The secret life of Freddie Mercury

We’ve come a long way since the life and death of Freddie Mercury.

PHOTO Freddie Mercury (Rex)

The incomparable Freddy Mercury. PHOTO Rex

The terrific new Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, brings to mind how much things have changed since those rip-roaring years when Queen was at the top of its game.

Replete with the songs and stagecraft that made Queen and especially their lead singer so beloved around the world, the movie pays homage to one of the great musical and performing talents of our time. Rami Malek’s portrayal of Mercury is worthy of a best-actor Oscar.

Mercury’s Parsi upbringing in Zanzibar and India and his family’s migration to the UK are touched on as background in Bohemian Rhapsody, but the movie’s focus is the central part of his life, when his and Queen’s stars were in the ascendency.

The movie is about Mercury as an artist, and no Queen fan would want it any other way. While making it clear he was gay, it merely alludes to his unusually active sex life. But it’s impossible to ignore this in light of all that has happened since.

Mercury had strong family ties and respected the institution of marriage as it existed then. For several years his partner was a young woman, Mary Austin. She remained a lifelong friend.

In the mid-1980s he learned he had HIV. He kept his sexuality and his illness private, never discussing them in public, but events overtook him. Back then the disease was considered untreatable, and in 1991 it killed him. It was bad timing; a decade later he would have survived.

Homosexual acts between consenting men had been decriminalised in England in 1967, but that didn’t end persecution of homosexual people there. Everywhere in the world, embracing sexual and gender diversity has been a long, hard journey which continues to this day.

Here, Australian jurisdictions one by one abolished anti-gay laws, starting in South Australia in 1975 and ending in Tasmania in 1997. They were great victories for civil society, but they didn’t end discrimination. There was and still is much left to be done.

Steadily shifting public attitudes have driven change. Twenty years after the Tasmanian breakthrough, opinion polls showed a big majority of Australians favouring equal treatment of all people regardless of their sexuality or gender.

That should have been enough to see legislation for marriage equality pass easily through the federal parliament. But that happened only after a difficult and for some traumatic campaign last year forced by a small minority of MPs who objected to a free parliamentary vote.

It’s now enshrined in law. Same-sex couples now enjoy the same rights to marriage as the rest of us. This is something we should all celebrate. Yet there remain some who choose not to celebrate. At the heart of this opposition are religious organisations which teach that homosexuality is sinful.

“Scripture teaches that sex is God’s gift to humanity, only to be expressed within the marriage of a man and a women,” says the website of Sydney-based Liberty Christian Ministries. It seeks to “liberate” people of faith from “the problem” of same-sex attraction.

There are various approaches. Some organisations say they oppose “aversion therapy”, which seeks to turn a person’s homosexual desire into something unpleasant. But all of them cast homosexuality as unnatural, outside God’s laws.

That flies in the face of the finding by the American Psychiatric Association that homosexuality and bisexuality are “normal and positive variations of human sexual orientation”, and that aversion or conversion therapies cannot actually change sexual orientation.

Whatever the scriptures may say, science tells us that a person’s sexuality stems from an interplay of genetic, hormonal and environmental influences, and that homosexuality has nothing to do with bad parenting or early childhood experiences.

Numerous scientific studies in many countries, including Australia, have found that homosexuality is not a choice, but should be seen as a natural expression of human sexuality. That position was endorsed by most Australians in last year’s marriage equality survey.

Even so, a minority among us continues to assert that there is a right kind of sex and a wrong kind. Once that belief held sway across many religions; now we know it is simply untrue.

Had Freddie Mercury survived, he would have seen the stigma of being gay all but disappear. He would have experienced the relief of acceptance by society at large. He could have dropped all the subterfuge and deception, the little lies he felt forced to use to disguise what he really was.

He paid the ultimate price for living life on the edge. We may have benefited from that edginess in his songs and stagecraft, but we should never wish it on anyone. Everyone benefits when society at large accepts all shades of sexuality and gender as part of humanity’s rich tapestry.

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The words they dare not speak

For reasons that remain obscure, our governments seem incapable of facing the climate demon

California burning: coastal fires north of Los Angeles at the weekend. PHOTO Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images

California burning: coastal fires north of Los Angeles at the weekend. PHOTO Robyn Beck / AFP – Getty Images

As the bone-dry desert kingdom of Jordan suffers its second deadly flash-flood in a fortnight, a placid late autumn in California is suddenly overwhelmed by apocalyptic wildfire. Both are telling signs of a shifting global climate.

People generally seem to recognise this. In countries that measure public opinion, supporters of strong mitigating action are a growing majority. Yet the body politic seems to have stopped trying. In the US mid-term elections last week climate rated barely a mention.

Three years ago the world agreed in Paris to do everything necessary to avoid a dangerous future climate. Last month the world scientific community spelt out that what was needed for this: a huge, unprecedented global effort to reduce emissions, starting now.

And what has been the response of the world’s political elites? A small flurry of claim and counter-claim, then silence. In the unspoken rules of these circles, climate would now seem to be a fully-fledged taboo.

The main responsibility for this appalling state of affairs lies with nation-states and the political and commercial elites whose decisions drive the global economy from the great Northern Hemisphere commercial hubs, led by the likes of Donald Trump and Xi Jinping.

But that doesn’t absolve the rest of us. This is a collective culpability, shared by every nation, every party, every religious belief and ideology, every voter. In Australia it includes not just present national and state leaders, but others who came before.

For over two decades the general thrust of Australian climate policy has been not to tell the story as it is, but to prevent scrutiny of our shameful inaction. The timeline of these barren years – dominated by spin, deception, concealment and hubris – makes depressing reading:

1997: Australia refuses to sign the Kyoto agreement to reduce carbon emissions unless it is allowed to disguise its own increased emissions using data from “avoided” land clearing. That allows Australia to increase actual emissions by 28 per cent over the next 15 years.

2002-07: After declaring he will not ratify Kyoto, John Howard continues to avoid any climate policy commitment until faced with imminent electoral defeat.

2007-09: In pursuit of an emissions trading scheme Kevin Rudd dons the climate leadership mantle, then loses it with graceless political point-scoring against opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull.

2009-12: On becoming Liberal leader Tony Abbott declares he will oppose a price on carbon. The Greens reject Rudd’s legislation because it doesn’t meet their top-shelf standards. Julia Gillard topples Rudd, wins an election by a whisker and sets up a national carbon price scheme.

2013-14: Abbott wins office and abolishes carbon pricing, paying lip-service to climate policy with a fixed-budget “direct action” scheme mainly supporting tree-growing. Emissions that had been curbed under a carbon tax begin to rise again, a trajectory that still holds today.

2015-18: Deposing Abbott in 2015, Turnbull seeks a muted, heavily disguised carbon price signal in the form of the National Energy Guarantee, but opposition from a small party rump sees it killed off ahead of Turnbull’s party-room defeat.

2017-18: Scott Morrison’s climate policy, such as it is, carries the lead weight of his parliamentary game with a lump of coal and his openness to spending public money on coal-fired power.

In Tasmania, the dying months of Paul Lennon’s premiership saw a 2008 act of parliament purporting to guide our island’s climate policies for half a century, but it was an empty shell that needed filling with solid policies and actions.

That was not to be. Successive governments led by David Bartlett, Lara Giddings and Will Hodgman have hardly begun to address the reality of Tasmania’s unchanging emission levels.

Over the years a handful of public servants, notably the small climate group within the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and even one or two ministers have put some effort into making government more climate-friendly, but with little of substance to show for it.

Well-considered climate strategies by successive ministers Cassy O’Connor and Matthew Groom have failed to realise their promise. They made barely a ripple among the political and bureaucratic elite who pull the budgetary levers, and little of substance has flowed from them.

Kyoto’s land-use provisions have bedevilled carbon accounting here as well as nationally. Tasmanian governments have used data from unharvested forests to claim climate leadership while concealing a general failure to reduce actual fossil-fuel emissions.

Effective climate policy calls for the whole of government – roots, trunk, branches, leaves… the lot – to completely transform the way it functions. It demands leaders in both government and business who acknowledge the absolute necessity and priority of doing all in our power to cut emissions.

Instead, leaders have avoided even talking about climate change. Here and everywhere, a conspiracy of silence seems to have formed around it, as if our bold, brave leaders are suddenly confronted with the Black Death.

Why is this? What are they afraid of? Are they incapable of standing up and calling this crisis for what it is – a real and present threat to the future of humanity everywhere? Is the whole thing too big for them?

Or is the reason something closer to home, perhaps? Is their real fear focused on their peers, the people who look over their shoulders, murmur about them in the corridors, complain about them to radio shock-jocks and build resentment against them within their party?

One thing is certain. If Scott Morrison and Will Hodgman do have a change of heart, if they finally decide to defy the naysayers in their party and face the climate demon, they will find all the support they need out there in the wider voting public.

Acting decisively to mitigate climate change has always had science solidly behind it. Now we can add to that the voting public. With those on your side, how could you possibly lose?

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Measures of greatness in Trump’s America

Is America greater under Trump? It depends how you measure it.

Would I lie to you? Donald Trump on the hustings, 2018. PHOTO Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

Would I lie to you? Donald Trump on the hustings, 2018. PHOTO Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

Two years ago the US shocked itself and the world by electing Donald Trump on the promise that he would make America great again. So how’s that going?

That isn’t a completely idle question. The US economy is on the move and employment is rising. In Trump territory, with mothballed coalmines and steelworks operating again, there’s a general air of optimism that their man is on the right track.

It could be argued that Trump’s chosen techniques in dealing with tyrants (puffery, flattery) and democratic allies (indifference, contempt) have had some success. Kim Jon-Un, for instance, seems to have stopped shouting and started talking, though that story still has a long way to go.

These are early days; such things may turn out to be substantial or they may be just specks on history’s broad canvas.

Other impacts of Trumpism, however, are already clear, and certainly not inconsequential. His response to events within and outside the US tell a worrying story about the values of the man in the White House and where these are taking the country – and the world.

A few thousand Central Americans in several groups, fleeing civil strife and seeking US asylum, are presently in far-southern Mexico, over 2000 km by road from the US border. Past experience of these “caravans” suggests few people will make it even to Mexico City, still over 1000 km away.

Without citing evidence, Trump said the caravans harboured “some very bad people… This is an invasion of our Country”. He ordered thousands of troops to the border and warned that refugees who threw stones at them would be treated as if they carried rifles.

“Go into the middle of the caravan,” he told a media interviewer. “You’re going to find Middle Eastern, you’re going to find everything.” His own military advised there was no evidence for his claim but he repeated it anyway. Fear is a potent political tool.

The mid-term election campaign and “The Caravan” especially have added a whole drawer-full to an already-burgeoning file of false statements by Trump, as catalogued assiduously by Glenn Kessler’s Washington Post Fact Checker blog.

It was clear from day one that truth-telling (or its absence) would be a defining factor in Trump’s presidency. Since then Kessler and his team have subjected each of his factual claims to a rigorous, transparent checking process.

This revealed a rising crescendo of falsehoods in the final weeks of the mid-term campaign, including one day last month when Trump made 84 claims that were untrue. Over that month he made over 1000 false statements, bringing his presidential total to date to over 6400.

Of the many attempts to analyse and explain this phenomenal rate of misstatement (in the absence of evidence about prior knowledge I wouldn’t call it all outright lying), most conclude simply that Trump is a president like no other.

The president doesn’t care about factual accuracy, but he does value truth as a political weapon. While accusing detractors of lying, he constantly reassures followers that in today’s ocean of fake news Donald Trump is a beacon of honesty, the only person they can rely on for real truth.

Alas, if only that were true.

Another element of the Trump campaign toolbox is altogether more sinister. The language of physical violence has surfaced often during the president’s term of office, as it did in the months before his election.

At one of his early campaign rallies Trump told supporters to “knock the crap” out of anyone they saw preparing to throw a tomato at him, adding “I promise you I will pay for the legal fees.”

At another rally the same month he drew supporters’ attention to a protester being escorted away: “He’s walking out with big high-fives, smiling, laughing. I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell you.”

Then there is the notorious case of Greg Gianforte, who as a candidate for Congress in 2017 got annoyed at a news reporter and slammed him to the floor. Gianforte was fined for assault and required to undertake anger management training.

Some of us might have questioned the fitness for office of a man who can’t contain his rage at a reporter’s questioning. Trump’s view is, well, Trumpian. Just a month ago he told a Montana rally that “any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my type!”

Donald Trump is now firmly ensconced in the White House. It will take more than a mid-term tremor to unseat this reality-TV star, supported by his own simplified, scripted reality.

For progressive liberals – special targets of Trump – a nation’s greatness must incorporate concepts like social justice and equality. But greatness to Donald Trump resides in the size of your bicep, or your armoury, and on measures like that America seems to be doing just fine.

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