Submission to Australian Human Rights Commission Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex (SOGII) Rights Consultation

One of my favourite campaigns of recent times – It Gets Better – performs a valuable role, letting vulnerable LGBTI youth know that, while the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia they may be experiencing is awful, for most of them, it will get better. I emphasise the word most here because we should always remember that it does not get better for everyone.

Meanwhile, as the LGBTI movement itself ‘ages’, many of us are increasingly celebrating the past, and reflecting on significant community milestones (such as last year’s 30th anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in NSW, or the 40th anniversary of Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras which is now only three years away). But, while absolutely necessary, looking backwards should never obscure the challenges that remain ahead.

This consultation, including an examination of legislation, policies and practices by government(s) that unduly restrict sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex rights, provides an opportunity to highlight some of the major obstacles which continue to prevent LGBTI Australians achieving full equality. In this submission, I will concentrate on six such areas:

  1. Involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex children

These unjustified practices – surgeries performed with the aim of ‘normalising’ intersex children according to the expectations of their parents, their doctors, and/or society at large, so that they conform to an exclusionary man/woman binary model of sex – are human rights abuses, plain and simple.

Obviously done without the child’s consent, such practices can involve sterilisation, as well as other ‘cosmetic’ (ie unnecessary), largely irreversible surgery on genitalia to make their bodies fit within the idea of what a man or woman ‘should’ be, ignoring the individual involved and their fundamental rights to bodily integrity, and personal autonomy.

That these practices continue in 2015 is abhorrent – and the fact the Commonwealth Government has yet to formally respond to the Senate’s 2013 Report into this issue (http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/Involuntary_Sterilisation/Sec_Report/~/media/Committees/Senate/committee/clac_ctte/involuntary_sterilisation/second_report/report.ashx) is, or at least should be, a scandal.

  1. Restrictions on the rights of transgender people

Another group within the LGBTI community whose rights continue to trail those whose identities are based on sexual orientation (lesbian, gay and bisexual people) are transgender Australians.

This includes the fact there continue to be ‘out-of-pocket’, in many cases quite significant, expenses for medical support for trans* people simply to affirm their gender identity. This is a denial of their human rights – access to trans* surgeries and related medical services should not be restricted by the capacity to pay, but instead should be fully publicly-subsidised through Medicare.

The ongoing requirement that married transgender Australians must divorce their spouses in order for their gender identity to be legally recognised is also a fundamental breach of their rights, and must end.

  1. Processing and resettlement of LGBTI refugees in countries which criminalise homosexuality

Australian Governments, of both persuasions, are guilty of violating the human rights of LGBTI refugees. These are people who are (often) fleeing persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, and seeking our protection.

Australia’s response? To detain them, indefinitely, in inhumane prison camps on Nauru and Manus Island. For many, while detained they are at risk of prosecution under the laws of Papua New Guinea and/or Nauru, both of which continue to criminalise male-male intercourse. Even after they are found to be refugees, they are then ‘resettled’ in these countries, in effect exposing people who have fled persecution to potentially more persecution.

While I believe the offshore processing and resettlement of all refugees is unjust, it should be recognised it has a disproportionately negative impact on LGBTI refugees.

  1. Denial of the right of LGBTI students to an inclusive education

It is encouraging that greater numbers of young LGBTI people feel comfortable in disclosing their status at an earlier age – and for some, that they attend genuinely inclusive schools. However, this inclusion is by no means universal.

For example, the recently developed national Health & Physical Education curriculum does not even include the words lesbian, gay or bisexual, and does not guarantee students will be taught comprehensive sexual health education (even omitting the term HIV). This is a massive failure to ensure all students learn vital information that is relevant to their health.

Similarly, while the national Safe Schools Program is a welcome initiative to counter homophobia and bullying, participation in the program is optional, with most schools (and even some entire jurisdictions) opting out. The right to attend school free of discrimination should not depend on a student’s geographic location, or their parent/s’ choice of school.

Finally, religious exceptions to anti-discrimination legislation (in all jurisdictions outside Tasmania), mean many LGBTI students are at risk of discrimination, by their school, simply for being who they are.

  1. Limitations on anti-discrimination protections

Students are not the only LGBTI individuals let down by Australia’s current anti-discrimination framework. These same religious exceptions mean that, in most jurisdictions, LGBTI people can be discriminated against in a wide range of areas of public life, both as employees and people accessing services, in education, health, community services and (as employees) in aged care.

The attributes which are protected under anti-discrimination law also vary widely, with intersex people only truly protected under Commonwealth and Tasmanian law, different definitions of transgender (including extremely narrow protections in Western Australian legislation), and NSW excluding bisexual people altogether.

Finally, only four jurisdictions have vilification protections for (some) members of the LGBTI community – with no Commonwealth LGBTI equivalent of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

  1. Ongoing lack of marriage equality

I include this not because I consider it as important as the issues listed above, but simply as someone who has been engaged to be married for more than five years – and has no idea how much longer he will have to wait to exercise the same rights as cisgender heterosexual couples, with the only difference being who I love. Marriage discrimination is wrong, it is unjust, and it must go.

This submission is by no means comprehensive – there are a variety of other issues which I have excluded due to arbitrary word length restrictions (including mental health issues, anti-LGBTI violence, and discrimination against rainbow families – with my partner and I able to adopt in Sydney, but not Melbourne or Brisbane).

In conclusion, while it does get better, and over time, it most certainly has got better, there are still many ways in which the rights of LGBTI Australians continue to be denied – and about which we, as LGBTI advocates and activists, should remain angry, and most importantly, take action.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who is leading the consultation on SOGII Rights

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who is leading the consultation on SOGII Rights

NB Public submissions to the AHRC SOGII Rights consultation close on Friday 6 February. For more details, head to: <https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sogii-rights

For more information on some of the topics listed above, see my previous posts on:

– Submission to Involuntary and Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People Senate Inquiry <https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/07/01/submission-to-involuntary-and-coerced-sterilisation-senate-inquiry/

– Letter to Scott Morrison About Treatment of LGBTI Asylum-Seekers and Refugees Sent to Manus Island <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/02/02/letter-to-scott-morrison-about-treatment-of-lgbti-asylum-seekers-and-refugees-sent-to-manus-island-png/

– Letter to Minister Pyne Calling for COAG to Reject Health & Physical Education Curriculum Due to Ongoing LGBTI Exclusion <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/12/09/letter-to-minister-pyne-calling-for-coag-to-reject-health-physical-education-curriculum-due-to-ongoing-lgbti-exclusion/

– The Last Major Battle for Gay & Lesbian Legal Equality in Australia Won’t be about Marriage <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/02/26/the-last-major-battle-for-gay-lesbian-legal-equality-in-australia-wont-be-about-marriage/  and

– Bill Shorten, Will you Lead on Marriage Equality? <https://alastairlawrie.net/2015/01/24/bill-shorten-will-you-lead-on-marriage-equality/

Submission to Rights & Responsibilities 2014 Consultation

The Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, is currently undertaking a public consultation called Rights & Responsibilities 2014. Unfortunately, similar to the ALRC Freedoms Inquiry, it is very much focused on ‘traditional’ rights at the expense of other rights like the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. This post is my submission to this consultation process.

You can find out more about the inquiry, including downloading the Discussion Paper, at the following link: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/rights-responsibilities-2014 Written submissions, including an option to complete an online survey, are due by Friday 14 November 2014. Public consultations are also being held across the country, with a session in Sydney scheduled for Wednesday 19 November 2014 (details at the AHRC website).

Mr Tim Wilson

Human Rights Commissioner

Australian Human Rights Commission

c/- rights2014@humanrights.gov.au

Monday 27 October 2014

Dear Commissioner Wilson

SUBMISSION TO RIGHTS & RESPONSIBILITIES 2014 CONSULTATION

I welcome the opportunity to provide a submission to the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 public consultation, and in particular to provide feedback on the Discussion Paper, of the same name, published on the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) website.

In this submission, I will provide feedback on two of the four rights, or related sets of rights, featured in Appendix A of the discussion paper (namely, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religious worship).

However, before doing so I would like to express my serious concern that the focus of the discussion paper is limited to some rights, which could be characterised as being more ‘traditional’ in nature (for example, the right to property), to the apparent exclusion of other rights which, I believe, are no less important in the contemporary world.

Specifically, I would argue that prioritising certain rights above others potentially neglects and devalues the importance of those other rights which are no less essential to ensuring that all Australians are able to fully participate in modern society. From my point of view, chief among these rights is the right to non-discrimination, or to put it another way (which may be more favourably received), to be free from discrimination, including unfair or adverse treatment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The right to non-discrimination is fundamental in international human rights law adopted immediately post-World War II. Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that: “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognised in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, property, birth or other status.”

Similarly, article 21 of the ICCPR establishes that: “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has, in cases which both involved complaints by Australian citizens against actions by the Tasmanian and Commonwealth Government respectively, found that the wording of these articles includes the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.[1]

The Commonwealth Parliament has also recognised that the right to non-discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians is worthy of protection, with the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013. This historic legislation, providing similar rights to non-discrimination to those already enjoyed on the basis of race, sex, disability and age, was a significant, albeit long overdue, step forward for the LGBTI community.

For this reason, I would not wish to see the right to be free from discrimination on these attributes to be diminished in comparison to other, more ‘traditional’ rights. Unfortunately, that is the almost inevitable conclusion of a consultation process which aims to consider “how effectively we protect people’s human rights and freedoms in Australia” (page 1 of the Discussion Paper) but which then only focuses on a small number of freedoms, including the right to property, and which neglects others.

In this way, the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 Discussion Paper appears to reinforce the message, already made clear by the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis’ ‘Freedom Inquiry’ reference to the Australian Law Reform Commission (see http://www.alrc.gov.au/inquiries/freedoms/terms-reference for the terms of reference), that some freedoms are somehow better or more worthy of protection than others. Both inquiries appear to suggest that there is a hierarchy of rights, with ‘traditional’ rights at the top, and other rights, such as the right to non-discrimination, placed below them.

This is particularly concerning when some of those traditional rights being promoted or ‘privileged’ in these consultations, including the right to property and the right to ‘common law protection of personal reputation’ (aka defamation), are rights which are inherently more valuable to those who already enjoy ‘privilege’ within society, while other rights vital to protect the interests of people who are not ‘privileged’ are largely ignored.

Above all, I am concerned that you, in your role as Human Rights Commissioner, should actively participate in the reinforcement of this supposed hierarchy of rights, with the right to non-discrimination placed somewhere toward the bottom – especially as you are also the Commissioner at the AHRC with responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status issues.

I would ask that you reconsider your approach to these issues in the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 consultation process, and, instead of promoting a narrow view of what constitutes fundamental human rights, ensure that other rights, including the right to non-discrimination – or to be free from discrimination – are also given appropriate consideration.

I will now turn my attention to two of the four rights, or related sets of rights, featured in Appendix A of the Discussion Paper.

Right to freedom of expression (page 5 of the Discussion Paper)

I acknowledge the importance of the right to freedom of expression, or freedom of speech. However, I also welcome the Discussion Paper’s statement that freedom of speech is not absolute, in particular where it notes that: “Under international law, freedom of expression may only be limited where it is prescribed by law and deemed necessary to protect the rights or reputations of others, national security, public order, or public health or morals. A mandatory limitation also applies to the right to freedom of expression in relation to ‘any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’.”[2]

In this context, I question why laws should be established to prohibit ‘advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred’ but not to prohibit advocacy of hatred on other grounds, including sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. The impact of vilification on these grounds, and the negative influence of public homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia more generally, is just as harmful as racial or religious vilification. Therefore I can see no good reason why there should not also exist equivalent anti-vilification protections covering LGBTI Australians a Commonwealth level.

It is for this reason that I provided a submission earlier this year in response to the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis’, Exposure Draft Bill seeking to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, in which I argued that, instead of abolishing racial vilification laws, similar protections against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status should be added to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (a copy of this submission can be found at the following link: https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/04/24/dont-limit-racial-vilification-protections-introduce-vilification-protections-for-lgbti-australians-instead/ ).

Thus, while I understand the focus of this section of the Discussion Paper is on ensuring that there exist only narrow restrictions on ‘freedom of expression’ (as summed up in the question “how individuals can be held accountable for the use of their freedom of expression outside of law” emphasis added), I submit there remains a proper, indeed necessary, role for legal restrictions on this freedom to protect against the “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.

I further submit that these protections should cover lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians against such incitements. I sincerely hope that, in your capacity as both Human Rights Commissioner and AHRC Commissioner with responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status issues, you agree.

Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religious worship (page 6 of the Discussion Paper)

I also acknowledge the fundamental importance of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religious worship. I further agree with the Discussion Paper on page 6 where it states that “[t]he internal dimension of the right – the freedom to adopt or hold a belief – is absolute.”

However, just as importantly, I support the statement that “the external dimension – the freedom to manifest that belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching – may be limited by laws when deemed necessary to protect the public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others” (emphasis added). This is a vital caveat that allows Governments to protect other individuals and groups against both potential and real harm.

Unfortunately, I do not believe that Australian law currently strikes the right balance between respecting the right to freedom of religious worship, and the harms caused by breaches of the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Specifically, I am concerned that the broad exceptions and/or exemptions which are provided to religious organisations under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, including those protections added by the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, are far too generous, and essentially approve the prejudicial and discriminatory treatment of LGBT Australians by religious bodies in a large number of areas of public life[3].

For example, the combined impact of sub-section 37(1)(d) of the amended Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (which provides that “[n]othing 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 susceptibility of adherants of that religion”) and section 38 of the same law (which applies to educational institutions established for religious purposes), means that, according to Commonwealth law:

  • Religious schools can freely discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, including expelling those students simply for being who they are;
  • Religious schools can also freely discriminate against LGBT staff members, including by refusing to provide or terminating their employment, where sexual orientation and gender identity is completely irrelevant to the ability of that person to perform the duties of the role;
  • Religious health and community services can similarly discriminate, with impunity, against both LGBT employees and potential employees, as well as LGBT individuals and families accessing these services; and
  • Religious aged care services can discriminate against LGBT employees or potential employees.[4]

It is difficult to see how these exemptions, which allow LGBT people to be discriminated against simply as they seek to obtain an education, or access healthcare (which are themselves fundamental international human rights), and to be treated unfairly in employment in a large number of jobs across a wide range of areas, is not a gross breach of their human rights.

It is even more difficult to envisage how these exemptions fit with the statements on page 2 of the Discussion Paper that “[r]ights and freedoms… are about being treated fairly, treating others fairly…” (emphasis added) and that “[l]imits on rights have been established to ensure individuals do not harm others when exercising their own rights.” Religious exceptions and exemptions under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws allow serious harm to be caused to LGBT Australians, on a day-to-day basis and across multiple spheres of public life, and, I assert, should be significantly curbed.

To this end, I believe the religious exemptions which are included in sub-sections 37(1)(a),(b) and (c) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984[5], if supplemented by exemptions covering how religious ceremonies are conducted, would be both more justifiable in being better targeted to protecting freedom of religious worship itself, and less likely to result in harm to LGBT people through the breach of their right to non-discrimination across broad areas of public life. Therefore, these are the only religious exemptions which should be retained.

This, much narrower, approach to religious exemptions would, in my view, also be a more appropriate outcome of a system of human rights that seeks to both protect fundamental rights, and promote the responsibility not to infringe upon the fundamental rights of others. In this respect, I question why the Discussion Paper does not live up to its title – examining both Rights AND Responsibilities – but instead focuses primarily on the expansion of some rights, including the right to freedom of religious worship, even at the possible expense of others, such as the right to non-discrimination.

For example, the conclusion of the section on “Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religious worship” notes that: “Rights & Responsibilities will focus on:

  • the ways you exercise your right to freedom of religion
  • where restrictions on freedom of religious worship exist
  • whether you have felt restricted or prohibited from exercising your right to freedom of religion
  • what could be done to enable you to exercise your right to freedom of religion.”

This focus presupposes that the only changes with respect to this area of law should be expansions to the ‘freedom of religion’, rather than allowing for the possibility that people claiming to exercise this freedom are in fact unjustifiably and inappropriately infringing upon the rights of others. The Discussion Paper does not seem to even contemplate the possibility that more protections may be needed to shield LGBT Australians from discrimination, perpetrated by religious organisations, but which at this stage is legitimated by exemptions to Commonwealth anti-discrimination law.

I submit that removing these wide-ranging, and overly-generous, religious exemptions is one of the most important, and effective, reforms the Government could make to improve the rights of any group of Australians. I sincerely hope that, as AHRC Commissioner with responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status issues, you agree that LGBT Australians should be free to live their lives without homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia. And to do so without exception. Thank you in advance for your consideration of this submission. Sincerely Alastair Lawrie

Human Rights Commissioner and Rights & Responsibilities 2014 author, Tim Wilson.

Human Rights Commissioner and Rights & Responsibilities 2014 author, Tim Wilson.

[1] Human Rights Committee, Toonen v Australia, Communication No. 488/1992, UN Doc CCPR/C/50/D/488/92 and Human Rights Committee, Young v Australia, Communication No. 941/2000, UN Doc CCPR/C/78/D/941/2000. [2] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 20(2). [3] Noting that the religious exemptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply to intersex status, only to sexual orientation and gender identity. [4] Noting that the religious exemptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply to LGBT people accessing aged care services. [5] “Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects:

  • the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order;
  • the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order;
  • the selection or appointment of persons to perform duties or functions for the purposes of or in connection with, or otherwise to participate in, any religious observance or practice…”

Submission to Australian Human Rights Commission’s Inquiry into Self-Harm and Suicidal Behaviour in Children

The National Children’s Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission has initiated an inquiry into intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children and young people.

Submissions are due on Monday 2 June: you can find more details here: <https://www.humanrights.gov.au/intentional-self-harm-and-suicidal-behaviour-children and send your submissions to nccsubmissions@humanrights.gov.au

As you would expect, my submission has focused on the particular issue of youth suicide amongst young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. As with other submissions, I would be interested in feedback about what I have written.

Thanks, Alastair

Ms Megan Mitchell

National Children’s Commissioner

Australian Human Rights Commission

Email: nccsubmissions@humanrights.gov.au

Sunday 1 June 2014

Dear Commissioner

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO INTENTIONAL SELF-HARM AND SUICIDAL BEHAVIOUR IN CHILDREN

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to your inquiry into intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children.

This is an incredibly important topic, and I congratulate you, as National Children’s Commissioner, for utilising your position to shine a spotlight on this national tragedy.

I write this submission as an individual, and not on behalf of any organisation. I also write this as a gay man, and someone who, as a teenager, experienced significant mental health issues, including depression and suicide ideation, because of the severe homophobia that I experienced, particularly in high school.

Given this perspective, in this submission I will focus on the over-representation of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in intentional self-harm and suicide.

I will also make five recommendations for how to help reduce this over-representation, although obviously this is not an exhaustive list of all the possible ways in which LGBTI youth suicide may be tackled.

Please find my submission attached. I am of course willing to be contacted to discuss anything contained in this submission, at the details below.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO INTENTIONAL SELF-HARM AND SUICIDAL BEHAVIOUR IN CHILDREN

I welcome the acknowledgement, in the Call for Submissions released on 22 April, that self-harm and suicide is a particular issue for LGBTI children and young people.

In particular, the Call for Submissions cites the 2013 Growing Up Queer report, by the Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre, in finding that, of 1,032 children and young people aged 16 to 23, 41% of participants had thought about self-harm and/or suicide, 33% had harmed themselves and 16% had attempted suicide.

These are truly shocking figures – especially that 1 in 6 young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians had attempted suicide. However, despite being shocking, they are not particularly surprising, especially as they replicate similar findings in a range of studies over the past 15-20 years.

The over-representation of self-harm and suicidal thoughts amongst same-sex attracted and gender diverse/questioning young people has been confirmed in all three Writing Themselves In reports, produced by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society at La Trobe University in 1998, 2004 and 2010, respectively.

The over-representation of mental health issues within the broader LGBTI community, including among its young people, has also been confirmed by both the original Private Lives: A report on the health and wellbeing of GLBTI Australians study in 2005, and Private Lives 2, released in 2012 (also produced by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society).

As well as knowing that intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour disproportionately affects LGBTI children and young people, we also know the cause – the pervasive homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which LGBTI youth experience, within their families, amongst their peers, in the media/culture, and especially in their schools.

As reported in Growing Up Queer, “[f]or many, rejection, alienation, bullying, and harassment often led to depression, suicidal ideation, and attempted suicide. Some participants spoke openly about multiple suicide attempts as a result of negotiating their sexual/gender orientation at school, at home, and in their broader communities” (page ix).

The Writing Themselves In 3 study also found a direct link between verbal abuse and physical abuse with thoughts of self-harm. As noted on page 51: “ [a]lmost double the number of young people who had been verbally abused (40%), in comparison to those who had experienced no abuse, had thought of self-harm (22%). Three times those who had been physically abused (62%), in comparison to those who reported no abuse, had thought of self-harm.”

Writing Themselves In 3 also confirmed that “[t]he most common place of abuse remained school with 80% of those who were abused naming school. This continues the trend of increased levels of reported homophobic violence in schools (69% in 1998; 74% in 2004)” (pix, emphasis added).

By knowing the problem – the over-representation of LGBTI children and young people in intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour – and the cause – the pervasive homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which confronts young people, including (but not limited to) at school – we must start to consider the solution.

What are the best ways to protect LGBTI children and young people from discrimination, bullying and abuse on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status? And what are the best ways to actively promote positive views of, and self-esteem and mental health within, LGBTI children and young people (noting that these are not necessarily the same question)?

The following are five reforms which I believe, if adopted, would help to reduce the continued over-representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people in self-harm and suicide:

Recommendation 1: Remove anti-discrimination exemptions/exceptions which allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students

As indicated above, one of the key areas where LGBTI children and young people are discriminated against is in their schools. Unfortunately, in most states and territories in Australia, religious schools enjoy legal protections which allow them to actively discriminate against LGBT students (and, it should be remembered, to discriminate against LGBT teachers and even parents too).

NB I have excluded intersex students for the remainder of this particular discussion given I understand the two jurisdictions which have explicit intersex anti-discrimination protections – Tasmania and the Commonwealth – do not allow religious exceptions to these protections.

These exemptions allow religious schools to expel LGBT students, to tell same-sex attracted and gender-diverse/questioning students that they are somehow ‘wrong’, ‘unnatural’ or even ‘sinful’, to prohibit certain behaviours or actions on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and to ignore the educational and emotional needs to young LGBT people in general.

An example of this discrimination was found in the ‘Statement of Faith’ by the Penrith Christian School, which stated that: “[w]e believe that homosexuality and specific acts of homosexuality are an abomination unto God, a perversion of the natural order and not to be entered into by His people” and “[w]e believe the practice of attempting to or changing ones gender through surgical and/or hormonal or artificial means is contrary to the natural order ordained by God.”

These statements came to light, and attracted significant public scrutiny, only after the then Opposition Leader, the Hon Tony Abbott MP, launched the Coalition’s education policy there during last year’s election campaign. But, it must be pointed out that there is absolutely nothing unlawful for this school, or others like it, to adopt these principles, or to enforce policies based upon them to the detriment of the LGBT students in its classrooms.

This is because in NSW, section 56(d) the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 states that anti-discrimination coverage for lesbian, gay and trans* people does not protect them against “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 religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

In an absolutely extraordinary extension of these exceptions, the NSW Act also explicitly excludes all “private educational authorities” (including non-religious bodies) from having to comply with any obligation not to discriminate on the basis of homosexuality (section 49ZO(3)) and transgender status (section 39K(3)).

Sadly, despite only being introduced last year, Commonwealth anti-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are also fundamentally undermined by the granting of wide-ranging exemptions to religious organisations.

As well as an equivalent clause to NSW’s section 56(d) – section 38(1)(d) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 exempts “any… 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” (although not in relation to aged care) – the Commonwealth Act also includes the following in section 38(3):

“Nothing… renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on the ground of the other person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy in connection with the provision of education or training by an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.”

In practice, both Commonwealth and NSW law gives effective carte blanche to religious schools to discriminate against, and ignore the genuine needs of, LGBT children and young people. If we are genuinely interested in the mental health and welfare of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians, then these exceptions must be removed.

Those who would argue against such a proposition cite ‘freedom of religion’ as somehow trumping the right of LGBT people to live their lives free from discrimination. Indeed, the then shadow, and now Commonwealth, Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis, made exactly that argument on the ABC’s QandA program in June 2013.

As I have written on numerous occasions, I strongly disagree with that argument – I do not believe that religious exemptions should extend beyond the appointment of religious office-holders or the conduct of religious ceremonies. I certainly do not believe there should exist a broad right for religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people in public life.

However, even if some form of religious exemption or exception were to continue in the public sphere, it is incredibly difficult for anyone to make the case that the ‘freedom’ of a religious school to discriminate should override the ability of a young lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender student to receive their education free from such discrimination – something which is and should be recognised as a fundamental right.

These are vulnerable young people, who, in the vast majority of cases, are in the process of discovering or accepting their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. In nearly all cases, they do not decide which school they attend, including whether it is religious or not (a decision which is normally made for them by their parents, often without specific knowledge of their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity). In many cases, they are also not open about their sexual orientation or gender identity at school, meaning that they are not even in a position to advocate on their own behalf when they encounter such prejudice.

In short, I think it is simply untenable to argue that the freedom of a religious school to discriminate trumps the right of LGBT students not to be discriminated against, especially when the consequence of this discrimination includes an increased risk of mental health issues, including depression, self-harm and most tragically suicide. This not a contest of equal rights, no balancing act is required – the rights of the students should always win.

In the past week, there has been discussion in the United States about trying to ‘balance’ two other supposedly competing rights – the Second Amendment ‘right to bear arms’, with the right to personal safety of others. As part of that discussion, Samuel Wurzelbacher (aka Joe the Plumber) wrote to the parent of one of the young people murdered in the Santa Barbara mass shooting and said:

“I am sorry you lost your child. I myself have a son and daughter and the one thing I never want to go through, is what you are going through now. But: As harsh as this sounds – your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”

 

Mr Wurzelbacher’s comments have, quite understandably, attracted heavy criticism in the US, as well as around the world. From an Australian perspective, where more restrictive gun control laws have existed since the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, it is tempting to adopt a certain smugness, and look down upon the level of public debate in the US that such a comment is even possible.

But, in some respects at least, we are prepared to strike a similar bargain here when it comes to the deaths of LGBTI children and young people. We know that they are significantly over-represented in suicide numbers, and we know that the discrimination that LGBTI students experience in school is a major contributing factor to these suicides.

Yet, as a society, we are willing to turn a blind eye to this, and say that religious freedom, and specifically the ‘freedom’ of religious schools to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, is more important than the lost lives of these young people. In effect, our current anti-discrimination law says that ‘dead LGBT kids don’t trump the rights of religious schools.’

It is time we recognised, and remedied, this situation. It is time we removed anti-discrimination exemptions and exceptions which allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT people.

Recommendation 2: Amend the National Health & Physical Education Curriculum to be genuinely LGBTI-inclusive

One of the key issues to emerge from both the Growing Up Queer, and Writing Themselves In 3 reports, is the absence, or comparative lack of, a genuinely LGBTI inclusive curriculum, especially with respect to Health & Physical Education.

For example, Growing Up Queer reported that “[p]articipants indicated that sex education at school was heteronormative and focused on reproductive sex only. It was perceived as irrelevant to their needs.” Further, “[p]articipants noted that whilst they received no education about queer sexualities their identities were often ‘sexualised’, with teachers and peers making assumptions about their sexuality and treating them differently on the basis of these assumptions” (pix).

Writing Themselves In 3 confirms this comparative lack of attention: “[s]exuality education was not provided at all to 10% of participants, and when it was, only 15% found it useful. It was clear that quite conservative messages emphasizing heterosexual sex and danger are the norm in most Australian schools with a far smaller number providing messages inclusive of SSAGQ youth” (pxi).

Of course, LGBTI people and content should be visible across multiple parts of the school curriculum (including, for example, history and politics), rather than arbitrarily confined to Health & Physical Education (HPE). Nevertheless, if LGBTI students and issues are excluded from, and made invisible in, the HPE curriculum, it is difficult to imagine them being included elsewhere.

I also agree with the statement in Growing Up Queer that “[y]oung people’s access to comprehensive sexuality education in primary and secondary schooling is a right, and is central to sexual citizenship and the fostering of health and wellbeing in all young people” (pix).

Over the past two years, a new National HPE curriculum has been developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment & Reporting Authority (ACARA). Unfortunately, all three versions of the HPE curriculum – the original consultation draft released in December 2012, the revised consultation draft in mid-2013, and the version that was noted but not yet endorsed by COAG Ministers in December 2013 – have comprehensively failed to deliver a genuinely LGBTI-inclusive document.

For example, in none of the three versions of the HPE curriculum have the words lesbian, gay or bisexual even appeared (although, on a slightly more positive note, the most recent version of the HPE curriculum does at least include the words transgender and intersex, and, unlike an earlier version, actually distinguishes between the two).

Despite lesbian, gay and bisexual being the most common forms of identification for people whose sexual orientation is ‘not heterosexual’, these terms have never appeared in any version of this document. This is an appalling exclusion, making young people with diverse sexual orientations even more invisible in the school environment than they already are.

The aspirational ‘student diversity’ statement at the beginning of the document, which attempts to highlight the needs of ‘same-sex attracted, gender diverse or intersex’ students, is also undermined by the inclusion of a sentence noting that it “is designed to allow schools flexibility to meet the learning needs of all young people, particularly in the health focus area of relationships and sexuality” (emphasis added) and another that “[a]ll schools communities have a responsibility when implementing the HPE curriculum to ensure that teaching is inclusive and relevant to the lived experiences of all students” (emphasis added).

Both of these statements appear to leave the decision whether, and in what way, schools will include LGBTI students and content up to the schools themselves. In the first instance, whether LGBTI students and content are included at all is too important to be left to the ‘flexibility’ of the school itself.

Second, and far more importantly, the reference to ‘lived experiences’ could be argued to leave a loophole for schools to assert that, unless students first identify themselves or disclose their status as LGBTI, they do not exist in the eyes of the school and therefore the school does not have a responsibility to include them or content relevant to their needs.

This approach – apparently leaving it up to students to ‘come out’ before they are entitled to receive vital health information, despite the fact that doing so can, in many Australian jurisdictions, lead to the potential expulsion of that student, let alone other personal consequences for the student with their family or friends – fundamentally undermines the concept of health, and health education, as a universal human right.

There are multiple other problems in the draft National Health Physical Education Curriculum – including a lack of comprehensive sexual health education, and the complete absence of any references to Sexually Transmissible Infections (STIs) and Blood Borne Viruses (BBVs) such as HIV or viral hepatitis.

For more detail on the problems of the national HPE curriculum, and its exclusion of LGBTI students and relevant content, please see my submission to the ‘Students First’ review of the National Curriculum, provided at Attachment A (link here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/13/submission-to-national-curriculum-review-re-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ).

This review, initiated at the request of the Commonwealth Education Minister, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP, is not due to report to him until 31 July, 2013. It will then be considered by Commonwealth and State and Territory Education Ministers at their next COAG meeting, scheduled for 12 December 2014.

That means there is still time to argue for a genuinely LGBTI-inclusive Health & Physical Education curriculum. There remains an opportunity for individuals and organisations, including the Australian Human Rights Commission, to call for a document that does not simply entrench the existing exclusion and invisibility of LGBTI students in classrooms around the country, but actively tries to provide for the needs of all students, including those with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and those who are intersex.

I urge you, as National Children’s Commissioner, to intervene in this process, and call on the people undertaking the Students First Review, as well as Commonwealth, State and Territory Education Ministers, to amend the national Health & Physical Education curriculum to serve the needs of all students.

Such amendments are vital to help include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students, and content relevant to their needs. Doing this would help reduce the isolation experienced by LGBTI children and young people, and therefore contribute to lower mental health issues overall, including reduced intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour.

Recommendation 3: Ensure all schools & school systems adopt pro-active programs against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice

Combatting the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which LGBTI children and young people experience in schools, and which causes mental health issues such as self-harm and suicide, is not just about anti-discrimination laws (which in some cases can be reactive, rather than pro-active), or implementing an inclusive curriculum, but it also includes ensuring the entire school environment is ‘safe’ for these students, because often what happens outside the classroom is more important than what happens inside.

This can be achieved through the implementation of comprehensive programs tackling homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice in as many schools as possible, in as many states and territories as possible, and in as many different types of schools (government, private and religious) as possible.

An example of such a program is the Safe Schools Coalition of Victoria, an initiative that has already achieved 131 member schools, trained 4,555 staff, and reached 20,557 students (data from www.safeschoolscoalitionvictoria.org.au)

From the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV) website:

“Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV) is a coalition of schools and individuals dedicated to creating safer educational environments where every family can belong, every teacher can teach, and every student can learn.

 

“Working in partnership with the Victorian Department of Education and the Department of Health, Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV), is a ground breaking program that aims to make all schools safe and supportive places for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse (SSAIGD) students, teachers and families.

 

“The first initiative of its kind in Australia, SSCV was founded as part of Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria within the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society at La Trobe University in 2010. We work together with an active network of member schools across all age groups in the government, independent and faith-based sectors.

 

“This coalition model allows us to reach thousands of teachers and school staff to raise awareness and build the skills and confidence needed to actively support gender and sexual diversity in the classrooms, corridors and schoolyards of Victoria…”

 

The SSCV model supports member schools in a variety of ways including staff and student audits, professional learning, resources and consultations.

Unfortunately, a small-scale pilot project, targeting homophobia in NSW government schools from 2011 to 2013 – called ‘Proud Schools’ – was abandoned, seemingly without explanation, at the beginning of 2014 by the State Education Minister, the Hon Adrian Piccoli MP. At this stage, I am not aware of any specific initiative which has replaced it, leaving a significant gap this year where an anti-homophobia program should be.

However, I am aware that the Foundation for Young Australians will be launching a national version of the Victorian model – the Safe Schools Coalition Australia – at a national symposium in Melbourne on Friday 13 June 2014 (details here: https://www.etouches.com/ehome/87262).

It is unclear which State and Territory Governments are supportive of this new national initiative, which is being funded by the Commonwealth Department of Education (announced by the previous Government ahead of last year’s election). It is my sincere hope that all State and Territory Governments support the rollout of the Safe Schools Coalition Australia, and that as many schools as possible join.

This includes government, private and religious schools, as well as geographically diverse (metro, regional and rural/remote) schools, because it should not matter what school an LGBTI child or young person attends, or where they live, they have a fundamental right to an inclusive and supportive education.

I would also expect the Australian Human Rights Commission, and you as National Children’s Commissioner, to be supportive of different schools and school systems adopting pro-active programs against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice, as another way to improve the mental health of young LGBTI people around Australia, and thereby help to reduce the over-representation of LGBTI youth in self-harm and suicide statistics.

Recommendation 4: Ban ex-gay or reparative therapy

The practice of ‘ex-gay’ or ‘reparative’ therapy involves organisations, usually religious, offering so-called ‘counselling’ to help transform people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual into being heterosexual, and in some cases to attempt to transform people who are trans* into being cisgender. NB I am unaware of the use of reparative therapy with respect to intersex people, and so have omitted intersex from this discussion.

Ex-gay or reparative therapy attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity because of the belief that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans* is somehow ‘wrong’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘sinful’. There are three main problems with ex-gay or reparative therapy.

First, there is absolutely nothing wrong, unnatural or sinful with being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans*. Differences in sexual orientations and gender identities are entirely natural, and this diversity should be accepted and celebrated. Any attempts to prevent people from being LGBT simply demonstrate the homophobia, biphobia and transphobia of the people running ex-gay organisations.

Second, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support these practices. Sexual orientation and gender identity cannot be ‘changed’ through these interventions. Indeed, the Australian Psychological Society, Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists and Pan American Health Organisation all note that reparative therapy does not work, and recommend against its practice.

Third, and most importantly, not only is ex-gay therapy based on homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, as well as discredited ‘pseudo-science’, but it is also fundamentally dangerous. Reparative therapy takes people who are already vulnerable, tells them that they are inherently wrong, and asks them to change something about themselves that cannot be changed. Inevitably, it leads to significant mental health problems, including self-hatred, depression and tragically, in some cases, suicide.

The people that run ex-gay organisations are guilty of inflicting psychological and sometimes physical damage on others. When it involves children and young people, it is nothing short of child abuse.

Fortunately, the practice of ex-gay or reparative therapy is far less common in Australia than it is in the United States. In recent years, the number of organisations which provide this ‘counselling’ here has also declined. Nevertheless, ex-gay or reparative therapy still exists in Australia, it still damages and breaks people, and it still requires an appropriate policy response.

Given the level of harm that is perpetrated by these people, I believe Australian jurisdictions should introduce legislative bans on ex-gay or reparative therapy. This should include the creation of a criminal offence for running ex-gay therapy, with an aggravated offence for running ex-gay therapy for people under the age of 18. This is necessary to send a signal that these homophobic, biphobic and transphobic practices are no longer tolerated in contemporary society, and especially in the case of minors.

Finally, while at this stage I am not aware of evidence linking registered medical practitioners with these discredited practices, there is evidence overseas that some counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists or other registered medical practitioners either practice ex-gay therapy themselves, or will refer patients to ex-gay organisations. Any medical practitioners found to be engaging in these practices in Australia should also receive additional sanctions, including potential deregistration and civil penalties.

 

 

Recommendation 5: Fund a national media and social media campaign against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice

 

The first three of the recommendations above specifically target schools, not only because research has shown that schools are a major source of the discrimination and prejudice which LGBTI children and young people experience, but also because schools provide an opportunity to exert significant influence in terms of improving social attitudes and directly reducing homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice.

However, it should be remembered that a) not all discrimination and prejudice originates in schools and b) it is also unfair to expect that schools themselves, acting alone and somehow magically separated from the rest of society, can overcome these serious ills on their own.

It is also important to note that, while 80% of young people in Writing Themselves In 3 identified school as a site for physical or verbal abuse, significant numbers of young LGBTI people also nominated other places in their lives where they are subjected to discrimination and prejudice.

For example, more than 40% cited a social occasion as a place of abuse in 2010 (and like schools, this was an increase from the 1998 and 2004 surveys), and almost 40% indicated they had been abused on the street (although this was down on previous surveys). Meanwhile, approximately a quarter indicated they had been verbally or physically abused at home on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

It is also not hard to find numerous examples, in the media and culture more generally, of the everyday homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice, which all LGBTI people are subjected to, but which have a particular impact on LGBTI children and young people.

For example, just in the last month, we have witnessed an NRL player describe another player as a “f—ing gay c—t”, which was subsequently defended by a prominent national columnist, in an article titled “NRL bosses are totally gay”, as somehow not being homophobic. We have had a TV host rant about NFL footballer Michael Sam simply kissing his male partner live on air (describing it as “annoyingly gratuitous”), a Senator-elect tweet that being gay as a ‘lifestyle’ and link it with promiscuity, as well as a State MP indicate his belief that same-sex parenting would hurt that couple’s children.

That is just a small sample of the ‘slings and arrows’ of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which LGBTI Australians are exposed to all too frequently. For many of us, while such comments are offensive, and sometimes hurt, they do not necessarily lead us to self-harm, or cause significant emotional and mental anguish.

Nevertheless, for those who are already vulnerable, including some adults, but especially for young people who may still be coming to terms with being LGBTI, hearing such messages can directly cause harm, and contribute to or worsen existing mental health concerns. This harm is exacerbated if these negative statements are all that the young person hears with respect to being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, and are not balanced or countered with equivalent positive messages.

Which is why I believe there would be utility in the Commonwealth Government directly funding a large national media, including social media, campaign against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice. But rather than simply tackling the ‘negative’, I think such a campaign should also express a positive message about diversity of sexual orientations, gender identities and intersex status – sending the message that being LGBTI is natural, and that heterosexual, cisgender and LGBTI young people all deserve equality, and equal dignity in all aspects of life.

While there have been some great initiatives at state government level in this regard, as well as some excellent work by relevant not-for-profits/NGOs and even individuals (with campaigns like Victoria’s No to Homophobia, and the Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’ work of Daniel Witthaus), the involvement of the Commonwealth could bring benefit, both in terms of scale of resources, and by reaching LGBTI children and young people across Australia.

Of course, any such campaign would need to be co-ordinated with LGBTI organisations, as well as organisations that work in the mental health sector. But most important would be the involvement of young LGBTI people themselves.

The media and social media campaign would need to be designed so as to be relevant to young people, not just those that are LGBTI, but also to their non-LGBTI peers, in order to increase their own understanding and lessen any bullying or harassment of their friends and classmates. Young LGBTI people (and certainly people much younger than myself) would be best placed to advise on how to make such a campaign work.

I would also point out that I have made this particular recommendation in response to term of reference number eight in the Call for Submissions (namely “[t]he feasibility and effectiveness of conducting public education campaigns aimed at reducing the number of children who engage in intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour”).

I acknowledge there are particular sensitivities in designing campaigns which specifically target those already at risk of self-harm and suicide, with the possibility that the campaign itself triggers particular negative responses. I am not an expert in this area and so am not in position to suggest whether, and if so how, an appropriate campaign could be designed that focused directly on LGBTI children and young people and that explicitly discussed self-harm or suicide – I am sure other individuals and organisations who are experts in this area will be doing so much more effectively in their own submissions.

But I do believe that an overarching campaign, which addresses the root cause of much of those problems – the homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice which young LGBTI people experience everyday – would provide its own additional benefits in terms of long-term mental health improvement.

Those are the five key recommendations that I would like the Australian Human Rights Commission, and you as the National Children’s Commissioner, to focus on in terms of examining how to reduce the disproportionate effects of self-harm and suicide on LGBTI children and young people.

Obviously, that is not an exhaustive list. There are other areas which are worthy of examination, including considering whether LGBTI people should be protected against vilification in the same way that Commonwealth law currently protects against racial vilification (through section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975).

I believe there would also be benefit in considering how best to fund, on a secure and ongoing basis, LGBTI community organisations to deliver services to young LGBTI people at risk, as well as how to ensure that mainstream mental health and general health services are inclusive of, and respond to the needs of, LGBTI children and young people. But once again, I would expect that other individuals and organisations will be much better placed to make submissions with respect to those topics.

In conclusion, I would like to express my thanks to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and to you as National Children’s Commissioner, for choosing to initiate an inquiry into intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children and young people.

The rate of youth self-harm and suicide amongst all of Australia’s youth, including but not limited to young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex youth, is truly a national tragedy.

I appreciate the opportunity to make a submission to this inquiry, and look forward to seeing the Final Report in the Commissioner’s 2014 Statutory Report to Commonwealth Parliament.

Alastair Lawrie

Sunday 1 June 2014

NB Given the issues raised in this submission, I include below the same contact details for help included on the Commission’s call for submissions:

National Help and Counselling Services
Lifeline – 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention

Kids Helpline – counselling service for children and young people aged 5 to 25 years

Headspace – counselling and referral service for young people aged 12 to 25 years

ReachOut.com – online youth mental health service

Don’t Limit Racial Vilification Protections, Add Vilification Protections for LGBTI Australians

The following is my submission to the Attorney-General’s Department’s Review of the Freedom of speech (repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014 – Exposure Draft (aka the Bill to significantly limit the scope of racial vilification protections under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975).

Submissions close on Wednesday 30 April, and more details can be found here: <http://www.ag.gov.au/Consultations/Pages/ConsultationsonamendmentstotheRacialDiscriminationAct1975.aspx

I strongly encourage you to make a submission, and include in it the call for the Commonwealth to focus on expanding protections for the benefit of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, rather than limiting the operation of s18C for one Melbourne-based News Ltd columnist. Thanks.

Human Rights Policy Branch

Attorney-General’s Department

3-5 National Circuit

BARTON ACT 2600

s18cconsultation@ag.gov.au

Thursday 24 April 2014

To whom it may concern,

SUBMISSION ON RACIAL VILIFICATION AMENDMENTS

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission on the proposed changes to the racial vilification provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, as contained in the Freedom of speech (repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014 Exposure Draft.

For the reasons explained below, I do not support the replacement of existing sections 18B, 18C, 18D and 18E with the new clauses of the Exposure Draft Bill.

However, I do believe that significant changes should be made to vilification provisions in Commonwealth law: namely, that vilification protections should be expanded to cover sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The absence of such protections leaves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians vulnerable to the same types of adverse public conduct experienced by people of different racial backgrounds, but without recourse to the same complaint resolution mechanisms.

I will now turn to these two issues – the proposed reforms, and the case for introducing LGBTI vilification protections – in more detail.

Proposed Reforms to Section 18C

In considering any potential reforms to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, it is useful to start at the particular sub-section which features in most debate. Sub-section 18C(1)(a) makes it “unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if: the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people.”

I am of the view that the drafting of this sub-section is probably not ideal, and, arguably, is too broad in terms of the types of conduct that at least theoretically could be captured. I do not believe that, were provisions regarding racial vilification to be drafted today, they would include the terms ‘offend’ or ‘insult’ (or at least not without aggravating factors or considerations).

However, it is one thing to suggest that the drafting of a provision is something less than ‘ideal’ – it is another to suggest that poor drafting has directly caused problems that mean it must be amended. And even if that test is satisfied, any proposed reforms to the law should be an improvement, and not worsen any potential harm.

Turning to the question of whether the drafting of section 18C has directly led to, or caused, any significant problems, I am not convinced that it has. Racial vilification protections under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 appear to be widely supported by the community, and, for the most part, appear to be working well, both with the oversight of the Australian Human Rights Commission and in the Courts.

There is, of course, one case which is frequently cited as necessitating change to section 18C, and its related provisions, and that is the case of Eatock v Bolt [2011] FCA 1103.

Even ignoring the old legal maxim that hard cases make bad law (“Hard cases, it has frequently been observed, are apt to introduce bad law”, from Judge Rolfe in Winterbottom v Wright in 1842), it is not clear that the outcome of the “Bolt case” makes any persuasive case for change.

In the summary of that decision, Justice Mordecai Bromberg explained that “I am satisfied that fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed by the newspaper articles” of Mr Bolt (para 17).

Justice Bromberg also explained that Mr Bolt’s conduct could not fit within what are, to be frank, extremely generous exemptions in section 18D, writing that “I have not been satisfied that the offensive conduct that I have found occurred, is exempted from unlawfulness by section 18D. The reasons for that conclusion have to do with the manner in which the articles were written, including that they contained errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language” (para 23, emphasis added).

In his summary, Justice Bromberg also articulates at least one of the reasons why laws should exist to prohibit writings such as those of Mr Bolt: “People should be free to fully identify with their race without fear of public disdain or loss of esteem for so identifying. Disparagement directed at the legitimacy of the racial identification of a group of people is likely to be destructive of racial tolerance, just as disparagement directed at the real or imagined practices or traits of those people is also destructive of racial tolerance” (para 22).

In short, there appears to at least be an arguable case that not only was the “Bolt case” decided correctly on the existing law, but also that the current provisions are operating as intended to limit the negative effects of racial intolerance. Conversely, I believe it is difficult to argue, solely on the basis of Eatock v Bolt, that section 18C is so deficient that it should be amended, and amended as a matter of high priority.

Even if the argument that change was, indeed, necessary was accepted, I do not support that changes proposed in the Freedom of speech (repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014 Exposure Draft.

I believe that the replacement of ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ with to vilify (defined as “to incite hatred against a person or a group of persons”) or to intimidate (meaning “to cause fear of physical harm; to a person; to the property of a person; or to the members of a group of persons”), would arbitrarily and unduly limit the effectiveness of these protections.

I agree with the Australian Human Rights Commission, in their statement of Tuesday 25 March 2014, that: “the bill reduces the level of protection by providing a narrow definition of vilification and by limiting intimidation to causing fear of physical harm. It is not clear why intimidation should not include the psychological and emotional damage that can be caused by racial abuse.”

I also agree with the Australian Human Rights Commission in their concerns about the breadth of the exemptions proposed in new clause (4). As the Commission notes “[t]his provision is so broad it is difficult to see any circumstances in public that these protections would apply.”

This is at least in part because the previous limitations of section 18D – that words or conduct must be done “reasonably and good faith” to be exempted – have been removed, again without a clear explanation or motivation. In my opinion, the proposals contained in the Exposure Draft Bill would not improve the operation of racial vilification protections generally, but instead have the capacity to make things substantially worse.

Overall, while I concede that the current drafting of section 18C is not ‘ideal’, I do not believe that there are sufficient problems in practice for it to be amended. I also strongly oppose the replacement of sections 18B, 18C, 18D and 18E of the current Racial Discrimination Act 1975, with the clauses contained in the Freedom of speech (repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014 Exposure Draft.

Recommendation 1. The Freedom of speech (repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014 – Exposure Draft should not be introduced into or passed by the Commonwealth Parliament.

Need to expand vilification protections to cover sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status

While I do not believe a case has been made to reform the racial vilification provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, I do believe there is a strong case for expanding vilification provisions under Commonwealth law to offer additional protection to LGBTI Australians.

In a similar way to their ongoing problems with race, some extreme elements within Australian society continue to demonstrate their difficulty in accepting people, and treating them equally, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Both groups – Australians of diverse racial backgrounds, and LGBTI people – are regularly subject to vilification in public contexts, whether that be in political or media debates, or in harassment and abuse in public spaces.

Significantly, while LGBTI Australians finally achieved anti-discrimination protections under Commonwealth law in 2013 (a mere 38 years after the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act), the Sex Discrimination Act amendments did not include protections from homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and anti-intersex vilification. Unlike people of diverse races, LGBTI people still cannot launch complaints about vilification under Commonwealth law.

There is no philosophical or conceptual reason why this should be the case – both are vulnerable groups, subject to vilification against which they deserve to be protected.

The vilification of LGBTI people can take many forms. A 2003 NSW Attorney-General’s Report found that, in the previous 12 months, 56% of gay men and lesbians had been subject to one or more forms of homophobic abuse, harassment or violence.

This violence can also be extreme – as demonstrated by the disturbingly high number of gay men violently murdered in Sydney during the 1980s and 1990s, but whose tragic deaths are only now being properly investigated.

In terms of vilification in public debate, there are almost too many examples of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex discrimination to choose from (and certainly enough to hold an annual event ‘celebrating’ the worst of these comments in a range of different areas of public life, aka The GLORIAs).

One notorious example from recent years was the homophobic comment of a religious figure, addressing a ‘National Marriage Day’ rally outside Parliament House in 2012, who said “I’m convinced that homosexuals (re)produces (sic) themselves by molesting children.”

Unfortunately, heading inside Parliament House, the tenor of public debate is sometimes not much better. Over the past 12 years we have seen Senators argue that allowing two men or two women to marry could lead to humans having sex with animals, arguing that enacting marriage equality would potentially result in another ‘Stolen Generations’, and abusing parliamentary privilege to smear an openly-gay High Court Justice with unfounded allegations of paedophilia (apparently solely because of his homosexuality).

This is not to say that all, or even any, of those comments would necessarily qualify as vilification under an equivalent provision to section 18C, but, the fact those comments are able to be made in our National Parliament provides a small insight into the type of abuse and vitriol which continues in other forums, day-in, day-out, which are not subject to the same levels of scrutiny.

That includes street-level harassment and abuse which my fiancé Steven and I, like many thousands of other LGBTI Australians, experience all-too-frequently. Anyone who is ‘visibly’ identifiable as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, including non-LGBTI people who are perceived as being LGBTI by others, and anyone who simply wants to engage in the tender act of holding one’s same-sex partner’s hand, knows the risks that being or expressing who you are in public can bring, from being yelled at from passing cars, to the very real threat of much, much worse.

Of course, the introduction of s18C-style protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status will not automatically lead to a reduction in such abuse, but it will allow for people to contest the most egregious examples of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and anti-intersex vilification in public life.

Over time, the introduction of vilification protections for LGBTI Australians, on top of the recently passed anti-discrimination laws, would help to send a strong signal to the wider community that such conduct was no longer tolerated.

The impetus for sending such a signal can be found in figures which show that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians continue to experience disproportionately high rates of mental health issues, including depression, attempted suicide and suicide.

This problem is especially pronounced amongst younger LGBTI people, with young same-sex attracted people estimated to be 6 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts (source: National LGBTI Health Alliance). Young people’s experience of discrimination and homophobia has been found to play a key role in this huge, and sadly persisting, health disparity.

Not only is public vilification in the form of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex discrimination wrong in and of itself, it has serious consequences, including in negative mental health outcomes for LGBTI people.

I believe that anti-LGBTI vilification must be prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act, in the same way that racial vilification was in 1995 when the Racial Hatred Act amended the Racial Discrimination Act, and that it should be done as soon as possible.

Recommendation 2. The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 should be amended to prohibit vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Obviously, there are other potential attributes which could also be aided by the introduction of vilification protections, including those grounds which already have Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws (sex, disability and age), but, as I am not an expert in any of those issues, I am not in a position to argue for or against their inclusion in this submission.

Nevertheless, I strongly believe that these questions – whether vilification protections should be expanded, and which additional groups they should cover – are the ones which should be occupying the mind of our Commonwealth Attorney-General, and indeed all MPs, rather than working out how to restrict the protections offered by the racial vilification provisions contained in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

I sincerely hope that this submission assists in helping to turn that conversation around, and that we, as a community, start to focus on enhancing instead of undermining human rights.

Thank you for taking these comments into consideration. Should you require clarification or further information, I can be contacted at the details below.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie