Coronavirus. SARS-CoV-2. COVID-19. Whatever you call it, it has been the biggest single story of this century (so far). Challenging health systems, governments, economies and communities – its dominance of the news cycle has overshadowed all other issues.
Of course, that does not mean those other challenges have gone away – especially climate change. Indeed, many existing problems have been exacerbated by, or exacerbated the negative impact of, coronavirus, including wealth inequality. Discrimination has sadly also been turbo-charged by the virus, with many disturbing examples of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism reported during the past few months.
But, as an LGBTI advocate, it is another type of mistreatment I want to focus on here: discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. While less prominent to date in comparison to racism, I am concerned about a potential outbreak of anti-LGBT discrimination under the cover of corona, in at least three ways:
- Discrimination in employment
Even with the Government’s temporary JobKeeper program, Australia’s unemployment numbers are expected to at least double between March and June 2020. We could see more than 1,000,000 people permanently lose their jobs in this period alone (not to mention many more who will have their hours, or pay – or often both – reduced).
While in many workplaces, the entire staff will be terminated, elsewhere employers will keep on some employees while dismissing others. With this process happening across so many businesses, small and large, and across so many sectors, simultaneously, it is inevitable some will (ab)use this opportunity to sack people for illegitimate reasons, including bosses firing LGBT workers simply because of who they are.
Even where homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are not ‘explicit’ in this way, some employers may take irrelevant factors into consideration in making their decisions – such as whether the employee has a partner, whether that partner is also employed, and whether they have children to support. Such discrimination, on the basis of marital or relationship status, or family responsibilities, is likely to disproportionately harm LGBT employees.[i]
For a variety of reasons, we will likely never know the full extent of anti-LGBT discrimination in employment during this crisis – although it should be noted the Sydney Morning Herald is already reporting that:
‘The number of workers raising issues with unfair dismissals has surged because of the coronavirus shutdown, with 65 per cent more employees bringing cases to the national industrial tribunal last month [April] than the same time last year.’
- Discrimination in service delivery
One serious problem highlighted by the coronavirus crisis has been the ‘hollowing out’ of governments, at all levels, and corresponding outsourcing of what should be public services to the private sector.
In particular, a disturbingly high proportion of essential social services in Australia are now delivered by religious organisations, despite usually using public monies. This includes housing and emergency accommodation, community support, food and even healthcare.
At a time when many Australians will be accessing these services for the first time, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will have the additional worry of whether such faith bodies will refuse to serve them, or treat them differently to cisgender heterosexual people in the same circumstances.
This is not to suggest that all or even most of these religious organisations will engage in homophobic, biphobic or transphobic discrimination – but some of these services inevitably will, to the detriment of LGBT Australians when they are at their most vulnerable.
- Anti-LGBT vilification
The third potential outbreak which concerns me is anti-LGBT vilification. That is, attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals – and the LGBT community more broadly – claiming that we are somehow responsible for promulgating the coronavirus, or deserving of infection because of our supposed ‘sinful lifestyles’.
This is not a hypothetical fear, either. At the start of April, Melbourne Jewish radio station J-AIR broadcast the following homophobic and transphobic comments from a Rabbi Kessin:
‘And basically he’s [god’s] 98% finished, that’s how close we are to redemption. Therefore god wants to do is bring the redemption. However, there are certain problems that must be addressed by god in order for the redemption to actually happen. And what we begin to see is that the pandemic is an exact designer drug, if you want to use that expression, that will remove these problems.
Ah, in other words, the plague itself is a vehicle, is an instrument, to accelerate the messianic process by removing these major problems. What are they? You see. So therefore what we see is the following.
The first major problem is that man has corrupted his nature. There is a tremendous amount of, ah, what’s called immorality in the world today. It’s widespread. There’s, in Hebrew it’s called “prichus”. We want, we could say it’s also in the form of homosexuality, and gays and so on and so forth, where all of a sudden the gender differentiation is, is tremendously blurred. So that is an incredible corruption of man’s nature.’
There are, obviously, strong echoes of the homophobic vilification endured by the gay and HIV-positive community as part of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And we learnt from that experience that more bigots will emerge in the months ahead claiming that coronavirus is ‘divine punishment’ of the LGBT community for having the temerity to exist.
These three risks – anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, and service delivery, and anti-LGBT vilification – demonstrate the importance of robust anti-discrimination and vilification protections. Unfortunately, they also reveal serious weaknesses in Australia’s existing anti-discrimination and vilification framework, in at least four ways:
- Onus on complainants
Australia’s anti-discrimination laws are primarily complaint-based, which means responsibility falls on the victims of discrimination to pursue justice against their discriminator(s).
This is a problem at the best of times. That includes because of the usual significant power imbalances involved: between employee and employer; member and group; individual accessing services and service delivery organisation; customer and business; and more.
The burden of making a discrimination complaint should also not be underestimated, including the cost in both time and resources (such as obtaining legal advice, which can be costly), as well as the impact on mental health through stress. It is no surprise that many people who experience discrimination ultimately choose not to lodge a complaint.
And of course the coronavirus crisis means now is far from the best of times. Power imbalances are exacerbated, financial and other stresses already heightened. Even where LGBT Australians experience unequivocal discrimination, the problems of a complaint-based system mean they may not exercise their legal rights but instead focus on more immediate concerns (like where they are going to live, and how they will pay for food, electricity and other essentials).
Now more than ever our anti-discrimination laws should be improved by making it easier for organisations, such as trade unions, to make representative complaints on behalf of vulnerable individuals, as well as strengthening the powers of bodies like the Australian Human Rights Commission and its state and territory equivalents to investigate instances of discrimination even in the absence of individual complainants.
- Difficult to prove
Even where a victim of discrimination does choose to lodge a formal complaint, it can sometimes be difficult to prove, at least to the required legal standard.
This will not come as a surprise to most LGBT Australians – or indeed to members of other minority groups in the community. Almost all of us will have experienced multiple instances of mistreatment, where you know without a doubt that your sexual orientation, or gender identity, or sex, or race, or disability, or combination of these, is the motivation – while also knowing it would difficult to establish without an explicit admission by the perpetrator.
The coronavirus crisis, and the associated economic crisis, will only worsen this problem, with employers able to say they abandoned usual procedures because of the scale and speed of the challenge they were facing (and the potential they are given the benefit of the doubt in many circumstances, too). This doesn’t mean there was no discrimination – but it could make already high barriers even harder to overcome for the victims.
- Religious exceptions
Regular readers of this blog would be well aware of this major flaw in Australians LGBT anti-discrimination laws. Specifically, under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), and the anti-discrimination laws of most state and territories (other than Tasmania’s best practice Anti-Discrimination Act 1998), it is entirely lawful for religious organisations to discriminate against employees, and people accessing services, on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.[ii]
This means that it is legal for a faith-based homeless service in Sydney to deny shelter to someone because they are lesbian, or for a religious-run welfare service in Melbourne to reject a client because they are trans. It also means these organisations can refuse to hire, or even fire, employees because of their sexual orientation or gender identity – which is especially concerning when these bodies may be given more public funding to address the challenges of the next 12 to 18 months, making them one of the few places actually hiring.
In order for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians to enjoy the same employment opportunities, and receive the same level of support, as everyone else, religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws must be repealed.
- Gaps in vilification protections
The fourth serious weakness in our current legislative framework is the fact that only a minority of jurisdictions protect LGBT people against vilification. The biggest gap is obviously at Commonwealth level, where there remains no sexual orientation or gender identity equivalent of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
But there is also no anti-LGBT vilification coverage in Victoria[iii] (meaning the earlier comments on a Melbourne Jewish radio station were likely lawful), or in Western Australia, South Australia or the Northern Territory.
Even where vilification protections exist, their coverage is sometimes incomplete. For example, civil prohibitions on vilification in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 only protect lesbians and gay men, and binary transgender people.[iv] Bisexuals, non-binary and intersex people need not apply (or complain).
These four problems, with Australia’s LGBTI anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws, are obviously major. But they do not mean all such legal claims will be unsuccessful – merely that people should be aware of the potential pitfalls along the complaints journey that awaits them.
I should also be clear that this isn’t legal advice, either – after all, I am not currently a practising lawyer. However, if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex and do experience discrimination or vilification, and are considering your options, there are places where you can seek advice. These include:
The Inner-City Legal Centre in Sydney
The LGBTIQ Legal Service in Melbourne
The LGBTI Legal Service in Brisbane
The HIV/AIDS Legal Centre in Sydney
Or you could contact the local Community Legal Centre in your area. A searchable map is located on the Community Legal Centres Australia website.
Alternatively, you could try the Legal Aid services in your respective state or territory.
The above organisations may assist you in determining whether you wish to make a complaint – and where. They may also be able to provide you with legal representation if you do complain.
Nevertheless, it is not compulsory to obtain advice, or be represented, in order to make an anti-discrimination, or anti-vilification, claim. You could instead decide to go directly to the relevant human rights body. These include:
The Australian Human Rights Commission for discrimination complaints, including employment discrimination [remembering that there are no LGBTI vilification protections under Commonwealth law]
The Fair Work Commission if the complaint relates to employment discrimination only [noting that only lesbian, gay and bisexual people can apply – because the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) does not cover gender identity or intersex status/sex characteristics][v]
A lot has been written in recent months about the coronavirus ‘not discriminating’. That SARS-CoV-2 is the ‘great leveller’. That in response to COVID-19 we are now all supposedly playing on the same team (namely ‘Team Australia’).
Of course, that simplistic slogan simply isn’t true. Just like life before the ‘rona, the rich will have fewer adverse outcomes than the poor. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will continue to experience extremely high rates of disadvantage.
Racial minorities, especially Chinese-Australians and other people from Asian backgrounds, will endure even greater levels of racism than before the pandemic. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is fond of telling Australians to ‘get out from under the doona’. He needs to also pay attention to the increased racist abuse which has sadly – but entirely predictably – emerged from under the covers.
As we have seen, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians, as another vulnerable group, are at risk, too – of increased discrimination in employment, in service delivery, and through vilification.
If that happens to you, there may be legal remedies available, including under Commonwealth, state and territory discrimination laws, or the Fair Work Act. As discussed earlier, there may also be good reasons why you ultimately choose not to make a complaint under any of these processes.
But one reason homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bigots shouldn’t be allowed to get away with anti-LGBT discrimination or vilification is that you simply weren’t aware of the options available.
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[i] Acknowledging of course that traditionally, and unfortunately still today, the most likely targets of discrimination on the basis marital or relationship status, or family responsibilities, are women.
[ii] For more on this subject, see A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.
[iii] Although there is currently a Victoria Parliament inquiry considering expansion of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (Vic) to cover sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. See my submission to that inquiry here.
[iv] Although the criminal offence of publicly threatening or inciting violence, added to the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) in 2018, does cover all of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. For more on the problems of LGBTI anti-discrimination law in NSW, see What’s Wrong With the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?