Was Mark Latham's notorious tweet really homophobic? And what is homophobia anyway?

There hasn’t been a debate this week over Mark Latham’s vulgar and allegedly homophobic tweet on March 30. We need one.

So far, only one side has appeared on stage. In a rare show of unity, the New South Wales Premier, Chris Minns, the Opposition Leader, Mark Speakman, and the Federal leader of Latham’s own One Nation party have all expressed their disgust, dismay, abhorrence, shock and so on. Even conservative commentator Andrew Bolt described it as “so disgusting, so homophobic and so vile in a pornographic way that I can't even hint at what he said.”

Latham is a former leader of the Federal Labor Party who resigned after a disastrous defeat in 2004. He eventually found a seat in the Upper House of the NSW Parliament in the tiny but influential One Nation party. He is intelligent and perceptive but notoriously hot-headed. It comes as no surprise that he has dug in his heels and refused to back down. "Never apologise, never explain," he tweeted.

The target of the tweet, Independent MP Alex Greenwich, has responded by suing Latham for defamation, reporting a hate crime to the police, and complaining to the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW about homosexual vilification.

“I’ve been openly gay in public life for 15 years and in NSW parliament for over 10 years,” he said, “and never have I experienced such a homophobic, sexualised attack that exposed me to contempt, ridicule and extreme abuse, based on my sexuality.”

It’s extraordinary that no one has lifted a head above the parapet to ask whether this pile-on is reasonable. Especially in view of the fact that the incident seems to have exposed Greenwich to more praise than contempt. His political stocks have soared.

First, most people have no idea what Latham said, as the tweet has been deleted. All media reports about the affair have contained a sentence along these lines: “The tweet contained such offensive language that we refuse to allow you to read it.”

I have read it – you can find it in Jarryd Bartle’s legal analysis of Greenwich’s three-pronged attack on Latham at Sydney Criminal Lawyers. To be frank, it is 17 words describing the act of sodomy. Three of them are coarse but quite common. MercatorNet will not risk offending Mr Greenwich all over again by repeating them.

Second, most people have no idea what triggered Mr Latham. Since there is no risk of offending him, here is Mr Greenwich’s assessment of his character, as published in the Sydney Morning Herald:  


“Mark Latham is a disgusting human being and people who are considering voting for One Nation need to realise they are voting for an extremely hateful and dangerous individual who risks causing a great deal of damage to our state.”

In response to this, Mr Latham said: “Disgusting?” -- plus the offending 17 words.

While both men were acting like primary school brats screaming abuse at each other on a playground, it’s hardly surprising that Mr Latham erupted. To be honest, I would not risk a summons to the Anti-Discrimination by calling Mr Greenwich disgusting, extremely hateful and dangerous. He would be offended and outraged – and rightfully so.

Third, is an anatomical description of sodomy really offensive? Of course, those four-letter words are vulgar, but sodomy is legal. It could even be said to be the act which consummates male same-sex marriage.

By hyperventilating and calling for the smelling salts, Mr Greenwich et al are reviving Victorian prudishness. I recently stumbled across this passage in an 1839 book by the English novelist Frederick Marryat about his travels in America:


When at Niagara Falls I was escorting a young lady with whom I was on friendly terms … As she limped a little in walking home, I said, "Did you hurt your leg much?" She turned from me, evidently much shocked, or much offended, and not being aware that I had committed any very heinous offence, I begged to know what was the reason of her displeasure. After some hesitation, she said that as she knew me well, she would tell me that the word leg was never mentioned before ladies.

We have progressed; we have removed frilly Victorian covers from table legs. But we haven’t progressed enough. Still, in 2023 the word sodomy must never be mentioned before homosexuals.

Only a few weeks ago Sydney hosted the World Pride 2023 festival for more than two weeks. Mr Greenwich was a proud participant in a Mardi Gras parade which featured scenes which would surely have brought a blush to the cheek of Marryat’s young lady. Why was he so fastidious when confronted with Mr Latham’s tweet?

G.K. Chesterton once observed that “It is a very queer thing that ‘Platonic Love’ has come to mean for the un-lettered something rather purer and cleaner than it means for the learned.” Perhaps the underlying problem with the media’s response to this schoolboy punch-up is that it gazes at homosexuality through high-minded, rose-tinted Platonic spectacles.

They are as naïve as Marryat’s lady friend. As Mr Latham reminded his Twitter followers, homosexuality has a physical dimension. What’s surprising about this whole affair is not that Mr Latham was offensive, but that Mr Greenwich was embarrassed.


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