The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must Be Blocked

It is ironic that a Bill that uses the phrase ‘in good faith’ multiple times (four times in the First Exposure Draft, and nine times in the Second) was itself developed through a process that was the polar opposite.

The Religious Discrimination Bill is the end product of the Religious Freedom Review, which was a gift to religious fundamentalists during parliamentary debate about marriage equality in 2017, and was payback against LGBTI Australians for having the temerity to demand equal rights under secular law.

When that review was finally released in December 2018, Attorney-General Christian Porter promised that the Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill would be similar to other anti-discrimination laws, and ‘follow a very standard architecture’.[i] Instead he has delivered incredibly complex legislation with several unique, special rights for religious individuals and organisations to discriminate against others (more on that below).

Mr Porter also stated in December 2018 that ‘we are well-advanced on the drafting of [the Bill] and which we would have out early next year [2019], so that people can see it.’ Yet the Liberal-National Government did not reveal any details of the Bill until after the May 2019 federal election, leaving voters in the dark about a central plank of their platform (perhaps some voters may have voted differently had they known their human rights would later come under sustained attack).

In August, the Guardian Australia reported that:

Christian Porter has sought to allay concerns that a federal religious discrimination bill could water down protections for LGBT people in state legislation. The attorney general told Guardian Australia the bill “is not intended to displace state law…”’[ii]

But when the First Exposure Draft Bill was released on 29 August it did exactly that, with clause 41 directly over-riding Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination legislation, and specifically over-riding Tasmania’s best practice protections against ‘conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults of ridicules’[iii] others, including women, LGBTI people and others.

At no point between December 2018 and August 2019 did the Morrison Government consult with anyone other than the religious organisations who would benefit from the Bill. There was no engagement with any of the people who stood to lose the most, from women, to LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people and people in de facto relationships, and people with disability.

Even when the Attorney-General released the Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill for public comment – and received a deluge of criticism from representatives of those groups, as well as the vast majority of civil society organisations, and even the Australian Human Rights Commission, the independent body who would be responsible for overseeing any legislation once passed – Porter, and the Government, have chosen to ignore that feedback.

In fact, the only major substantive change to the Bill was something demanded by religious organisations – to expand its religious exceptions even further, allowing religious hospitals and aged care services to discriminate on the basis of religious belief in employment. Even when receiving taxpayers money to deliver public services.

It is completely unsurprising that, having undertaken a bad faith process to develop its legislation, the Government has produced what is essentially a ‘bad faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill. A Bill that prioritises and privileges the rights of religious individuals and organisations over and above everyone else.

This can be seen in how the Second Exposure Draft[iv] differs from the First in relation to its four major problems[v] – or, rather, in how there is nothing to separate the two Bills, meaning the Government has not addressed these flaws.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will still make it easier to make comments that ‘offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule’ minorities

Clause 42 (which was previously clause 41) continues to exempt ‘statements of belief’ from discrimination complaints under all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination legislation, including the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) and Tasmania’s best practice Anti-Discrimination Act 1998.

Indeed, multiple changes to the Bill will actually ensure more discriminatory statements of belief are protected from legal consequences. This includes expanding the definition of statements of belief (so that they do not need to align with the mainstream views of any religion, but can be from the extreme fringes of faith), as well as providing that comments will be protected even where they are ‘moderately’ intimidating towards the victim.[vi]

Nor has the Government addressed the constitutional flaws of this provision. Because the Bill would introduce a Commonwealth defence to state laws, state tribunals would legally be unable to determine whether the defence was valid. So where a person makes a complaint of discrimination, and a respondent claims it was a ‘statement of belief’, it would need to be referred from the tribunal to a court to hear that particular issue, and then referred back to the tribunal to determine the remainder of the complaint – massively increasing the costs and time involved, with the likely outcome that many discrimination complaints will be withdrawn no matter how valid they are.

Overall, clause 42 will still encourage degrading and demeaning comments about women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, people with disability, and even people from minority faiths,[vii] in all areas of public life, from workplaces to schools and universities, health care, aged care and other community services, to cafes, restaurants and even shops.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will still make it easier for health practitioners to refuse to serve minorities

There have been some minor improvements to the ‘conscientious objection’ provisions in the Second Exposure Draft (previously clauses 8(5) and (6), now clauses 8(6) and (7) of the Bill). This includes narrowing the list of health practitioners who will be able to take advantage of these sections, as well as including a note that they are not intended to allow practitioners to refuse to provide a service to a category of people.

But, in practice, these changes are superficial rather than substantive. The list of practitioners who remain covered:

  • Doctors
  • Midwives
  • Nurses
  • Pharmacists, and
  • Psychologists

means the vast majority of interactions between patients and the health system are nevertheless potentially jeopardised via ‘conscientious objection’.

Meanwhile, the distinction between refusing to provide a service to a category of people (which would not be permitted) and refusing to provide a category of service to people (which would be) is so blurry as to be meaningless.

As Attorney-General Porter himself confirmed when releasing the Second Exposure Draft, it is designed to protect ‘a GP who did not want to “engage in hormone therapies” for a trans person. “That’s fine, but you have to exercise that in a consistent way, so you don’t engage in the procedure at all.”’[viii]

The net effect is that GPs and pharmacists will be empowered to:

  • Refuse to provide reproductive health services, even where this disproportionately affects women
  • Refuse to provide PEP and/or PrEP, even there this disproportionately affects gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, and
  • Refuse to provide hormone therapy (including puberty blockers), even where this disproportionately affects trans and gender diverse people.

Overall, clauses 8(6) and (7) will still encourage practitioners to refuse to provide vital health care services to some of the most vulnerable members of the Australian community.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will still make it easier for religious bodies to discriminate against others

In fact, as hinted at earlier, the religious exceptions contained in the Second Exposure Draft will make it even easier for even more religious organisations to discriminate in even more circumstances.

Clause 11 (which was previously clause 10), provides an exception to all religious schools and universities, as well as ‘registered public benevolent institutions’ (even where providing commercial services to members of the public), as well as ‘any other body that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion (other than a body that engages solely or primarily in commercial activities)’.

This exception allows these bodies to discriminate on the ground of religion in both employment, and who they provide services to (or withhold services from).

The test for determining whether the organisation can (ab)use these special privileges is also much easier to satisfy in the Second Exposure Draft. In fact, there are now two alternative tests, and the organisation need only satisfy one:

  • Clause 11(3) is already a lower standard than the existing religious exception in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), because the organisation can simply act, ‘in good faith, in conduct to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of the same religion’ – unlike section 37(1)(d) of the SDA, these acts do not need to be ‘necessary’.
  • Clause 11(1) sets an even lower standard again. It provides that a ‘religious body does not discriminate against a person under this Act by engaging, in good faith, in conduct that a person of the same religion as the religious body could reasonably consider to be in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of that religion.’

This second test is entirely subjective. A religious body is only required to demonstrate that one other person considers their discrimination is in accordance with their faith. They don’t even have to agree with the discrimination itself! This hurdle is so easy to clear that it is almost impossible to imagine any scenario where a court or tribunal will disallow religious discrimination by these organisations.

Which is particularly devastating because the Second Exposure Draft also expands the types of organisations that can take advantage of these privileges.

Clauses 32(8) and (10) allow religious hospitals, aged care services and accommodation providers to discriminate in employment on the ground of religion. And clauses 33(2) and (4) permit religious camps and conference sites to discriminate in who they provide services to (even where these are facilities run on a commercial basis and otherwise open to the public).

As I have written previously, these religious exceptions will mean that:

  • A professor can be denied a job because they are Jewish.
  • A doctor can be refused employment at a hospital because they are Muslim.
  • A school student can be expelled because they are atheist.
  • A homeless person can miss out on a bed in a shelter because they are Hindu.
  • A charity worker can be rejected for promotion because they are Buddhist.
  • An aged care employee can lose shifts because they are agnostic.

Overall, clause 11 (and related clauses) will fundamentally divide Australia, by empowering religious organisations to discriminate both in employment, and in who they provide services to, on the grounds of religion. And they will be able to do so while using taxpayers’ money. Your money. My money, Our money.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will still make it more difficult for big business to promote diversity and inclusion

Clauses 8(3) and (5) (which were previously 8(3) and (4)) are the provisions which were created in response to the circumstances of a certain ex-footballer – by making it incredibly difficult for organisations with revenue of at least $50 million per annum to impose codes of conduct that prevent an employee from making discriminatory comments outside their ordinary hours of employment.

These clauses have been slightly improved in the Second Exposure Draft. By clarifying they only protect employees in conduct ‘other than in the course of the employee’s employment’, it actually applies to a reduced set of circumstances.

But Attorney-General Porter has also included a new clause 8(4), which makes things much worse again – by preventing qualifying bodies (like legal admission or medical registration bodies) from taking into account degrading or demeaning public comments which applicants may have made ‘unless compliance with the rule by the person is an essential requirement of the profession, trade or occupation’.

Previously, these bodies may have denied admission or registration on the basis that the applicant was not a ‘fit and proper person’ – instead, homophobes, biphobes and transphobes will be encouraged to discriminate with little or no professional consequences.

**********

Any of these problems should be sufficient in and of itself for anyone interested in human rights for all Australians, and not just for some, to oppose the Bill. All of them together should be enough for Labor, the Greens and Senate Cross-Bench to vote against it – although only the Greens’ opposition is secure at this stage.

And that’s not even including some of the other ‘lesser’ problems in the package of ‘religious freedom’ laws the Government is seeking to pass, which are each significant in their own right:[ix]

  • Creating a ‘Religious Freedom Commissioner’ within the Australian Human Rights Commission, to advance the ‘religious freedom’ agenda, even though such a position was not recommended by the Government’s own Ruddock Review, and while LGBTI Australians continue to be denied a Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Sex Characteristics Commissioner.
  • Amending the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) to reinforce the ability of religious educational institutions to reject same-sex weddings, even where they provide those services to the public on a commercial basis – and despite the fact such a ban was not previously required to reject divorced people remarrying (meaning this is essentially an anti-marriage equality provision),[x] and
  • Amending the Charities Act 2013 (Cth) to ‘protect’ charities advocating against an inclusive definition of marriage, even though the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) explicitly stated such a clause was not needed, and despite the fact no other type of advocacy (from Indigenous, to environmental or LGBTI) is protected in this way.

Unfortunately, there are even more problems in the Religious Discrimination Bill, and its two related Bills (the Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill, and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Freedom of Religion) Bill), although it would take too long to describe them all in detail here.

In short, these are deeply flawed Bills, developed through a bad faith process, that will have a terrible impact on women, LGBTI people, people with disability and others. If passed, they would lead to increased division between different communities, changing our country for the worse. They must be blocked.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of this debate is that a genuine Religious Discrimination Bill, one that protected people of faith and no faith against discrimination on the basis of who they are, would have been a welcome development.

If the Government had prepared the Religious Discrimination Bill in good faith, it would have been met with substantial community goodwill. Instead, they listened to religious fundamentalists, and have now released two slightly different versions of legislation containing the same fundamental flaw – it increases discrimination rather than reducing it.

Significantly, the victims of the Government’s Bill will not only be women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, and people with disability. People from minority faiths, atheists and agnostics all stand to lose under Attorney-General Porter’s, and Prime Minister Morrison’s, disingenuous and disastrous Second Exposure Draft ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills.

Anti-discrimination legislation should reduce discrimination, not increase it. It should unite us, rather than divide us. The Religious Discrimination Bill fails on those most fundamental criteria. It is a bad faith Bill, and the only possible good outcome from here would be for it to be rejected in its entirety.

 

Take Action

One of my main objectives for the blog this year is to include practical information on as many posts as possible about actions readers can take. In this instance, there are at least three things you can do:

 

  1. Write a submission on the Second Exposure Draft Bills

The Second Exposure Draft ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills are open for public consultation until Friday 31 January 2020. Details of the Bills are here, and you can send written submissions via email to FoRConsultation@ag.gov.au

You don’t have to be a lawyer to make a submission, nor do you need to comment on all of the Bills’ many problems. Instead, you can simply describe your general concerns about the proposed legislation, as well as any specific fears about its impact on you and your community. Some suggested points include:

  • All Australians deserve to be protected against discrimination.
  • This includes people of faith, and no faith. But it must also include women, LGBTI people, single parents, people in de facto relationships, divorced people, people with disability and others.
  • Unfortunately, the Second Exposure Draft Religious Freedom Bill will increase discrimination against many groups, including people from minority faiths, rather than reduce it.
  • It will encourage people to make ‘statements of belief’ that degrade and demean others just because of who they are, in workplaces, schools and universities, health care, aged care and community services, cafes, restaurants, shops and other public places.
  • It will encourage doctors, pharmacists and other health practitioners to refuse to provide vital health services to vulnerable Australians.
  • It will encourage religious organisations to discriminate against people on the basis of their faith, in schools and universities, hospitals, aged care and other community services, even where they are delivering essential public services using public funding.
  • The Government should scrap the current version of the Religious Discrimination Bill, and prepare a new Bill that reduces discrimination rather than increasing it.
  • If the Government fails to do so, the Parliament must reject the Second Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill, and associated ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills.

 

  1. Write to MPs and Senators expressing your concerns

While submissions about the Exposure Draft Bills are valuable, it is essential you also convey your concerns directly to your elected representatives.

It is especially important to write to the following:

  • ALP MPs and Senators
  • Greens MP and Senators
  • Centre Alliance Senators (if you’re in South Australia)
  • Senator Jacqui Lambie (if you’re in Tasmania), and
  • Liberate moderate/gay and lesbian MPs (including Trent Zimmerman, Trevor Evans, Tim Wilson, Angie Bell, Warren Entsch, Senator Dean Smith).

PFLAG Australia has made this process easy, using the website Equality, Not Discrimination.

You can also access a range of materials from Equality Australia here, including a submission-writing toolkit.

 

  1. Attend a public rally against the Bills

For those who prefer their activism to be on the streets, there will also be a number of public rallies around the country in coming weeks, including:

Sydney: Saturday 8 February at 1pm, Sydney Town Hall

Melbourne: Sunday 9 February at 1pm, State Library of Victoria

Brisbane: Saturday 1 February at 5pm, King George Square, and

Perth: Saturday 8 February at 1pm, Forrest Chase

The bad faith Religious Discrimination Bill, and the two other proposed ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills, can be blocked, but only if we all take action together.

 

Christian Porter

Attorney-General Christian Porter, author of the ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill.

 

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] Attorney-General Media Conference, 13 December 2018.

[ii]Christian Porter says religious freedom bill won’t erode state LGBT protections’ 12 July 2019.

[iii] Section 17(1) Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas).

[iv] The complete Religious Freedom Bills – Second Exposure Drafts (which includes the updated Religious Discrimination Bill) can be found here.

[v] See The Growing List of Problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill.

[vi] Clause 42(2) provides that statements of belief will not be protected if it is:

  • malicious
  • that would, or is likely to, harass, threaten, seriously intimidate or vilify another person or group of persons; or
  • would be considered ‘counselling, promoting, encouraging or urging conduct that would constitute a serious offence.’

[vii] See The Internal Contradiction of the Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill.

[viii] ‘Rules for doctors, pharmacists tightened in new religious discrimination bill’, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 December 2019.

[ix] For more detail, see The Growing List of Problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill.

[x] Unfortunately, it would not be the only provision in the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) which discriminated against same-sex couples, despite the postal survey result. For more see: No, We Don’t Have Marriage Equality Yet.

She who should not be named (on a tennis stadium)

The 2020 Australian Open starts tomorrow. As a long-term tennis fan, it is one of my favourite times of the year (although sadly I won’t be there in person this time around). As a long-term LGBTI advocate, however, I am not looking forward to the next fortnight – primarily because there will be considerable attention on a certain former Australian women’s tennis player.

Not just because the third largest court is named after her, but also because this year marks the 50th anniversary of her calendar-year grand slam – which was, admittedly, a remarkable achievement (for context, only one singles player, male or female, has repeated this feat in the half-century since: Steffi Graf in 1988).

Given we won’t be able to avoid this topic in the days ahead, I thought I would share my perspective on what should happen when Tennis Australia commemorates Margaret Court’s accomplishment, and why they should permanently remove her name from Margaret Court Arena.

I should start by saying what this is not about. It’s not about her opposition to marriage equality. Despite seeking to discriminate against LGBTI couples under secular law, she was entitled to her opinion, no matter how wrong it was (and thankfully the majority of Australians decided she was indeed very wrong).

On the other hand, it is about Margaret Court being a vocal opponent of the equalisation of the age of consent in Western Australia in 2002 (which is actually when, as a queer activist at university, I first came across her bigoted views). For those who don’t know, she literally campaigned for young gay and bisexual men, aged 16 to 20, to remain subject to criminalisation, including the threat of imprisonment, simply because of who they were.

That, to me, went beyond the pale. This was not simply a difference in policy – she used her position of influence in political debate to target vulnerable members of our community. That incident alone should be sufficient to mean she is not celebrated by Tennis Australia – or indeed anyone with a conscience.

Although unfortunately it was not the last time Margaret Court would attack LGBT young people. As recently as three weeks ago, she reportedly described trans kids as being the work of the devil (“That LGBT in the schools, it’s of the devil, it’s not of God… you know when children are making the decision at seven or eight years of age to change their sex. Just read the first two chapters of Genesis, that’s all I say. God made male and female”).

Court’s list of tennis records might be long, but her record of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic statements is much, much longer (noting that these are just a couple of examples out of many I could have chosen).

Of course, some people might respond by saying that the above actions are unrelated to tennis, and she should be judged solely on her sporting career. The only problem with this defence is that she has an equally lengthy history of anti-LGBT prejudice in relation to tennis.

As far back as 1990, Court criticised out lesbian champion Martina Navratilova (“a great player but I’d like someone at the top who the young players can look up to. It’s very sad for children to be exposed to homosexuality. Martina is a nice person. Her life has just gone astray”) and famously said that lesbians were ruining tennis.

In the three decades since, her views have not evolved, although who she attacks has – Margaret Court now adds trans tennis players, and trans women athletes in particular – to her growing list of targets (“ And you know with that LGBT, they’ll wish they never put the T on the end of it because, particularly in women’s sports, they’re going to have so many problems”).

But, out of the many hateful and hurtful ‘contributions’ Margaret Court has made to public life over the years, there is one that stands out in my memory, for all the wrong reasons. In 2013, following the birth of Casey Dellacqua and her partner Amanda Judd’s first child, Margaret Court wrote the following newspaper letter to the editor:

 

Fathers for babies

The article (Dellacqua, partner welcome baby boy, 29/8) rightly celebrates the birth of a child. Yet it is with sadness that I see that this baby has seemingly been deprived of his father.

If we continue to dismantle the traditional family unit as old fashioned, archaic and no longer even necessary or relevant, we will create a fatherless generation.

Indeed, the lines are becoming increasingly blurred as the march towards such partnerships, even gay marriage, is fuelled by minority voices rising in opposition to respected Christian beliefs which many cultures also believe.

For the person who is birthed with no exposure, or even acknowledgement, of their natural dad there will always remain questions as to their identity and background.

Personally, I have nothing against Casey Dellacqua or her “partner”.

I simply want to champion the rights of the family over the rights of the individual to engineer social norms and produce children into their relationships.

As a patron of the Australian Family Association, I really want to see a society where traditional family values are still celebrated and every child has the best possible start in life.

Margaret Court, Victory Life Centre

 

Note this was not simply an expression of her views about ‘rainbow families’ in general, it was specific criticism of one such family in particular. It was a pre-meditated attack on a couple at a time when they should have been celebrating something precious and wonderful, not being subjected to unfair commentary because of their sexual orientation.

And, contrary to Court’s protestations (‘I have nothing against Casey Dellacqua or her “partner”’), the use of scare quotes there says everything you need to know about her level of disrespect towards them.

Nor can this episode be divorced from Court’s tennis career. The letter was written by a former Australian tennis player, about a then-current Australian player – and this context was no doubt influential in ensuring it was published.

The truth is that, as much as Margaret Court was a champion on the tennis court, she has been the exact opposite off it. And, because of her actions – including the attack on Casey Dellacqua and her family – it is impossible to separate the two.

That is why, whenever Tennis Australia chooses to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Margaret Court’s calendar grand slam during the next fortnight, I hope the crowd at Melbourne Park (respectfully) turn their backs on her. And if she is given the opportunity to speak, I hope they cover their ears too – because she has abused far too many platforms, over far too many years, to demean and denigrate lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians.

It is also why she should not be named above the third largest court there. While Court may have been a tennis star in the 1960s and 1970s, everything she has done since means she has nothing to offer in the 2020s and beyond (she is definitely not a role model for the current generation of players – ask yourself, have you ever heard any Australian player, including our recent champions Sam Stosur and Ash Barty, say they look up to Margaret Court? Definitely not).

What makes this decision even easier is that there is such a clear alternative. A seven-time major winner in singles, and former world number one, from the 1970s and 1980s. An Aboriginal champion, who used her post-playing career to give back to Aboriginal young people (her Companion of the Order of Australia recognised her “eminent service to tennis as a player at the national and international level, [and] as an ambassador, supporter and advocate for the health, education and wellbeing of young Indigenous people through participation in sport, and as a role model”).

Once the 2020 Australian Open wraps up on Sunday February 2, it’s time to take down the signage for Margaret Court Arena, and put up a new name in its place: Evonne Goolagong Cawley Arena.

Margaret-Court-Arena-Gal2

2020 should be the last year Margaret Court’s name appears above the third court at Melbourne Park.

Census 2021 – Count Us In

Update:

On Monday 11 February 2020, the Guardian Australia reported that the 2021 Census Regulations had been lodged by the Assistant Treasurer, Michael Sukkar – without any new questions on sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

In case it wasn’t clear before this, it is now undeniable that, as far as the Morrison Liberal-National Government is concerned, LGBTI Australians don’t count, and we therefore shouldn’t be counted.

The ramifications of this exclusion will last for most of the 2020s. The next opportunity to include sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics will be the 2026 Census. Data from that Census will be progressively published from 2027 onwards, meaning service-delivery based on that data, in health, education and other community services, is unlikely before 2028.

The decision to effectively erase LGBTI Australians from the Census will be felt for most of the next decade (at least). Shame on the Minister, and Government, who would prefer us to be invisible.

Original Post:

It may not seem all that important right now, with everything else going on, but whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians are included in the 2021 Census will have a long-term impact on the health of our communities.

The Commonwealth Treasury Department is currently conducting a public consultation on Exposure Draft Census and Statistics Amendment (Statistical Information) Regulations 2019.

Submissions close next Friday, 10 January 2020. If you have the time, please consider making a short submission, asking them to #CountUsIn. More information about how to make your voice heard, from the National LGBTI Health Alliance, is provided below.

Here’s my letter:

 

Division Head
Macroeconomic Modelling and Policy Division
Treasury
Langton Cres
Parkes ACT 2600

Submitted via: 2021CensusRegulations@treasury.gov.au

Friday 3 January 2020

 

To Whom It May Concern

Re: Census of Population and Housing

I am writing to you as a long-term advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, to bring to your attention my personal view about the importance of including questions on sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status in the 2021 Census.

For me, a census that captures sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex data will enable us all to better manage our health. It is important for governments at Commonwealth and state and territory level, and service providers, to have access to this data, so that I and my family and friends have the same access to targeted health services as all other Australians.

I am aware that the ABS itself asked the Commonwealth Government to consider sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status questions to be included in the census based on an overwhelming need for this data to be collected.

I also note that in 2017 the Commonwealth Government spent $80.5 million in engaging the ABS to conduct the same-sex marriage law postal survey.

Apparently, asking all Australians to express their opinion about the relationships, and lives, of LGBTI people and their families was acceptable then.

It would be an incredible, and unjustifiable, double-standard to decide that asking people about their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status is unacceptable now.

LGBTI people are part of every Australian community, and everyone deserves to be counted.

We count. Our lives count. Our health counts. Our futures count. It’s time to count us in.

I respectfully ask that you reconsider the inclusion of these questions in the 2021 Census.

Yours sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

Take Action

One of my main objectives for the blog this year is to include practical information on as many posts as possible about actions readers can take.

In this case, I strongly encourage you to visit the National LGBTI Health Alliance website, where they have provided a draft template letter on which the one above is based.

Please download it, add your own personal message and lodge it by Friday 10 January 2020. As requested by the Alliance, if you are emailing it, please also copy info@lgbtihealth.org.au and ask for your submission to be made public on the Treasury website.

Make your voice heard. Make sure our community is counted. #CountUsIn2021

ABS

Submission re NSW Curriculum Review Interim Report

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission, in response to the NSW Curriculum Review Interim Report (Nurturing Wonder and Igniting Passion: Designs for a future school curriculum), released in October 2019.

 

I make this submission as a long-term advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, and as someone who has consistently called for an inclusive national, and NSW, Personal Development, Health & Physical Education (PDHPE) syllabus.

 

In this context, I wish to express my disappointment with the Interim Review, which ignores the needs of LGBTI students, and potentially makes the introduction of a genuinely-inclusive PDHPE syllabus more difficult.

 

For example, in describing ‘the changing student population’ on page 5, the Review discusses the ‘size and diversity of today’s student population’, including highlighting metro versus regional, rural and remote, public versus religious/independent schools, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students who speak a language other than English at home, and students with disability – but there is no mention of LGBTI students.

 

This absence continues throughout the rest of the document, including wherever there is a focus on meeting the needs of diverse students (such as the section on ‘an inclusive curriculum’ on pages 65-66: ‘within each school subject, the curriculum should be designed as far as possible to be inclusive of, and accessible to, every student’). In fact, LGBTI students, and related issues, do not appear once in the 116 pages of the Interim Report.

 

This exclusion is even more concerning in the context of ‘Reform Direction 1: Creating a less crowded curriculum’. While I understand there is some pushback on ‘overcrowded and overly prescriptive syllabuses [that] create pressure on teachers and schools’ (page 6 of the Interim Report Consultation Workbook), I am worried this proposal will in fact make schools less safe for LGBTI students.

 

For example, one comment highlighted in the Interim Report implies that a range of topics have been unnecessarily added to the curriculum, and should therefore be considered for removal, including ‘anxiety/depression, resiliency training, childhood obesity, road safety, water safety, Asian studies, healthy school canteens, bush fire safety awareness, languages, cyber safety and anti-bullying’ (page 27, emphasis added.)

 

Surely, anti-bullying, and attempting to create a safe environment for all students in which to learn, is actually a core requirement of each and every school?

 

But the bigger problem of Reform Direction 1 is that it proposes a ’15 to 20 per cent reduction’ in the content of each and every syllabus – when, as I submitted during its development, the current PDHPE syllabus excludes LGBTI students and content that is relevant to their needs, and consequently needs to have content added.

 

As I wrote at the beginning of 2019:[i]

 

*****

 

the new PDHPE curriculum is entirely unfit for the 21st century, contributing to the ongoing invisibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) content, and therefore of LGBTI students.

 

This can be seen in a number of ways. The first, and perhaps most important, is in its use – or, more accurately, lack of use – of the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex themselves.

 

In the 138 pages of the syllabus, these words occur three times each. However, two out of these three appearances are found in the document’s glossary – with a definition of each term, and then as part of the broader definition of LGBTI people.

 

But teachers do not teach the glossary to their students. Instead, they are only required to teach the content for each year stage of the syllabus. And the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex can be found only once in the prescribed content, together on page 96:

 

‘investigate community health resources to evaluate how accessible they are for marginalised individuals and groups and propose changes to promote greater inclusiveness and accessibility eg people in rural and remote areas, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI), people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, people with disability.’

 

The problem with this is that LGBTI comes after ‘for example’ and therefore even referring to LGBTI people in this exercise is, on a prima facie reading, optional.

 

This issue – the status of content that appears after ‘eg’ in the syllabus – was raised, by myself and others, during the consultation process. The answer at the time was that whether this information was taught was at the discretion of the school and/or teacher. This appears to be confirmed in the consultation report, which states on page 18 that:

 

‘The content defines what students are expected to know and do as they work towards syllabus outcomes. Content examples clarify the intended learning. Teachers will make decisions about content regarding the sequence, emphasis and any adjustments required based on the needs, interests, abilities and prior learning of students.’

 

In practice, LGBTI people appear just once in the entire NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus, as part of an exercise about marginalised groups and inclusiveness, but schools and/or teachers can choose to remove even this most cursory of references.

 

This marginalisation, and exclusion, of LGBTI content and students is simply not good enough.

 

Another cause of the curriculum’s problems can be found if we return to the glossary, and inspect the definition of sexuality:

 

‘A central aspect of being human throughout life. It is influenced by an interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors. It is experienced and expressed in thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships.’

 

On a philosophical level, this is actually quite an inclusive and even progressive view of the complexity of human sexuality. But on a practical level, the absence of specificity in this definition undermines any obligation for schools and/or teachers to teach about real-world diversity of sexual orientation.

 

This lack of prescription means that, on page 96 – which is the only place in the general syllabus where ‘sexuality’ appears not following an ‘eg’ (and therefore is the only reference that isn’t optional) – content to ‘explore external influences on sexuality and sexual health behaviours and recognise the impact these can have on their own and others’ health, safety and wellbeing’ does not necessarily include lesbian, gay or bisexual sexualities.

 

It is a similar story in terms of gender, with the glossary definition (‘Refers to the concepts of male and female as well as the socially constructed expectations about what is acceptable for males and females’) not particularly useful in ensuring students learn about the diversity of gender identities. There also do not appear to be any references to non-binary or gender diverse identities.

 

These definitions of sexuality and gender, and how they are employed throughout the syllabus, could be interpreted by some supportive schools and teachers to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender subject matter. But there is absolutely nothing that ensures schools and/or teachers must teach this content.

 

This erasure, or invisibilisation, of LGBTI people in the NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is nothing short of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic.

 

Which makes it somewhat ironic then that there are more references to homophobia and transphobia in its content than there are to LGBTI people.

 

On page 77: ‘describe forms of bullying, harassment, abuse, neglect, discrimination and violence and the impact they have on health, safety and wellbeing, eg family and domestic violence, homophobic and transphobic bullying, racism, cyberbullying, discrimination against people with disability.’

 

And on page 88: ‘propose protective strategies for a range of neglect and abuse situations, eg family and domestic violence, bullying, harassment, homophobia, transphobia and vilification.’

 

Although note of course that both times homophobia and transphobia appear after an ‘eg’, meaning whether they are taught in these contexts remains optional (and obviously neither of these sections explicitly refers to biphobia or intersexphobia either).

 

Another major problem with the new NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is its approach to sexual health.

 

There are only two compulsory references to sexual health in the content of the syllabus, one of which we have already seen (on page 96: ‘explore external influences on sexuality and sexual health behaviours and recognise the impact these can have on their own and others’ health, safety and wellbeing’).

 

The other reference, on page 95, describes ‘identify methods of contraception and evaluate the extent to which safe sexual health practices allow people to take responsibility for managing their own sexual health.’

 

There are two problems with this statement. First, it puts the emphasis on ‘contraception’ when sexual health, and LGBTI sexual health especially, is a much broader concept. Second, it does not specifically mandate that schools and teachers instruct students about sexually transmissible infections (STIs).

 

In fact, quite astoundingly, the only reference to STIs in the general syllabus, on page 84 (‘identify and plan preventive health practices and behaviours that assist in protection against disease, eg blood-borne viruses, sexually transmissible infections’) makes teaching about them optional. The only time the term HIV even appears in the entire document is in the glossary.

 

In terms of STI-prevention, it seems the NSW PDHPE syllabus has actually gone backwards from the previous 2003 document, which at least prescribed that students learn about:

 

‘sexual health

-acknowledging and understanding sexual feelings

-expectations of males and females

-rights and responsibilities in sexual relationships

-sexually transmitted infections, blood-borne viruses and HIV/AIDS’ as well as to

‘identify behaviours that assist in preventing STIs, BBVs and HIV/AIDS and explore the interrelationship with drug use.’

 

The aim of the PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is explained on page 12 of the document:

 

‘The study of PDHPE in K-10 aims to enable students to develop the knowledge, understanding, skills, values and attitudes required to lead and promote healthy, safe and active lives.’

 

Unfortunately, the more than 100 pages of the new syllabus which follow that statement make clear that it does not, and cannot, promote healthy, safe and active lives for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students. After all, it is impossible for students to learn everything they need to be safe when they cannot see themselves in the curriculum.

 

*****

 

Hopefully, this summary of the problems of the existing PDHPE syllabus explains why I am so reluctant to embrace any call for curriculum content to be reduced, given LGBTI content is invisible to begin with and instead should be increased.

 

The final issue I wish to address is ‘Reform Direction 13: Introducing a major project’, and in particular the proposal that this project – which would apparently contribute a significant proportion to a student’s final school results – be undertaken by working in teams.

 

I believe requiring students to work together in teams in this way is only possible where schools are safe learning environments for everyone – and that NSW schools, both government and non-government, currently are not safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students.

 

This is not just because of the exclusion of LGBTI issues from the PDHPE syllabus (although that is obviously a contributing factor), but also because of high rates of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying – which has been exacerbated by the Government’s decision to axe the Safe Schools program which was specifically designed to address these issues.

 

LGBTI students in non-government schools are especially vulnerable given the exceptions in the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW), allowing all private schools and colleges (whether they are religious or not), to discriminate against and expel LGBTI kids.

 

It is perhaps ironic that the Interim Report states on page 45 that:

 

studies have highlighted the importance of inclusive, supportive environments in which all learners’ backgrounds, strengths and starting points are recognised and welcomed, strong relationships are built, and collaborative learning (including project-based and problem-based learning) is encouraged.

 

The reality is that too many LGBTI students, in too many NSW schools, do not enjoy ‘inclusive, supportive environments’ in which they are ‘recognised and welcomed’. Unless and until this is fixed, then any proposal for a team-based major project in the final years of the NSW curriculum should be abandoned.

 

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration. Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided should you require additional information.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

There's no place for discrimination in the classroom-6

Every student has the right to be safe, and to learn about themselves, in every school. The NSW Curriculum Review Interim Report could take us further away from that goal than ever.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Invisibility in the Curriculum, 23 January 2019.

The Internal Contradiction of the Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill

On Saturday 30 November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed that his Government would not meet its commitment to introduce the Religious Discrimination Bill into Parliament before the end of the year.

 

Instead, he announced they would be releasing ‘a revised and further exposure draft of the RDA Bill to reflect the Government’s response to the consultation to date and provide further opportunity for engagement.’ [i]

 

On an optimistic reading, this means there is more opportunity for the Government to listen to all of the criticisms of this legislation, from women, LGBTI people, legal organisations and the Australian Human Rights Commission, that the Religious Discrimination Bill requires substantial amendment because it authorises discrimination against large sections of the Australian community.

 

Unfortunately, based on all evidence to date, we have more reason to be pessimistic, and instead fear that the Government will only listen to religious fundamentalists demanding even more special privileges to discriminate.

 

The only change to the Bill which Attorney-General Christian Porter highlighted at the National Press Club on 20 November[ii] was an amendment to ensure that ‘religious hospitals and aged-care providers will be given protections equivalent to those given to other religious bodies, in relation to employment of staff’ (in other words, allowing them to discriminate).

 

There have been no indications of positive changes to the Bill, to reduce its adverse impact on women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships, people with disability and others. Nor was there any reason to be hopeful in the Prime Minister’s media release confirming the delay.

 

However, what I really want to highlight here is the inconsistency of two of Morrison’s statements in that release.

 

Specifically, he criticises Labor for ‘a lack of genuine commitment … to the principle that Australians who hold sincere religious beliefs in this country deserve the same legal protections that are rightly provided in other areas such as gender and race.’

 

But then later the Prime Minister also says ‘Our Government will continue to proceed on the basis of good faith with a view to having a balanced and common sense Bill that protects the important religious freedoms that Australians can sadly no longer take for granted.’

 

Except these two concepts – a Religious Discrimination Bill, and religious freedom laws – are very, very different things.

 

Had Morrison actually delivered the former, legislation that simply protects people of faith, and no faith, against discrimination on the same basis as gender, race and other attributes, then not only would Labor have likely welcomed it, but so too would the majority of Australians, including LGBTI people. After all, we know what discrimination is like, and don’t want other people to experience it.

 

Instead, his Government has produced a ‘Religious Discrimination Bill’ in name, but a religious freedom law in substance. The most problematic elements of the Exposure Draft – re statements of belief, large employer codes of conduct, conscientious objections by health practitioners and the general ‘religious exception’ in clause 10[iii] – all purport to protect ‘religious freedom’ rather than the right to non-discrimination.

 

Obviously, a lot has been written about the serious flaws of these provisions (including by the author), and particularly about the discrimination they permit against other groups.

 

Perhaps one consequence that hasn’t received as much attention is that they actually make this legislation not just inconsistent in its objectives, but internally contradictory as well.

 

That’s because these same provisions also allow discrimination against people on the basis of their religious beliefs, or lack of belief – making it a Religious Discrimination Bill that perversely encourages religious discrimination.

 

For example, the protections for ‘statements of belief’ in clause 41 – which effectively render them exempt from all Commonwealth, state and territory discrimination laws – don’t just apply to comments that discriminate against women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships and people with disability.

 

Clause 41 also protects statements of belief that discriminate on the basis of religion. This includes, for example, saying the followers of other religions are ‘unclean heathens destined for eternal damnation’. Just like sexist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist statements, these derogatory comments will be protected irrespective of where they occur, including in the workplace, in education, in health, and in the provision of goods and services.

 

In the same way, clauses 8(3) and (4) won’t just protect a certain footballer telling gay and trans people they are going to hell – it will protect any religious employee who, outside ordinary work hours, tells people from other religions they’re going to hell, too.

 

The conscientious objection provisions, in clauses 8(5) and (6), are an even bigger threat. As well as allowing health practitioners, from GPs and pharmacists through to optometrists, physiotherapists and even podiatrists, to refuse to serve women, or LGBTI people, they could potentially be (ab)used by a health practitioner to refuse to serve Jewish people, or Muslims, or people from other minority faiths.

 

But the biggest threat of all – especially to minority religions – is found in clause 10. It allows religious schools and universities, charities and ‘any other body that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion (other than a body that engages solely or primarily in commercial activities)’,[iv] to discriminate on the basis of religious belief.

 

This clause therefore permits discrimination against teachers and students, as well as the employees of – and even people accessing – charities and community services. And, as we have already seen, Attorney-General Porter plans to expand this clause even further to allow religious hospitals and aged care services to discriminate in relation to employment (at the very least).

 

Technically, clause 10 protects all religious organisations equally – they will each be able to discriminate in terms of who they employ (or refuse to employ), and provide services to (and who they exclude).

 

Practically, this clause will primarily benefit the largest religious organisations – including the Catholic and Sydney Anglican[v] churches and related education, health and community services organisations – at the expense of everyone else.

 

With the massive outsourcing of public services to these bodies over the past two to three decades, they now receive billions and billions of dollars each and every year, and will be explicitly permitted to use that public funding to discriminate.

 

Not just in relation to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (which is sadly already allowed under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), and which the Morrison Government steadfastly refuses to change), but also in relation to religious belief, or lack of belief.

 

That means a professor being denied a job because they are Jewish.

 

A doctor refused employment at a hospital because they are Muslim.

 

A school student expelled because they are atheist.

 

A homeless person missing out a bed in a shelter because they are Hindu.

 

A charity worker rejected for promotion because they are Buddhist.

 

An aged care employee losing shifts because they are agnostic.

 

All these scenarios could be legal under the Religious Discrimination Bill, as long as it was a religious organisation doing the discriminating. And they would be using taxpayers’ money – your money, my money, our money – to do so.

 

This outcome – entrenching the power and privilege of the major churches, namely the Catholics and Sydney Anglicans, over and above the rest of us – is the inevitable consequence of the internal contradiction of this legislation.

 

The Morrison Government has chosen to undermine what could and should have been a standard Religious Discrimination Bill – one that would have prohibited most, if not all, of the scenarios described above – with provisions that instead promote ‘religious freedom’.

 

With their decision to release a second Exposure Draft for public consultation, the Government now has the opportunity to make a better, and more informed, choice, and to prepare legislation that reduces religious discrimination rather than increasing it.

 

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to suspend my disbelief that they will choose the right option. Based on everything leading to this point, I have no faith the Government’s ‘revised and further exposure draft’ Bill will be any less of a threat to women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships and people with disability.

 

But we must not forget it is also a threat to minority religions, to Jewish people, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostic people alike. They too will be subjected to discriminatory statements of belief, and potentially denied access to health care, just because of who they are. And they will be refused employment, and discriminated against in education, health, aged care and community services, all by ‘mainstream’ religious organisations using public monies to do so.

 

Hopefully, they – as well as the many decent Catholic and Anglican people of good faith who oppose new special rights to discriminate – will join us in demanding genuine religious anti-discrimination laws, to replace Morrison’s badly botched Bill.

 

 

r0_220_5199_3374_w1200_h678_fmax

By choosing to include expansive ‘religious freedom’ provisions, Scott Morrison has undermined the ability of the Religious Discrimination Bill to actually prohibit religious discrimination.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Media Release, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Government will Protect Religious Freedoms by Getting Law Right, 30 November 2019.

[ii] Transcript, Attorney-General Christian Porter, Address to National Press Club, 20 November 2019.

[iii] The Growing List of Problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill.

[iv] Clause 10(2)(c).

[v] Noting Anglicare Victoria have joined other religious bodies, including Vincent Care Victoria and Uniting Vic.Tas, in criticising the special rights to discriminate contained in the Bill. ‘Religious discrimination bill: Faith-based groups and equality advocates welcome delay’, Guardian Australia, 1 December 2019.

Submission to Victorian Government Consultation on Banning Conversion Practices

The Victorian Government is currently consulting on legislative options to ban conversion practices, including ‘ex-gay therapy’ and ‘ex-trans therapy’. Submissions close 24 November 2019, with more details here. The following is my personal submission:

 

**********

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission in response to the Discussion Paper: ‘Legislative options to implement a ban of conversion practices.’

 

I write this as a long-term advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, as someone who survived five years at an explicitly homophobic religious boarding school in Queensland in the early 1990s,[i] and as someone who has written on this issue previously.[ii]

 

While I am not Victorian, given early-adopting jurisdictions will be effectively setting the standard for other states and territories to follow (including my current state of NSW), I am interested to ensure that the scheme introduced by the Victorian Government is as strong as possible.

 

On that basis, my answers to the consultation questions are as follows:

 

Do you agree with the HCC’s definition?

Would you suggest any changes?

Should the definition of conversion practices be broad enough to capture the practices that do not involve health services or counselling?

What treatments and practices should be expressly excluded from the definition?

 

The Health Complaints Commissioner’s definition appears reasonable. It is particularly important that the second part of the definition – ‘including efforts to eliminate sexual and/or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender, or efforts to change gender expressions’ – is retained.

 

This is because the harms caused by conversion practices arise exclusively in the context of activities trying to prevent people from identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

 

There is no evidence of harmful ‘conversion practices’ in the other direction (forcing people to be LGBT), and therefore care should be taken to ensure that support services for LGBT people, and especially LGBT children and young people, are not inadvertently captured in any definition of conversion practices.

 

The definition should, however, capture anti-LGBT conversion practices outside health services or counselling. Conversion practices are basically psychological torture and as such they should not be acceptable in any context.

 

There may nevertheless be scope for increased penalties, or additional regulatory responses, where these practices occur in health services or counselling given the duty of care involved in these settings.

 

Who do you think should be protected?

Should protection be limited to children and people experiencing vulnerability? If so, what vulnerable groups should be included?

Should protection be available to all members of the community?

In what ways do you think the issue of consent is relevant to determining who should be protected?

 

I think all people should be protected, including adults. Again, my starting position is that conversion practices are psychological torture. And torture is not acceptable in any context, or with respect to any victim.

 

We should also remember that an adult who seeks out conversion practices has likely grown up in a homophobic, biphobic or transphobic environment, and that the cumulative effect of years or even decades of this bigotry and intolerance is probably the primary causative factor in them agreeing to participate in such harmful activities. It is therefore not truly free and informed consent.

 

Of course, there are some groups who are particularly vulnerable, including children as well as people with mental ill-health or other reasons for diminished legal capacity. The penalties for engaging in conversion practices aimed at these vulnerable groups could be made higher than for other adults (for example, by making the vulnerability of the victim an aggravating factor in sentencing).

 

Who do you think should be banned from providing conversion practices?

Specific professionals or persons? Or everyone who offers conversion practices?

 

These practices should be banned by anyone. There is no justification to allow psychological torture in any context.

 

There may however be reasons to provide additional regulatory responses for health practitioners, including counsellors, who engage in these practices (including referring people to these practices). This could include being suspended, or deregistered from providing any health services in the future, in addition to criminal or other penalties which apply to everyone.

 

Do you think conversion practices should be regulated wherever they occur or only in certain contexts or places?

 

If only health professionals are regulated, then again it should not matter where the conversion practices take place, because psychological torture should be prohibited wherever it occurs. It is a breach of the duty to care for patients for health practitioners to engage in these practices, or to refer others to them, in any context or place.

 

Do you think conversion practices should be regulated through criminal law, civil regulatory schemes or civil laws, or a combination of these?

What aspects of each approach would be effective in regulating conversion practices?

What aspects of each approach would be less effective in regulating conversion practices?

 

Given the abhorrent practices involved, and their harmful consequences on the lives of victims, I believe there should be criminal penalties for providing conversion practices, and for referring people to conversion practices.

 

This is a proportionate response to the seriousness of the underlying offence, and necessary to send a signal to the community that such practices will not be tolerated, any time, any where.

 

However, acknowledging the potential difficulty in criminal prosecution in these areas, these laws should be supplemented by civil regulatory sanctions, enforced by the Health Complaints Commissioner, Commissioner for Children and Young People or another similar body.

 

Finally, victims of such practices should be able to make claims of negligence against the people providing them, especially where it involves health practitioners and/or counsellors. Again, this is in recognition of the damage caused to their lives. Any laws necessary should be changed to allow this outcome, and provide financial redress for the victims.

 

What rights do you think are relevant to consider when determining how best to implement a ban of conversion practices?

Can the impact on these rights be justified in light of the harm conversion practices cause?

 

The most important rights in terms of this debate are the right to health, and the right to non-discrimination (given conversion practices are an attack on people with diverse sexual orientations and/or gender identities).

 

I acknowledge that there may be an adverse impact on freedom of religion, in that some individuals and organisations may assert that these practices are in line with their religious beliefs against LGBT identities.

 

However, their religious beliefs do not justify the imposition of psychological torture on others, including children and vulnerable people. In the same way that religious beliefs do not justify physical torture, including female genital mutilation, a position already reflected in Australian law.[iii]

 

Are there other matters that you consider critical for the design of legislation or effective implementation?

 

I reiterate my view that the approach adopted in states like Victoria will exert considerable influence on the position that will ultimately be embraced in others states and territories. As such, I strongly encourage the Victorian Government to introduce the strongest possible ban on these abhorrent practices, for the benefit of LGBT people nation-wide.

 

Thank you in advance for taking this submission into consideration. Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details supplied should you require clarification or additional information.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

Footnotes:

[i] See The Longest Five Years.

[ii] See Criminalising Ex-Gay Therapy August 6, 2018; Submission to NSW Parliament Inquiry into False or Misleading Health Practices re Ex-Gay Therapy and Intersex Sterilisation 16 June, 2014.

[iii] And, hopefully, one day religious beliefs will not be used to justify male genital mutilation/circumcision either.

What Gender Reveal Parties Actually Reveal

If the Germans hadn’t invented the term schadenfreude several centuries ago, we would have needed to create it to describe the most 21st century of phenomena: laughing at gender reveal fail videos.

 

These videos are (unintentionally) hilarious not just because when they go wrong, they go very wrong. With people coming up with increasingly intricate and in many cases bizarre scenarios to ‘stand out’, the potential for things to go awry has grown exponentially.

 

They are also deeply funny because the concept of a gender reveal party itself is inherently problematic, which means that laughing at the misfortunate of those involved is usually a guilt-free pleasure.

 

If you’re reading this and still think gender reveal parties are just a bit of harmless fun, perhaps it is useful to consider what exactly it is these parties are revealing – which is far more about the parent(s) than about their child(ren).

 

First, they reveal that some parents don’t seem to understand the difference between sex and gender.

 

Sex is biological (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions’).

 

On the other hand, gender is identity-based (with the Yogyakarta Principles defining gender identity as ‘each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, including the personal sense of the body (which may involve, if freely chosen, modification of bodily appearance or function by medical, surgical or other means) and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech and mannerisms’).[i]

 

Given it is impossible to know a child’s gender identity before or at birth (and usually for years after that), this means these celebrations should at the very least be renamed ‘sex reveal parties’.

 

Second, they reveal that some parents don’t seem to understand that both sex and gender are much more complicated than just male and female.

 

At its very core, a gender reveal party is an attempt to place an unborn child (or children) into one of two boxes: boy or girl.

 

And yet, in 2019, we know that gender identity is a spectrum, and there is a wide range of other options, including non-binary.

 

We also know that some children will be ‘born with physical sex characteristics that don’t fit medical and social norms for female or male bodies’ (the definition of intersex from Intersex Human Rights Australia).[ii]

 

Gender reveal parties therefore deliberately exclude some of the beautiful diversity of the human experience.[iii]

 

Third, they reveal that some parents are willing participants in a reductivist view of gender.

 

Gender reveal parties simplify the concepts of male and female into blue and pink respectively, as though entire genders can be signified by, even summed up by, a colour. When there is obviously more diversity within genders, and more similarities across people of different genders, than such a basic dichotomy can hope to represent.

 

Somewhat amusingly, these colours are also the exact opposite of those from just a century ago. From US Ladies Home Journal in June 1918:

 

‘The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.’

 

Mush less amusingly, while the colours have changed, some of those gender stereotypes remain and gender reveal parties tend to entrench, rather than question, them.

 

Based on these three factors, gender reveal parties can actually be harmful. By supporting a view that gender will match sex assigned at birth, they can make life much more difficult for trans and gender diverse children.

 

By raising expectations that babies will be born with sex characteristics that are exclusively male or female, they can erase intersex children (and even potentially increase pressure for unnecessary surgeries post-birth to ensure their bodies match these societal ‘norms’).

 

And by entrenching the notion that boys and girls are inherently different, and reinforcing stereotypes about how they will (or should) behave, gender reveal parties place artificial restrictions on all of us, and our behaviours.

 

It may sound like I am unsympathetic to the parents who hold gender reveal parties. I’m not, at least in part because most are simply replicating the actions of those around them (and those they follow on social media), and probably haven’t considered any of the issues described above. They are acting out of ignorance rather than malice.[iv]

 

I’m also sympathetic because, as a society, we seem to be placing an ever-greater emphasis on gender, certainly much more than I can remember as a child growing up in the 1980s. From unnecessarily gendered toys, to unnecessarily gendered toiletries, and even unnecessarily gendered grocery items, heightened expectations of ‘gender conformity’ are all around us – so it is perhaps only natural they will be felt most keenly by expecting parents.

 

The challenge then is what we can do to overcome these norms, especially the emerging norm that parents will hold gender reveal parties in the first place.

 

I have four suggestions to start, from the easiest to the most difficult:

 

  1. Don’t hold a gender reveal party

 

If you are having a child, simply refuse to have one of these ‘celebrations’. Which is easy for someone like me to say (a cis gay man who has decided, with his partner, not to have children, at least in part because of the climate emergency), so let’s move on…

 

  1. Don’t attend gender reveal parties

 

If you are invited to one of these ‘celebrations’, don’t attend. If people all stopped going, parents would stop holding them.

 

  1. Let the person know why you’re not attending

 

This is clearly more difficult than simply not turning up, especially because many of us prefer to avoid confrontation. But if we are to do the hard yards of ending this social norm, then we should take the time to explain to the person who has sent the invitation why you won’t be there.

 

  1. Stop asking ‘What are you having?’

 

Obviously, this is another degree of difficulty again, especially because this is something we’ve been conditioned to ask, usually first, when someone says they are pregnant (and something I have been guilty of, on more than one occasion).

 

But what does it actually matter? And aren’t there more interesting and/or important questions to ask, like ‘What are you looking forward to?’ ‘What are you nervous about?’ ‘Are you prepared?’ and ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’

 

For those having difficulty making this mental adjustment, consider thinking of it this way. When you are asking ‘What are you having?’ what you’re really asking is ‘What are your child’s sex chromosomes and/or genitalia?’ and ‘What gender do you currently intend to raise your child even though you cannot know now their eventual gender identity?’

 

Rationally, an expecting parent who knows the difference between sex and gender could also respond to the ‘What are you having?’ inquiry by saying that they’ll get back to the questioner in five, ten, 15 or even 20 years, when the child decides for themself.

 

Which brings me to the primary exception to my ‘no gender reveal parties’ stance: where trans and gender diverse people announce their own gender identity. This is truly something to celebrate, especially for those who’ve overcome years or even decades of transphobia from families, schools, and society in general.

 

[I suppose I would also make an exception for parents who hold a gender reveal party and then release a colour like green or brown and tell attendees that they’ll let their child determine their identity for themselves.]

 

Other than that, gender reveal parties are a social phenomenon that has risen to prominence incredibly quickly over the past decade – and hopefully will recede just as quickly in the early 2020s.

 

Indeed, that’s the view of the woman whose 2008 post is widely-credited as popularising ‘gender reveal parties’, Jenna Karvunidis. From NPR in July 2019:[v]

 

‘Plot twist! The baby from the original gender reveal party is a girl who wears suits,’ Karvunidis says. ‘She says ‘she’ and ‘her’ and all that, but you know she really goes outside gender norms’.

 

… Karvunidis says her views on sex and gender have changed, especially when she’s talking to her daughter.

 

‘She’s telling me ‘Mom, there are many genders. Mom, there’s many different sexualities and all different types,’ and I take her lead on that,’ Karvunidis says.

 

She says she does have some regrets and understands these parties aren’t beneficial to everyone.

 

‘I know it’s been harmful to some individuals. It’s 2019, we don’t need to get our joy by giving others pain,’ she says. ‘I think there’s a new way to have these parties.’

 

And that idea is as simple as just eating cake.

 

‘Celebrate the baby,’ she says. ‘There’s no way to have a cake cut into it, to see if they’re going to like chess. Let’s just have a cake.’

 

Which is a great idea. And then to eat any leftovers while watching videos of gender reveal party fails because, let’s face it, some of them are funny as hell.

 

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An infamous 2017 gender reveal party fail, which caused a 47,000 acre fire in Arizona.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Yes, I’m aware that both the concepts of sex and gender, and the relationship between them, are far more complex. However, in the context of ‘gender reveal parties’ it’s clear these celebrations are based on biological sex (chromosomes and/or genitalia) rather than identity-based ideas of gender.

[ii] IHRA website, here.

[iii] We should note here that variations in sex characteristics is separate to non-binary gender identities, with many intersex people identifying with the ‘sex’ they were assigned at birth. Again for the Intersex Human Rights Australia website:

‘Some intersex people and some non-intersex (‘endosex’) people use nonbinary terms to describe their identities and sex classifications. Often, however, we encounter assumptions that to be intersex is to be nonbinary, or to be nonbinary is to be intersex. These assumptions are harmful. They fail to recognize the diversity of the intersex population, and in this case even the existence of intersex boys and girls, and intersex women and men.’

[iv] Of course, some parents possibly are deliberately setting expectations that their children will be either male or female, and that they will ‘act accordingly’ (including not identifying as trans or gender diverse), to which I say ‘fuck you’.

[v] Woman who popularized gender reveal parties says her views on gender have changed.