitted through close physical contact, the Australian monkeypox emergency should not require us to resurrect that Grim figure. A swift, focused response on the part of affected communities, organisations and experts well-versed in Australia’s partnership approach should let the Reaper rest in the ground a good while longer. Time to get sewing. 


Ballard, J. (1998). The constitution of AIDS in Australia. In M. Dean and B. Hindess (Eds.) Governing Australia: Studies in Contemporary Rationalities of Government, (p125) Cambridge University Press

Brotherton, A. (2016). ‘The circumstances in which they come’: Refiguring the Boundaries of HIV in Australia. Australian Humanities Review60, 44-61.

Jagose, A. (1996). Queer theory: An introduction. NYU Press

Ogoina, D., et al. (2019). The 2017 human monkeypox outbreak in Nigeria—report of outbreak experience and response in the Niger Delta University Teaching Hospital, Bayelsa State, Nigeria. PLoS One14(4), e0214229.

Patton, C. (1992) From nation to family: Containing African AIDS. In A. Parker, M. Russo, D. Sommer, D., & P. Yaeger (Eds.) Nationalisms & Sexualities (pp 218-34). Routledge.

Race, K. (2018). The gay science: Intimate experiments with the problem of HIV. Routledge.

Race, K. (2009). Pleasure consuming medicine: The queer politics of drugs. Duke University Press.

Sedgwick, E. K (1990). Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press

Sendziuk, P. (2003). Learning to trust: Australian responses to AIDS. UNSW Press.

Watney, S. (1987). The spectacle of AIDS. October43, 71-86.

[i] I take ‘universalizing vs minoritizing’ from the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990), who uses the terms in different context to describe countervailing theorisations of homosexuality (whether a minority trait, or a proclivity that is widely distributed albeit differently manifested throughout the population)

[ii] In the present outbreak, 95% of transmissions have been attributed to sexual activity, though authorities indicate the virus can spread through other forms of ‘close personal contact’, such as ‘direct skin-on-skin contact’ and exposure to contaminated bedlinen and household objects. The virus causes fever, headache, swelling of the lymph nodes and painful lesions across the body. In the UK, about 10% of those infected have required hospitalization due to secondary infections developing from these lesions. But since May 2022, only a few deaths from the disease have been recorded worldwide.

[iii] Compare covid-19, declared a ‘public health emergency of international significance’ on 30 January 2020, just a month after the Wuhan outbreak, when less than 8000 cases had been recorded, and fewer than 100 infections identified outside China. 

[iv] This anxiety may also explain why a number of state authorities are still publicly attributing the high case numbers found among MSM internationally to their ‘higher health-seeking behaviour’ – an explanation that is by now unconvincing given MSM account for all MPX-related hospitalizations in the UK.

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After the Crisis: policing NSW

You may have had a chance to read Dr Simon Rice’s piece in The Saturday Paper ‘Unstoppable Police Force’

As someone who has studied drug policing in NSW for over two decades it really resonated. After two inquires (one by the Coroner, into music festival deaths, the other on ice) your government has chosen to ignore the evidence and advice from experts and side with police powers and “sending a message”.

I wonder if this is the best message to be sending. Lives are at stake.

The NSW police force now has unprecedented powers and there is no independent agency of oversight to review their use of these and hold them to account. Over the last months they have been patrolling LGAs of concern and throughout the pandemic they have been eager to cite Covid to justify any overstep or heavy-handedness or unethical apprehension of, for example, carefully organised, Covid prevention-sensitive protests. 

I am not sure if you are aware, but they have been very active patrolling venues known around town to be used by gay men occasionally as beats, making arrests, using undercover agents to entrap men visiting those places for such purposes, including the toilet block in the Domain, right behind NSW parliament, and Rushcutters Bay Park by night. And then there were those poor chaps nude sunbathing and their run-in with the deer. Did you see the look on Mick Fuller’s face when he got to announce that one? He loved every queer-baiting second of it. 

Of course they will say this is all about preventing the spread of disease. That’s what they said in the 1980s.

When Covid calms down the police will still have their powers and they will be feeling emboldened to use them in ways that end up harming the most vulnerable groups in our society. Migrants, racial minorities, queers, the homeless, indigenous communities – and those who care enough about the vulnerability of our environment and social institutions to protest about it 

Your government is now in a good place. You have managed the delta-outbreak exceptionally well, all things considered. But please, before it is too late, reinstate an independent body to review police conduct and hold it to account. Like the Ombudsman Troy Grant abolished in 2006 (the very same year that body released its damning report on the abuse of police powers (drug detection dogs), curiously enough!). But this time an Ombudsman with teeth.

You might seriously consider changing their name back to the NSW Police SERVICE in the process.

That’s their job isn’t it? That’s what they claimed to be doing these last months in LGAs of concern (though I doubt residents of those areas saw it that way): SERVING THE COMMUNITY. 

We pay for them. They need reigning in and you can do it. Quit with the paramilitary theatrics (those uniforms!) and exorbitant spending on dogs, and show your constituents you care. That they ought to too. They are not a Force, they are a service – or should be.

It’s all about sending a message. The only message worth sending in the circumstances. The only decent one

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Bionic biotic jellies

Homemade | Delicious | Slightly toxic

Fresh from the lab. Order today!

*If you have any questions about this product, please put them in the comments section below.

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Uninhibited Play

The political and pragmatic dimensions of intoxication for queer cultures

{draft chapter, co-authored with Kiran Pienaar, Dean Murphy and Toby Lea, for the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Intoxicants and Intoxication}

Could intoxication be understood as a politically significant activity among sexual and gender minorities? The question is likely to meet with some resistance. But approaching intoxication as an activity that grapples with the political organization of society is not the same as recommending it as a promising strategy. We usually think of intoxication as a state of the individual body, or else a set of social or cultural or psychologically driven practices that put bodies into such a state. Since the conventional aim of these practices is to alter, manage or change the self in the world (Partanen 1981), the self emerges as the most pertinent locus of action and this produces the practice as personal in nature, relevance and consequence. To frame intoxication as a political tactic is to refuse this personalizing effect by situating it historically and exploring the kind of practical response to certain problem-situations it might embody. The question becomes, ‘how has intoxication emerged as a practical strategy that enables certain, more or less effective, navigations of social norms around sexuality and gender?’, remembering those norms are part of the political ordering of society. 

The higher rates of drug and alcohol use found among LGBTQ people is mainly attributed to ‘minority stress’ by the researchers concerned (Goldback et al. 2014, Dentato et al. 2013, Lehavot & Simoni 2011). Intoxication emerges as a form of self-medication here: a way of coping with the negative affects produced by lived experiences and expectations of stigma, discrimination and victimisation. This focus has been criticized for ‘overlooking the meaningful ways in which … consumption intersects with identity, sociability, place, space and community formation for queer youth’ (Hunt et al. 2019, p.382). Indeed, when the hypothesis of minority stress fails to line up statistically significant correlations, some studies concede that gay socializing ‘often occurs in bars, where alcohol is served and other drugs may be available’ (Rosario et al, 2004, p. 1630), usually before recommending alternative, drug-free social spaces for minority individuals. Alcohol and other drug (AOD) use is typically approached within this literature as a problem in and of itself, that is symptomatic in turn of another social problem (‘minority stress’). Little wonder there are calls for greater attention to meanings, contexts and experiences of pleasure from a growing cohort of researchers in the fields of critical drug and sexuality studies (Pienaar et al. 2020a, Holt and Treloar 2008, Race 2009, Dennis and Farrugia 2017, Paasonen 2018).

Without wishing to deny the realities these different approaches configure, the binary choice they create between the competing figures of problematic self-medication and untroubled social or recreational consumption is hardly satisfying. It is not simply that recreational intoxication can lead to problems or that self-medication can bring pleasure; we are left wondering about the relevance of intoxication within the practical situations commonly confronted by those stigmatised on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender expression. Minority stress is conventionally defined as exposure to victimisation and discrimination, expectations of rejection and hostility, internalisation of negative attitudes about homosexuality, and concerns about disclosure of identity (Meyer, 2003). There is nothing very sexy about this definition, it must be said. If the injuries of social minoritisation were enough to explain disproportionate substance use within a particular population, one might expect it to hold true for other stigmatised minority groups that routinely suffer from discrimination and victimisation (ethnic and racial minorities, for example) but this is not borne out by the research evidence in any consistent way (Shih et al. 2010, Gillmore et al. 1990). In the ‘minority stress’ account of LGBTQ substance use, moreover, the individual is produced as the primary locus of injury: stigma becomes a condition of the self. The identities of sexual and gender minorities are ontologised, with intoxication produced as a means of palliating the injuries these damaged identities have incurred. But for Goffman (1963) stigma is embedded in relational dynamics; it creates problem-situations that social actors variously navigate. What if intoxication were transposed from its current makeshift status as a plaster for the wound of sexual stigmatization and reconfigured as a pragmatic means of carrying out certain discredited activities? 

In this chapter we aim to develop such a pragmatic, performative account of the meanings, uses and effects of intoxication among gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transfolk and other assorted queers. Rather than intoxication standing as a toxic means of palliating damaged, static identities, we approach it as a practical – even creative – strategy that, for all its risks and toxicities, can enable individuals and groups to circumnavigate and disrupt prevailing gender and sexual norms. We do not deny that stigma, discrimination, social exclusion and sexual normalization act as structuring constraints within the life-worlds and practical repertoires of LGBTQ+ groups and individuals: rather our aim is to switch gears and translocate accounts of LGBTQ+ substance use away from the ontological register of pathological self-medication and towards the more performative and pragmatic key of tactical responsiveness to the sociomaterial situations that stigma, discrimination, and normalisation create or make manifest. We seek a more dynamic account of queer intoxication, in other words, that turns attention towards the practical question of what intoxication does for those who subject themselves with it. Intoxication is what some people do to allow certain things to happen – not simply a confirmation of injured being. As Judith Butler has maintained, gender and sexuality should not be mistaken for stable identities or inner truths. Rather we might attend to ‘the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self’ (Butler 1988, p. 519). In this chapter we seek to engage this performative register of self-practices. For certain social subjects, certain bodily movements and enactments such as drinking, getting high, getting out of it or getting wasted, matter. But how, and why should this be the case? 

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A Lifetime of Drugs

DRAFT book chapter

62248A16-954F-485F-B33D-334C690B2E79.jpegDrawing on my experience of living with HIV for over two decades, this essay discusses the forms of anxiety and concern that emerged in 1996 in the context of the introduction of HIV combination antiretroviral therapy around the use of so-called ‘drug cocktails’. It shows how these concerns reflect broader anxieties about increasing sexual activity between men at this time. This event happens to kickstart a corresponding problematisation of gay men’s use of recreational drugs– another sort of ‘drug cocktail’ – on the same basis. I see the present moral panic over chemsex as the latest instalment of this discourse. The piece demonstrates the analogous character of antiretroviral therapy and recreational substance use in gay men’s practice, arguing that pleasure, self-medication, and experimentation with the conditions of life are concerns that cut across outdated distinctions between pharmaceutical drugs and illicit drugs. Meanwhile, the stigmatised and criminalised status of HIV-positive sex, gay sexuality and illicit drug use produces paranoid subjects and effectively endangers the health and wellbeing of those affected. It must be countered. Paying attention to the collective experiments of drug users is likely to be much more generative.


I wrote this piece for a forthcoming collection called Long Term, edited by Scott Herring and Lee Wallace, who invited me to write something about living with HIV.

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“The things one does! The things one believes in!” Commodity Culture, Gay Play and the Thringing of Addiction

Some queen told me that a selfie I took reminded them of Frank Thring.  I had no idea who that was so I got busy googling and learnt, to my delight, he was a flamboyant Australian actor born in the 1920s who, among his many gay achievements, invented the clapperboard, did stage to great acclaim in London, and in his film career played Pontius Pilate in Ben Hur (1959), a gangster in The Man from Hong Kong (1975), The Collector in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and voiced the part of Zeus in Hercules Returns (1993).  So far so good.

But I struck inter-web gold when I came across this 1976 commercial he starred in for Martins Cigarettes which may well be one of the gayest things I’ve ever seen:

Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 12.23.40 am

“This is a commercial, as you may have guessed,” he announces, following a nonplussed eye roll, “and this…” – he gestures dismissively to the bedazzled chorus line – “was the advertising agency’s idea”.

“Totally unnecessary!”  he exclaims.

‘I am simply here to tell you about Martin’s, the new King Sized cigarette,’ he explains, and proceeds to do the job he was paid for and spruce the product.

‘Martin’s in the handsome gold packet has a quality,’ he recites, ‘a quality you can trust!’ before a glamorous blonde dancing partner decked in gold is thrust upon him, prompting an exasperated cry, ‘Must we dance??’

The whole production is delivered in such a withering, caustic tone as Thring goes through the motions of advertising Martins cigarettes, all the while serving up generous lashings of fey manner, camp asides and persistent ennui at the genre he is compelled to work within.

But the queer epiphany occurs in the final moments of the ad, when Thring incants what could be taken to be an aspirational lifestyle fantasy slogan, but into which he sneakily smuggles a  sighing meta-commentary on the market genre he’s just participated in:

       The things one does!

          The things one believes in!

It’s easy to read this little gem of a phrase as a wry parody on consumer culture; lines that echo Adorno’s claim that consumers see right through the promises of the commodity-process, but go on to buy things anyway, producing an affective climate of cynicism.

But what delights me most is the distance and critical reflexivity his camp manner engenders in relation to the commodity itself,  literal investment in which was conceived by Frankfurt Scholars as a perpetual re-creation of frustration in terms remarkably reminiscent of addiction.

The things one does! The things one believes in!  The slogan works on at least two registers: a literal celebration of the glamour of doing and believing in things, and believing what one is doing when one is doing the consumption thing…  and a parodic performance that ridicules the thing that one is doing, and the beliefs one must entertain when one does the things one does when one does the commodity-thing.

In our hygienic, smoke-free days, the retro-activity of almost any cigarette advertisement might come across as camp in the extreme, but I like to think Thring’s irony sets in motion a novel conceptual feeling. In playing the signifier so gaily and so drolly he multiplies possible manners of relating to the fetishized commodity-form, the object of compulsion and source of possible addiction.

We need not enslave ourselves to the tyranny of literal meaning: we can play with meaning and signification; and in such play we conjure a modicum of agency.  We are not merely slaves to the order-word (the original Latin meaning of addiction).

A very cultural studies thought-chain, if ever there was one.

Those who are cynical about of the critical possibilities of creative consumption, symbolic re-appropration and camp pleasure will object that whatever critical distance camp irony creates has become so fashionable that any critical purchase it might once have had has been lost. Indeed, hip irony and detachment only serve to congratulate the consumer for their cynicism, but in the end works just as well to sell things,  all the while palliating whatever anxiety the commodification provokes. Thring might even be acknowledging this: “The things we believe in!” he exclaims triumphantly, depressively.

But I think Thring’s performance undercuts direct investments in the addictive object in a more generous way, sparking the possibility of new forms of eventful reflexivity,  multiplying possible relations to the fetishized thing.

Indeed, he Thrings it!

In the end, Thring’s ironic, gay, destabilising performance may work just as well to sell the fetishised commodity, but in thringing it, he produces it expansively, not as a fixed and determined thing, but as a problematic object, which is to say, an object available to the pleasure of problematisation.

Dance, we must : )

But in semiotic play we trust.

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Kane Race

{Invited contribution to The Great Moving (Further) Right Show, closing panel discussion at the Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference, Sydney, 2016}


In Mad Travellers (1998), Ian Hacking argued that each historical age produces its own types of madness or mental illness. What happens when a hegemonic social identity – in this case, white and heteromasculinist – starts to lose its presumptive grip on national space and understand itself as an aggrieved and embattled minority?[1]

In the wake of Trump’s election, digital snippets began to emerge that captured white people ‘losing their shit’ in the course of a range of mundane consumer transactions. Losing their shit is a polite way of putting it: those encountering these clips on social media became spectators to a series of highly public, abusive outbursts, precipitated by frustrated feelings of entitlement to special treatment:

  • In a Miami Starbucks, a white man started abusing African-American employees because his coffee was taking longer than expected. ‘I voted for Trump! TRUMP!’ he screamed. ‘You lost, now give me my money back!’ he demanded of the woman behind the counter, calling her “trash” before going on to harangue and harass employees and other customers.
  • In a Chicago store, a white woman went into a highly public fit of vitriol and abuse when an African-American cashier asked her to pay for a $1 reusable bag (as per store policy). She felt she was being discriminated against because she was white. ‘I voted for Trump!’ And look who won!” she announced for all to hear, before launching into a 45 minute tirade directed against African-American and Hispanic employees and other customers, in which she directly compared one store manager to “an animal”.
  • A man flying Delta from Atlanta to Allentown (located in a borderline electoral district in Pennsylvania) subjected passengers to a noisy pro-Trump rant, demanding to know whether there were any ‘Hilary bitches on here’.

In each of these incidents, subjects emboldened by the Trump win fly into highly public scenes of vitriol, rage  and abuse at the drop of a hat. Trump and Brexit-style rhetoric has carefully mapped out sites of external blame for whatever it is these white folks are suffering: racial and sexual minorities, immigrants, liberal elites, independent women and transgender individuals are typical scapegoats.

The documented spikes in racisthomophobic and transphobic violence that occurred after Brexit and the US election can be read as further manifestations of a syndrome or structure of feeling ‘triggered by’ these official endorsements of populist ethno-nationalist sentiment. These violent acts, committed in bids to reassert failing sovereignty, remind us that the idealised nation  is not only racialized (white), but also has a sexuality (heteronormative) that is felt to be constitutively endangered.

(These vigilante posters, which appeared in Melbourne over 2016, could be regarded as Australian symptoms or subtypes of this syndrome.  The Antipodean Resistance describes itself as a youth organisation that opposes “substance abuse, homosexuality, and all other rotten, irresponsible distractions laid before us by Jews and globalists elites”)


What I find particularly interesting about these acts of aggression and violence is their adoption of the prism of identity politics to vent out their claims on cultural supremacy and special treatment. These people feel they have been discriminated against: that, were it not for radical intervention, the liberal state would further conspire to reduce their recourse to the terms of abuse that once kept minorities and women in their place and thus served to ensure their own social status and dominance so effectively.[2]

In 1997 Lauren Berlant observed, “today many formerly iconic citizens who used to feel undefensive and unfettered feel truly exposed and vulnerable …They sense that they now have identities, when it used to be just other people who had them.”[3] What has happened in the interim, and what few could have predicted, is how enthusiastically these self-same subjects have embraced the terms of identity politics to understand their own plight and vituperatively restore their hold on cultural privilege.

In Australia, there has been no shortage of privileged white men prepared to line up to whine at length, publicly and pathetically, about their intolerable sense of of having been victimised. white-man-sooksThe federal government actively panders to these sentiments, withdrawing funding from anti-bullying programs offering sex and gender diversity education in schools, and more recently, announcing a parliamentary inquiry into whether provisions that make it unlawful to publicly “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” others on the basis of race impose “unreasonable restrictions on freedom of speech”. (Won’t someone please unfetter the poor privileged white darlings?).

safe-schools-hate-speechImage: Cartoonist Cathy Wilcox’s critique of Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull’s intention to stall a vote on marriage equality by requiring a public plebiscite, and de-fund the Safe Schools program, February 2016.


The ebullient outbursts I’ve described above are steeped in vindictive and vengeful ressentiment that seeks out sites of external blame upon which to avenge hurt and redistribute their pain.[4] It is very tempting to diagnose these psychotic outbursts as symptoms of a new pathology: Trumpitis? Brexophilia? Post-Trump Manic Spectrum Disorder? After all, anger and violence generated by delusions of grandeur and delusions of persecution are regarded as textbook signs of paranoid schizophrenia.

Pathologising people isn’t my usual style – I’ve spent most of my life contesting the imposition of therapeutic morality – but part of me says, why not? If these folks truly want to qualify as minority identities, bring it on! After all, would LGBT, feminists, and people of colour really qualify as minority identities in the absence of their historical subjection to intensive pathologization, criminalisation, surveillance and brutal treatment? If you’re really a subordinated identity, show me the evidence!

The problem with psychologisation is that it dehistoricizes affective complications, extracting these feelings of the world from any broader sociopolitical, historical trajectories. It’s also patronising, and therefore likely to compound the problem: In 1997, when a ‘highbrow’ journalist asked Australia’s far right politician Pauline Hanson if she was xenophobic, Hanson’s blinking response, “please explain?” resonated with many older, white non-tertiary educated Australians, powerfully embodying a spreading sense of alienation from the structures of liberal power.[5]


One of the most subtle and provocative arguments of Wendy Brown’s (1995) States of Injury – perhaps the least popular among liberal critics – is that the disciplinary genres of US identity politics personalise and naturalise some of the complex injuries of capitalism. In taking the white heterosexual middle class as the standard against which social injury is measured, the North American habit of staging politics through identity makes categories of identity “bear all the weight of … sufferings produced by capitalism.”[6]  I find this insight particularly useful in terms of getting a grip on the present conjuncture, where the capitalist dream is failing to deliver on its promise even for much of the white middle class.  In this instance, the siphoning of socioeconomic and cultural frustrations into a racialised category of wounded identity has generated particularly abusive, vindictive and (dare I say) psychotic manifestations.

What I think would be most helpful now is a more affirmative understanding of identity and difference, a reformulation of the possibilities of identity that equips us for dealing with our multi-ethnic, multi-gendered times – and even take some pleasure in them. (I’m struck, for example, by the factoid that recently came to light that Trump supporters ‘are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones’ and have limited interaction with other social groups.  The point speaks to the critical relevance of contact theory, whose vision of social safety is elaborated most imaginatively and queerly by African American Sci-Fi writer Samuel Delany.[7])

Imagine if identity was conceived, not as a category of victimhood or failed sovereignty requiring the protection and reparative intervention of a (presumptively white and heterosexual) state, but a source of multiplicity and difference – a contact zone – that is valued and affirmed for the occasions it opens up for mutual transformation? Whose promise consists precisely in the unpredictable and exciting possibilities that emerge from inter-class/identity encounters for what nations and worlds and states might become ?[8]

With this more affirmative approach to identity and difference, perhaps we will get a more active, constructive handle on what might become of the present phase of consumer capitalism and globalisation. But of course this will require white heterosexual subjects to renounce their claims on sovereignty and special treatment, and address their present manifestation as retaliatory violence against unknown others – as a matter of urgency.


[1] In the Australian context of state multiculturalism, Ghassan Hage theorises this situation as one in which a white majority starts to worry it is losing its grip on the managerial relation it has enjoyed over national space, which it feels is its birth-right. See Hage, White nation: Fantasies of white supremacy in a multicultural society. Routledge, 2012.

[2] For a wonderfully pedagogical and accessible explication of this point see Meaghan Morris, ‘Sticks and Stones and Stereotypes’

[3] Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America goes to Washington City: Essays on sex and citizenship. Duke University Press, 1997, p. 2.

[4] On ressentiment, see Friedrich Nietzsche, On the genealogy of morals and ecce homo. Vintage, 2010.

[5] For a brilliant discussion of this moment to which this argument is indebted see Meaghan Morris (2000), “‘Please explain?’ignorance, poverty and the past.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 1,2: 219-232.

[6] Wendy Brown, States of injury: Power and freedom in late modernity. Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 60. For another brilliant excavation of the trials, tribulations and terms of US identity politics see Cindy Patton, “Tremble, hetero swine!” in Warner (ed.) Fear of a queer planet: Queer politics and social theory, 1993, pp.143-177.

[7] Rylan Lizza, “What we learned about Trump’s supporters this week”, New Yorker, August 13, 2016.  For a queer vision of social safety that draws brilliantly on contact theory see Samuel Delany (1999), Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.

[8] For a more detailed elaboration of the theoretical coordinates of this approach, and an attempt to put it into practice, see my  forthcoming book, The Gay Science: Intimate Experiments with the Problem of HIV, under contract with Routledge.

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Filed under Affect, Masculinities, Medicine and science, Random thoughts, Self-medication

Exceptional Sex

How does crystal meth participate in the continuing experience of HIV among gay men, and how have responses to HIV shaped gay men’s crystal meth use and surrounding practices?  The topic recurs with surprising regularity in gay community discourse:  We’ve had a number of excellent community forums on this issue in Australia in the last few months alone – and seen the production of some useful resources locally and internationally – yet some of the themes, findings and positions taken in these forums have persisted for a decade if not more.

Exceptional Sex was an attempt I made in 2007 to make sense of the evolving construction of “the Tina epidemic”, or whatever you’d like to call it – #WiredPlay, #Chemsex, #PNP, the “double epidemic”.  Each of these terms have tried to do the work of naming, in different geographical contexts, what nevertheless seem to be some common patterns and emerging forms in urban gay scenes internationally.

I’m sharing Exceptional Sex here because I think the analysis if offers remains topical, but the text itself is hard to access in electronic form.  (You can always buy the book  hint hint – Pleasure Consuming Medicine (Duke UP 2009), where the essay was later published).

But I’m also curious – what’s changed?  what’s stayed the same? what’s missing? where do we go from here?

What can we make of this issue?

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Filed under HIV behavioural surveillance, Masculinities, Online meeting sites, Parties, PNP culture, Policy and programs, Self-medication, Sexual practice, The statistical imagination

Police intimidation: no way to work with community

The Hon. Barry O’Farrell, MP, Premier of NSW

Monday 11 March, 2013

Open Letter

Dear Premier,

Last Friday evening I attended the protest against police behaviour during Mardi Gras at Taylor Square.  Over a thousand concerned citizens turned out to protest police practices surrounding the event.  Although the full circumstances surrounding the treatment of Jamie Jackson have yet to be established, the footage has clearly hit a nerve and unleashed much more widespread community dissatisfaction and longstanding feelings of mistreatment at the hands of police among communities participating in Mardi Gras.

Community organisations are meeting with police next week to discuss ways of addressing the situation.  Among the proposals that are put to them, a clear message must be sent that we demand the removal of sniffer dogs from the arsenal of police techniques used at our events and on our streets.

For over a decade now, NSW police have used drug detection dogs as a pretext to subject sexual and racial minorities, the homeless, and youth attending music festivals to harassment and intimidation. This practice must be stopped.  Nowhere else in the western world is such widespread, active and high profile use of sniffer dogs accepted or tolerated except in highly circumscribed contexts such as airports and during bomb threats.  It sends the wrong message about police attitudes to the public they say they want to work with and it reeks of contempt towards the communities the police are meant to serve.  I firmly believe that there will be no improvement in community-police relations until the Police Powers Act is amended to bring this practice within the same sort of highly restricted parameters as civilised jurisdictions internationally.  Indeed, the community response to the Jamie Jackson incident suggests that despite years of dedicated hard interagency work on the part of Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officers, community organisations, and concerned officers within government and the police force, a deep sense of hostility and resentment towards police seethes beneath the surface of our community, largely attributable to this practice and its unnecessary use in otherwise peaceful community spaces.

The suitability of drug detection dogs as a means of responding to drug use has been roundly criticized by public health specialists and criminologists and this is not the place to rehearse these points (but see the damning NSW Ombudsman’s review of the practice in its 2006 report). Suffice it to say that the practice has been evaluated as not only very costly but ineffective with respect to drug detection, and counterproductive in terms of drug harm.  It is deemed by many specialists to be inconsistent with harm minimisation principles. Drug detection dogs are likely implicated, for example, in the 2009 death of Gemma Thoms at a music festival in Perth, where she panicked at the sight of police dogs and took her three ecstasy tablets at once to avoid detection.  Meanwhile, the many people who do not use drugs at these events are subjected to unwarranted suspicion and surveillance, including full body strip searches in recent documented cases at Mardi Gras.

Less often discussed at a policy level is the way this policing technique positions our community: as suspects rather than worthy recipients of state protection and care.  The 2011 government finding that sniffer dogs yield around 80% false positives suggests that police enthusiasm for this technique is based on nothing more than the license that the presence of a dog would seem to give them to stop and search whomever they please.  Sniffer dogs serve as an opportunity and often a pretext for intimidation, harassment and invasion of personal space.  They effectively constitute the policed as guilty until proven innocent.  This is a major infringement of civil rights.

There are those who will fall back on the illegality of drug use in order to substantiate this policing practice and disqualify the sort of complaints made here. But this sort of dissimulation is entirely disingenuous and ignores the message that the strategy sends out to the communities on which it is inflicted.  In short, it is not just the brutality depicted in the footage of the Jamie Jackson incident, but the sniffer dogs, the strip searches, the intimidation, the aggression, the humiliation and the disrespect that this police method embodies that caused people to gather en masse in Taylor Square on the evening of 8 March.  This is no way to a position a community that has undertaken, with respect to HIV/AIDS, one of the most impressive public health responses in the world, largely on the basis of the strength of community bonds forged at events like Mardi Gras.

If police and the relevant decision-makers are serious about improving community relations they will reconsider and revoke this strategy.

Yours sincerely,

Associate Professor Kane Race ,

Chair, Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney

Associate of the Sydney Institute of Criminology


Filed under Drug dogs, HIV behavioural surveillance, Parties, Police, Policy and programs

Cataloguing desire

Has anyone seen the recent biopic J.Edgar?  It’s the story of J. Edgar Hoover, who was head of the FBI between 1935 and 1972 and who was also a rumoured homosexual.  At one point early on in the film, the young J. Edgar is depicted taking his soon-to be assistant, Helen Gandy, on a date to see the card catalogue system he claimed to have invented for the Library of Congress.  (Gee, some date!)  In a bid to show off the ingenuity and efficiency of the system, he asks Gandy to propose any topic for him to search within the archives.  “Indiscretion!” she proposes, and in a matter of minutes, J. Edgar finds a book on the topic and retrieves it from the library shelves.  He then goes on the rhapsodise about how wonderful it would be if there were a card on every individual in the United States: how easy it would be to solve crimes if every individual were as easily identifiable as books in the library.

The film sets up an interesting set of tensions and associations between information retrieval, the catalogue, surveillance, indiscretion and homosexual expressivity.  The ‘theory’ of the film is that it is J. Edgar’s own inability to express his sexuality that leads to his obsessive interest in the private lives of others.  (This licences the film to go on obsessively to explore the private life of J.Edgar.  Not a happy thing, unless you like tales of repressed old gay men played by straight actors in bad ‘old person’ makeup….)

For me, this representation of the card catalogue connects in interesting ways to another historical figure who I’ve been researching, Sam Steward – a fascinating figure, and contemporary of J. Edgar Hoover’s, whose life is the topic of this recent brilliant biography by Justin Spring.  Steward was a literature professor, who became a tattoo artist and also a writer of erotic fiction.  He was friends with a range of prominent 20th c. figures, from Gertrude Stein to Alfred Kinsey.  He was also a bit of a gay lothario and lover of rough trade.

One of the best known features of Steward’s life was his keeping of The Stud File, a 746 cross-referenced card catalogue system in which he recorded details of every sexual partner he had between 1924 through 1974 – their measurements, attributes, what they did together, etc.  Steward used the catalogue system partly in order to refresh his memory and enable repeat encounters, partly as an upshot of his relentless enthusiasm for archiving.

This makes me think about the use of this device as part of male homosexual arrangements and erotic practice over the  20th century.  The catalogue emerges as a distinctive mechanism or what I would call an infrastructure of sexual encounter.  I’ve become fascinated with the place of the catalogue in the emergent homosexual subjectivity of the 20th c.  Just as fascinating, I think, is the desire to enumerate; and  the place of the statistical imagination in homosexual self-understanding more generally (I’ll blog about this some more another time).

Steward went on to become one the key informants of Alfred Kinsey, whose work is considered foundational for American sexology.  I’m struck by the sense in which Steward’s practice of cataloguing anticipates and informs the scientific methods of this nascent discipline.  For me the link to Kinsey connects in suggestive ways to the practices of HIV behavioural and epidemiological surveillance, which draw extensively on the techniques of sexology, and which have become the primary means of knowing about male-to-male sexual practice – a massive worldwide apparatus, intensively resourced and linked into policy, without which contemporary policy responses to HIV/AIDS would be unthinkable.

There’s a lot that can be said about this particular structure of scientific knowledge and the forms of authority it auspices (and I’ve begun to try to say some of it here and here): the sense in which the primary way in which we ‘know’ about sexual practice is by counting and measuring other people’s behaviour.  I’m constantly struck, for example, by the fact that we have so many people working in the HIV field who are regular participants in affected communities/cultures, but who are blocked if not actively discouraged (by the professional frames within which they work) from reflecting in any sort of sustained or explicit way on the making of their experience …as part of their work  .  You have to ask: what sort of engagement with sexual practice are these epistemological arrangements modelling?

But I am also interested in the sense in which Steward’s practice of cataloguing anticipates or presages another contemporary device or formal infrastructure which now plays a major part in the facilitation of all-male sexual encounters: the online hookup site; and in particular, the online profile …which can be viewed as an active participant in the contemporary shaping of gay sexual subjectivities.  Through the online profile, we catalogue ourselves – according to certain formats – and we use this device to facilitate sexual encounters, having it operate as the terms of our initial exposure to others.  Could the popular participation (not to mention forms of disaffection and critical engagement) that surround this infrastructure be more widely or critically generative?

The difference of course between J. Edgar and Sam Steward, or between behavioural surveillance and online cruising, is that in the latter instance what we have – at least potentially – is a case of inhabiting the catalogue: i.e. an explicit use of the catalogue for embodied and erotic purposes.

And so what I am becoming interested in is the politics that emerges when we acknowledge (or get explicit about) our inhabitation of the catalogue: When we reformulate or engage the catalogue as a device that is affective, erotic and specifically inhabited …


Filed under Affect, Devices and technology, Eroticism and fantasy, HIV behavioural surveillance, Online meeting sites, The statistical imagination