Pathetic, and antipathetic, in equal measure

Pathetic: adjective, ‘unsuccessful or showing no ability, effort, or bravery, so that people feel no respect’

Last week, the Senate witnessed one of the most pathetic votes by any Government in recent memory: on Wednesday 1 September, Liberal and National Party Senators voted against amendment sheet 1427 to the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021.

As that description suggests, those amendments, moved by the Australian Greens, were largely technical in nature. All they did (or at least would have done, had they passed), was ensure the terms gender identity and intersex status were included in exactly the same sections of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) which cover other protected attributes, such as race, sex, disability and sexual orientation.

That includes provisions which protect workers against adverse action (section 351(1)) and unlawful termination (section 772(1)(f)) on the basis of who they are, meaning the amendments would have guaranteed trans, gender diverse and intersex employees the exact same ability to access the Fair Work Commission as women, people with disability and even lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. [For more background on this issue, see ‘Unfairness in the Fair Work Act’]

As well as being largely technical, they also should have been entirely uncontroversial. Gender identity and intersex status are already protected attributes in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth). The amendments were simply intended to bring these two pieces of legislation into closer alignment.

Indeed, the Greens changes in sheet 1427 directly tied the proposed definitions in the Fair Work Act back to the Sex Discrimination Act:

‘gender identity has the same meaning as in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

intersex status has the same meaning as in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.’[i]

And yet, these largely technical and entirely uncontroversial changes were still rejected by the Coalition Government. Together with One Nation, their votes were enough for the amendments to be voted down, leaving the rights of trans, gender diverse and intersex workers in doubt.

It seems like anything that advances the rights of LGBTI Australians, even if just an inch, will inevitably be rejected by the Morrison Liberal/National Government. Which is, frankly, pathetic.

*****

Antipatheic: adjective, ‘showing or feeling a strong dislike, opposition, or anger’

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this situation is that the 2021 Coalition were voting against the protection of groups which the Coalition had actually supported eight years earlier.

In 2013, the Liberal/National Opposition, under the leadership of Tony ‘no friend of the gays’ Abbott, voted in favour of the then-Labor Government’s historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

That legislation inserted gender identity and intersex status into the Sex Discrimination Act in the first place. But, eight years later, the Coalition refused to back the inclusion of the exact same terms, with the exact same definitions, in the Fair Work Act.

Think about that for a second. The current Government is more opposed to the rights of trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians than the Abbott Opposition was back then.

The ‘strong dislike, opposition or anger’ towards trans rights from notoriously transphobic Senators like Claire Chandler has overwhelmed any semblance of support from other, more sympathetic sections of the Morrison Government.[ii]

The Coalition’s antipathy to trans rights also seems to have overwhelmed their ability to make political judgements that benefit them.

This amendment was a potential win for them. Almost 28 months into a maximum 36-month parliamentary term, it is increasingly likely the Government will not pass a single pro-LGBTI Bill before the next election (including a failure to introduce legislation to implement Scott Morrison’s since-broken promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination).

If they had chosen to vote for these changes – the most straight-forward of amendments, merely introducing consistency in the groups protected under the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work Acts – moderate Liberal Senators, and Liberal candidates for socially-progressive electorates, could have pointed to this outcome as evidence they care about LGBTI rights.

Instead, by voting against these amendments, everybody can see that they don’t care, about anybody whose gender identities or sex characteristics are different to societal expectations.

*****

The Government’s reasons for not supporting these amendments also demonstrate the simultaneously pathetic and antipathetic nature of their opposition. Attorney-General, Senator Michaelia Cash, made the following comments in relation to the Greens’ amendments:

‘The government will also be opposing the amendment moved by the Australian Greens. The government believes that people are entitled to respect, dignity and the opportunity to participate in society and receive the protection of the law, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. The Sex Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination on these grounds in a range of areas of public life. The primary purpose of this bill is to implement the government’s commitments in its response to the Respect@Work report and to implement, as a matter of urgency, measures to strengthen national laws to better prevent and respond to sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. Discrimination on the basis of gender identity and intersex status is already prohibited in the Sex Discrimination Act…’

Cash raises a number of different arguments there. Unfortunately, none of them are compelling upon closer inspection.

For example, her attempt to declare that the primary purpose of the legislation is ‘to implement the government’s commitments in its response to the Respect@Work report’, might be an explanation of why they did not include these changes in the original Bill. It is not a justification for voting against these changes when they are moved by others.

Even worse, Cash’s argument is directly undermined by the words of her own Department, exactly one year-to-the-day beforehand. In response to my letter to then-Attorney-General Christian Porter calling for him to address this very issue, I received a reply dated 1 September 2020 from an Assistant Secretary in the Attorney-General’s Department, which included the following paragraph:

‘I note the discrepancies you raise between the language in the Fair Work Act 2009 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. At this point in time, the Australian Government has not indicated an intention to amend the Fair Work Act 2009 to explicitly include gender identity or intersex status as grounds for lodging an adverse action or unlawful termination application. In saying this, however, you may be interested to know that the Australian Government is currently considering its response to a number of recommendations made in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report. This process provides scope for the issues you have raised here to be considered further in the implementation of any proposed recommendations.’ [emphasis added]

Not only did the Department acknowledge this legislative gap, but they highlighted the Respect@Work response as an opportunity for this issue to be resolved. It was the Government itself, and possibly even Michaelia Cash herself or her predecessor Christian Porter, who actively decided to ignore, rather than address, this discrepancy.

Cash’s other arguments are just as flawed. She mentions not once, but twice, that discrimination on the basis of gender identity and intersex status is already prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act. Which, well, yes, of course it is. As is discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation.

The point is, while sex and sexual orientation are also explicitly included in the Fair Work Act, gender identity and intersex status are not. Meaning women, lesbians, gay men and bisexuals have clear rights to access the Fair Work Commission, while trans, gender diverse and intersex workers do not. That inequality of access is exactly the issue the Greens’ amendments were intended to address, amendments the Government chose to reject.

Which reveals the lie at the heart of Cash’s introductory comment, that ‘[t]he government believes that people are entitled to respect, dignity and the opportunity to participate in society and receive the protection of the law, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.’

No. No, you don’t. If you did, you would have voted for these amendments.

*****

Of course, for most people paying attention to Australian politics these days, the fact the Coalition Government doesn’t really give a shit about LGBTI Australians is no surprise.

Last Wednesday’s vote by Liberal and National Party Senators against amendments to explicitly include trans, gender diverse and intersex workers in the Fair Work Act wouldn’t even make a list of the top five worst things the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Government has done in relation to LGBTI rights over the past eight years.

[A list that, from my perspective, would include (in no particular order):

  • Holding an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive public vote on our fundamental human rights
  • Defunding an evidence-based program against anti-LGBTI bullying in schools
  • Detaining LGBTI people seeking asylum in countries that criminalise homosexuality
  • Failing to implement the recommendations of the 2013 Senate Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People (allowing these human rights violations to continue to this day), and
  • Breaking its promise to protect vulnerable LGBT kids against abuse and mistreatment by publicly-funded religious schools.]

It probably won’t even be the worst thing the Coalition Government does to LGBTI Australians this year, with Cash also committing to introduce the recently-revived Religious Discrimination Bill before the end of 2021.

This is legislation that, based on the Second Exposure Draft, would encourage anti-LGBT comments in all areas of public life, as well as making access to essential healthcare much more difficult, among other serious threats. [For more background on this issue, see ‘The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must Be Blocked’

Nevertheless, just because this isn’t the worst thing they’ve ever done, doesn’t mean their vote on Wednesday was any less abhorrent.

And just because I earlier described these amendments as largely technical in nature, doesn’t mean they were any less important.

As well as guaranteeing access to the Fair Work Commission, these amendments were an opportunity for the Government, and Parliament more broadly, to reaffirm that trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians should enjoy the same rights as everyone else.

In rejecting the Greens’ amendments to add gender identity and intersex status to the Fair Work Act, the Government repudiated this fundamental principle.

The Senate vote last Wednesday perfectly encapsulates the Morrison Government’s pettiness, and the meanness of its approach, when it comes to LGBTI rights.

How pathetic in their lack of principle, and basic decency.

How antipathetic to the human rights and dignity of their fellow Australians.

In roughly equal measure.

Morrison, Turnbull and Abbott, divided by political ambition but united in their pathetic, and antipathetic, approach to LGBTI rights.

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Footnotes:


[i] Earlier amendments (sheet 1373) that would have introduced the protected attribute of sex characteristics, rather than intersex status, in the Fair Work Act to reflect both best practice and the views of intersex advocates such as Intersex Human Rights Australia, failed with both the Government and Labor expressing their opposition. Sheet 1427, which included intersex status based on the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act was then moved by the Greens because it was seen as being entirely uncontroversial and therefore more chance of succeeding.

[ii] NSW Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg did refer to the issue of trans, gender diverse and intersex inclusion in the Fair Work Act in his second reading debate speech, expressing support for it being addressed at some point, but did not find the courage to cross the floor on the amendment itself.

Never much of a country kid

I was never much of a country kid, despite growing up outside Blackwater, a couple of hours west of Rockhampton in Central Queensland.

Our family lived on 16,000 acres of what I now know is Gangulu/Ghungalu land – a fact never mentioned in my Bjelke-Petersen-era classrooms.

My dad had about 2,000 head of cattle, and when it rained – which was not nearly often enough – planted crops on the most productive parts.

In my memories, the landscape appears mostly in brownscale. Brown grass, surrounded by more brown dirt. Brown Braford cattle, mustered with brown horses and cattle dogs. The grey-brown of kangaroos. The house gently brushed in a layer of fine, light-brown dust.

Even the other colours of the pastoral palette didn’t provide much contrast; the dull silver-green leaves of the brigalow scrub, and occasional fields of rust-brown sorghum or faded yellow wheat.

I admit, the picture I’m painting doesn’t sound particularly idyllic, but it wasn’t without its beauty either. The property didn’t need much rain to spring to life, and Burngrove Creek – which ran through its middle – in flood was always a spectacular sight. As was the dark outline of the Blackdown Tablelands, off to the distant south-east.

[View from house, looking down towards Burngrove Creek]

I was never much of a country kid, especially compared to my siblings. My older sister could easily have been described as a pony princess, while my older brother generally fulfilled the stereotype of the motorbike-riding, pig-shooting (and later rodeo-riding and ute-driving) son of the bush I was destined never to be.

I was much more of the nerdy and indoors-y child. I did have a horse, Spree (named by my mum, for reasons I’ve long since forgotten), but I wouldn’t have ridden it more than a handful of times. Which was still more frequently than I jumped on a motorbike: four wheels, once or twice; two wheels, never.

Nor did I contribute much toward the farm-work. Obviously, my mustering skills were close to non-existent, while my attempts at milking resulted in more frustration (both mine, and the cow’s) than milk.

I was put in charge of looking after the chooks, a responsibility I could at least handle: letting them out mid-afternoon, collecting the eggs, and then feeding them the scraps and locking them back up at dusk.

Once I learned to drive, I also sometimes ‘did the waters’ (driving around the property to check the dams, and troughs, to ensure the cattle had enough to drink). But that was it.

It was clear from an early age that farm-life just wasn’t for me – a feeling that only intensified as I got older.

And my parents accepted my reluctance, too. They never put pressure on me to do the things my siblings did, a freedom from expectation I largely took for granted when I was younger, but one I am deeply appreciative of as I look back now.

I was never much of a country kid, and the things I was actually interested in always seemed so far away. Theatre, and galleries, and crowds, and the alluring buzz of metropolitan, cosmopolitan life, were busy happening someplace else. Further than the ‘big smoke’ of Rocky, further even than Brisbane (although visiting Expo ’88 aged 10 gave a small taste of future possibilities, and yes I mean that non-ironically).

Blackwater instead had a run-down drive-in, one radio station, one commercial TV channel and, at least back then, little to stimulate an inquisitive, impatient mind.

Both push and pull factors were working together harmoniously to create the central truth of my growing up in country Australia: as soon as I could leave, I would.

I was never much of a country kid, although my partner Steve has often told me how jealous he is of what I got to experience.

The wide-open space. Being outdoors. The motorbikes. The animals, especially. The quiet. The freedom to simply be, away from other people. The charming country houses of my parents that he’s visited during our 13 years together.

Who knows, maybe he would have enjoyed my own youth much more than I did.

But then, like many people who grew up in the suburbs, I suspect he underestimates the challenges it posed.

The isolation.

The relentless sun (although being a bookish child had its advantages – as the only one in my family to make 40 without skin cancer).

The equally oppressive heat.

The reality animals were usually either productive (cattle, cows and chickens), or worked (horses and dogs). While the main childhood pet I had (a cat, Beethoven, which I shared with my brother) didn’t last long before being bitten by a snake.

The boredom.

The feeling of being apart, outside of the action.

The fact that for the first few years of my life the five of us lived in a couple of rooms, on slabs of concrete, down one end of a machinery shed.

It might be a cliché, but life on the land can be, often is, hard.

I was never much of a country kid, and that has been reflected in my choice of career. For at least a few generations, on both sides of my family, most men would grow up to be primary producers – mainly graziers, although there were also a cane farmer and mango and lychee grower among them.

While most of the women would work in a health-related field – with several nurses, including my mum, as well as an optometrist, a physio, and a speech pathologist.

My sister and brother both largely followed these well-worn paths: she, a vet, he – until recently – a grazier (although, perhaps in a sign of the times, he sold his own beef property and is now a full-time coal-miner).

It was far from inevitable I would become a public policy professional, working in several government departments and community sector organisations. Although once again my parents never made me feel a sense of obligation to stay on the land, and I thank them for the gift of being encouraged to follow my own track.

[With my older sister and brother]

I was never much of a country kid. I only fired a gun once, when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, under my dad’s strict supervision. It must have been apparent on my face just how little I enjoyed it. But I think he found the experience uncomfortable too.

In hindsight, I think it was one of the few times he did something because he thought it was the right thing for any child growing up on a farm to learn, rather than the right thing for his child, this particular child. We never spoke about it again.

I was never much of a country kid, but I think I inherited a lot from my dad. Not just the superficial – looks-wise I couldn’t be anyone other than his son, while I’ve commonly been mistaken for him over the phone.

Or characteristics like being softly-spoken and gentle (Steve has often commented he doesn’t understand how such a gentle-man survived more than half a century as a farmer).

More fundamentally, he imparted several of his core values.

Including the virtue of civic participation, and especially volunteerism. For him, that meant stepping in to fill in the gaps where governments failed to deliver essential services to rural communities, like being a long-time local fire warden.

And stepping up to advocate on behalf of his own community, by contributing via agricultural organisations like the United Graziers Association.

While my own LGBTI volunteering and advocacy is obviously driven by different goals and in service of a very different community, I’d like to think the urge to help, to make society better, as well as the way we both go about achieving that, are pretty similar.

I can also blame my dad for my life-long obsession with politics. The outlet for that obsession is far from shared – he unsuccessfully sought National Party pre-selection for the federal seat of Maranoa in 1990, as well as contesting, and losing, the state seat of Fitzroy in the Beattie-slide election of 2001, while I was previously a long-term member of the Labor Party, and even served as a ministerial adviser to the Rudd and Gillard Governments – but the ideal that politics is, or at least can be, a noble profession, is.

I was never much of a country kid, although it did teach me about silence – both the good and the terrible.

Like many such myths, behind the archetype of the ‘strong and silent’ man of the land lies a sliver of truth. In this case, for many farmers, my dad included, they would leave the house in the early morning, and try to do most of the demanding physical labour before the heat of the day’s middle. But a farm’s unending tasks cannot be ignored, keeping them occupied through to sunset when they finally return to the house. They might not speak to, let alone see, another human in daylight hours. For days on end.

These days – and especially working from home through the pandemic, which in my adult life has perhaps come closest to replicating that absence of day-to-day real inter-personal contact – I don’t consider my dad so much as reserved, as simply having fallen out of the habit of engaging with other people.

*****

There are some benefits to this physical dislocation. I’m grateful to my youth for the gift of an active inner-life, and strong inner-voice, attributes which come in handy in a now-socially distant, social media-driven world.

And for the innate sense of comfort in solitude, of doing everyday things on my own, something I know others, who grew up always being surrounded by people, often struggle with. 

Inevitably, though, there are downsides as well. For me, these came in years 6 and 7 of primary school, when my sister and brother had already left for boarding school, with dad working on the farm and mum doing shift-work as a nurse at the same mine where my brother now works.

That period of engulfing, overwhelming, silence transformed an awkwardly, but conventionally, shy 10-year-old boy into a painfully introverted 12-year-old.

It left me completely unprepared to be transported several hundred kilometres away, to that same school in Brisbane as my siblings, a boarding house of hundreds, and school of more than 1,000 – with no privacy, or silence, for the next five years.

I constantly felt alone in that particular crowd.

I’m not sure that, having discovered I was same-gender attracted on my first day there (a long story for another time) and the school’s fervent, at times ferocious, homophobia, I was ever going to find much happiness in that toxic environment.

But I’m certain the lingering effects of that late-primary school drought in conversation, my under-developed communications skills and overly-honed ability to retreat into my thoughts, meant I started at a distinct disadvantage.

It would be many years before I would finally find the comfort of my own community, and a sense of home with others of my kind.

I was never much of a country kid, even if I inherited a lot from my mum too. She also grew up on a cattle property, which was even more isolated (on the Isaac River, south-west of Mackay). 

Her father died when she was 13, however, and she eventually had to leave the land, moving to Mackay and looking after herself by becoming a nurse.

Those early hardships meant mum had to fight harder than dad for what she had. She learnt that sometimes help is not on its way, that you have to look after yourself.

And she developed a fearsome backbone – I was always much, much more scared of her than I was of dad.

The same was true for our (thankfully infrequent) arguments – she never backs down, a trait which I, as her youngest child, seem to take strongly after. It certainly makes dinner time discussion interesting.

[Mustering with the family (and yes, that’s me on the end).]

I was never much of a country kid, although it did teach me the fundamental lesson that water is life. Growing up on the farm, you get to observe first-hand the abundance that comes from having enough water. And the death that arrives – of grass, and cattle, and eventually hope – when that water departs.

So you obsess about the weather, and the Southern Oscillation Index, and Indian Ocean Dipole.

Long after moving to the city, my mind still doesn’t make the association of 420 with marijuana, instead that’s the time the Bureau of Meteorology’s afternoon forecast is released.

*****

But it also taught me a deeper truth about power, or rather powerlessness.
Because my dad’s entire livelihood, and our family’s fortunes, depended on something over which we had exactly zero control – whether enough wet stuff fell from the sky. And even whether it fell at the right times.

A reality brutally reinforced when, for the five years I was away at boarding school, the rain stopped falling.

For some of those years, it was six months or more between even the briefest of showers. Some of the stock died, more had to be sold off. There were no crops.

The only reason the business didn’t go under was because of mum’s income from the mine.

It was difficult watching my parents endure that drought, especially from a distance of 800km. But toughest of all was knowing there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

*****

When I was younger, I drew the wrong lesson from that painful experience.

I used to think that being dependent on the vagaries of the weather was an excellent reason not to be a farmer. And while that’s still true, in my youthful arrogance, or at least naivety, I thought I could instead study, and work, in areas where I would be able to exert control over my own destiny.

It took me until my 30s to comprehend that you can never really have power over your surroundings. No matter what you do, or where you live, you are dependent on so many different things around you that lie entirely outside of your control.

It might not be as black and white (or green and brown) as whether it rains or not, but you have to embrace your powerlessness and just get on and do the best job you can.

[When it rained enough, we grew wheat. My dad in a wheatfield, and the view to Blackdown Tableland.]

I was never much of a country kid, but for a long time that was how most other people perceived me. I suppose that much was unavoidable during my five years at boarding school – especially the first three when I was in the same dorm as my quintessentially rural brother. Even when I was at university in Canberra, however, somehow the metaphorical odour of hayseed and manure seemed to follow me around.

I don’t know that I would say I was ever truly ashamed of it – and certainly not in the same, visceral way I experienced shame about being gay while I was in the closet – but I was definitely embarrassed about my country origins.

For a long time I took deliberate steps to conceal my bush background, making sure to eliminate any hint of a rural twang in my accent, and speaking little about my childhood.

By the time I moved to Melbourne in my mid-twenties, very few people could have guessed I grew up on a cattle property in the middle of Queensland.

I was never much of a country kid, although that didn’t stop me from playing up the fact I grew up on a ‘station in the outback’ to pick up men interested in that kind of thing. A tactic that was particularly successful in my post-Brokeback Mountain North American summer holiday of 2006.

I was never much of a country kid, but I couldn’t escape it even when I worked in politics. As an adviser, whenever I had to go to the Senate chamber from the ministerial wing, I would walk past the National Party Senate Whip’s office.

With the door open, passers-by could see a long scroll celebrating all the people who had ever been Senators for the Country/National Party. About half-way down was my grandfather’s (dad’ dad) name, who served for a decade in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The fact my grandfather had voted to block supply against Gough Whitlam was a source of much amusement to my first boss there, John Faulkner (an avid historian of the parliamentary Labor Party).

Things became even stranger under my second boss, Joe Ludwig. At the start of the second term, Gillard appointed him Minister for Agriculture. As one of only a handful of Labor advisers who grew up on the land, he asked me to stay on. Suddenly I was Senior Adviser with responsibility for meat and livestock issues, including the cattle industry. 

Never in a million years did I imagine, growing up in 1980s Central Queensland perennially dreaming of the day I could finally leave for the city, in my 30s I would end up providing advice on beef policy.

The denouement of my time in politics was perhaps the most bizarre. One of my final responsibilities was to accompany Joseph to ‘Beef 2012’ in Rockhampton.

For those who may be unfamiliar, ‘Beef’ is basically a week-long carnival of carnivorism, held every three years (coincidentally, for a long time one of my aunts was involved in its organisation).

It was the kind of event I spent my childhood desperately trying to avoid being dragged along to. Yet there I was, shepherding the Minister around, showing him the exhibits, introducing him to stakeholders – even to my parents, who had driven up especially for the occasion. Completely surreal.

I was never much of a country kid, or so I had always told myself. My subconscious clearly must have disagreed.

In my late 20s I hit what could be described, in an understated way, as a rough patch. The depression I developed because of that homophobic boarding school had never really left me. My choices for self-medication (party drugs) and self-esteem (seeking to be affirmed through physical desire from others) had, unsurprisingly, not helped either. The breakdown of the first relationship in which I had fallen, hard, was enough to push me to try to end it all. And it nearly did. End.

Apparently, in the suicide note (which I still don’t remember writing) I asked to be cremated and for my ashes to be spread over the farm where I grew up. I guess, deep down, it must have felt like home.

[Dear reader, in case you’re worried, I’m fine now. Better than fine. I managed to draw on the same resilience my mum had shown, and overcome my depression. But please, if you’re considering sending your child to a school that treats LGBT kids as second-class, in any way, just don’t. And that goes doubly so for anti-LGBT religious boarding schools. Thanks.]

I was never much of a country kid, back when I actually was a kid. But from my early 30s onwards – that point in life when you exhale, and stop running from the things you were convinced you needed distance from – I think I become a little bit more ‘country’ with each passing year.

It started with little things, like finding visits to my parents’ farm more calming than constricting.

Or seeing the horses and other animals through Steve’s eyes; independently beautiful rather than creatures of industry.

While the idea of being apart, external to the action, once terrifying, now appeals.

Indeed, nothing confirmed this evolution as much as the first home Steve and I bought – a 2-bedroom, high-rise apartment in inner-city Sydney. 

Lots of things went wrong with the apartment, physically, from leaking windows to clogged drains, and even builders needing to rip holes in the walls to fix cracked A/C pipes.

But I wasn’t prepared for it feeling wrong, mentally, as well. Having finally planted roots in the buzzing heart of the metropolis and, well, I wanted to be literally anywhere else. He did, too.

We’ve made some major changes since then, including moving to Wollongong which is both closer to his parents, and further away from the madding crowd.

Somewhat more drastically, we also sold that unit and instead bought our future retirement house… in Queensland (surprising myself, but my mother more).

Sure, it might be closer to one acre than 16,000, and it’s on the Blackall Range of the Sunshine Coast Hinterland rather than having a view of the Blackdown Tablelands.

But it’s big enough for plenty of fruit trees, and has space for a couple of dogs (pets, this time) to roam.

There’s even a chook shed in the back corner (I’m not convinced whether we’ll use it yet, although at least I’ll know what to do).

Oh, and did I mention my parents live on the block next door?

I was always a country kid. Even if I didn’t accept it for a long time, because I couldn’t see myself in the various clichés of what that supposedly entailed.

You would think spending years fighting against stereotypes on the basis of sexual orientation would mean I understood that stereotypes of who is ‘country’ can be limiting and inaccurate, too. Well, I got there eventually.

Growing up in country Australia has influenced me in countless ways I have only recently begun to comprehend, and I’m sure in others I haven’t figured out yet.

I am undeniably a product of those years spent on the land, of the quiet and the isolation.

Obviously of my parents, too: softly-spoken and gentle, but with hidden backbone and not afraid of the argument (which, incidentally, are handy attributes for an LGBTI law reform advocate).

Even though my childhood looked very different to those of my sister and brother, being a country kid is just as much a part of my story as theirs. And I’m finally comfortable with that.

For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/

Or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

It’s time Scott Morrison stopped running away from his promise to LGBT kids

Today marks an unhappy milestone for LGBT Australians: 1,000 days since Scott Morrison first committed to ending discrimination against LGBT students by religious schools, saying ‘We do not think that children should be discriminated against.’

It was a promise made amidst the significant backlash following the leaking of the Religious Freedom Review recommendations, from a public who were surprised to learn taxpayer-funded faith schools could mistreat, and even expel, kids just because of who they are. And it was made in the middle of the Wentworth by-election campaign.

In committing to remove these special privileges before the end of 2018, Morrison said what he needed to say to get himself out of a tricky political situation. But he never did what was needed to be done to ensure LGBT students were finally protected under the Sex Discrimination Act.

Instead, Morrison has been running away from his promise ever since. If only he ran the national vaccine rollout as quickly, maybe I wouldn’t be writing this from lockdown.

Morrison never even introduced amendments to Parliament to give effect to his commitment, let alone tried to pass them. And refused to support Labor legislation which would have achieved the same goal.

By April 2019 – on the day before the writs were issued for the federal election – Morrison’s then-Attorney-General Christian Porter referred the broader issue of ‘religious exceptions’ to anti-discrimination law to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) for review.

After his re-election, Morrison preferred to prioritise granting even more special privileges to religious organisations through the ‘Religious Freedom Bills’, and put the fate of LGBT students on hold. Literally. In March 2020, Porter amended the ALRC reporting deadline to be ’12 months from the date the Religious Discrimination Bill is passed by Parliament.’

With the Religious Discrimination Bill delayed by the pandemic, the earliest it could be passed is the end of 2021, meaning the ALRC won’t report until at least late 2022.

And, of course, given the serious problems of the first two exposure draft Religious Discrimination Bills – including undermining inclusive workplaces and access to healthcare – there are many who will be trying to stop it from passing (myself included).

Either way, based on current ALRC timelines, and assuming both that Morrison wins re-election and still feels bound by a promise first made in October 2018, he will not even start drafting legislation until 2023. LGBT students in religious schools would not be protected against discrimination until 2024. At the earliest.

Put another way, LGBT students in year 7 when Scott Morrison first promised to protect them will have finished school before he finally gets around to doing it. If he ever does.

Today might mark 1,000 days since Morrison’s broken promise, but I am more concerned about a larger number: the thousands, and perhaps even tens of thousands, of LGBT students who have been, and are still being, harmed because of his inaction.

For many, that harm will be long-lasting, scarring them far beyond the school gates. I know, because that’s what happened to me.

Not only was my religious boarding school in 1990s Queensland deeply homophobic, from rules targeting same-sex students to a pastor implying gay kids should kill themselves, it helped create a toxic environment which encouraged verbal, and physical, abuse by students against any kid who exhibited any kind of difference. I suffered both.

Like Scott Morrison, I attempted to run away; I spent more than a decade trying to outrun the depression caused by those experiences. But it eventually caught up to me, and age 29 I almost succeeded in what that pastor had hinted I should do.

I was extremely lucky to survive, and even luckier that, with self-care, plenty of support and the love of a good man, I finally managed to thrive.

But whether LGBT kids are able to survive their childhoods should not be a matter of chance. Every LGBT student, in every school, deserves the right to thrive.

As dark as my story is, there is also hope. Because in 2002, the Queensland Government amended their Anti-Discrimination Act to remove the ability of religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students. And I am reliably informed, by multiple sources, that my boarding school is now vastly more accepting of diversity of sexual orientation.

All it takes is a commitment to actions, not just words. Indeed, the ACT Government also responded to the 2018 Religious Freedom Review with a promise to protect LGBT students, and teachers, in religious schools – something they passed before the end of that year.

In contrast, Prime Minister Morrison is still running. Running away from his October 2018 promise. And running away from his obligation to ensure all students have the right to learn in a safe environment. It’s time Morrison stopped running, and allowed LGBT kids to thrive.

*****

Take Action

It is clear from the history of this issue that Prime Minister Morrison is not going to take action just because it is the right thing to do. He will only make this change if we put enough pressure on him. On that basis, it’s up to all of us to tell Morrison that:

  • It’s time to honour your October 2018 promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination on the basis of who they are
  • It’s time to help LGBT kids thrive no matter which school they attend, and
  • It’s time to stop delaying this much-needed reform and just get it done already.

There are a variety of ways you can let him know your thoughts:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ScottMorrisonMP

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/scottmorrison4cook

Email webform: https://www.pm.gov.au/contact-your-pm

Mail: The Hon Scott Morrison MP Prime Minister Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600

Telephone (Parliament House Office): (02) 6277 7700

Don’t forget to add a personal comment explaining why this issue is important to you.

Oh, and just in case Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese feels like he can avoid this issue, we also need the ALP to be much clearer on where it stands. In particular, we should be asking ‘Albo’:

  • Do you publicly commit to protecting LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination on the basis of who they are? and
  • Will you pass legislation giving effect to this commitment in the first six months of your term if you win the next federal election?

Anthony Albanese’s contact details include:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AlboMP

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AlboMP

Email: A.Albanese.MP@aph.gov.au

Mail: The Hon Anthony Albanese MP PO Box 6022 House of Representatives Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600

Telephone (Parliament House Office): (02) 6277 4022

So, readers, it’s time to get writing/calling. Thanks in advance for standing up for LGBT kids.

*****

For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/

Or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

[Scott Morrison with Member for Wentworth, Dave Sharma]. Morrison first committed to protecting LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination during the October 2018 Wentworth by-election – a promise he has been running away from ever since.

Finally, if you have appreciated reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Surprise!* Mark Latham’s Inquiry is just as unbalanced and transphobic as his Bill

[*Not surprising in the slightest]

In August 2020, NSW One Nation MLC Mark Latham introduced the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020. As I wrote at the time, this Bill is the worst legislative attack on LGBTI rights in Australia this century. 

In particular, Latham’s Bill seeks to erase trans and gender diverse students from classrooms and schoolyards across NSW. It would also establish a UK ‘section 28’-style prohibition on positive references to anything at all to do with LGBT people, as well as introducing an offensive and stigmatising definition of intersex variations of sex characteristics.

This Bill should have been immediately rejected by the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government and (at the time McKay) Labor Opposition. Instead, Coalition and Labor Members of the Legislative Council voted to refer the Bill for inquiry by the Portfolio Committee No. 3 – Education, which just so happens to be chaired by Mark Latham himself, thus creating a serious and ongoing conflict of interest.

Even if there might be circumstances in which an MLC should be given authority to lead an inquiry into their own legislation (and, readers, I can’t think of any right now), a chair in this situation should be acutely aware of the responsibilities of their position and their obligation to act impartially and respectfully.

Unfortunately, as demonstrated in the 11 months since then, Mark Latham is not such a chair. Indeed, Mark Latham’s Inquiry into Mark Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill has been as unbalanced and transphobic as his legislation is, as evidenced in the following five areas:

  1. Lack of trans witnesses

Latham’s inquiry conducted hearings on April 20 and 21, 2021. Across those two days, 42 witnesses were scheduled to give evidence. Do you know how many were trans or nonbinary children – that is, the people who stand to lose the most if this legislation passes?

Zero.

In fact, there was only one identified trans witness out of 42 (the amazing Teddy Cook, from ACON), plus one parent of a trans child. As far as I am aware, that means 40 witnesses out of the 42 scheduled to appear (or 95% of witnesses) were neither trans themselves nor the parent of a trans child.

This imbalance alone is enough to dismiss the validity of the entire inquiry.

It’s not like there weren’t other trans individuals and organisations ready and willing to give evidence either. As I understand it, the Gender Centre – described in its submission as ‘NSW’s leading trans led organisation, providing 95% of all trans specific services in the state’ that ‘support over 500 NSW transgender and gender diverse families generally’ – were not invited to appear.

The selection of non-trans witnesses was biased, too. Of the religious organisations invited to give evidence, only faith groups that expressed support for the Bill were given a guernsey. 

As noted by Greens MLC David Shoebridge during the hearings: ‘Unfortunately, the Coalition and the Chair determined not to allow any witnesses to appear from the parts of the Christian faith who oppose the bill.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 8).

This meant religious organisations that expressed their opposition to the Bill through their submissions – including the Pitt St Uniting Church, and Uniting Church LGBTIQ Network – did not receive an invitation to appear.

In my view, the lack of trans witnesses, and biased selection of others, rendered this inquiry process illegitimate from the outset.

2. Disrespectful treatment of submitters and witnesses

It wasn’t just the selection of witnesses that was unbalanced, but also how organisations that made submissions, or appeared as witnesses, were (mis)treated – especially by the chair.

Take, for example, the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, who made a submission to the inquiry in which they expressed their opposition to Latham’s Bill.

For this ‘sin’, not only were they not invited, but they were attacked in their absence.

When Shoebridge noted that ‘The Chair and the Coalition would not allow them to come. They voted on majority to prevent them coming’, Latham ultimately responded with ‘Well, there has to be a degree of sanity here.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 36).

Imagine, as the Chair of an inquiry, thinking it appropriate to imply an organisation that made a submission to that inquiry ‘lacked sanity’.

The attack worsened from there, with Latham asking the witness from Catholic Schools NSW (who did oppose the Bill and were not coincidentally offered an invitation) to provide data about enrolment and academic performance of schools in the Parramatta Diocese specifically:

My understanding is that a number of the Parramatta parents are none too happy about this position and that the Parramatta diocese enrolment share and academic results have collapsed in recent times because of the so-called progressive approach to education. Do you have some data on that that you can furnish to the Committee?’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 36).

In my opinion, there can be no justification for asking questions which suggest a vendetta against religious bodies which have the temerity to take a different policy view to yours.

Nor was this the only example of Latham’s disrespect to submitters or witnesses. Later that day he made a series of what can only be described as unprofessional remarks in response to the evidence of Georgia Burke, representing the LGBTI Subcommittee of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights.

Burke: ‘… The best interests of the children are entirely disregarded with the primacy of parents put to the forefront.’

Latham: ‘Jesus, seriously.’

Burke: ‘It is interesting to reflect on the comments of the special rapporteur to which we refer in our submission.’

Latham: ‘The best interests of the children are disregarded when the parents are put to the forefront?’

Shoebridge: ‘Carry on.’

[Labor MLC Anthony] D’Adam: ‘Carry on, they are just being rude.’

Latham: ‘That is unbelievable.’

Burke: ‘His report of 2010 – and I do have a copy with me if it assists the Committee for me to table that report.’

Latham: ‘Jesus Christ.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 63).

[As an aside, it might be interesting to know what the religious fundamentalists who support Latham’s similarly-extreme ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill think about his blasphemy?]

As chair, Latham also accused witnesses of either ‘fabrication’ (saying to Ghassan Kassisieh of Equality Australia: ‘That is not what the Bill says. That is just a fabrication, I am sorry.’ Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 63), or ‘making something up’ (to Jared Wilk of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties: ‘You see, that is the problem. You are making something up about the bill that is not actually true.’ Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 65).

This is not the behaviour of somebody who should be in charge of anything, let alone an inquiry into legislation which carries the very real potential to undermine the human rights of some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

3. Allowing irrelevant evidence

The potential impact of Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill is incredibly broad – applying not just to classroom teaching, but also to ‘instruction, counselling and advice’ provided to students by principals, school counsellors, non-teaching staff, contractors, advisors and consultants, non-school based staff, contractors, advisors and consultants, and even volunteers (proposed new section 17C of the Education Act 1990).

However, one thing it doesn’t actually apply to is school sport. Despite this, Latham’s inquiry invited Katherine Deves from ‘Save Women’s Sport Australasia’ to address the Committee, where they were given free rein to make comments like:

It requires them [women and girls] to forego their right to compete on a level playing field in sport because fair competition is destroyed, athletic opportunities are lost and players’ safety is completely disregarded. On 1 December last year a senior bureaucrat in the NSW Sports Minister’s office told me that a woman would have to be killed before gender inclusion sports policies would be withdrawn.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 24).

And

‘We believe that the female sports category should be for female-born females only. We need to start asking boys and men to be more accommodating of non-gender-conforming boys and accommodate them in their sports instead of expecting the girls and the women, to their own detriment, to accept them into their sports. We are getting stories now of boys competing in girls’ sports and winning and taking sports on the podium and taking sports on the team and girls being harmed.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 27).[i]

Leaving to one side the lack of evidence to substantiate these claims, this testimony had nothing whatsoever to do with the Bill – a point which Shoebridge raised: ‘Point of order: There is not a single part of the terms of reference of this inquiry that relates to sport and I cannot see how either the opening submission or this question relates to the terms of reference.’

About which Latham eventually ruled: ‘I do not think censorship here is appropriate. The witness can answer the question.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 27).

Except ensuring witnesses at least vaguely stick to the terms of reference of the inquiry is not censorship, but one of the core responsibilities of a Committee Chair, something Latham spectacularly failed to fulfil here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, women’s sport was not the only unrelated matter that was allowed to be raised – Latham also provided ample space for witnesses to talk about access to bathrooms, something that is also unaffected by his legislation.

For example, Terri Kelleher of the Australian Family Association was given the opportunity to make the following comments:

‘Why would you want to set up – because part of the instructions or guidelines for schools as a result or a flow-on from teaching gender fluidity, you know, that people are the gender they feel and it may not be their natal sex, is to allow natal males into girls’ toilets. Now, that is not saying that all males or all boys who identify as girls are going to be a threat, but it sets up a situation where that can occur. This is very serious in the light of the child-on-child sexual abuse in schools.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, pages 40-41).

And then allowed to elaborate:

‘One of the risks … is the staff is to monitor the length of time in a change room. So staff are to monitor the length of time. It puts teachers in a difficult situation. Are they to be rostered outside toilets? Does there always have to be someone supervising wherever the toilets may be used, which would be throughout the day?’ (page 41).

Which led to the following exchange between MLCs sitting on the Committee:

D’Adam: ‘Point of order: We are taking evidence on a bill that has nothing to do with unisex toilets.’

Shoebridge: ‘Or teachers sitting outside toilets timing.’

D’Adam: ‘It has nothing to do with it. It is outside the terms of reference of this inquiry and I would ask the Chair to bring the witness back to-‘

[Nationals MLC Wes] Fang: ‘I have been waiting for this one. ‘Any other matter’ – it has been called on me so many times.’

Latham: ‘Yes. Related matters. I think the use of – I raised earlier on the problem of boys declaring themselves to be girls to get into the girls’ change room. That was in order and I think this is in order as well.’ (page 41)

In effect, the Chair of the inquiry ruled that ‘bathroom panic’-style testimony was in order because he himself had raised the issue of change room access, from the Chair, earlier in the day. This is the opposite of an impartial investigation.

4. Providing a platform for transphobia

As we have already seen, by allowing witnesses to talk about unrelated matters like trans participation in sport and ‘bathroom panic’ (including rhetorically linking trans access to toilets to child sexual abuse), Latham ensured his inquiry provided a platform for transphobia. Nor were these the only examples of extreme prejudice against trans and gender diverse young people over those two days.

This includes multiple witnesses suggesting that the gender identities of the majority of trans and nonbinary kids were not real but instead the product of mental illness:

‘When parents are kept in the dark about gender ideology and about what children are exposed to related to gender fluidity, they face an increased risk of harm. School officials and others do not know of, or may disregard, a child’s personal history – perhaps trauma or abuse or other diagnosed conditions, whether autism or mental health issues. They may play a role in a child’s identity concerns.’ (Mary Hasson, Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 3).

Dianna Kenny of something called the ‘Society for Evidence-based Gender Medicine’ was permitted to make the following extraordinary – and extraordinarily offensive – claim:

‘There is a very minute number of people who are what we try to call genuinely trans, and suddenly we have seen a 4,000 per cent increase in the number of young people identifying as trans. Only a tiny fraction of that 4,000 per cent increase are going to be what we call genuinely trans. The rest of them are in the thrall of the trans lobby, and they have serious mental health issues and other things that need to be addressed.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 33).

When asked by Labor MLC Anthony D’Adam about those people who Kenny claimed were not ‘genuinely transgender’ (‘Those who are not in that category – the others – you are saying that there is something wrong with them, that they are sick.’), Kenny replied:

‘It is a manifestation of serious mental health issues, yes. I work clinically with those people. I see them at close quarters. I work intensively with the families and with the young people themselves. The evidence is increasing exponentially that those young people have serious health issues that need to be addressed…’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, pages 33-34).[ii]

From my perspective, this does not read like a reasonable debate of issues related to the Bill but instead seems to be a free kick for witnesses to make derogatory comments about the mental health and wellbeing of trans and nonbinary kids.

Of course, being a parliamentary hearing about trans rights in 2021, a range of other transphobic tropes – from ‘desisters’[iii]/’de-transitioners’[iv] to ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’[v] and ‘social contagion’[vi] – made predictable appearances (and, just as predictably, none were based on high-quality, independently-verified research, because, well, it doesn’t exist).

Mark Sneddon of the Institute of Civil Society even gravely warned that: ‘What we are trying to do – or what I understand this bill is trying to do – is to reduce the social contagion influence putting more people onto the conveyor belt of gender transition.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 42).

A quote which, perhaps unintentionally, goes to the core of the whole debate. Through their evidence, these witnesses all appear to be implying that being trans or nonbinary is itself a negative thing, and should be avoided wherever possible, including through legislation which prevents students from even hearing that gender diversity exists.

Whereas the rest of us understand that a) trans and nonbinary people are a part of the natural spectrum of human gender identity (and indeed always have been), b) trans and nonbinary kids are awesome, and c) there are really two conveyor belts – one which lets trans and nonbinary kids be themselves and delivers them to health and happiness, and one which tells trans and nonbinary kids that they are wrong and should not exist, and abandons them to darkness and depression.

That is really what Latham’s Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 is all about – keeping trans and nonbinary students in the dark. About who they are. And that who they are is okay. More than okay. Beautiful.

Latham’s legislation is deeply transphobic. Which means it is no surprise that so was the evidence of many of the witnesses appearing at his inquiry. And that includes Latham himself, who even deliberately deadnamed and misgendered a prominent transgender Australian. (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 48).

5. Giving evidence from the chair

The fifth and final way Latham’s inquiry was unbalanced is not directly linked to trans and gender diverse children, but nevertheless goes to how ‘un-parliamentary’ his behaviour was – and that was his frequent attempts to give evidence from the chair.

For example, after raising the (unverified) story of a student whose school counsellor supported their social transition against the wishes of their parents, he was asked by Shoebridge ‘Is that in evidence?’ and by D’Adam: ‘Point of order: Is the chair giving evidence?’ To which Latham replied:

‘That is in evidence – and did not tell the family. So, Jack has asked me a question. I have given you a brief summary and will be presenting more of that evidence as the inquiry unfolds…’ (emphasis added, Hearing Transcript, 20 April, pages 24-25).[vii]

Perhaps the most extreme example came when Latham attempted to ask Ghassan Kassisieh of Equality Australia about a range of non-LGBTI issues, before making unsubstantiated claims about climate change, leading not just the Greens’ David Shoebridge but even the Nationals’ Wes Fang to suggest Latham should not be doing so as chair:

Latham: ‘Climate change – that while there is evidence of warming, it is not at some of the alarmist levels that have been projected. Sea levels are not rising and Tim Flannery was wrong about his predictions that our dams in western Sydney would never fill again.’

Shoebridge: ‘Point of order: Simply making these unfounded, biased assertions from the chair on matters unrelated to the terms of reference of this inquiry is not of assistance and, in fact, it does not fit with any of the terms of reference of this inquiry.’

Fang: ‘To the point of order-‘

Latham: ‘It fits in the submission. It is the witness’s submission – wanting to know the other side of the story. I am seeking a response about the other side of the story.’

Shoebridge: ‘Call me old-fashioned but I was looking at the terms of reference of the inquiry.’

Fang: ‘To the point of order: I actually support Mr Shoebridge here. Chair, you should not be doing it and, like Mr Shoebridge, if you are going to make these unsubstantiated comments you should do it just as a participating member, like Mr Shoebridge does often through this Committee.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 59).

Fang nails the problem here – Mark Latham should never have been permitted to prosecute the case for his own legislation as chair of the same Committee inquiring into it.

It was an inevitable conflict of interest, and just as inevitably led to serious shortcomings of the inquiry generally, and the hearings on April 20 and 21 in particular.

From a lack of trans witnesses, and only inviting faith bodies that supported the Bill to appear while ignoring those religious organisations that opposed it.

To criticising trans-supportive faith groups in their absence, implying they ‘lacked sanity’, and acting disrespectfully and unprofessionally to other witnesses.

Allowing completely irrelevant testimony, about trans inclusion in girl’s and women’s sports, and ‘bathroom panic’, which had exactly nothing to do with the legislation being considered.

And giving voice to transphobia, including providing a platform to witnesses who dismissed the gender identity of the majority of trans and nonbinary kids as not being real while simultaneously describing them as suffering ‘serious mental health issues’.

Before using the position of chair to give his own evidence, rather than impartially examining the evidence of witnesses.

If you were being charitable, you could describe these hearings, and the overall inquiry they were a part of, as a farce.

But, after reading through all of the testimony given over those two days, including the derogatory comments about some of the most vulnerable members of our community, I am not feeling especially charitable. So I will call it as it is:

This inquiry, and the fact Mark Latham has been allowed to serve as its chair, is a sick joke. And, if you can’t tell by now, I am not amused.

The other thing that is definitely not humorous? The fact the Coalition Government, and Labor Opposition, have allowed this embarrassing debasement of NSW Parliament to drag on for almost a full year.

This legislation seeks to erase trans and nonbinary kids in schools across NSW. It will cause harm to them, and to all LGBTI children and young people.

These things have been known since it was first introduced in August 2020 – and yet neither Gladys Berejiklian, nor Jodi McKay and now Chris Minns, have done the bare minimum: to speak out against it, and declare they will not support legislation that attacks kids.

What the fuck are they waiting for?

It’s beyond time for the major parties to finally reject Mark Latham’s Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, and Latham’s equally unbalanced and transphobic inquiry into it.

NSW Parliament can be, should be, better than this. Trans and nonbinary kids need it to be.

For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/

Or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

Footnotes:


[i] Nor was Deves the only witness allowed to raise the irrelevant issue of trans inclusion in girl’s and women’s sports, with Terri Kelleher of the Australian Family Association making the following comments:

‘What right do they [girls in schools] have to fair sporting competitions? There is a worldwide movement at the moment speaking out for women’s and girl’s rights to their own sporting competitions on the ground that natal males have serious advantages over females.’ (Hearing Transcript, April 20, page 40).

[ii] Strangely enough, despite Kenny arguing that ‘genuinely transgender’ people are extremely rare, they are also capable of ‘destroying the fabric of the nuclear family’ (‘But to withdraw parental guidance and authority in the way that the transgender lobby has implemented with children declaring themselves to be transgender is really destroying the fabric of the nuclear family.’ Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 28), which indicates trans people must have super-powers.

[iii] John Steenhof of the Human Rights Law Alliance (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 36) and Mark Sneddon of the Institute for Civil Society (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 42).

[iv] Patrick Byrne of the National Civic Council, who suggested that transition – and not transphobia – was the cause of high rates of depression and suicide amongst transgender people: ‘Are you going to teach that there is a growing movement of de-transitioners and the risk if you go all the way down the road to full sex change surgery, a highly intrusive medical surgery, and then the longer-term risks from that. The best study on that was in Sweden, I think it was, the long-term effects of … transitioning, which had a suicide rate of 19 or 20 times the rest of the population.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 44), and Kirralie Smith of Binary Australia (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 9).

[v] Dianna Kenny of the Society for Evidence-based Gender Medicine (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 29 and page 31).

[vi] Mary Hasson (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 3), and a favourite phrase of Dianna Kenny, who used it multiple times, including in this truly non-sensical quote revealing she apparently does not understand the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation:

‘Basically, what is happening is that children are being taught erroneous information and based on erroneous information these children are becoming extremely confused and as through a process of social contagion we are seeing very large increases in the number of children declaring themselves either non-binary, transgender, genderqueer, asexual, pansexual, omni-sexual, demi-boys and demi-girls.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 25).

[vii] Another example occurred after a witness attempted to cite Latham’s Second Reading Speech for the Bill as ‘evidence’:

D’Adam: ‘Just to further elaborate, obviously we have all heard the second reading speech.’

Shoebridge: ‘It is not evidence.’

D’Adam: ‘That is not necessarily evidence of what is occurring. It is an assertion from a Member of Parliament.’

Latham: ‘Order! There is a professional development course. I will show you the course. We have got it on tape.

Shoebridge: ‘There is no order. It is not evidence.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 37).

Friends, Jagged Little Pill and Transphobia in the NSW Legislative Council

In 1996, Australians were watching Friends and listening to Alanis Morissette while the NSW Upper House was the site of a toxic debate about trans law reform.

In 2021, Australians are watching the Friends Reunion, can book tickets to Jagged Little Pill: The Musical and the NSW Legislative Council is once again hosting hostile discussion about the rights of its trans citizens.

It is perhaps disappointing to realise how little progress has been made in terms of pop culture and representations of transgender people – with the Friends Reunion refusing to address the recurring transphobic jokes made at the expense of Chandler’s parent, and Jagged Little Pill: The Musical erasing the gender identity of a fictional nonbinary character on its journey to Broadway.

But it is downright depressing comparing the circumstances surrounding the Transgender (Anti-Discrimination and Other Acts) Act 1996 – which received royal assent 25 years ago this Saturday (19 June 1996) – and the current Parliamentary inquiry into the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020.

For a start, much of the language in the two debates, a quarter of a century apart, is disturbingly similar, with both deliberate misgendering,[i] and scaremongering about trans women in sports, playing starring roles in each.

With more than a hint of hyperbole, Liberal MLC Marlene Goldsmith declared in 1996 ‘This legislation will mean the end of women’s sports as a concept, an entitlement and a right.’

In 2021, Katherine Deves, speaking on behalf of something called ‘Save Women’s Sport Australasia’, complained that ‘gender identity’ requires women and girls ‘to forego their right to compete on a level playing field in sport because fair competition is destroyed, athletic opportunities are lost and players’ safety is completely disregarded.’

Meanwhile, any small advances – multiple references to ‘tranys’ in the 1996 Hansard[ii] thankfully haven’t been repeated more recently – don’t begin to overcome larger retreats elsewhere.

In the intervening 25 years, opponents of legal equality for trans people have pivoted from expressing pity about their plight, while dismissing trans issues as unimportant,[iii] to portraying trans people as potential predators, and a fundamental threat to ‘Western civilisation’.

This dramatic escalation in rhetoric comes not just from the mover of the latter Bill (One Nation’s Mark Latham, who described trans-inclusive education as ‘part of the post-modernist attack on the nuclear family’ in his Second Reading Speech), but also from multiple witnesses who appeared at April’s hearings into his horrific law.

For example, Mark Sneddon of the Institute for Civil Society said (rather uncivilly, and somewhat ominously) in supporting the Bill: ‘What we are trying to do – or what I understand this Bill is trying to do – is to reduce the social contagion influence of putting more people onto the conveyor belt of gender transition.’

Even fear campaigns about women’s bathrooms have worsened, rather than improved, over the past quarter century.

The only reference to toilets I could find in the 1996 Legislative Council debate came from Fred Nile (yes, the same one still sitting in that chamber), who said: ‘Because I am obviously not a woman, I do not know [how] a woman would feel to have a transsexual who was born a male sitting beside her in a woman’s washroom or powder room in a factory, office or club.’

In 2021, this argument has been weaponised, much more explicitly utilising the language of ‘threat’, with Terri Kelleher of the Australian Family Association giving evidence that ‘Is it not discrimination against natal girls if natal male students who identify as female are allowed to use their toilets, change rooms and showers and share overnight school camp accommodation? What about their right to feel safe and to their privacy in spaces where they may be in a state of undress or asleep?’ and later ‘Now, that is not saying that all males or all boys who identify as girls are going to be a threat, but it sets up a situation where that can occur. That is very serious in the light of the child-on-child sexual abuse in schools.’

And, although most participants in the 1996 debate seemed to at least accept that transgender people are who they say they are, by 2021 a number of extremists appearing before Latham’s Committee were regularly making points about high rates of ‘de-transitioning’ and distinguishing between ‘genuine’ and ‘non-genuine’ trans people, before citing ‘social contagion’ and ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’ (despite all four arguments being completely unsupported by any evidence whatsoever).

However, the toxic atmosphere surrounding Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, and the fact contemporary discussion seems to be even worse than it was two and a half decades ago, is merely one small part of much larger frustrations about the situation we find ourselves in today.

At the very least, the 1996 debate was about legislation that would ultimately deliver multiple steps forward for trans rights in this state. Not only did the Transgender (Anti-Discrimination and Other Acts) Act insert transgender as a protected attribute in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, it also saw NSW become the first jurisdiction in Australia to legally prohibit transphobic vilification (something that still hasn’t happened under Commonwealth law, nor in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory).

The same Act also amended the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 to allow transgender people who had undergone gender affirmation surgery to access identity documentation reflecting their gender identity.

These were genuinely historic reforms.

In contrast, the deceptively-named Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 seeks to completely erase real-life trans and nonbinary students from classrooms and schoolyards across NSW, censoring the curriculum and denying them affirmation and support from teachers, principals and even school counsellors.

As I have written elsewhere, this legislation is the worst legislative attack on LGBTI rights in Australia this century.

Some people might be tempted to dismiss this threat given it is merely the product of fringe extremists in the NSW Upper House (one of the chamber’s perennial features). Except the positions of the major parties on this Bill are, so far, worse than when a generation of young people were mislearning the definition of ironic (myself included).

Back then, the Carr Labor Government relentlessly pursued their reforms to anti-discrimination and birth certificate laws. And, while the Collins Liberal/National Opposition ultimately voted against them (because of baseless concerns about the impact of birth certificate changes to women’s sport, including nonsensical statements about the Sydney Olympics), they at least expressed in-principle support for trans anti-discrimination protections.[iv]

In contrast, in the 10 months since Latham introduced his legislative assault on trans kids, neither the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government nor the McKay, and now Minns, Labor Opposition have publicly condemned it.

Indeed, they both voted in the Legislative Council for the Bill to be considered in more detail by a Committee chaired by Latham himself, while the Liberal Parliamentary Secretary for Education Kevin Conolly has expressed his personal support for it.

In failing to reject Latham’s transphobia, could the major parties be any more pathetic?

But the most frustrating part of all is that we need to expend significant time and energy working to defend existing rights, instead of campaigning for improvements to those same reforms passed in 1996.

Because those changes were far from perfect, even when they were first passed.

For example, the amendments to the Anti-Discrimination Act inserted a definition of ‘recognised transgender person’, applying to people who have undergone gender affirmation surgery and had that recognised under the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act, even though it is irrelevant to determining whether anti-trans discrimination was prohibited under Part 3A (poor drafting which is still causing confusion in 2021, as demonstrated by transphobic discrimination by McIver’s Ladies Baths in Coogee earlier this year).

Unfortunately, neither the definition of ‘recognised transgender person’ nor Part 3A introduced protections against discrimination for trans and gender diverse people whose gender identity was nonbinary (instead only covering people who ‘identify as a member of the opposite sex’).[v]

The 1996 Anti-Discrimination Act reforms also permitted discrimination against trans students and teachers in publicly-funded ‘private educational authorities’, including (but not limited to) religious schools.[vi] Something that was difficult to justify 25 years ago, and is impossible to defend now.[vii]

Finally, in limiting access to updated birth certificates to people who have undergone gender affirmation surgery,[viii] the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act changes excluded the majority of trans and gender diverse people who are either unable to access such procedures (including for financial reasons) or who do not wish to. After all, trans people should be in control of their gender identity, not the(ir) doctor.

This weakness is not brand new information, either. The serious limitations of the birth certificate changes were raised by both Democrat[ix] and Greens MLCs[x] at the time.

Indeed, over the last decade, South Australia, the ACT, Northern Territory, Tasmania and Victoria have all removed any requirement for transgender people to have physically invasive medical treatment in order to obtain new identity documentation.

While the re-elected McGowan Labor Government in WA is under pressure to implement the recommendations of a 2018 WA Law Reform Commission Report which supported the same, and the Palaszczuk Labor Government has committed to introduce its own changes later this year.

Which means it is likely that at some point this term NSW will become the only jurisdiction in Australia which still requires trans people to undergo surgery to access a new birth certificate. Just in time to be subjected to (well-deserved) global scorn as Sydney hosts World Pride in February and March 2023.

Nevertheless, just as the Liberal, National and Labor Parties have refused to publicly reject Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, none are currently promising to fix the problems in the Anti-Discrimination Act first introduced back in 1996, nor have any committed to finally bring the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act into the 21st century by allowing people to update their birth certificates without surgery or other physically invasive medical treatments.

This ongoing silence, on the fundamental human rights of the trans community, is simply not good enough. We really oughta know where the major parties stand on Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, anti-discrimination reform and birth certificate requirements by now.

We must use whatever influence we have to demand more on these issues from our elected representatives. And by ‘we’ here I’m not talking about trans and gender diverse people, who are already fighting just for the ability to live their lives without discrimination, and to learn without erasure.

It’s time for cisgender members of the LGBT community, as well as our cis-het allies, to step up, and put pressure on Gladys Berejiklian and her Cabinet, and Chris Minns and his Shadow Ministers, to prioritise the dignity and equality of NSW’s trans and nonbinary citizens.

We must do so urgently, too. Because right now, trans and gender diverse people have very few friends in the NSW Legislative Council, and NSW Parliament more broadly.

While there remains a real chance their legal rights will go backwards, rather than forwards, in the near future. Which would be a very jagged little pill to swallow.

*****

Take Action

Following correspondence I sent in February calling on NSW MPs to reject the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, today I sent the below short email to the Premier, Opposition Leader, and the Education Minister and Attorney General, plus their shadows. I encourage you to do the same (their contact details are included underneath the text):

Dear Premier

I am writing to urge you to publicly oppose the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, legislation which would erase trans and nonbinary students from classrooms and schoolyards across NSW, as well as censor the curriculum and deny them access to affirmation and support from teachers, principals and even school counsellors.

This Bill is the worst legislative attack on LGBTI rights anywhere in Australia this century. It is simply not good enough that, more than 10 months after it was introduced, the people of NSW still don’t know whether you and your Party condemn or condone the harm it will inevitably cause.

Nor is it good enough that trans and gender diverse people in NSW are forced to live with second-rate anti-discrimination and identity documentation laws.

Therefore, I also urge you to publicly commit to amend the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 to:

  • Remove the unnecessary and confusing definition of ‘recognised transgender person’,
  • Replace the protected attribute of ‘transgender’ with an attribute of ‘gender identity’ and a definition which ensures nonbinary people are protected against discrimination, and
  • Remove the special privileges which allow publicly-funded ‘private educational authorities’, including religious schools, to discriminate against trans and gender diverse students and teachers simply because of who they are.

Finally, I urge you to amend the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 to allow trans and gender diverse people to self-determine their gender identity without the need for physically invasive medical treatment, such as surgery, as well as to recognise a wider range of gender identities, including nonbinary.

If the NSW Parliament fails to amend these laws, it is highly likely we will soon be the only jurisdiction in Australia which places this unfair and unnecessary barrier in front of its trans and gender diverse citizens. These hurdles must be removed as a matter of priority.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

*****

Premier Gladys Berejiklian webform: https://www.nsw.gov.au/premier-of-nsw/contact-premier

Education Minister Sarah Mitchell webform: https://www.nsw.gov.au/nsw-government/ministers/minister-for-education-and-early-childhood-learning

Attorney General Mark Speakman webform: https://www.nsw.gov.au/nsw-government/contact-a-minister/attorney-general-and-minister-for-prevention-of-domestic-and-sexual-violence

Opposition Leader Chris Minns email: kogarah@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Deputy Opposition Leader and Shadow Minister for Education Prue Car email: londonderry@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Shadow Attorney General Michael Daley email: maroubra@parliament.nsw.gov.au

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Footnotes:


[i] In the 1996 debate, trans women were erroneously described by opponents as ‘transsexual males’, while in the 2021 hearings trans girls were commonly called ‘biological males’ or ‘natal males’. Mark Latham also deliberately used the deadname of a prominent transgender Australian on 20 April.

[ii] The term ‘tranys’ was used by both supporters and opponents of the 1996 legislation, perhaps indicating that this language did not carry the same pejorative connotations it does today. Either way, it was confronting seeing the frequency with which the term was used back then.

[iii] National Party MLC Duncan Gay opposed the 1996 reforms, stating: ‘I am going to be brief in my opposition to this bill. I am amazed about the amount of time spent by honourable members on what I believe is the most stupid and most unnecessary bill to ever come before this Parliament.’

[iv] With Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, John Hannaford, stating: ‘I accept the need to deal with discrimination against members of the transgender community. I acknowledge that violence is committed against such members of the community and also that those members suffer discrimination. It is necessary to address such elements of violence and discrimination.’

[v] Unfortunately, this problem – only protecting trans people with binary gender identities – is shared by the anti-discrimination laws of Queensland, Western Australian and the Northern Territory. For more, see: A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.  

[vi] One of many reasons why the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act is the worst LGBTI anti-discrimination law in Australia. For more, see: What’s Wrong with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?

[vii] Disturbingly, these represent only the most prominent of the problems with trans protections in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act. One of the provisions inserted in 1996 provided an exception allowing discrimination by superannuation funds:

‘Section 38Q: A person does not discriminate against a transgender person (whether or not a recognised transgender person) on transgender grounds if, in the administration of a superannuation or provident fund or scheme, the other person treats the transgender person as being of the opposite sex to the sex with which the transgender person identifies.’

Interestingly, the then Attorney General, Jeff Shaw, made the following comment about this provision in his Second Reading Speech:

‘Granting legal recognition also has implications for the superannuation sector in terms of differential contributions and benefits. These implications have not yet been fully determined. The legislation therefore provides for an exemption to legal recognition in this area. Nevertheless, I wish to advise the House that the Government is currently examining this matter with a view to possible further amendments at a later date.’

Except, as you’ve probably guessed by now, those changes never happened – and this exception remains, with the exact same wording, today.

[viii] Interestingly, the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 provisions were amended in 2008, to replace the original terminology of ‘sexual reassignment surgery’ with ‘sexual affirmation procedure’, but the requirement for surgery was not altered.

[ix] Democrat MLC Elisabeth Kirby stated: ‘Although I support the Government’s amendments to the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages Act, I request that the Government give serious future consideration to an expansion of the criteria under which a new birth certificate can be obtained’ before highlighting that only a minority of transgender people undergo surgery.

[x] Greens MLC Ian Cohen also expressed his ‘reservations’ about ‘the certificate provisions not including transgender members of our community who, for whatever reasons, decline surgical intervention’ and later that ‘By using medical interventions as the benchmark for altering documents of identity, the legislation leaves out in the cold 80 per cent of the transgender members of our community who do not avail themselves of medical interventions.’ Perhaps with misplaced confidence he subsequently noted that ‘I am certain that with the passage of time this flaw will be recognised and rectified.’ Well, we’re now at 25 years and counting…

Submission to Consultation on Proposals for a First Nations Voice

30 April 2021

Submitted online

I am writing to express my personal support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was a generous invitation by First Nations people to non-Indigenous Australians to walk together ‘in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.’

This includes whole-heartedly endorsing the three key elements of the Uluru Statement:

  • Voice
  • Treaty, and 
  • Truth.

As the Statement itself outlines, the first element – a First Nations Voice – must be ‘enshrined in the Constitution’.

Constitutional enshrinement is essential to ensure the independence of the Voice, and protect it against political intervention by the Government of the day, something which has unfortunately occurred in relation to past Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bodies.

Constitutional enshrinement will also provide the Voice with stability, as it would not be able to be abolished through the passage of simple legislation, as happened with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).

I therefore urge the Commonwealth Government to honour its election commitment to hold a referendum to establish the Voice once the model has been settled.

The referendum process itself has the opportunity to be a unifying moment, as a step along the long journey of genuine Reconciliation.

A successful referendum, with what I would hope would be a large majority of Australians voting in favour, would also provide the Voice with additional authority and legitimacy as it fulfils its Constitutional responsibilities.

Holding a referendum in the near future would also take advantage of what I believe is growing momentum towards embracing the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the opportunity for substantive progress which it presents.

On the other hand, I strongly oppose the creation of a Voice via legislation prior to such a referendum. 

This approach – ‘legislation first, referendum later’ – is weak for the same reasons a ‘referendum first’ approach is strong.

‘Legislation first, referendum later’ means the Voice would lack true autonomy in its formative years, at the very time it would need to be establishing its credibility with First Nations people.

It would operate under the constant threat of being abolished, just like its predecessors, while delays to any referendum could squander the community goodwill which has been built in support of the Uluru Statement.

All of that is before considering the real possibility of the current, or a future, Government walking away from their commitment to hold a referendum at a later date.

The order of events to create the Voice must therefore be a constitutional referendum first, followed by the passage of enabling legislation.

The above position reflects the first two ‘key messages’ of the Indigenous Law Centre at the University of NSW, and the Uluru Dialogue.[i]

I also endorse their third ‘key message’:

‘The membership model for the National Voice must ensure previously unheard Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the same chance of being selected as established leadership figures.’

In relation to this principle, I would like to make a comment about one of the proposed elements of a First Nations Voice as highlighted in the Indigenous Voice Co-design Interim Report, provided to Government in October 2020 and underpinning the current consultation.

Specifically, Chapter Two of that Report proposes two options for the Voice on page 37:

Option 1 – equal representation (preferred option), which features 18 members with ‘two members of different gender for each state, territory and Torres Strait Islands’, and

Option 2 – scaled representation, which features 16 members with ‘two members of different gender for each state and the Northern Territory’ and ‘one member each for the ACT and Torres Strait Islands with a member of a different gender selected following each completed term…’

The discussion on page 38, under the heading ‘Gender representation’, then states:

‘The National Co-design Group agreed unanimously to the importance of gender balance. All options reflect the principle that there must be a requirement for balanced representation of different genders in the National Voice membership.’

In response, I begin by welcoming the use of the term ‘different gender’ rather than the exclusionary phrase ‘opposite sex’ in these options.

I obviously also support efforts to ensure the National Voice is not male-dominated, and certainly not in the same way that Commonwealth Parliament currently is.

Despite this, I question how these options would operate in practice, especially the requirement there ‘must’ be ‘gender balance’ (with some of the materials supporting the current consultation describing this as ‘guaranteed gender balance’).

In particular, how does such a requirement apply with respect to non-binary people or other First Nations people with gender identities that are not male or female?

I suspect most people reading the Interim Report and associated consultation materials would interpret proposals for two members per jurisdiction being of different genders, reinforced by an overall requirement for gender balance, as involving one female and one male member in each state or territory.

However, that outcome would mean non-binary First Nations people may be prohibited from serving on the National Voice (which is contrary to a goal of ‘ensuring previously unheard Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the same chance of being selected as established leadership figures’).

On the other hand, if non-binary people are allowed to serve as members of the National Voice, this may result in the numbers of male and female members being different or unequal, and not satisfy some people’s notions of ‘gender balance’.

I raise this issue as a long-term advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) community.

Nevertheless, I am conscious that I am not Indigenous, and believe that the core features of the Voice, including criteria for membership of the National Voice, are matters for First Nations people. 

In this context, I am not proposing a solution to this issue (concerning requirements for gender balance and their potential adverse impact on non-binary and other gender diverse First Nations people), merely bringing it to the attention of those responsible for this consultation and suggesting that it be considered further.

Thank you in advance for taking this submission into consideration.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

The Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Footnotes:


[i] 1. The government must honour its election commitment to a referendum once a model for the Voice has been settled.

2. Enabling legislation for the Voice must be passed after a referendum has been held in the next term of Parliament.

A Pride Flag for NSW

Today (26 March 2021) marks exactly ten years since the election of the NSW Liberal/National Government.

In that decade, and especially in their early years, they have passed a few important LGBT law reforms, including the long-overdue abolition of the homosexual advance defence (or ‘gay panic’ defence) in 2014 and establishing a scheme to expunge historical criminal records for same-sex intercourse in the same year.

However, the pace of reform has slowed markedly in recent times. The last new LGBTI laws were both passed in 2018, with the removal of ‘forced trans divorce’ (although this was necessitated by the passage of marriage equality in Commonwealth law, while NSW failed to seize the opportunity to amend identity laws more generally) and the introduction of an offence for publicly threatening or inciting violence against others, including on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status (although it replaced existing criminal vilification offences on the basis of homosexuality and transgender status, and as far as I am aware has not been enforced since it commenced).

Indeed, with this week also marking the halfway point of the Liberal/National Government’s third term, there have been no new laws passed addressing LGBTI issues since then, and none appear to be on the horizon.

This is not because the job of LGBTI law reform in NSW is complete. Far from it. As I have written previously, NSW now has the worst LGBT laws in Australia, and is only saved from that title with respect to intersex issues because some other jurisdictions are similarly appalling.

At least part of the problem is that many people, both inside and especially outside our communities, erroneously believe the struggle is over. Which is where my idea for a pride flag for NSW comes in.

From my perspective, the pride flag is inherently political. A symbol of our strength and resilience in overcoming anti-LGBTI prejudice and abuse, as well as a reminder to continue fighting until all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are truly ‘free and equal’.

With that in mind, here is what I think the six colours of the ‘traditional’ pride flag[i] could stand for in NSW today, as a way of bringing attention to at least some of the essential reforms which are still yet to be won here.

Red: Ban conversion practices

Anti-gay and anti-trans conversion practices (sometimes described as ‘ex-gay’ or ‘ex-trans’ therapy) continue in Australia today. Several jurisdictions have already taken steps to ban these practices, with general prohibitions, including in religious environments, now law in Victoria and the ACT, and a more limited ban, only covering health settings, in Queensland. Other states, including Tasmania, are actively considering their own legislation.

To date, the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government has given no firm indication they are considering laws to outlaw these destructive practices. They need to be pressured into taking urgent action to stop them.

Amber/Orange: Protect LGBT students & teachers

By now, we are all familiar with ‘amber alerts’ in the media to draw attention to vulnerable children in danger. Well, every day in NSW there should be an amber alert for LGBT kids – because, in 2021, religious schools are still legally permitted to discriminate against them on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

That is in part because of Scott Morrison’s broken promise from 2018 to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984(Cth) to remove the special privileges allowing religious schools to abuse, mistreat, suspend or even expel students just because of who they are.

But it is also because the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government refuses to repeal the special privileges contained in its own law, the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW). Indeed, the exceptions in NSW are actually worse, because they permit all private schools, colleges and universities to discriminate, not just those that are religious (making NSW the only jurisdiction in Australia to do so).

Of course, LGBT students are not the only victims of such discrimination. The same provisions also allow private educational authorities to discriminate against LGBT teachers.

If we genuinely want our schools to be safe learning environments where all people are encouraged to reach their full potential, then the NSW Government must protect both LGBT students and teachers from discrimination.

Yellow: End coercive intersex surgeries

As I have written elsewhere, the worst human rights abuses currently affecting any part of the Australian LGBTI community are coercive medical treatments, including surgeries and other interventions, on children born with intersex variations of sex characteristics.

These egregious human rights violations carry lifelong consequences which is why they must be deferred until intersex people can consent, or not consent, to them. Some jurisdictions, including Tasmania and the ACT, appear to be moving in that direction. As yet, there is no sign of similar progress in NSW.

[NB The yellow comes from the intersex pride flag, which is yellow and purple.]

Green: Improve birth certificate access

NSW now has the equal worst birth certificate laws in Australia, alongside Queensland. 

Under the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 (NSW), trans and gender diverse people must undergo ‘a surgical procedure involving the alteration of a person’s reproductive organs… for the purpose of assisting a person to be considered a member of the opposite sex’ before being allowed to update their birth certificate to reflect their gender identity.

This requirement is both unnecessary and inappropriate, especially when some people may not wish to undergo such surgeries, while others cannot afford to do so given the prohibitive costs involved.

NSW has fallen behind the majority of other Australian jurisdictions which have updated their birth certificate laws to allow access based on self-identification only (which is best practice), or at least without physical medical interventions. It is time the Government gave the green light to trans and gender diverse people here to access birth certificates without any medical gate-keeping.

Blue[ii]: Trans discrimination law reform

Trans and gender diverse people in NSW are also let down by confusing and outdated anti-discrimination protections, as amply demonstrated by the controversy surrounding discriminatory efforts to prevent trans women who have not undergone surgery from accessing McIver’s Ladies Baths in Coogee.

On one hand, there is a definition of ‘recognised transgender person’ in section 4 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) which some people might, mistakenly, try to use to justify limiting access on the basis of surgery:

‘recognised transgender person means a person the record of whose sex is altered under Part 5A of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995[iii] or under the corresponding provisions of a law of another Australian jurisdiction.’

Except the substantive protections against transgender discrimination apply irrespective of whether the person has had surgery. According to section 38A:

‘A reference in this Part to a person being transgender or a transgender person is a reference to a person, whether or not the person is a recognised transgender person

(a) who identifies as a member of the opposite sex by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the opposite sex, or

(b) who has identified as a member of the opposite sex by living as a member of the opposite sex…

and includes a reference to the person being thought of as a transgender person, whether the person is, or was, in fact a transgender person’ [emphasis added].

Which means discriminating against transgender women who have not had surgery would probably be found to be unlawful.

Given this, the misleading definition of ‘recognised transgender person’ should be removed from section 4.

However, that would still not address a far bigger problem, including with the broader definition in section 38A: it likely only applies to people with ‘binary’ gender identities, because of its use of the outdated concept of ‘opposite sex’.

In other words, non-binary people in NSW are not explicitly covered by the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977. The NSW Government must remedy this by replacing ‘transgender’ with ‘gender identity’, potentially based on the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth):

‘gender identity means the gender-related identity, appearance or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of a person (whether by way of medical intervention or not), with or without regard to the person’s designated sex at birth’.

Lavender/Purple: Bisexual discrimination law reform

The definition of transgender is not the only outdated terminology in the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW). The other protected attribute covering (some parts) of the LGBTI community is currently ‘homosexual.’ Section 4 of the Act defines that term to mean ‘male or female homosexual.’

That narrow definition means NSW’s anti-discrimination laws are the only such laws in Australia that fail to protect bisexuals against discrimination.

This omission is truly appalling. It is well beyond time for the NSW Government to update the Anti-Discrimination Act to cover sexual orientation generally, in line with other jurisdictions including the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984:

‘sexual orientation means a person’s sexual orientation towards:

(a) persons of the same sex; or

(b) persons of a different sex; or

(c) persons of the same sex and persons of a different sex.’

[NB The lavender comes from the bisexual pride flag, which is pink, lavender and blue.]

The six issues discussed above are of course not an exhaustive list. There are plenty of other LGBTI laws and policies which also need to be amended by NSW to provide genuine equality to its citizens irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.[iv]

But, in my opinion, these are some of the most essential reforms in order for people to feel pride that we are making real progress in overcoming homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

I started this article by highlighting the fact today is the 10th anniversary of the election of the NSW Liberal/National Government.

Coincidentally, today also marks 100 weeks until the planned opening ceremony of World Pride 2023 in Sydney.

That means Premier Gladys Berejiklian has exactly 100 weeks to deliver on each of the six issues identified here.

If her Liberal/National Government fails to make these long-overdue and much-needed changes in that time, then I suggest we fly this ‘pride flag for NSW’ at half-mast during that opening ceremony to acknowledge the damage inflicted and pain caused by their ongoing inaction.

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Footnotes:


[i] I also personally support the newer ‘Progress’ version of the pride flag, incorporating both elements of the trans flag, and black and brown stripes to represent people of colour.

[ii] The blue here could either represent part of the trans pride flag – which is blue, pink and white – or the blue of the Pacific Ocean at McIver’s Ladies Baths.

[iii] Which, as we have seen, only allows the granting of new identity documentation following invasive surgeries.

[iv] Indeed, the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) also needs to be updated to include a new protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’ covering intersex people, and to remove the general exception in section 56(d) which allows a wide range of religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT employees and people accessing their services.

Submission re the Australian Education Legislation Amendment (Prohibiting the Indoctrination of Children) Bill 2020

Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment

Submitted online via aph.gov.au  

19 March 2021

To the Committee

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission regarding the Australian Education Legislation Amendment (Prohibiting the Indoctrination of Children) Bill 2020.

I do so as a long-standing advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, and as a gay man who (barely) survived five years at a homophobic religious boarding school in Queensland in the early 1990s[i]and who hopes to help protect trans and gender diverse students from experiencing similar discrimination today.

Contrary to its name, this legislation is not about prohibiting the indoctrination of children, but instead appears to be motivated by prejudice against the gender identity and/or gender expression of trans and non-binary young people.

It is not about providing balance, but is instead aimed at banning the information these children need to grow up feeling safe and supported, and reach their full potential.

And it is not about ensuring all students enjoy an inclusive education, but instead seeks to erase trans and gender diverse kids. From the curriculum, and from the classroom.

These disturbing truths are revealed by Senator Hanson’s Second Reading Speech, where she spends almost half of its word count arguing against ‘gender theory indoctrination in schools’, which she claims ‘involves some teachers and schools pushing the idea that a child’s biological sex does not determine where you are male or female.’

Not only does Senator Hanson fail to understand the difference between sex assigned at birth and gender identity – and the existence of hundreds of thousands of trans and gender diverse Australians demonstrate that these two can and frequently do diverge.

But she also seems to believe that banning curriculum materials which mention said reality of gender diversity will somehow prevent children from becoming trans or non-binary in the first place (from the Second Reading Speech: ‘The preoccupation with gender identity by some teachers and schools is correlated with an increase in children identifying as transgender, which is why I say these educators are transgendering our children’).

I know from bitter personal experience that the consequence of a homophobic education, where the curriculum did not even acknowledge the existence of same-sex attraction let alone affirm that it was a valid sexual orientation, did not make me any less gay, but it did nearly cost me my life.

The same will inevitably be true for trans and gender diverse students should this legislation pass. The choice is not between whether a child is trans or non-binary on one hand, or cisgender on the other. The choice is between whether a trans or non-binary child is happy and healthy, or depressed and at significant risk of self-harm.

On this most basic of outcomes, our schools are currently failing. Badly. The recent findings of the Writing Themselves In 4[ii] survey indicate that, far from schools being overwhelmingly supportive environments where being trans and gender diverse is encouraged, in many, indeed most, there is either silence or active hostility.

From that report:

  • One-half (51.2%; n=1,953) of secondary school participants reported that trans and gender diverse people were never mentioned in a supportive or inclusive way;[iii]
  • Almost three-quarters of trans men (74.3%; n=278) and two-thirds of trans women (67.7%; n=46) and non-binary participants (65.8%; n=746) said that in the past 12 months they had felt unsafe or uncomfortable at their educational institution due to their sexuality or gender identity;[iv]
  • Only 41.0% (n=378) of trans and gender diverse participants in secondary schools reported being able to safely use their chosen name or pronouns in the past 12 months, while only 50.9% (n=469) were able to wear clothes that matched their gender identity;[v] and
  • Over seven-tenths (70.2%; n=2,579) of secondary school participants… reported hearing negative language about gender identity or gender expression sometimes or frequently in the past 12 months.[vi]

Many trans and gender diverse students are not thriving in these toxic environments. Nor are they being ‘created’ by overly-supportive schools and teachers. They are merely doing their best to survive despite the transphobia which far too often surrounds them.

There is one point on which I agree with Senator Hanson. In her Second Reading Speech, she declares that ‘Our children deserve an education that will allow them to reach their potential.’ Unlike Senator Hanson, however, I believe that this statement should apply to all students, and not just those who are cisgender.

Trans and non-binary children have the same right to learn, and grow, as any other child. As every other child. Our schools should be doing more to support them, not less. That includes increasing their visibility in the curriculum, rather than having all references to gender diversity erased because of discriminatory legislation proposed by an extremist Senator.

I call on the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, and the Parliament more broadly, to reject this attack on some of Australia’s most vulnerable.

Recommendation: That the Australian Education Legislation Amendment (Prohibiting the Indoctrination of Children) Bill 2020 be rejected in its entirety.

Before I conclude this submission, I would like to raise two additional arguments, both of which militate for rejection of this legislation.

First, the Australian Education Legislation Amendment (Prohibiting the Indoctrination of Children) Bill 2020 needs to be seen in its wider context. In my view, it is merely one small part of a larger, dangerous and divisive culture war being waged right now against trans and gender diverse Australians.

The proponents of this culture war include organisations that were opposed to the right of all couples to marry irrespective of their sexual orientations, gender identities and/or sex characteristics. Having lost that fight, including through the 2017 same-sex marriage postal survey, they appear to have turned their attention to denying the fundamental rights of trans and gender diverse Australians, and especially trans and non-binary young people.

These organisations have found supporters in columnists, and media publications, that seem happy to publish attacks on the ability of trans kids just to be themselves.

Unfortunately, these organisations also appear to have found supporters in the Senate itself, with the passage of Senator Roberts’ motion number 1055, on Wednesday 17 March 2021. As well as seeking to reinforce the use of binary-only gender descriptors, it included the following concerning clauses (among others):

‘That the Senate notes that:

ii. broad scale genuine inclusion cannot be achieved through distortions of biological and relational descriptors,

iii. an individual’s right to choose their descriptors and pronouns for personal use must not dehumanise the human race and undermine gender.’

In response, I would submit that denying the existence of trans and non-binary people is a far greater threat to ‘broad scale genuine inclusion’. More importantly, a trans or non-binary person affirming their gender descriptors and pronouns does not pose any threat to any person who is prepared to accept and respect other people for who they are.

Nor does the use of diverse gender descriptors and/or pronouns ‘dehumanise the human race’ in any way. Indeed, I would encourage Senators who voted in support of that motion to reflect on exactly who was being dehumanised by its contents.

The anti-trans agenda has found even greater support among state and territory parliaments, including in my jurisdiction of NSW. The state leader of Senator Hanson’s Party has introduced his own legislation seeking to make life much more difficult for LGBTI students, and for trans and non-binary students in particular.

As I have written elsewhere,[vii] the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 is:

‘A Bill that seeks to prohibit any and all teaching that someone’s gender identity can be different to the gender assigned to them at birth.

That weaponises the so-called morality of transphobes to deny the reality of trans people.

A Bill that actually goes much, much further, by banning any ‘teaching, instruction, counselling and advice’ that acknowledges said lived reality, by anybody remotely connected to a school, from principals to parents volunteering in the school canteen.

That compels a school counsellor to remain silent when a suicidal trans student just needs to hear the most basic words of comfort: that they are not alone, and who they are is okay.

A Bill that recycles failed and flawed policies from Thatcher-era Britain, reviving ‘section 28’-style laws which saw a generation of lesbian, gay and bisexual students marginalised and made invisible, without access to safe sex education even at the height of the HIV epidemic.

Policies that were abandoned in the UK almost two decades ago, now being contemplated for LGBT students right here in 2021.

A Bill that seeks to insert an ignorant, inappropriate and incorrect definition of intersex in NSW law for the first time, further stigmatising individuals that still endure the most significant human rights abuses of any group within the LGBTI community.’

While discussing the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, I should note that were both it and Senator Hanson’s own Bill to pass their respective Parliaments, it is highly likely the Australian Education Legislation Amendment (Prohibiting the Indoctrination of Children) Bill 2020 would result in the defunding of NSW public schools.

That is because of the operation of proposed section 22AA of the Australian Education Act 2013 (Cth), and especially sub-section (1)(b):

‘A payment of financial assistance under this Act to a State or Territory is subject to the condition that the State or Territory has in force laws that…

require a staff member (however described) of a school to provide students with a balanced presentation of opposing views on political, historical and scientific issues as such issues arise in the teaching of a subject.’

Given the NSW Bill expressly prohibits the teaching of particular views, including in relation to the scientific diversity of gender identity, it cannot possibly be described as balanced according to that word’s ordinary meaning.

Putting that particular issue to one side, I raise the broader context of the Bill currently before the Committee because it will have consequences outside of its own flawed provisions.

If the Committee, and Parliament, choose to support the Australian Education Legislation Amendment (Prohibiting the Indoctrination of Children) Bill 2020, it will only embolden the proponents of the culture war against trans and non-binary kids.

On the other hand, the Committee, and Parliament, have the opportunity through this inquiry and subsequent legislative debate to send a strong signal that trans and gender diverse Australians have the right to be themselves, and above all that trans and non-binary children will be protected against further attacks.

The second and final additional argument I would like to raise relates to the impracticability of the Bill itself. Specifically, proposed section (7) of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority Act 2008 (Act), provides that:

‘The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority must ensure that:

(a) the national school curriculum is developed and administered to provide a balanced presentation of opposing views on political, historical and scientific issues; and

(b) information, resources, support and guidance that promote a balanced presentation of opposing views on political, historical and scientific issues are provided to the teaching profession.’

However, the Bill does not define what is meant by the term ‘balance’. The Explanatory Memorandum fails to provide further clarification, simply noting this provision requires ACARA ‘to promote a balanced presentation of opposing views where they exist’ (emphasis added).

Which leaves us with Senator Hanson’s Second Reading Speech to assist with legislative interpretation. In the context of her views on, or rather against, climate change science –which dominates the other half of her statement – the notion of ‘balance’ becomes problematic.

It appears Senator Hanson would like to provide an equal platform in the science curriculum to climate change denialism alongside evidence-based climate science which irrefutably shows the earth is heating, and that this heating is caused by human activity. 

To do what Senator Hanson proposes – to provide space in the science curriculum just because some people believe it, rather than because it is based on evidence – would undermine the very nature of science itself.

Nevertheless, it is the application of the Bill’s vague notions of ‘balance’ to the subject of history that reveals just how unworkable this legislation is.

To raise just one example, how would this legislation affect the history curriculum around World War II, and specifically the Holocaust? Abhorrent though their views are, some people continue to espouse Holocaust denialist arguments. To apply the language used in the Explanatory Memorandum, they are ‘opposing views (about history) where they exist’.

It is therefore at least possible that, if passed, the Australian Education Legislation Amendment (Prohibiting the Indoctrination of Children) Bill 2020 would mandate ACARA to include Holocaust denialism as part of the Australian history curriculum.

Such an outcome is obviously unacceptable. It reflects a Bill that is an unworkable mess, and one that would create a mess of Australia’s curriculum, not just in history, but in politics, science and elsewhere too.

In my view, this impracticability is the inevitable outcome of a Senator trying to impose their ideological obsessions – in this case, climate change denialism, and the erasure of trans and non-binary kids – through the national education system.

I would much prefer our school curriculum to be drafted by experts who understand their subject matter, as well as the learning and developmental needs of children – all children – rather than a Senator who does not seem to even understand her own legislation. 

I sincerely hope the majority of the Committee, and the Parliament, share that preference.

Thank you for considering this submission as part of the inquiry into the Australian Education Legislation Amendment (Prohibiting the Indoctrination of Children) Bill 2020. Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details provided, should the Committee require additional information.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Pauline Hanson has joined her NSW state leader Mark Latham in introducing legislation attacking trans and non-binary kids.
Just like his Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, her Australian Education Legislation Amendment (Prohibiting the Indoctrination of Children) Bill 2020 must be rejected.

Footnotes:

[i] For more on my experiences, see ‘The Longest Five Years’, via https://alastairlawrie.net/2019/03/17/the-longest-five-years/ 17 March 2019.

[ii] Adam O. Hill et al, ‘Writing Themselves In 4: The Health and Wellbeing of LGBTQA+ Young People in Australia’, La Trobe University Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, February 2021, available at https://www.latrobe.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/1198945/Writing-Themselves-In-4-National-report.pdf

[iii] Ibid, p48.

[iv] Ibid, p52.

[v] Ibid, p54.

[vi] Ibid, p57.

[vii] See ‘NSW MPs can be champions for trans and gender diverse kids. Or bullies.’, via https://alastairlawrie.net/2021/02/14/nsw-mps-can-be-champions-for-trans-and-gender-diverse-kids-or-bullies/ 14 February 2021.

What for art thou Albo?

Anthony Albanese became Leader of the Australian Labor Party in May 2019. It’s now March 2021, and we still don’t know where he stands on key issues affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) community.

In his 22 months as Opposition Leader, Mr Albanese (commonly referred to as ‘Albo’), has only explicitly referred to LGBTIQ rights once in Parliament. On 2 July 2019, he made the following statement:

‘In an article in the NewDaily and in a number of other articles reporting on that article, it’s been suggested that I supported watering down Labor’s commitment to LGBTIQ rights. As someone who in their first speech in parliament mentioned removing discrimination on the basis of sexuality and is a strong advocate for the rights of gay and lesbian people, that is not true; it did not happen.’

Despite this, and unfortunately for LGBTIQ Australians, that article foretold what appears to have occurred in the period since.

As happens every term, the Labor Party is engaged in updating its National Platform, the document setting out its core principles.

As part of this process, Albo has expressed a clear desire for the Platform to be streamlined. The current draft, which will be considered at an online Special Platform Conference on 30 and 31 March 2021, stands at 111 pages – compared to 268 pages of policy detail in former Leader Bill Shorten’s 2018 version.

Based on that level of reduction, you might expect that LGBTIQ policy commitments would have decreased by a similar ratio (to be two-fifths of the previous document).

However, the axe seems to have fallen disproportionately on issues affecting our communities. From 46 separate mentions of LGBTIQ issues in 2018, there are just nine in the 2021 draft Platform.

Admittedly, that is a somewhat superficial criterion. Nevertheless, looking at the substantive policy commitments in closer detail, and the cuts are just as bad. Worse, in fact, with Labor’s Platform now missing in action on some of the most important challenges we face.

That includes what I consider to be the worst human rights abuses affecting any part of the LGBTIQ community today: coercive medical interventions, including surgeries, on children born with intersex variations of sex characteristics.

The 2015 and 2018 ALP Platforms included clear commitments to address these abuses. From the 2018 version:

‘Parents of intersex children can be pressured to hormonally or surgically intervene on their children if they don’t receive medically correct advice, information or support about how to parent an intersex child. Labor will ensure deferral of non-necessary medical intervention on infants and children with intersex variations until such time as the person concerned can give their informed consent is supported. Labor commits to promote and support a human rights-based patient consent model for accessing lifetime medical treatments and procedures. Labor will prohibit modifications to sex characteristics undertaken for social rationales without informed consent and ensure intersex persons’ right not to undergo sex assignment treatment is respected.’

In contrast, the draft 2021 ALP National Platform is completely silent on this issue. That is simply not good enough.

Another important policy commitment from 2015 and 2018 that has disappeared relates to the out-of-pocket costs which far-too-frequently prevent trans and gender diverse people from being able to access gender-affirming health care. Again, from the 2018 Platform:

‘Labor acknowledges the right of all Australians, including transgender and gender diverse people, to live their gender identity. For many, this includes accessing specialist health services and for some people can involve gender affirming medical technologies. Cost should not be a barrier to accessing these services. Labor commits to removing, wherever possible, barriers to accessing these services and consulting with experts in government. This should materialise in a focus on creating fair, equal and affordable access to medical care and treatments relevant to trans and gender diverse Australians.’

In 2021, Labor has so far found no room in its core principles document to address one of the biggest challenges affecting the everyday lives of trans and non-binary Australians.

A third major omission from the draft Platform is HIV – and that omission is total. If passed in its current state, the 2021 Australian Labor Party Platform would be the first in at least a generation not to even mention the term HIV.

I would argue the middle of a global pandemic is possibly the worst time to abandon commitments relating to another epidemic that, despite popular misconceptions, remains far from over. Instead, I believe the Platform should (at a minimum):

  • Highlight that lessons learned from HIV have assisted Australia in dealing with COVID-19
  • Emphasise the fundamental importance of working in partnership with affected communities, including people living with HIV and those at risk, and
  • Recommitting to ending the HIV epidemic in Australia, and globally.

The fourth and final major problem I would like to focus on is the lack of clarity around much-needed improvements to LGBTIQ anti-discrimination and anti-vilification protections. On this issue at least the draft 2021 Platform includes some detail:

‘Labor will work closely with LGBTIQ Australians to develop policy to:

(a) ensure they enjoy equality before the law and have access to public services without discrimination; [and]

(b) strengthen laws and expand initiatives against discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, sex characteristics and queer status’.

However, these commitments do not go nearly far enough. It is possible (although by no means certain) that para (a), above, means Labor will remove anti-discrimination exceptions which allow religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. But there is no equivalent commitment to protect the employees of religious organisations, including teachers and other staff in religious schools.

As with the other three areas identified earlier, these anti-discrimination principles are also a significant step backwards from their 2015 and 2018 equivalents. There is no longer a commitment to introduce a stand-alone Commissioner for LGBTIQ issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Nor is there a policy to introduce long-overdue LGBTIQ anti-vilification protections in Commonwealth law (despite the draft 2021 Platform twice committing to address religious vilification). Or a commitment to finally include gender identity and sex characteristics as protected attributes in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) on the same basis as sexual orientation.

There are plenty of other problems with the draft Platform – perhaps most notably a policy to ensure schools are ‘welcoming and supportive environments for all’ which has removed previous explicit references to gender identity and sexuality, and added a qualifier (‘initiatives… as selected by schools’), thus rendering it close to meaningless.

Nevertheless, if the ALP wishes to demonstrate it is still committed to improving the rights of LGBTIQ Australians then I suggest the four main issues described above (ending coercive surgeries on intersex children; reducing out-of-pocket costs for gender-affirming health care; including policies addressing HIV; and improving commitments to LGBTIQ anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws) would be a good place to start.

The defence of the Australian Labor Party to these criticisms has been to reiterate that the draft 2021 National Platform is intentionally a high-level, principles-based document, and to explain that more-specific LGBTIQ policies will be released closer to the election.

The problem with that defence, from my perspective, is that the clear message the ALP sent to all stakeholders back in 2019 was that all policies were under review, that in effect ‘everything is up for grabs’. Since then, as far as I can ascertain, there have been exactly zero policy announcements explicitly relating to LGBTIQ issues.

At the same time, the rights of LGBTIQ Australians have come under sustained attack at both Commonwealth level (including through the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill which Labor has not, to date, unequivocally opposed) and in the states and territories (including Mark Latham’s own ‘Religious Freedom’, and anti-trans kids, Bills in NSW).

In this context, it is only natural for the LGBTIQ community to closely examine the words and actions coming from the Leader of the Opposition and the Party he represents. So far, the only substantive document which we can scrutinise is the draft Platform and, particularly when compared to its 2015 and 2018 iterations, it is a disappointment.

The good news is that its deficiencies can still be fixed. The Special Platform Conference is not for another nine days, and the Leader of the Opposition, Shadow Ministers and conference delegates all have the opportunity to reinsert genuine commitments around intersex surgeries, trans health costs, HIV, and anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws.

The bad news is that, more broadly, time is running out. We are nearly two years into a three-year term. Indeed, Prime Minister Morrison has the option of holding the next election as early as August, just five months away. There is little time left for Albo and the ALP to show us where they stand on key issues affecting the LGBTIQ community.

And I use that phrase deliberately – show us your current policies, don’t tell us about your past public positions.

Which brings me back to Albanese’s statement to Parliament in July 2019. It is interesting that, in defending his approach to LGBTIQ rights as Leader, he directly referred to his first speech which he gave on 6 May 1996.

To be fair, Albo’s comments then (‘The bigots who criticise programs aimed at the special needs of sections of our community ignore the fact that there is not equality of opportunity across class, gender, sexual preference and ethnicity’) were undoubtedly progressive for the time.

But times change. As does terminology (thankfully), as well as the needs of the LGBTIQ community which are much more complex and diverse than a general commitment to ‘equality of opportunity’.

Frankly, I am far less interested in what Anthony Albanese said as a new backbencher 25 years ago than I am in what he has to offer the country as its alternative Prime Minister for the next three years.

From my position as an advocate for LGBTIQ rights, I believe it’s time for Albanese to outline what a Government he leads would do for our community. Clearly, and in detail.

It’s time for him to answer the question ‘What for art thou Albo?’ Because, as of today, I and other LGBTIQ Australians genuinely don’t know.

Caption: It’s great that Albo is a regular participant in the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, including this year’s event (pictured). It would be even better if he could articulate, clearly and in detail, what he will do for LGBTIQ Australians if he becomes our Prime Minister for the next three years.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, you can sign up to receive updates about this and other issues from this blog, via the right-hand scroll bar on desktop, or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus [NB Given the events of the past month – with this website being blocked by Facebook for being ‘news’ – it is more important than ever to sign up if you want to receive updates, especially with the possibility of further disruptions].

NSW Liberal Parliamentary Secretary for Education Supports Bill to Erase Trans Kids

Last weekend was the first Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade and/or Party I have missed since 2003. Although I think I had a pretty good reason not to be there – I was attending my grandma’s 100th birthday party in Rockhampton, Queensland (near where I grew up).

Nevertheless, the day before Mardi Gras I received a letter reminding me of just how far there is left to go before we achieve genuine, substantive equality for LGBTI Australians, and especially for trans and gender diverse children and young people.

But, first, some context. In August last year, NSW One Nation Leader Mark Latham introduced the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020. As I wrote at the time, this proposed law is the worst attack on LGBTI rights in this country this century.

If passed, the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 would:

  • Prohibit any ‘teaching, instruction, counselling and advice’ that gender identity can be different to sex assigned at birth, effectively erasing and invisibilising trans and gender diverse students in schools across NSW
  • Introducing a UK section 28-style clause making it difficult for teachers, principals and counsellors to support lesbian, gay and bisexual students, and
  • Enacting an inaccurate and offensive definition of intersex in NSW law for the first time.

The NSW Legislative Council Education Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into this Bill. Unfortunately, the Chair of that inquiry is… Mark Latham. In which case, I decided to bypass the Committee and instead write directly to the majority of MPs calling on them to be champions for trans and gender diverse kids, rather than their bullies.

I have received a small number of responses to date, but the most significant so far arrived in my inbox last Friday, March 5 2021. It came from the Member for Riverstone, Mr Kevin Conolly – who, incidentally, is also the NSW Government Parliamentary Secretary for Education (and therefore a direct adviser to and influencer of the Minister for Education, the Hon Sarah Mitchell).  Here is what he wrote:

Dear Mr Lawrie,

Thank you for contacting me to express your view about the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020.

You appear to have misunderstood the intent and effect of the Bill on a number of levels.

The first thing to state about the Bill is that it gives effect to internationally recognised human rights explicitly stated in international agreements to which Australia (like nearly all nations) is a signatory:

Article 18, part 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states:

‘The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.’

Article 5 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child:

‘Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognised in the present Convention.’

Article 26(3) of Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

‘Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.’

I do not agree that the Bill is based on a sick ideology, as you assert. It is based, in my view, on the common sense proposition that it is parents who are best placed and most likely to focus on the best interests of their child, rather than teacher unions, academics or activists with their own political agenda.

In prohibiting the teaching of ‘gender fluidity’ the Bill would preclude the teaching of the false and unscientific proposition that gender is something other than biologically determined.

To state this does not in any way suggest that it is better for young people experiencing gender dysphoria to ‘not exist at all’. I’m sure that Hon. Mark Latham would wholeheartedly agree with you that young people in this situation should be ‘happy and healthy, … safe and supported.’ This is far more likely to be the case if they are in the care of their parents and avoid premature chemical or surgical interventions while they grow and mature.

It is a fact that the great majority of cases of young people with gender dysphoria are resolved in time without any such interventions if children and adolescents are supported by loving families and allowed to make their own decisions when older. Most are resolved with the person coming to terms with their biological gender.

I note that you have mentioned ‘LGBTI’ a number of times in your email. However the Bill has no impact whatsoever on questions of homosexuality, only on the specific issue of so-called ‘gender fluidity’.

In my view, quite contrary to your assertion, the Bill would facilitate a school counsellor or teacher to help a child or young person by allowing counselling to consider all the future options available to the person rather than requiring only one predetermined option (i.e. ‘transition’) to be discussed.

The Bill is a positive step forward because it provides the opportunity for parents to provide genuine selfless care to young people rather than leave them at the mercy of activists whose ‘care’ is far more for their ideological cause than it is for the young person facing difficult challenges. In doing so it upholds universally recognised basic human rights, and responsibilities of parents towards their children.

Yours sincerely

Kevin Conolly MP

Member for Riverstone

*****

There is obviously a lot to unpack here. First of all, it is clear that Mr Conolly is selectively quoting from some international human rights instruments, while ignoring other key principles. This includes Article 26 of the ICCPR, which states:

‘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 or other status.’

There is no doubt that a Bill which seeks to erase trans and gender diverse students, make life much more difficult for LG&B kids, and stigmatise intersex children, is discriminatory against LGBTI people.

Indeed, as others have written, it is likely that the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 will ultimately be found to be unlawful because it contravenes the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).

But misinterpreting international human rights law is the least of the problems in Mr Conolly’s correspondence.

He also doesn’t seem to understand the Bill itself. The Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 establishes strict limits on any teaching or counselling of anything to do with what it describes as ‘matters of parental primacy’ – which is defined very broadly to explicitly include ‘matters of personal wellbeing and identity including gender and sexuality’.

Therefore, his protestation that ‘the Bill has no impact whatsoever on questions of homosexuality’ is not only patently false, but makes me question whether he has even read the legislation he is so ardently defending.

On that note, I find it incredibly curious that a member of the NSW Government – and a Parliamentary Secretary at that – is not only publicly supporting One Nation legislation (‘The Bill is a positive step forward…’), but also defending and apparently speaking on behalf of the NSW One Nation Leader (‘I’m sure that Hon. Mark Latham would…’).

But, of course, the worst aspects of Mr Conolly’s letter relate to his views about gender identity.

On this topic, he appears to assert that there is actually no such thing as trans and gender diverse people (‘In prohibiting the teaching of ‘gender fluidity’ the Bill would preclude the teaching of the false and unscientific proposition that gender is something other than biologically determined’). I’m sure that revelation would be surprising to trans and gender diverse people across NSW.

Nevertheless, the most offensive aspect of Mr Conolly’s correspondence arrives near its conclusion, where he argues ‘the Bill would facilitate a school counsellor or teacher to help a child or young person by allowing counselling to consider all the future options available to the person rather than requiring only one predetermined option (i.e. ‘transition’) to be discussed’.

Except that, given those same counsellors and teachers will be explicitly prohibited from even mentioning that gender identity can be different to sex assigned at birth, the only option they will be permitted to present to struggling children is that they simply not be trans or gender diverse.

It is at least arguable that what Mr Conolly is calling for is for counsellors and teachers to provide anti-trans conversion practices in every school across NSW.

It is extraordinary this letter was written by a member of the NSW Liberal/National Government. It is deeply troubling that it was done so by the Parliamentary Secretary for Education, commenting on and explicitly supporting legislation within his portfolio.

This stands in marked contrast to the failure of the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, and Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell, to take any position on the Bill whatsoever. Indeed, they collectively delegated their reply to my letter to a bureaucrat in the Department of Education, who wrote:

‘The NSW Government will respond to the proposed bill after careful consideration to ensure all relevant legislation and protections are considered.’

Now that the Parliamentary Secretary for Education has declared his personal support for the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, I believe this studious refusal to adopt a position is no longer tenable. At a certain point, being non-committal ends up being complicit.

The failure of the NSW Premier to oppose Mark Latham’s awful legislative assault on trans and gender diverse kids is particularly untenable given another development last weekend: Ms Berejiklian’s attendance at the SCG for the Mardi Gras Parade (as tweeted by Commonwealth Liberal MP, Dave Sharma – pictured below).

In my view, if you are prepared to come and celebrate diversity with us – diversity of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics – then you must be prepared to defend that diversity.

Against attacks by fringe extremist parties in the NSW Legislative Council.

And against support for those attacks by prominent members of your very own Government.

As I wrote previously, ‘It is time for [NSW Parliamentarians] to make your decision about the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020. Champion. Or bully. The choice is yours.’

Right now, that choice belongs to the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian.

Berejiklian must understand the extremely serious consequences if she makes the wrong decision. Because instead of being able to celebrate their own 100th birthdays early in the 22nd century, some trans and gender diverse students in NSW schools will struggle to reach their 18th.

*****

For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/

Or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, you can sign up to receive updates about this and other issues from this blog, via the right-hand scroll bar on desktop, or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus [NB Given the events of the past month – with this website being blocked by Facebook for being ‘news’ – it is more important than ever to sign up if you want to receive updates, especially with the possibility of further disruptions].