Sex Discrimination Amendment (LGBTI) Bill Senate Inquiry Submission

Another week, another submission, this time to the Senate Legal & Constitutional Affairs Committee Inquiry into the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013.

Now that the Government has ‘deferred’ the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill/consolidation reforms, this Bill is the vehicle it has chosen to progress federal anti-discrimination protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendernand intersex (LGBTI) community.

It is by no means a perfect Bill – at the very least it should incorporate the Government’s own policy of removing religious exceptions for people accessing aged care services. At best, it should remove all religious exceptions outside of the appointment of ministers of religion and religious ceremonies.

Nevertheless, this Bill, if passed, would be a significant step forward in terms of LGBTI law reform. If you have a chance to write your own submission before this Friday (26 April), I strongly encourage you to do so. Details here: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate_Committees?url=legcon_ctte/sex_discrim_sexual_orientation/info.htm

NB I have also not included the appendix to this submission, because it is simply the discussion about religious exceptions from my submission on the HRAD Bill last year.

Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee

Inquiry into Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013

Submission by Alastair Lawrie

I am writing this submission to make three main recommendations:

i)                    That the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013, which introduces federal anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians for the first time, should be supported.

ii)                   That the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 should be passed as a matter of priority by the Commonwealth Parliament; and

iii)                 That the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 should be amended to remove all religious exceptions which would otherwise allow discrimination against LGBTI Australians, outside of appointments of religious office-holders (such as priests) and religious ceremonies.

I was born in 1978. That is three years after the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. In the year I turned 6, the Commonwealth Parliament supported the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. The Disability Discrimination Act was passed in 1992, about three years before I first came out as gay at age 17. Even the most recent stand-alone Commonwealth anti-discrimination law, the Age Discrimination Act 2002, has already been in operation for more than a decade.

In 2013, I am 34 years old, and I have still never enjoyed the protection of federal anti-discrimination laws on the basis of my sexual orientation. Discrimination on the basis of race has been prohibited for my entire life, and on the basis of sex for almost as long. But up until now, successive Governments have not seen fit to legislate to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Which means that the reforms contained in the Labor Government’s Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 are both incredibly welcome, and long overdue. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians deserve the right to be employed, to access services, indeed to simply go about their everyday lives, without the threat of being discriminated against on these grounds.

If and when this Bill is eventually passed, it will be another key milestone on the long journey towards full equality for our LGBTI citizens. Which is why my first recommendation is that this legislation should be supported.

My second recommendation is that the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 should be passed by the Commonwealth Parliament as a matter of priority.

There are now only five Parliamentary sitting weeks left before the end of this term, ahead of the federal election which is currently expected to be held on September 14th. Having waited so long – decades, in fact – it would be a devastating blow to the LGBTI community were this legislation to be delayed yet again because the current Parliament simply ran out of time.

The future is always unknowable: it may be that, should these reforms not be passed now, a new Parliament or even Government introduces similar legislation later this year, or early next year. That would obviously be a welcome development. But it may also be that, after the upcoming election, LGBTI anti-discrimination reforms are delayed for several more years.

The current Bill fulfils the general objective of signalling that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status is no longer tolerated, by society and by the Parliament. It is already drafted, and (leaving aside the amendments suggested in my third recommendation) it is ready to go.

That is why all serving Parliamentarians, from all political parties and independents, should pass the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 as soon as possible.

My third and final recommendation is that the Bill should be amended to ensure that religious exceptions from LGBTI-anti-discrimination requirements are narrowly drafted, only covering religious appointments, such as priests, and religious ceremonies.

The justification for this position involves my personal experience. Like many, indeed probably most, LGBTI Australians I have been discriminated against in a wide variety of different situations. I have been abused on the street, and threatened with violence, simply for holding my boyfriend’s hand. I have received sub-standard treatment from different service-providers simply because of my sexual orientation, or at least because of their perceptions of me.

I have likely been discriminated against in terms of employment, because I have always been upfront about who I am, including through my job applications. But I will probably never know for sure, because discrimination like homophobia is insidious, and its victims can never know all of the different ways in which they are mistreated.

But by far the activity in which I have been discriminated against the most was the education I received during the five years that I attended a religious boarding school. There was, from memory, a school rule against homosexuality, I was bullied on the basis of my (perceived) sexual orientation and this was effectively condoned by the school which was aware of it but failed to take any action, the sex education that was provided completely ignored homosexuality (including omitting essential safe sex/HIV-prevention messages), and I had a pastor intimate that killing yourself because you were gay was not the worst possible outcome.

It distresses me to think that, if religious organisations are granted wide-ranging exceptions under anti-discrimination laws, they will lawfully be able to (mis)treat future students in this way.

No student should be subject to prejudice, from their schools as well as from other students, because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. No teacher should have to fear for their job simply because of who they are, or who they are attracted to.

This principle extends far and wide across a range of different activities. Patients receiving hospital and other health or community services should not have to consider whether disclosing their identity will compromise the standard of care they receive. LGBTI doctors, nurses and other employees in the health and community sector should be able to be confident in talking about who they are without fearing possible repercussions.

This principle obviously also includes aged care services. And I welcome the Labor Government’s commitment that they will legislate to protect people accessing aged care services from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

However, I question why these protections are not included in the current Bill – the drafting of such provisions is not overly complicated, and I would like to believe that no Parliamentarian could argue, or vote, against such a basic proposition.

I also question why such protections should not equally apply to the employees of aged care services. If we are going to have truly inclusive aged care services, then neither the service recipients nor the employees should be subject to discrimination simply because they are LGBTI.

But, for the reasons outlined above, I do not believe that even ‘carving out’ the aged care sector from the operation of religious exceptions goes far enough. There is no justification for allowing religious organisations to discriminate against service recipients or employees in any activity which is carried on in the public sphere. For further discussion of this, please see Appendix A, which I provided to the Senate Inquiry into the Exposure Draft of the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012 in December last year on this very topic.

In conclusion, I would like to thank the Committee for the opportunity to comment on the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013. As I have indicated, I think this Bill could be significantly improved by limiting the operation of religious exceptions which undermine protections that would otherwise cover LGBTI Australians.

However, even if these exceptions are not removed by the current Bill, the fact that some LGBTI anti-discrimination protections will finally be enacted federally is sufficient justification to recommend both that the Commonwealth Parliament support the Bill, and that it be passed as a matter of priority. The Australian LGBTI community has waited long enough for these reforms. It’s time to just get it done.

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