Letter to Bruce Notley-Smith re Baird Liberal-National Government Commitments on NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977

Mr Bruce Notley-Smith MP

80 Bronte Road

Bondi Junction NSW 2022

coogee@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Sunday 1 March 2015

Dear Mr Notley-Smith

REVIEW OF NSW ANTI-DISCRIMINATION ACT 1977

I am writing as an attendee at the recent #rainbowvotes forum, where five Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum, including yourself, outlined their respective approaches to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) issues ahead of the upcoming NSW State Election.

Specifically, I am seeking clarification of your answers concerning the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 and what action you, and the Liberal-National Government, will take if you are re-elected.

At the forum, the representative attending on behalf of the NSW Labor Opposition, Ms Penny Sharpe MLC, gave a clear commitment that, if elected, a Foley Labor Government would undertake a formal review of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

Following that clear commitment, you made several comments that appeared to indicate your personal support for such an approach.

However, later during the same forum, you indicated that you were appearing at the forum in your capacity as an individual MP only, and not as a spokesperson for the current Baird Liberal-National Government.

As a result, I sought clarification from you, via twitter, whether it is indeed NSW Liberal policy to support a formal review of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

Given I have not received a response via social media, I am now writing to you more formally, with essentially the same question: is the Baird Liberal-National Government committed to reviewing the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 if it is re-elected on Saturday 28 March 2015?

As I have written previously (see: http://alastairlawrie.net/2015/02/20/questions-for-mps-and-candidates-during-sydney-gay-lesbian-mardi-gras/ ), I believe the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 is now the worst LGBTI anti-discrimination legislation in Australia.

This is because:

  • It fails for protect bisexual people from discrimination (the only jurisdiction in the country to do so)
  • It fails to protect intersex people from discrimination
  • The religious exceptions in sub-section 56(d) are the broadest in Australia
  • The exceptions allowing all private schools to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students are abhorrent
  • It fails to protect both bisexuals and intersex people from vilification and
  • The maximum individual fine for lesbian, gay and transgender vilification is only one-fifth of the maximum fine for racial vilification.

For all of these reasons, I believe that the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 should be amended as a matter of priority.

However, if you are unable to give a clear commitment that a re-elected Baird Liberal-National Government would make changes to these provisions, I submit that, at the bare minimum you, and the Government, should be able to commit to holding a formal review of this narrow and out-dated legislation.

Given there are now less than four weeks left until polling day, I would appreciate a response to this letter, outlining what commitments (if any) the Liberal-National Government is prepared to make in this area, at your earliest convenience.

I have also copied the Premier, the Hon Mike Baird MP, and the Attorney-General, the Hon Brad Hazzard MP, into this correspondence.

Thank you in advance for you consideration of the issues raised in this letter.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

cc: The Hon Mike Baird MP, NSW Premier

GPO Box 5341

Sydney NSW 2001

The Hon Brad Hazzard MP, NSW Attorney-General

GPO Box 5341

Sydney NSW 2001

office@hazzard.minister.nsw.gov.au

Will Liberal Member for Coogee, Bruce Notley-Smith, be able to provide a clear commitment to review the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?

Will Liberal Member for Coogee, Bruce Notley-Smith, be able to provide a clear commitment to review the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?

Questions for MPs and Candidates During Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras

Today is the official launch of Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, with a large and diverse festival leading up to the 37th official Mardi Gras Parade on Saturday March 7th 2015.

In recent years, as mainstream acceptance of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community has grown, so too has the tendency of politicians, and would-be politicians, to appear at Mardi Gras events as a way of engaging with, and directly appealing to, LGBTI voters.

This year, Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras overlaps with the campaign for the NSW State Election, to be held on Saturday March 28th, meaning there will likely be more Members of Parliament and candidates around than ever, trying ever-so-hard to convince us to vote for them.

Which is our opportunity to make them work (or should that be ‘werk’) for it. If MPs and candidates are going to come to our festival, then they should be made to respond to our questions (and it is our responsibility to tell them if and when their answers just aren’t good enough).

Of course, there are lots of different topics we could raise, but one issue which I would like to hear about is what each candidate – and political party – is going to do to fix the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, which now holds the dubious ‘honour’ of being the worst LGBTI anti-discrimination law in the country.

To start with, it only offers anti-discrimination protections to three of the five letters of the rainbow alphabet: lesbian, gay and transgender people.

That’s right, despite featuring the first gay anti-discrimination protections enacted in Australia (passed in 1982, so early in fact that it preceded the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in NSW by two years), the Anti-Discrimination Act has never formally protected bisexual people from discrimination[1].

All other Australian states and territories, and the Commonwealth, protect bisexuals, either specifically, or as part of ‘sexual orientation’. This ongoing exclusion from the NSW anti-discrimination scheme is nothing short of appalling.

The exclusion of intersex people, while perhaps more understandable – given the first explicit intersex anti-discrimination protections in the world were introduced in the Commonwealth’s Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 less than two years ago (and only Tasmania has since followed suit) – is no less unacceptable.

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 also has the broadest religious exceptions in the nation. Sub-section 56(d) effectively gives religious organisations carte blanche to actively discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender people across most areas of public life.

Sub-section 56(d) states that “[n]othing in this Act affects… any other act or practice of a body established to propagate religion that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion”.

That protects pretty much any action that a religious healthcare provider, community service, or school, might wish to take against LG&T employees, or people accessing those services, in this state.

Not that religious schools even need to rely on sub-section 56(d). In two of the most offensive provisions in Australian law today (not just anti-discrimination law, but any law), under the Anti-Discrimination Act all private schools in NSW (yes, even the non-religious ones) can explicitly refuse to enrol, can enrol under different conditions, and can expel, students solely because they are lesbian, gay or transgender.

These provisions are so utterly awful that they bear quoting in full:

Section 49ZO Education

  • It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a person on the ground of homosexuality:
    1. By refusing or failing to accept the person’s application for admission as a student, or
    2. In the terms on which it is prepared to admit the person as a student.
  • It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a student on the ground of homosexuality:
    1. By denying the student access, or limiting the student’s access, to any benefit provided by the educational authority, or
    2. By expelling the student or subjecting the student to any other detriment
  • Nothing in this section applies to or in respect of a private educational authority.” [emphasis added]

AND

Section 38K Education

  • It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a person on transgender grounds:
    1. By refusing or failing to accept the person’s application for admission as a student, or
    2. In the terms on which it is prepared to admit the person as a student.
  • It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a student on transgender grounds:
    1. By denying the student access, or limiting the student’s access, to any benefit provided by the educational authority, or
    2. By expelling the student or subjecting the student to any other detriment.
  • Nothing in this section applies to or in respect of a private educational authority.” [emphasis added]

There is absolutely no justification for this type of sexual orientation and gender identity segregation in our schools, in any schools. And we should challenge any MP or candidate who comes along to Mardi Gras and attempts to defend it.

The anti-vilification protections of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 are only slightly less bad. On the positive side, NSW is one of only four jurisdictions in the country to have some form of anti-vilification laws covering our community – and that is certainly better than the Commonwealth, which has section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 for racial vilification, but no LGBTI equivalent.

On the negative side, as with anti-discrimination, NSW legislation only protects against lesbian, gay and transgender vilification, and does not extend to vilification against bisexuals or intersex people.

Meanwhile, on the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding side (or, less politely, the WTF?-side), did you know that the maximum fine which an individual can receive for the offences of homosexual[2] or transgender[3] vilification is actually only one-fifth of the maximum individual fine for racial[4] vilification?

How on earth did anyone ever think that such a distinction – for offences which otherwise have exactly the same wording – was appropriate? More importantly, isn’t anyone who defends such a distinction in effect saying that vilifying lesbian, gay and transgender people is less offensive (perhaps even only one-fifth as bad) than vilifying people on the basis of race?

As you can see, there are many things distinctly wrong with the Anti-Discrimination Act 1997. As a consequence, there are many questions to ask Members of Parliament and candidates who attend Mardi Gras events over the next fortnight-and-a-bit.

And we should be asking those questions, not just at the LGBTI State Election Forum on Wednesday February 25th (details here: http://www.acon.org.au/about-acon/Newsroom/Media-Releases/2014/130 and free tickets here: http://www.eventbrite.com.au/e/nsw-state-election-forum-2015-tickets-15400759085) but also at Mardi Gras Fair Day on Sunday February 22nd, at the Parade on Saturday March 7th (asking them in the Parade marshalling area is probably your best bet), and at any other event at which they hold out a leaflet or put up a corflute.

To assist, I have attempted to summarise the above criticisms of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 in the following six questions. Please feel free to use them whenever an MP or candidate might raise their heads during Mardi Gras (or in the run-up to polling day itself):

  1. Will you amend the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 to protect bisexual and intersex people from discrimination?

 

  1. Will you repeal sub-section 56(d) of the Anti-Discrimination 1977 which currently grants the broadest religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws in the country?

 

  1. Will you repeal sections 49ZO and 38K of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 which allow all private schools and colleges the right to refuse enrolment of, impose special conditions on or expel lesbian, gay and transgender students?

 

  1. Will you amend the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 to protect bisexual and intersex people from vilification?

 

  1. Will you amend the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 to harmonise the penalties for vilification, rather than having a higher penalty for racial vilification than homosexual or transgender vilification? And

 

  1. If you are unable to make the above commitments, will you at least agree to conduct a review of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, which is now the most out-dated and worst LGBTI anti-discrimination law in Australia?

These are the questions which I would like answered during Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. I wonder which MPs and candidates are going to ‘come to the party’ (so to speak) by supporting better anti-discrimination laws for the entire LGBTI community.

"Religious exceptions are this wide." Actually, Premier Baird, they're a lot wider than that. Time to repeal sub-section 56(d) of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

“Religious exceptions are this wide.” Actually, Premier Baird, they’re a lot wider than that. Time to repeal sub-section 56(d) of the  Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

After much contemplation, Opposition Leader Luke Foley this week finally joined the 21st century by supporting marriage equality. Will he also support a 21st century Anti-Discrimination Act?

After much contemplation, Opposition Leader Luke Foley this week finally joined the 21st century by supporting marriage equality. Will he also support a 21st century Anti-Discrimination Act?

Finally, if you manage to secure a response from MPs or candidates on these questions during Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, whether that response is negative or positive, please leave their answers in the comments section below.

And, if you want to raise them directly with some of the relevant decision-makers, here are some people you might wish to contact:

Liberals

Premier Mike Baird

Email https://www.nsw.gov.au/your-government/contact-premier-new-south-wales

Phone 02 8574 5000

Twitter https://twitter.com/mikebairdMP

Attorney-General Brad Hazzard

Email office@hazzard.minister.gov.au

Phone 02 8574 6000

Twitter https://twitter.com/BradHazzard

Labor

Opposition Leader Luke Foley

Email leader.opposition@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Phone 02 9230 2310

Twitter https://twitter.com/Luke_FoleyNSW

Shadow Attorney-General Paul Lynch

Email ElectorateOffice.Liverpool@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Phone 02 9602 0040

Greens

Attorney-General Portfolio Spokesperson David Shoebridge

Email david.shoebridge@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Phone 02 9230 3030

Twitter https://twitter.com/ShoebridgeMLC

[1] Section 49ZG refers to discrimination on the basis of ‘homosexuality’, with ‘homosexual’ defined in section 4 as ‘homosexual means male or female homosexual’.

[2] Section 49ZTA sets the maximum individual punishment for serious homosexual vilification at 10 penalty units, or imprisonment for 6 months, or both.

[3] Section 38T provides that the maximum individual punishment for serious transgender vilification is 10 penalty units, or imprisonment for 6 months, or both.

[4] Section 20D establishes the maximum individual punishment for serious racial vilification: 50 penalty units, or imprisonment for 6 months, or both.

Submission to Australian Law Reform Commission Traditional Rights and Freedoms Inquiry

The Australian Law Reform Commission is currently conducting an inquiry into Traditional Rights and Freedoms – Encroachment by Commonwealth Laws (at the behest of Commonwealth Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis). They have released an Issues Paper for public consultation, with submissions due by Friday 27 February 2015. For more information about the inquiry, see <http://www.alrc.gov.au/inquiries/freedoms The following is my submission, focusing on LGBTI vilification, religious exceptions to anti-discrimination law, and asylum-seekers and refugees, including LGBTI refugees.

The Executive Director

Australian Law Reform Commission

GPO Box 3708

Sydney NSW 2001

c/- freedoms@alrc.gov.au

Sunday 15 February 2015

To whom it may concern

SUBMISSION TO TRADITIONAL RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS INQUIRY

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to the Traditional Rights and Freedoms – Encroachment by Commonwealth Laws Inquiry.

The subject of human rights and freedoms, and how they should best be protected, both by and from Government, is an important one, and is worthy of substantive consideration.

In this submission, I will focus on three particular areas in which the rights of people are currently being breached as a result of Commonwealth Government action, or in some cases, inaction:

  1. The Commonwealth Government’s failure to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians from vilification
  2. The Commonwealth Government’s tacit endorsement of discrimination, by religious organisations, against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians, and
  3. The gross violation of human rights of asylum-seekers and refugees, including LGBTI refugees, by the Commonwealth Government.

Before I move to these issues in more detail, however, I wish to express my concern about the Terms of Reference (provided by Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis) and therefore the overall direction of this inquiry.

The way in which the Terms of Reference have been formulated, and consequently the manner in which the Issues Paper has been drafted, appears to prioritise some rights above others, merely because they are older, or are found in common law, rather than being more modern rights or founded through legislation or international human rights documents.

This is an unjustified distinction, and makes it appear, at the very least, that property rights or ‘the common law protection of personal reputation’ (aka protection against defamation) are more important than other rights, such as freedom from vilification or discrimination.

My criticism of this inquiry is therefore similar to that of the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 Discussion Paper released by the Human Rights Commissioner Mr Tim Wilson. From my submission to that inquiry[1]:

“Specifically, I would argue that the prioritising of certain rights above others potentially neglects and devalues the importance of those other rights which are no less essential to ensuring that all Australians are able to fully participate in modern society.

From my point of view, chief among these rights is the right to non-discrimination, or to put it another way (which may be more favourably received), to be free from discrimination, including unfair or adverse treatment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The right to non-discrimination is fundamental in international human rights law adopted immediately post-World War II. Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that:

“Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognised in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, property, birth or other status.”

Similarly, article 21 of the ICCPR establishes that:

“All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has, in cases which both involved complaints by Australian citizens against actions by the Tasmanian and Commonwealth Government respectively, found that the wording of these articles includes the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.[2]

The Commonwealth Parliament has also recognised that the right to non-discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians is worthy of protection, with the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

This historic legislation, providing similar rights to non-discrimination to those already enjoyed on the basis of race, sex, disability and age, was a significant, albeit long overdue, step forward for the LGBTI community. For this reason, I would not wish to see the right to be free from discrimination on these attributes to be diminished in comparison to other, more ‘traditional’ rights.

Unfortunately, that is the almost inevitable conclusion of a consultation process which aims to consider “how effectively we protect people’s human rights and freedoms in Australia”… but which then only focuses on a small number of freedoms, including the right to property, but which neglects others.”

[End extract]

Encouragingly, the ALRC at least acknowledges, on page 31, that “[f]reedom from discrimination is also a fundamental human right.” But the Issues Paper does not include a chapter on this right, nor does it include it within the list of “[o]ther rights, freedoms and privileges” in Chapter 19.

I believe that this imbalance, in examining and prioritising some fundamental rights, while essentially ignoring others, undermines the utility of this process – and is something which must be redressed in the Final Report, expected by December 2015.

I turn now to three particular areas in which the Commonwealth Government either itself breaches human rights, or authorises others to do so.

  1. The Commonwealth Government’s failure to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians from vilification

[NB This topic relates to Chapter Two: Freedom of Speech, and its questions:

  • What general principles or criteria should be applied to help determine whether a law that interferes with freedom of speech is justified?
  • Which Commonwealth laws unjustifiably interfere with freedom of speech, and why are these laws unjustified?]

I acknowledge the importance of the right to freedom of expression, or freedom of speech. However, I also welcome the Issues Paper’s acknowledgement that there are possible justifications for encroachment on this right. In particular, the Issues Papers notes, at paragraph 2.2.4 on page 26:

“Similarly, laws prohibit, or render unlawful, speech that causes harm, distress or offence to others through incitement to violence, harassment, intimidation or discrimination.”

This obviously includes the prohibition on racial vilification contained in section 18C of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975[3].

My primary question is why laws should be established to prohibit ‘advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred’ but not to prohibit advocacy of hatred on other grounds, including sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The impact of vilification on these grounds, and the negative influence of public homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia more generally, is just as harmful as racial or religious vilification, and therefore I can see no good reason why there should not also exist equivalent anti-vilification protections covering LGBTI Australians a Commonwealth level.

It is for this reason that I provided a submission last year in response to the Senator Brandis’ Exposure Draft Bill seeking to repeal section 18C, in which I argued that, instead of abolishing racial vilification laws, similar protections against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status should be added to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984[4].

In short, if there should be a law to protect against the incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence on the basis of race, then there should also be a law to protect people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The fact that there is no such Commonwealth law means that the Government is currently failing in its duty to protect LGBTI Australians from vilification.

Finally, I note that this answer is, in some respects, contrary to the intention of “Question 2-2: [w]hich Commonwealth laws unjustifiably interfere with freedom of speech, and why are these laws unjustified?” because it instead proposes an additional area where freedom of speech should be limited.

I submit that such an answer is necessary to redress the imbalance contained in the Terms of Reference, and Issues Paper, because the right to freedom from vilification is equally worthy of recognition, and protection, in Commonwealth law. It is a right that should be extended to LGBTI Australians as a matter of priority.

  1. The Commonwealth Government’s tacit endorsement of discrimination, by religious organisations, against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians

[NB This topic relates to Chapter 3: Freedom of Religion, and its questions:

  • What general principles or criteria should be applied to help determine whether a law that interferes with freedom of religion is justified?
  • Which Commonwealth laws unjustifiably interfere with freedom of religion, and why are these laws unjustified?]

I acknowledge the fundamental importance of the right to freedom of religion. However, just as importantly, I support the statement on page 31 of the Issues Paper that:

“[f]reedom of religion is fundamental, but so too is freedom from discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, sexual orientation or some other protected attribute. Freedom from discrimination is also a fundamental human right.”

Indeed, the case at paragraph 3.20 on the same page, namely R v Secretary of state for education and employment; ex parte Williamson (2005) from the UK, provides a useful formulation:

“… there is a difference between freedom to hold a belief and freedom to express or ‘manifest’ a belief. The former right, freedom of belief, is absolute. The latter right, freedom to manifest, is qualified. This is to be expected, because the way a belief is expressed in practice may impact on others.”

Unfortunately, I do not believe that Australian law currently strikes the right balance between respecting the right to freedom of religion, and protecting others from the harms caused by the manifestation of those beliefs, including through breaches of the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Specifically, I am concerned that the broad exceptions and/or exemptions which are provided to religious organisations under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, including those protections added by the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, are far too generous.

In practice, these exceptions provide Government approval and endorsement of the discriminatory treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians by religious bodies in a large number of areas of public life[5].

For example, the combined impact of sub-section 37(1)(d) of the amended Sex Discrimination Act 1984[6] and section 38 of the same law (which applies to educational institutions established for religious purposes), means that, according to Commonwealth law:

  • Religious schools can freely discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, including expelling those students simply for being who they are;
  • Religious schools can also freely discriminate against LGBT staff members, including by refusing to provide or terminating their employment, where sexual orientation and gender identity is completely irrelevant to the ability of that person to perform the duties of the role;
  • Religious health and community services can similarly discriminate against both LGBT employees/potential employees, as well as LGBT individuals and families accessing these services, with impunity; and
  • Religious aged care services can discriminate against LGBT employees or potential employees.[7]

It is difficult to see how these exemptions, which allow LGBT people to be discriminated against simply as they seek to obtain an education, or access healthcare (which are themselves fundamental international human rights), and to be treated unfairly in employment in a large number of jobs across a wide range of areas, is not a gross breach of their human rights.

Religious exceptions and exemptions under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws allow serious harm to be caused to LGBT Australians, on a day-to-day basis and across multiple spheres of public life, and, I submit, should be significantly curbed.

To this end, I believe the religious exemptions which are included in sub-sections 37(1)(a),(b) and (c) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984[8], if supplemented by exemptions covering how religious ceremonies are conducted, are both more justifiable in being better targeted to protecting freedom of religious worship itself, and less likely to result in harm to LGBT people through the breach of their right to non-discrimination across broad areas of public life. These are the only religious exemptions that, I believe, should be retained.

This, much narrower, form of religious exemptions would, in my view, also be a more appropriate outcome of a system of human rights that seeks to both protect fundamental rights, and promote the responsibility not to infringe upon the fundamental rights of others.

Finally, as with my previous answer, I note that this discussion is potentially contrary to the intention of “Question 3-2: Which Commonwealth laws unjustifiably interfere with freedom of religion, and why are these laws unjustified?” because it highlights an area where, arguably, freedom of religion should be further restrained.

I believe that providing this answer is nevertheless important because, in Australia, freedom of religion is not unduly limited. Instead, freedom of religion is unjustifiably privileged, including where it tramples upon the rights of others, and especially the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians not to be discriminated against in public life.

A mature discussion of rights and freedoms would recognise this serious imbalance and seek to redress it, by ensuring that religious exceptions to and exemptions from anti-discrimination law only protected genuine freedom of religious worship, not establishing a supposed ‘right’ to discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

  1. The gross violation of human rights of asylum-seekers and refugees, including LGBTI refugees, by the Commonwealth Government

I am not an expert in migration and refugee law, nor in the international human rights instruments that apply in this area.

Nevertheless, I know enough about this subject matter to submit that:

  • Seeking asylum is a human right, and is not a criminal act, irrespective of the manner of arrival (whether by plane or by boat),
  • Responding to people exercising their right to seek asylum by detaining them in offshore processing centres, indefinitely, in inhumane conditions, and without free and fair access to justice, is a fundamental breach of their human rights, and
  • An inquiry into the encroachment by Commonwealth laws upon traditional rights and freedoms would be incomplete without a thorough examination of this issue.

As a long-term LGBTI advocate and activist, I also feel compelled to raise the specific issue of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees being processed and ultimately resettled in countries that criminalise homosexuality, namely Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

As I have written to several Commonwealth Immigration Ministers, under both Labor[9] and Liberal-National[10] Governments, such a policy clearly abrogates the responsibilities that the Commonwealth Government has towards LGBTI asylum-seekers.

From my letter to then Minister for Immigration the Hon Scott Morrison MP:

“… the mistreatment of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees raises particular problems, problems that do not appear to be recognised by the Australian Government. Nor does there appear to be any evidence the Government is taking action to remedy them.

Even if the offshore processing and permanent resettlement of refugees continues, this must not include the processing and resettlement of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees in countries which criminalise homosexuality (which both PNG and Nauru currently do).

If you, as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and therefore Minister responsible for the welfare of asylum seekers and refugees, cannot guarantee that sections 210 and 212 of the PNG Penal Code do not apply to detainees on Manus Island, then you cannot send LGBTI people there in good conscience.

If you, as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, cannot guarantee that LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees will not be subject to homophobic bullying and harassment, and will be free to lodge claims for protections on the basis of persecution due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then you must not detain them in such facilities.”

[End extract]

As I indicated at the beginning of this section, I am not an expert in this area of law, and therefore am not in a position to provide a more thorough analysis of the (multiple) breaches of human rights law involved in the offshore processing and resettlement of asylum seekers and refugees. I am confident, however, that there will be a number of submissions from human rights and refugee organisations in coming weeks that will do exactly that.

Nevertheless, I felt obliged to include this issue in my submission, given both the severity of the human rights breaches involved, and because of their particular impact on LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees, whose only ‘crime’ is to have sought the protection of our Government.

In conclusion, I wish to thank the Law Reform Commission again for the opportunity to provide this submission, and consequently to raise issues of concern for LGBTI people, namely the absence of anti-vilification protection in Commonwealth law, the breach of our right to non-discrimination because of religious exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act, and the mistreatment of asylum seekers and refugees, including LGBTI refugees, by the Commonwealth Government.

I look forward to these issues being addressed in the inquiry’s Final Report, to be released by the end of 2015.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

[1] Full submission at: http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/10/27/submission-to-rights-responsibilities-2014-consultation/

[2] Human Rights Committee, Toonen v Australia, Communication No. 488/1992, UN Doc CCPR/C/50/D/488/92 and Human Rights Committee, Young v Australia, Communication No. 941/2000, UN Doc CCPR/C/78/D/941/2000.

[3] “Offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

  • It is unlawful for a person to an act, otherwise than in private, if:
  • the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate another person or a group of people; and
  • the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.”

[4] Full submission at: http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/04/24/dont-limit-racial-vilification-protections-introduce-vilification-protections-for-lgbti-australians-instead/

[5] Noting that the religious exemptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply to intersex status, only to sexual orientation and gender identity.

[6] Which provides that “[n]othing in Division 1 or 2 affects… any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibility of adherents of that religion.”

[7] Noting that the religious exemptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply to LGBT people accessing aged care services.

[8] “Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects:

  • the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order;
  • the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order;
  • the selection or appointment of persons to perform duties or functions for the purposes of or in connection with, or otherwise to participate in, any religious observance or practice…”

[9] My letter to Labor Immigrations Ministers, the Hon Chris Bowen and the Hon Brendan O’Connor from 2012 and 2013: http://alastairlawrie.net/2012/09/07/letter-to-chris-bowen-on-lgbti-asylum-seekers/

[10] My letter to then Immigration Minister the Hon Scott Morrison from February 2014: http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/02/02/letter-to-scott-morrison-about-treatment-of-lgbti-asylum-seekers-and-refugees-sent-to-manus-island-png/

Submission to Australian Human Rights Commission Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex (SOGII) Rights Consultation

One of my favourite campaigns of recent times – It Gets Better – performs a valuable role, letting vulnerable LGBTI youth know that, while the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia they may be experiencing is awful, for most of them, it will get better. I emphasise the word most here because we should always remember that it does not get better for everyone.

Meanwhile, as the LGBTI movement itself ‘ages’, many of us are increasingly celebrating the past, and reflecting on significant community milestones (such as last year’s 30th anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in NSW, or the 40th anniversary of Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras which is now only three years away). But, while absolutely necessary, looking backwards should never obscure the challenges that remain ahead.

This consultation, including an examination of legislation, policies and practices by government(s) that unduly restrict sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex rights, provides an opportunity to highlight some of the major obstacles which continue to prevent LGBTI Australians achieving full equality. In this submission, I will concentrate on six such areas:

  1. Involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex children

These unjustified practices – surgeries performed with the aim of ‘normalising’ intersex children according to the expectations of their parents, their doctors, and/or society at large, so that they conform to an exclusionary man/woman binary model of sex – are human rights abuses, plain and simple.

Obviously done without the child’s consent, such practices can involve sterilisation, as well as other ‘cosmetic’ (ie unnecessary), largely irreversible surgery on genitalia to make their bodies fit within the idea of what a man or woman ‘should’ be, ignoring the individual involved and their fundamental rights to bodily integrity, and personal autonomy.

That these practices continue in 2015 is abhorrent – and the fact the Commonwealth Government has yet to formally respond to the Senate’s 2013 Report into this issue (http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/Involuntary_Sterilisation/Sec_Report/~/media/Committees/Senate/committee/clac_ctte/involuntary_sterilisation/second_report/report.ashx) is, or at least should be, a scandal.

  1. Restrictions on the rights of transgender people

Another group within the LGBTI community whose rights continue to trail those whose identities are based on sexual orientation (lesbian, gay and bisexual people) are transgender Australians.

This includes the fact there continue to be ‘out-of-pocket’, in many cases quite significant, expenses for medical support for trans* people simply to affirm their gender identity. This is a denial of their human rights – access to trans* surgeries and related medical services should not be restricted by the capacity to pay, but instead should be fully publicly-subsidised through Medicare.

The ongoing requirement that married transgender Australians must divorce their spouses in order for their gender identity to be legally recognised is also a fundamental breach of their rights, and must end.

  1. Processing and resettlement of LGBTI refugees in countries which criminalise homosexuality

Australian Governments, of both persuasions, are guilty of violating the human rights of LGBTI refugees. These are people who are (often) fleeing persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, and seeking our protection.

Australia’s response? To detain them, indefinitely, in inhumane prison camps on Nauru and Manus Island. For many, while detained they are at risk of prosecution under the laws of Papua New Guinea and/or Nauru, both of which continue to criminalise male-male intercourse. Even after they are found to be refugees, they are then ‘resettled’ in these countries, in effect exposing people who have fled persecution to potentially more persecution.

While I believe the offshore processing and resettlement of all refugees is unjust, it should be recognised it has a disproportionately negative impact on LGBTI refugees.

  1. Denial of the right of LGBTI students to an inclusive education

It is encouraging that greater numbers of young LGBTI people feel comfortable in disclosing their status at an earlier age – and for some, that they attend genuinely inclusive schools. However, this inclusion is by no means universal.

For example, the recently developed national Health & Physical Education curriculum does not even include the words lesbian, gay or bisexual, and does not guarantee students will be taught comprehensive sexual health education (even omitting the term HIV). This is a massive failure to ensure all students learn vital information that is relevant to their health.

Similarly, while the national Safe Schools Program is a welcome initiative to counter homophobia and bullying, participation in the program is optional, with most schools (and even some entire jurisdictions) opting out. The right to attend school free of discrimination should not depend on a student’s geographic location, or their parent/s’ choice of school.

Finally, religious exceptions to anti-discrimination legislation (in all jurisdictions outside Tasmania), mean many LGBTI students are at risk of discrimination, by their school, simply for being who they are.

  1. Limitations on anti-discrimination protections

Students are not the only LGBTI individuals let down by Australia’s current anti-discrimination framework. These same religious exceptions mean that, in most jurisdictions, LGBTI people can be discriminated against in a wide range of areas of public life, both as employees and people accessing services, in education, health, community services and (as employees) in aged care.

The attributes which are protected under anti-discrimination law also vary widely, with intersex people only truly protected under Commonwealth and Tasmanian law, different definitions of transgender (including extremely narrow protections in Western Australian legislation), and NSW excluding bisexual people altogether.

Finally, only four jurisdictions have vilification protections for (some) members of the LGBTI community – with no Commonwealth LGBTI equivalent of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

  1. Ongoing lack of marriage equality

I include this not because I consider it as important as the issues listed above, but simply as someone who has been engaged to be married for more than five years – and has no idea how much longer he will have to wait to exercise the same rights as cisgender heterosexual couples, with the only difference being who I love. Marriage discrimination is wrong, it is unjust, and it must go.

This submission is by no means comprehensive – there are a variety of other issues which I have excluded due to arbitrary word length restrictions (including mental health issues, anti-LGBTI violence, and discrimination against rainbow families – with my partner and I able to adopt in Sydney, but not Melbourne or Brisbane).

In conclusion, while it does get better, and over time, it most certainly has got better, there are still many ways in which the rights of LGBTI Australians continue to be denied – and about which we, as LGBTI advocates and activists, should remain angry, and most importantly, take action.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who is leading the consultation on SOGII Rights

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who is leading the consultation on SOGII Rights

NB Public submissions to the AHRC SOGII Rights consultation close on Friday 6 February. For more details, head to: <https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sogii-rights

For more information on some of the topics listed above, see my previous posts on:

– Submission to Involuntary and Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People Senate Inquiry <http://alastairlawrie.net/2013/07/01/submission-to-involuntary-and-coerced-sterilisation-senate-inquiry/

– Letter to Scott Morrison About Treatment of LGBTI Asylum-Seekers and Refugees Sent to Manus Island <http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/02/02/letter-to-scott-morrison-about-treatment-of-lgbti-asylum-seekers-and-refugees-sent-to-manus-island-png/

– Letter to Minister Pyne Calling for COAG to Reject Health & Physical Education Curriculum Due to Ongoing LGBTI Exclusion <http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/12/09/letter-to-minister-pyne-calling-for-coag-to-reject-health-physical-education-curriculum-due-to-ongoing-lgbti-exclusion/

– The Last Major Battle for Gay & Lesbian Legal Equality in Australia Won’t be about Marriage <http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/02/26/the-last-major-battle-for-gay-lesbian-legal-equality-in-australia-wont-be-about-marriage/  and

– Bill Shorten, Will you Lead on Marriage Equality? <http://alastairlawrie.net/2015/01/24/bill-shorten-will-you-lead-on-marriage-equality/

Bill Shorten, Will You Lead on Marriage Equality?

The Hon Bill Shorten MP

Leader of the Opposition

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Saturday 24 January 2015

Dear Mr Shorten

PLEASE SUPPORT A BINDING VOTE IN FAVOUR OF MARRIAGE EQUALITY AT THE 2015 ALP NATIONAL CONFERENCE

Today marks six months until the Australian Labor Party is scheduled to hold its next National Conference. This Conference will determine the party’s formal position on a large number of important issues ahead of next year’s election.

One of these issues is actually unfinished business from the previous National Conference, held in December 2011, and that is the position that the ALP adopts on marriage equality.

While that gathering took the welcome step of making support for marriage equality an official part of the platform, it also immediately undermined that policy stance by ensuring all MPs were to be given a conscience vote when it came before Parliament.

That decision – to ‘support’ marriage equality, but then make that support unenforceable – guaranteed that any Bill would fail in the last Commonwealth Parliament, and continues to make passage in the current Parliament extremely difficult (even with a potential, albeit increasingly unlikely, Liberal Party conscience vote).

However, you, and the delegates to this year’s National Conference, have the opportunity to right that wrong. And make no mistake, the conscience vote is inherently wrong, not just because of its practical impact in making legislative change unobtainable, but also because it is unprincipled, and un-Labor.

Having a conscience vote on something like marriage equality, which is a matter of fundamental importance for many members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, says that our human rights are optional, our equality is optional.

A conscience vote makes it clear that homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia are acceptable, that the second-class treatment of our relationships is officially condoned, that Labor Party MPs are free to treat LGBTI Australians as ‘lesser’ simply because of who we are. In essence, a conscience vote on marriage equality is unconscionable.

A non-binding vote on marriage equality is also ‘un-Labor’ because it is contrary to the principles of collective organising upon which the party is founded. Ideas of solidarity and being ‘stronger together’ are supposed to reflect core philosophy, not simply act as slogans, and definitely not something that is abandoned simply because some caucus members are so homophobic they cannot abide the thought that LGBTI people might be their equal.

A conscience vote on this issue, from a party that adopts binding votes on nearly everything else (from refugee policy to climate change and almost all things in between), also makes it difficult for the Australian community, and the LGBTI community in particular, to take the platform position in favour of marriage equality seriously.

This is something that can, and must, be changed at this year’s National Conference, given only it has the power to introduce a binding vote in favour of marriage equality for all ALP MPs.

Acknowledging that there will be groups both inside and outside the ALP who will strongly oppose any moves to support full LGBTI equality, achieving a binding vote on marriage equality will be difficult, and therefore requires the support of a party leader who is willing to do just that, to ‘lead’.

Which makes the question at the heart of this letter: Bill Shorten, will you lead on marriage equality?

There is cause for optimism in that you are already part-way there. Unlike your equivalent at the 2011 Conference, Julia Gillard, who adopted the worst possible position in opposing both marriage equality and a binding vote, you were one of the first ministers to express personal support for the right of all people to marry, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

It’s time for you to take the vital next step, to back up this personal commitment with meaningful action, to use the influence of your position as the Parliamentary Leader of the Australian Labor Party to support a binding vote in favour of marriage equality, thereby declaring once and for all that LGBTI human rights are not optional, that LGBTI equality is absolutely not optional.

Doing so could only enhance your credibility as a leader, because it would show you were unafraid to take on people like Chris Hayes and Joe Bullock, who attempt to blackmail the party by saying they would rather cross the floor than vote for equality, and that you were willing to stand up to the SDA, a union that should spend more time looking after the interests of its members, and less resources and energy on opposing the right of LGBTI-inclusive couples to wed.

It would also show the public that when you make public commitments, when you support a position on an important policy issue like marriage equality, you are ready to take action and do what is required to make sure it happens.

Finally, if you were to support a binding vote on marriage equality it would only heighten the contrast between yourself and Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a ‘yesterday’s man’ who is so homophobic he remains personally committed to denying the right of his own sister to get married. Such a contrast would surely help you at the ballot box in 2016.

In short, the option to support a binding vote on marriage equality is full of opportunity, with many possible benefits and few, if any, adverse consequences. I sincerely hope it is an opportunity you are willing to grasp, and grasp firmly.

I started this letter by noting one anniversary – that there are now exactly six months left until the 2015 ALP National Conference. I want to conclude by telling you about another, one that probably doesn’t mean much to you, but means everything to me.

Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of my engagement to my fiancé Steve. On 23 January 2010, he made me an incredibly happy man by saying “Of course I will” to my proposal. But, here we are five years later, and we still have no idea how many more years we will be left waiting before we can both say “I do”.

To put that in perspective, you married Chloe Bryce in November 2009, roughly two months before my engagement to Steve. Which means that, for almost the entire time you have been married, we have not been – for the simple reason that you love a woman, and I love a man.

But there is another important difference. While I have absolutely no control over whether you have the right to marry, or when you might be permitted to do so, you exert a significant amount of influence over the existence, and timing, of Steve and my wedding.

As Labor Party Leader, in this a National Conference year, you have the ability to help steer the party towards a binding vote, thus correcting the gross error of the 2011 Conference decision to support a conscience vote. You can make marriage equality a genuine possibility in 2016 or early 2017, rather than something which will continue to be delayed until 2018, 2019 or even into the 2020s.

For the benefit of Steve and myself, and thousands of other LGBTI-inclusive couples who are still waiting for the same right to marry which you and other couples can take for granted, please support a binding vote in favour of marriage equality at the 2015 National Conference, and help make our long-overdue weddings a reality.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Will Bill Shorten lead on marriage equality, or will he let this opportunity slip through his grasp?

Will Bill Shorten lead on marriage equality, or will he let this opportunity slip through his grasp?

NB If you would like to read further about why I believe a binding vote is essential to achieve marriage equality, please read “Hey Australian Labor, It’s Time to Bind on Marriage Equality”: <http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/

And to see a more comprehensive LGBTI agenda for the 2015 ALP National Conference, you can go to “15 LGBTI Priorities for ALP National Conference 2015″: <http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/09/12/15-lgbti-priorities-for-alp-national-conference-2015/

No Homophobia No Exceptions Facebook Page

As I have written previously, I strongly believe that, long after marriage equality has been won in Australia, we, the members of the LGBTI community, will still be fighting for the right not to be discriminated against, in public life, by religious organisations (see: http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/02/26/the-last-major-battle-for-gay-lesbian-legal-equality-in-australia-wont-be-about-marriage/).

The campaign to remove the special rights which are given to religious organisations to discriminate against us in health, education, community services and elsewhere will be a long one – and we will not win it unless we start taking action now.

As part of that much larger battle, today I have started my own small Facebook page, called No Homophobia No Exceptions, with the aim of drawing attention to this issue and, where possible, to campaign for an end to religious exceptions in Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws.

If you support this campaign, I encourage you to like the page: https://www.facebook.com/lgbtiantidiscrimination I have also included below the short, and long, description of the page for your information.

NHNE profile pic

Short Description

Online campaign for the removal of religious exceptions to LGBTI anti-discrimination laws.

Long Description

No Homophobia No Exceptions is a page dedicated to fighting against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

Its primary goal is the removal of exceptions to anti-discrimination laws, including the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, which allow religious organisations to discriminate against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.

No Homophobia No Exceptions also supports broader law reform to ensure that all members of the LGBTI community have access to anti-discrimination protections (for example, intersex status is only covered federally and in Tasmania, Western Australian legislation only includes trans people who have had gender reassignment, and NSW law excludes bisexual people).

It also supports the introduction of comprehensive anti-vilification protections for the LGBTI community (currently, only four Australian jurisdictions include some form of LGBTI vilification laws, and most only apply to some sections of the community).

Finally, No Homophobia No Exceptions recognises that the fight against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia will not be won with legislation alone. As a result, this page aims to shine a light on examples of discrimination against the LGBTI community, both to campaign for them to be redressed, and as part of the wider cultural movement for LGBTI equality and acceptance.

#NoHomophobiaNoExceptions

If you support this campaign, please like: https://www.facebook.com/lgbtiantidiscrimination Thanks, Alastair

Review – Looking, Season One

12 months after its initial screening, and on the eve of season two, how does the first season of Looking (HBO) stand up to scrutiny on repeat viewing?

The answer is, surprisingly well. Looking was always going to be judged according to an incredibly high standard – not necessarily by TV critics, but definitely by members of the gay male community, looking for an accurate representation of ‘our’ lives, right now, on the small screen.

By and large, on this front, it was successful. The major characters were plausible (albeit with one exception, see below), and the storylines were similarly realistic (again with one exception).

It dealt with issues which ‘we’ are dealing with (including relationships in the era of marriage equality, and the societal mores and pressures that it brings, job and financial insecurity, and the ever-present, if just off-screen, HIV) and, even if on some of these it used language that was less than desirable (for example, Patrick’s conflation of HIV and AIDS, or some of the descriptions of CJ’s sex-work), it is nevertheless language that is used by (some of) us in the real world.

It didn’t hurt that the cast were attractive, either – let’s be honest, a television show about the gay community in San Francisco was always going to focus on the ‘good looking’. But even in this respect I didn’t find them impossibly or unrelatably so.

In short, the main strength of Looking is that it is a show that is both about us, and explicitly for us. Although by ‘us’ in this context I mean gay men in their 20s, 30s and 40s: it is (thankfully) not another production solely focused on young people ‘coming out’; despite the character of Lynn nor is it largely about older members of the community; and as has been pointed out by several (vocal) lesbian friends, it is very definitely not about, or for, them either.

Unlike some other programs about gay male life that have come before, it also doesn’t appear as though it is attempting to ‘explain’ us to outsiders, or that it is trying to use ‘shock value’ to gain a mainstream audience.

Instead, Looking is comfortable enough to be made, and made well, for the gay male community. Given the number of ‘out’ actors and others associated with the production, it even feels a little bit like a show by ‘us’ (which is another point of difference with some of the other shows gone by).

Of course, whether a television program like this, which so neatly fits into this ‘niche’ is sustainable, even as a small cog in the larger machine that is HBO, is questionable – and the ratings for season two will likely be make or break. For as long as it lasts, however, I intend to enjoy the ride.

Turning to some of the particular strengths of season one, it is hard to go past the impressive writing. Through eight very short episodes (of roughly 25 minutes or less), we were given several fully-formed characters, with dialogue that usually rang true. The humour (especially via Doris), and the pop cultural references, were spot on (and yes, that includes the multiple tributes to the Golden Girls).

But it was more than that – there was also subtly, and obvious care. One of my favourite conversations was where Dom met Lynn in the bathhouse, and particularly when they discuss the 1970s and early 1980s heyday of that scene:

Dom: It must have been cool back then.

Lynn: Back then? Suddenly I feel like I’m one hundred and three.

Dom: Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t…

Lynn: But it was, it really was… and then it wasn’t.

It takes a skilful degree of restraint to keep this description of the impact of HIV/AIDS on San Francisco so simple, and enormous – and well-placed, as it turns out – confidence in the ability of the actors (and particularly Scott Bakula) to convey its poignancy.

One other example of the writing conveys what I was discussing earlier – that Looking is a show about us, for us – and that is one conversation among many in ‘Looking for the Future’ (episode five), with Patrick and Richie walking through Golden Gate Park as part of their day-long ‘date’:

Patrick: But I feel like I don’t want to know about my parents’ sex life, so why do they need to know about mine.

Richie: You know your parents meeting your boyfriend has nothing to do with your sex life.

Patrick: Yeah, I know, I know…

Richie: It’s more about them meeting the person that you love, and care about, and share everything with.

Patrick: Yes, no, I get it. No I get it. (long pause) I don’t know, I feel like for parents though it is almost about the sex. Even if they are meeting a boyfriend, they’re just imagining that dick up your ass.

Richie: Your parents are obsessed with sex I think.

Patrick: Maybe. I think everyone’s is. Your like “I’m gay” and they’re like “Oh, so you’re butt-fucking now.”

Even the best writing though can be let down without the acting talent to match – and the casting directors for Looking did their job superbly. The leads do everything they are supposed to (especially Jonathan Groff and Murray Bartlett), but being honest once more, it is the supporting cast that steals the show.

Scott Bakula is perfect as the business partner/love interest Lynn to Bartlett’s Dom, while OT Fagbenle does a commendable job of bringing Agustin’s ‘wronged’ boyfriend to life. Russell Tovey suits the role of Patrick’s charming, yet slightly sleazy, boss (although perhaps Kevin was used too much as plot device and not enough as a stand-alone character, something which will hopefully be remedied in season two), while Raul Castillo inhabits the sweet, yet somewhat temperamental, Richie.

But it was of course Lauren Weedman, as Doris, who emerges as the true star of the first season, with too many brilliantly sarcastic one-liners to mention here. And, with “Dom’s worth it… He’s just, he’s worth it”, who doesn’t want a best friend like Doris?

Other strengths of Looking season one include the production values – it is clear that this is a (well-funded) HBO production, from the film-quality cinematography, to the attention to detail in costume and set design. The city of San Francisco, and surrounds, is almost an actor in its own right (if the producers didn’t secure funding from the Tourism Board of San Francisco, well, they weren’t doing their job properly). And the music is uniformly amazing (making it almost criminal that, as yet, there doesn’t appear to be an official soundtrack).

One final strength that I feel compelled to mention is the Patrick/Richie ‘date’ (in Looking for the Future, as touched on above), where for 25 minutes they are almost the only two people on screen. It is a beautiful paean to the early days of love – and one that makes much more sense when the involvement of Andrew Haigh (who wrote and directed the British film Weekend) is taken into account.

Of course, not everything about Looking season one worked. The biggest, and most obvious, problem was Agustin. It is understandable (and for dramatic purposes, almost obligatory) that one of the lead characters is a self-professed ‘fuck-up’, but he was so unlikeable, with so few redeeming features, that it made it difficult to believe Patrick and Dom would still be friends with him.

Indeed, Agustin was so ‘unappealing’ in personality that, as well as feeling sorry for Frankie J Alvarez for portraying him (lest anyone in real life mistook him for the character), I am left to hope they spend the necessary time to ‘rehabilitate’ his character in season two (it will be especially interesting to see how the addition of the officially “too gay to function” Damian aids in this recovery effort).

Other ‘flaws’ include the sub-plot in episode two – Looking for Uncut – which, as the title suggests, essentially revolved around Patrick’s supposed lack of knowledge of, and then almost instantaneous fetish-isation of, Richie’s presumed lack of circumcision. While overall Patrick is written as naïve, he’s still a 29 year old, sexually-active gay man – and this complete lack of sophistication is not just implausible, it’s borderline silly.

I found the pace of the final episode (Looking Glass) somewhat off-putting – after a season which developed slowly, taking time to explore characters and situations at a ‘natural’ pace, the eighth episode felt far too rushed by comparison (to the extent that I suspect that the original script may have been written for a season of nine or even 10 episodes).

Finally, I am also aware of a range of criticism – which appears to be warranted – that, despite the inclusion of multiple Hispanic characters, Looking season one was nevertheless an overly ‘white’ show. Here’s hoping that season two delivers greater ethnic diversity (including more than just Owen in terms of Asian-American characters).

Overall though, and despite these weaknesses, Looking season one was generally good, with moments of greatness. About and for the gay male community, it was successful in reflecting our lives back to ‘us’, portraying characters with which ‘we’ could identify (my fiancé and I can see ourselves in Richie and Patrick respectively, to the extent that we even instinctively adopt each character’s side in their arguments).

The first season of Looking deserves to be mentioned among the best gay male television shows of all time – and I for one am looking forward to seeing where the characters, and storylines, head in season two.

Looking Banner