Opening Statement to Victorian Inquiry into Anti-Vilification Protections

On 25 June, I was invited to give evidence to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Vilification Protections. My opening statement, highlighting the need to introduce prohibitions on vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics, is published below (the full transcript of my evidence, including answers to questions from members of the Legislative Assembly’s Legal and Social Issues Committee, can be found here).

This evidence builds on my submission to the inquiry in December 2019. The Committee’s original timeline requires them to report by 1 September 2020, although given current circumstances it would of course be understandable for this deadline to be extended. Hopefully, whenever the Committee reports, they recommend that LGBTI Victorians are finally provided with legal protections against vilification.

**********

“Thank you very much for the opportunity to appear today and give evidence on this important topic. I do so as an advocate for LGBTI anti-discrimination law reform for close to two decades. This includes previously serving as the chair of the policy working groups of both Victorian and New South Wales gay and lesbian rights lobbies, although I appear here in a personal capacity. In my comments I will focus on terms of reference 4, ‘comparisons in the operation of the Victorian Act with legislation in other jurisdictions’, and 8, ‘possible extension of protections or expansion of protection to classes of people not currently protected’.

Starting with the comparative approach, it is clear that Victoria has fallen behind the standards set by several other Australian jurisdictions. In my own state of New South Wales protections against vilification on the basis of homosexuality were first added to the Anti-Discrimination Act in 1993, just four years after racial vilification was first prohibited and before passage of the commonwealth Racial Hatred Act 1995. Transgender vilification protections were then added in 1996. While there are limitations to these protections, such as the exclusion of bisexual, non-binary and intersex people, many LG and T people here have enjoyed anti-vilification coverage for close to a quarter of a century.

LGBT people have also been protected against vilification in Queensland for almost 20 years following the inclusion of both sexuality and gender identity in their vilification provisions in 2002. The ACT Discrimination Act has included prohibitions on vilification on the basis of sexuality and transsexuality from 2004, with gender identity replacing transsexuality in 2010 and intersex added in 2016, meaning the ACT’s vilification provisions cover the entire LGBTI community, one of two such laws in the country.

The other jurisdiction to cover all of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people is Tasmania, which has the most extensive anti-vilification laws in Australia. These protections have two parts. Section 19 of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act prohibits public acts that:

incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, a person or a group of persons …

That section has included sexual orientation from its commencement in 1999, and it included transsexuality within sexual orientation from that time until 2014. Gender identity and intersex variations of sex characteristics were both added in May last year. Section 17 separately prohibits:

conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules another person on the basis of an attribute …

Those provisions have covered sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, or intersex variations of sex characteristics, since 2014. From a comparative approach alone, it is disappointing the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act has not been extended beyond racial and religious vilification since it commenced in 2002.

Turning now to the second issue—the possible extension of protection to classes of people not currently protected—I think the preamble to the Act is quite instructive. Paragraph 3 in particular reads:

… some Victorians are vilified on the ground of their race or their religious belief or activity. Vilifying conduct is contrary to democratic values because of its effect on people of diverse ethnic, Indigenous and religious backgrounds. It diminishes their dignity, sense of self-worth and belonging to the community. It also reduces their ability to contribute to, or fully participate in, all social, political, economic and cultural aspects of society as equals, thus reducing the benefit that diversity brings to the community.

From an LGBTI advocate’s perspective, it seems obvious to me that the exact same description could be applied to my community. Some people are vilified on the ground of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics. This conduct is contrary to democratic values because of its effect on us. Homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersex phobia diminish our dignity, sense of self-worth and belonging to the community. It also reduces our ability to contribute to or fully participate in all aspects of society as equals and reduces the benefits of diversity.

Explaining this to you in a more structured or systematic way, I would submit (1) sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics are fundamental or inherent human characteristics; (2) lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are frequently subjected to vilification on the basis of who they are; and (3) that vilification can cause serious harm and should therefore be legally prohibited.

In 2020 the first point is obviously not up for serious debate. In terms of points 2 and 3, I would draw the committee’s attention to a community survey which I conducted at the end of 2016 with 1672 LGBTIQ respondents from around Australia, including 386 in Victoria [*see below]. One of the questions asked, ‘Have you ever experienced verbal harassment or abuse because of your sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status?’. Overall 74 per cent of respondents answered yes, with 48 per cent of all respondents then reporting at least one instance of verbal harassment or abuse in the previous 12 months.

That is one in two LGBTIQ Australians indicating they were verbally abused in the year 2016 alone, which I should note was before the postal survey. Perhaps unsurprisingly but nevertheless disappointingly, these rates were even higher amongst transgender respondents: 68.3 per cent reported abuse in the previous 12 months. And intersex respondents, 82.2 per cent in the previous year. The rates in Victoria were average for the country, 74.1 per cent reporting abuse or harassment ever and 49.8 per cent in the previous 12 months.

Now I acknowledge that many—indeed, likely most—of these responses would fall short of the legal standard for vilification, but no doubt some would meet it. Taking just one respondent’s experience:

I have been referred to as a tranny and had both my sexuality and gender identity mocked and invalidated repeatedly. I have been told to kill myself an innumerable number of times, including being told to ‘get my teeth and gender straight or kill myself’, and that my gender is ‘cancer’. This is just a short list of the abuse I’ve suffered.

When asked for the location for anti-LGBTI comments in the previous 12 months, 92 per cent of respondents said social media, 83 per cent said politics, 81 per cent religion, 80 per cent media and 67 per cent in a public space. Finally, when asked to explain the impact that witnessing homophobic, bi-phobic, transphobic and intersex-phobic comments had on him, here are just two of the comments received:

They make me feel worthless, like a freak, like I don’t deserve to live, like I don’t deserve anything, like I will be alone forever, like no-one will love me, like I should just kill myself because it would be easier.

And:

… disgust and shame at both myself and Australia. I feel marginalised, oppressed, fearful, frustrated and in some cases terrified of the country I live in.

This brings me back to the preamble of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act and the benefit that including sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics as protected attributes would bring. In my view it would not only reflect Victoria’s democratic values but enhance the dignity, self-worth and belonging of a significant cohort of Victorians. That would be a positive outcome, and I hope the committee, and the Parliament ultimately, agrees. Thank you.”

*These figures, and quotes, are taken from my 2016 research survey ‘The State of Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia’.

No Homophobia No Exceptions (1)

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.

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