Letter to Prime Minister Abbott re Intercountry Adoption by Same-Sex Couples Part 2

In early March I wrote to Prime Minister Abbott about the review, then being undertaken by his department, of Australia’s inter-country adoption arrangements. Specifically, I asked that same-sex couples be included in any potential reforms to be considered at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting scheduled for Friday 2 May (see original letter here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/08/letter-to-prime-minister-abbott-re-inter-country-adoption-by-same-sex-couples/ )

I did not receive a response to my letter until after the COAG meeting (on Monday 5 May), although it was dated 1 May. The reply stated:

 

Dear Mr Lawrie

 

Thank you for your letter of 8 March 2014 to the Prime Minister regarding overseas adoption. I have been asked to reply on the Prime Minister’s behalf. I apologise for the delay in replying.

 

This is an issue that could benefit from attention at the highest levels of government. That’s what it will be getting between now and the next meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.

 

As you note, at present there is no consistency across Australia on whether same-sex couples can adopt a child. The requirements of foreign countries are also relevant, with most of Australia’s current partner countries not allowing adoption by same-sex couples.

 

The Commonwealth Government is committed to working with our state and territory colleagues and stakeholders in this area, including the non-government sector, to deliver reform.

 

Thank you for letting the Government know your views on this issue.

 

Yours sincerely

 

Name Withheld

Assistant Secretary

Which, it has said to be said, was a pretty underwhelming response, especially given the paucity of firm details or commitments. I also cracked a wry smile at the statement that the issue would be getting attention between now (ie the time of writing) and the next COAG meeting – which was held the following day.

In any event, the issue of inter-country adoption was discussed at COAG on Friday 2 May. The Prime Minister, and State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers, agreed to the following in the official Communique:

Intercountry adoption of children

 

Adopting a child from overseas is an emotional and complex undertaking. Different requirements across Australia can create even more difficulty for families wanting to adopt a child from overseas.

 

COAG supports adoption conducted in the best interests of the child and consistent with the safeguards of the Hague Conventions.

 

COAG agreed in principle to the Commonwealth’s proposal to provide a new national intercountry adoption service for all Australians wanting to adopt a child from overseas.

 

Under the new service, the Commonwealth will fund either a new accredited non-government organisation or organisations, or a Commonwealth agency, to provide services for intercountry adoption by early 2015.

 

The Commonwealth and the States and Territories will work closely together to make sure there is a smooth transition to the new system.

So, some more detail (albeit only a little bit), but also some unanswered questions (including whether same-sex couples are to be included), as well as some new questions (if a non-government organisation contracted to provide inter-country adoption services was religious, could they refuse to provide those services to same-sex couples – but more on that particular issue later).

On the following Monday, 5 May, Prime Minister Abbott issued a Media Release, which revealed a little bit more:

REFORM AND ACTION ON INTERCOUNTRY ADOPTION

 

The Commonwealth Government is committed to adoption reform to enable more people to find families.

 

A new report has identified significant barriers facing Australian families wanting to adopt from overseas.  Inconsistent rules, costs and the lengthy wait to adopt currently deter many people from even starting the adoption process.

 

Last Friday, COAG agreed to a national system for intercountry adoption. The Commonwealth will work vigorously with the States and Territories to have a new system operating by early 2015.

 

The report into intercountry adoption also recommended establishing new country programmes to help more Australian families to adopt.  A new intercountry adoption programme between Australia and South Africa is now in place.

 

South Africa has a strong commitment to finding families within its borders to care for children in need. Where, for whatever reason, a South African family cannot be found, Australian families will be able to help provide permanent loving homes to South African children.  Many of these children will have health needs, and would benefit from the caring environment that Australian families can provide.

 

The Government will introduce amendments to the Australian Citizenship Act so that obtaining Australian citizenship can happen in a child’s country of origin. As well, we will fix the problems associated with the visa system. It is too complicated at the moment and processing times are too long.

 

For too long children who legitimately need a safe and loving home and Australians who dream of providing this home have been hindered by red tape and confusion. The Government is pleased to be able to undertake real action to bring families together.

The accompanying Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption provided some additional information (see link to report here: <http://www.dpmc.gov.au/publications/docs/idc_report_intercountry_adoption.pdf ), although undoubtedly would have provided more had pages 41 onwards, which contained Options for Reform and Recommendations to Government, not been deliberately withheld from the public.

The table on page 30 of the section of the Report that was released at least acknowledged that in four Australian jurisdictions – NSW, Western Australia, Tasmania and the ACT – adoption by same-sex couples is already legal.

On page 32, Table 11: Country of Origin Requirements then spelled out all the different countries where agreements exist, but which deem same-sex couples to be ineligible. Sadly, none of the countries listed currently permit inter-country adoption that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

The discussion on page 31 helpfully (or should I say rather unhelpfully), noted that “[r]estrictions on same-sex couples adopting was raised by several submissions as a problem… [But] It seems that changes to these criteria would probably have limited impact on intercountry adoption given the country of origins’ criteria.”

Which is absolutely correct. But still does not answer the question of what would happen if Australia were to sign an inter-country agreement which did allow same-sex adoption (or even, as I suggested in my original letter, if Australia were to actively seek to include non-discrimination as a key clause in all of our inter-country agreements)?

And the media release, and accompanying IDC report, didn’t even address the most obvious question of all – given South Africa already allows same-sex couple adoption, and Prime Minister Abbott announced a new inter-country adoption program with South Africa, would Australian same-sex couples be able to adopt under that program?

The mainstream media didn’t appear to follow up on this question – although fortunately, Benjamin Riley of the Star Observer newspaper stepped into the breach to report the following:

SAME-SEX COUPLES INCLUDED IN OVERSEAS ADOPTION AGREEMENT FOR THE FIRST TIME

 

BEJAMIN RILEY – May 5, 2014

 

SAME-sex couples are included in Australia’s new agreement with South Africa on overseas adoption announced today by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after being excluded from every previous intercountry adoption agreement between Australia and another country.

A spokesperson for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet told the Star Observer the agreement with South Africa is the first such arrangement with a country that allows same-sex couples to adopt children.

 

Although there is currently inconsistency across Australian states and territories around same-sex adoption, same-sex couples can legally adopt in NSW, ACT, Tasmania and Western Australia. However, until now this has been irrelevant due to the explicit exclusion of same-sex couples from Australia’s intercountry adoption agreements.

 

The Prime Minister announced the agreement with South Africa today along with a range of reforms to streamline the overseas adoption process, allowing children to obtain Australian citizenship in their country of origin, and simplify visa processes. These reforms have come out of a new report by the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption.

 

The Prime Minister’s office confirmed the eligibility of same-sex couples to adopt under the new agreement with South Africa, and told the Star Observer these reforms will consider inconsistencies between the states and territories on same-sex couples adopting.

 

“Current eligibility requirements vary across Australia via states and territory requirements. We will most be certainly considering this issue — together with other eligibility criteria — as we finalise the new national approach to intercountry adoption,” press secretary Sally Branson said.

 

“This just isn’t an issue for the home country of the adoptive parents — the requirements of overseas countries are also relevant. The South Africa agreement will allow for same sex couples to adopt.”

 

A Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting on Friday also flagged the development of a new national service for intercountry adoption by early-2105. The service would be either a funded non-government organisation or a Commonwealth agency.

 

The announcement prompted calls by the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights lobby to ensure a new national framework would operate with equality for LGBTI people looking to adopt, and said the same should be true for any organisations assisting in the adoption process.

 

The Prime Minister’s office told the Star Observer there is no detail yet around how the national service would operate, but said the Federal Government would “ensure non-discriminatory service is provided to all stakeholders, and work with all stakeholders in a the same manner”.

 

Rodney Chiang-Cruise from Gay Dads Australia said the streamlined citizenship and visa processes wouldn’t change a great deal for Australian same-sex couples looking to adopt from overseas, but was glad the issue was being discussed.

 

“The Federal Government has not done anything on overseas adoption for decades… It sounds like a positive move, and hopefully it’s an indication of further moves in regards to what is a complex and difficult area,” Chiang-Cruise told the Star Observer [emphasis added, abridged]. Link to original article here: <http://www.starobserver.com.au/news/local-news/same-sex-couples-included-in-overseas-adoption-agreement-for-the-first-time/122370

As the article reports, this is a potentially significant breakthrough in terms of LGBTI equality – provided this agreement is implemented in line with state and territory requirements, for the first time ever, same-sex couples in NSW, WA, Tasmania and ACT will be treated equally in terms of overseas adoption.

However, the notes of caution expressed by Mr Chiang-Cruise also seem to be appropriate. After all, that still leaves LGBTI-inclusive couples in four Australian jurisdictions (Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory) out in the cold.

And, as described earlier, there is genuine concern that, should a religious organisation be awarded the contract to deliver inter-country adoption services, they might discriminate against same-sex couples and then use the (incredibly broad) religious exemptions offered under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to essentially ‘get away with’ such discrimination.

Which means, while some questions have been resolved – and the South African agreement is indeed a big step forward for same-sex couple adoption in Australia – there are still plenty of issues to be worked through in coming months. It also means there was certainly plenty of material to write a follow-up letter to Prime Minister Abbott on this subject. As always, I will post any reply that I receive.

The Hon Tony Abbott MP

Prime Minister

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Thursday 29 May 2014

Dear Prime Minister

INTER-COUNTRY ADOPTION BY SAME-SEX COUPLES

Thank you for the reply, from your Department, to my letter of 8 March, concerning the issue of inter-country adoption by same-sex couples.

Unfortunately, some of the issues raised in my letter were not answered. Additional issues have also arisen from the Communique of the COAG meeting on Friday 2 May, and from your media release on Monday 5 May, which was accompanied by the release of some sections of the Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption.

First of all, however, I wish to congratulate you on your commitment, as expressed by your office to the Star Observer newspaper on Monday 5 May, that same-sex couples will be eligible to adopt under the newly-finalised agreement with South Africa. This is a major step forward for the equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex-inclusive families.

Nevertheless, as highlighted in my original letter, and confirmed in the Report of the Interdepartmental Committee, it is highly unlikely that, due to differing legislation, same-sex couples in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory will be able to take advantage of this new agreement.

This is obviously an unsatisfactory outcome – that arrangements entered into by the Commonwealth will only provide benefit to couples in Sydney, not Melbourne, Perth not Brisbane, and Hobart but not Adelaide.

I therefore reiterate my call that you should use the process of establishing new inter-country arrangements over the coming year to urge those states and territories that have not yet made adoption non-discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status to finally do so.

Second, I wish to ask you about the proposal being considered that a non-government organisation may be funded to provide inter-country adoption services on behalf of the Commonwealth and states and territories. Specifically, if this organisation is itself, or is run by, a religious body, will you guarantee that they will not be able to deny these services to same-sex couples?

Again, it would be a deeply unsatisfactory outcome if, despite the successful inclusion of same-sex couples in formal arrangements between Australia and South Africa, these were undermined in practice because of the exemptions offered to religious organisations under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

Please ensure that whichever non-government organisation is funded to provide inter-country adoptions services on behalf of the Australian Government, and therefore the Australian people, they are legally bound not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Third, and finally, I return to a point made in my initial correspondence and that is that I believe the Australian Government should be actively seeking to include non-discrimination clauses in all future inter-country adoption agreements. This stance should apply irrespective of whether the country is like South Africa, and itself already recognises same-sex adoption, or another country that does not.

I acknowledge that it may not be possible to secure the inclusion of such a clause in every single signed agreement – because it is dependent on the response of the other country – but I can see no reason why Australia should not be directly and firmly putting forward the principle that all couples are able to be loving and nurturing parents, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Congratulations again on the inclusion of same-sex couples in the inter-country adoption agreement with South Africa.

I look forward to your response to the other matters raised in this correspondence.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Submission on NHMRC Review of Ethical Guidelines for Assisted Reproductive Technology

The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council is currently reviewing Part B of the Ethical Guidelines for the Use of Assisted Reproductive Technology in Clinical Practice and Research, 2007.

These Guidelines provide advice on a wide range of matters, including whether and if so in what circumstances someone can refuse to provide an ART procedure, and whether someone can direct that their gametes or embryos may only be used (or not used) by particular ethnic or social groups. They also currently include a prohibition on commercial surrogacy.

I have made a submission to the inquiry – which I reproduce below – which, as you can tell, largely argues for LGBTI equality, but also adopts a position on commercial surrogacy which I know some might find controversial (and if people do disagree with me I encourage you to leave a comment below).

I believe as many people as possible should make a submission to the review, because it should be informed by voices from across the community, including the LGBTI community (and that includes people who disagree with me on commercial surrogacy too). The details for the review, and how to make a submission, can be found at the following link: <http://consultations.nhmrc.gov.au/public_consultations/assisted_reproductive The closing date is Wednesday 30 April (ie ten days away), so time to get cracking.

Thanks for reading, and as always, let me know what you think.

Project Officer – Assisted Reproductive Technology

Health & Research Ethics Section

National Health and Medical Research Council

GPO Box 1421

CANBERRA ACT 2601

ethics@nhmrc.gov.au

Dear Project Officer, 

Review of Part B of the Ethical Guidelines for the Use of Assisted Reproductive Technology in Clinical Practice and Research, 2007

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission on the review of Part B of the Ethical Guidelines for the Use of Assisted Reproductive Technology in Clinical Practice and Research, 2007.

I do so as an ordinary member of the public, without any special qualification or expertise in assisted reproductive technology (ART), but with a strong interest and passionate commitment to the legal and substantive equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

I do not propose to answer all 60 of the questions contained in the public consultation document on the NHMRC website, but will instead focus my comments on those issues which are most relevant to LGBTI equality, as well as to the issue of commercial surrogacy.

In particular, I would like to make comments about the following five areas:

  1. Conscientious Objections
  2. Transmissible Infections
  3. Unknown but Directed Donations
  4. Selection for Particular Characteristics
  5. Commercial Surrogacy
  1. Conscientious Objections

My first concern is about the breadth of the description of conscientious objections in paragraph 5.9 (page 12 of the consultation document). Specifically, this paragraph provides that “[i]f any member of staff or student expresses a conscientious objection to the treatment of any individual patient or to any ART procedures conducted by the clinic, the clinic must allow him or her to withdraw from involvement in the procedure or program to which he or she objects.”

While I note that the provision of ART services may, for some staff members of students, raise ethical concerns, I believe that the drafting of this provision is far too broad, and allows for conscientious objections even when such objections are themselves unethical.

For example, the provision as drafted would allow an individual member of staff to refuse to provide ART services to a person on the basis of that person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status (if that person believed that ART services should not be provided to such persons) or on the basis of relationship status (if the person believed that only ‘opposite-sex’ married persons should have access to ART).

With the increasing acceptance of LGBTI Australians (as evidenced by the long-overdue introduction of federal anti-discrimination protections in 2013) and of different relationship statuses (including the 2008 reforms to federal de facto relationship recognition), none of these objections – while potentially genuinely held by the individual – should be allowed as the basis for refusing to provide ART services. Nor should conscientious objections on the basis of any of sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status or relationship status be recognized as acceptable or ‘ethical’ in the context of these Guidelines.

If paragraph 5.9 is to be retained in the Ethical Guidelines, I recommend that it be amended to specifically note that conscientious objections do not apply, and are not accepted, with respect to the sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status or relationship status of the intended recipient of the ART procedure or service.

  1. Transmissible Infections

My second concern also relates to the breadth of provisions contained in the Guidelines, in this case paragraph 6.4 (titled Minimise risk of infection, on page 19 of the consultation document). Specifically, sub-paragraph of this section provides that “[c]linics should not accept donations from people at an increased risk of transmissible infections”.

While I acknowledge the importance of reducing the risk of transmission of communicable diseases, I believe that the wording of this sub-paragraph allows for potential misinterpretation or misapplication to prohibit donations from all people from a particular demographic group who may be over-represented in notifications for a transmissible infection (for example, men who have sex with men, who are currently disproportionately represented in HIV notifications in Australia).

This level of prohibition – at demographic group level – would ignore the particular behaviours or characteristics of the individual, which in practice make that individual more or less susceptible to transmission.

My concern is this area is founded on the ongoing exclusion of all men who engage in same-sex sexual intercourse from donating blood, irrespective of their particular behaviours or characteristics and therefore actual risk.

It is my view that any risk assessment, if deemed necessary at all, should be performed at individual level, rather than demographic group, and that the Guidelines should make this differentiation explicit in this section.

I would also note that the requirement contained in sub-paragraph 6.4.2 (that “[a]ll donors of gametes should undergo appropriate infection control surveillance”) is possibly all that is necessary to be included in this section in any event. If the individual concerned is being tested for relevant infections, and appropriate monitoring is being undertaken, then sub-paragraph 6.4.1 may in fact already be redundant.

  1. Unknown but directed donations

This concern relates to the paragraphs addressing ‘unknown but directed donation’ of both gametes (paragraph 6.9, at page 20 of the consultation document) and embryos (paragraph 7.6, at page 29).

I am strongly opposed to the recognition, even under Ethical Guidelines, of any ability of donors to restrict the use of their gametes or embryos to “certain individuals, such as those from a particular ethnic or social group.”

This creates the possibility of donors restricting the use of their gametes or embryos to people of a particular sexual orientation or gender identity (for example, to cisgender heterosexual people), and therefore to excluding other people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. It also appears that this would allow for similar distinctions to be made on the basis of relationship status.

I note that paragraph 6.9 highlights that “[t]his type of directed donation is illegal in some jurisdictions.” I believe that it should be made illegal in all jurisdictions. The principle of non-discrimination, including non-discrimination against LGBTI people, should trump any ability of potential donors to discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status of relationship status.

Even where ‘unknown but directed donations’ are not made illegal under law, the placing of such restrictions on the donation of gametes or embryos should not be respected through these Guidelines (as they currently are in both paragraphs 6.9 and 7.6, which conclude by saying “[i]n the remaining states and territories, clinics must not use the gametes/embryos in a way that is contrary to the wishes of the donor.”)

At this point I note that there are two options to implement such a recommendation – and that is to either override any expressed discriminatory preference of the donor and provide the gametes/embryos to others irrespective of whatever qualification was sought, or to reject all such donations and ensure that their gametes/embryos are not used. I am comfortable with either outcome, as they both satisfy the principles of equality/non-discrimination, although I highlight the fact that the former would allow more gametes/embryos to be used by individuals or couples who may require them.

  1. Selection for Particular Characteristics

Paragraph 11.1 of the Ethical Guidelines (headed Do not select sex for non-medical purposes, on page 48 of the consultation document) states that “sex selection (by whatever means) must not be undertaken except to reduce the risk of transmission of a serious genetic condition”. I support the inclusion of this principle in the Guidelines.

However, I note that, in future, there exists the potential that research may create the possibility of determining the likely (or at least increased predisposition towards a specific) sexual orientation or gender identity of a child born as a result of assisted reproductive technology. I also note that, for certain groups within the umbrella term intersex (such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia, and androgen insensitivity syndrome) these diagnostic tests are already a possibility, while additional groups within intersex may be able to be determined in the future.

Given that the incredible diversity of sexual orientation (including heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality), gender identity (recognizing those who are cisgender and those who are transgender) and sex (including intersex status) of human life is natural, and that all people, including LGBTI people, are equal, and should be treated as such, I believe the Guidelines should also include a prohibition on the selection of reproductive material on the basis of (likely or prospective) sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

While for sexual orientation and gender identity, this scenario – the screening of embryos for such characteristics – may ultimately prove to be some years or even decades into the future, I believe that it is vital to lay down this signpost, that such discrimination will not be tolerated, now, thereby setting a precedent for if and when it is ever required. In the case of intersex status, such guidelines are necessary now, to support and recognize sex diversity.

  1. Commercial Surrogacy

Finally, I note that paragraph 13.1 of the Ethical Guidelines (on page 52 of the consultation document) states that “[i]t is ethically unacceptable to undertake or facilitate surrogate pregnancy for commercial purposes.”

While I agree that commercial surrogacy raises a variety of complex ethical issues, I do not necessarily agree with such a broad-sweeping and all-encompassing statement against commercial surrogacy. I do not believe there is sufficient evidence to assert that in every single situation commercial surrogacy is ‘unethical’ or ‘wrong’.

Of course, I am, like most people, sensitive to the very real potential for commercial surrogacy to result in the exploitation of women for their reproductive capabilities. This has to be a major, if not the major, consideration in determining whether to allow commercial surrogacy and if so what form of regulation might be appropriate.

However, I am also aware that the current legal situation – where commercial surrogacy in Australia is banned, and as a direct result of these laws an increasing number of Australian individuals and couples are engaging in commercial surrogacy arrangements overseas – may in fact cause a far greater degree of exploitation of women, especially in developing countries and/or countries which do not closely regulate surrogacy arrangements.

It may be that a domestic ban on commercial surrogacy has, contrary to the intended outcome of those who introduced it, in fact resulted in greater exploitation of women when considered as a whole. It may also be that, creating a domestic commercial surrogacy scheme, which would allow for direct oversight by Commonwealth (or State and Territory) authorities, could lead to a significant reduction in the potential for such exploitation.

I do not expect the review process considering these Guidelines to come to a conclusion about these difficult matters. Nor am I willing, or in a position, to even attempt to suggest what a domestic commercial surrogacy scheme would look like.

However, I do believe that this is an issue that requires further investigation, and could be the subject of a comprehensive review by the Australian Law Reform Commission, or their State and Territory equivalents.

The ALRC could be asked not to review whether such a scheme should be adopted but to determine, if commercial surrogacy was to be allowed in Australia, what the best possible scheme (with the least potential for the exploitation of women) would look like. The Parliament, and the wider community, could then discuss and debate the option that was put forward and make an informed choice about whether such a model was preferable to the ongoing domestic ban on commercial surrogacy (and the corresponding trend to overseas surrogacy arrangements).

I believe that such a debate, informed not just by a practical proposal but also by the real-world consequences of the current ban, is vital before we can truly come to grips with and possibly resolve whether a permanent ban on commercial surrogacy is ethical or otherwise.

Thank you for taking my submission into consideration.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

20 April 2014

The last major battle for gay & lesbian legal equality in Australia won’t be about marriage

[Updated March 4th 2015]

This Saturday, the 37th annual Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade will work its way up Oxford St with its now traditional mix of politics, colour and movement, and above all, pride. Pride in who we are, pride in our community, and pride in what we have managed to achieve.

Because life is unarguably better for the vast majority of Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) population in 2015 than it has ever been before. And that indeed is something to be proud about.

Following the first Mardi Gras on 24 June 1978, many of the barriers to legal equality have been removed. NSW passed anti-discrimination laws in 1982, followed by the decriminalisation of gay sex in 1984. Same-sex couples have since achieved de facto relationship recognition, and there is now equal access to assisted reproductive technology and adoption in most Australian jurisdictions.

It is likely that one area where legal rights have yet to be achieved will, once again, be the dominant theme of many of the more politically-oriented floats in this year’s parade – the Australian Parliament’s ongoing refusal to recognise marriage equality between all couples.

As someone who is engaged to be married, and who has been for more than four years but is currently prohibited from doing so, I understand why marriage equality is an issue which arouses such intense passion, and an admirable level of commitment from many activists around Australia.

But marriage equality is also something which most of us know is probably, some might say almost inevitably, going to be achieved at some point in the next five, at most 10, years.

When that day comes, when the first couples legally married under federal law have shared their vows and celebrated their commitments to each other in front of their families and friends, there will still be a major outstanding issue of legal inequality confronting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians.

It appears just as inevitable that, long after those couples dance their waltzes and cut their wedding cakes, the anti-discrimination protections which are offered to LGBT Australians under most state and federal laws will continue to be seriously undermined by the wide-ranging exceptions which are offered to religious organisations (NB Intersex is not included here because religious exemptions under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply on those grounds).

These exceptions allow religious schools to actively discriminate against LGBT teachers and students. Religious hospitals and community welfare organisations can utilise these loopholes to discriminate against LGBT employees, as well as patients and clients. And, while the historic federal reforms passed via the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 do not allow religious-operated aged care facilities to discriminate against LGBT people accessing their services, LGBT people can still be denied employment in those facilities simply because of who they are.

All of these services – education and health, community welfare and aged care – are located firmly and squarely in the public sphere, and address some of the most fundamental human needs in life. It is these same characteristics, that they are public services meeting public needs, that are used to justify the substantial amounts of public funding which subsidise the religious organisations running them, money which comes from all taxpayers, religious and non-religious, LGBTI and non-LGBTI alike.

Yet, despite operating in the public sphere, almost always using public money, these organisations are granted exceptions from the same legal obligations that are imposed on any other group, namely the responsibility not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The justification for these ‘special rights’? Basically, that the ability to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is so fundamental to the exercise of religious freedom that it cannot be limited.

Note that we are not here talking about who is appointed as office-holders, including ministers, within a religion itself, what a particular religion may or may not believe in terms of morality, how religious ceremonies are undertaken, or even who can attend a religious ceremony. These are things that are central to religious freedom, and most people would not advocate the imposition of limits on the ability of religious organisations to discriminate in these areas.

Instead, some religious organisations (and we must say some, because not all groups hold these views) believe that they should have the right to fire a gay teacher, to expel a bisexual school student, to refuse to employ a lesbian aged care worker, or to deny services to someone who is transgender, even when all of the above is clearly done in the public sphere.

This is a much more substantive denial of rights than simply being denied access to marriage rites. Religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws can affect LGBT people in multiple areas of their lives, including times and places when they are at their most vulnerable. In practical terms, I believe it is religious exceptions and not marriage inequality that is the biggest battle left to be won for full gay and lesbian legal equality.

It is also a battle that looks set to be fought more ferociously than that over marriage equality. Some of the largest religious organisations in the country don’t just support these exceptions, they are prepared to wage cultural war to defend them.

The Wesley Mission recently spent eight years, and went all the way to the NSW Court of Appeal, defending their right to deny allowing a male same-sex couple to become foster carers to children in need. Wesley did so on the basis that: “[t]he biblical teaching on human sexuality makes it clear that monogamous heterosexual partnership within marriage is both the norm and ideal” (OW & OV v Members of the Board of the Wesley Mission Council [2010] NSWADT 293 (10 December 2010).

Further, they submitted that: “Wesley Mission’s tradition views a monogamous heterosexual partnership in marriage as the ideal family role model for the vulnerable and sometimes damaged children we foster. Other understandings fall short of that norm.” And finally that “[t]he proposition that we should provide a framework for children to be cared for and nurtured within the context of a homosexual lifestyle is fundamentally unacceptable to our evangelical teaching and practice.”

The irony, some might say hypocrisy, of these statements is that, in the same case, Wesley Mission admitted that single people could themselves become foster carers through their service. Apparently they believed that two dads or two mums had less to offer foster children than one.

The net effect of the Wesley Mission case was to provide judicial confirmation of the breadth of the religious exceptions offered under section 56(d) of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977. That section reads: “[n]othing in this Act affects: any other 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 religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

In short, if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, then you have no legal right or expectation to be treated fairly and without discrimination by a religious employer, or religious-operated service, in NSW.

It is no surprise then that, when the Federal Parliament was considering the Exposure Draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination (HRAD) Bill 2012, the precursor of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, key NSW religious organisations would argue for religious exceptions to be established in Commonwealth law, too.

What is perhaps surprising is that some churches made submissions to the Senate inquiry considering the HRAD Bill that these exceptions do not go far enough.

The Standing Committee of the Synod of the Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney, and the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney (including the Diocese of Parramatta and the Catholic Education Commission of NSW), both argued that the concept of exceptions was problematic, and that the right to discriminate against LGBT people should instead be re-contextualised as a positive right.

From the Anglican submission: “[w]hile exceptions are necessary, casting the protection of these rights in a wholly negative manner, in the form of ‘exceptions’, does not do justice to their importance. It suggests they are merely to be tolerated rather than positively recognised and upheld as legitimate and important in themselves.”

Meanwhile, in a ‘Diedre Chambers’ style coincidence, the Catholic submission also wrote: “the terminology of “exceptions” is problematic and fails to acknowledge that the right of freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, which the Commonwealth government is obliged to protect under international law. In our view, the terminology of “exceptions” should be replaced with the terminology of “protections”. Using the terminology of “protections” would recognise that conduct which is deemed not to be unlawful because it is covered by an exception related to religion is in fact lawful because it accords with the fundamental human right of freedom of religion” [emphasis in original].

Both submissions also go further than concerns surrounding terminology to argue that the exceptions which are offered to religious organisations should also be available to individuals – that is, that their personal beliefs should allow them to discriminate, even in their professional lives and when not working for a religious organisation.

For example, the Anglican submission recommended that “[a]n employee should not be required by their employer to undertake particular tasks or provide services in a particular context that are contrary to the employee’s genuinely held religious convictions where this is reasonable.”

Thankfully, that style of exception, which is located somewhere on the bottom half of the slippery slope down to the abhorrent type of laws currently attracting controversy in several US states, was not included in the final Commonwealth legislation. But in making that submission, the Anglican Church of Sydney has made clear the direction it wants anti-discrimination, or more accurately, pro-discrimination, laws to head [As an aside, if it had been passed then, when marriage equality does eventually become a reality, such provisions would have allowed individual employees to refuse to sell wedding cakes, or serve as wedding photographers, merely because of the sexual orientation and/or gender identities of the couples involved].

And they will fight equally hard to ensure that the current framework of exceptions applies in as many contexts as possible. The eventual removal of these exceptions in terms of people accessing aged care services was strongly resisted from some religious bodies, even if their arguments for doing so were quite weak (the Anglican submission on the HRAD Bill suggested that “[i]t may be unsettling to these communities to have residents who do not share their beliefs, values and ethos facility on matters of sexual practice”).

They have been more successful in fighting against recent proposed changes to NSW law that were simply attempting to remove the right of religious and other private schools to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender students (NB Bisexuality is shamefully still not a protected attribute in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977). Alex Greenwich’s amendments are currently on hold, at least in part because of the influence of the two major churches in the Parliament.

As we have seen, some religious organisations have demonstrated over the past 10 years that they are prepared to fight, by whatever means necessary (through the courts, in parliamentary inquiries, by lobbying parliamentarians directly and in public debate) to maintain and even extend the reach of these exceptions.

While this may seem to some like a theoretical (or even theological) debate, they are not doing so because they want the law to recognise abstract rights – they are engaged in this battle because they want the retain the ability to actively discriminate against LGBT people in real life.

Sadly, there are too many stories of this happening, of religious exceptions causing real-world harm to LGBT people. In the lead-up to Mr Greenwich’s Bill being introduced, several lesbian and gay students came forward with stories of being sent to the counsellor’s office for being “sick” (that is, for being gay), of being called disgusting and a disgrace – by a teacher no less – and threatened with exclusion from senior school, and of being told not to talk about their sexuality in addition to being excluded from school events (source: “Discrimination has no place in schools” Alex Greenwich, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September, 2013).

Not forgetting the recent incident where the Sacred Heart Primary School at Broken Hill, which falls within the Wilcannia-Forbes Catholic Diocese, rejected a young girl’s kindergarten application simply because her parents were two women (source: “Same-sex enrolment row prompts call for law change”, ABC News Online, 15 December 2011).

Of course, these are just some of the stories that we are aware about. Most people who are discriminated against by religious organisations, either directly or indirectly, do not speak up, because they are aware that the discriminatory actions of those bodies are entirely lawful, or because they fear retribution from those organisations if they do so.

Which brings me back to the Mardi Gras Parade. While for many of us the decision to participate on Saturday is an easy one, choosing to celebrate pride in who we are and as part of our community, for others the decision whether to be visible or not in this manner can be significantly more complicated.

For people already engaged with religious organisations in different ways, or whose profession may involve applying for jobs with them (for example, more than a third of schools in Australia are religious, an even higher proportion amongst secondary schools), choosing to be ‘out’ through Mardi Gras can have serious repercussions.

Some people can and do have a legitimate fear that being identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender could result in them being fired, or being refused employment in the first place, in being expelled from school (or seriously mistreated while there), or being denied necessary services. Neither state nor federal anti-discrimination law would currently protect them in these circumstances.

In this respect, despite all of the progress in law reform since the first Mardi Gras parade was held back in 1978, there is still an incredibly long way to go. That is one of the reasons why we must ensure that Mardi Gras, as well as being a celebration of pride, also continues to serve its role as a political protest.

It is also why me must continue to campaign for equality, and to fight for our rights, including the right not to be discriminated against. Given the scale of the challenge involved in removing these unjust religious exceptions, and how hard (some) religious organisations will struggle to retain them (and therefore to maintain their position of privilege in society), we should be aware that it is not a fight that we will win in months. It will take several years, at least – if not decades.

But it is a battle we must wage nonetheless. Because, if LGBT Australians are ever to be truly equal under the law, then the special exceptions granted to religious organisations under Commonwealth, state and territory laws must end.

Explanatory notes: I have attempted to be clear in this post about when I am speaking about gay and lesbian, or LGBT, or LGBTI, because sometimes the law affects these groups in different ways (and please accept my apologies if I have made some errors in this respect). For example, removing religious exceptions cannot be the last major battle for bisexual legal equality – especially if they are not included in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act in the first place.

Equally, I am not in a position to argue that religious exceptions are the biggest legal issue confronting transgender Australians when uniform positive recognition of gender identity is not yet a reality. And, while intersex people are not subject to religious exceptions under the Sex Discrimination Act, I also wouldn’t describe this issue as more important than banning involuntary medical sterilisation, something I have written about previously (see link: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/12/25/no-3-senate-report-on-involuntary-or-coerced-sterilisation-of-intersex-people-in-australia/).

Finally, while I wrote in the second paragraph that, for the vast majority of LGBTI Australians, life is unarguably better than it has ever been before, I do not wish to underestimate the ongoing problems of mental illness, depression and suicide which affect many young LGBTI people, or indeed the plight of LGBTI asylum-seekers, who Australia continues to send to Nauru and Manus Island, PNG, for ‘processing and resettlement’.

One (more) final thing: if you liked this post, please consider sharing. Thanks, Alastair

No Homophobia, No Exceptions

During the week, the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby (which I am involved in as the Policy Working Group Chair), launched its No Homophobia, No Exceptions campaign, calling for the removal of religious exceptions to LGBTI anti-discrimination protections contained in the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

This is an incredibly important campaign, given these exceptions will possibly be the last barriers to full LGBTI equality in Australia to fall, and a campaign which I am very proud to be involved in.

Now, while this blog, and the posts which I put up here, only ever reflect my personal views on things (ie in this blog I do not speak on behalf of the GLRL, or any other organisation), I would like to take the opportunity to put up a link to two other pages which form key parts of the No Homophobia, No Exceptions campaign.

The first is an op-ed I wrote for the Star Observer newspaper, outlining the reasons for the campaign, and calling for the LGBTI community to get involved. Link here: <http://www.starobserver.com.au/opinion/soapbox-opinion/no-homophobia-no-exceptions/117476

The second link is to a Change.org petition which asks people to support the campaign, by calling on Commonwealth Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis, and NSW Attorney-General, The Hon Greg Smith MP, to repeal these provisions.

If you support the campaign, and the principle that all people deserve to be treated equally in all areas of public life, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then I strongly encourage you to sign. Link here: http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/senator-hon-george-brandis-remove-religious-exceptions-from-anti-discrimination-laws

Thanks.

No 10 The Federal Election on September 7

This would possibly have been higher on the list, were it not for the fact the outcome was pretty much inevitable, long before polling day (and certainly by the time I finished working at Parliament House in mid-2012).

But the September 7 election was still a significant moment, because it drew the final curtain on the Rudd & Gillard (& Rudd again) Labor Government that, in less than 6 years, achieved more for LGBTI rights than any other federal Government in history.

Perhaps we, as a community, took some of those achievements for granted. Perhaps, because many of those reforms were so long overdue (case in point: de facto relationship recognition) that they didn’t feel like achievements at all, instead they were simply the actions of a Parliament finally catching up to where the population already was.

More likely, for many of the LGBTI people of Australia, the achievements of the Labor Government were overshadowed by one major law reform which they didn’t implement. As someone who is engaged to be married myself, I understand that frustration (and I would add another couple of major policy failures as well – but more on them later in this countdown).

Nevertheless, the fact that the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Government did not introduce marriage equality should not mean that we completely disregard their achievements in other areas. After all, they accomplished infinitely more in a little over 5 and a half years than the Howard Government did in twice that time (to be honest, the only positive Howard Government LGBTI achievement I can think of was allowing same-sex couples access to their partner’s superannuation, but even that wasn’t mandated, didn’t cover Commonwealth public sector employees, and was only passed as a trade-off when they introduced the marriage ban in 2004).

The positive list of Labor achievements between 2007 and 2013 includes:

  • De facto relationship recognition (and access to the Family Court on relationship breakdown)
  • The inclusion of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status in federal anti-discrimination legislation for the first time (again, more on that later in the countdown)
  • Another first, this time the first National LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Strategy
  • Providing funding for the National LGBTI Health Alliance for mental health projects
  • Providing funding for QLife, the national network of LGBTI telephone counselling services, to allow a 1800 number to be operational across the country 7 nights a week (the importance of which really shouldn’t be underestimated)
  • Introducing trans* and intersex passport reform, with M, F and X categories (where X includes indeterminate/unspecified/intersex)
  • Permitting LGBTI inclusive couples to access Certificates of No Impediment, to at least allow them to be married overseas, if not at home
  • Providing Gardasil vaccinations to teenage boys, so that future generations of gay and bisexual men are protected from anal, penile and throat cancer
  • Introducing Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender, and
  • Removing some gender requirements for PBS medicines, meaning easier access to some treatments for trans* and intersex people.

The above list (which I am sure is not exhaustive) is, all things considered, a pretty impressive one.

It is a shame that, through their own actions (or, more specifically, inaction), the Rudd and Gillard Government will, for many, be remembered more because of the failure to recognise the fundamental equality of love, than any of the things I have noted above. Because, in reality, they left the state of LGBTI affairs in Australia a far better place on 7 September 2013, than what they inherited on 24 November 2007.

Still, there is one way in which the outgoing Labor Government could be remembered more fondly over time – and that is if the actions of the newly-elected Abbott-led Liberal and National Government make them seem better in hindsight.

Already, that looks like a distinct possibility. The first LGBTI-related action of the Abbott Government was taking the ACT and their same-sex marriage laws to the High Court (thus seeing them overturned). And there are plenty of other tests to come over the next 12-24 months, including deciding whether to continue funding for some of the above-named initiatives. Not to mention the potential threat to anti-discrimination reforms, and in particular the possibility of Brandis & co reintroducing an exemption for religious aged care service providers.

So, while we (quite rightly) criticise the Rudd & Gillard Labor Government for what it didn’t do, perhaps every once in a while we should also reflect on the good things that it did accomplish.

Submission on Alex Greenwich’s Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Private Educational Authorities) Bill 2013

The following is my submission, lodged today, in response to a discussion paper and Bill released by the Member for Sydney, Mr Alex Greenwich. The Paper and Bill seek to remove exceptions which allow private educational authorities, including religious schools, the right to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students. Unfortunately, I think that to achieve that goal, more amendments to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 may need to be made. In any event, I believe that there are a range of other amendments which should also be made at the same time, including the removal of section 56 generally. Anyway, here it is:

Mr Alex Greenwich

Member for Sydney

Sydney@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Monday 30 September 2013

Dear Mr Greenwich

Submission on Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Private Educational Authorities) Bill 2013

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission in response to your discussion paper on anti-discrimination law reform, released in August 2013, and in particular in relation to your Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Private Educational Authorities) Bill 2013 (the Bill), which you introduced into NSW Parliament on 19 September 2013.

First of all, let me say that I welcome your strong commitment to removing the discrimination that can be experienced by lesbian, gay and transgender students in private educational institutions, including private schools. As has been demonstrated by the Writing Themselves In reports, and countless other research projects over the years, schools can be one of the major sources of homophobia and trans-phobia in the lives of young people.

It is vital that any ‘exceptions’ in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 which may authorise schools to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students are removed, and this must apply to all types of private schools, including religious schools. From what I have read, both in the Discussion Paper and associated media, as well as in your Second Reading Speech, I believe this is what your Bill is attempting to achieve.

However, I do have some concerns about the Anti-Discrimination (Private Educational Authorities) Bill 2013, in particular:

  • It is unclear whether the Bill, as drafted, will accomplish this aim
  • There are a range of other amendments which also need to be made to the Anti-Discrimination Act 1997 and
  • If the Bill is aimed at removing the right to discriminate from religious schools, thereby provoking an expected negative response from religious organisations, then I believe that the right of religious organisations to discriminate more broadly under s56 should be removed at the same time.

Turning first to the question of whether the Bill, if passed, would actually achieve the aim of removing the right to discriminate from all schools, including religious schools, I note that the Bill simply removes those provisions of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1997 which provide a specific right to discriminate (namely, sections 31A(3)(a), 38K(3), 46A(3), 49L(3)(a), 49ZO(3) and 49ZYL(3)(b)).

However, the Bill does not amend or seek to repeal the catch-all section which provides exceptions to religious organisations to discriminate – and that is found in section 56(d) which states: “Nothing in this Act affects: (d) any other 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 religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

I am concerned that, by leaving this section unamended, the effect of your Bill would be to remove the right to discriminate from private educational authorities that are not religious, but that religious schools would retain the right to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students on the basis of their ‘religious principles or beliefs’. The practical effect of the Bill would therefore have a positive outcome for a much, much smaller cohort of students than what is intended.

This reading of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, and in particular s56(d), appears to be supported by the main case in this area in recent years: OW & OV v Members of the Board of the Wesley Mission Council [2010] NSWADT 293. This case involved a service operated by the Wesley Mission, which sought to utilise the ‘protections’ offered in s56(d) to discriminate against gay male foster carers. The Wesley Mission was ultimately successful in its appeal.

While foster care is obviously not exactly the same as providing education in religious schools, I believe that it is potentially analogous in terms of indicating how broad the religious exceptions under s56(d) are in practice, and in particular in suggesting that they would operate to shield religious schools that discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students from the scope of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

This also appears to be the opinion of the current Attorney-General of NSW, the Hon Greg Smith SC MP. In a speech titled Religious Vilification, Anti-Discrimination Law and Religious Freedom, which he gave on 24 August 2011, the Attorney-General discussed the operation of s56:

“116. Section 56 creates a general exemption from the ADA for religious bodies. Religious bodies are not required to comply with the ADA in relation to:

  1. The training, education, ordination or appointment of religious leaders [s56(a)&(b)];
  2. The appointment of any other person [s56(c)];
  3. Any other act or practice that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of thast religion [s56(d)].

117. Section 56 was included in the ADA when first enacted. While other jurisdictions have adopted a general exception from their anti-discrimination statutes for religious bodies, the exceptions are narrower than that under the ADA in the following ways:

a. While section 56(c) of the ADA exempts the appointment of persons ‘in any capacity’ by a religious body, other jurisdictions exempt only appointment of persons to perform functions related to religious practices;

b. Some other jurisdictions have provisions equivalent to s56(d) of the ADA, but others are narrower. Those that are narrower limit the exemption to acts done as part of a religious practice [NT], or don’t extend the exemption to discrimination in work or education [Qld], or limit the grounds of discrimination that are exempt.” [emphasis added]

The implication from this speech, and in particular from para 117(b) above, is that the Attorney-General believes that the protections offered by s56(d) would be available to a school or educational facility run by a religious organisation. This also appears to be the interpretation of s 56(d) by other organisations and advocacy groups which work in this area, including the Inner-City Legal Centre and Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

If that is the case – that either your Bill does not operate to limit the right of religious schools to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students, or that there may be some ongoing uncertainty in this area – then might I suggest you seek additional legal advice on the scope of s56(d), and whether further amendments to your Bill might be necessary to guarantee the rights of lesbian, gay and transgender students in religious schools not to be discriminated against. Obviously, if the Bill is to be debated and ultimately voted upon in late 2013 or early 2014, it would be useful to have clarity about the exact protections to be offered by the Bill beforehand.

Moving on to my second concern about the Bill, which applies irrespective of whether students at religious schools are covered or not, specifically that there are a range of other serious problems with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, and it is my belief that these issues should be considered at the same time by the Parliament.

For example, as well as protecting lesbian, gay and transgender students, anti-discrimination protections should also be offered to teachers and other employees at the same schools, irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In fact, I believe that religious exceptions should be limited to only cover the appointment of ministers of religion, and the conduct of religious ceremonies. In short, religious organisations should no longer be sanctioned by the State to discriminate in employment and service delivery in places like hospitals or social services – and a reform to the existing law is a perfect opportunity to make such changes.

There are also a range of problems with the current scope of, and definitions included in, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, including the fact that it protects homosexuals (in s49ZF) rather than people with different sexual orientations (with the effect that, while lesbians and gay men are covered, bisexuals are not).

The NSW Act also includes what I understand to be an out-dated definition of transgender (in s38A), rather than the preferred definition of gender identity as passed in the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013. Indeed, the NSW Act does not even cover intersex status at all, unlike its Commonwealth counterpart. I hope that you, and other MPs involved in this area of public policy, are consulting with groups representing the transgender and intersex communities about whether, and how, to deal with these issues.

There are also other problems with the current Act, including what I find to be an objectionable difference in financial penalties for individual offenders found guilty of vilification; the maximum financial penalty for racial or HIV/AIDS vilification (set at 50 Penalty Units) is five times higher than that for homosexual or transgender vilification (set at 10 Penalty Units). There can be no justification for this discrepancy, which effectively creates a hierarchy of offensiveness, with some types of vilification considered more serious than others.

The above problems with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 are simply those which I have identified from my own reading and research. I am sure that there are other issues which also need to be addressed. This to me suggests that there is sufficient impetus for a more comprehensive re-write of the Act. While the subject of protecting lesbian, gay and transgender students is an incredibly important one, I believe that the range of problems identified above should all be dealt with at the same time.

Which brings me to my third concern with the draft Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Private Educational Authorities) Bill 2013, and that is a concern around tactics or strategy.

By attempting to limit the right of religious organisations to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender students in their schools, you are taking on something which many churches take to be an inalienable ‘right’ – the ability to indoctrinate young people with their religious teachings against homosexuality or transgender identity.

As a result, I would expect a significant backlash from those same religious organisations against your Bill. The size or scale of that backlash might only be slightly less than that which could be expected from an attempt to narrow the broader exceptions contained in section 56 (by limiting its coverage to the appointment of ministers and conduct of religious ceremonies).

In that case, it is my personal view that, as well as removing the specific provisions concerning private educational authorities (as featured in your Bill), any attempt to reform the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 should also contain provisions which significantly reduce the scope of s56. If people such as yourself are going to take on the right of religious organisations to discriminate, then why not do so more comprehensively, rather than in what could be described a piecemeal (or at the very least, narrowly-targeted) fashion?

Which is not to say that moves to protect lesbian, gay and transgender students from discrimination are not welcome – they obviously are. And I also wish to restate my support for the overall intention of the Bill; protecting young people who are lesbian, gay and transgender from homophobia and trans-phobia is an incredibly important objective.

However, any attempt to do so must ensure that the Bill captures all private schools, including religious schools. And, even if that drafting issue is resolved, it remains my personal view that reform to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 should go much further, and address broader issues including but not limited to restricting the scope of section 56.

Thank you for considering this submission.

Yours sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

Liberal-National Policies on LGBTI Issues for Federal Election 2013

I was tempted to leave the content of this article completely blank, because that would be a reasonably accurate reflection of the LGBTI policies of the Liberal-National Parties for the election that is now only two days away. That is because, outside of two not very encouraging exceptions, the Coalition doesn’t appear to have any LGBTI policies for this year’s poll.

The Real Solutions booklet, which Tony Abbott and his team have been clutching tight for most of this year, makes no mention of LGBTI Australians. And, as far as I can tell, none of the policies which have been put up on the Liberal campaign website do so either (although I am happy to be corrected).

The two exceptions that I mention include Abbott’s signature Paid Parental Leave scheme (covered in my blog post earlier this week, a commitment which does not include references to same-sex couples in the formal policy document, but which Abbott, Hockey and O’Dwyer have subsequently been forced to confirm will include LGBTI parents).

And the second exception is marriage equality, which does not actually involve a policy commitment at all, only that the decision will be left to a post-election party-room to decide whether to have a conscience vote in the next term, rather than having a formal position against (although the Opposition Leader has made his own views – which remain strongly opposed to marriage equality – very clear).

This paucity of policies was confirmed through the 2013 LGBTI Federal Election Survey, which was recently conducted by the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, Transgender Victoria and Organisation Intersex International Australia. This was a question and answer document, with 43 different questions spread over 12 distinct topics.

Unfortunately, while the ALP and Greens provided individual answers to all 43 questions, the Liberal-National Coalition did not provide individual answers, instead they provided a cover letter, and two-and-a-bit page attachment, which provided broad brushstrokes but very few details of what they will (and won’t) do.

The LGBTI groups I mentioned then analysed this response according to four different categories: Yes/Good Response, Qualified/Partial Response, No/Bad Response and Response does not answer the question. (For a copy of the survey documents, including the Liberal-National letter and the assessment made by the four groups, go to www.lgbti2013.org.au)

The result: for a full 29 of the 43 questions asked (ie two thirds of the total), the Liberal-National Parties’ response was deemed to not answer the question at all. In fact, in only 4 out of 43 responses (less than 10%) were the Liberal-Nationals deemed to give a positive response, with 8 qualifieds, and 2 outright nos. By way of comparison, the LGBTI groups deemed that the ALP did not answer 4 questions out of 43, and the Greens only 1 out of the 43 questions, and the clear majority of both responses were deemed to be Yes/Good.

Given that they answered less than a third of the questions asked, it is no surprise that there are entire policy areas which the Liberal-National Coalition have simply not taken a position on, and these touch a number of things which are very important to different sections of the LGBTI community.

Specifically, the Abbott Liberal-National Coalition failed to provide an answer on:

  • Whether they support the recent amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act which have prohibited discrimination against LGBT people by religious organisations in aged care services
  • Whether they oppose the introduction of civil unions before the passage of marriage equality
  • Whether they will continue to issue Certificates of No Impediment, which currently allow Australian couples to marry in other countries which have already legislated for marriage equality
  • Whether they will attempt to overrule States and Territories that introduce marriage equality (either through new legislation or High Court challenge)
  • Whether they will continue to fund dedicated LGBTI health initiatives, outside of HIV, and (possibly) some mental health initiatives
  • Whether they will retain the dedicated National LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Strategy, and keep LGBTI as a special needs group in the Aged Care Act
  • Whether they will provide public funding for trans* surgeries
  • Whether they would help end ‘normalising’ surgery (including coerced sterilisation) on intersex infants
  • Whether they will use foreign policies resources to advocate specifically for decriminalisation of homosexuality around the world and
  • Whether they support the ‘resettlement’ of LGBTI refugees in countries that criminalise homosexuality (such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru).

As you can see, that is a pretty impressive roll-call of issues which the Liberal-National Coalition failed to provide an answer on. In my personal opinion, I think that this is a pretty disappointing (*alert: possible understatement) level of detail from people who will likely be occupying the Government benches from next week.

One interpretation of this would be that, by not answering these questions, they are leaving open the possibility of doing any and all of them (which could include doing positive things which they have not answered, but could equally involve doing a range of negative things, including taking away rights for LGBTI people or funding for LGBTI initiatives).

Another interpretation would be that, by failing to outline any concrete negative plans – for example, by failing to state that they will bring back religious exemptions in aged care services in the Sex Discrimination Act – even after being specifically asked, they will not have a mandate to do these when in Government. After all, it is difficult to claim a mandate to roll back rights or strip funding when you keep those policies (if you have them) a secret. And that is an argument that I expect the LGBTI community will be using if the Abbott Government does adopt negative policies in these areas after the election.

Complaint re Reference to A.I.D.S on Form

My fiancé Steve and I went to Queensland last week on holiday. The main purpose was to attend my mother’s 65th birthday. However, we also decided to treat ourselves to a night in Noosa, and to a massage the following morning, so that we could both de-stress.

But our enjoyment of said massage was compromised somewhat by the ‘client form’ which asked a range of questions about health conditions which could be relevant (for example, whether you were suffering from a shoulder or leg injury etc). One part of this form read “Please circle if you have any of the following” and one of the options was “A.I.D.S”

I could not believe my eyes. First, I find it difficult to understand how a massage could involve any risk of HIV transmission (given there is no exchange of bodily fluids or other means of transmission).

Second, and much more offensively, I can’t recall the last time I saw someone use the phrase AIDS as shorthand to refer to someone who may be HIV-positive. In fact, it may be more than a decade since I saw the conflation of the two, especially on a document which has probably been distributed hundreds if not thousands of times.

I was too shocked to raise the issue at the time, but did take a copy of the form to use as the basis of a complaint to the company which provided the massage. I have written the below email to the company outlining my concern with the form. I have also copied this email to the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities for their information (and possible follow-up).

At this stage, I am giving the company the benefit of the doubt. I am hoping that it may be an ‘innocent mistake’, and that they do not understand how offensive this form is. As such, I am not naming the organisation on this post today.

Nevertheless, should they fail to respond positively to this complaint, or fail to respond at all, I will of course name the company involved so that other fair-minded people can avoid them when they go on holiday and want to relax. After all relaxing is far more enjoyable without an added dose of unjust discrimination.

Dear ,

I am writing today to raise an issue which occurred during my massage at your premises in Noosa last Friday October 12th 2012. In particular, I am referring to your Client Form, which I was required to fill in before having my massage.

This form included a section headed “Please circle if you have any of the following” and one of the options listed was “A.I.D.S”. I find this inclusion to be incorrect and offensive.

First, I imagine that this question was seeking to establish whether a client potentially has a blood borne virus (in this case HIV, not AIDS). I also imagine that this question is at least intending to ensure the massager is able to take appropriate precautions regarding this blood borne virus – although I am having trouble working out what precautions would be necessary given massages do not involve an exchange of bodily fluids and I cannot think of another way of possible transmission that is relevant in this situation.

Could you please enlighten me what the response would have been by your company if someone had circled the response “A.I.D.S”? Is this response supported by scientific evidence and/or advice from the Queensland Department of Health?

Second, and much more importantly, I would like to point out that there is a difference between someone being HIV positive, and someone who is currently experiencing AIDS. While you must be HIV positive to experience AIDS, there are many, many people who are HIV positive who do not experience Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Conflating the two conditions, or using “A.I.D.S” as shorthand for all people who may be HIV positive, is extremely offensive and unnecessary. It reflects thinking from the 1980s and not 2012.

Ironically, if you seeking to protect your employees, the way that you are asking this question may not achieve what you want in any event – if someone is HIV positive but does not have AIDS, then their correct/factual answer would be to leave “A.I.D.S” un-circled.

To rectify this situation, I would ask that you please consult with the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities about both your responsibilities in this area, and, if you must ask people whether they have a blood borne virus, how that information should be sought from the client. I have copied this email to them for their information and follow-up.

I look forward to your reply to this email, including the actions that you have taken to amend this form.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie