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

LGBTI Highs & Lows of 2014

A short final post to bring to a close this blog for another year. As always, the past 12 months have been incredibly busy, having seen significant achievements in LGBTI rights in some areas, and a disappointing lack of progress in others. The following are my personal views on a couple of the major highlights of 2014, two ongoing ‘lowlights’, and one item of unfinished business.

  1. NSW Finally Repeals the Homosexual Advance Defence

In May, NSW Parliament passed the Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Act 2014, finally removing the homophobic and biphobic ‘homosexual advance’ or ‘gay panic’ defence from our statute books. This was a long overdue reform, and is testament to the hard work of many, many LGBTI activists, and organisations (including, but not limited to, the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby), over the past 15-20 years.

From my own perspective, I was happy to play a small role as part of the overall movement to abolish this discriminatory law. I was one of 52 individuals and organisations to lodge a submission to the Parliamentary inquiry into the Partial Defence of Provocation in 2012 (submission here: http://alastairlawrie.net/2012/08/10/submission-on-homosexual-advance-defence/ ), and also made a submission to the then Attorney-General on the draft Crimes Amendment (Provocation) Bill in late 2013 (submission here: http://alastairlawrie.net/2013/11/14/submission-on-crimes-amendment-provocation-bill-2013-re-homosexual-advance-or-gay-panic-defence/ ).

Now that NSW has finally removed this stain from the Crimes Act, it is time for Queensland and South Australia to also consign the homosexual advance defence to the dustbin of history.

  1. Victoria and NSW Pass Legislation Allowing Historical Convictions for Homosexual Sex to be Expunged

This was another long overdue law reform, and one that is essential to help remedy some of the injustice caused, both by the criminalisation of male-male sexual intercourse (with decriminalisation taking effect in Victoria in March 1981, and in NSW in June 1984), and also by the differential age of consent post-decriminalisation (with the age of consent equalised in Victoria in 1991, and in NSW, shamefully, not until 2003).

This achievement belongs primarily to those campaigners in Victoria who kept the issue alive for many years, if not decades (including Jamie Gardiner, someone whom I am privileged to be able to call a friend and mentor), and who put in the legal policy development work over the past couple of years (including Anna Brown, of the Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby and the Human Rights Law Centre), among numerous others. The NSW reforms were able to successfully ‘piggyback’ on this advocacy south of the border.

For my part, I was able to pursue this issue as the Policy Working Group chair of the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby 2012-2014, as well as writing to the new Premier, Mike Baird, in May of this year calling for a party vote in favour of Bruce Notley-Smith’s Bill (letter here: http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/05/25/letter-to-nsw-premier-mike-baird-re-lgbti-equality-and-conscience-votes/ ).

But I am perhaps most proud that it was a motion that I drafted which was passed at ALP State Conference in July which ensured the Labor Opposition would vote, as a bloc, in favour of this reform – although it would be remiss of me not to say that it was Penny Sharpe’s advocacy behind the scenes that ensured this motion was successful.

As with the homosexual advance defence, it is now up to other states to similarly pass legislation to allow men affected by these laws to have their convictions expunged. And for Queensland, this must also include amendments to finally introduce an equal age of consent (with a higher age of consent for anal intercourse still in force there).

  1. Australia Still Persecuting LGBTI Refugees

Onto the ‘lowlights’ of 2014 and the first could be taken from 12 months previously – and in fact it is, with Australia’s ongoing policy of sending LGBTI refugees to countries which criminalise homosexuality for processing and resettlement also featuring atop my end of year Highs & Lows from 2013 (see original post here: http://alastairlawrie.net/2013/12/27/no-1-australia-sends-lgbti-refugees-to-countries-which-criminalise-homosexuality/ ).

Sadly, the situation one year later isn’t all that different. The policy is still in breach of our international human rights obligations, is still fundamentally unjust, and is still an insult to humanity itself – both of the refugees, and ours because it is being done in our name. The Immigration Department essentially confirmed in a response to me that the Government will continue to send LGBTI refugees to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and to Nauru, for the foreseeable future (see my letter and their response, on behalf of Minister Scott Morrison, here: http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/02/02/letter-to-scott-morrison-about-treatment-of-lgbti-asylum-seekers-and-refugees-sent-to-manus-island-png/ ).

The only glimmers of hope at the end of another depressing year in this area are that a) Minister Morrison is today being replaced in the Immigration portfolio and b) the treatment of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees has been receiving increased media coverage, both in LGBTI community publications (including the Star Observer and samesame) and importantly in mainstream media (with a special mention of the Guardian Australia for their ongoing work in this area).

  1. Lack of Progress on Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People

This ‘lowlight’ is also taken from the 2013 list of Highs & Lows, although at that stage it was presented in a much more favourable manner, given the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs had only recently handed down its report on the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia (see post here: http://alastairlawrie.net/2013/12/25/no-3-senate-report-on-involuntary-or-coerced-sterilisation-of-intersex-people-in-australia/ ).

Unfortunately, 12 months on and there has apparently been little progress in this area – despite the Report itself being debated in the Senate in March, I am unaware of any formal Government response, let alone significant reforms to implement its recommendations. Let’s hope that, in 2015, the Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments all take action to ensure that the human rights of intersex children are no longer violated in this way.

  1. Campaign for the ALP to Adopt a Binding Vote on Marriage Equality

The final entry in this list of ‘Highs & Lows’ is actually an item of unfinished business, both of the past 12 months, and also stretching back to the 2011 ALP National Conference, which adopted marriage equality in the party’s platform, but then immediately undermined it by enabling members of the parliamentary party to vote against this plank of the platform for any reason whatsoever.

As I have written previously (see my major post on this topic, ‘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/ ), it is highly unlikely that marriage equality will pass Commonwealth Parliament in this term without a binding vote for ALP MPs. Which means that the votes by the Tasmanian State ALP Conference in July, and Queensland State Conference in August, to support a binding vote were incredibly encouraging, and even the close loss in NSW in July was heartening (because, if those voting patterns were repeated across Australia, it would likely be successful at the national level).

This campaign, which I refer to as #ItsTimeToBind, will be one of the most important of 2015, as we move towards ALP National Conference in Melbourne in July. Let’s see whether Bill Shorten will stand up and be a Leader who supports the fundamental equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australian, without exception.

So, that brings me to the end of my writing for another year. On a personal note, I would like to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has read, commented (even when they have disagreed), shared and liked my posts. As you can probably tell, I enjoy writing, and I enjoy it even more when I know that people are interacting with it (and the almost 16,000 unique visitors, from 141 countries, this year is both humbling and, to be honest, a little bit exciting).

On that point, if you do enjoy reading and visiting this blog, please consider signing up (either on WordPress or via email – the subscription options for both are located at the top of the right-hand side-bar), and to stay up-to-date you can also follow me on twitter https://twitter.com/alawriedejesus . Have a happy and safe end to 2014, and let’s hope that 2015 brings with it even more progress towards full LGBTI equality, both in Australia and overseas. Thanks, Alastair

Senator Leyonhjelm’s Marriage Equality Bill undermines the principle of LGBTI anti-discrimination. Should we still support it?

Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm introduced his Freedom to Marry Bill 2014 on Wednesday 26 November. As the name implies, if passed it would provide lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians the freedom to marry their partner, something denied to them currently.

The fact it is being proposed by the Liberal Democrats, and not the Labor Opposition or the Greens, is seen as giving it a greater chance of securing the support of enough Liberal MPs to force Prime Minister Tony Abbott to grant a conscience vote within the Liberal Party, and therefore of having at least some chance of becoming law in 2015.

Which means we should automatically be putting our collective energies behind this Bill, in an effort to ensure its passage through parliament as quickly as possible, shouldn’t we? Well, no actually. Because, while the Leyonhjelm Bill gives marriage equality with one hand, it takes away from LGBTI non-discrimination with the other.

Alongside provisions which would grant all Australian couples the ability to get married, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, the Freedom to Marry Bill 2014 would also grant all non-government employed marriage celebrants, including civil celebrants, the ‘right’ to refuse to perform the marriages of LGBTI-inclusive couples.

Currently, section 47 of the Marriage Act 1961 restricts the right to refuse to officiate a marriage to ministers of religion, which is both increasingly irrelevant (given only 27.4% of marriages in 2014 were performed by religious celebrants) and at the very least philosophically consistent with existing exceptions to anti-discrimination laws which are granted to religious organisations.

Instead, the Freedom to Marry Bill 2014 would provide civil celebrants, who now perform 72.5% of weddings (up from 42.1% just twenty years ago), the ability to refuse to officiate marriages for LGBTI-inclusive couples. It would do so without even requiring them to be religious themselves, or to provide an explanation for their refusal – their ‘claims of conscience’ in this regard apparently trump any expectation they should perform their roles in a non-discriminatory manner.

Technically, the Bill grants religious and civil celebrants the right to reject heterosexual couples, too – and this is something that was stressed by Senator Leyonhjelm in spruiking the law to the Sydney Morning Herald in September (“[i]t’s a minor tweak but we envisage that there will be people who wish to specialise as same sex celebrants and they may not want to do conventional weddings. It will work both ways.”).

But, make no mistake, these provisions are squarely aimed at granting civil celebrants the right to refuse service to LGBTI-inclusive couples. That much is made clear by the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill, which states that “[s]econd, it imposes no claims or burdens of conscience on those persons who object to marriages other than between a man and a woman for both religious and non-religious reasons”. There is no equivalent statement of principle setting out the ‘right’ of celebrants to refuse to perform man/woman marriages.

This view – that the provisions are aimed at allowing all celebrants to refuse LGBTI-inclusive couples (and not heterosexual couples) – is reinforced by the fact the only other specific example of refusal cited is in clause 10 of the Bill (“[i]f a chaplain refuses to solemnise a marriage because the marriage is not the marriage of a man and a woman, the chaplain must, if possible, substitute another chaplain who is willing to solemnise the marriage.”

In short, the Freedom to Marry Bill 2014 goes to great lengths to ensure that civil celebrants can refuse to officiate the marriages of LGBTI Australians, and they can do so for any reason whatsoever.

The instinctive response of many people to these changes is to say “so what, who would want their marriage officiated by someone who doesn’t approve of that marriage anyway?” And of course, there is much validity in this sentiment – as someone who is engaged to be married myself (and has been for almost five years now), I would obviously not want my wedding to be presided over by someone who opposed the fundamental equality of my relationship.

But, if we are to leave our response at that, then we are guilty both of intellectual laziness, and of misunderstanding the role of anti-discrimination protections. Because anti-discrimination laws are designed to protect people from adverse treatment on the basis of particular attributes (in this case, sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status) in a wide range of areas across society, not simply to reinforce the understandable tendency for people to ‘choose’ employers, or goods and service providers, that are already favourable to them.

To presuppose that people have the ability to ‘choose’ is also to assume everyone has the same level of power or privilege in society that you may have. In many cases this is clearly not true – just because a highly-qualified gay man in inner-Sydney may be able to reject employment by a homophobe, does not mean a less-qualified trans* person in a regional centre with high unemployment would have the same power to do so.

With respect to the Freedom to Marry Bill 2014 in particular, just because LGBTI-inclusive couples in major cities could easily find alternative celebrants, does not mean people in small country towns, or even larger non-metropolitan centres, would have the same ‘freedom’. It is entirely conceivable that, in a place with few celebrants, all may exercise their ‘claim of conscience’ to refuse service.

Indeed, the Explanatory Memorandum concedes the possibility of lack of access to marriage due to geography in discussing the aforementioned defence chaplains provision (“[t]he requirement of ‘possibility’ recognises that there may be circumstances where a willing chaplain cannot be arranged (e.g. if the people involved are in a remote location”).

Why then should the Marriage Act 1961 allow the few civil celebrants that do exist in remote areas to refuse to perform LGBTI-inclusive weddings, imposing on those couples significant extra expense simply because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status? (After all, wouldn’t that be the definition of adverse treatment?)

There is an even larger problem with these provisions of the Leyonhjelm Bill, however. That is because there is absolutely no ideological or conceptual reason why, if the law is to recognise the ‘claim of conscience’ of a civil celebrant to refuse to officiate an LGBTI-inclusive wedding ceremony, it should not also allow goods and service providers to refuse to host or supply that wedding, for hotels or bed-and-breakfasts to deny accommodation to the couple on their honeymoon, for restaurants to deny reservations to that couple celebrating their wedding anniversary, and even to employers to be able to deny recognition to that relationship in the workplace.

All of these people can have similar, and similarly passionate, views and beliefs opposing LGBTI-inclusive marriages – and, perhaps in a preview of where Australia might be heading, all are the subject of ‘claims of conscience’ by individuals and groups against marriage equality in the United States.

If a claim of conscience exists for a civil celebrant – allowing them to treat LGBTI people unfavourably on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status – then, logically, it should also exist for anyone else in society who has an ‘objection’ to LGBTI equality, whether based on religion or otherwise.

Thus, the civil celebrant provisions of the Freedom to Marry Bill 2014 can be seen for what they are – a dangerous new precedent establishing a fundamental ‘right to discriminate’ against LGBTI Australians, one that goes much further than existing laws granting anti-discrimination exceptions to religious organisations, because they would allow private citizens, without any connection to organised religion, the ability to exercise this ‘right’.

In some respects, these provisions are simply the natural extension of Senator Brandis’ claims earlier in 2014 (in a different context) that “people do have a right to be bigots.” It certainly appears as if Senator Leyonhjelm was listening – with his first private member’s bill, he is promoting the right of civil celebrants to be homophobes (and biphobes, transphobes and intersexphobes, too).

This fits perfectly within his overall political approach as well – when describing the Bill in the Sydney Morning Herald he said “[i]t’s libertarian philosophy: Individuals should be able to discriminate but governments should not.”

It is therefore easy to see this move as the first step in efforts to unwind our relatively comprehensive system of anti-discrimination laws, not just in relation to sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, but also race, sex, disability and age (among other attributes).

The threat is that he is not alone in holding such an extremist view of – or more accurately, against – the principle of anti-discrimination generally, and anti-discrimination laws specifically. He is bound to receive significant support from more radical elements within the Liberal and National Parties (such as Senator Bernardi, and even the aforementioned Attorney-General) in this approach.

It will also be cheered on by conservatives in the media (hello Andrew Bolt) and by right-wing think-tanks, such as the Institute of Public Affairs, who hold an inordinate amount of influence over the current Abbott Coalition Government.

In fact, the current Australian Human Rights Commissioner with responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex issues, Tim Wilson, made exactly the same arguments as Senator Leyonhjelm when appearing on behalf of the IPA at the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Exposure Draft Bill in early 2013 (notable quotes including:

  • “We certainly support very strongly discrimination law related to government and the way it operates towards government, but in a broad philosophical concept we [the IPA] are not a big fan of discrimination law being imposed across civil society in the private sector. The private sector should be able to make choices…” (emphasis added)
  • “What we have made crystal clear is we believe that anti-discrimination laws should operate on government. That is different from what operates within the private sector and within a free society…”
  • “Discrimination occurs within society. Sometimes it exists for the right reasons, because there are organisational goals that people, when they freely come together and associate, believe in. People should be allowed to reasonably exercise those and they do themselves a disservice because of something that is not relative to the objective of the organisation. I think that is a very fair and reasonable principle.”
  • “[Y]ou have a human right of freedom of association, you have right of speech; I am not sure I am convinced there is a human right against discrimination, as abhorrent as it is.”)

Viewed in this context, the decision by Senator Leyonhjelm to introduce the civil celebrant ‘claim of conscience’ provisions, as part of the Freedom to Marry Bill 2014, is a very clever move – in the ‘John Howard’ sense of the word. It undermines the principle of LGBTI anti-discrimination as part of a law which simultaneously recognises a separate LGBTI right – to have our relationships treated in the same way as cisgender, heterosexual couples.

The question then is, how should we, as members of the LGBTI community, respond to this Bill? I would argue that the initial response is relatively straightforward – to call on Senator Leyonhjelm to withdraw these aspects of the legislation, so that the forthcoming debate can be solely about the principle of marriage equality, and not also the potential roll-back of LGBTI anti-discrimination laws.

If, as expected, he refuses to amend the Bill, then I believe we should be lobbying the ALP, Greens, crossbench Senators and LGBTI-friendly sections of the Coalition to vote against these provisions in the Parliament. Hopefully, enough votes can be secured on the floor to ensure marriage equality succeeds without establishing a new ‘right to discriminate’ against LGBTI people in the process.

But the most important question comes if this effort is unsuccessful – what should we do if the Bill reaches the final vote, unamended, especially if this is seen as the best chance of securing marriage equality during this term of parliament?

Should we support passage of the Freedom to Marry Bill 2014 even though it actively undermines the principle of LGBTI anti-discrimination? Or should we call for the Bill to be rejected, so that another marriage equality Bill can take its place, in full knowledge it could be delayed until 2017 as a result?

I acknowledge that this is a very difficult question to answer, and that there will obviously be a range of different responses across our community. For my part, I would choose the latter option – because I sincerely believe that the Senator Leyonhjelm Bill is so flawed, in its current state, that it should not be supported.

I write this as someone who strongly believes in marriage equality (both personally, and for our community), but who does not see this one issue as trumping other LGBTI rights which we have either already achieved, or for which we must still campaign.

It took 38 years from the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians to receive equivalent anti-discrimination protections under Commonwealth law (with the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013).

To me, it is unconscionable that the very next major Commonwealth law reform concerning LGBTI rights would actively undermine the principles at the heart of the Sex Discrimination Act reforms.

Indeed, one of the most positive features of those amendments was the ‘carve-out’ which meant that Commonwealth-funded aged care services operated by religious organisations cannot discriminate against LGBT people accessing their services (unlike religious organisations in other areas).

This was important not just to protect ageing LGBT individuals and couples who need this care, but also because it set an important precedent, demonstrating that the ‘right’ for religious organisations to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is not inviolable, thereby paving the way for future reforms in this area.

A victory for Senator Leyonhjelm and the extreme libertarians on the civil celebrant provisions would set an equally-important (and perhaps even more important) precedent in the other direction, establishing the ‘claim of conscience’ for private citizens to discriminate against LGBTI people, for any reason whatsoever, and emboldening them to pursue wider reforms aimed at unwinding anti-discrimination law. I believe this precedent should be denied to them, even if it means marriage equality might be delayed in the process.

Of course, I absolutely respect that other people may reach a different conclusion – that, having waited more than a decade since the Howard Coalition Government’s original homophobic ban on marriage equality in 2004, and the failure of successive Parliaments since then to remedy this injustice, people may be willing to accept the ‘claim of conscience’ provisions in this legislation as simply the price of doing business.

In fact, I suspect the majority of our community may feel that way – if so, I would accept that verdict, and agree we should actively lobby to have the Freedom of Marry Bill 2014 passed in 2015 (while making sure we strengthen our collective resolve to fight against any further moves against LGBTI anti-discrimination protections in the future).

But, as I have attempted to outline above, this is not an easy or straight-forward decision. I believe this debate – whether we are willing to accept a marriage equality Bill that undermines the principle of LGBTI anti-discrimination – is one that we must have first, before the Bill is to be voted upon.

We should not simply ‘sleepwalk’ into supporting the Freedom to Marry Bill 2014 without first considering the consequences. Nor should we automatically allow Senator Leyonhjelm to take the helm of the marriage equality push – because, while he might be an ally in allowing us to say “I do”, he also wants to allow civil celebrants to tell us that they won’t.

Senator Leyonhelm might want you to be able to say "I do", but he also believes civil celebrants should be able to tell you they won't.

Senator Leyonhelm might want you to be able to say “I do”, but he also believes civil celebrants should be able to tell you they won’t.

Letter to Minister Pyne Calling for COAG to Reject Health & Physical Education Curriculum Due to Ongoing LGBTI Exclusion

The Hon Christopher Pyne MP

Commonwealth Minister for Education

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

C.Pyne.MP@aph.gov.au

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Dear Minister Pyne

Call for COAG to Reject Health & Physical Education Curriculum Due to Ongoing LGBTI Exclusion

I am writing to you in advance of the COAG Education Ministers Council meeting on Friday 12 December 2014 in Canberra. Specifically, I am writing to request that you, and your state and territory ministerial counterparts, reject the national Health & Physical Education (HPE) curriculum and start again.

I make this serious request on the basis that this curriculum does not ensure that all students are provided with health and physical education that is relevant to their needs, including those students that are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI).

The development of the national HPE curriculum has, like other national curricula, been a long process, with multiple stages of public consultation.

This has included:

None of these versions of the HPE curriculum have been genuinely LGBTI-inclusive. None of these three documents have even included the words lesbian, gay or bisexual. Not once. How can a national HPE curriculum support all students, including those with diverse sexual orientations, if it cannot even name them?

It must also be pointed out that none of the three drafts of the HPE curriculum have included sufficient sexual health information, with no references to sexually transmissible infections, condoms and/or safer sex and, more than 30 years into the HIV epidemic, none have even mentioned HIV or other blood borne viruses. These omissions mean Australian students, including but not limited to LGBTI students, will not be given the information that they need to stay safe in future.

Of course, the national HPE curriculum, like other curricula, underwent an additional review during 2014, after you requested that Mr Kevin Donnelly and Mr Ken Wiltshire review the entirety of the Australian curriculum (see my submission to this review here:  http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/13/submission-to-national-curriculum-review-re-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/).

Unfortunately, the outcome of this review, at least as far as the HPE curriculum is concerned, is far from positive (see my summary of this: http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/11/09/the-national-curriculum-review-fails-to-support-lgbti-students/).

In their report, released in October 2014, Mr Donnelly and Mr Wiltshire noted that at least one jurisdiction, one religion-based school system, and a number of other individual schools, have each rejected the inclusion of even minimal content for same-sex attracted and gender diverse students, and will oppose any attempt to introduce comprehensive sexual health education.

The national curriculum review also found that the HPE curriculum is overcrowded, and recommended that “[t]he core content should be reduced and a significant portion should become part of school-based curriculum…” This jeopardises further the few positive references that have made it into the current draft (such as the option for schools to teach students about homophobia, alongside racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination).

Finally, the national curriculum review report supported the views of some religious organisations that the HPE curriculum should grant schools even greater flexibility in how ‘sexuality education’ should be delivered, when it should be delivered (allowing schools to delay provision of this vital information), and even flexibility in who should teach it (commenting that “[w]e think this is the way forward” in response to suggestions that older teachers should deliver these topics).

The specific recommendation in this area notes “[t]he two controversial areas of sexuality and drugs education should remain, but schools should be given greater flexibility to determine the level of which these areas are introduced and the modalities in which they will be delivered…”

The net outcome of the national curriculum review, at least as it concerns Health & Physical Education, is this: a curriculum that already largely excluded LGBTI students and content, is, in practice, found to be essentially optional, with at least one jurisdiction, one religion-based school system, and other individual schools all opting-out. What LGBTI-related subject matter there is remains under threat as the content is slimmed down, while those religious schools that do teach ‘sexuality education’ will have the ‘flexibility’ to choose when it is taught, how it is taught and even by whom it is taught.

This is the exact opposite of what a national curriculum should be. A national Health & Physical Education curriculum should be a document that recognises that, no matter what state they reside in, and irrespective of the type of school they attend (government, religious or private), all LGBTI students have the fundamental right to an inclusive education, to learn about themselves and their sexual orientations, gender identities and intersex status, to be taught that who they are is okay, and not to be silenced, excluded or marginalised.

The existing version of the HPE curriculum does not even come close to recognising that right, and, as such, I believe it should be rejected and the entire curriculum development process begun again.

I call on you and the state and territory ministers attending the COAG Education Ministers Council meeting to take this serious course of action because the failure to do so will have serious consequences for the next generation of LGBTI young people and students.

I am sure you are aware young LGBTI people are at greater risk of experiencing bullying (including homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination) and physical abuse, are at greater risk of depression and other mental health issues and, most tragically of all, are at greater risk of attempting or committing suicide than their non-LGBTI peers.

The development of a national Health & Physical Education curriculum was an unprecedented opportunity to address some of these issues by guaranteeing that, in their classrooms at least, young LGBTI people were provided with an inclusive and understanding environment. Unfortunately, despite two public consultations and the national curriculum review, the current draft of the national HPE curriculum fails miserably to seize this opportunity.

We can do better, we should do better, we must do better, for the sake of young LGBTI people around the country, now and in coming years. Please reject the national Health & Physical Education curriculum and start again.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Will Minister Pyne listen to the needs of LGBTI students?

Will Education Minister Christopher Pyne listen to the needs of LGBTI students?

Cc: The Hon Adrian Piccoli MP, NSW Minister for Education (office@piccoli.minister.nsw.gov.au)

The Hon James Merlino MP, Victorian Minister for Education (james.merlino@parliament.vic.gov.au)

The Hon John-Paul Langbroek MP, Queensland Minister for Education, Training and Development (education@ministerial.qld.gov.au)

The Hon Peter Collier MLA, Western Australian Minister for Education (Minister.Collier@dpc.wa.gov.au)

The Hon Jennifer Rankine MP, South Australian Minister for Education and Child Development (minister.rankine@sa.gov.au)

The  Hon Jeremy Rockliff MP, Tasmanian Minister for Education and Training (jeremy.rockliff@parliament.tas.gov.au)

The Hon Joy Burch MLA, Australian Capital Territory Minister for Education and Training (BURCH@act.gov.au)

The Hon Peter Chandler MLA, Northern Territory Minister for Education (minister.chandler@nt.gov.au)

The National Curriculum Review Fails to Support LGBTI Students

The Final Report of the Review of the Australian Curriculum, conducted by Ken Wiltshire and Kevin Donnelly, was released on Sunday 12 October 2014, accompanied by the Commonwealth Government’s Response (both documents can be found at the following link: <http://www.studentsfirst.gov.au/review-australian-curriculum ).

Based on initial reporting (including this article by Samantha Maiden in The Sunday Telegraph <http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/teenagers-should-be-given-lessons-on-sex-and-drugs-national-curriculum-report-states/story-fni0cx12-1227087475187 ), you could be forgiven for believing that the outcome of the Review was, overall, a positive one for LGBTI students, with a commitment to include content relevant to their needs.

Unfortunately, however, a closer examination of the Final Report, and the Government’s Response, reveals that it is nothing more than another missed opportunity, yet another failure to ensure that the national Health & Physical Education (HPE) curriculum caters to the needs of all students, including those of different sexual orientations, gender identities and intersex status.

To understand just how far short of this standard the ‘Wiltshire & Donnelly’ Review falls, we must first look back at the development of the HPE curriculum. Drafted by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment & Reporting Authority (ACARA) during 2012 and 2013, the HPE curriculum was subject to two rounds of formal public consultation, before the current draft was submitted for the consideration of COAG Education Ministers late last year.

Despite a number of submissions highlighting the HPE curriculum’s failure to genuinely include LGBTI students and content (including two from yours truly: <http://alastairlawrie.net/2013/04/11/submission-on-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ and <http://alastairlawrie.net/2013/07/30/submission-on-redrafted-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ), and even after some minor tinkering around the edges (with a couple of welcome references to ‘homophobia’ and ‘transphobia’ added), the current draft of the HPE curriculum does not guarantee that all students will learn what they need to know to be comfortable in who they are, and to stay safe.

In particular, as I made clear in my submission to the National Curriculum Review itself, the draft HPE curriculum:

  • Has significant problems in terms of terminology – for example, it does not even use the words ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ once in the entire document.
  • Includes a fine-sounding commitment to student diversity that is almost immediately undermined by allowing “schools flexibility to meet the learning needs of all young people” – and which is especially poor when compared with the first draft that clearly stated that “same-sex attracted and gender diverse students exist in all Australian schools”.
  • Does not ensure students receive comprehensive sexual health education – with no year band descriptions providing a minimum level of information about sexually transmissible infections, and no references to condoms either, and
  • Completely excludes HIV and other BBVs, like hepatitis B and C – despite the fact that, more than 30 years into the HIV epidemic in Australia, the number of transmissions is rising (with one potential cause a lack of comprehensive and inclusive sexual health/BBV education for students).

[NB My full submission to the National Curriculum Review is available here: <http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/13/submission-to-national-curriculum-review-re-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ].

The choice to appoint noted homophobe Kevin Donnelly (see my letter to Minister Pyne calling for Mr Donnelly to be sacked on that basis: <http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/01/11/letter-to-minister-pyne-re-health-physical-education-curriculum-and-appointment-of-mr-kevin-donnelly/ ) to review what was already a poor document was obviously a major concern.

And I will be the first to admit that the Final Report of the National Curriculum Review, including its recommendations about the HPE curriculum, is not as bad as was initially anticipated. But just because it did not live down to some exceptionally low expectations, does not mean that the outcome for the HPE curriculum, and its potential impact on LGBTI students, was in any way positive.

The first major failing of the National Curriculum Review’s approach is that it appears to concede, without mustering much opposition, that, far from being a national minimum standard, the HPE curriculum is essentially optional.

For example, it notes that “one jurisdiction said it would refuse to implement the content in sexual orientation” (which appears to be Western Australia), while “a few schools are implacably opposed to the inclusion of such material [sexuality education] and some have refused to teach it”, and “[o]ne organisation claimed they would not teach it as prescribed as it did not fit in with their religious values.”

Presumably, that final organisation was the National Catholic Education Office (NCEC), with the Final Report noting that “the submission by the NCEC signals that Catholic schools reserve the right to implement the Australian Curriculum according to the uniquely faith-based and religious nature of such schools: For example, as usual in all Catholic schools, the new Health and Physical Education Curriculum will need to be taught in the context of a Personal Development program informed by Catholic values on the life and personal issues involved” (emphasis in original).

Which means that Catholic Schools – which now account for more than 1-in-5 students across Australia – (presumably) Western Australian schools, and select other schools, have all refused to implement a document that wasn’t even genuinely LGBTI-inclusive to start.

The second major failing, or in this case potential failing, of the National Curriculum Review’s approach is that it supports “the need to reduce the amount of content overall”, noting that “[s]ubmissions and consultations and the opinion of the subject matter specialist suggest that it is overcrowded and needs some slimming down and some restricting of year-level content. Some of the content could well be addressed more in school-based activity.”

Indeed, one of its key recommendations is that “[t]he core content should be reduced and a significant portion should become part of school-based curriculum…” While this recommendation isn’t explicitly linked to LGBTI-related content, there is now a real risk that, in finalising the HPE Curriculum, either at the COAG Education Ministers meeting in December, or subsequently during 2015, what little LGBTI-inclusive material there is may be on the chopping block. This is something that will need to be monitored closely in coming months.

The third major failing of the National Curriculum Review in this area is that, rather than mandating that every student, in every school, receives a minimum level of LGBTI-related education, it instead supports ever greater levels of ‘flexibility’ in terms of what is delivered in the classroom (noting that that the original HPE curriculum already supported ‘flexibility’ in this area).

For example, in one particularly telling paragraph it notes “[o]ther schools, including Christian schools, have advised us that they are comfortable with the inclusion of such content [sexuality education] in the health and physical education curriculum, provided there is flexibility so that they are able to teach it at the age level they deem appropriate, and by mature teachers rather than younger ones who may feel challenged in this arena. We think this is the way forward.”

Which, upon analysis, is actually a pretty bizarre statement – not just because it shouldn’t matter how old a teacher is, as long as they are appropriately qualified, but also because the National Curriculum Review is essentially agreeing to schools disregarding the evidence of when it is best to provide sexuality/sexual health education to students. Instead, the Review supports allowing schools to teach this content at whatever age they wish, without any justification, and presumably delaying it beyond the age at which it would be most valuable.

The recommendation in this area goes even further: “[t]he two controversial areas of sexuality and drugs education should remain, but schools should be given greater flexibility to determine the level at which these areas are introduced and the modalities in which they will be delivered…” (emphasis added). Which means that even how sexuality education is taught is apparently negotiable.

The net outcome of the National Curriculum Review, at least as it concerns Health & Physical Education, is this: A curriculum that already largely excludes LGBTI students and content, is, in practice, essentially optional, with at least one jurisdiction, one religion-based school system, and other individual schools all opting-out. What LGBTI-related subject matter there is remains under threat as the content is ‘slimmed down’ in coming months, while those religious schools that do teach ‘sexuality education’ will have the ‘flexibility’ to choose when it is taught, how it is taught and even by whom it is taught.

Which, to me at least, sounds like the exact opposite of what a national curriculum should be – and demonstrates just how big a missed opportunity this entire process has been.

A national Health & Physical Education curriculum should be a document that recognises that, no matter what state they reside in, and irrespective of the type of school they attend (government, religious or private), all LGBTI students have the fundamental right to an inclusive education.

The existing HPE curriculum does not even come close to recognising that right, and the Final Report of the Australian Curriculum Review will not deliver it, either. That is why we must give the ‘Wiltshire & Donnelly’ Review a fail – because it fails to support LGBTI students.

Two final points. First, at least one of the explanations for why the National Curriculum Review has ultimately failed LGBTI students lies in the fact that it actively bought into the notion that the area of ‘sexuality education’ is somehow controversial. Well, that is simply not true.

Just because there are people who disagree with something does not make it controversial. Just because some governments, religious organisations, individual schools and even some parents do not think students should be taught material because it is LGBTI-inclusive, does not mean their opinion is valid.

None of their individual or collective prejudices about sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status trump the rights of LGBTI students to hear about themselves in the classroom, and to be taught that who they are is okay. Nor do the so-called interests of these groups override the need to reduce the number of suicides of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, an ongoing tragedy in schools and communities across the country.

Which brings me to my final point. Some people believe that the inclusion of the following paragraph indicates that the Curriculum Review is supportive of LGBTI students:

“Expert medical opinion is clear that, along with the earlier maturation of young people, there is currently a serious crisis – including youth suicides – occurring in Australian society in this domain as a result of a lack of forums and spaces where young people can discuss such issues, including sexuality. The school setting, on the assumption that the curriculum is balanced and objective in dealing with what are sensitive and often controversial issues, offers one of the few neutral places for this to occur.”

Of course, I agree with the majority of this statement (reference to ‘controversial’ aside) – as would many advocates operating in this area. But, if you are to raise the spectre of youth suicide, and LGBTI youth suicide in particular, but then fail to deliver a document that would do anything to tackle this crisis, then, Mr Wiltshire and Mr Donnelly, your words aren’t just hollow and tokenistic, they are offensive.

Ken Wiltshire & Kevin Donnelly's National Curriculum Review has failed LGBTI students around the country.

Ken Wiltshire & Kevin Donnelly’s National Curriculum Review has failed to support LGBTI students around the country.