You’re wrong Malcolm Turnbull, homophobia is legally acceptable in Australia

It is now one week since the tragic events in Orlando, where 49 people were murdered in a gay nightclub, simply because they were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (or were there as their family or friends).


I haven’t written specifically about those events for a few reasons. First, because I guess I’m still somewhat in shock about it and, like others, it will take some time to process the sheer scale of horrific, homophobic violence involved.


Second, because I haven’t wanted to talk about Orlando in the context of other public debates and risk them being unduly conflated (although, for the record, I do think it is a warning, albeit an extreme one, of the risks of a plebiscite generating hatred and vitriol towards Australia’s LGBTI community).


Third, and perhaps most importantly, I haven’t written anything because what has been written, and said, by others has been so eloquent, and so passionate, that I haven’t really felt the need to add anything. In fact, the outpouring of words and actions (including the vigils for Orlando held in many parts of the world, including here in Sydney) by LGBTI people and our allies over the past seven days has been a beautiful, and in many ways reassuring, thing to behold.


Countless others have already said the things that needed to be said, far better than I could ever say them:


Focusing on the names of the people killed, rather than that of the killer (such as CNN reporter Anderson Cooper’s touching report about the victims).


Challenging any erasure of the fact this was explicitly a homophobic and transphobic hate-crime, including:


Reminding us that this was an attack on a minority within a minority – Latinx members of the LGBT community.


Rejecting any moves to respond to homophobia with Islamophobia, as well as respecting and actively being inclusive of another minority within a minority – LGBTI Muslims.


Last, but certainly not least, seeing the individual act of homophobic and transphobic violence in the broader frame of homophobia and transphobia across the United States – and sadly, Australia – which is perhaps summed up best by this widely-shared social media image:


You werent the gunman




In this context, as someone who primarily writes about LGBTI law and public policy, I didn’t have much further to offer – that is, until Australia’s right-wing media, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, made it a policy, and political, issue.


During the week, The Australian newspaper decided to turn their focus on hate-speech by some Islamic preachers. Specifically, they campaigned for the visa of Farrokh Sekaleshfar to be revoked on the basis of a speech in 2013 where he supported the imposition of the death penalty for homosexuality in some circumstances:


“Death is the sentence. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about this. Death is the sentence. We have to have that compassion for people. With homosexuals, it’s the same. Out of compassion, let’s get rid of them now.” [Mr Sekaleshfar ultimately chose to leave the country before he was forced out].


They then swung their attention towards the guests hosted by Turnbull at an Iftar dinner in Sydney, including the President of the Australian National Imams Council, Mr Shady Alsuleiman, again bringing up comments from 2013 where he reportedly said the following:


“What’s the most common disease these days? HIV, AIDS, that’s so common and there’s no cure to it. And when did it exist? Just decades ago, and more diseases are coming… [It’s] homosexuality that’s spreading all these diseases.”


Leaving aside the clear anti-Muslim bias of this newspaper – given it champions the voices of Christian advocates who condemn homosexuality rather than attacking them (hypocrisy that is perfectly skewered by the First Dog on the Moon in this cartoon, and especially the line “Christian homophobes against Islamic homophobia”) – there is a legitimate question about where the limits of ‘acceptable’ speech should be drawn, irrespective of the religion of the person saying them (Muslim, Christian, other or none).


The fact Mr Alsuleiman was a ‘dinner guest’ of the Prime Minister means it is entirely justifiable that he was asked for his view on those comments, and this was Mr Turnbull’s response:


“Homophobia is to be condemned everywhere, number one. We are a broad, diverse country and we must respect the right of gay Australians, we respect the right of the LGBTI community and the right for them to lead their lives and gather in peace and harmony. The massacre in Orlando, that shocking assault on the people in the gay nightclub is a shocking reminder, frankly, of how much hate and intolerance there is in the world, and how important it is for us to stand up for mutual respect that I spoke about earlier. That is the very foundation of our society. So I condemn, I deplore homophobia wherever it is to be found. It is not acceptable from a legal point of view in Australia, as you know, and I just – I’m sure that – well I know that [Mr Alsuleiman] has been encouraged to reflect very deeply on his remarks which were of some years ago, and it’s up to him how he restates or reconsiders his position.”


There are, of course, some fine sentiments expressed here, as well as some less-than-stellar interventions (as a public scolding, being “encouraged to reflect deeply on his remarks” is akin to Paul Keating’s description of John Hewson: “it was like being flogged with warm lettuce”).


But the thing that has stuck with me and, to be completely honest, has thoroughly pissed me off, is that the Prime Minister is fundamentally wrong. Specifically, his comment that “I deplore homophobia wherever it is to be found. It is not acceptable from a legal point of view in Australia, as you know…” IS. SIMPLY. NOT. TRUE.


Sorry, Malcolm, but you are very, very wrong: homophobia is indeed acceptable under Australian law, and in some places it is actively encouraged.


Here, I want to discuss briefly two such examples (although I’m sure readers of this blog could come up with several others):


First, as I have written previously[i], while the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 prohibits vilification on the basis of race, there are currently no prohibitions against the vilification of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people under Commonwealth law. None. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nada.


Which means that, while the Government could take action against Mr Sekaleshfar on the basis of his visa, they legally could not do anything against Mr Alsuleiman – because he would not have breached any Commonwealth laws.


Even at state and territory level, only four jurisdictions have legislated against LGBTI vilification (NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT), and in many cases those laws are incomplete or out of date too (for example, only offering protection to some members of the LGBTI community and not others[ii]).


So, while Mr Turnbull might like to say that homophobia “is not acceptable from a legal point of view in Australia, as you know”, that’s definitely not true – especially under Commonwealth law. And, based on the past term of the Abbott-Turnbull Coalition Government, with its initial attempt to wind back racial vilification, it’s a situation doesn’t look like changing any time soon either.


Second, while the historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 introduced LGBTI anti-discrimination protections in Commonwealth law for the first time, it also contained provisions that, at the same time, severely curtailed those protections[iii].


For example, the general religious exceptions under section 37, and the specific exceptions provided to religious schools under section 38, mean there is no obligation on religious bodies to treat LGBT people fairly, or with even a minimum of respect. Indeed, religious schools are free to fire, and refuse to hire, LGBT teachers, as well as expel or refuse to enrol LGBT students.


The vast majority of state and territory anti-discrimination schemes[iv] include similar exceptions, with NSW’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 featuring the broadest (a school doesn’t even need to be religious, just ‘private’, in NSW to enjoy the privilege to discriminate against LGBT teachers and students).


All of which means that, were Mr Alsuleiman, or even Mr Sekaleshfar, to make similar comments, not on YouTube but instead in the classrooms or mosques (or churches) of a religious school, I cannot see the Commonwealth Government being able to do anything much about it under the law as it stands.


One aspect of this situation that sticks in the craw of many people is that all taxpayers, including LGBTI taxpayers, are effectively paying for this discrimination against LGBTI young people – because those same schools, which do not have to abide by the community standards against homophobia and transphobia that Mr Turnbull tried to articulate on Friday, still put their hands out for Commonwealth (and state and territory) funding.


But we should never forget that it is the LGBTI young people themselves, stuck in schools their parents have chosen, and potentially exposed to homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia from their principals and teachers, effectively condoned by governments of all levels, are the ones who ‘pay’ the highest price.


There are, of course, other aspects of Malcolm Turnbull’s comments that are offensive, not the least of which is the fact he chose to speak out against the homophobia of an Islamic preacher, because he invited him to dinner, but has so far steadfastly refused to condemn the homophobia from MPs and Senators who form part of his Government, even, for example, when they compare a program against the bullying of LGBTI young people to ‘sexual grooming’.


Here too though, rather than trying to explain this double-standard, I will quote another person who neatly summed up the glaring disparity via twitter:


Lane Sainty (@lanesainty 17 June 2016):


“I have So Many Complicated Thoughts about the two Islamic leaders criticised in the Australian press for their anti-gay comments.


I’ve seen people slamming comparisons Australian Christians – saying it’s not the same to oppose Safe Schools and to want gay people to die.


Given the suicide rates of trans kids, there’s actually an argument to be made there. But even if you accept the distinction, it’s still…


…not being an apologist for Muslim anti-LGBTI views to point out the hypocrisy of how we address queerphobia depending on religion.


Turnbull’s failure to condemn comments linking paedophilia and Safe Schools was deeply hurtful to LGBTI people. I cannot overstate this.


Yet look at his speed to denounce the sheik. Why condemn someone he shared a meal with, but not the anti-LGBTI folk on his own backbench?


Here’s the political message this sends: Islamic queerphobia = unacceptable, but Christian queerphobia = acceptable.


Actually, none of is acceptable. As long as you’re not actively calling for gays to die, you’re fine? No. That’s not how it works.


Anyway, many Muslims have written about combating homophobia within their community since Orlando. Read their words.


Just don’t forget that queerphobia doesn’t start with calling for actual violence against LGBTI people. It finishes there, if anything.”


Lane then followed that with an excellent article on Buzzfeed, with the rather self-explanatory title “7 Other Times People were Homophobic and the PM didn’t Condemn it”.


So, if Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull genuinely “deplore[s] homophobia wherever it is to be found”, then there are some serious examples of it very close to his political home – will George Christensen, Cory Bernardi and others be similarly told to ‘reconsider their positions’?


And, if he wants to make sure homophobia “is not acceptable from a legal point of view in Australia”, then I know two places where he can start: introducing LGBTI anti-vilification protections in Commonwealth law, and removing religious exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. If he doesn’t, then all his ‘condemnations’ of homophobia will start to sound a little hollow to me.



[i] Don’t limit racial vilification protections, introduce vilification protections for LGBTI Australians instead.

[ii] In NSW, while homosexual and transgender vilification is outlawed, bisexual and intersex vilification is lawful: see What’s wrong with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?

[iii] See What’s wrong with the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984?

[iv] With the exception of Tasmania and, to a lesser extent, Queensland.

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