2016: Annus Homophobicus

 

In November 1992, the Queen of England (and, unfortunately, still the Queen of Australia too) gave a speech in which she described the previous 12 months as her ‘annus horribilis’.

 

To be fair, it had been a rough year for Ms Windsor, with the separation of her eldest son from his wife, the divorce of her only daughter from her husband, frequent tabloid scandals (hello toe-sucking!) and even a fire in one of her (many) houses[i].

 

But, as bad as Elizabeth II’s year was back then, it’s frankly got nothing on how depressing, and frustrating, 2016 has been for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

 

So, as the year draws to a close, and we look back on the (too few) highs and (far too many) lows, it feels apt to declare the past 12 months to be our very own ‘annus homophobicus’.

 

It started in January with the launch of a ferocious, and well co-ordinated, attack on the Safe Schools program by the Australian Christian Lobby, The Australian newspaper and extremists in the right-wing of the Liberal-National Government.

 

And, even after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ‘gutted’ the program in early March, the campaign against what is a vital anti-bullying program designed to help LGBTI students has continued, as unyielding as it is lacking in compassion.

 

The year ended with the tragic death of 13-year-old Brisbane high school student, Tyrone Unsworth, in late November. Indigenous and gay, Tyrone had suffered relentless bullying because of his sexual orientation, until he ultimately took his own life.

 

A death that, understandably, shook many members of our community to the core, it was particularly hard for LGBTI Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[ii] It was a tragedy that demonstrated the very need for a program that homophobic bigots had spent the best part of a year trying to dismantle.

 

In between, 2016 was dominated by Turnbull’s proposed plebiscite on marriage equality – a policy that was completely unnecessary, fundamentally wasteful and, if held, would inevitably be harmful for countless young and vulnerable members of the LGBTI community, including the children of rainbow families.

 

It took the collective efforts of a variety of LGBTI groups, alongside the work of many individual activists, over several months, to finally defeat the planned plebiscite in early November. But that sustained campaign, against a proposal that had been put forward simply to delay or defeat rather than achieve equality, left a large number of people almost completely drained (myself included).

 

The past 12 months has also witnessed a rise in homophobic and transphobic hate-speech. It seems that anti-LGBTI rhetoric is both more common, and more ‘acceptable’, in Australia now than at any point over the past 10 to 15 years.

 

And it certainly does not help that the frequent abuse of LGBTI people coming from inside the Government, by the likes of Cory Bernardi and George Christensen, has gone without any obvious punishment from an allegedly-moderate Prime Minister too scared to stand up to his more-conservative colleagues.

 

Even worse than hate-speech, 2016 has seen plenty of horrific hate-based actions, both here and around the world.

 

This includes the almost unspeakable tragedy in Orlando on June 12th, with the mass murder of 49 people, and wounding of 53 others, at Pulse. With the popular gay nightclub holding a Latin night, most of the victims were young and Latinx. Six months later, it remains impossible not to cry when reading or watching tributes[iii] to the casualties of this terror attack.

 

pulse-tribute

Tributes to victims outside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

 

Acts of homophobic and transphobic violence were not limited to the United States, however. In Australia, too, there were countless assaults on LGBTI people.

 

The one that hit closest to home – both literally[iv] and figuratively – was the young Sydney man who was ‘gay-bashed’ twice in one night[v], the second time by a supposed ‘good Samaritan’ who had initially helped him after the first attack, only to assault the victim himself after learning he was gay.

 

This was a crime based on homophobia that could happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime, including my fiancé Steven and me.

 

**********

 

The net effect of these events, alongside other shocking outcomes of the past year (including Brexit and the election of Donald Trump), has been sufficient to undermine the belief that progress is somehow inevitable, that the future will always be better than the past.

 

But, as LGBTI Australians, we don’t need the fear-fuelled success of a xenophobic campaign against immigrants in the UK, or of a sexist and racist tyrant-in-training in the US, to remind us that political change is not inherently positive.

 

As many of you would know, the past few years have seen a number of areas where progress on LGBTI policy and law reform hasn’t just stalled, but been actively wound back.

 

One of the first acts of the Campbell Newman-led Liberal-National Queensland Government in 2012 was to abolish ceremonies as part of the recently-passed civil partnership scheme in that state[vi].

 

In Victoria, the Baillieu Coalition Government repealed the ‘inherent requirement’ test from that state’s Equal Opportunity Act – which had required religious employers to demonstrate that discrimination against LGBT employees was an essential part of the role – before it had even commenced operation in 2011[vii].

 

The Tasmanian Liberal Government not only made discrimination by religious schools easier in 2015 (thereby undermining what has been the nation’s best anti-discrimination scheme), it is currently committed to reducing protections against vilification, including those enjoyed by LGBTI Tasmanians.

 

And we shouldn’t forget the decision by Prime Minister Turnbull to discontinue funding for the Safe Schools program (with Commonwealth money to cease from 2017), an initiative that his predecessor, Tony Abbott, had actually implemented less than three years earlier.

 

It is clear then, that progress on LGBTI issue is not inevitable. And it is almost enough to challenge the wisdom of one of Martin Luther King, Jr’s many note-worthy quotes, namely that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

 

Almost, but not quite.

 

As painful as the past 12 months have been for many, especially for members of Australia’s LGBTI communities, we nevertheless must see these events in their historical context, and recognise that – at least on a (much) longer time-scale – overall, things are still headed in a positive direction. And that remains the case even if there are twists and turns, even significant bumps, along the way.

 

But the most important lesson to remember is that, while the arc may ‘bend toward justice’, it only does so because good people come together to take action to make change happen.

 

Just as US cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead famously observed: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

 

One of the best examples of this maxim actually comes from one of the major LGBTI victories of 2016 – the long overdue equalisation of the age of consent for male homosexuality in Queensland.

 

While this was discriminatory legislation that affected many, its repeal was only a priority for a dedicated few[viii], including long-time LGBTI activist John Frame[ix] among others.

 

Through painstaking, and often thankless, campaigning over years and eventually decades, they chipped away at an unjust law until it was finally amended in September this year, almost 25 years since it was first introduced.

 

There were other wins this year too. The Palaszczuk Labor Government in Queensland also passed legislation to allow adoption by same-sex couples, while the Weatherill Labor Government in South Australia ended 2016 with a flurry of pro-LGBTI law reform, including relationship recognition, same-sex adoption and trans birth certificate changes[x].

 

And of course, there was the LGBTI community’s success in defeating the marriage equality plebiscite, a victory that was by no means guaranteed at this point last year[xi].

 

All of which is to show that, despite the increasingly toxic political environment that we appear to be operating in, and the significant losses cited above, positive change is still possible – if we keep our sights on the country, and world, that we want to create, and work towards it patiently, gradually, relentlessly.

 

**********

 

For my part, as I look ahead to 2017, I will be redoubling my efforts to improve Australia’s incomplete, inconsistent and in many cases inadequate system of LGBTI anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws.

 

I know others will concentrate their energies on (finally) achieving marriage equality, as well as a myriad of other reforms, from ending the involuntary sterilisation of intersex infants, to further trans birth certificate changes, ending the inhumane detention of LGBTI refugees and reinvigorating the Safe Schools program.

 

So, let’s end 2016 by reflecting, relaxing and hopefully recuperating, so that when the new year rolls around we are ready to dust ourselves off, fight once more and bend that arc towards a more just country for LGBTI Australians.

 

**********

 

I have one final favour to ask. Could you please take 5-15 minutes to complete this short survey about your experiences of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination, over the past 12 months, and previously?

 

The results of this research will be used to advocate for better protections against discrimination for LGBTI people across Australia, as well as to campaign for the introduction of LGBTI anti-vilification laws where they do not currently exist.

 

Please TAKE THE SURVEY NOW.

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If this post has raised any issues for you, you can contact:

 

  • QLife, Australia’s national telephone and web counselling and referral service for LGBTI people. Freecall: 1800 184 527, Webchat: qlife.org.au (3pm-midnight every day)
  • Lifeline: 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au

 

Footnotes:

[i] See The Guardian “How the Royal Family Bounced Back from its Annus Horribilis” 24 May 2012.

[ii] If you have a chance, please read Dameyon Bonson’s excellent op-ed “I am Indigenous. I am Gay. Unlike Tyrone Unsworth, I Survived” in The Guardian Australia, 28 November 2016.

[iii] For example, see Anderson Cooper’s emotional tribute on CNN in the days after the tragedy here.

[iv] The victim lived in our apartment complex, with the second attack happening just 50 meters from our building.

[v] The Daily Telegraph “Gay man bashed twice in Waterloo: I’ve never been so scared in my life, and thought I would die” 23 February 2016.

[vi] Thankfully, these ceremonies were reintroduced by the subsequently (and surprisingly) elected Palaszczuk Government.

[vii] The current Victorian Liberal-National Opposition, led by Matthew Guy, defeated Andrews Labor Government legislation to reinsert this test in November 2016.

[viii] With many focusing on more ‘popular’ issues like marriage equality.

[ix] See samesame.com.au “It’s time to update Queensland’s sex laws” 23 August 2015.

[x] For more on LGBTI successes of the past 12 months, see Lane Sainty’s summary in Buzzfeed “13 Times Australia’s LGBTI Community Had a Win in 2016” 16 December 2016.

[xi] For more, see Pride, Pressure & Perseverance.

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