Scott Morrison is Unfit to be Prime Minister

Scott Morrison became Australia’s 30th Prime Minister on 24 August 2018. In my opinion, based on his (mis)treatment of the LGBTI community, he is unfit to hold that esteemed position. Here’s why:

 

  1. As Treasurer, Morrison allocated $160million to the same-sex marriage plebiscite

 

In his first Budget as Treasurer in May 2016, Morrison allocated $160million to the unnecessary, harmful and divisive plebiscite on same-sex marriage. This is despite the fact Parliament could have voted on this issue for free, and the money better spent on literally almost anything else.

 

  1. As Treasurer, Morrison oversaw $80.5million in spending on the postal survey

 

Despite the Senate rejecting legislation to hold the Turnbull Liberal-National Government’s proposed plebiscite, it decided to hold a postal survey instead. While Finance Minister Matthias Cormann signed the cheque, the money still came from Treasurer Morrison’s Budget. Once again, Parliament could have voted on this issue for nothing – but they chose to throw away $80.5million of our taxes anyway. Liberal and National Party MPs and Senators should be asked to repay it.

 

  1. During the postal survey, Morrison campaigned for a No vote

 

Given his conservative religious background, it is unsurprising Morrison campaigned for people to be denied equality under secular law simply because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics. During the postal survey he said that:

 

“My view on this topic is as important as everyone else’s. That is why we are having a survey on it. My view is, look I am voting no, it is okay to say no and people should know that.”

To some extent, Morrison was entitled to express that opinion. However, it is included here to demonstrate he believed the postal survey was a legitimate process to determine this issue, a context that makes the next two acts substantially more objectionable.

 

  1. Morrison voted for every discriminatory amendment put forward during parliamentary debate on same-sex marriage

 

Following the announcement of the 61.6% Yes vote on 15 November 2017, the Parliament still had to pass legislation to give that result legal effect (thus demonstrating the fundamental wastefulness of the postal survey). During debate of Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, Morrison moved amendments to protect organisations and charities that espoused discriminatory beliefs including:

 

  • ‘the gender difference and complementarity of men and women is an inherent and fundamental feature of human society and is reflected in the gender difference and complementarity of a man and a woman united in marriage’, and
  • ‘the normative state of gender is binary and can, in the overwhelming majority of cases, be identified at birth.’

 

Thankfully, it was defeated. Morrison also voted for every single other set of amendments seeking to add anti-LGBTI discrimination to the Bill. Perhaps the worst was an amendment to insert two separate definitions of marriage in the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth):

 

‘marriage means:

(a) the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life; or

(b) the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.’

 

Again, this amendment was defeated. But we cannot forget that, despite more than 3-in-5 Australians voting for equality, Morrison voted to entrench separate definitions for marriage in the Act itself. This goes against one of the most important political lessons of the 20th century: separate but equal is never equal.

 

  1. Morrison abstained from voting on the same-sex marriage bill

 

Despite:

  • Allocating $160million to the plebiscite in his Budget
  • Overseeing $80.5million spending on the postal survey
  • Campaigning during the postal survey, and
  • Participating in debate on the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017,

Morrison abstained on the final vote on this legislation.

 

As discussed above, he clearly saw the postal survey process as legitimate, but he didn’t see the outcome as legitimate when his side lost. Morrison ultimately refused to implement the will of the people.

 

This was a gross insult to the 7,817,247 Australians who voted Yes, including the 55% of people who voted Yes in his electorate of Cook.

 

Scott Morrison didn’t respect our vote on the postal survey. He doesn’t deserve our vote on 18 May.

 

However, it isn’t just on marriage that Morrison’s words and actions mean he is, in my view, unfit to hold the highest office in the land.

 

  1. As Minister for Immigration, Morrison imprisoned LGBTI people seeking asylum in countries that criminalised them

 

Morrison was Minister for Immigration from September 2013 to December 2014. During this time, he imprisoned people seeking asylum on both Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. This included lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex refugees, despite the fact both Nauru and PNG criminalised homosexuality. This policy effectively continued their persecution – and he continued to do so even after this issue was raised with him.

 

  1. As Treasurer, Morrison axed funding for the Safe Schools program

 

Morrison as Treasurer signed off on the axing of an effective, evidence-based anti-bullying program that cost just $8million over three years but provided significant benefits to LGBTI students. This Budget cut was ideological not financial – elsewhere he found room for the $80.5million postal survey, as well as more than $60million per year for the National School Chaplaincy Program.

 

  1. As Prime Minister, Morrison tweeted against programs supporting trans children

 

On 5 September 2018 – less than a fortnight into the job – Morrison published his infamous ‘gender whisperers’ tweet:

 

Morrison gender whisperers copy

 

His ‘let kids be kids’ message in practice said that children should be protected from the very idea that trans and gender diverse people exist. Worse, Morrison was arguing trans and gender diverse children, who are some of the most vulnerable members of the Australian community, should be left to struggle in isolation, without any support from their schools.

 

If there is a better example of ‘un-Prime Ministerial’ behaviour, I am yet to see it.

 

  1. As Prime Minister, Morrison refused to condemn gay conversion therapy

 

In the same week, Morrison was asked about his policy on anti-gay and anti-trans conversion therapy, a practice that is nothing less than the psychological torture of people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. His response:

 

“I think people should make their own choices about their own lives… That’s always been my view. I’ve never been involved in anything like that, I’ve never supported anything like that. So mate, it’s just not an issue for me, and I’m not planning to get engaged in the issue.”

 

He has refused to take any action on this issue in the seven months since. Once again, Morrison has displayed his lack of concern for people whose life experiences are different to his own.

 

Indeed, on all four of these issues – LGBTI people seeking asylum, LGBTI students, trans and gender diverse children and survivors of anti-gay and anti-trans conversion therapy – he has shown that he basically does not care about some of the most disadvantaged people in society.

 

If Scott Morrison does not have empathy for others, he should not receive the votes of others.

 

  1. As Prime Minister, Morrison broke his promise to protect LGBT students against discrimination

 

In response to the leaking of recommendations from the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review in October 2018, Morrison promised he would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students against discrimination by religious schools before the end of the year.

 

That deadline came and went, and his Government never even introduced a Bill to try to give effect to this commitment. The 45th Parliament has now expired, with LGBT students just as exposed to mistreatment and abuse as they were before his hollow words.

 

In fact, Morrison delayed any action on this issue by referring the subject of ‘religious exceptions’ to the Australian Law Reform Commission for review by 10 April 2020, meaning LGBT students will not be protected until the start of the 2021 school year (at the earliest). This is an egregious breach of faith of the Australian people, who expected him to back his promise with action.

 

  1. Morrison has no policies on LGBTI issues

 

Less than four weeks before the election and it appears the Liberal Party has no policies on LGBTI issues. Try searching the Liberal Party’s website. There’s nothing there. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

 

In the first 11 days of the election campaign the only comments I can find Morrison has made on LGBTI issues is the same, re-hashed promise to protect LGBT students against discrimination – you know, the promise he has already broken once. It’s clear he does not have a plan for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

If Scott Morrison won’t govern for all Australians, he shouldn’t govern any Australians.

 

  1. Morrison won’t tell us what’s in his Religious Discrimination Bill

 

The other major outcomes of the Religious Freedom Review were a proposal for a Religious Discrimination Bill (which was recommended by Ruddock) and a promise to appoint a Religious Freedom Commissioner (which was not recommended).

 

These represent the biggest changes to Commonwealth anti-discrimination law since the introduction of the Age Discrimination Act 2004.

 

However, despite having the Religious Freedom Review for 11 months, and comments in December by Attorney-General Christian Porter about “the Religious Discrimination Bill, which we are well-advanced on the drafting of and which we would have out early next year, so that people can see it”, we are yet to see any details of this legislation.

 

Indeed, the day before the election was called, it was reported that:

 

“Attorney-General Christian Porter told The Australian the religious discrimination bill was “well advanced” but “not at the point of readiness”. “It remains clear government policy and, if re-elected, one of the first orders of business would be to pursue that legislation” (‘Religious freedom bill fails to meet election deadline’, The Australian, 10 April 2019).

 

This is particularly worrying for LGBTI Australians because, while protecting religious minorities against discrimination would be welcome, a Religious Discrimination Bill could also include new rights for religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTI people (the same kinds of amendments that Morrison himself voted for during the same-sex marriage debate).

 

The reality is we are being deliberately kept in the dark about legislation that could have significant impacts on Australian society, something the Government itself says will be implemented shortly after the election. That, in my opinion, is treating voters with contempt.

 

Updated 13 May 2019:

 

13. Morrison refused to disendorse a candidate who linked same-sex marriage to paedophilia

 

Early in the election campaign it was reported that the Liberal candidate for Scullin, Gurpal Singh, had linked same-sex marriage to paedophilia in an interview during the same-sex marriage postal survey. Despite a significant public backlash, and the disendorsement of other candidates for equally-discriminatory comments, Morrison steadfastly refused to disendorse Mr Singh for more than two weeks. Singh was only forced to resign following publication of unrelated (and despicable) comments about rape. The entire saga clearly demonstrated that for Morrison – who had repeatedly used the phrase ‘the standard you walk past is the standard you accept’ – extreme homophobia is entirely acceptable.

 

**********

 

Of course, there are other, non-LGBTI issues that cast serious doubt on Scott Morrison’s suitability for the position of Prime Minister (other actions from his time as Minister for Immigration, and bringing a lump of coal into Parliament, spring immediately to mind).

 

But, even ignoring everything else, on the basis of his (mis)treatment of LGBTI people alone, in my view it is clear Morrison is unfit to be the leader of this country. It’s now up to the rest of Australia whether they see fit to keep him there on 18 May.

 

Updated 24 May 2019:

 

To the shock, and disappointment, of many LGBTI people, the majority of Australians did indeed see fit to keep Scott Morrison in the top job last Saturday. His surprise victory leaves him with significant personal clout within the Liberal-National Government.

 

How he uses that clout will be crucial in determining whether the re-elected Coalition Government actively seeks to wind back LGBTI rights in Australia, and if so how aggressively it pursues that agenda.

 

The first test will be the Religious Discrimination Bill (or Religious Freedom Bill), likely to be introduced in the second half of 2019. LGBTI Australians must be prepared to do everything in our power to stop this legislation if it expands the rights of religious organisations to discriminate against us. We’ll be watching, and ready to act if necessary.

 

 

Morrison

 

Disclaimer: As with all posts, this article reflects my own views and not those of any employer, past or present.

 

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

What ever happened to protecting LGBT students against discrimination? An explainer.

In the last 18 months, anti-discrimination law reform has been the subject of considerable public attention.

 

Following the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review, and including multiple Senate inquiries, hopes had been raised that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students might finally be protected against discrimination by religious schools under Commonwealth law.

 

So far, those hopes have been dashed. Despite promising to do so, the Morrison Liberal-National Government failed to pass any changes to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) to repeal or limit the exceptions that allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT kids prior to the election being called.

 

In this article, I will attempt to explain how we got here (including where things stand now), who is to blame and what will likely happen from here.

 

How did we get here?

 

In November 2017, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull referred the issue of whether Commonwealth law adequately protects religious freedom to a panel headed by former Liberal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock.

 

This was to appease conservatives within his Government who were seeking to amend Senator Dean Smith’s flawed Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 to include even more religious exceptions than it already did.

 

The Ruddock Review investigated a wide range of issues, including religious exceptions to LGBTI anti-discrimination laws, before handing its report to Turnbull in May 2018 – which the Liberal-National Government then sat on.

 

In October 2018, the Sydney Morning Herald published the leaked recommendations of the Review, focusing on proposals to clarify the existing right of religious schools to discriminate against, and expel, LGBT students.

 

This prompted significant public outcry, including from many parents who had no idea that religious schools, funded by enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money, could lawfully mistreat vulnerable kids in such an abhorrent and appalling way.

 

New Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded by saying his Government would amend the Sex Discrimination Act to prohibit discrimination against LGBT students before the end of the year (2018). It is probably also useful to remember he did this in the context of the lead-up to the Wentworth by-election, which the Government feared losing to a backlash from moderate voters (narrator: they did).

 

The Greens introduced their own Bill to the Senate – the Discrimination Free Schools Bill 2018 – that sought to protect both LGBT students and teachers in religious schools. That was then the catalyst for the first Senate inquiry, looking at ‘Legislative exemptions that allow faith-based educational institutions to discriminate against students, teachers and staff’.

 

That Committee reported in late November, recommending that “the Australian Government amend section 37 and remove subsection 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and amend any other relevant legislative provisions, to prohibit discrimination against students on the grounds of the protected attributes in the Act” [Recommendation 3].

 

This report was immediately followed by Labor introducing their own Bill, the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018. As the name suggests, its sole focus was on removing discrimination against students, in line with what Morrison had promised in October.

 

However, instead of passing it as he had committed, the Senate referred this Bill off to a second inquiry over the summer break – meaning LGBT students would not be protected for the start of the 2019 school year.

 

In the meantime, the Government finally released the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review in full, in December 2018 (after sitting on it for almost seven months).

 

Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter simultaneously provided the Government’s response, in which they abandoned the earlier, explicit promise to protect LGBT students at religious schools, instead committing to send the entire issue of religious exceptions in Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) for yet another review.

 

It was therefore unsurprising when, in February 2019, the Government-dominated Senate Committee inquiring into Labor’s Bill recommended that not only should Labor’s Bill not be passed, but that “the bill, circulated amendments and all relevant matters be referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission for full and proper consideration.”

 

Given the Liberal-National Government’s ongoing opposition to legislation addressing this issue, that meant no amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 were passed in February or March.

 

Instead, on Wednesday 10 April 2019 – less than 24 hours before the election was called – Attorney-General Porter announced he had referred the issue of religious exceptions to the ALRC for an inquiry lasting 12 months, not reporting back until 10 April 2020.

 

Where do things stand now?

 

Despite the flurry of activity on this issue over the past 18 months, and the past six months in particular, the legal situation now is unchanged:

 

Under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), religious schools are legally permitted to discriminate against, and expel, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students on the basis of who they are.

 

They are also free to fire, and refuse to hire, LGBT teachers and other staff, despite the significant amount of taxpayers’ money used to pay their salaries.

 

This is obviously incredibly disappointing, especially given the supposed bipartisan commitments to address this issue made late last year. Which prompts the equally-obvious question:

 

Who is to blame?

 

While responsibility for major #auspol policy failures like this can usually be shared around, the blame for the lack of action in this particular area lies squarely at the feet of the Morrison Liberal-National Government.

 

The have failed to progress anti-discrimination law reform in four key ways:

 

  1. The Morrison Liberal-National Government refused to introduce its own Bill to protect LGBT students

 

Despite Prime Minister Morrison’s October 2018 commitment to introduce and pass amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to protect LGBT students before the end of the year, his Government never actually introduced its own Bill to make these changes. Which, you’d have to admit, makes it extremely difficult to actually pass anything.

 

Indeed, if the Liberal-National Government was ‘fair dinkum’ about fulfilling its promise, it would have at least tried to move its own legislation on this issue. With a Prime Minister who is quite fond of saying ‘if you have a go, you get a go’, his Government didn’t bother to have a go at changing this law – meaning LGBT students don’t get a go at learning in a discrimination-free environment.

 

  1. The Morrison Liberal-National Government sought to introduce new powers to discriminate

 

As noted above, the Labor Opposition and Greens both introduced their own Bills to protect LGBT students, and LGBT students and teachers, respectively. The Labor Bill in particular was subject to Senate debate in late 2018, before being referred to the second Committee inquiry.

 

During this debate, the Liberal-National Government introduced amendments that would ensure that, even if religious schools lost their specific exception in section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act, they would continue to be able to discriminate under the general religious exception in section 37(1)(d) [Government amendment KQ147].

 

They also sought to expand the reasonableness test for indirect discrimination to include consideration of whether any “condition, requirement or practice is imposed, or proposed to be imposed, in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed” [Government amendments KQ148, 150 and 151]. This would have effectively expanded rather than restricted the range of groups who could be discriminated against because of religious beliefs to include intersex students as well (among others).

 

Finally, the Government wanted to allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBTI students if it was part of teaching activity (broadly defined to capture “any kind of instruction of a student by a person employed or otherwise engaged by an educational institution”) as long as it was done “in good faith in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed” [Government amendment KQ149].

 

If any or all of the Morrison Government’s amendments had been passed, it would have meant religious schools could have continued to discriminate against LGBT students – it just would have been done under different sections of the Act.

 

  1. The Morrison Liberal-National Government tried to limit changes to preventing expulsion only

 

Another way in which the Government undermined anti-discrimination law reform was by narrowing its scope to preventing religious schools from expelling or refusing to enrol LGBT students, while continuing to allow them to discriminate against, and mistreat, vulnerable kids in other ways.

 

This approach formed part of Prime Minister Morrison’s early rhetoric following the leaking of the Ruddock Review Recommendations in October 2018, as he focused on expulsion: “I don’t think if someone’s at a school they should be kicked out because they have a different sexuality to what might be believed to be the appropriate thing by a particular religious group” [emphasis added].

 

While subsequent debate seemed to broaden to cover all forms of discrimination against LGBT students, in February 2019 Government Senators once again tried to limit the reforms to preventing expulsion only, with The Australian reporting Government members of the Senate Committee sought a deal with the Opposition on this issue (‘ALP stops bid to protect gay kids’, The Australian, 19 February 2019).

 

Thankfully, the Opposition rejected this narrow approach. This is important because there are many different ways in which religious schools can discriminate against LGBT kids, without necessarily expelling them, and they are all harmful (see, for example, my own story here: The longest five years’ ).

 

Only removing the power to expel, while allowing schools to mistreat students in myriad other ways, would have been completely inadequate and inappropriate.

 

  1. The Morrison Liberal-National Government has done everything in its power to delay reform

 

There is absolutely no reason why the Commonwealth Government, and Parliament, could not have passed reforms to the Sex Discrimination Act, protecting LGBT students, before the end of 2018.

 

How can I say that so confidently? Because the ACT Government did exactly that, passing it owns reforms – based on the best practice Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 – between the leaking of the Ruddock Review Recommendations in October and the end of the year. These reforms, which protect both LGBT students and teachers, will commence by 6 June 2019 at the latest.

 

Instead, at Commonwealth level, we have had Labor and Greens Bills, and two Senate inquiries, but no Government legislation and no change to the law.

 

Even worse, we now have a reference to the ALRC that won’t report on the issue until 10 April 2020, meaning any Bill arising from it will likely not be debated until the second half of next year. Consequently, any reforms to protect LGBT students wouldn’t take effect until the start of 2021 – at the earliest.

 

Christian Porter

Attorney-General Christian Porter

 

It is clear, from these four arguments, that the Morrison Liberal-National Government is responsible for the fact LGBT students are still not protected against discrimination as we start the federal election campaign.

 

What people may not be aware of is that they are also responsible for two major threats to LGBT anti-discrimination laws in the near future.

 

The first is the ALRC inquiry itself. Its terms of reference includes the following:

 

consideration of what reforms to relevant anti-discrimination laws, the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) and any other Australia law should be made in order to:

  • limit or remove altogether (if practicable) religious exemptions to prohibitions on discrimination, while also guaranteeing the right of religious institutions to conduct their affairs in a way consistent with their religious ethos; and
  • remove any legal impediments to the expression of a view of marriage as it was defined in the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) before it was amended by the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 (Cth), whether such impediments are imposed by a provision analogous to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) or otherwise.

 

Now, some people might see the first dot point, and specifically the reference to limiting or removing religious exemptions, as encouraging. And it could be – except that this is also what religious fundamentalist organisations, such as the Australian Christian Lobby, also want (for example, the ACL’s own submission to the Ruddock Review stated that ‘State and Commonwealth Anti-Discrimination laws establish an unhelpful and incomplete framework of religious exemptions which inadequately balance the right of religious freedom against the right to non-discrimination’ before recommending ‘that existing exemptions in anti-discrimination law re reframed as ‘general limitations clauses’).

 

The remainder of that clause – ‘while also guaranteeing the right of religious institutions to conduct their affairs in a way consistent with their religious ethos’ – is where the danger lies. Namely, religious exceptions may simply be replaced by the introduction of positively-framed rights to discriminate against LGBT people.

 

The second dot point is just as problematic. Despite the fact there is limited, or no, evidence that people expressing discriminatory views of marriage are suffering real-world adverse consequences, the ALRC is supposed to give significant attention to ‘protecting’ them.

 

This includes undermining the best practice LGBTI anti-vilification laws found in the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (which are equivalent to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the primary reason why the RDA has been raised in this context) [For a comparison of LGBTI anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws, click here].

 

The second threat comes from another part of the Morrison Liberal-National Government’s response to the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review: its commitment to introduce a Religious Discrimination Bill.

 

Once again, this should be a positive development. Most people interested in human rights, including myself, support the inclusion of religious belief or lack of belief as a protected attribute in anti-discrimination law in jurisdictions where it is not currently protected (specifically, the Commonwealth, New South Wales and South Australia). This will help ensure religious minorities are protected against discrimination in education, employment and service delivery.

 

On the other hand, a Religious Discrimination Bill could become a vehicle to include positively-framed rights for religious individuals and organisations to discriminate against others, becoming a stealth ‘Religious Freedom Bill’, in the same way that some Liberal-National MPs and Senators tried to turn a same-sex marriage bill into anti-LGBTI equality legislation.

 

The truth is we will not know which option, good or bad, the Government is pursuing until we see the text of the Bill itself. Which is why Attorney-General Porter’s announcement that the Religious Discrimination Bill would not be released until after the election is so worrying (‘Religious freedom bill fails to meet election deadline’, The Australian, 10 April 2019).

 

Despite saying in December at the release of the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review that “the Religious Discrimination Bill, which we are well-advanced on the drafting of and which we would have out early next year, so that people can see it”, LGBTI Australians will now be kept in the dark on a key new law that could have a significant impact on our rights (although it is probably safe to assume major religious organisations have been consulted on its drafting).

 

Not only has the Morrison Liberal-National Government stopped laws to protect LGBT students against discrimination from passing during the 45th Parliament, they have already started two processes (the ALRC Inquiry, and the Religious Discrimination Bill) that could see LGBT rights go backwards in the 46th.

 

What about the other parties?

 

The Labor Party has largely been supportive of LGBTI rights throughout this (sometimes convoluted, but consistently frustrating) process.

 

As discussed earlier, they introduced the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018 that does just what it says on the box. They have been very clear they will protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination if they are elected next month.

 

However, the ALP has been somewhat less clear in terms of their plans for teachers. While committing to remove the exceptions that allow religious schools to fire, and refuse to hire, LGBT teachers and other staff, they have also made vague comments about introducing amendments to ensure religious schools can continue to impose their ‘ethos and values’. Bill Shorten and the Labor Party need to outline exactly what they intend to do on this issue, before the election.

 

[Update 11 May 2019: While Labor have reiterated their intention to protect LGBT teachers and other staff, they have still not clarified the scope of any amendments to protect the ‘ethos and values’ of the school. More concerningly, they have indicated they will wait for the ALRC to conduct its inquiry into religious exceptions before protecting LGBT students or teachers. This is unacceptable – students deserve to be protected as quickly as possible, and there is a Bill ready and waiting to be reintroduced. It should be one of the first items of business of a new parliament.]

 

The Greens are obviously supportive of removing exceptions that allow discrimination against both LGBT students and teachers. They have also indicated that religious exceptions should be removed in other areas (including health and community services), as well as in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).

 

In terms of the minor parties, the right-wing fringe groups (including Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives and the racist Senator who shall not be named) are exactly as homophobic and transphobic as you would expect, and don’t deserve our attention.

 

However, one minor party earns a special mention – although not for reasons they would appreciate. That is because the Centre Alliance (the renamed Nick Xenophon Team) supported some of the Government’s amendments that, in practice, would have permitted religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students. In fact, the position of the Centre Alliance is the reason that Labor’s Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill could not at least pass the Senate in late 2018.

 

What happens next?

 

The outcome of the federal election on Saturday 18 May will determine what happens next in terms of anti-discrimination law reform.

 

If the Morrison Government is returned, it is unclear whether LGBT students will be protected, and if so what that change would look like. Even if they remove the specific religious exceptions in the Sex Discrimination Act, it is highly likely they will simply replace them with new, positively-framed rights for religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people, including in education.

 

Any reforms under a re-elected Liberal-National Government will also be delayed until at least the second half of 2020 (after the ALRC has completed its inquiry), meaning LGBT students in religious schools will be exposed to discrimination until at least 2021.

 

And, as discussed above, both the ALRC inquiry itself, and the imminent (although still secret) Religious Discrimination Bill, could see LGBTI rights actually go backwards under a 2nd term Morrison Government.

 

If the Labor Party is elected, on the other hand, it is highly likely that LGBT students will be protected against discrimination as a matter of priority. It is also probable that LGBT teachers and other staff will be protected in some form – although it will be up to LGBTI organisations to push them to make sure any such changes are as straight-forward as possible, and not undermined by ‘ethos and values’-style amendments (an increased Greens presence in the Senate would also assist in this respect).

 

Nevertheless, we must remember that the only thing in this area that is guaranteed to happen, every school day of this election campaign – and for months, and possibly years, afterwards – is that too many LGBT students will attend a school where they can be lawfully discriminated against.

 

And the primary reason is that Prime Minister Scott Morrison broke his promise, made just six months ago, to do something about it.

 

**********

 

Disclaimer: As with all posts, this article reflects my own views and not those of any employer, past or present.

 

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

 

The longest five years

[Content warning: homophobia; violence; suicidal ideation]

 

Those eyelashes.

He had beautiful blue eyes, scruffy blond hair and a mischievous smile, but it’s his eyelashes I remember most more than a quarter of a century later.

The day before, my Mum had driven me the eight hours from the farm west of Rockhampton where I was raised, to this boarding school in Brisbane’s inner-west. The day after I would start year 8, and what would be the longest five years of my life.

But that January afternoon, as the new boarders got to know each other down at the pool, I was transfixed by his eyelashes, droplets of water on them glistening in the Queensland summer sun.

That moment crystallised the feelings of difference that had slowly accumulated over the previous few years. At 10 and 11, I had grown increasingly bewildered as the other boys and girls at Blackwater primary began to express interest in each other.

At 12, in this unfamiliar environment, a long, long way from home, I finally understood why.

I liked boys.

 

**********

 

It took me another month or so to learn the right language to describe who I was. But I realised quickly afterwards that being gay was unlikely to be welcomed. Not by my National Party-voting parents (my Dad had actually nominated for federal pre-selection the year before). Not by my classmates. And definitely not by my school.

This was 1991. Homosexuality in Queensland had only just been decriminalised – and even then, the Parliament had imposed an unequal age of consent for anal intercourse (to ‘protect’ boys from being recruited to the homosexual lifestyle), something that would not be repealed until 2016.

Social attitudes were changing, but at a glacial pace. Many parts of the state were still firmly stuck in the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era. My school was one of them.

Based on the Lutheran faith, it enforced both religious indoctrination, and homophobia, with steely German efficiency.

We had chapel five times a week (Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and an hour-plus every Sunday), and bible studies another two or three times.

The school rules, which were printed in the student diary, were based on supposedly ‘christian’ principles, and included the statement that homosexuality would not be tolerated because it was not in accordance with god’s will.

The sex education that was provided was a superficial, hetero-normative joke. While the jokes made by my classmates, often within earshot of unresponsive staff, were frequently homophobic.

If I was going to survive here, I would have to suppress my burgeoning same-sex attraction with all my might.

 

**********

 

It is hard, even now, especially now, to find the words to describe the utter loneliness of what followed.

Being surrounded 24/7 by 180 other boys, at a school of 1600 students overall, but having absolutely no-one to talk to, or confide in.

Needless to say there were no ‘out’ role models to look up to.

So, I quickly cut myself off, socially and emotionally, rather than risk the ostracism – or worse – of letting slip my secret.

Looking back, it was probably the only rational course of action. But it would slowly erode, and corrode, my self-esteem.

 

**********

 

I became so withdrawn that the rest of year 8, and most of year 9, was a numb blur.

As an academic child – some (well, if I’m being honest, most) might say nerd – I concentrated on my schoolwork.

The only snippets I learnt about what it meant to be gay came from pop-culture.

Sneaking peaks at Outrage magazine at the newsagent between school and the local shopping centre.

Scanning newspapers for any gay references I could find. One article about homosexuality from The Australian, back when it actually did journalism, sticks out in my mind, at least in part because of the scantily clad male torso it featured.

Trying to stay up late in the dorm to watch Sex with Sophie Lee, and Melrose Place featuring Matt the (largely-sexless) gay social worker.

Not exactly the most well-rounded education on ‘gayness’, but I devoured any morsel I could get.

 

**********

 

My clearest memory of year 9 came one evening during our allocated study period, during which each boarding house year group was supervised by a year 12 student.

This particular night our allocated ‘senior’ was joined by his twin brother and their friend, and they proceeded to discuss, in front of us, what they had got up to during the previous weekend.

On the Saturday night they and some others had apparently gone to a major bridge in Brisbane, found a toilet block where ‘faggots’ (their word, not mine) congregated, and ‘rolled’ them.

They were confessing to gay-bashing. Except this was no ordinary confession. They were smiling. Joking. Laughing. They were bragging.

Long before the term ‘toxic masculinity’ was popularised, I was learning what it meant, face-to-face.

I could not be 100 per cent certain whether what they were saying was true, or just teenage ‘bravado’ (even if it was the opposite of real bravery).

But I was now absolutely sure of one thing. Being gay at this school would not just lead to social exclusion, and possible expulsion. Being gay here was physically dangerous too.

I retreated even further into my closet. It became my whole world.

 

**********

 

Unsurprisingly, denying who I was, and isolating myself from my surrounds, was profoundly damaging to my mental health.

I suffered what I would later understand was major depression.

By the second term of year 8, I was already contemplating what seemed like the only way out: ending my life.

At first these thoughts came weekly. Then every few days.

By the start of year 10, I was thinking of killing myself upwards of a dozen times every 24 hours.

There wasn’t a day from then until after I finished year 12 that I didn’t think of committing suicide.

 

**********

 

Amidst the gloom, year 10 provided the one enjoyable term of my entire five-year stint of boarding school.

That was an eight-week ‘outdoor education’ program, where each class of about 30 lived in spartan accommodation in the hills north of Toowoomba.

By spartan, I really mean it. No flushing toilets. No running water full stop. To have a hot shower you had to build the fire, and boil the water, yourself. And after all that it only lasted for a total of about 30 seconds.

Still, there was something enjoyable about having no classes, and being immersed in an environment where kids could just be kids for a bit. I finally managed to make a few friends, mostly among the female students, something that would come in handy during the remaining two and a half years of hell in that school.

 

**********

 

Even out there, however, we couldn’t fully escape the religious inculcation the school was so expert in. We still had group daily prayer. And church every Sunday.

As part of its stereotypically ‘protestant’ emphasis on self-reliance, towards the end of the eight weeks we were also made to do a 24- or 48-hour ‘solo’, where we were left in the middle of the bush, with little other than a flashlight and a bible for company.

So I read it, cover to cover, in the desperate hope I might find something in there to help me overcome my predicament.

Which began a period of about 6 months where I would engage in an individual nightly prayer, wishing I would wake up as something other than myself. Each morning I was profoundly disappointed.

I was more lost than ever.

 

**********

 

The nadir of this search for ‘redemption’ came late in year 10, when I sought the assistance of one of the pastors to be baptised.

For a couple of months that involved spending an hour each week with him, discussing faith and what it meant to me.

We didn’t discuss homosexuality. I wasn’t going to raise it, and he certainly didn’t ask.

But it must been have clear to this kind old man (and that is still how I remember him) that the young boy in front of him was drowning.

If it was, then he himself was too far out of his depth to help.

My strongest memory of that entire process was sitting in his office, listening to – but not really hearing – his words, as it felt like my whole body dissolved into the couch, until I wasn’t there anymore.

It was clear that religion was not going to be my life-raft.

 

**********

 

Perhaps surprisingly, by year 11, things had slowly started to improve.

The friendships I had made with a few of the female day students strengthened. Even if I felt I couldn’t disclose my secret to them, just having someone, anyone, to talk to, even about random, meaningless stuff, made the days seem not so long, and the nights not quite so terrifyingly alone.

I was also learning more about this whole ‘gay’ thing.

One of the advantages of being a nerd meant I was free to visit, unsupervised, the University of Queensland Social Sciences Library, ostensibly to undertake research for my school assessments. In fact, I was becoming closely acquainted with the work of Alfred Kinsey and his ‘Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male’.

I surreptitiously picked up a few copies of Brother-Sister (the 90s, Brisbane equivalent of the Star Observer), reading them cover-to-cover and then throwing them away before heading back to campus.

It was reassuring to know that a gay world did exist out there, somewhere – a suburb, and a galaxy, removed from where I was.

Pop-culture was also steadily expanding its, and my, gayze. Tales of the City (the TV series) was an eye-opener, with its heady depiction of gay life in 70s San Francisco. It even made being gay look like it could be fun.

And I distinctly recall the moment I first saw the photos of Ian Roberts in Blue Magazine (images that were committed to memory for several years after that).

Life in the dorms even got slightly easier with the installation of shower curtains. Which, unless you’ve lived in a boarding house, may not seem like a big deal, but finally provided enough privacy to do what teenage boys do… A lot…

It felt like the invisible but ever-present weight I had been carrying was slowly lifting. There was much less ‘praying the gay away’, replaced with the almost imperceptibly small beginnings of self-acceptance.

 

**********

 

Any progress I had made was stopped in its tracks by a moment of brutality.

Well, two moments.

Physically, I had matured faster than some of my peers, and at 15 had a nascent patch of hair on my chest (which, I’ll be honest, I was a little bit chuffed about).

One evening early in year 11, after study a group of about half-a-dozen boys from my year ambushed me between two buildings, pinned me down and removed my shirt.

I struggled to break free, but there were too many of them.

I called out for help, which was then muffled by one of their hands across my mouth.

No-one came.

I didn’t comprehend what was going on, until one of them took out a razor and shaved my chest.

I think the whole thing was all over in about three minutes.

Looking back, I don’t know how but I somehow managed to compartmentalise this un-provoked attack. Pretending it didn’t mean anything. That it was ‘just’ some harmless hazing. That this kind of thing happened to everyone. Didn’t it?

Perversely, the dissociation of more than three years in the closet helped me to detach myself from this incident.

I tried to move on. I was even partially successful. Until it happened again.

 

**********

 

The second assault, towards the end of year 11, was much, much worse.

The modus operandi was similar – the shaving of my by-then slightly thicker thatch.

There were more people involved, this time at least a dozen, maybe 15 (including, sadly, my year 8 crush, the one with those ‘eyelashes’).

It happened in the dorm cubicle I shared with three other students, on the floor right next to my bed, stripping away any sense of safety it had previously provided.

The fact they came prepared with shaving cream, in addition to a razor, revealed just how pre-meditated it was.

I didn’t struggle. Or call out for help. The first attack had shown there was no point.

In fact, what sticks with me is just how quiet it was.

The sound of squeaky sneakers on the wooden floor. The whirr of the shaving cream. That’s all.

They didn’t even need to talk to each other. They knew what they were doing, having taken the school’s German efficiency and applied it to brutalising another student.

This was an act of dominance, and humiliation. I was confronted by my sheer powerlessness in comparison.

But the biggest psychological damage was inflicted by its mere repetition.

This was not, could not, be written off as simple ‘hazing’, lazily picking on outward physical difference.

Even if they didn’t express it – and I couldn’t say the words out loud – I knew they had worked out I was different in an inward, and far more significant way.

They were going to make me pay for it. I did. They had broken me.

 

**********

 

I didn’t report them. How could I? They constituted about a third of all the year 11 students in the boarding house. The popular boys. The rugby players. People who I continued to share a ‘home’ with, and see every morning, afternoon and evening of every single day.

I knew, without qualification, that if I complained, and any of them (or all of them) were punished as a result, the following 12 months would be living hell. The violence wouldn’t stop; it would escalate.

So I lowered my head.

I did confide in a couple of my female friends, Jo and Cindy. Who were rightly horrified and who, unbeknownst to me, reported the second incident to the school.

The school’s response was, to put it mildly, shocking.

They knew what had happened. And they knew exactly who had been involved. Nevertheless, they refused to take action unless I made a formal complaint – something which they must also have realised I couldn’t do, based on an entirely legitimate fear for my own safety.

We reached a stand-off.

The boarding house’s improvised approach was to take me out of study one night, and sit me alone on an uncomfortable chair in a fluorescently-lit corridor. They forced all of the boys who had been involved (thus conceding they knew exactly who did it) to come and apologise to me, one after another.

I don’t remember much of that experience. I certainly don’t recall any genuine contrition on their parts for the actual attack. Although I do remember several of them thanking me for not ‘dobbing’, and others apologising to me because they incorrectly thought that I had complained but now knew I hadn’t. Such were the warped moral priorities of the teenage male boarding student.

 

**********

 

About a week after those ‘nonpologies’, the school announced the student body leaders for the following year.

One of the boys who had assaulted me was named school captain.

Another was made head boarder.

If that wasn’t enough of a sick joke, because of my grades I was also named a prefect – and so would have to spend even more time alongside them.

 

**********

 

The icing on the cake of that almost unbelievably horrible year came a couple of weeks later.

As was the style at the time – but probably also as a reaction to what had happened to me – I had clippered my hair in a buzz cut.

Sitting in the back row of my Economics class, the teacher, who was also the ‘dean of student welfare’ for year 11, joked to the class, “didn’t you get enough of having your hair shaved in the boarding house, Alastair?”

 

**********

 

It was clear the school would never give a shit about me.

After four years in the closet, and beatings both physical and psychological, I barely cared about myself.

Which meant that year 12, for me, was simply a battle for survival.

The lowest point arrived in chapel one morning when, in front of years 11 and 12, a new pastor gave a sermon about a teenager from his previous parish.

The boy had come to see him, ‘confused’ about life and his place in it. The pastor claimed he had tried to help, but the boy ultimately took his life.

The pastor described how he was now in a better place, in a way that suggested this was not the worst thing the boy could have done in those circumstances.

That pastor had effectively ‘dog-whistled’ his insidious homophobia to a room full of 600 impressionable 15, 16 and 17 year-olds, intimating that they should consider killing themselves if they were confused.

Fortunately, my contrarian nature meant my immediate reaction was to think, “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”. It was possibly even the first day I believed I might eventually outlive that school.

But I often think about how the other 40 or 50 queer kids who were in chapel that morning reacted to his hate.

 

**********

 

The highest point of senior year came one August afternoon, as I sat in the office of my favourite English teacher, and the dean of student welfare for year 12, crying.

Yes, crying. Why was that a highlight? Because I had just committed the ultimate act of defiance in a school that was intent on erasing any student who happened to be gay or lesbian.

I had come out.

It almost goes without saying that it was the most difficult thing I had ever done. I was so emotionally spent afterwards that, even though Gayle was supportive (and wanted to help me attend a support group outside of school), I did not have sufficient energy left to take the next step. Or any steps.

Indeed, it would be another two years before I told another soul.

But it was enough that someone finally knew my secret.

It was also a pre-emptive act of remembrance. If I took my life in the weeks or months that followed, someone would know why. And they might be able to address the set of circumstances that contributed to it.

 

**********

 

The final term of year 12 was like the home straight of a marathon, as I limped and staggered towards the end. I literally had nothing left of myself to give.

Even my grades started to suffer (although I suspect Gayle encouraged some of the other teachers to give me special consideration).

But as I fell through the finish line tape, and started to maybe hope that the future could have something, anything, better to offer than the previous five years had mercilessly dispensed, the school had one last insult to add to my many injuries.

At the conclusion of each year in the boarding house, the senior students handed out ‘awards’ to the year 8, 9, 10 and 11 kids, while the year 11 students were given responsibility to dole out awards to the seniors.

Mine? In front of the entire boarding house, including staff, I had to walk up and collect the ‘Big Fat Poof’ award.

None of the staff intervened. All of the other kids laughed.

Those students had found the language to describe what the year 11s the year before – my classmates – had suspected. They saw right through me.

It almost seems appropriate my time at that wretched institution ended in one final act of humiliation before I walked out of its unwelcoming gates.

 

**********

 

A couple of days after final exams, my Dad drove me that same eight hour-trip back to my childhood farm in Central Queensland for the final time.

Sitting in the passenger seat, I was, in many ways, the same kid I had been five years prior. My physical age might have been 17, but emotionally I was only 12; specifically, that 12 year-old boy transfixed by those eyelashes, experiencing the exciting and confusing first throes of a teenage crush.

Except those subsequent years had stripped away any optimism I might have once held about the future, as my school and classmates collectively drummed into me that who I was was something to be ashamed of.

My teenage years had been stolen from me by religious indoctrination, and homophobia – which, at least in that environment, were very closely inter-twined.

I would have to ‘do over’ my adolescence, in the months and years to come. To make stupid mistakes, and learn from them. To grow up. To fall in – and out – of love.

Fortunately, the world outside would prove a far more accepting, and interesting, place than my boarding school had been.

It’s hard to imagine how it could have been any worse.

 

**********

 

Ten years later I found myself attending my school reunion on a rainy night in a dingy function room in the Valley.

You may ask why I would subject myself to that (and I certainly am as I write this) but, at the time, I felt like I had something to prove.

Unlike Romy, it wasn’t to show how successful or popular I was, merely to demonstrate that they hadn’t broken me. After everything they had put me through, I was still standing.

It wasn’t necessarily true. My personal life was basically a mess, and would be for another few years, right up until I met my fiancé Steve. But that wasn’t going to stop me from faking it.

Nevertheless, I am thankful I went for one reason. Early in the evening, one of the boys who had been involved in the second assault on me saw me through the crowd, made a beeline straight toward me, and unprompted offered me his apology for what he, and the others, had done.

Not only was it sincere, it was obvious the incident had weighed heavily on him in the decade since.

Nothing was going to take back what had happened. But it was comforting to hear the wrong acknowledged, and to know at least one of the perpetrators was genuinely remorseful.

 

**********

 

Another decade later I went to my school’s 20-year reunion on a sunny afternoon at a bowling club down by the Brisbane River.

This time I didn’t have anything to prove, but I did have something to gain – to reconnect with some of the friends I had made during my time there. Which I did, although once again the highlight was a pleasant surprise.

Mid-afternoon I found myself having a chat with the boy (well, now middle-aged man) with those ‘eyelashes’, as well as another student with whom I had shared a dorm cubicle all the way back in 1991.

The crush was long gone (what had I been thinking?). Instead, we had a lovely conversation about our lives and what we were up to. They offered their heart-felt congratulations on my engagement to Steve, even remarking that he was a ‘good-looking fella’ (well, I certainly think so).

It was all incredibly natural, and showed how much they had evolved in the intervening decades.

Indeed, we had all changed.

 

**********

 

Well, nearly all. While it had eventually got better for me, I was soon reminded that it didn’t get better for everyone.

I sat outside on the wooden steps leading down to the green chatting with another student from my year. After I told him about my relationship, he volunteered that he had been out on the gay scene during his twenties, but that he had since rediscovered Jesus and was now straight.

Worse still, he was employed by a faith-based organisation working with troubled youth on the streets. He was likely perpetuating the same harmful messages we had received, and subsequently contributed to him becoming ‘ex-gay’, inflicting them on another generation.

While I had somehow managed to survive that horrific school, and was living a beautiful life teenage Alastair scarcely would have dreamed possible, for him those same five years seemed to be stuck on repeat.

 

**********

 

For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/

Or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

 

Untitled design (1)

At my grandma’s house, during a break between school terms.

 

Postscript: 19 April 2019

 

It is now just over a month since I shared this story. It’s fair to say it is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. But choosing to press publish was even harder. The response has been overwhelming. From friends who offered their love and support. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

 

From others who shared their own, similar experiences. The countless tweets, and messages, saying that if you simply changed the date or location, their story mirrored mine. I thank you for your honesty, and honour your courage.

 

From people who I went to school with. Many of whom who wrote to say they wish they had known at the time, and could have done something to help (that’s one of the worst things about ‘the closet’, it isolates you from people who could be allies). I thank you for your support.

 

I have also received messages from other students who attended the same school, who’ve detailed their own shocking experiences of abuse and discrimination. Except for them the cause wasn’t homophobia, but racism. Which is not at all surprising – if an environment is toxic for one group, it’s highly likely to be toxic for others too. But it was still depressing to learn the horrors they endured. I thank you for your strength.

 

Just this week I received a message from one of the teachers at the school. Who expressed her sincerest sympathy about what had happened to me. In doing so, she confirmed one of the worst elements of the story: the pastor’s sermon. And she informed me that multiple teachers had told the school afterwards that it was unacceptable.

 

I’m thankful for that as well. Not just to know some of the teachers had tried to stand up for teenage me, and all the other queer kids who were there. But also because it was the part I had most trouble writing, and publishing. Ultimately, the version I included in the story was toned down from the reality – in truth, the pastor was much more explicit that gay kids should consider killing themselves.

 

While my recollection of what had happened was extremely vivid, the possibility that anyone would tell a chapel full of several hundred 15, 16 and 17 year olds that ending their life was a better outcome than being homosexual was so horrific that I doubted myself. I shouldn’t have.

 

Several people have asked why I wrote this story. The answer to that is complex. In part, it is an act of preservation, of making sure stories like mine are not forgotten. In another sense it has been about catharsis – it has been genuinely liberating to share these experiences publicly, and let go of them privately.

 

It is also an act of defiance. To let schools like mine know that mistreating kids just because they are gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or trans, was not acceptable in Queensland in the 1990s. It’s not acceptable in Australia in 2019. And it won’t be acceptable in the future. Your religion has never been, is not, and will never be, justification for homophobia, transphobia or any other kind of prejudice.

 

That message is especially important now, as religious organisations desperately fight to retain their special privileges that allow them to discriminate against students, teachers and other staff solely on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

 

We must not let them get away with it. Because if we do, we’ll be reading stories like mine in 2043. And, most importantly, let’s never forget those stories we will never get to hear.

 

**********

 

Finally, if you have appreciated 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

Increasing LGBTI Representation

This post is part of a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia. You can see the rest of the posts here.

 

Over recent years there have been a number of legal and policy reforms that have benefitted the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community (not the least of which was the passage of same-sex marriage).

 

However, many of these changes have been piecemeal in nature, and too often they have been unnecessarily compromised by limitations or religious exceptions (once again including same-sex marriage, see No, we don’t have marriage equality yet).

 

At least part of the reason for the ad hoc and incomplete nature of these reforms is the lack, or insufficient amount, of representation of the LGBTI community in decision-making.

 

For the purposes of this article, by LGBTI representation I mean:

 

  • Representation in Parliament
  • Representation in the Executive, and
  • Representation through Consultation

 

I will address each of these areas in turn.

 

bob-brown_217x200px

Australia’s first out Commonwealth representative, former Senator Bob Brown.

 

LGBTI Representation in Parliament

 

It is fair to say that there has been rapid improvement in this area in the last four years, especially in relation to Commonwealth Parliament.

 

When I wrote about this issue early last term (see LGBTI Voices Absent from the Chamber), there had still never been an out LGBTI member of the House of Representatives. Now there are five:

 

  • Trent Zimmerman, who was the first out gay man elected to the lower house in late 2015
  • Julian Hill, Trevor Evans and Tim Wilson, who were all elected at the 2016 federal election, and
  • Kerryn Phelps, who became the first out lesbian elected to the House of Representatives in late 2018.

 

These MPs have joined the four current LGBTI Senators:

 

  • Penny Wong, who was the first out lesbian elected to either chamber
  • Louise Pratt and Dean Smith, and
  • Janet Rice, who I understand was the first out bisexual elected at Commonwealth level.

 

There have also been three previous gay Senators (Bob Brown, who was the first out gay man elected to either chamber, Brian Greig and Robert Simms).

 

So, in the lead-up to the 2019 election, we now have nine LGBTI MPs and Senators, out of 226 in total, which is an encouraging start.

 

However, if one of the main benefits of having LGBTI representation in Parliament is to ensure it hears from a diversity of views, then those LGBTI representatives should themselves reflect the diversity of our community.

 

Unfortunately, at this stage that is clearly not the case. As with the Parliament more generally, LGBTI MPs and Senators have so far been predominantly cis white men.

 

There have been twice as many male LGBTI MPs and Senators as female ones (with a similar discrepancy in the NSW Parliament as well).

 

There has still never been a transgender MP or Senator in Australia, or even an MP at state or territory level (for comparison, New Zealand’s first transgender MP, Georgina Beyer, was elected almost two decades ago).

 

Despite making up a large proportion of the LGBTI community, there has only been one out bisexual MP or Senator.

 

There has also been only limited representation of queer people of colour, with Penny Wong federally, Harriet Shing in Victoria’s upper house and Chansey Paech, the first gay Indigenous MP in the Northern Territory Parliament, and

 

There has never been an out intersex MP, at Commonwealth or state and territory level, although Tony Briffa was the first intersex person elected mayor in the Western World.

 

While increasing the number of MPs and Senators who are LGBTI is important, so too is ensuring that they come from across the LGBT and I communities, so that we do not continue to have a mostly white, mostly gay male, with some lesbian and one bisexual, but not transgender or intersex, parliamentary contingent.

 

150404 Penny Wong

Australia’s first out female Commonwealth representative, Senator the Hon Penny Wong.

 

LGBTI Representation in the Executive

 

Perhaps just as important as having LGBTI voices in the Parliament, is having LGBTI representation formally embedded within the executive arm of Government.

 

The most obvious example of this would be having a formally appointed Minister for Equality, a role Martin Foley has played in the Victorian Government for more than four years.

 

There is no equivalent position within the Morrison Liberal-National Government federally, although Louise Pratt is currently the Shadow Assistant Minister for Equality in the Labor Opposition (and would presumably fulfil this role in a Shorten Government, should they be elected in May).

 

As far as I am aware, there is also no current Minister or Shadow Minister for Equality in NSW, although perhaps that is something that could change after the upcoming state election on Saturday 23 March 2019.

 

At the Commonwealth level at least there is another way in which LGBTI issues should be represented, and that is through the appointment of a standalone Commissioner for LGBTI issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

 

As I have written previously (see 5 Years of Commonwealth LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws. 5 Suggestions for Reform), the Commission is currently unable to adequately perform this function, with LGBTI issues forming just one part of the overall policy responsibilities of the Human Rights Commissioner, sitting alongside ‘religious freedom’ (with which it often competes for attention, sometimes unsuccessfully).

 

Fortunately, the appointment of a standalone LGBTI Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission has been promised by the Shorten Labor Opposition, so this is potentially something that may change in the near future.

 

Another model of LGBTI representation that has been adopted in Victoria is a Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality within the public service, to coordinate LGBTI policy and programs across Government. This is something that again should be considered elsewhere, including at Commonwealth level and in NSW.

 

Any Minister for Equality and/or public service LGBTI Commissioner should also be supported by an office for equality within a central agency, preferably the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and its respective state and territory equivalents.

 

Adopting any of the above formalised representation structures within executive government (and preferably all of them), will hopefully ensure that LGBTI issues are adequately considered by Governments of all persuasions.

 

LGBTI Representation through Consultation

 

The third and final means of LGBTI representation is no less important than the first two – and that is ensuring Government hears from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities themselves about the issues that affect them.

 

While this happens occasionally now (with Governments consulting directly with a few key groups on select policy proposals) what is needed is an ongoing, formalised structure whereby LGBTI organisations, and individuals with relevant expertise, are appointed to panels to represent the views of the LGBTI communities to decision-makers on a consistent basis.

 

Given the impact of justice, health and education laws and policies on LGBTI communities, especially at state and territory level, I would suggest (at least) three standing committees on each of these respective portfolio areas, and in other areas on an ‘as needed’ basis.

 

There are of course risks to this model, including that panel members do not accurately, or adequately, reflect the views of the communities they are supposed to represent.

 

These risks can be minimised by ensuring there are open application processes, and that applicants demonstrate how they propose to reflect the opinions of the LGBTI community in performing their role. Consideration could also be given to term limits to ensure appointees are not ‘captured’ by the bureaucratic process, thereby reducing their effectiveness in advocating to Government.

 

Ultimately, if LGBTI representation can be increased in Parliament, the Executive and through Consultation, we will see better decision-making by Governments on LGBTI issues, for the benefit of the entire community.

 

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

Submission to Royal Commission into Aged Care

Royal Commission into Aged Care

GPO Box 1151

Adelaide SA 5001

ACRCenquiries@royalcommission.gov.au

 

Monday 25 February 2019

 

Dear Commissioner

 

Submission to Aged Care Royal Commission

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to this important inquiry.

 

In this submission I will focus on one policy issue – the ability of religious aged care services to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees – and its impact on people accessing those services, including LGBT individuals and couples.

 

As you are likely aware, the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 introduced anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians under Commonwealth law for the first time.

 

This Act, like the majority of pre-existing state and territory laws, provided general exceptions to religious organisations allowing them to discriminate both in service delivery, and employment, including against LGBT people.

 

However, in an important step forward for equality, the new section 37(2)(a)[i] of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 ‘carved out’ Commonwealth-funded aged care services so that religious organisations that receive public money cannot discriminate against LGBT people accessing those services.

 

This was a welcome recognition both of the importance of aged care services, and of the potential vulnerability of people who require these services, especially older LGBT people many of whom have been subject to a lifetime of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic discrimination.

 

Unfortunately, the same protection was not extended to LGBT employees and other staff in these services (see section 37(2)(b)[ii]).

 

This is wrong in principle for two main reasons.

 

First, whether a person is able to perform their duties as an aged care worker is unrelated to, and independent of, their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

 

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

 

Second, it is completely unacceptable that taxpayers’ money should be spent subsidising such discrimination. The purpose of public funding of aged care services is to ensure older Australians have access to quality services which are able to meet their needs – it is not supposed to pay for religious organisations to impose their anti-LGBT views on the aged care workforce.

 

For both of these reasons, I believe the ‘carve-out’ in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 which protects LGBT people accessing aged care services should be extended to cover LGBT employees too.

 

The special privilege allowing religious aged care services to discriminate in employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is wrong in practice as well, and it is here that this discrimination most clearly relates to the Royal Commission’s Terms of Reference.

 

This includes:

 

(a) the quality of aged care services provided to Australians, the extent to which those services meet the needs of the people accessing them, the extent of substandard care being provided, including mistreatment and all forms of abuse, the causes of any systemic failures, and any actions that should be taken in response;

(c) the future challenges and opportunities for delivering accessible, affordable and high quality aged care services in Australia, including:

i. in the context of changing demographics and preferences, in particular people’s desire to remain living at home as they age; and

ii. in remote, rural and regional Australia;

 (d) what the Australian Government, aged care industry, Australian families and the wider community can do to strengthen the system of aged care services to ensure that the services provided are of high quality and safe;

 

The first and most obvious way in which the ability of religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT employees impacts on the quality of aged care services is the reduction of potential talent in their aged care workforce.

 

This is an entirely logical, and foreseeable, outcome; by excluding some highly-qualified applicants,[iii] for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with their ability to perform the relevant role(s), the number of qualified applicants from which to choose is inevitably diminished.

 

This impact may be exacerbated in remote, rural and regional Australia, where the number of applicants for a position may be much smaller to begin with – any loss of highly-qualified applicants, simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, could have a severe impact on service standards.

 

And this impact will likely exist for as long as the general exception[iv] in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 allows religious aged care services to discriminate in this way.

 

Because, even if a particular aged care facility doesn’t discriminate at a particular point in time, highly-qualified LGBT employees may nevertheless be discouraged from applying because of the possibility of being legally discriminated against in the future. In remote, rural and regional Australia, where there may be limited employment options, this could even result in qualified employees being lost to the aged care services industry entirely.

 

There is also a compelling argument that the stress of LGBT employees working in religious aged care services that may lawfully discriminate against them, where they may need to be constantly vigilant in self-censoring their words and actions lest they be ‘found out’, undermines the quality of service provided because it serves as a potential distraction from their day-to-day responsibilities.

 

People accessing aged care services have the right to expect the highest possible standard of care. That is not provided when an aged care service refuses to employ highly-qualified people simply because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

 

The second practical reason why allowing religious aged care services to discriminate against LGBT employees impacts on the quality of aged care services is that it can contribute to an organisational culture of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

 

Once an organisation acts in a manner that suggests discriminating against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity is acceptable, it is hard not to see this abuse spilling over into the treatment of LGBT people accessing these services.

 

LGBT individuals and couples in aged care facilities may directly witness the homophobic, biphobic and transphobic mistreatment of staff, and feel less safe in their surroundings as a result. Or they could be subject to direct or indirect anti-LGBT discrimination themselves.

 

There is already a significant power imbalance between people accessing these services and the service-providers themselves. As a result, even if the LGBT person accessing the service technically has a right not to be discriminated against under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, they may feel uncomfortable in making a formal complaint because of a legitimate fear that the organisation will not be responsive to it.

 

LGBT people accessing these services are also denied natural allies because any LGBT employees at the facility may feel unable to advocate on their behalf because they are also afraid of retribution from the organisation itself (in this case, entirely legal).

 

Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic discrimination against LGBT employees inevitably has a detrimental impact on LGBT individuals and couples accessing aged care services.

 

The third and final practical reason why allowing religious aged care services to discriminate against LGBT employees impacts on the quality of aged care services, especially for LGBT people, is that it denies them an opportunity for human connection.

 

Residential aged care facilities, in particular, are the ‘homes’ of the people living in them, usually for the final years or decades of their lives. The provision of services is about much more than simply providing shelter, food and health care.

 

For LGBT individuals and couples, having one or more LGBT employees offers the opportunity to bond with them over potential interests, and to share stories with each other (including, I might add, the ability for younger LGBT employees to learn from the older LGBT residents).

 

However, this opportunity is lost if an LGBT employee is unable to discuss this aspect of their lives, for fear of being discriminated against. For the resident, the possibility of conversation is replaced by silence.

 

Discrimination against LGBT employees in aged care services can exacerbate the social isolation experienced by LGBT individuals and couples accessing those services.

 

In conclusion, there are principled reasons why religious aged care services should not be able to discriminate against LGBT employees. These employees should be judged on their ability to perform the role, not on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And taxpayers’ money should not be used to subsidise anti-LGBT discrimination.

 

There are also practical reasons why such discrimination should be prohibited, including that it impacts on the quality of aged care services provided, contributes to a culture of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, and denies LGBT residents an opportunity for human connection.

 

Therefore, to improve the quality of aged care services, including although not only for LGBT residents, the special privilege allowing such discrimination should be repealed.

 

Recommendation: The Royal Commission into Aged Care should call for amendment to section 37(2) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) to remove the ability of religious aged care services to discriminate against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

 

Thank you in advance for taking this submission into consideration as part of the Royal Commission. If you would like further information, please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided below.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

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Commonwealth Minister for Aged Care Ken Wyatt.

 

References:

[i] 37(2) provides that “Paragraph (1)(d) 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 care.”

[ii] See footnote (i), above.

[iii] I am not suggesting that all LGBT applicants are highly-qualified, some will obviously not be (in the same way some cisgender heterosexual applicants will not), but excluding highly-qualified applicants of any background reduces both the number and the depth of qualified applicants to choose from.

[iv] Section 37(1)(d) provides that “Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects… 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.”

23 LGBTI Issues for the 2019 NSW Election

The 2019 NSW election will be held on Saturday March 23.

It will determine who holds Government until March 2023.

Therefore, with just over a month to go, here are 23 LGBTI issues that parties and candidates should address.

 

  1. Provide anti-discrimination protection to bisexual people

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 is the only LGBTI anti-discrimination law in Australia that does not cover bisexual people. This should be amended as a matter of urgency, by adopting the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) definition of sexual orientation.[i]

 

  1. Provide anti-discrimination protection to non-binary trans people

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 also fails to protect non-binary trans people against mistreatment, because its definition of transgender is out-dated. This definition should be updated, possibly using the Sex Discrimination Act definition of gender identity, to ensure it covers all trans and gender diverse people.

 

  1. Provide anti-discrimination protection to intersex people

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 does not have a stand-alone protected attribute covering people born with intersex variations. It should be amended as a matter of urgency by adopting the Yogyakarta Principles Plus 10 definition of sex characteristics: ‘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.’

 

  1. Remove the special privileges that allow private schools and colleges to discriminate against LG&T students and teachers

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 is the only LGBTI anti-discrimination law in Australia that allows all privates schools and colleges, religious and non-religious alike, to discriminate on the basis of homosexuality and transgender status.[ii] These special privileges must be repealed, so that all LGBTI students, teachers and staff are protected against discrimination no matter which school or college they attend.

 

  1. Remove the general exception that allows religious organisations to discriminate in employment and service delivery

Section 56(d) of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 provides that its protections do not apply to any ‘act or practice of a body established to propagate religion that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religions susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.’ This incredibly broad exception allows wide-ranging discrimination against lesbian, gay and trans people. This provision should be replaced by the best-practice approach to religious exceptions in Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1998.

 

  1. Remove the special privilege that allows religious adoption agencies to discriminate against LG&T prospective parents

Section 59A of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 allows religious adoption agencies to discriminate against prospective parents on the basis of homosexuality and transgender status. This special privilege should be repealed, because the ability of an individual or couple to provide a loving and nurturing environment for a child has nothing whatsoever to do with their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

  1. Reform commercial surrogacy laws

Under the NSW Surrogacy Act 2010, it is illegal to enter into commercial surrogacy arrangements, either within NSW or elsewhere (including overseas), punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. Despite this prohibition, people in NSW (including many same-sex male couples) continue to enter into international surrogacy arrangements. It is clearly not in the best interests of children born through such arrangements for either or both of their parents to be subject to criminal penalties. NSW should either legalise and appropriately regulate commercial surrogacy domestically, or remove the prohibition on international surrogacy.[iii]

 

  1. Recognise multi-parent families

Modern families continue to evolve, particularly in terms of the number of parents who may be involved in a child’s upbringing, and especially within rainbow families (for example, with male donors playing an increasingly active role in the lives of children born with female co-parents). This growing complexity should be recognised under the law, including the option of recording more than two parents on official documentation.

 

  1. Modernise the relationships register

The NSW relationships register may have declined in salience, especially within the LGBTI community, following the passage of same-sex marriage in December 2017. However, it remains an important option for couples to legally prove their relationship, especially for those who do not wish to marry (for whatever reason). However, the NSW Relationships Register Act 2010 requires modernisation, including by amending the term ‘registered relationship’ to ‘civil partnership’, and by allowing couples to hold a ceremony if they so choose.[iv]

 

  1. Remove surgical and medical requirements for trans access to identity documentation

Another law requiring modernisation is the NSW Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995, which currently provides that, in order to record a change of sex, a person must first have undergone a sex affirmation procedure. This is completely inappropriate, especially because many trans and gender diverse people either do not want to, or cannot (often for financial reasons), undergo surgery. Gender identity should be based on exactly that, identity, with this law amended to allow documentation to be updated on the basis of statutory declaration only, without medical practitioners acting as gate-keepers.[v] The range of identities that are recorded should also be expanded, and this should be done in consultation with the trans and gender diverse community.

 

  1. Ban unnecessary and involuntary medical treatment of intersex children

One of the worst human rights abuses perpetrated against any LGBTI community in Australia is the ongoing involuntary medical treatment of intersex children, which often includes unnecessary surgical modification to sex characteristics. Despite a 2013 Senate report recommending action to end these harmful practices, nothing has been done, including in NSW. With a new review being undertaken by the Australian Human Rights Commission,[vi] whoever is elected in March must take concrete steps to ban non-consensual, medically unnecessary modifications of sex characteristics as soon as possible. In doing so, they should consult with Intersex Human Rights Australia and other intersex organisations, and be guided by the Darlington Statement.

 

  1. Ban gay and trans conversion therapy

Another abhorrent practice that should be banned immediately is gay or trans conversion therapy, which is not therapy but is psychological abuse. Thankfully, this problem has received increased attention over the past 12 months, including a focus on the need for multi-faceted strategies to address this issue. However, a key part of any response must be the criminalisation of medical practitioners or other organisations offering ‘ex-gay’ or ‘ex-trans’ therapy, with increased penalties where the victims of these practices are minors.[vii]

 

  1. Establish a Royal Commission into gay and trans hate crimes

In late 2018, the NSW Parliament commenced an inquiry into hate crimes committed against the gay and trans communities between 1970 and 2010. This inquiry handed down an interim report in late February, recommending that it be re-established after the election. However, in my view a parliamentary inquiry is insufficient to properly investigate this issue, including both the extent of these crimes, and the failures of NSW Police to properly investigate them. Any new Government should establish a Royal Commission to thoroughly examine this issue.[viii]

 

  1. Re-introduce Safe Schools

The Safe Schools program is an effective, evidence-based and age-appropriate initiative to help reduce bullying against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students. Unfortunately, following a vitriolic homophobic and transphobic public campaign against it, the NSW Government axed Safe Schools in mid-2017. In its place is a generic anti-bullying program that does not adequately address the factors that contribute to anti-LGBTI bullying. The Safe Schools program should be re-introduced to ensure every student can learn and grow in a safe environment.[ix]

 

  1. Include LGBTI content in the PDHPE Syllabus

The NSW Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) curriculum does not require schools to teach what lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex mean, or even that they exist. The new K-10 Syllabus, gradually implemented from the beginning of 2019, excludes LGBTI students and content that is relevant to their needs. It is also manifestly inadequate in terms of sexual health education, with minimal information about sexually transmissible infections and HIV. The Syllabus requires an urgent redraft to ensure LGBTI content is adequately covered.[x]

 

  1. Expand efforts to end HIV

NSW has made significant progress in recent years to reduce new HIV transmissions, with increased testing, greater access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and higher treatment rates. However, new HIV diagnoses among overseas-born men who have sex with men are increasing. The NSW Government should create an affordability access scheme for people who are Medicare-ineligible that covers PrEP and HIV treatments (including for foreign students). The introduction of mandatory testing of people whose bodily fluids come into contact with police (aka ‘spitting laws’)[xi] should also be opposed.[xii]

 

  1. Appoint a Minister for Equality

Both the NSW Government and Opposition currently have spokespeople with responsibility for women, ageing and multiculturalism. However, neither side has allocated a portfolio for equality. Whoever is elected on 23 March should appoint a Minister for Equality so that LGBTI issues finally have a seat at the Cabinet table.[xiii]

 

  1. Establish an LGBTI Commissioner

The Victorian Government does have a Minister for Equality (the Hon Martin Foley MP). They have also appointed a Gender and Sexuality Commissioner (Ro Allen) whose role it is to co-ordinate LGBTI initiatives at a bureaucratic level. A new Government in NSW should also appoint an LGBTI Commissioner here.

 

  1. Create an Office for Equality

While having leadership positions like a Minister for Equality and an LGBTI Commissioner are important, the work that is done by an Office for Equality within a central agency (like the Equality Branch within the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet) is essential to support LGBTI policies and programs across Government.

 

  1. Convene LGBTI education, health and justice working groups

The NSW Government should establish formal consultative committees across (at least) these three policy areas to ensure that the voices of LGBTI communities are heard on a consistent, rather than ad hoc, basis.

 

  1. Fund an LGBTI Pride Centre

Another initiative that is worth ‘borrowing’ from south of the NSW border is the creation of a Pride Centre, to house key LGBTI community organisations, potentially including a permanent LGBTI history museum. This centre would need to be developed in close partnership with LGBTI groups, with major decisions made by the community itself.

 

  1. Provide funding for LGBTI community organisations

There is significant unmet need across NSW’s LGBTI communities, which should be addressed through increased funding for community advocacy, and service-delivery, organisations, with a focus on intersex, trans and bi groups, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTI bodies. This should also include funding for LGBTI services focusing on youth, ageing, mental health, drug and alcohol, and family and partner violence issues, and to meet the needs of LGBTI people from culturally and linguistically diverse and refugee backgrounds.

 

  1. Develop and implement an LGBTI Strategy

If, in reading this long list, it seems that NSW has a long way left to go on LGBTI issues, well that’s because it’s true. The birthplace of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras parade has fallen behind other states and territories when it comes to LGBTI-specific policies and programs. We need a whole-of-government strategy, including clear goals and transparent reporting against them, to help drive LGBTI inclusion forward.

 

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References:

[i] For a comparison of Australian anti-discrimination laws, see: A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.

[ii] Sections 38C, 38K, 49ZH and 49ZO. For more, see: What’s Wrong With the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

[iii] For more, see: Submissions to Commonwealth Parliamentary Inquiry into Surrogacy.

[iv] For more, see: Submission to Review of NSW Relationships Register Act 2010.

[v] For more, see: Identity, not Surgery.

[vi] My submission to the AHRC Consultation re Medical Interventions on People Born with Variations of Sex Characteristics can be found here.

[vii] For more, see: Criminalising Ex-Gay Therapy.

[viii] For more, see: Submission to NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Gay and Trans Hate Crimes.

[ix] For more, see: Saving Safe Schools.

[x] For more, see: Invisibility in the Curriculum.

[xi] For more, see: Submission re Mandatory BBV Testing Options Paper.

[xii] For more HIV-related policy priorities, see ACON, Positive Life NSW, SWOP and the NSW GLRL 2019 NSW State Elections Issues’ document.

[xiii] For more, see: Increasing LGBTI Representation.

Saving Safe Schools

This post is part of a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia. You can see the rest of the posts here

 

Safe Schools is, simultaneously, one of the simplest policy issues in Australia, and one of the most complex.

 

Simple, because it is an effective, evidence-based program aimed at reducing bullying of one of the most vulnerable groups in our society: young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Surely, supporting this group, and lowering the disproportionate rates of social exclusion, and mental health issues, that they experience, should be straightforward?

 

Complex, because – well, have you listened to (most) Liberal and National politicians over the past few years? Did you read The Australian newspaper in 2016? [*Neither is recommended of course, but if you did you would have heard and seen a barrage of criticism of this initiative addressing anti-LGBTI bullying]

 

This little program became the focal point of one of the biggest culture wars in our recent history, such that among right-wing circles even the name Safe Schools has itself become toxic, synonymous with all manner of imagined problems.

 

It is hard to remember that, at the federal level, Safe Schools was initially the epitome of bipartisanship – announced and funded by the then Rudd Labor Government before the 2013 election, before being launched under the Abbott Coalition Government in mid-2014.

 

How did we get from there, to wherever the hell it is we are now? I’m not proposing to rehash that depressing history – instead, I would strongly suggest you read the excellent Quarterly Essay ‘Moral Panic 101: Equality, acceptance and the Safe Schools scandal’ by Benjamin Law.

 

However, I am interested in the why – why did a simple and straight-forward program aimed at reducing homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in schools provoke such an angry response from so-called conservatives around the country?

 

Part of the explanation can be found in the response of one of the program’s greatest advocates, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, to the decision by the then Turnbull Liberal National Government to ‘review’ the program in early 2016. From his Facebook post:

 

“Schools have to be a safe place for every kid – no exceptions.

Teachers have to be given the tools to deal with every situation – no excuses.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this effective little program, which achieves the above two aims and nothing more.

But let’s be honest here: I don’t think these extreme Liberals are actually offended by the structure of the program, or the teachers who lead it.

I just think they’re offended by the kids who need it.

They don’t like the fact that some young people might be different.

And I’m sick of it.

I’m sick of Liberal politicians telling our kids that there’s something wrong with them – when there isn’t.

I’m sick of Liberal politicians trying to push us all back, whenever we all take a few steps forward.

Cory Bernadi [sic] says teenagers are too young to know about love and care and acceptance.

Well, I can assure you, Senator: they know a whole lot more than you.”

 

This offence – at the fact LGBTI kids exist – was so great that, even though the independent review found the program to be effective, age-appropriate and consistent with the curriculum, they axed it anyway. The NSW Liberal National Government, and other conservative administrations around the country, quickly followed suit.

 

But while the offence of Liberal politicians that LGBTI kids have the temerity to exist might be part of the explanation for Safes Schools’ axing, it is by no means a complete explanation.

 

One perhaps even more important contributing factor is discussed in Benjamin Law’s Quarterly Essay, in response to the changes by then Education Minister Simon Birmingham that “schools must now obtain the approval of parent bodies to train teachers [in Safe Schools], and before any lessons are taught.”

 

As Paul Thoemke is quoted on page 57/58 in relation to trans children: “This may be the most politically unsavvy thing I can say. But I sometimes think the greatest risk for these kids is their families… Family life can be awful for a homosexual child, too. Youth who come out meet with parental grief, confusion, denial, or rage so hot that, for everyone involved, the prospect of the child eating from dumpsters or sleeping under bridges may be preferable to coexisting with them under the same roof.”

 

This really is the crux of the debate. Some parents are so homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic (often all four) that they would prefer LGBTI children to be in a wooden box rather than sitting at a wooden desk in a safe and supportive classroom. And not ‘just’ their own children, but all LGBTI kids.

 

Of course, the majority of parents do not see this issue in this warped way. They, like the LGBTI community itself, want to see all children have the ability to live their best lives.

 

Indeed, one of the features of this debate is that it is the LGBTI community and its allies who are arguing for the best interests of kids, while our opponents, who have long (falsely) railed against us with the ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?’ mantra in the name of ‘traditional family values’, that are acting in the interests of intolerant adults.

 

Unfortunately, in 2016 the Turnbull Liberal-National Government listened to the hateful minority, followed by a number of states and territories.

 

As a result, in early 2019, the Safe Schools program is only functional in Victoria, the ACT (called the Safe and Inclusive Schools Initiative), Western Australia (called the Inclusive Education Program) and the Northern Territory.

 

It has been replaced by general, and generic, ‘anti-bullying programs’ in NSW, Tasmania and South Australia (disappointingly the Queensland Labor Government has never fully supported Safe Schools), in part based on the argument that LGBTI kids don’t deserve a special program to specifically promote acceptance of their difference.

 

Law takes apart this view in his Quarterly Essay on page 64, responding to an example about Hindu students from Elisabeth Taylor of the Australian Christian Lobby:

 

“When Taylor tells me this, I’m initially taken by her argument. Why should minorities of any kind have special treatment? Why should queer kids get the attention when others [sic] kids are being bullied too? It takes a while before the obvious presents itself: first, that general anti-bullying measures have existed for decades and haven’t helped queers at school. Second, that Safe Schools doesn’t exists solely for LGBTIQ youth, but also for the countless other Australian kids who are agents – as well as victims – of schoolyard homophobia. Third: Hindu children are born into Hindu families and communities, who affirm their religion, culture and worldview. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people do not have that luxury. Gays are mostly raised in heterosexual families. And if our families and communities don’t accept us, there are consequences. One 2010 national study found that “rates of self harm are higher in [queer] young people who are not supported when they disclose to mother, dad, brother or sister.” If these kids aren’t safe at home or school, where else do they have?”

 

In 2019, we still have Governments at Commonwealth level, and in half the states and territories, that really don’t seem to care about the answer to that question.

 

Who don’t support the right of LGBTI kids simply to be – but instead listen to a vocal minority of bigots who would prefer LGBTI kids not to be. Themselves. Supported. Or Accepted.

 

The question is what we do about it. I would argue the onus is on us, the LGBTI community, our allies, and indeed every Australian who supports diversity, of sexual orientations, gender identities and sex characteristics, to vote against those Governments.

 

Because our kids are counting on us.

 

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Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has shown the leadership too many of his Commonwealth, state and territory counterparts refuse to.

 

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