Submission re Queensland Bill to (Finally) Equalise the Age of Consent

Updated 19 January 2017:

The Queensland Parliament voted to equalise the age of consent on Thursday 15 September 2016 (as reported by the Guardian Australia here: ‘Queensland votes to equalise age of consent for all sexual acts’).

This reform, which means the age of consent for anal sex is lowered to 16, to match the age of consent for other forms of sexual intercourse, removes a provision that had a disproportionate impact on young gay, bisexual and same-sex attracted men for a quarter of a century (myself included).

Queensland was the last jurisdiction in Australia to equalise its age of consent, coming years, and in most cases decades, after other states and territories.

Original Post:

The Queensland Government has introduced a Bill to, amongst other things, finally equalise the age of consent for anal intercourse.

This legislation – the Health and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 – was referred to the Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee for detailed consideration. The details of their inquiry can be found here.

The following is my submission:

Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee

lacsc@parliament.qld.gov.au

Friday 22 July 2016

To the Committee

Submission re the Health and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission about the Health and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 (‘the Bill’).

In this submission, I will focus on Part 2 of the Bill, namely those provisions seeking to amend the Queensland Criminal Code.

Specifically, I write to support the long overdue equalisation of the age of consent for anal intercourse in Queensland.

I do so as a gay man who was born in Queensland in 1978, and who lived there until 1996, although now lives in Sydney.

The above dates mean that, for the first 12 years of my life, homosexual acts were criminalised I my home state – and I recall being vaguely aware of this fact, that ‘gay = criminal’, as I grew up in Central Queensland.

I am also old enough to remember, in slightly more detail, the historic passage of legislation in 1990 that decriminalised sex between men.

Indeed, it was only a couple of months later, when I first arrived at the religious boarding school in Brisbane that would be my home for the following five years, that I first started to realise that I was gay myself.

What I didn’t fully comprehend for another couple of years – but had certainly figured out by the time I turned 16 – was that the Goss Labor Government, and Queensland Parliament more generally, had left the important job of decriminalisation only half-done.

While they decriminalised sex between adult gay and bisexual men, they had also introduced a new form of discrimination – with the age of consent set at 18 for anal intercourse (which they referred to as ‘sodomy’), and 16 for everything else.

Admittedly, this new law technically applied to anal intercourse between anyone – meaning that 16 or 17 year old cisgender heterosexual people engaging in this form of sex were also criminalised – but it is clear they were not the real ‘targets’.

The Parliament knew it. The media knew it. The LGBTI community knew it. And this (then) teenage gay boy, even though he was still deeply entrenched in the closet, knew it too. This law was primarily concerned with prohibiting same-sex activity among teenage males.

For the years 1994 to 1996, while I was aged 16 and 17 and still living in Queensland, I was fully aware that the law treated me differently simply because of my sexual orientation.

For whatever reason – whether it was blatant homophobia, personal distaste or ‘squeamishness’ about anal intercourse, misguided beliefs about health risks or malicious stereotypes about homosexual ‘recruitment’ – my state’s lawmakers had decided to single me, and people like me, out as being lesser than our peers.

It was just one more reminder of the societal homophobia surrounding me, everywhere I looked, and one more factor that made it extremely difficult to come out to my family and friends.

I also believe it contributed to the lack of any LGBTI sexual health education during my time at high school (although obviously the religious nature of the school played a part too), something that was actually a health risk (especially given these were the peak years of deaths from AIDS-related illness in Australia, before the advent of life-saving treatments).

Of course, my story is by no means unique – there have literally been tens of thousands of young gay and bisexual men who have grown up in Queensland since the passage of the unequal age of consent in 1990. And, just like me, many of them have experienced adverse consequences due to these discriminatory laws.

Indeed, the explanatory memorandum of the Bill notes that “[s]ome in the community have identified the inconsistent age of consent for anal sex in the Criminal Code as a barrier to young people accessing safe sex education regarding anal intercourse, with gay and bisexual youth being denied peer acceptance and community support.”

It further observes that “[t]he panel [convened to consider this issue] noted that young people in same sex relationships may feel compelled to withhold information about their sexual history from their health practitioner for fear of the possible legal consequences, whether for themselves or their partner. This may have implications in terms of the young person’s access to appropriate medical treatment and also has the impact of stigmatising their relationship.”

Finally, “[t]he expert panel considered that using the term sodomy may stigmatise this form of intercourse, and homosexual relationships in particular.”

In my view, these are all compelling reasons to equalise the age of consent between anal intercourse and other forms of intercourse, and to update the language that is used in the Criminal Code to be more accurate and inclusive.

What is disappointing, even distressing, is that it has taken successive Queensland Governments more than 25 years to agree with this position and to finally take steps to remedy this injustice.

That’s a quarter of a century of prejudiced provisions, in the state’s criminal law, applying to young gay and bisexual men.

A quarter of a century sending a message to people that they are not equal simply because of who they are.

A quarter of a century limiting the sexual health education provided to young gay and bisexual mean.

A quarter of a century undermining the ability of tens of thousands of people, just like me, from accessing health services without fear of discriminatory treatment.

A quarter of a century of the Queensland Government and Parliament telling the LGBTI community, in yet another way, that is was not worthy of their respect.

And so, while I congratulate the decision by the Palaszczuk Labor Government to introduce this Bill to belatedly equalise the age of consent, and look forward to it being implemented later this year, I cannot help but take this moment to also reflect on, and condemn, the failure of previous Governments – from the Goss Labor Government, to the Borbidge Coalition, Beattie and Bligh Labor and Newman Liberal-National Governments – to remove these abhorrent provisions from the Queensland Criminal Code.

Their inaction on this issue has undeniably been to the detriment of generations of young gay and bisexual men, and it should not be forgotten.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Wayne Goss

Former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss, whose election victory in 1989 led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality 12 months later. But, for 16 and 17 year old gay and bisexual men, full decriminalisation has taken another quarter of a century.

30th anniversary of decriminalisation of homosexuality in NSW

Tonight, at midnight, it will be exactly 30 years since gay and bisexual adult men in New South Wales moved from being criminals to being able to engage in consensual sexual intercourse without fear of prosecution.

Then NSW Premier, the Hon Neville Wran MP’s, private member’s bill – the Crimes (Amendment) Act 1984 – had passed the NSW Parliament on 22 May, but did not take effect until the 8th of June, 1984.

This legislation, decriminalising male same-sex sexual intercourse (for people aged 18 or over – sadly, an equal age of consent had to wait another 19 years), was the product of 14 years of hard work and tireless campaigning of gay and lesbian (and of course some early trans*) rights activists.

From the founding of the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) in September 1970, through the proliferation of gay liberation groups during the 1970s, to the courageous ‘78ers’ who resisted NSW Police violence at the first Sydney Gay Mardi Gras Parade, and the Gay Rights Lobby, formed in 1980 – as well as numerous other groups advocating for equality on the basis of sexual orientation – this achievement was truly a collective effort.

It is thanks to the courage of these activists, who stood up and fought for their (and our) rights, to be public and be proud at a time when they were threatened with criminal sanction for simply being who they were, that people like my fiancé Steve and I can enjoy, and even take for granted, such a wide range of freedoms today.

It is because of this that I simply wanted to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for what they achieved, for themselves, for us and for future generations. To them, I say thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

That’s one thanks for every year of freedom that we have enjoyed since the decriminalisation of homosexuality 30 years ago. To any of those activists who might one day read this post (highly unlikely, but then you never know), please know that we appreciate what was done, and that we owe you.

Of course, there is one way that we can try to repay at least a small part of that debt, and that is to continue pushing for legislation which allows all those who were convicted due to the homophobia of the criminal law – both before decriminalisation in 1984, and because of the unequal age of consent between 1984 and 2003 – to have those convictions expunged.

The Liberal Member for Coogee, Bruce Notley-Smith, is expected to introduce a private member’s bill to achieve just that later in June. We should lobby to ensure as many MPs as possible support this effort at redressing past injustices.

At the same time, the NSW Parliament should expressly apologise to all those harmed – both at the time and, for many, for a lifetime – by the homophobic laws which emanated from that place for far too long.

Legislation to expunge historical convictions, accompanied by a parliamentary apology for historic injustices, would be a fitting way to mark the 30th anniversary of decriminalisation of homosexuality in NSW. Let’s do what we can to make sure it happens.

Decriminalisation campaigners, including Lex Watson, at the Gay Rights Embassy opposite then Premier Neville Wran's home in 1983 (source: Adrian Short as published in Sydney Morning Herald).

Decriminalisation campaigners, including Lex Watson, at the Gay Rights Embassy opposite then Premier Neville Wran’s home in 1983 (source: Adrian Short as published in Sydney Morning Herald).