5 Years of Commonwealth LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws. 5 Suggestions for Reform.

[NB This article is the third in a series looking at the ‘unfinished business’ of LGBTI equality in Australia]

 

Five years ago today, Commonwealth Parliament passed the historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

 

Almost four decades after the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and nearly three decades after the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians finally received protection against discrimination under Commonwealth law.

 

While the SDA amendments were ground-breaking at the time, no piece of legislation is ever perfect. Five years into its operation, here are five areas in which I believe this Act can and should be improved.

 

  1. Update ‘intersex status’ to ‘sex characteristics’

 

With the passage of the 2013 amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act, Australia became one of the first jurisdictions in the world to explicitly protect people with intersex variations against discrimination.

 

This is because it added ‘intersex status’ as a stand-alone protected attribute, which was defined under section 4 as:

 

‘means the status of having physical, hormonal or genetic features that are:

(a) neither wholly female nor wholly male; or

(b) a combination of female and male; or

(c) neither female nor male.’

 

However, since then intersex advocates have expressed concerns about this wording, including that it may not adequately protect all intersex people (for example, potentially conflating or confusing issues of biology and identity).

 

For these reasons, in the landmark March 2017 Darlington Statement, OII Australia (now Intersex Human Rights Australia) and other intersex representatives ‘call[ed] for effective legislative protection from discrimination and harmful practices on grounds of sex characteristics’ [emphasis added].

 

Sex characteristics was then defined in the Yogyakarta Plus 10 Principles ‘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.’

 

Australia helped lead the world in including ‘intersex status’ in the Sex Discrimination Act. Five years later we should take action again by updating this attribute to refer to ‘sex characteristics’ instead.

 

  1. Protect LGBT students against discrimination

 

A positive feature of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 was the aged care ‘carve-out’ from the otherwise overly-generous (see below) exceptions provided to religious organisations.

 

Sub-section 37(2) of the amended Sex Discrimination Act provides that the general exception ‘does not apply to an act or practice of a body established for religious purposes if:

(a) the act or practice is connected with the provision, by the body, of Commonwealth-funded aged care; and

(b) the act or practice is not connected with the employment of persons to provide that aged care.’

 

In effect, religious-operated aged care facilities that receive public funding are not permitted to discriminate against LGBT people accessing those services (although unfortunately they can still discriminate against LGBT employees).

 

Five years since this clause was passed, and there is exactly zero evidence that it has had any negative impact on the supposed ‘religious freedom’ of these institutions – and plenty of evidence that it has helped to protect older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from unjustifiable discrimination.

 

Now, it is time to ensure that an equivalent provision is introduced to protect people at the other end of the age spectrum from similar mistreatment: younger LGBT people who are students at government-funded religious schools and colleges.

 

These students are just as vulnerable as older LGBT people accessing aged care services, and just as with the ‘carve-out’ in sub-section 37(2), there is no reason why taxpayer money should be used to discriminate against them on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

It is time to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to remove the special privilege enjoyed by publicly-funded religious educational institutions to discriminate against LGBT students.

 

  1. Limit overly-generous general religious exceptions

 

While I believe the exceptions allowing discrimination against LGBT students deserve special attention, it is also important to reform the broader religious exceptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act.

 

Sub-section 37(1) currently provides that none of the Act’s LGBT discrimination protections apply to:

(a) ‘the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order;

(b) the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order;

(c) the selection or appointment of persons to perform duties or functions for the purposes of or in connection with, or otherwise to participate in, any religious observance or practice; or

(d) any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.’

 

[Section 38 provides a similarly-worded exception in relation to education.]

 

These clauses, and especially s37(1)(d), provide religious organisations with carte blanche to discriminate against LGBT Australians on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Such discrimination often has very little to do with sincerely-held religious beliefs, but is instead simply homophobia, biphobia or transphobia dressed up in a cloak of religious-sounding language.

 

I believe this discrimination has no place in 21st century Australia – and suspect most ordinary Australians agree.

 

Fortunately, one Australian jurisdiction provides a much better precedent in this area, one that still protects genuine religious freedom without endorsing broader anti-LGBT discrimination.

 

The Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 allows discrimination in certain circumstances in employment (section 51), admission as a student (section 51A) and participation in a religious observance (section 52), but only on the basis of religious belief or affiliation, and not because of sexual orientation or gender identity (or sex, pregnancy, relationship status or other attributes).

 

The Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act should be amended to adopt the much-preferable Tasmanian approach to religious exceptions, thereby dramatically narrowing the special privileges allowing them to engage in discrimination that would otherwise be unlawful.

 

  1. Introduce protections against anti-LGBTI vilification

 

Currently, only four Australian jurisdictions have anti-vilification laws which protect members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community: NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT. Of those, Queensland doesn’t cover intersex people, while NSW includes LGBTI people in the new criminal offence of ‘publicly threatening or inciting violence’ but only lesbians, gay men and trans people with binary gender identities can make civil complaints of vilification under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

 

There are still no protections against anti-LGBTI vilification in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia or the Northern Territory. And there is no LGBTI equivalent of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 under Commonwealth law either.

 

This is a situation that must change. Because homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification is just as serious, and just as damaging, as racial vilification.

 

This was unequivocally demonstrated, and witnessed by the entire country, during last year’s same-sex marriage postal survey, with anti-LGBTI (and especially anti-trans) rhetoric in mainstream media and across society more generally. And while there were temporary, narrowly-defined prohibitions on vilification for the duration of that campaign (which have now expired), the hate-speech against our community that it stirred up continues unabated.

 

For all of these reasons, I believe it is beyond time for the Sex Discrimination Act to be amended to prohibit vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

 

  1. Create an LGBTI Commissioner

 

From the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) website:

 

‘The Commission has a President and seven Commissioners:

  • President Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Ms June Oscar AO
  • Age Discrimination Commissioner The Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO
  • Children’s Commissioner Ms Megan Mitchell
  • Disability Discrimination Commissioner Mr Alastair McEwin
  • Human Rights Commissioner Mr Edward Santow
  • Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane
  • Sex Discrimination Commissioner Ms Kate Jenkins.’

 

Notice who’s missing? Of the major groups protected against discrimination under legislation administered by the AHRC, only one does not have a stand-alone Commissioner of their own: the LGBTI community.

 

Responsibility for LGBTI issues has instead been allocated to the Human Rights Commissioner (both the current office-holder, and his predecessor, Tim Wilson) but it is merely one of a number of different, often competing priorities of their role – sometimes directly so, given their simultaneous responsibility for promoting religious freedom.

 

It is inevitable that, under this organisational structure, LGBTI issues will not be given the same level of attention as those of race, sex, disability and age. The best way to change this is to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to create a full-time Commissioner dedicated to addressing anti-LGBTI discrimination.

 

**********

 

The passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 was an important achievement in the long struggle for LGBTI equality in Australia, in my opinion just as significant as the recognition of same-sex de facto relationships in 2008, and the long overdue legalisation of same-sex marriage late last year.

 

But, just five years old, these historic reforms are already showing their inherent limitations. It’s time for Commonwealth parliament to take action to ensure that the Sex Discrimination Act is effective in addressing anti-LGBTI discrimination and vilification. The five reforms suggested above would be a good place to start.

 

julia

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who opposed marriage equality and transferred LGBTI refugees to countries that criminalise them for ‘off-shore processing’, also passed the historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 in the dying days of her leadership.

 

 

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Unfairness in the Fair Work Act

This article is the first in a planned series looking at some of the outstanding issues that must be addressed in order to achieve genuine equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Australia.

 

These posts are not proposed in any order of priority, but will hopefully cover many of the barriers that remain, both big and small, as well as challenges that affect often-marginalised groups within the LGBTI community.

 

The first item of ‘unfinished business’ that I have chosen to write about is the discrimination that remains in the Commonwealth Fair Work Act 2009.

 

This unfairness includes two distinct issues, one relatively well-known (and which exists in other legislation, such as the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984), the other much less so.

 

Starting with the sometimes-overlooked problem first: did you know that the Fair Work Act 2009 does not protect trans, gender diverse and intersex people against workplace discrimination?

 

While this legislation prohibits adverse treatment on the basis of sexual orientation – thereby protecting lesbians, gay men and bisexuals (at least to some extent: see the discussion below) – it does not include equivalent protections for trans, gender diverse and intersex people.

 

For example, sub-section 351(1) provides that ‘An employer must not take adverse action against a person who is an employee, or prospective employee, of the employer because of the person’s race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin.’

 

Note that this list excludes both gender identity (which would cover trans and gender diverse people) and intersex status (the term used in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to protect intersex people, although the intersex community has since advocated for this to be updated to ‘sex characteristics’; see the Darlington Statement).

 

The same list of attributes, with the same exclusions, is found in sub-section 772(1)(f) which protects employees against unlawful termination.

 

In short, the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) does not protect trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians from mistreatment or unfair dismissal based on who they are. This is either a gross oversight, or a deliberate choice to treat transphobic and intersexphobic workplace discrimination less seriously than other forms of mistreatment.

 

Nor are these the only sections of the Fair Work Act to omit trans, gender diverse and intersex people:

 

  • Section 153 provides that discriminatory terms must not be included in modern awards. The list of relevant attributes includes sexual orientation, but excludes gender identity and sex characteristics;
  • Section 195 includes a similar prohibition on discriminatory terms in enterprise agreements, and once again omits trans, gender diverse and intersex people; and
  • Sub-section 578(c) provides that the Fair Work Commission must perform its functions taking into account ‘the need to respect and value the diversity of the work force by helping to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin.’

 

There is literally no requirement in the Act for the Fair Work Commission to help prevent or eliminate transphobic and intersexphobic workplace discrimination.

 

There can be no justification for these omissions. Nor can there be any excuse for the Government, or Parliament more broadly, not to pass urgent amendments to ensure trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians are finally included in the Commonwealth Fair Work Act 2009.

 

Here are my letters to the Prime Minister, and the Minister for Jobs and Innovation, asking them to do exactly that:

 

**********

 

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP

Prime Minister of Australia

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

 

27 May 2018

 

Dear Prime Minister

 

Please include trans, gender diverse and intersex people in the Fair Work Act

 

On 15 November last year, in your press conference following the announcement of the 61.6% Yes vote in the same-sex marriage postal survey, you said that: ‘we are a fair nation. There is nothing more Australian than a fair go. There is nothing more Australian than equality and mutual respect.’

 

A little later in that same press conference you added: ‘we are a nation of a fair go and mutual respect and we treat people equally. We don’t discriminate against people because of their gender of their sexual orientation, their religion or race or the colour of their skin.’

 

Unfortunately, trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians are still a long way from receiving a ‘fair go’, and that includes being treated unfairly within the Commonwealth Fair Work Act 2009.

 

Section 351 of this legislation includes protections against adverse treatment on the basis of a wide range of attributes, including sexual orientation. However, it excludes both gender identity and sex characteristics (the latter being the term preferred by intersex advocates, as articulated in the Darlington Statement, replacing ‘intersex status’ as used in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984).

 

Similarly, section 772 of the Fair Work Act prohibits unfair dismissal on the same grounds as 351, once again leaving trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians without equivalent protection.

 

Meanwhile, sections 153 and 195 do not prohibit the use of discriminatory terms against trans, gender diverse and intersex people in modern awards and enterprise agreements, respectively.

 

Finally, while section 578 of the Fair Work Act mandates that, in performing its functions, the Fair Work Commission must take into account ‘the need to respect and value the diversity of the work force by helping to prevent and eliminate discrimination’, this does not cover either transphobic or intersexphobic discrimination.

 

I am writing to ask that you, and your Government, introduce amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 to rectify these gross oversights as a matter of priority.

 

Trans, gender diverse and intersex people deserve to be protected against workplace discrimination in exactly the same way as other employees, including lesbians, gay men and bisexuals.

 

If you fail to do so, you will be continuing to deny a ‘fair go’ to trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians, and your words of 15 November last year will ring hollow.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

 

**********

 

Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash

Minister for Jobs and Innovation

PO Box 6100

Senate

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

via minister.cash@jobs.gov.au

 

27 May 2018

 

Dear Minister Cash

 

Please include trans, gender diverse and intersex people in the Fair Work Act

 

I am writing to you about the Commonwealth Fair Work Act 2009, which you administer, and specifically its failure to adequately protect trans, gender diverse and intersex employees against workplace discrimination.

 

Section 351 of this legislation includes protections against adverse treatment on the basis of a wide range of attributes, including sexual orientation. However, it excludes both gender identity and sex characteristics (the latter being the term preferred by intersex advocates, as articulated in the Darlington Statement, replacing ‘intersex status’ as used in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984).

 

Similarly, section 772 of the Fair Work Act prohibits unfair dismissal on the same grounds as 351, once again leaving trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians without equivalent protection.

 

Meanwhile, sections 153 and 195 do not prohibit the use of discriminatory terms against trans, gender diverse and intersex people in modern awards and enterprise agreements, respectively.

 

Finally, while section 578 of the Fair Work Act mandates that, in performing its functions, the Fair Work Commission must take into account ‘the need to respect and value the diversity of the work force by helping to prevent and eliminate discrimination’, this does not cover either transphobic or intersexphobic discrimination.

 

I am writing to ask that you, and the Liberal-National Government, introduce amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 to rectify these gross oversights as a matter of priority.

 

Trans, gender diverse and intersex people deserve to be protected against workplace discrimination in exactly the same way as other employees, including lesbians, gay men and bisexuals.

 

If you fail to do so, you will be failing to ensure trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians receive a ‘fair go’ in their jobs.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

**********

 

The second, much better-known, issue of unfairness in the Fair Work Act 2009 is its inclusion of extensive ‘religious exceptions’. These are loopholes that allow religious organisations to discriminate against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation (and would likely allow discrimination on the basis of gender identity were it to be included as a protected attribute in the Act in future).

 

The Fair Work Act entrenches these loopholes in two ways.

 

First, the prohibition on adverse treatment in section 351 (described above) does not apply to any action that is ‘not unlawful under any anti-discrimination law in force in the place where the action is taken’ (sub-section (2)(a)).

 

This means that the Fair Work Act reinforces the religious exceptions that already exist in the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and its state and territory equivalents (other than the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998),[i] which permit anti-LGBT discrimination.

 

However, the Fair Work Act then includes its own ‘religious exceptions’ in sub-section 351(2)(c), allowing adverse treatment ‘if the action is taken against a staff member of an institution conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed – taken:

(i) in good faith; and

(ii) to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.’

 

In effect, the Act provides two different avenues for religious organisations to justify mistreating employees simply because of their sexual orientation.

 

The protection against unfair dismissal in section 772 also includes its own ‘religious exception’, while even the terms of modern awards (section 153) and enterprise agreements (section 195) are allowed to be explicitly discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation where it relates to employment by a religious institution.

 

There is, however, one important difference between the religious exceptions in this Act and those that are contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984: the Fair Work Act religious exceptions technically apply across all protected attributes.

 

This means that, theoretically at least, a religious organisation could claim its beliefs required it to discriminate on the basis of race, or even physical or mental disability – and that it would therefore be protected from any adverse consequences under the Act.

 

Of course, in practice we all know that religious exceptions are most likely to be used to justify discrimination against women (including unmarried and/or pregnant women) and LGBT people.

 

Unfortunately, the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review recently handed to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (although not yet publicly released) is likely to recommend that these loopholes are expanded, rather than drastically reduced. That is a subject I am sure I will be writing about further in coming months.

 

Nevertheless, in the meantime we should continue to highlight the injustice of religious exceptions, including those found in the Fair Work Act and elsewhere, and campaign for their removal.

 

One such campaign, called ‘Change the Rules on Workplace Discrimination’, is currently being run by the Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby. I encourage you to sign their petition, here.

 

Ultimately, we need to collectively work towards a Fair Work Act that covers all parts of the LGBTI community – and that doesn’t feature extensive ‘religious exceptions’ allowing discrimination against us.

 

151222 Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull claims Australia is a ‘nation of a fair go’. But will he ensure trans, gender diverse and intersex people receive a fair go under the Fair Work Act?

 

Footnotes:

[i] For more information on the differences in these laws, see A quick guide to Australian LGBTI anti-discrimination laws.

7 Reflections on the Marriage Debate

It has truly been an amazing few days. With the House of Representatives vote on the Smith Bill on Thursday afternoon, its royal assent on Friday morning, and commencement at 12am Saturday (instantly recognising the overseas marriages of many LGBTI couples, and allowing thousands more to register their intention to marry), Australia is a different country – a better, fairer and more inclusive country – today than it was this time last week.

 

Now that I’ve had a few days to let this historic achievement sink in, here are some personal reflections on the marriage debate:

 

  1. It’s LGBTI marriage. It’s not marriage equality.

 

My first reflection is probably the most controversial: while the passage of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017, which permits all couples to marry irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics, is obviously welcome, it does not deserve the moniker ‘marriage equality’.

 

That is because, as well as amending its definition, it also changes the ‘terms and conditions’ surrounding marriage in Australia, simply because LGBTI couples are finally allowed to participate.

 

This includes enabling existing civil celebrants to nominate to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’, and discriminate against LGBTI couples, solely on the basis of their personal religious beliefs [sub-section 39DD(2)]. As well as unnecessarily duplicating religious exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 within the Marriage Act itself [section 47B].

 

The fact these amendments have been included now, but were not previously required in relation to divorced people re-marrying, suggests they have very little to do with ‘religious freedom’, and much more to do with homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

 

Informed by past experience, the majority of LGBTI Australians fear that new rights to discriminate will be primarily used to target us – with recent research finding more than 60% of respondents strongly agreeing that, even if these laws technically allow discrimination against all couples, ‘it will disproportionately discriminate against same-sex couples’.

 

Of course, in the interests of ensuring LGBTI couples are able to marry at all, many people were prepared to accept these concessions. I certainly understand that viewpoint. But from my perspective, it means we now enjoy LGBTI marriage (or what a respected friend of mine describes as ‘partial marriage equality’) rather than genuine marriage equality.

 

And I think it is important to remind ourselves of this compromise, so that we can work to remove these discriminatory provisions in coming years.

 

  1. It could have been worse

 

Despite the significant flaws of the Smith Bill, we should also remember that it could have been much worse. At the start of November, most media commentary focused on how many ‘conservative’ amendments would be passed, allowing even more discrimination against LGBTI couples.

 

There was even the short-lived Bill from Liberal Senator James Paterson, the entire purpose of which appeared to be about entrenching ‘religious privilege’. Followed by amendments put forward by Attorney-General George Brandis, and supported by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, to permit all civil celebrants to say ‘no gays allowed’.

 

One of the proudest moments of my own participation in the long fight for equality came in recent months, collaborating with a small group of advocates to oppose these changes. Rodney Croome, Felicity Marlowe, Shelley Argent, Brian Greig, Sharon Dane, Ivan Hinton-Teoh, Sharyn Faulkner, Robin Banks and Peter Furness all fought for the principle of full equality until the very end.

 

In that struggle we were not alone, with others – notably including the Equal Marriage Rights Australia Facebook page, Pauline Pantsdown, Jacqui Tomlins and Doug Pollard –making important public contributions.

 

I should also take this opportunity to thank everyone – family members, friends, blog readers, No Homophobia No Exceptions followers, and complete strangers – who completed the just.equal webform, to let MPs and Senators know there should be ‘No compromise on equality’. I understand close to 200,000 emails were sent, obviously having a massive impact. Thank you.

 

Together, we were able to alter the conversation, so that the Smith Bill was no longer seen as a ‘starting point’, to inevitably be dragged further to the right, but as the compromise it clearly was.

 

Together, we were able to persuade the Greens to introduce amendments to remove the egregious elements of the Smith Bill, amendments that, even if they failed last week, can be used for advocacy in the future.

 

Together, we helped to stop the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 from being much, much worse.

 

  1. It could still get worse

 

We must not overlook the fact that the reforms introduced last week are already under serious threat, as a result of the Review into ‘Religious Freedoms’ announced by Malcolm Turnbull on 22 November.

 

Former Liberal MP Philip Ruddock – the Attorney-General who oversaw the introduction of the ban on marriage equality in August 2004 – will spend the first three months of 2018 examining how Australian law can ‘better protect’ religious freedoms.

 

As we all know, increases in special privileges for religious individuals and organisations almost inevitably come at the expense of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians (as well as other groups, including women).

 

Despite this, the panel for the Ruddock Review does not include any representatives from the LGBTI community (with Ruddock joined by the head of the Australian Human Rights Commission Rosalind Croucher, retired judge Annabelle Bennett and Jesuit priest Frank Brennan).

 

So, by all means spend the remainder of December celebrating our recent success. Because when 2018 starts we must stand ready to defend those gains, as well as protecting a wide range of other existing LGBTI rights, which will likely come under sustained attack.

 

  1. Renewed appreciation of the importance of LGBTI anti-discrimination laws

 

Some of the rights most at risk in the Ruddock Review – as they were during the parliamentary debate of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill – are our essential LGBTI anti-discrimination protections.

 

Indeed, one of the few positives of the past few months, amid the intense lobbying surrounding the Smith Bill, Paterson Bill and attempted conservative amendments, has been renewed appreciation of the importance of these laws within the LGBTI community itself.

 

After all, it is difficult to convey the significance of provisions, like LGBTI anti-discrimination sections within the Sex Discrimination Act, that should be needed less and less in practice as homophobia recedes (although the experience of the postal survey indicates that hopeful vision of the future remains some way off).

 

However, even if we don’t individually use them to lodge complaints, we all rely on the standards these laws set. Hopefully, the recent focus on the subject of anti-discrimination laws means the LGBTI community will be ready to fiercely defend our existing protections in the near future.

 

But we must do more than merely maintain the status quo. We must campaign to improve the protections offered by these laws, especially in terms of who is covered, removing religious exceptions, and introducing LGBTI anti-vilification laws where there currently are none (Commonwealth, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory).

 

To find out more about the current status of these laws in your jurisdiction, see: A Quick Guide to Australians LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.

 

The first opportunity to improve these laws is the public consultation by the Northern Territory Government on modernisation of their Anti-Discrimination Act. Submissions close 31 January 2018. For more information, click here.

 

  1. Marriage is not, and never has been, the only LGBTI issue

 

This point may seem obvious to most (but sadly not all) people within the LGBTI community, but it is less so to those outside, including some who sit in our nation’s parliament.

 

The denial of the right to marry was never the only form of discrimination to adversely affect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians. For a lot of people, it wasn’t even close to being near the top of a long list of concerns.

 

Now that LGBTI marriage has been legalised, it is time to ensure a wide range of other issues receive the level of attention that they deserve, including (but definitely not limited to):

  • Ending involuntary surgeries on intersex children
  • Improving access to identity documentation for trans and gender diverse people
  • Ensuring the national Health & Physical Education curriculum includes LGBTI students, and content that is relevant to their needs
  • Implementing nation-wide LGBTI anti-bullying programs in schools
  • Fixing LGBTI anti-discrimination laws (including the broken NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977)
  • Stopping the offshore detention, processing and resettlement of people seeking asylum, including of LGBTI people in countries that criminalise them (such as Papua New Guinea), and
  • Ending HIV.

 

These last two issues directly affect the LGBTI community, albeit not exclusively. There are other issues that may not be specifically ‘LGBTI’ per se, but that we have an interest in, and a responsibility to help address.

 

That includes improving the treatment of people seeking asylum generally, supporting the campaign for constitutional reform for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – especially because the same-sex marriage postal survey was used to push the Uluru Statement from the Heart off the political agenda – and helping to Close the Gap. Oh, and addressing climate change (including stopping the Adani coal mine) because there’s no human rights on a dead planet.

 

  1. The ends do not justify the means

 

One of the most nauseating parts of the parliamentary debate last week (amid some fairly stiff competition) was the sight of Liberal and National Party MPs trying to retrospectively justify their decision to hold the postal survey in the first place.

 

They must never be allowed to get away with this argument.

 

The postal survey was unnecessary.

 

It was wasteful – at a final cost of $80.5 million (a figure that Coalition MPs should arguably be forced to repay).

 

And it was harmful, just as LGBTI Australians always said it would be: “experiences of verbal and physical assaults more than doubled in the three months following the announcement of the postal survey compared with the prior six months”, while “more than 90% reported the postal survey had a negative impact on them to some degree.”

 

As Junkee’s Rob Stott aptly described it: “Hey Malcolm, I’m glad you enjoyed the postal survey. It was one of the worst times of my life.”

 

Even the United Nations Human Rights Committee recently criticized the Government for this process:

 

“While noting that the State party is currently undertaking a voluntary, non-binding postal survey on the legalization of same-sex marriage, the Committee is of the view that resort to public opinion polls to facilitate upholding rights under the Covenant in general, and equality and non-discrimination of minority groups in particular, is not an acceptable decision-making method and that such an approach risks further marginalizing and stigmatizing members of minority groups.”

 

Which is exactly what happened.

 

The fact Commonwealth Parliament has since passed LGBTI marriage cannot be used to excuse the postal survey – because passing legislation is what parliaments are supposed to do. You know, like how John Howard banned marriage equality in August 2004, without an $80.5 million farce beforehand.

 

The postal survey should never have happened. And it must never be allowed to happen again.

 

  1. This was not Malcolm Turnbull’s victory. It was ours.

 

Another extremely nauseating moment last week was watching Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull try to claim credit for the passage of LGBTI marriage.

 

This is a so-called ‘leader’ who:

  • Refused to introduce legislation to legalise marriage equality
  • Instead, imposed an unnecessary, wasteful and harmful postal survey on the LGBTI community
  • Then refused to participate in the Yes campaign, and
  • When legislation was finally before parliament, supported amendments to allow even more discrimination against LGBTI couples.

 

Thankfully, his brazen ‘gloating’ has been called out by people like Magda Szubanski and perhaps even more powerfully by Jordan Raskopoulos.

 

Malcolm Turnbull does not deserve credit for what he did. He deserves our condemnation.

 

On the other hand, and given the sheer scale of the accomplishment, there are plenty of individuals and organisations that do deserve our thanks. Including the advocates I named earlier. As well as, obviously, the Yes Campaign and Australian Marriage Equality, GetUp!, PFLAG Australia, Rainbow Families Victoria, the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, just.equal, Equal Love, CAAH, Rainbow Labor and the unions (well, most of them), and the Greens. Plus many, many more.

 

Nevertheless, one of the best parts about the long struggle for LGBTI marriage in Australia is that it was truly a collective effort, much bigger than any one individual. Because it involved millions of actions, by millions of people, the vast majority of which will never be recorded by history. Which means the victory belongs to everyone who has contributed to the fight along the way. All of us.

 

**********

 

So, there you have it, my final thoughts on the marriage debate. Feel free to share yours – including where you may passionately disagree – in the comments below.

 

But now, on a personal level, it’s time for me to stop writing about the right to get married. And to instead go and exercise that right, by planning Steven and my long overdue wedding.

 

House of Reps Vote

The moment LGBTI marriage was passed by the House of Representatives.

It’s Not Over Yet

Just when you thought Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t physically be any more disappointing on marriage equality than he already is, he goes and announces his support for adding new forms of discrimination to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (aka the Smith Bill).

 

That’s right, less than 24 hours after yesterday’s emotional celebrations when that Bill cleared the Senate – something which Turnbull himself tweeted showed ‘Parliament at its best today – the Senate passed the same-sex marriage bill’ – he has revealed he will support multiple negative amendments in the House of Representatives, including some that were explicitly rejected in the upper house.

 

This significantly increases the chances that the legislation that is ultimately adopted falls well short of genuine marriage equality, even risking the passage of the Bill entirely if we end up with deadlock between the two chambers.

 

It is unclear whether Turnbull actually believes in the amendments himself, or if he is simply supporting them in a(nother) craven capitulation to capital ‘c’ Conservatives within his party, in a last-ditch effort to save his leadership.

 

Frankly, my dear readers, I don’t give a damn what his motivation is. Because, far more importantly, it is clear what the impact will be: more discrimination against LGBTI couples, and LGBTI Australians more broadly.

 

Let’s turn to the possible amendments themselves. Based on media reports in The Australian, and Guardian Australia, it appears Turnbull now supports at least two, probably three, and potentially even more amendments undermining the Smith Bill, which as we already know is a significant compromise. These include:

 

  1. Providing all civil celebrants with an ability to discriminate on the basis of their personal conscientious or religious belief

 

As reported by The Australian, “[t]he Prime Minister supports… provisions that would ensure that marriage celebrants are able to decline to solemnise marriages which they do not wish to solemnise.” Presumably, this means supporting Attorney-General George Brandis’ amendments on this topic.

 

This proposal is so terrible it is almost unbelievable we have to keep explaining why, but just to reiterate the many reasons why we should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants:

 

  • Civil wedding ceremonies are not religious, therefore a celebrant’s personal beliefs are irrelevant
  • The ability to discriminate does not currently exist with regards to divorcees remarrying, so should not be introduced for LGBTI couples
  • Civil celebrants are performing a duty on behalf of the state, so should not have the power to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status
  • Commercial businesses should not be able to discriminate on the basis of personal religious or conscientious belief
  • If civil celebrants are allowed to discriminate, it is difficult to withhold this privilege from other wedding-related businesses, and
  • Allowing civil celebrants to discriminate creates a terrible precedent for anti-discrimination law in Australia, opening the door to further discrimination in the future.

 

  1. Reinforcing the ability of charities to discriminate against LGBTI people

 

These amendments are being sold as a supposed ‘shield’ to protect charities from some unspecified, nefarious action by future governments. In reality, they are more likely to be used as weapons against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, further entrenching the ability of religious organisations to discriminate against employees, and people accessing their services.

 

Irrespective of which view you adopt, however, the amendments are completely unnecessary. As revealed by Liberal Senator Dean Smith during Senate debate of his Bill on Tuesday, he wrote to both the Australian Commissioner of Taxation, and the Acting Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commissioner, about the impact of his proposed legislation. From Hansard:

 

“I asked the charities commissioner two questions. The first was whether a religious charity that currently holds and/or expresses a view of or a position on marriage will be able to continue to do so without any negative impacts on its charitable status following the enactment of amendments to the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry – that is, the future act. ‘The short answer’, the commissioner said to me, ‘to this question is yes’.

“The second question I asked the charities commissioner was whether the lawful refusal to conduct a marriage ceremony, deliver goods or services, or hire facilities to same-sex couples or other couples in accordance with the future Marriage Act and current exemptions in federal, state and territory anti-discrimination laws would result in any adverse consequences in relation to an entity’s charitable status. ‘The short answer’, he says in correspondence to me, ‘is no’.

“For the sake of completeness, the Australian Taxation Commissioner says:

… a religious charity holding or expressing a view of a religious nature (position on marriage) will not have an impact on [Deductible Gift Recipient] endorsement.

He goes on to say:

Similarly, lawful refusal to conduct a marriage ceremony, deliver goods and services or hire facilities in accordance with the future Marriage Act will be unlikely to impact DGR endorsement. These activities would fall outside the scope of the general DGR categories and would not prevent DGR endorsed religious charities from fulfilling their DGR purposes.”

 

Turnbull’s own Government agencies – including the Taxation Commissioner himself – have effectively rejected any need for amendments in this area. He should not be jeopardising the introduction of marriage equality for the sake of something that is, at best, unnecessary, and at worst, a Trojan horse for increased discrimination against LGBTI people.

 

  1. Including a declaratory statement about ‘religious freedom’ in the Marriage Act

 

Another Trojan horse for new, adverse treatment of LGBTI Australians is the second of Attorney-General Brandis’ failed amendments: a proposal to add a statement from Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in the objects of the Marriage Act itself.

 

At this stage, there are mixed signals about whether the Prime Minister supports this change. What is not ‘mixed’ – indeed, what is unequivocal – is that such a change must be rejected.

 

In the words of ALP Senate Leader Penny Wong, during the same debate on Tuesday:

 

“As has been pointed out by a number of legal advisers, and also referenced in some of the documentation provided by the Human Rights Law Centre, there are some questions about the extent to which there may be unintended adverse consequences in relation to this amendment. I would also make the point that we find it somewhat odd that one would cherrypick the ICCPR in this way. For example, article 18.1 is singled out but not article 18.3, which states:

Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

“Obviously, 18.3 constrains to some extent the rights articulated in 18.1 and reflected in the amendment that Senator Brandis has spoken to. I also note that article 26 of the ICCPR commences as follows:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law.

“I pick up those two aspects of the covenant because it seems to us on this side that there’s obviously, certainly in this chamber and to some extent in the community, an interest in discussing the place of religious belief and the way in which the law might safeguard better the right to have such a belief—the right to hold beliefs—and a discussion about the extent to which that belief might affect the application of Australian law. However, as I have said on a number of occasions today, that is a reasonably complex and at times controversial discussion, and it is certainly a discussion that goes quite directly to the way in which religion is dealt with in a secular state and to the extent to which absolute belief, and limited protection under the law for that, need to be balanced.

“The Labor Party’s view reflects to some extent Senator Brandis’ introduction to this amendment, which is that this is a matter that rightly should go through the process that Prime Minister Turnbull has established [the Ruddock review]. We believe that an amendment of this sort would better be considered in the context of that process.”

 

Greens’ Senator Nick McKim noted even more serious concerns with this amendment:

 

“Enacting only the first sentence of article 18.1 leaves out the limitations on freedom of religion that are found in the remainder of 18.1 and in article 18.3 and… transforms what is a limited right into an absolute right.

“…I want to note that there is a trend around the world in Western democracies—and this is the case in Europe as well as the United States—where conservative Christian pro bono law groups are pursuing aggressive litigation strategies to justify discrimination against LGBTIQ people. Including article 18.1 of the ICCPR in Australian law will make freedom of religion justiciable and fuel legal conflict in our country. Last year we saw the Australian Christian Lobby establish the pro bono Human Rights Law Alliance… they established that alliance precisely for the purpose of litigating against LGBTIQ people, and the alliance is already running a number of cases on behalf of conservative Christians, including challenges to anti-discrimination law on the basis of the religious freedom provision in the Tasmanian Constitution, the constitution of my home state. Senator Canavan described this amendment as ‘a shield’. It’s not a shield; it’s a sword. It’s a sword that will be wielded by the conservative right against LGBTIQ people in this country, and that’s why it should be stridently opposed.”

 

**********

 

I started this post by expressing my disbelief that Malcolm Turnbull could have found a new way to let me, and LGBTI Australians, down. Again.

 

But, putting aside my own incredulity, that’s exactly what he’s done. Again.

 

Even after deciding that LGBTI Australians must be subjected to an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on our fundamental human rights.

 

Even after that was rejected by the Senate, and he determined that we would be subjected to an unprecedented three-month, $100 million postal survey instead.

 

Even after Australians overwhelmingly voted Yes, and he refused to put forward marriage equality legislation that simply amended the definition, and recognized foreign marriages – without additional discrimination against LGBTI couples.

 

Even after the Smith Bill was passed by the Senate. Now that legislation that would finally allow all LGBTI couples to marry is before the House of Representatives, and its passage is so close we can almost touch it, the Prime Minister is still finding new ways to treat us as second-class citizens.

 

But, just as we’ve overcome all of the previous hurdles that have been placed in our way, we must do everything we can to clear this one too.

 

That means taking action one more time to say that second-class is not good enough. That we won’t accept new forms of discrimination as part of any marriage equality Bill. That the House of Representatives must reject any amendments that can be used to discriminate against us.

 

Please make sure you complete the #equalmeansequal webform, calling on MPs to vote against new discrimination: www.equal.org.au/equalmeansequal

 

Because now is definitely not the time to hold your peace.

 

151222 Turnbull

Prime Minister Turnbull, who wants to add new discrimination to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill in the House of Representatives.

Quit Playing Games

With marriage equality set to be debated in Commonwealth Parliament during the next fortnight, I have written the below letter to all MPs and Senators, calling on them to legislate for genuine marriage equality, not a Bill (or amendments) that entrenches our second-class status. To send your own message that #equalmeansequal, click here.

 

**********

 

Dear MP/Senator

 

I met my fiancé Steven two weeks after my 30th birthday.

 

Within a few months it was clear this relationship was something special. Just 17 months after we met, in January 2010, we did what most couples who are in love do: we got engaged.

 

That means we have been engaged, waiting for the right to marry, for almost eight years.

 

Obviously, a lot of ‘life’ can happen in eight years. We’ve moved cities, changed jobs – almost as many times as the country has changed Prime Ministers – and even bought a home together (well, the small fraction that isn’t owned by the bank).

 

But, nearing the end of 2017, we still can’t plan our wedding day. I want to draw your attention to one of the consequences of our extended, involuntary wait.

 

My grandmother, who is now in the second half of her 90s, would have been able to attend our wedding had we held it when most couples do, within a year or two of our engagement.

 

Instead, with her health declining and having recently moved into assisted living, she won’t be there when Steven and I tie the knot.

 

The delay in passing marriage equality, due to the intolerance, and intransigence, of too many politicians over too many years, has stolen that moment of celebration from us all.

 

Steven’s situation is only slightly better. With a Portuguese background, family is even more important to him. He would love nothing more than to be able to wed in front of his grandmother.

 

But, in her late 80s and having recently had a pacemaker installed, we cannot ignore the possibility his dream may not come true, especially if marriage equality is delayed any further.

 

I think I will be even more upset for him if that moment is stolen, too.

 

Of course, the failure to lead on this issue by Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, and Malcolm Turnbull among others, has taken much, much more from other couples, including Peter Bonsall-Boone and Peter de Waal who, after 50 years together, will forever be denied the ability to marry each other.

 

It’s time for you, as our elected representatives, to end the interminable wait for marriage equality, a wait that has already proven too long for too many.

 

Quit playing games with our relationships. Pass marriage equality now.

 

**********

 

I met my fiancé Steven one week after my brother’s wedding. Two years earlier I attended my sister’s wedding.

 

I look forward to being able to invite both of my siblings, and their respective spouses, to Steven and my nuptials.

 

When we finally say ‘I do’, though, there is a real chance our marriage will be subject to different terms and conditions than theirs. Because the legislation that will give us the right to marry will likely take away our rights in other areas.

 

The Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, introduced by Liberal Senator Dean Smith, is already deeply flawed, allowing existing civil celebrants to simply declare themselves ‘religious marriage celebrants’ in order to turn away same-sex couples, and unnecessarily duplicating religious exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act within the Marriage Act.

 

Yet, there are many MPs and Senators who seem intent on making this unsatisfactory legislation even worse.

 

From Attorney-General George Brandis, who wants to provide all civil celebrants with the ability to discriminate against couples on the basis of their personal religious or conscientious beliefs, even though their role is entirely secular in nature.

 

And to add a ‘religious freedom’ declaration to the Act that will almost inevitably be used by the Australian Christian Lobby-created Human Rights Law Alliance to litigate to establish new ways of discriminating against LGBTI couples.

 

To Treasurer Scott Morrison, who apparently thinks school students need to be protected from learning about couples like Steven and me, and wants to legislate an unprecedented power for parents to withdraw their children from any class that even mentions the fact same-sex marriages exist.

 

Then there’s Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm, who has already circulated amendments that would allow commercial businesses to discriminate against LGBTI couples on their wedding day. And, if they hold one, at their engagement party. Oh, and on all of their wedding anniversaries too.

 

None of these so-called ‘freedoms to discriminate’ operate currently with respect to inter-faith marriages, or to divorced couples remarrying. The fact they are being proposed now is homophobic.

 

Nor are any of these new religious exceptions necessary.

 

All that is required to introduce marriage equality is to amend the definition in the Marriage Act to be the union of two people, and to recognise the foreign marriages of same-sex couples that already exist. Nothing more.

 

After all, when Steven and I do eventually marry, there is absolutely no reason why we should be treated any differently to, or worse than, my brother or my sister were.

 

Quit playing games with our rights. Pass genuine marriage equality.

 

**********

 

I met my fiancé Steven four days before the 4th anniversary of John Howard’s ban on marriage equality.

 

His Government’s discriminatory Bill was rushed through the Parliament, and passed by the Senate on Friday 13 August, 2004.

 

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians have spent more than 13 years trying to undo his changes, and for a better, fairer, and more-inclusive Marriage Act to be adopted in its place.

 

The process for doing so should have been the same one employed by the then-Liberal Prime Minister: a parliamentary vote.

 

Instead, our two more-recent Liberal Prime Ministers have both argued that LGBTI Australians should have to overcome hurdles that have not been placed in front of other groups.

 

First, it was the proposed plebiscite – a national, non-binding vote that has only been used three times in the 117 years since Federation, but not once to decide on the human rights of a minority, and not once in my lifetime.

 

Then, when that process was firmly rejected by the Senate – at the request of the LGBTI community itself – the Turnbull Government decided to invent a ‘postal survey’ run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a 3-month, $100 million farce that confirmed what every opinion poll of the last decade had already found, while also stirring up homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the community.

 

Let’s be clear: the postal survey should never have been held. And it must never, ever be imposed on any other group.

 

Now, having jumped through those extra hoops, and with marriage equality set to be debated by Commonwealth Parliament, the rules have apparently changed once more.

 

Instead of respecting the outcome of the process they chose, which overwhelmingly supported marriage equality, some MPs and Senators are spending more time creating additional restrictions to ensure our relationships are considered lesser than the marriages of cisgender heterosexual couples.

 

They are trying to change the rules of the game, right when LGBTI couples finally get the chance to take our rightful place on the field. Or at the altar. Or wherever we decide to marry.

 

That simply isn’t good enough.

 

Quit playing games with our community. Pass marriage equality, and stop creating new ways to discriminate against us.

 

**********

 

I met my fiancé Steven at a time when I had started to genuinely wonder whether I would ever find someone to spend my days with, let alone share a wedding day.

 

As an LGBTI advocate, the ability to marry felt like an abstract, or even hypothetical, right – important, yes, but not something I thought I would exercise myself.

 

Fortunately, falling in love made the hypothetical real, and today, more than nine years into our relationship, our desire to get married is more real than ever.

 

Unfortunately, public discussion over the past few weeks has at times felt ‘un-real’, as some MPs and Senators have debated the abstract ability of people to discriminate against LGBTI couples, rather than the practical rights of those couples to marry.

 

They have focused on hypothetical homophobic bakers, florists, and wedding-venue providers, and lost sight of the fact marriage equality should be about removing discrimination, not adding to it.

 

Once this parliamentary debate is over, if any of their amendments are passed, the rights of people to discriminate against us will sadly be very real.

 

The message that parliament would send – that our marriages are second-class – would be very real too. And LGBTI Australians would be reminded of that fact every time we are turned away by civil celebrants, or other wedding-related businesses, for years or even decades into the future.

 

It’s time for you, as our elected representatives, to decide what kind of legacy you want to leave. A better, fairer, and more-inclusive Australia. Or a country that chose something else, something lesser.

 

I started this letter by noting that Steven and I met two weeks after my 30th birthday. As much as I might try to deny it that means next year we will celebrate two major milestones: my 40th birthday and, much more significantly, our 10th anniversary.

 

As verbose as I am, I don’t actually have the words to express how much it would mean to me to finally be able to marry the man I love after all this time.

 

And so, I make this final plea to you:

 

Quit playing games. Pass marriage equality now. But, when you do, make sure it treats all couples equally. Because we are. Equal.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

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Why we should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants

The issue of marriage equality will be decided by Commonwealth Parliament in the next fortnight, first in the Senate (from Monday 27 November) and then, assuming it clears the upper house, in the House of Representatives (from Monday 4 December).

 

The ‘starting point’, problematic though it may be, is Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. Although what this legislation looks like by the end of this process remains unpredictable.

 

That’s because a wide variety of Coalition MPs are likely to put forward an even more diverse range of amendments. In this post I will discuss just one, already foreshadowed by Senator George Brandis: to provide all civil celebrants with the ability to discriminate on the basis of their personal religious or conscientious beliefs.[i]

 

I do so because, at this stage, this amendment seems to have a better chance of being successful – in part because of who is proposing it (the Attorney-General, a supposed ‘moderate’ within the Government) and also because it is marginally less extreme than some of the other changes flagged by people like James Paterson, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton.

 

I don’t, however, support Senator Brandis’ amendment, for the following reasons:

 

  1. Civil wedding ceremonies are not religious. Indeed they were explicitly created as an alternative to religious ceremonies – and are now a very popular alternative, accounting for 3-in-4 weddings in Australia in 2015. If the wedding itself is not religious, surely the religious beliefs of the person officiating it are irrelevant.

 

  1. The ability to discriminate does not currently exist. There are a wide range of religious beliefs around marriage, including people who don’t support marriages between people of different faiths, while others don’t believe in divorce and remarriage. And yet, civil celebrants do not enjoy a special privilege to discriminate for these reasons. That it is being contemplated now, when LGBTI Australians might finally be able to wed, reveals that such an amendment is fundamentally homophobic.

 

  1. Civil celebrants are performing a duty on behalf of the state. Only people who are formally registered are given the legal authority to officiate marriage ceremonies – their role is regulated by, and delegated by, the Commonwealth Government. If the Government is not able to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then nor should people who are fulfilling a secular function on its behalf.

 

Some people do not accept this characterisation, instead asserting civil celebrants are more akin to small business owners. But even on this theoretical foundation, there is absolutely no basis to provide them with special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples (or any other couples for that matter):

 

  1. Commercial businesses should not be able to discriminate on the basis of personal religious or conscientious beliefs. They cannot be allowed to hang signs in their windows – real, or online – saying ‘no gays allowed’. In 2017, it feels strange to actually have to put that down in black and white, but it is the inevitable consequence of Senator Brandis’ proposal. And others within the Turnbull Government would go even further (with Kevin Andrews arguing Jewish bakers should be able to refuse Muslim customers, and vice versa).

 

  1. If civil celebrants are allowed to discriminate, it is difficult to withhold this privilege from other wedding-related businesses. While some claim civil celebrants play such a central role in weddings they alone should be able to discriminate, philosophically it is hard to distinguish their position from others closely involved in the same ceremonies (including photographers, wedding venue-providers and even florists). If the former is permitted to reject couples on the basis of personal prejudice, why not the latter? By opening the door to civil celebrants, we may end up inadvertently allowing plenty of others to walk through – when all should be kept outside.

 

  1. Allowing civil celebrants to discriminate creates a terrible precedent for anti-discrimination law in Australia. Currently, the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act, and most state and territory anti-discrimination laws, only permit religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people. They do not provide the same special privileges to individuals. The Australian Christian Lobby desperately wants an individual ‘freedom to discriminate’ against people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. By granting this ability to civil celebrants in the Marriage Act, a change that may seem small to many, we would actually be handing Lyle Shelton a large victory, and an invaluable tool in his ongoing campaign against LGBTI equality.

 

For all of these reasons, I think that anyone who supports genuine marriage equality – including the LGBTI community, our families, friends and allies, and the 61.6% of the population who voted Yes – should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

**********

 

It would, however, be remiss of me not to address an argument that is commonly used to support such special privileges, one that is advanced even by some within the LGBTI community itself. That is the view that ‘why would couples want to be married by someone who disagrees with their relationship?’

 

The answer, of course, is that the vast majority of couples do not (although some, especially in rural and regional areas, may have few other options).

 

But, with all due respect to the people making this case, so what? That response doesn’t actually deal with the substantive issue at hand, and completely misunderstands the essential role of anti-discrimination law.

 

To see why, let’s apply the same question to other scenarios: Why would anyone want the florist for their wedding to be prejudiced against LGBTI people? The (now clichéd) baker? The wedding venue-provider?

 

Why would an LGBTI couple want to spend their honeymoon at a hotel where the proprietor disagrees with their relationship? Or to celebrate their anniversary at a restaurant whose owner is homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic?

 

Why would a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex employee want to work for an anti-LGBTI employer?

 

The answer, again, is that most LGBTI people do not want to find themselves in any of these circumstances. But, for a variety of reasons (including the impact of historical discrimination, ongoing homophobic attitudes in society-at-large, and differences in power and privilege) plenty of people do – and that is the reason we have anti-discrimination laws in the first place.

 

The Sex Discrimination Act, and its state and territory equivalents, operate to protect vulnerable groups against adverse treatment, wherever it occurs: the provision of goods and services, education, employment and other areas of public life. That obviously covers civil celebrants offering their services to the public, too.

 

In amending the Marriage Act, we should not support anything that undermines these vital anti-discrimination protections. By conceding that discrimination by civil celebrants should be allowed, by effectively ‘picking and choosing’ when anti-LGBTI prejudice is made lawful, we would be doing exactly that.

 

Once this broader principle of anti-discrimination has been sacrificed, our opponents will stake their claims for ever-widening ‘freedoms to discriminate’. Indeed, Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm has already circulated amendments to the Smith Bill that would make it entirely legal to discriminate against LGBTI couples in providing goods, services or facilities in relation to:

“(a) the solemnisation of a marriage under the Marriage Act 1961; or

(b) the preparation for, or celebration of, such a marriage; or

(c) the preparation for, or celebration of, events associated with such a marriage, including:

(i) an event announcing or celebrating the engagement of the parties to be married; and

(ii) an event celebrating the anniversary of the marriage.”

 

No doubt other conservative MPs and Senators will move their own amendments in the course of parliamentary debate, some perhaps more expansive, and even worse, than these.

 

They must, of course, be rejected – for exactly the same reasons that we must reject Senator Brandis’ amendment concerning civil celebrants. Because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians should not be discriminated against in any area of public life. No exceptions.

 

If you agree, please take two minutes to write to Commonwealth MPs and Senators to let them know that #equalmeansequal, and that there should be ‘No compromise on equality’ (click here).

 

**********

 

One final point before I conclude. By now, I have hopefully convinced you to say ‘I don’t’ to Senator Brandis’ amendment to create religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

If that is the case, then logically you should also say ‘I don’t’ to the Smith Bill itself – because all of the above arguments can also be made against sub-section 39DD(2), which would allow existing civil celebrants to nominate to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’, and discriminate against LGBTI couples, based on nothing more than their personal religious beliefs.

 

That’s why I and others have argued passionately that the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, as it currently stands, does not offer genuine marriage equality. And why we should be pressuring Labor, the Greens and anyone else who claims to support LGBTI equality to amend that legislation to remove such discriminatory provisions.

 

I guess we’ll all find out in the coming fortnight how real their commitment to equality actually is.

 

George Brandis 25

Attorney-General George Brandis, who is proposing religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Interestingly, Senator Brandis is doing so even though civil celebrants themselves do no support such an amendment. As reported this week in the Sydney Morning Herald , Dorothy Harrison, the chair of the Coalition of Celebrant Associations, said: “We don’t approve of exemptions. We feel that if that’s the law of the country, then that’s what you do. We have discrimination laws and we have to live by them.”

How Dare You

I‘ve been writing this blog for more than five years. In that time, I have tried to stick to a few guiding principles in what I publish:

 

  1. To be factually accurate, and to correct the record as quickly as possible where I do (occasionally) make a mistake. Because there’s not much point in having an uninformed debate.
  2. To only divulge as much personal information as is relevant to the topic at hand, and to try to respect the privacy of my fiancé Steven (although sometimes, as with our appearance on The Drum this week, there is a compelling reason to share our story).
  3. To try not to write, or post, while angry.

 

Today, I’m breaking rule number three. To put it bluntly, I’m mad as hell, and not in an amusing, Shaun Micallef kind of way.

 

The source of my frustration? The fact that, in the same week the overwhelming majority of Australians voted for marriage equality, some Commonwealth Parliamentarians have decided to undermine that same equality by pushing for new special privileges to discriminate against us.

 

Those arguing for something less than full equality include Attorney-General George Brandis, who has already indicated he will move multiple amendments to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (aka the Smith Bill) which, as we have seen, is itself an unsatisfactory compromise.

 

Senator Brandis’ proposals include providing all civil celebrants with the ability to reject couples on the basis of their personal religious or ‘conscientious’ beliefs – despite the fact civil celebrants are performing a secular function delegated by the state.

 

He is also suggesting a provision to state that “nothing in the bill makes it unlawful for people to hold and to express the views of their own religion on marriage.” Which sounds fairly innocuous, but when we eventually see the detail could include an attempt to override state and territory anti-vilification laws.

 

James Paterson

Liberal Senator James Paterson.

 

Then of course there is Senator James Paterson who, on Monday, released his own draft legislation that sought to grant special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI people in a wide variety of circumstances, including allowing commercial businesses to deny goods and services to same-sex weddings.

 

Thankfully, his legislation won’t ultimately be introduced, but he and others are likely to move the majority of its measures as amendments to the Smith Bill.

 

Perhaps the most egregious of these is the concerted push to include, within the Marriage Act itself, a ‘right’ for parents to withdraw their children from any class with which they disagree on the basis of their religious beliefs. This move, reportedly supported by Senators David Fawcett and Zed Seselja, as well as MPs Scott Morrison and Andrew Hastie, is a naked attack on the Safe Schools program.

 

In the words of Peter Dutton: “I want to make sure that proper parental protections are in place… Because I do think this Safe Schools movement will use this debate as a launching pad for their next wave.”

 

It could even extend to parents withdrawing their children from any and all sex education lessons, or Health and Physical Education generally – basically, any class that might teach students the incontrovertible fact that LGBTI people exist, and that we are normal.

 

If you’re struggling to figure out how parents withdrawing children from Safe Schools lessons has anything to do with marriage equality, you’re not alone. Because they are completely unrelated issues, deliberately conflated by the ‘No’ campaign during the postal survey, and again now by conservative MPs.

 

**********

 

It is not difficult to legislate for marriage equality: to amend the definition to be the union of 2 people, and recognise the marriages of LGBTI couples that already exist. That is all that is required to implement the equal treatment of LGBTI relationships – nothing more and nothing less.

 

Instead, we are seeing some Liberal and National politicians using this debate to try to add to, rather than subtract from, anti-LGBTI discrimination, to fight an unrelated ‘culture war’ rather than do the one thing 7,817,247 people voted for: pass marriage equality.

 

My message to Senators Brandis, Fawcett, Seselja and Paterson, MPs Morrison, Dutton and Hastie, and anyone else who is contemplating amendments that have the practical impact of discriminating against LGBTI people and our relationships:

 

How dare you.

 

How dare you hold a 3 month, $100 million non-binding postal survey on the worth of our relationships, and of our lives, in the first place.

 

How dare you decide, when your unnecessary, wasteful and harmful process is finally over and the overwhelming majority of Australians have voted for marriage equality, to offer us something that falls far short of that standard.

 

How dare you attempt to change existing laws so that civil celebrants, who are performing a secular function delegated by the state, can simply say ‘no gays allowed’ on the basis of nothing more than their personal beliefs.

 

How dare you use this debate to attack Safe Schools, and inclusion programs for LGBTI students more generally, so that young people are denied the right to learn that who they are and who they love is okay.

 

How dare you amend legislation that would finally give lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians equal recognition under the law by taking away our rights in other areas, including anti-discrimination and anti-vilification protections.

 

How dare you place any terms or conditions on the right of LGBTI couples to get married in the (hopefully near) future that do not currently exist for cisgender heterosexual couples.

 

How dare you vote to ensure that your own weddings and marriages are treated any differently to, or better than, my wedding and marriage to my fiancé Steven.

 

Seriously, how dare you.

 

**********

 

I thought long and hard before writing this post, and then again before deciding to publish it. There is obviously a risk that, in doing so, I could simply be dismissed as an ‘angry gay’ (which is usually very far from the truth).

 

But then I realised I can live with that description. Particularly because there is a much greater risk: that, after coming so far since the Howard Government first banned marriage equality way back in August 2004, after fighting so hard, and overcoming every obstacle placed in our way – including the unnecessary, wasteful and harmful postal survey – we are denied true marriage equality at the final hurdle.

 

That is what is at stake in the final parliamentary sitting fortnight of the year, starting Monday 27 November: full equality, or something that falls short, potentially by a long distance.

 

I don’t want to think back on this moment and realise that we could have achieved something wonderful, but instead ended up with something flawed.

 

So, if you believe in genuine marriage equality like I do, if you think that LGBTI relationships should be treated in exactly the same way as cisgender heterosexual couples are today, then it’s time to get active.

 

Please write to MPs and Senators who support marriage equality and let them know that there should be No compromise on equality.

 

If you can, call the office of your local MP to reinforce that message. Tweet, share, and do everything you can to make sure your voice is heard at this critical point.

 

This is the best opportunity for our relationships to be treated equally under the law. Don’t let some conservative MPs and Senators take that right, your right, away.