LGBTIQ Law Reform Priorities for 2021

ANU Gender Identity + Sexuality Law Moot Webinar Presentation

In October 2020, I was invited to be a judge for the round robin stage of the inaugural ANU Gender Identity + Sexuality Law Moot. In the lead-up to the moot itself, I participated in a webinar for participants about the state of LGBTIQ law reform in Australia, including being asked to address the following two questions:

What are, in your view, the most significant issues that need legal reform with respect to LGBTIQ rights and inclusion? and

How can we ensure that workplaces are inclusive and safe for people from all backgrounds but in particular for the LGBTIQ community?

While the panel ultimately adopted a more ‘free-wheeling’ approach to its discussion, I prepared the below, more detailed responses to these questions. Now that, at the end of a busy year, I’ve finally had the chance to tidy them up, I thought they might be worth sharing. I’m also keen to hear other people’s views, including on what you think the most significant issues that need legal reform are today – please leave your comments below.

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Question 1. What are, in your view, the most significant issues that need legal reform with respect to LGBTIQ rights and inclusion?

Despite what many people might assume – and what far too many members of our political and media classes seem to believe following the recognition of LGBTI marriage in 2017 – there remain a large number of outstanding legal reforms necessary for LGBTIQ rights and inclusion in 2020 [and I guess we can say 2021 now, too]. The following are my top three:

  1. Ending coercive medical interventions on children born with intersex variations of sex characteristics

Intersex people, and especially children born with intersex variations of sex characteristics, currently experience the worst human rights abuses of any group within the Australian LGBTIQ community.

Intersex people are born with physical sex characteristics that do not neatly fit medical norms for female or male bodies. Infants, children, adolescents and adults born with intersex variations risk or suffer forced and coercive medical interventions, designed to make their bodies more typically female or male. These interventions are not medically necessary, but instead rely on social or cultural rationales.[i]

The consequences of early and unnecessary deferrable interventions can include pain, trauma, shame, loss of sexual function and sensation, urinary incontinence and urgency, a need for ongoing medical treatment or repeat surgeries, experiences of violation and sexual assault, reinforcement of incorrect sex assignment and loss of choice.

These coercive medical interventions breach a large number of human rights principles, including the right to bodily integrity. They also adversely impact on rights to liberty, security, non-discrimination, privacy and freedom from torture, experimentation and harmful practices.

Unfortunately, coercive medical interventions on intersex people, and especially children born with intersex variations, have not been legally prohibited in any Australian jurisdiction. 

Instead, they are self-governed by clinical guidelines which support coercive interventions despite a lack of supporting medical evidence. And they are enabled by a legal system, including family law, which have permitted coercive interventions on the basis of (often poorly-informed) parental consent. The most infamous decision was the 2016 Family Court decision of Re: Carla, although it was merely one of a long line to contravene the human rights of intersex children.

In terms of law reform, there has been disappointingly little progress in this area. This month (October 2020) marks seven years since a bipartisan Senate Committee recommended new guidelines be developed that ‘should favour deferral of normalising treatment until the person can give fully informed consent, and seek to minimise surgical intervention on infants undertaken for primarily psychosocial reasons’ (among other recommendations).[ii]

Unfortunately, the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison Governments have effectively done nothing to implement even these modest proposals.

More encouragingly, in June 2020 the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute released the final report of its inquiry into the legal recognition of sex and gender. It made a number of recommendations about intersex law reform, including:

Recommendation 7

The Criminal Code should be reformed to criminalise non-consensual medical interventions in the following terms:

178F Unnecessary medical intervention to change the sex characteristics of children.

(1) Any person who performs a surgical, hormonal or other medical intervention to alter or modify the sex characteristics of a child is guilty of a crime, unless:

(a) it is performed to address a clear danger to the life or health of the child and it cannot be deferred until the child is able to give informed consent; or

(b) it takes place with the informed consent of the child.

(2) Nothing in this Section is intended to apply to interventions involving a consenting transgender child seeking treatment to delay puberty or secondary sexual differentiation.

Charge: Performing unnecessary medical intervention to change the sex characteristics of a non-consenting child.

Recommendation 8 of that report also recommended that:

‘intersex people should be able to pursue claims for compensation for personal trespass and breach of professional duty against doctors where medical interventions to alter intersex variations of sex characteristics have resulted in physical or mental harm, irrespective of any parental consent to the intervention at the time it was performed.’

The Tasmanian Government is now considering these recommendations, meaning it is possible it will become the first Australian jurisdiction to criminalise coercive medical interventions on children born with intersex variations.

Before moving on, I should note the Australian Human Rights Commission has also been undertaking a long-running project on these issues.[iii] I understand it is (finally) nearing completion, and my personal hope is it recommends all Australian jurisdictions criminalise these human rights abuses.

2. Trans and gender diverse birth certificate reform

Trans and gender diverse people should have access to birth certificates, and other identity documentation, based solely on self-identification, and without medical approval (because gender identity is exactly that, identity, and not a ‘medical’ issue). Currently only one Australian jurisdiction has completely achieved this model: Tasmania, following its historic 2019 birth certificate reforms.

Victoria is a close second, also following changes in 2019, which removed the involvement of medical gatekeepers, although unfortunately it does not fully realise self-identification, because applications must be accompanied by a statement from someone who has known the applicant for at least 12 months and ‘supports’ the application.

Three other jurisdictions – South Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory – have removed requirements for surgery or other physically invasive treatments. However, they still adopt a medical model, because they require engagement with psychologists or counsellors prior to approval. Ultimately, these laws will need to be updated.

However, the largest problems are in the other three states. NSW and Queensland still require surgery in order to access new identity documents, which is completely inappropriate not just because it unnecessarily medicalises gender identity, but also because not all trans and gender diverse people want surgery (or can afford it).[iv]

Western Australia’s legislation also requires surgery, although thanks to a favourable High Court decision, this has been interpreted to ‘only’ require some forms of physical treatment (such as hormone therapy).

Nevertheless, all three states – NSW, Queensland and Western Australia – must urgently amend their births, deaths and marriages laws to support self-identification for their trans and gender diverse residents [for more on this topic, see Did You Know? Trans People in NSW and Queensland Still Require Surgery to Update Their Birth Certificates].

3. LGBTIQ refugees in Papua New Guinea and Nauru

One LGBTIQ human rights abuse that is not technically in Australia, but is perpetrated by Australia, is the detention, processing and resettlement of LGBTIQ refugees and people seeking asylum in countries that criminalise them.

In particular, there remain LGBTIQ refugees and people seeking asylum who are trapped in Papua New Guinea – because the Australia Government put them there – a country which retains a maximum penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment for male same-sex activity.

And, even though Nauru decriminalised homosexuality in 2016, that does not necessarily translate into it being a safe environment for the LGBTIQ refugees and people seeking asylum which the Australian Government imprisoned there.

Of course, for anyone interested in international human rights law, all offshore detention, processing and resettlement is abhorrent, and should be ended for all refugees irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics (or other attributes).

However, we must not overlook the fact Australia’s immigration framework has a particularly awful impact on people fleeing persecution on the basis of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer. They should be brought to Australia immediately.[v]

Anti-Discrimination Reform

While there is no individual LGBTI anti-discrimination law reform issue which is as important as the above three topics, I would argue that addressing our inadequate, incomplete and inconsistent LGBTI anti-discrimination and vilification framework overall must also be a high priority. Specifically, the majority of Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws should be updated across three main areas:

Ensuring everyone is protected against discrimination. Most state and territory laws currently exclude at least some parts of our community. The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 is the worst – it doesn’t even protect bisexuals.[vi] While NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory don’t cover people with non-binary gender identities – and the same jurisdictions exclude intersex people as well.

Repealing the special privileges enjoyed by religious organisations. Loopholes allow faith bodies to discriminate against LGBT people, in employment and against people accessing services, even when they are delivering public services using public funding. Nearly all Australian anti-discrimination laws, including the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), need to be reformed – although the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 provides a template for how this can be done, by permitting religious organisations to preference people from their own faith (in limited circumstances), while not allowing discrimination on the basis of other attributes like sexual orientation or gender identity.[vii]

Obviously, the religious exceptions which have received the most public debate, at least in the past few years, are those allowing religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students, teachers and other staff. Positively, four jurisdictions (Tasmania, Queensland, the ACT and Northern Territory) have already legislated to cover LGBT students, although only two (Tasmania and the ACT) fully protect LGBT teachers and other staff. On the negative side, Scott Morrison’s Broken Promise to Protect LGBT Students is Now Two Years Old, and there’s little chance he will act on it for several years to come either.

Introducing prohibitions on anti-LGBTI vilification. There is currently no prohibition on anti-LGBTI vilification under Commonwealth law. Although they are by no means alone – currently Most Australian Jurisdictions Don’t Prohibit Anti-LGBTI Vilification. Of those that do (NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT), only Tasmania and the ACT protect all sections of the LGBTI community. Given homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia are just as damaging, and harmful, as racism, I firmly believe anti-LGBTI vilification should be prohibited on the same basis as racial vilification (equivalent to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth)). 

[For more on the overall state of LGBTI anti-discrimination and vilification law, see A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.]

Other LGBTIQ Law Reform Issues

There are a range of other LGBTIQ law reform issues which still need to be addressed, including:

  • Sexual orientation and gender identity conversion practices (sometimes called ex-gay or ex-trans therapy) should be outlawed across Australia. The Queensland Government recently introduced the first ban on these practices – although disappointingly it only applied in health care settings, and not in the religious environments where most anti-gay and anti-trans conversion practices occur. The ACT Government followed shortly thereafter, and their legislation has been welcomed by survivor groups because it covers both health care and religious settings. I understand that there are also moves to outlaw these practices in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia – although sadly not in my adopted home state of NSW [NB Since the webinar, Victoria has introduced their own Bill to ban conversion practices, which appears to be stronger than both Queensland and the ACT, while the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute has released an Issues Paper on ‘Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conversion Practices’, with submissions due 7 January 2021].
  • South Australia still needs to abolish the gay panic defence (or homosexual advance defence). Thankfully, after much prompting, the South Australian Government has finally released draft legislation that does just that, for public consultation. Hopefully it is finally removed from the statute books later this year or in early 2021. [NB South Australian Parliament passed legislation finally abolishing the gay panic defence on 1 December 2020].
  • Expungement regimes – which allow for historical convictions for same-sex sexual activity to be expunged from a person’s criminal record – should also be strengthened. In particular, there is a serious limitation in the Queensland scheme, which does not allow gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men who were convicted as a result of the unequal age of consent for anal intercourse between 1991 and 2016 to have their records expunged,[viii] and
  • The Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) needs to be amended to remove the unjustified special privileges that were introduced for existing civil celebrants, and religious organisations, as part of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017. Note that I usually do not refer to that legislation as providing ‘marriage equality’ as a result of these exceptions, because they mean LGBTI couples marrying now can be discriminated against in ways that divorced people remarrying before 2017 could not. We can get married, but it is still not equal.[ix]

Protecting Existing Rights

Some people take the quote ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’ a little too literally, and consequently fail to appreciate LGBTIQ rights can go backwards. Something which has happened multiple times in the past decade, including the Newman LNP Government in Queensland winding back civil partnership laws passed by the Bligh Labor Government.

In the area of anti-discrimination, we should also remember the Baillieu Coalition Government in Victoria undid the introduction of a modest ‘inherent requirements’ test for religious exceptions passed by the Brumby Labor Government in 2010 – before they had even commenced. While the Hodgman Liberal Government tried multiple times to undermine vilification protections for LGBTI Tasmanians (and other groups) as long as that vilification was religiously-motivated (although thankfully those efforts failed).

There are currently three major efforts to undermine LGBTIQ rights:

The Commonwealth Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill, of which we have seen two Exposure Drafts and was due to be introduced in March 2020 but has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. This legislation would:

  • Make it easier to make comments that ‘offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule’ LGBTI Australians
  • Make it easier for health practitioners to refuse to provide services to LGBTI patients
  • Make it easier for religious organisations to discriminate against others
  • Make it more difficult for big business to promote diversity and inclusion
  • Create a Religious Freedom Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission (when we still don’t have a Commissioner for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Sex Characteristics)
  • Entrench unjustified religious exceptions in the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth), and
  • Explicitly protect charities advocating against LGBTI relationship recognition in the Charities Act 2013 (Cth), despite it being completely unnecessary.

[For more, see The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must Be Blocked.] 

The Mark Latham/One Nation Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020 in NSW, which, similar to the Commonwealth Religious Discrimination Bill, seeks to privilege the rights of religious individuals and organisations over the rights of others, including the right of LGBTI people in NSW to be protected against discrimination [since the webinar, I had this opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald, outlining just one of the many serious problems created by the NSW ‘Religious Freedoms’ Bill], and

The Mark Latham/One Nation Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, also in NSW. This legislation does (at least) three awful things:

  • Prohibiting the teaching of ‘gender fluidity’ – where teaching includes anything to do with a school (including counselling) by anyone connected to a school (including volunteers), and ‘gender fluidity’ means acknowledging that gender identity can be different to biological sex at birth. In effect, it will mean erasing trans and gender diverse students, as well as teachers, in schools across NSW
  • Introducing a UK section 28-style law against ‘promotion’ of ideological views about sexuality and gender identity – which, just like section 28 did there, will impose a silence on LGBT students struggling with invisibility at the most vulnerable point in their lives, and
  • Enacting an erroneous and stigmatising definition of intersex in NSW law for the first time (‘disorders of sexual differentiation’).

[For more, see I Stand with Trans Kids, and Against Mark Latham.]

Of course, ordinarily, we wouldn’t be too concerned about legislation being proposed by fringe extremists in the NSW Legislative Council. However, the NSW Government and Opposition have both supported both One Nation Bills being referred to Committee for inquiry – with the anti-trans kids inquiry chaired by Mark Latham himself. Which means we must resist the laws themselves, as well as fighting against toxic debate surrounding them which has the potential to harm vulnerable younger members of our community, and especially trans and gender diverse kids.

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Question 2. How can we ensure that workplaces are inclusive and safe for people from all backgrounds but in particular for the LGBTIQ community?

My answer to this will (thankfully) be significantly shorter than for the previous question, in part because we’ve already discussed some of the reforms that are needed, especially in terms of anti-discrimination law reform, such as repealing the special privileges that allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT employees.

This includes amending the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) to protect LGBT teachers in religious schools, as well as reforms in the other jurisdictions where LGBT school staff are not fully protected (all states and territories bar Tasmania and the ACT).[x]

It also means ensuring LGBT employees in Government-funded aged care services operated by religious organisations are protected (where people accessing these services are currently covered under the SDA, but staff in those same facilities are not). There are several reasons for this, including because it is unfair on employees:

‘People should be hired, not hired or even fired, on the basis of how well they are able to provide care and support to the people accessing aged care services, not who they are attracted to or how they identify.’[xi]

It is also unfair on people accessing these services, who ‘have the right to expect the highest possible standard of care. That is not provided when an aged care service refuses to employ highly-qualified people simply because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.’[xii]

The same reasons also apply in terms of fighting against the Commonwealth Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill, especially in the era of coronavirus. That’s because the 2nd Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill allows hospitals to hire the most religious, not the most qualified: 

‘Surely, that must have an impact on the standard of care that patients will receive. Imagine the worry if one of your loved ones is taken to the emergency department of a faith-based hospital and you can’t be certain whether the health practitioner is there because of what they believe, not what they can do.’

Likewise, the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill allows aged care facilities to hire the most religious, not the most qualified. As I wrote earlier this year: ‘As someone with a grandmother who turned 99 last Wednesday, and who is in a nursing home, I would hate to think she is being cared for by someone who is there because of their views and not their vocational skills’.

[Both quotes taken from my March 2020 article Coronavirus and the Religious Discrimination Bill which I think holds up pretty well, 9 months later, as a strong argument against the RDB when the Morrison Government inevitably brings it back it in the first half of 2021.] 

But repealing religious exceptions is not the only law reform needed to make workplaces inclusive and safe for people from all backgrounds, and in particular for the LGBTIQ community.

One specific reform that should be introduced as a matter of priority are amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) to ensure it treats trans, gender diverse and intersex employees exactly the same as lesbian, gay and bisexual ones.

Currently, the adverse action protections in section 351(1), and unlawful termination protections in section 772(1)(f), of that Act cover sexual orientation, but do not explicitly include gender identity or sex characteristics.[xiii]

Unfortunately, despite this issue being raised repeatedly with the Turnbull and Morrison Governments, they do not appear to be in any hurry to remedy this omission.

A broader structural reform to anti-discrimination law is ensuring it is able to deal with real-life people, who are complex and have multi-faceted characteristics (covering race, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, sex characteristics and more attributes besides).

Often, it is impossible for people to know whether they have been discriminated against because of a particular protected attribute, or a combination of attributes. Any definition of discrimination must be able to deal with this complexity, and uncertainty. In my perspective, one of the best approaches is found in section 8 of the ACT Discrimination Act 1991:

‘Meaning of discrimination

(1) For this Act, discrimination occurs when a person discriminates either directly, or indirectly, or both, against someone else.

(2) For this section, a person directly discriminates against someone else if the person treats, or proposes to treat, another person unfavourably because the other person has 1 or more protected attributes.

(3) For this section, a person indirectly discriminates against someone else if the person imposes, or proposes to impose, a condition or requirement that has, or is likely to have, the effect of disadvantaging the other person because the other person has 1 or more protected attributes.’

One final point that should be mentioned, if we are genuine about making workplaces inclusive and safe for people from all backgrounds, is that there is a gap in terms of anti-discrimination protections around religious belief, and lack of belief.

It is unacceptable that the Commonwealth, NSW and South Australian anti-discrimination regimes do not protect people of faith, and no faith, against discrimination – this is something that should be addressed.

But it must not be addressed in the way proposed by the Commonwealth Religious Discrimination Bill, or the Mark Latham/One Nation Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020 in NSW. Because they are just as unacceptable.

People of faith, and no faith, should be protected against discrimination on exactly the same terms as everyone else, including to the same standard as sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

People of faith, and especially faith-run organisations, must not be given new special privileges to discriminate against others, including people of minority faiths or no faith, as well as women, LGBTIQ people, single parents, divorced people and people in de facto relationships, people with disability and plenty more.

Doing this one simple thing – protecting everyone against discrimination, equally – would help create an Australia where all people are accepted for who they are. And it would be a great leap forward for LGBTIQ people of faith too, many of whom experience discrimination on the basis of both sexual orientation/gender identity/sex characteristics and faith.

Footnotes:


[i] The information in this, and following, paragraph(s) is summarised from the website of Intersex Human Rights Australia. Please check them out here.

[ii] I made a submission to this inquiry way back in July 2013.

[iii] Please see my Submission to AHRC Consultation re Medical Interventions on People Born with Variations of Sex Characteristics.

[iv] This issue – financial barriers to trans healthcare – is something we don’t discuss enough. For more, see: Trans out-of-pocket medical costs.

[v] For more, see: Australia’s (Mis)Treatment of LGBTI Refugees.

[vi] For more, see: Did You Know? The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act Doesn’t Protect Bisexuals Against Discrimination.

[vii] For more, see: What’s Wrong With Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1998? 

[viii] An issue I raised in my Submission re Queensland Criminal Law (Historical Homosexual Convictions Expungement) Bill 2017

[ix] For more, see: No, We Don’t Have Marriage Equality Yet.

[x] For more, see: Back to School, Back to Discrimination for LGBT Students and Teachers

[xi] From my Submission to [the] Royal Commission into Aged Care.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] For more, see: Unfairness in the Fair Work Act.

Private Lives. Public Discrimination. Political Exacerbation.

In November, La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) released ‘Private Lives 3: The Health and Wellbeing of LGBTIQ People in Australia’. 

Building on reports in 2005 and 2011, Private Lives is Australia’s largest national survey of the health and wellbeing of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people.

Covering a diversity of topics, from households and relationships, to housing and homelessness, general health and wellbeing, mental health and wellbeing, alcohol, tobacco and other drug use, and intimate partner and family violence (among others), it makes for both fascinating reading and invaluable research. I strongly encourage you to download and read it.

However, as someone with a particular interest in all things LGBTIQ discrimination, it is their section on ‘Discrimination, harassment and feelings of acceptance’ I will focus on today.

The Private Lives 3 findings in this area are, frankly, disturbing.

Asked, ‘to what extent do you feel accepted in the following situations?’, just 60.7% of LGBTIQ Australians answered ‘a lot’ or ‘always’ in relation to work.

That figure dropped to 55.3% in educational institutions, and 43.4% when accessing a health or support service.

Only 30.5% of LGBTIQ people said they felt accepted a lot or always in public (eg in the street/park), and a perhaps unsurprising but still shockingly low figure of 10.5% at religious or faith-based events or services.

It is also unsurprising that cisgender members of the LGBTIQ community reported higher rates of acceptance than trans and non-binary people.

For example, while 68.5% of cisgender men and 61% of cisgender women felt accepted a lot or always at work, this fell to 50% for trans women, 48.8% for trans men and just 43% for non-binary people.[i]

There was a similar divergence in terms of acceptance by sexual orientation, with gay and, to a lesser extent, lesbian respondents reporting higher rates than bisexual, pansexual, queer and asexual people.

For example, while 69.6% of gay and 63.8% of lesbian people said they felt accepted at work always or a lot, just 53.6% of bisexual, 54.5% of pansexual, 54.5% or queer and 47.4% of asexual people said the same thing.[ii]

The responses to the question ‘In the past 12 months, to what extent do you feel you have been treated unfairly because of your sexual orientation or gender identity?’ are just as disturbing (if not more). As the authors (Hill, Bourne, McNair, Carman and Lyons) observe on page 40:

‘Almost six in ten participants reported that they had been treated unfairly to some degree (either a little, somewhat, a lot or always) because of their sexual orientation in the past 12 months, with 4.5% reporting a lot or always. Over three quarters (77.5%) of trans and gender diverse participants reported that they had been treated unfairly to some degree because of their gender identity in the past 12 months, with 19.8% reporting a lot or always.’

Even more shocking are the high reported rates of experiences of vilification – and worse – based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. In the previous 12 months:[iii]

  • 34.6% of respondents reported experiencing verbal abuse (including hateful or obscene phone calls) due to their sexual orientation or gender identity
  • 23.6% experienced harassment such as being spat at and offensive gestures
  • 22.1% received written threats of abuse via emails or social media
  • 14.6% experienced threats of physical violence, physical attack or assault without a weapon
  • 11.8% experienced sexual assault
  • 11.4% received written threats of abuse in other ways
  • 10% experienced refusal of service
  • 9.9% experienced refusal of employment or being denied promotion
  • 5.3% received written threats of abuse via graffiti, and
  • 3.9% experienced physical attack or assault with a weapon (knife, bottle, stones).

‘Overall, trans and gender diverse participants reported higher levels of harassment and abuse than cisgender participants. For example, a greater proportion of trans women (51.6%), non-binary participants (49.4%) and trans men (45%) reported verbal abuse in the past 12 months due to their sexual orientation or gender identity compared to 28.7% of cisgender women and 32.7% of cisgender men.’

This is nothing short of an epidemic of discrimination, harassment, vilification and violence against LGBTQ Australians on the basis of their sexual orientation and, especially, gender identity. And it is getting worse, not better.

For example, reported rates of verbal abuse increased from 25.5% in Private Lives 2 (released in 2011) to 34.6% in Private Lives 3; harassment such as being spat at and offensive gestures rose from 15.5% in PL2 to 23.6% in PL3; physical attack or assault with a weapon doubled, from 1.8% to 3.9%; and sexual assault quadrupled, from 2.9% to 11.8%.

Let me think, what happened in the period between Private Lives 2, and the survey period for Private Lives 3 (from 24 July to 1 October 2019), which could have caused greater homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the Australian community?

It seems undeniable that the Coalition Government’s proposed plebiscite on same-sex marriage, and actual postal survey – and the toxic public debate surrounding both – has directly contributed to increased anti-LGBTQ prejudice.

Nor should we underestimate the negative impact of the ‘religious freedom’ movement which they deliberately unleashed, with the Religious Freedom Review in 2018, and the Morrison Government’s First Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill which was released right in the middle of the Private Lives 3 survey period, in August 2019.

What should happen from here?

The Private Lives 3 survey results show us the scale of the problem: appalling rates of discrimination, harassment, vilification and violence against LGBTQ Australians on the basis of their sexual orientation and, especially, gender identity. And we have a pretty good idea about who is to blame (at least for making the situation much, much worse than it already was). But what is the solution?

I would argue the following three actions would be a good place to start (although I’m sure readers of this blog could offer other useful suggestions, via the comments section below):

  1. Improve LGBTI anti-discrimination laws

The introduction of Commonwealth anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTI community, through the historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, was an important step, although by no means the end of the journey.

As I have written previously, these laws need to be strengthened, including by:

  • Updating ‘intersex status’ to ‘sex characteristics’
  • Protecting LGBT students, teachers and other staff in religious schools against discrimination
  • Limiting overly-generous religious exceptions that permit discrimination against LGBT people across many areas of public life, and
  • Appointing a Commissioner for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Sex Characteristics at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Discrimination in employment, especially against trans and gender diverse employees as identified in Private Lives 3, also needs to be addressed by explicitly including gender identity and sex characteristics in adverse action and unlawful termination provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth). 

2. Introduce LGBTI anti-vilification protections

One of the long-standing, missing pieces of LGBTI law reform, at least at Commonwealth level, is protection against anti-LGBTI vilification. The high rates of hate-speech reported through Private Lives 3 has merely confirmed the urgency of addressing this gap.

As I hav consistently advocated over many years,[iv] given homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia can be just as harmful as racism, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) should be amended to prohibit anti-LGBTI vilification on an equivalent basis to the prohibition of racial vilification in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth).

3. Publicly-fund programs against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia

Being an advocate for LGBTI law reform, it is easy to forget that changing the law can only ever be one part of the solution – and often only a small part at that.

To address the ongoing, high levels of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in employment, healthcare, education and other areas of public life identified in Private Lives 3, we need well-funded, publicly-funded campaigns explicitly targeting homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

We also need our elected representatives to lead by example, by calling out prejudice on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics, and making sure anti-LGBTIQ comments are never acceptable in public debate.

What is actually happening?

Unfortunately, when we examine what is being done in relation to the three actions described above, the answer is not much. In fact, worse than just political inaction, the Coalition Government seems intent on exacerbating these problems rather than solving them.

For example, the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill – which Attorney-General Christian Porter recently confirmed remained part of the Government’s legislative agenda – would make it easier for religious individuals and organisations to discriminate against LGBTIQ Australians, including by refusing to provide healthcare services that benefit members of our communities (for more, see The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must Be Blocked).

That same legislation also calculatingly, and explicitly, undermines state and territory anti-vilification laws (where they exist), by making it easier for people to make comments that ‘offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule’ LGBTI people as long as those comments are motivated by faith. This includes over-riding the ‘best practice’ Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas).

As for culture change, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull first ‘gutted’ then abolished entirely the national, evidence-based program targeting bullying against LGBT kids in schools (Safe Schools).

Meanwhile, current Prime Minister Scott Morrison has publicly attacked school counsellors who support trans and gender diverse children, deriding them as ‘gender whisperers’ in a now-infamous tweet. And he has taken more concrete action to remove trans-inclusive toilet door signs in the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet, than he has to implement his 2018 promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination (for more, see ‘Scott Morrison’s Broken Promise to Protect LGBT Students is Now Two Years Old).

The findings of Private Lives 3 reveal a bushfire of bigotry is burning in the Australian community – but far-too-often our elected representatives are the ones who are fanning the flames.

Of course, it isn’t just the Commonwealth Government who should be taking action to address discrimination, harassment, vilification and violence against LGBTQ Australians. Our state and territory governments, too, need to step up, including by modernising their own anti-discrimination laws.[v] The Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW), and Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA) in particular have fallen far, far below community standards.

Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory also need to introduce their own LGBTI anti-vilification laws (in addition to the Commonwealth), while it is probably fair to say all Governments could be doing more to combat homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in their respective jurisdictions.

Nevertheless, I would argue that the sheer size of the challenge which confronts us, as so disturbingly revealed in the ‘Discrimination, harassment and feelings of acceptance’ pages of Private Lives 3, demonstrates a national approach is desperately needed.

That obviously means stopping those things which would simply make the problem worse – including by abandoning any Religious Discrimination Bill that would undermine the rights of LGBTIQ Australians. But it also requires positive steps to make things better.

We’ll find out in 2021 whether the Commonwealth Government, and Parliament more broadly, is willing to do that which is necessary – or allow anti-LGBTIQ prejudice to rage on.

Footnotes:


[i] The rates of acceptance at health services were even lower, showing a significant drop-off for cisgender women. Specially, while 55.5% of cisgender men felt accepted ‘a lot/always’, this fell to 42.4% for cisgender women, 46.5% for trans women, 30.1% for trans men and just one in five non-binary people (21.5%).

[ii] The rates of acceptance at health services were even lower. Only gay respondents felt accepted ‘a lot/always’ more often than not (54.8%), compared to just 40.1% of lesbian, 43.8% bisexual, 37.3% pansexual, 26.7% queer and 33.3% asexual respondents. 

[iii] Check out the full list on page 40 of the Private Lives 3 Report.

[iv] See also: ‘Did You Know? Most Australian Jurisdictions Don’t Prohibit Anti-LGBTI Vilification‘.

[v] For a comprehensive discussion of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections around the country, see: A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws

Queensland Election 2020: LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Questions

The Queensland state election will be held on Saturday 31 October, 2020.

One of the primary issues affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community that, in my opinion, should be on the agenda is modernisation of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991.

As my previous article examining this legislation explains, there are (at least) five major problems with Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Act, including:

  • A narrow definition of gender identity that excludes non-binary people
  • The lack of any protection for intersex people
  • The ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ approach to LGBT teachers and other staff at religious schools
  • The working with children exception allowing discrimination against transgender people, and
  • The assisted reproductive technology exception allowing discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

Given the upcoming election, I have sent the below questions to representatives of all parties currently represented in the Queensland Parliament, as well as the Independent Member for Noosa, asking them to outline their commitments to reform the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991.

Any answers received prior to the election will be published at the end of this post.

**********

The Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 is now almost 30 years old, and in 2020 does not provide adequate protections against discrimination for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.

With the upcoming state election now only eight weeks away, I would appreciate your/your Party’s responses to the following questions, which focus on five of the major problems with this legislation:

  1. The definition of ‘gender identity’ in the Anti-Discrimination Act’s Dictionary currently excludes non-binary people. Will you update the definition of gender identity to ensure non-binary Queenslanders are protected against discrimination and vilification?
  2. Intersex people are not currently covered by the Anti-Discrimination Act. Will you introduce a new protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’ and ensure intersex Queenslanders are protected against discrimination and vilification?
  3. LGBT teachers and other staff at religious schools are currently subjected to an inappropriate and ineffective ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ framework (section 25). Will you amend the Anti-Discrimination Act to ensure all teachers and staff, in all schools, are protected against discrimination on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity?
  4. Under sub-section 28 of the Anti-Discrimination Act, employers are currently permitted to discriminate against transgender employees where their ‘work involves the care or instruction of minors’. This provision is abhorrent in 2020. Will you repeal the ‘working with children’ exception relating to transgender employees?
  5. Under sub-section 45A(1) of the Anti-Discrimination Act, discrimination on the basis of sexuality is currently permitted in relation to assisted reproductive technology. Such discrimination against rainbow families cannot be justified. Will you repeal the ‘assisted reproductive technology’ exception relating to lesbian, gay and bisexual Queenslanders?

I look forward to your/your Party’s responses to these questions. Please note that, if received, your answers will be published on www.alastairlawrie.net, and at ‘No Homophobia, No Exceptions’.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

**********

Update 29 October 2020:

I have received the below response from Greens MP Michael Berkman. As you can see, the answers to my questions are encouraging, particularly if the Greens are in a balance of power position after 31 October.

Disappointingly, with only two days left until the Queensland State election, I am yet to receive a formal response from either the Labor Party or Liberal-National Party. I will post any correspondence I receive before Saturday here.

28 October 2020 

Dear Alistair, 

Anti-Disrcrimination Act 1991 

Thank you for your email of 5 September 2020, seeking the Queensland Greens’ policy positions ahead of the 2020 Queensland election. 

The Queensland Greens are committed to an inclusive society free from discrimination. I have addressed your questions with corresponding numbers below. All statements are complementary to statements by the Greens’ spokespeople, including myself, and other policy documents which are on the public record. 

The Greens are committed to: 

  1. Updating the definition of ‘gender identity’ in the ​Anti-Discrimination Act 1991​ (Qld) (the Act) to ensure non-binary Queenslanders are protected against discrimination and vilification. 
  2. Introducing a new protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’ and ensuring intersex Queenslanders are protected against discrimination and vilification. 
  3. Eliminating the exemptions from anti-discrimination law which currently operate to deny protections LGBTIQA+ teachers and other staff at religious schools under anti-discrimination law. 
  4. Repealing the ‘working with children’ exception relating to employees under section 28 of the Act. 
  5. Repealing the ‘assisted reproductive technology’ exception at section 45A of the Act. 

I hope that this information is of assistance. Please do not hesitate to contact my office … if you would like to discuss this matter in more detail. 

Kind regards, 

Michael Berkman MP 

Will Premier Palaszczuk and/or Opposition Leader Frecklington make election commitments to modernise the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 to better protect LGBTI Queenslanders against discrimination and vilification?

Northern Territory Election: Anti-Discrimination Questions

[Update: For a response from the re-elected Labor Government, please scroll to the end of the post]

The Northern Territory election will be held on Saturday 22 August 2020. One of the many issues that could be affected by the outcome is the future of the Anti-Discrimination Act (NT), which commenced on 1 August 1993.

This legislation is now out-dated, and does not offer appropriate protection to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community. For more information on its problems, see: What’s Wrong With the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Act?

While the Northern Territory Department of the Attorney-General and Justice conducted a public consultation on modernisation of the Act in 2018, no reforms have been proposed or progressed prior to the current election campaign.

In this context, I have sent the below questions to the leaders of the three main parties contesting the election: Territory Labor; the Country Liberal Party; and the Territory Alliance. If I receive answers from any Party prior to the poll, they will be published below.

**********

8 August 2020

The Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Act is now more than a quarter of a century old, and does not offer appropriate protections against discrimination for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.

If your Party forms government after the election on 22 August 2020, will you commit to, as a matter of priority:

  • Update the definition of ‘sexuality’ to be consistent with the definition of ‘sexual orientation’ in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth)?
  • Introduce a new protected attribute of ‘gender identity’, to ensure all trans and gender diverse people are protected against discrimination?
  • Introduce a new protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’, to ensure all intersex people are protected against discrimination?
  • Amend section 37A(a)(ii) to remove the ability of religious schools to discriminate against teachers and other staff members simply because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT)?
  • Remove the ability of religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people in relation to accommodation under section 40(3)?
  • Introduce new prohibitions against vilification, including on the basis of race, as well as in relation to sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics?

Please note that, if received, your answers will be published on www.alastairlawrie.net, and at ‘No Homophobia, No Exceptions’.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

No responses were received from Territory Labor, the Country Liberal Party or Territory Alliance prior to the election on 22 August 2020.

**********

The below response was received from Labor Attorney-General Selena Uibo on 5 October 2020. It is disappointing in two key ways. First, most obviously, they did not comment in time for NT voters to consider ahead of the 22 August election.

Second, and more importantly, it abdicates responsibility for fixing the outdated NT Anti-Discrimination Act, preferring to wait until after the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to complete its review of religious exceptions at Commonwealth, state and territory law.

However, as I have written previously, that review has been delayed until 12 months after the Commonwealth Religious Discrimination Bill has been *passed* by Commonwealth Parliament, which a) hopefully will not happen and b) if it does, won’t be until the first half of 2021 – meaning the ALRC will not report until 2022 at the earliest.

There is absolutely no justification for the re-elected NT Government to postpone taking urgent action to provide LGBTI Territorians with essential protection against discrimination and vilification. Anyway, here is the short response from Minister Uibo:

Dear Alastair,

I refer to your correspondence dated 8 August 2020 in relation to the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991.

The Territory Labor Government is committed to making changes to modernise the Territory legislation based on feedback received.

The Commonwealth Government have referred a number of recommendations following the Federal Report into Religious Freedoms to the Australian Law Reform Committee [sic]. Given the impact that Commonwealth legislation can have on the Northern Territory, we have been awaiting their report, before any changes are considered. This Report was originally due in April 2020; however, this date has now been extended to allow passage of the Federal Religious Discrimination Bill. It is expected that the Law Reform Committee [sic] Report will be returned sometime in 2021.

Thank you for taking the time to write to me regarding this important issue.

Yours sincerely,

Selena Uibo

Untitled design (1)

Chief Minister Michael Gunner (Territory Labor), Opposition Leader Lia Finocchiaro (Country Liberal Party) and Territory Alliance Leader Terry Mills.

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.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Did You Know? Most Australian Jurisdictions Don’t Prohibit Anti-LGBTI Vilification

Hate-speech against minority groups is inherently harmful, and most people accept it should be regulated in some way (even if there is debate about what such regulation should look like).

Indeed, almost a quarter of a century since racial vilification was prohibited under Commonwealth law – the Racial Hatred Act was passed by Parliament in August 1995 – many probably assume that vilification against minority groups, including against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, is already outlawed.

Which means that some would likely be surprised to discover the majority of Australian jurisdictions do not prohibit vilification against LGBTI people, and that even among those states and territories that do, only two cover all parts of our community.

Tasmania

The first jurisdiction that prohibits vilification against all of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people is Tasmania.

Section 19 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas) outlaws ‘inciting hatred’:

‘A person, by a public act, must not incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, a person or a group of persons on the ground of’ protected attributes including sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex variations of sex characteristics.’

Tasmania also has best practice protections under section 17(1), which further provides that:

‘A person must not engage in any conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules another person… in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated that the other person would be offended, humiliated, intimidated, insulted or ridiculed.’

Once again, the attributes covered include sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex variations of sex characteristics.

Australian Capital Territory

The ACT is the second jurisdiction that prohibits vilification against all of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people.

Section 67A of the Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT) makes vilification unlawful:

‘It is unlawful for a person to incite hatred toward, revulsion of, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of a person or group of people on the ground of any of the following, other than in private:

(b) gender identity

(d) intersex status

(g) sexuality.’

Although it should be noted that intersex advocates have called for discrimination and vilification protections on the basis of ‘intersex status’ to be replaced by the attribute of ‘sex characteristics’,[i] based on the definition in the Yogyakarta Principles plus 10.[ii]

Queensland

Queensland is one of two other jurisdictions that protect some, but not all, parts of the LGBTI community against vilification.

Section 124A of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (Qld) provides that:

‘A person must not, by a public act, incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, a person or group of persons on the ground of the race, religion, sexuality or gender identity of the person or members of the group.’[iii]

And it should be noted that the definition of gender identity in this Act only includes ‘binary’ transgender gender, not non-binary or other gender diverse people (‘gender identity, in relation to a person, means that the person… identifies, or has identified, as a member of the opposite sex by living or seeking to live as a member of that sex’).

Meaning that only LGB and some T Queenslanders are protected. Unfortunately, there is no indication the Queensland Government will update the definition of gender identity, and include sex characteristics as a protected attribute, before the upcoming state election, scheduled for 31 October 2020.

New South Wales

The situation in NSW is far more complex. The Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) contains civil sanctions against vilification targeting binary transgender people, as well as lesbians and gay men.

Specifically, section 38S(1) prohibits anti-transgender vilification:

‘It is unlawful for a person, by a public act, to incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of-

(a) a person on the ground that the person is a transgender person, or

(b) a group of persons on the ground that the members of the group are transgender persons.’

However, this clause does not protect non-binary or other gender diverse people, because the definition in section 38A of the Act is out-dated:

‘A reference in this Part to a person being transgender or a transgender person is a reference to a person, whether or not the person is a recognised transgender person-

(a) who identifies as a member of the opposite sex by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the opposite sex, or

(b) who has identified as a member of the opposite sex by living as a member of the opposite sex…

and includes a reference to the person being thought of as a transgender person, whether the person is, or was, in fact a transgender person.’

Section 49ZT(1) then prohibits vilification – meaning inciting hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule – of ‘a person or group of persons on the ground of the homosexuality of the person or members of the group’.

Note that this only refers to homosexuality, meaning civil sanctions under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) do not cover bisexual people.

On the other hand, amendments to the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), introduced in 2018, created a criminal offence of ‘publicly threatening or inciting violence on grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex or HIV/AIDS status’. Section 93Z(1) now provides that:

‘A person who, by a public act, intentionally or recklessly threatens or incites violence towards another person or a group of persons on any of the following grounds is guilty of an offence:

(c) the sexual orientation of the other person or one or more of the members of the group

(d) the gender identity of the other person or one or more of the members of the group

(e) that the other person is, or one or more of the members of the group are, of intersex status…’

The individual penalty for contravention of this provision is up to 100 penalty units or 3 years imprisonment (or both).

The next NSW state election is not due until 25 March 2023, meaning there is plenty of time available for the current Government to amend the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) to ensure its civil vilification prohibitions also cover bisexuals, non-binary or other gender diverse people and intersex people – as well as fixing some of the many, many other problems with Australia’s worst LGBTI anti-discrimination law.[iv]

*

Five other jurisdictions do not prohibit anti-LGBTI vilification, at all:

Commonwealth

There is currently no prohibition – civil or criminal – on anti-LGBTI vilification in Commonwealth law.

This remains the case almost 25 years since the Racial Hatred Act 1995 (Cth) added section 18C to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) (‘the RDA’):

‘(1) It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:

(a) the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and

(b) the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.’

Unfortunately, it seems far more likely the Morrison Liberal/National Government will wind back section 18C of the RDA (something former Attorney-General George Brandis attempted, but thankfully failed, to do), than to introduce an LGBTI equivalent before the next federal election, due in May 2022.

Indeed, current Attorney-General Christian Porter’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill, if passed, would immediately undermine Tasmania’s existing prohibition on conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules LGBTI people,[v] as well as leaving the door open to explicitly overriding all state and territory LGBTI anti-vilification laws, via simple regulation, in the future.[vi]

Victoria

Victoria is another jurisdiction that fails to protect LGBTI people against vilification.

The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) contains no prohibitions against vilification, for anyone. While, as the name suggests, the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (Vic) currently only prohibits racial and religious vilification.

On the positive side, and unlike the Commonwealth, there are at least signs of possible progress in Victoria, with Fiona Patten MLC having introduced a Racial and Religious Tolerance Bill 2019. Her Bill would add sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics (among other categories) to the list of protected attributes in that Act.

The issue of anti-vilification protections is also being considered by a parliamentary committee, with that inquiry due to report by 1 September 2020.[vii] Which leaves sufficient time for the Victorian Government to take action to address this shortcoming before the next election, on 26 November 2022.

Western Australia

Another jurisdiction with disappointingly out-dated anti-discrimination legislation – perhaps the second-worst in the country behind only NSW – is Western Australia.

The Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA) does not contain any prohibitions on vilification, on any attribute. However, the Criminal Code Act 1913 (WA) does create a range of offences linked to racial vilification[viii] – although there are no equivalent offences for anti-LGBTI vilification.

The Western Australian Government has referred the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA) to the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia for review. Encouragingly, one of the terms of reference for this inquiry is to consider ‘the inclusion of vilification, including racial, religious, sexual orientation and impairment vilification’.

However, the website for the inquiry has not been updated for more than 12 months (since 6 March 2019), and the next Western Australian election is due in less than 12 months (scheduled for 13 March 2021), making it highly unlikely for LGBTI anti-vilification protections to be passed this term.

South Australia

South Australia also has no anti-vilification coverage for the LGBTI community.

The Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA) does not include any vilification provisions, while, as the name suggests, the Racial Vilification Act 1996 (SA) only covers vilification based on race.

Unlike Victoria and Western Australia, though, I am not aware of any South Australian Government processes considering the issue of LGBTI anti-vilification laws prior to their next state election, to be held on 19 March 2022.

Northern Territory

The Northern Territory is unique, in that it is the only Australian jurisdiction without its own racial vilification provisions. However, section 18C of the RDA still applies, which means racial vilification is outlawed – there is no such luck for LGBTI Territorians.

The Northern Territory Attorney-General’s Department did conduct a public consultation about their Anti-Discrimination Act (NT) in January 2018, which included consideration of ‘introducing specific anti-vilification laws prohibiting offensive conduct on the basis of race, religious belief, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.’

Unfortunately, that inquiry’s website has not been updated since May 2019 – with that ‘radio silence’ making it extremely unlikely LGBTI anti-vilification laws will be passed before the Northern Territory election which is just over two months away (22 August 2020).

*

Vilification against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community can be incredibly damaging, especially for younger and/or vulnerable individuals. This was demonstrated, painfully and unequivocally, by the harm caused by the Turnbull Liberal/National Government’s wasteful and unnecessary same-sex marriage postal survey in 2017.

However, it is disturbing to realise that, in 2020, fewer than one million Australians – out of a population of more than 25 million – live in jurisdictions that prohibit vilification against all parts of the LGBTI community: Tasmania and the ACT.

As we have seen, another two states – Queensland and NSW – offer only partial coverage, while the Commonwealth, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and Northern Territory offer no legal protection at all.

Well. That. Is. Simply. Not. Good. Enough.

This winter, I will be regularly posting about these and other serious weaknesses of Australian LGBTI anti-discrimination laws.[ix] #WinterOfDiscriminationContent. To follow, you can:

  • Sign up to my blog (via the right-hand scroll bar on desktop, or near the bottom of the page on mobile)
  • Follow me on twitter, and/or
  • Like No Homophobia, No Exceptions on Facebook.

Anti-discrimination protections are essential to the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in Australian life. And we have allowed them to atrophy for far too long. So, as well as fighting against a Religious Discrimination Bill that undermines those rights we already have, we need to fight even harder to make sure LGBTI anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws are made much, much better.

LGBTI Vilification Australia June 2020

[This article is part of a series. Find other ‘Did You Know?’ posts here.]

Footnotes:

[i] ‘Article 9. We call for effective legislative protection from discrimination and harmful practices on grounds of sex characteristics.’ Darlington Statement, 10 March 2017.

[ii] ‘Understanding ‘sex characteristics’ as each person’s physical features relating to sex, including genitalia and other sexual and reproductive anatomy, chromosomes, hormones, and secondary physical features emerging from puberty.’ The Yogyakarta Principles plus 10: Additional principles and state obligations on the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics to complement the Yogyakarta Principles, 10 November 2017.

[iii] Somewhat confusingly, section 124A is found in Chapter 4, Part 4 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (Qld), titled ‘Racial and religious vilification’, which may lead some people to erroneously assume LGBT vilification is not prohibited.

[iv] For more, see What’s Wrong With the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?

[v] Clause 42(1)(b) of the Second Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill.

[vi] Clause 42(1)(c) of the Second Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill. For more, see: The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must Be Blocked.

[vii] You can see my submission to that inquiry, here.

[viii] Including:

Section 77 Conduct intended to incite racial animosity or racist harassment

Section 78 Conduct likely to incite racial animosity or racist harassment

Section 79 Possession of material for dissemination with intent to incite racial animosity or racist harassment

Section 80 Possession of material for dissemination that is likely to incite racial animosity or racist harassment

Section 80A Conduct intended to racially harass

Section 80B Conduct likely to racially harass.

[ix] For a comparative analysis, see A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.

Discrimination Under the Cover of Corona

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:

  1. 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.’ 

  1. 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.

  1. 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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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]

Anti-Discrimination NSW

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission

The Queensland Human Rights Commission

The WA Equal Opportunity Commission

The SA Equal Opportunity Commission

Equal Opportunity Tasmania

The ACT Human Rights Commission

The NT Anti-Discrimination Commission

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.

Christian Porter

Commonwealth Attorney-General should spend more time fixing problems with our existing anti-discrimination laws, and less time trying to introduce a Religious Discrimination Bill that would only exacerbate them.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Footnotes:

[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?

[v] For more, see Unfairness in the Fair Work Act.

Coronavirus and the Religious Discrimination Bill

2020 is still less than ten weeks old. A lot has already happened in that time.

Obviously, the year started with the climate change-driven bushfires that devastated large swathes of South-Eastern Australia.

Around the same time, the first reports were emerging about a respiratory illness, caused by a novel coronavirus and which is now called COVID-19, wreaking havoc in Wuhan, China.

On a personal level, both at work and outside, most of my time has been spent trying to stop the Morrison Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill, which will inflict its own serious harm on the Australian community.

At first glance, there may not appear to be much to connect these three developments. But dig a little deeper and there is a clear interaction between the Religious Discrimination Bill and the first two crises, at least in terms of how Australia responds to them.

For example, in relation to the bushfires in January, Prime Minister Scott Morrison encouraged Australians to give freely to charities, and then specifically named three: the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and St Vincent de Paul.

While the Red Cross is secular in ethos, the ‘Salvos’ and St Vincent de Paul are faith-based charities, which means that under clause 11 of the Religious Discrimination Bill they would legally be able to:

  • discriminate in terms of who they provide assistance to, including by ‘preferencing’ people who are Christian and consequently neglecting people who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist or agnostic, and
  • discriminate in terms of who they employ, including by not hiring the most qualified person for the job, but instead the most religious.

To date, St Vincent de Paul has largely rejected these new special privileges, but as far as I understand, the Salvation Army has not (at least not Australia-wide). I wonder how many people would give so generously in the future if they were aware their money is funding religious discrimination and not emergency relief?

Nevertheless, it is the second major crisis – the coronavirus – and the Religious Discrimination Bill that I want to primarily focus on today.

Once again, despite superficially seeming unrelated, the Government’s proposed legislation could have a major influence on how our country responds to this grave threat. Indeed, I would argue that COVID-19 provides (at least) five reasons why the Religious Discrimination Bill must be abandoned.

  1. The Religious Discrimination Bill allows hospitals to hire the most religious, not the most qualified

In the coming months, we are going to be relying on our health care system more than ever before. From GPs to pharmacists, health information lines to hospitals – both public and religious. All parts of the system must be high quality – and that means all must hire the best-qualified person for each and every position.

Unfortunately, the Religious Discrimination Bill subverts that entirely reasonable expectation. Under clauses 32(8) and (10), religious hospitals would be permitted to discriminate in employment on the ground of religious belief.

That means a religious hospital would be legally able to hire a doctor, or nurse, or pharmacist, or other essential employee, because of their religious beliefs and instead of a better-qualified alternative candidate.

Surely that must have an impact on the standard of care that patients will receive. Imagine the worry if one of your loved ones is taken to the emergency department of a faith-based hospital and you can’t be certain whether the health practitioner is there because of what they believe, not what they can do.

The fact that religious hospitals receive public funding to deliver these services makes this proposal even more sickening.

If the Australian Government wants us to have confidence in all parts of the health system as it responds to coronavirus, then it must abandon legislation that inevitably damages that confidence.

  1. The Religious Discrimination Bill allows aged care facilities to hire the most religious, not the most qualified

Another area that has an important role in dealing with COVID-19 is our aged care sector. This is because the death rates from coronavirus are much higher among people aged over 70, and especially 80, and where they have existing medical conditions – exactly the demographic profile of aged care facilities.

Because of these particular vulnerabilities, we will be relying on our aged care workers to limit the spread of infection and keep our elderly as safe as possible – as well as to respond appropriately where transmission does occur.

Unfortunately, the same provisions of the Religious Discrimination Bill named above – clauses 32(8) and (10) – also allow religious aged-care services to discriminate in employment of the ground of religious belief.

Once again, that means aged care services operated by faith-based organisations will be permitted to hire someone because of their religious beliefs rather than their qualifications. Once again, the services will be able to discriminate in this way even where they are government-funded.[i]

As someone with a grandmother who turned 99 last Wednesday, and who is in a nursing home, I would hate to think she is being cared for by someone who is there because of their views and not their vocational skills.

Older Australians must be looked after by the people most likely to keep them safe, irrespective of their religious beliefs. This is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic. The Religious Discrimination Bill directly contradicts this principle, and is another reason why it must be abandoned.

  1. The Religious Discrimination Bill will already make it more difficult for women, LGBTI people and other vulnerable groups to access essential health care. Coronavirus will exacerbate this problem

Of course, while COVID-19 will likely receive the lion’s share of health care system resources in the weeks and months ahead, people will continue to get sick in other ways, and to rely on health practitioners to keep them well.

Unfortunately, as has been highlighted previously,[ii] clauses 8(6) and (7) of the Religious Discrimination Bill would make it easier for doctors, nurses, pharmacists, psychologists and midwives to refuse to participate in particular health services.

As Attorney-General Christian Porter has himself conceded, these provisions would allow doctors and pharmacists to:

  • refuse to provide reproductive health services, even where this has a disproportionate impact on women
  • refuse to provide access to hormone therapy, including puberty blockers, even where this has a disproportionate impact on trans and gender diverse people, and
  • refuse to provide PEP and/or PrEP, even where this disproportionately exposes gay and bisexual men to the risk of HIV transmission.

Where patients are denied this essential health care, they are supposed to find another health practitioner who is willing and able to do so (although the refusing practitioner likely does not have any obligation to make a referral).

As has been pointed out, this may be practically difficult, both for time-critical services (such as PEP, or the ‘morning after’ pill), as well as for people in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia.

Well, the impact of the novel coronavirus could make this situation much worse. For example, say you are a trans youth living in a regional centre, and rely on a certain doctor and/or pharmacist to provide access to puberty blockers.

And then that doctor or pharmacist is required to self-isolate for a minimum of two weeks because of potential exposure to COVID-19. Note that this is already happening in Sydney and Melbourne, with individual health practitioners ordered to stay away from work at extremely short notice.

What exactly is the trans young person meant to do in these circumstances, especially where other doctors and pharmacists in town have the ‘right’ to turn them away?

With the impending massive strain of coronavirus on our health care system, all effort should be made to ensure it operates effectively and efficiently for all people who need health care – all types of health care. The Religious Discrimination instead erects barriers to some of the most vulnerable members of our community. It must be abandoned.

  1. The Religious Discrimination Bill will divide Australia at a time it needs unity

It is only early days in terms of the impact of COVID-19 on Australia, with the total number of people diagnosed remaining at fewer than 100 (at the time of writing).

However, the impact on our social cohesion is already quite large. This includes countless reported incidents of racism directed at Chinese-Australians, and Asian-Australians more generally.

And of course just this week we witnessed the run on the nation’s toilet paper supply – with panic buying leading to physical altercations in a number of supermarkets around the country.

As the situation worsens, and more and more people are infected, this pandemic will likely test the ties that bind us together, often in unexpected ways.

This is exactly the wrong time for our Government to introduce legislation that divides the community into ever-smaller groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

It is the wrong time to allow schools, and universities, and charities, and accommodation providers, and hospitals, and aged care services, and conference venues, and camp sites, to discriminate on the ground of religious belief in terms of who they offer services to, and/or employ.

It is the wrong time for our Government to pursue a Bill that encourages religious individuals to make degrading and demeaning ‘statements of belief’ against women, LGBTI people, people with disability, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people and even people from minority faiths, in all areas of public life.[iii]

While I haven’t seen many examples yet, I’m sure there will soon be a deluge of extremists seeking to exploit coronavirus, blaming it on women exercising reproductive choice, gay men having sex, LGBTI people getting married – all with the possible tick of approval from the Religious Discrimination Bill.

If the Government wants to lead on COVID-19, and bring the community together to deal with a common threat, it must abandon legislation that makes nearly everybody an enemy of somebody else.

  1. The Religious Discrimination Bill is a distraction for a Government that should be focused on more important things

The fifth and final reason why the Government must abandon the Religious Discrimination Bill is arguably the most important – and that is because it is an unnecessary distraction from much more important issues that warrant their urgent attention.

Like responding to the immediate health challenges presented by coronavirus, particularly as the illness begins its inevitable spread across the community.

And dealing with the significant economic fallout, with Australia now facing our first economic recession in almost three decades.

There is an entire generation of people (including myself and my partner) who have grown up not knowing what a recession looks like, but it seems we are soon to find out. And it won’t be pretty.

Surely the Government should be focused on taking action to stop the economy grinding to a halt, and preventing rising unemployment in education, tourism, retail, construction and pretty much every other industry in the country.

Oh, and then there’s the equally urgent need to make structural changes to reduce our carbon emissions, to minimise the chances of the other disaster that heralded the start of 2020 (the bushfires) from happening again.

Instead, the Morrison Government is wasting its time on proposed legislation that almost nobody actually wants, except religious fundamentalists who demand it so they can use it as a weapon against non-believers.

In pushing forward with the Religious Discrimination Bill, the Government is wasting our time, too – because we must continue to expend our time, energy and resources to stop this abhorrent and appalling legislation.

If it sounds like I’m sick and tired, that’s only because I am. Sick and tired of having to defend my community against the constant attacks against it, from a Government that can’t find the time to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination, but has miraculously created the time to progress two exposure drafts (and counting) of this law.

And if it sounds like I’m anxious about coronavirus, well I am that too. If we’re being honest, most of us are right now. That anxiety might turn out to be unfounded. Or it could be an entirely rational response to what confronts us. It could even be we aren’t worried enough.

We don’t really know – only the weeks and months ahead will truly tell.

Here’s what we do know. As of this morning, a third Australian has tragically died from COVID-19, out of more than 3,500 deaths – and 105,000 cases – worldwide. Each of those numbers will continue to grow.

But there’s one death that would not be mourned – if the Morrison Government finally did the right thing and abandoned its Religious Discrimination Bill. That would be a mercy killing, and it would be met with relief from most members of the Australian community.

 

Coronavirus

 

For more on this subject, see The Religious Discrimination Bill: What you should know.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Footnotes:

[i] I should highlight here that government-funded aged care facilities operated by religious bodies are already entitled to discriminate in employment in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, under section 37 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth). As I have argued previously this provision already jeopardises the standard of care provided to people accessing aged care services and it must be removed. See Submission to Royal Commission into Aged Care.

[ii] See The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must be Blocked.

[iii] Under clause 42 of the Bill, which effectively exempts ‘statements of belief’ from all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, unless they meet the high bar of being malicious, harassing, threatening, seriously intimidating, vilifying (meaning inciting hatred or violence) or promoting the commission of a serious criminal offence.

Did You Know? The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act Doesn’t Protect Bisexuals Against Discrimination

The Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade is on tonight, and I am looking forward to attending the festivities in Taylor Square.

Although it will likely be in less noteworthy company than last year when, through an unlikely combination of circumstances, I ended up watching most of the parade standing next to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Always the activist, and never one to waste an opportunity, I did manage to ask her an LGBTI rights question during the event. The question I chose:

Are you aware that NSW is the only jurisdiction in Australia that does not protect bisexuals against discrimination?

The Premier answered that ‘no, she wasn’t aware of that’ (or words to that effect) before turning back to talk to her companions.

In her defence, she would not have been alone in not knowing about this bizarre, and unacceptable, loophole in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (although she definitely cannot claim ignorance now).

It is a gap that has existed from the time discrimination on the basis of homosexuality was prohibited in late 1982 (a full 18 months before male homosexuality was even decriminalised in this state).

And one that wasn’t fixed when a definition of ‘homosexual’ was inserted in section 4 of the Anti-Discrimination Act in 1994: ‘homosexual means male or female homosexual’.

This is the definition that remains to this day. Which quite clearly excludes people whose sexual orientation is towards people of the same sex and people of different sexes. [Interestingly, it also prevents heterosexual people from enjoying protection under the Act].

As I stated in my question to Ms Berejiklian, NSW is alone in having such a narrow definition.

The Commonwealth prohibits discrimination on the basis of ‘sexual orientation’ in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, with a definition that clearly covers lesbian, gay, bisexual and heterosexual people.

Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania all also prohibit discrimination on the basis of ‘sexual orientation’, while Queensland the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory cover ‘sexuality’ [for more, see A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws].

What does NSW’s exclusion of bisexuals mean in a practical sense?

Well, on the positive side, because bisexuals are still protected under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act, discrimination against them in NSW remains prohibited in most (although not all) circumstances.

However, there are limits to this coverage – limits that do not apply to lesbians and gay men.

For example, section 13 of the Sex Discrimination Act provides that protections against discrimination in employment under that Act ‘do not apply in relation to employment by an instrumentality of a State.’

Instrumentalities are independent government agencies or corporations. In effect, bisexual employees of independent NSW Government agencies are not protected against discrimination during their employment.[i] Ironically, this means bisexual employees of Anti-Discrimination NSW itself are potentially not protected.

Another practical effect of the exclusion of bisexuals from the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 is that they are not covered by civil prohibitions on vilification, unlike their gay and lesbian counterparts.

For example, section 49ZT of the Act defines homosexual vilification as ‘to incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, a person of group of persons on the ground of the homosexuality of the person of members of the group.’

Because there is also no prohibition against anti-LGBTI vilification at Commonwealth level, this means bisexual people cannot make a civil complaint of vilification in any circumstance.

Confusingly, bisexual people are protected by the 2018 amendments to the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), with section 93Z(1)(c) criminalising:

‘a public act [that] intentionally or recklessly threatens or incites violence towards another person or a group of persons on [the ground of] the sexual orientation of the other person or one or more of the members of the group.’

Sexual orientation is then broadly defined in section 93Z(5) as:

‘a person’s sexual orientation towards:

(a) persons of the same sex, or

(b) persons of a different sex, or

(c) persons of the same sex and persons of a different sex.’

Which is obviously welcome, but invites the logical question that, if the NSW Government was willing to include ‘sexual orientation’ in the Crimes Act, why hasn’t it also updated the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act along the same, inclusive, lines?

The third practical effect of the general exclusion of bisexuals from the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act is that it limits their options in terms of where to lodge complaints and/or file lawsuits.

Whereas lesbians and gay men discriminated against in NSW have the ability to complain to either Anti-Discrimination NSW or the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) – and therefore of pursuing legal action in either the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) or multiple courts – bisexuals can only complain to the AHRC and can only file in court.

This has implications in terms of the timelines for lodging complaints, the allocation of costs and the potential award of damages.

Each of these practical effects should be sufficient in and of itself to convince the NSW Government to update the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, and replace ‘homosexuality’ with ‘sexual orientation’.

But, as with most anti-discrimination laws, the symbolic effect is just as important. After all, what does it say about the place of bisexuals in our own community, and society more widely, that they continue to be excluded from the primary legislation in this state which is designed to ensure all people are treated equally?

Unfortunately, it is not just bisexuals who are excluded in this way either.

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 also excludes non-binary people, because the definition of transgender in section 38A only covers someone who ‘identifies as a member of the opposite sex by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the opposite sex, or who has identified as a member of the opposite sex by living as a member of the opposite sex’.

Similarly, the Act also fails to provide discrimination protections to intersex people, because it does not include a protected attribute of either ‘sex characteristics’ (the terminology preferred by Intersex Human Rights Australia) or ‘intersex status’ (the protected attribute in the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984).

Although, unlike for bisexuality, NSW is far from alone in these deficiencies:

  • NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory all fail to protect non-binary people, and
  • Those same jurisdictions (NSW, Victoria, Queensland, WA and the NT) also exclude intersex people from their discrimination frameworks.

There is a long, long way to go before Australian anti-discrimination laws adequately and appropriately protect LGBTI Australians against discrimination.

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 arguably has the longest journey ahead.[ii] Let’s hope Premier Berejiklian hears that message loud and clear at tonight’s Mardi Gras – and every parade until this exclusionary and out-dated law is fixed.

Bi Pride

This article is part of a series. Find other ‘Did You Know?’ posts here.

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Footnotes:

[i] To complicate matters, bisexual employees of NSW Government agencies are protected against unlawful termination, because section 772 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) applies. However, the adverse action protections in section 351 of that Act (which prohibit mistreatment during employment) don’t apply because they must also be prohibited by an equivalent Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination law – which is not the case here.

[ii] For more problems see: What’s Wrong with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?

Don’t Rain on Our Parade

It’s reached that point in late February where, every day at 4:20pm, I visit the Bureau of Meteorology website to check the forecast for Saturday night’s Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.

 

But, irrespective of whether the BoM says it will rain, hail, (smoke) or shine, there’s a much larger cloud hanging over Australia’s LGBTI community: the Morrison Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.

 

This legislation has the potential to adversely affect nearly every aspect of our existence.

 

From health-care, where it will allow doctors and pharmacists to deny hormone therapy, including puberty blockers, to trans and gender diverse people. And to refuse to provide access to PEP, and PrEP, exposing gay and bisexual men to greater risk of HIV transmission.

 

To the workplace, where employers and colleagues will be able to make comments that offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule us, as long as those statements are based on religious belief.

 

A manager could tell a staff member that gay sex is sinful, and same-sex relationships are intrinsically disordered.

 

An interviewer may inform a trans applicant that gender is binary, and therefore their gender identity is not real.

 

A colleague could respond to a lesbian co-worker showing pictures of her family in the lunch-room that she has deliberately denied her children of a father, and will be condemned by god for her ‘lifestyle’ choices.

 

These are all entirely plausible scenarios. And all would be legally permitted under the Religious Discrimination Bill, because statements of belief are effectively exempt from all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws.

 

Indeed, statements of belief would be protected across all areas of public life, not just employment.

 

If this legislation passes, international tourists visiting Sydney this time next year could be subjected to degrading and demeaning comments anywhere and everywhere, at the airport, in the taxi or uber, on buses, trains and ferries, at the hotel or B&B, at tourist attractions, in cafes and restaurants, at shops and on the streets.

 

That sounds more like hate-song than ‘matesong’.

 

Except, once the party is over tourists will be able to leave these homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic comments behind, while LGBTI Australians will be stuck with them, like unshakeable glitter, invading every nook and cranny for years to come.

 

As a certain bank tried to remind us last week – and was then itself reminded by the community – ‘words do hurt’. It is unacceptable that our own Government is so focussed on ensuring we are all exposed to more hurtful words in our lives.

 

The Bill also further entrenches the special privileges granted to religious schools and other faith-based organisations to discriminate against teachers, other employees, students and, in some cases, people accessing their services, on the grounds of religious belief or lack of belief. Even where these services are being delivered using public funding.

 

It doesn’t explicitly grant new powers to religious schools to discriminate against LGBT teachers and students. But then it doesn’t need to, either – because those powers already exist under the Sex Discrimination Act and, despite promising to protect LGBT students before the end of 2018, the Morrison Government has so far failed to shield some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

 

The theme for this year’s Mardi Gras is ‘What Matters’. In pushing ahead with the Religious Discrimination Bill, despite criticism from LGBTI organisations and a wide range of other civil society bodies, while failing to protect students in religious schools, it is clear the right to be a bigot matters much more to them than the safety of LGBT kids.

 

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the current debate is that, from an LGBTI advocate’s perspective, it is a purely reactive one – defending existing rights under what are already-flawed anti-discrimination laws, rather than trying to make those laws better (for example, including bisexual, non-binary and intersex people in NSW’s out-dated Anti-Discrimination Act).

 

It takes attention away from other urgent law and policy reform, too.

 

We shouldn’t forget that this Saturday’s march takes place in a state where trans people still need to have surgery – which is both expensive, and for some people, unwanted – before being able to update their identity documentation.

 

And in a country where children born with variations in sex characteristics continue to suffer massive human rights violations, including coercive, intrusive and irreversible surgery and other medical treatments.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will take LGBTI rights in Australia backwards, when there is still so much progress left to be made, on these and many other issues.

 

It’s time the Morrison Government abandoned this legislative attack on our community, and instead worked with us to achieve positive change – maybe then we can finally celebrate under clear skies.

 

Mardi Gras flag

 

For more on this subject, see The Religious Discrimination Bill: What you should know.

 

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus