Submission to NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Youth Suicide

 

The NSW Parliamentary Committee on Children and Young People is currently holding an inquiry into the prevention of youth suicide. Full details can be found here. The following is my personal submission:

 

c/- childrenyoungpeople@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Sunday 27 August 2017

 

Dear Committee

 

Submission to Inquiry into Youth Suicide in NSW

 

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

 

In this submission, I will be focusing on items (g) and (h) from the inquiry’s terms of reference: ‘Approaches taken by primary and secondary schools’ and ‘Any other related matters’ respectively.

 

Specifically, I will be discussing these terms of reference and how they relate to one of the groups that is disproportionately affected by mental health issues, depression and suicide: young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

 

The National LGBTI Health Alliance confirms that LGBTI people, and especially young LGBTI people, are at much higher risk of suicide than non-LGBTI people. From the Alliance’s July 2016 ‘Snapshot of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Statistics for LGBTI People’:

 

“Compared to the general population, LGBTI people are more likely to attempt suicide in their lifetime, specifically:

 

  • LGBTI young people aged 16 to 27 are five times more likely
  • Transgender people aged 18 and over are nearly eleven times more likely
  • People with an intersex variation aged 16 and over are nearly six times more likely
  • LGBT young people who experience abuse and harassment are even more likely to attempt suicide.

 

Statistics for LGBTI Population:

 

  • 16% of LGBTI young people aged 16 to 27 reported that they had attempted suicide
  • 35% of Transgender people aged 18 and over have attempted suicide in their lifetime
  • 19% of people with an Intersex variation aged 16 and over had attempted suicide on the basis of issues related [to] their Intersex status
  • 8% of Same-Gender Attracted and Gender Diverse young people aged between 14 and 21 years had attempted suicide, 18% had experienced verbal abuse, and 37% of those who experienced physical abuse.

 

Statistics for General Population:

 

  • 2% of people (4.4% females; 2.1% males) aged 16 and over have attempted suicide in their lifetime; 0.4% of general population (0.5% females; 0.3% males) in the last 12 months
  • 1% of people (1.7% females; 0.5% males) aged 16 to 24 have attempted suicide in the past 12 months.”

 

These statistics are obviously incredibly alarming, and reveal the scale of the challenge of mental health issues experienced by LGBTI people, and especially young LGBTI people.

 

What should not be forgotten is that there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with LGBTI people, and LGBTI young people – their disproportionate rates of suicide are in response to external factors, including a lack of acceptance (or feared lack of acceptance) from parents, other family members and friends, as well as society-wide homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

 

Another contributing factor to high rates of LGBTI youth suicide – and perhaps most relevantly to this inquiry – is the school environment. While some schools are welcoming to all young people, including those of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and sex characteristics, other schools are far less welcoming – and some are even outright hostile.

 

For the purposes of this submission, I would nominate two key factors that help determine whether a school is welcoming of LGBTI young people:

 

  • Whether it has an explicit program addressing anti-LGBTI bullying (such as Safe Schools), and
  • Whether it has an inclusive curriculum for LGBTI students, with content that is relevant to their needs.

 

The importance of these two factors is confirmed by the 2010 Writing Themselves In 3 Report (by La Trobe University), which found that:

 

  • “61% of young people reported verbal abuse because of homophobia.
  • 18% of young people reported physical abuse because of homophobia.
  • School was the most likely place of abuse – 80% of those who were abused” (p39).

 

This last statistic is perhaps the most disturbing. Instead of being a place of learning, for far too many LGBTI young people, school is a place of intimidation, intolerance, and fear.

 

Although even more worrying is the fact that the proportion of students nominating school as a site of abuse increased from 1998 to 2004, and then again from 2004 to 2010 (p45) – rather than being more welcoming today, the schoolyard and the classroom is becoming more abusive.

 

Similarly, the Writing Themselves In 3 Report demonstrated that, in far too many schools, LGBTI students are not being included in the curriculum, both generally and specifically in relation to Health & Physical Education (including sex education).

 

From page 79: “10% of young people reported that their school did not provide any form of Sexuality Education at all.”

 

Even where some sexuality education was provided, it was primarily targeted at cisgender and heterosexual students. While almost 60% of students reported that the school provided information about heterosexual relationships, less than 20% received education about gay or lesbian relationships (p81).

 

And, while approximately 70% reported education about safe heterosexual sex, less than a quarter were instructed about safe gay sex and less than 20% about safe lesbian sex (p82).

 

Finally, roughly 1 in 10 reported learning that ‘homophobia is wrong’ as part of their sexuality education (p83), meaning that almost 90% of students were not receiving this important message.

 

Unfortunately, on both of these issues (anti-bullying programs, and an inclusive curriculum) NSW is clearly failing in its obligations to LGBTI young people.

 

First, in terms of Safe Schools, it was incredibly disappointing that the NSW Government abandoned this vital LGBTI anti-bullying program in April 2017.

 

Yes, there were some significant problems with this program – although not the ones that religious fundamentalists lied about in their dishonest campaign to undermine and destroy it.

 

Chief among the actual shortcomings of Safe Schools was the fact that it was an entirely optional program, meaning only a small proportion of schools had even begun to implement it by the time it was axed. Further, the schools that chose to implement it were likely the same schools that were already LGBTI-inclusive, while those that were less inclusive were far less likely to adopt the program.

 

Instead of abolishing Safe Schools, the NSW Government should have been working to ensure that it was rolled-out more widely, and ultimately to reach every school in the state (following the lead of Victoria) – because LGBTI students and young people exist in every school in the state.

 

Perhaps even worse than axing this program is the fact it has been replaced with a ‘general’ anti-bullying program and one that, based on media reports, does not include appropriate materials and resources to address the specific needs of LGBTI students and young people.

 

As reported in the Star Observer (Experts Slam NSW Anti-Bullying Resource as ‘Missed Opportunity for LGBTI Youth’, 21 July 2017:

 

“Leading health organisation ACON has expressed concern over the lack of LGBTI-specific tools and information in the new [anti-bullying] resource, despite liaising with the government in the months leading up to its launch.

 

Chief Executive of ACON Nicolas Parkhill said the new resource failed to meaningfully address the bullying, abuse, and discrimination faced by young LGBTI people.

 

“Bullying is an acute problem for young LGBTI people and this resources does not respond to their unique needs,” he said.

 

“Of concern is the absence of tools and resources that specifically address LGBTI bullying in schools – especially when we know it affects a significant proportion of young people.

 

“The government’s own report released earlier this month stated that 16.8 per cent of secondary school students in Australia are attracted to people of the same sex. That’s one in six students…

 

“We believe this resource falls short in responding to LGBTI bullying and there needs to be more emphasis placed on the needs of young LGBTI people.”

 

Based on this critique, it appears that the NSW Government has axed a program that was specifically designed to address anti-LGBTI bullying – which, as we saw earlier, is a contributing factor to LGBTI youth suicide – and replaced it with a ‘generalist’ anti-bullying program that does little to reduce this behaviour.

 

That is clearly not good enough.

 

Recommendation 1: The NSW Government should roll-out the Safe Schools program, or a similar program that specifically and explicitly deals with anti-LGBTI bullying, in every school across the state.

 

The Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) Syllabus is also not good enough in terms of how it includes – or, in many cases, excludes – LGBTI students and information that is relevant to their needs.

 

Earlier this year, the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) released a new draft PDHPE K-10 Syllabus for public consultation. Unfortunately, it fell far short of what is necessary to educate LGBTI students across the state, or to contribute to a reduction in youth suicide among this group.

 

As I outlined in my submission to NESA about the draft Syllabus (see Every Student. Every School. Submission on Draft NSW Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) Syllabus K-10), its problems include that:

 

  • It does not define the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex
  • It does not guarantee that all students in all schools will learn about these sexual orientations, gender identities or sex characteristics
  • It does not include sufficient LGBTI anti-bullying content, and
  • It does not offer appropriate, or adequate, sexual health education for students who are not cisgender and heterosexual, including a lack of information about sexually transmissible infections and diverse sexual practices.

 

If the PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is implemented without significant and substantive changes to the draft that was released, another generation of LGBTI young people will grow up without being told in the classroom that who they are is okay, and without learning vital information on how to keep themselves safe.

 

That would represent a failure of the NSW Government to exercise the duty of care that it owes to all students across the state.

 

Recommendation 2: The NSW Government should ensure that the PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is inclusive of LGBTI students, and provides content that is relevant to their needs, including comprehensive sexual health education.

 

The previous two issues – anti-bullying programs, and an inclusive curriculum – relate to term of reference (g) (Approaches taken by primary and secondary schools).

 

However, there is one final, non-school related matter that I would like to raise in this submission (under term of reference (h) – ‘Any other related matters’).

 

That is the issue of ‘ex-gay therapy’ or ‘gay conversion therapy’. As the name suggests, this practice aims to convince LGBT people that who they are is wrong, and that they should try to stop being who they are and instead attempt to be cisgender and heterosexual.

 

Let us be clear – ‘ex-gay therapy’ or ‘gay conversion therapy’ is not therapy, and does not offer anything ‘therapeutic’ to the people who are subjected to it. It is not counselling, nor does it have any basis in medical or scientific fact.

 

It is fundamentally harmful, and preys upon vulnerable people, exploiting their fears, their isolation and their insecurities. It leaves the vast majority of people feeling far worse, and can cause, or exacerbate, depression and other mental health issues, including leading to suicide.

 

Ex-gay therapy is psychological abuse, and the people who continue to ‘offer’ this practice are psychological abusers.

 

The NSW Government should outlaw this practice both because it is wrong, and because it is inherently harmful. This should be implemented by a criminal penalty for anyone conducting ex-gay therapy, with a separate penalty for advertising such services.

 

The imposition of ex-gay therapy on young LGBT people is particularly heinous, given they are especially vulnerable. Therefore, the fact that a person being subjected to ex-gay therapy is under 18 should be an aggravating factor for these criminal offences, attracting an increased penalty.

 

The prohibition of ex-gay therapy, and the protection of vulnerable LGBT people – and especially young LGBT people – from this practice is urgently required to help remove another cause of mental health issues, including possible suicide, of LGBTI youth in NSW.

 

Recommendation 3: The NSW Government should ban the practice of ‘ex-gay therapy’ or ‘gay conversion therapy’, making both conducting this practice, and advertising it, criminal offences. Offering these services to LGBT people under the age of 18 should be considered aggravating factors, attracting increased penalties.

 

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

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

There's no place for discrimination in the classroom-7

NSW schools have an important role to play in preventing LGBTI youth suicide – one that they are currently failing to fulfil.

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An LGBTI Agenda for NSW

Today marks exactly two years until the next NSW State election (scheduled for Saturday 23 March, 2019).

 

Despite the fact we are half-way through it, there has been a distinct lack of progress on policy and law reform issues that affect NSW’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities during the current term of Parliament.

 

This is in marked contrast to the previous term – which saw the abolition of the homosexual advance defence (or ‘gay panic’ defence), as well as the establishment of a framework to expunge historical convictions for gay sex offences.

 

The parliamentary term before that was even more productive, with a suite of measures for rainbow families (including the recognition of lesbian co-parents, equal access to assisted reproductive technology and altruistic surrogacy, and the introduction of same-sex adoption) as well as the establishment of the registered relationships scheme.

 

With a (relatively) new Premier in Gladys Berejiklian, now is the time for the Liberal-National Government specifically, and the NSW Parliament generally, to take action to remedy their disappointing recent lack of activity.

 

Here are 12 issues, in no particular order, which I believe need to be addressed as a matter of priority – and if Premier Berejiklian won’t fix them in the next 24 months, then they must be on the agenda of whoever forms government in March 2019.

 

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The first four issues relate to the state’s fundamentally broken anti-discrimination laws, with the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 now one of, if not, the worst LGBTI anti-discrimination regime in the country[i].

 

  1. Include bisexual people in anti-discrimination laws

 

NSW was actually the first jurisdiction in Australia to introduce anti-discrimination protections on the basis of homosexuality, in 1982.

 

However, 35 years later and these laws still do not cover bisexuality – meaning bisexual people do not have legal protection against discrimination under state law (although, since 2013, they have enjoyed some protections under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984).

 

NSW is the only state or territory where bisexuality is excluded. This is a gross omission, and one that the NSW Parliament must rectify urgently.

 

  1. Include intersex people in anti-discrimination laws

 

The historic 2013 reforms to the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1983 also meant that Australia was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to provide explicit anti-discrimination protection to people with intersex traits.

 

Since then, Tasmania, the ACT and more recently South Australia have all included intersex people in their respective anti-discrimination laws. It is time for other jurisdictions to catch up, and that includes NSW.

 

  1. Remove excessive and unjustified religious exceptions

 

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 also has the broadest ‘religious exceptions’ in the country. These legal loopholes allow religious organisations to discriminate against lesbian, gay and trans people in a wide variety of circumstances, and even where the organisation itself is in receipt of state or Commonwealth money.

 

The most egregious of these loopholes allow all ‘private educational authorities’, including non-religious schools and colleges, to discriminate against lesbian, gay and trans teachers and students.

 

There is absolutely no justification for a school – any school, religious and non-religious alike – to be able to fire a teacher, or expel a student, on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

All religious exceptions, including those exceptions applying to ‘private educational authorities’, should be abolished beyond those which allow a religious body to appoint ministers of religion or conduct religious ceremonies.

 

  1. Reform anti-vilification offences

 

NSW is one of only four Australian jurisdictions that provide anti-vilification protections to any part of the LGBTI community. But the relevant provisions of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 are flawed in two key ways:

 

  • As with anti-discrimination (described above), they do not cover bisexual or intersex people, and
  • The maximum fine for a first time offence of homosexual or transgender vilification is lower than the maximum fine for racial or HIV/AIDS vilification.

 

There is no legitimate reason why racial vilification should be considered more serious than anti-LGBTI vilification so, at the same time as adding bisexuality and intersex status to these provisions, the penalties that apply must also be harmonised.

 

**********

 

The following are four equally important law reform and policy issues for the state:

 

  1. Reform access to identity documentation for trans people

 

The current process for transgender people to access new identity documentation in NSW – which requires them to first undergo irreversible sex affirmation surgical procedures – is inappropriate for a number of reasons.

 

This includes the fact it is overly-onerous (including imposing financial and other barriers), and makes an issue that should be one of personal identification into a medical one. It also excludes trans people who do not wish to undergo surgical interventions, and does not provide a process to recognise the identities of non-binary gender diverse people.

 

As suggested in the Member for Sydney Alex Greenwich’s Discussion Paper on this subject[ii], the process should be a simple one, whereby individuals can change their birth certificates and other documentation via statutory declaration, without the need for medical interference.

 

At the same time, the requirement for married persons to divorce prior to obtaining new identity documentation (ie ‘forced trans divorce’) should also be abolished.

 

  1. Ban involuntary sterilisation of intersex infants

 

One of the major human rights abuses occurring in Australia today – not just within the LGBTI community, but across all communities – is the ongoing practice of involuntary, and unnecessary, surgical interventions on intersex children.

 

Usually performed for entirely ‘cosmetic’ reasons – to impose a binary sex on a non-binary body – this is nothing short of child abuse. People born with intersex characteristics should be able to make relevant medical decisions for themselves, rather than have procedures, and agendas, imposed upon them.

 

The NSW Government has a role to play in helping to end this practice within state borders, although ultimately the involuntary sterilisation of intersex infants must also be banned nation-wide.

 

  1. Ban gay conversion therapy

 

Another harmful practice that needs to be stamped out is ‘gay conversion therapy’ (sometimes described as ‘ex-gay therapy’).

 

While thankfully less common that it used to be, this practice – which preys on young and other vulnerable LGBT people who are struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity, and uses pseudo-science and coercion in an attempt to make them ‘straight’/cisgender – continues today.

 

There is absolutely no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence that it constitutes extreme psychological abuse, often causing or exacerbating mental health issues such as depression.

 

There are multiple policy options to address this problem; my own preference would be to make both the advertising, and provision, of ‘conversion therapy’ criminal offences. Where this targets people aged under 18, the offence would be aggravated, attracting a higher penalty (and possible imprisonment)[iii].

 

  1. Improve the Relationship Register

 

As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National Government continue to dither on marriage equality (despite it being both the right thing to do, and overwhelmingly popular), in NSW the primary means to formalise a same-sex relationship remains the relationships register.

 

However, there are two main problems with the ‘register’ as it currently stands:

 

  • Nomenclature: The term ‘registered relationship’ is unappealing, and fails to reflect the fundamental nature of the relationship that it purports to describe. I believe it should be replaced with Queensland’s adopted term: civil partnership.
  • Lack of ceremony. The NSW relationship register also does not provide the option to create a registered relationship/civil partnership via a formally-recognised ceremony. This should also be rectified.

 

Fortunately, the five-year review of the NSW Relationships Register Act 2010 was conducted at the start of last year[iv], meaning this issue should already be on the Government’s radar. Unfortunately, more than 12 months later no progress appears to have been made.

 

**********

 

The following two issues relate to the need to ensure education is LGBTI-inclusive:

 

  1. Expand the Safe Schools program

 

Despite the controversy, stirred up by the homophobic troika of the Australian Christian Lobby, The Australian newspaper and right-wing extremists within the Commonwealth Government, Safe Schools remains at its core an essential anti-bullying program designed to protect vulnerable LGBTI students from harassment and abuse.

 

Whereas the Victorian Government has decided to fund the program itself, and aims to roll it out to all government secondary schools, in NSW the implementation of Safe Schools has been patchy at best, with limited take-up, and future funding in extreme doubt.

 

Whatever the program is called – Safe Schools, Proud Schools (which was a previous NSW initiative) or something else – there is an ongoing need for an anti-bullying program to specifically promote the inclusion of LGBTI students in all NSW schools, and not just those schools who put their hands up to participate.

 

  1. Ensure the PDHPE curriculum includes LGBTI content

 

Contrary to what Lyle Shelton et al might believe, the LGBTI agenda for schools goes far beyond just Safe Schools. There is also a need to ensure the curriculum includes content that is relevant for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students.

 

One of the key documents that should include this information is the Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) curriculum.

 

The NSW Education Standards Authority is currently preparing a new K-10 PDHPE curriculum. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be genuinely-inclusive of LGBTI students, with only one reference to LGBTI issues (conveniently, all in the same paragraph, on the same page), and inadequate definitions of sexuality/sexual orientation.

 

Fortunately, there is an opportunity to make a submission to the consultation process: full details here. But, irrespective of what the Education Standards Authority recommends, if the PDHPE curriculum does not appropriately include LGBTI students and content, then the Parliament has a responsibility to step in to ensure it is fixed.

 

**********

 

The final two issues do not involve policy or law reform, but do feature ‘borrowing’ ideas from our colleagues south of the Murray River:

 

  1. Appoint an LGBTI Commissioner

 

The appointment of Rowena Allen as Victorian Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality appears to have been a major success, bringing together LGBTI policy oversight in a central point whilst also ensuring that LGBTI inclusion is made a priority across all Government departments and agencies.

 

I believe NSW should adopt a similar model, appointing an LGBTI Commissioner (possibly within the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet), supported by an equality policy unit, and facilitating LGBTI community representative panels on (at a minimum) health, education and law/justice.

 

  1. Create a Pride Centre

 

Another promising Victorian initiative has been the decision to fund and establish a ‘Pride Centre’, as a focal point for the LGBTI community, and future home for several LGBTI community organisations (with the announcement, just last week, that it will be located in St Kilda).

 

If it acted quickly, the NSW Government could acquire the T2 Building in Taylor Square – just metres from where the 1st Sydney Gay Mardi Gras Parade started in June 1978 – before it is sold off by the City of Sydney. This is an opportunity to use this historic site for purposes that benefit the LGBTI community, and including the possible housing of an LGBTI Museum and/or exhibition space.

 

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This is obviously not an exhaustive list. I’m sure there are issues I have forgotten (sorry), and I’m equally sure that readers of this blog will be able to suggest plenty of additional items (please leave your ideas in the comments below).

 

But the most important point is that, if we are going to achieve LGBTI policy and law reform in the remaining two years of this parliamentary term, we need to be articulating what that agenda looks like.

 

And, just as importantly, if we want to achieve our remaining policy goals in the subsequent term – from 2019 to 2023 – then, with only two years left until the next election, we must be putting forward our demands now.

 

Gladys Berejiklian at Mardi Gras

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian at the recent Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. It’s time to back up this symbolic display of support with progress on policies and law reform.

 

Footnotes:

[i] For more, see What’s Wrong With the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

[ii] See my submission to that consultation, here: Submission to Alex Greenwich Discussion Paper re Removing Surgical Requirement for Changes to Birth Certificate.

[iii] For more on both of the last two topics – intersex sterilization, and gay conversion therapy – see my Submission to NSW Parliament Inquiry into False or Misleading Health Practices re Ex-Gay Therapy and Intersex Sterilisation.

[iv] See my submission to that review, here: Submission to Review of NSW Relationships Register Act 2010.

Submission to NSW Parliament Inquiry into False or Misleading Health Practices re Ex-Gay Therapy and Intersex Sterilisation

Earlier this year, NSW Parliament’s Committee on the Health Care Complaints Commission called for submissions to an inquiry into the promotion of false or misleading health-related information or practices.

I wrote the following submission, looking at two practices in particular which negatively affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community: the practice of so-called ‘ex-gay therapy’ or conversion therapy, as well as the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people.

At this stage, while the Committee has chosen to publish 63 of the submissions it has received, it has not published mine, so I am reproducing it here. As always, I would be interested in your thoughts/feedback on the below.

Committee on the Health Care Complaints Commission

Parliament House

Macquarie St

SYDNEY NSW 2000

Friday 7 February 2014

Dear Committee

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO THE PROMOTION OF FALSE OR MISLEADING HEALTH-RELATED INFORMATION OR PRACTICES

In this submission, I would like to address two areas of ‘health-related practices’ which negatively affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and intersex (LGBTI) communities.

Specifically, with respect to term of reference (c) “the promotion of health-related activities and/or provision of treatment that departs from accepted medical practice which may be harmful to individual or public health”, I believe the Committee should examine:

i)              ‘ex-gay’ or ‘reparative’ therapy, and

ii)             the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people.

Ex-gay or reparative therapy

I can think of few ‘health-related practices’ which so clearly fall within term of reference (c) of this inquiry than so-called ‘ex-gay’ or ‘reparative’ therapy.

This practice, which although more common in the United States is nevertheless still practiced in New South Wales, involves organisations, usually religious, offering ‘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.

In short, ex-gay or reparative therapy involves attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, based on the belief that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans* is somehow ‘wrong’ or ‘unnatural’.

There are three main problems with ex-gay or reparative therapy.

First, there is absolutely nothing wrong or unnatural 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, and 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.

Given the level of harm that is perpetrated by these people, I believe it is incumbent on the NSW Parliament to introduce a legislative ban 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, particularly in the case of minors.

Finally, while at this stage there is no evidence linking registered medical practitioners with these discredited practices in New South Wales, 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. The Committee should consider additional appropriate sanctions for any practitioners caught doing so in NSW, including potential de-registration and civil penalties.

Involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people

In contrast to ex-gay therapy, which is largely performed by people who are not registered medical practitioners, some abuses perpetrated against intersex people in Australia are undertaken by the medical profession themselves.

As outlined by Organisation Intersex International Australia (OII Australia), in their submission to last year’s Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs Inquiry into Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of People with Disabilities in Australia (dated 15 February 2013, pages 3-4):

“Every individual member of OII Australia has experienced some form of non-consensual medical intervention, including the following:

  • Pressure to conform to gender norms and to be a “real man” or “real woman”.
  • Involuntary gonadectomy (sterilisation) and clitorectomy (clitoris removal or reduction) as an infant, child or adolescent.
  • Medical and familial pressure to take hormone treatment.
  • Medical and familial pressure to undertake genital “normalisation” surgery.
  • Surgical intervention that went outside the terms of consent, including surgery that was normalising without consent.
  • Disclosure of non-relevant medical data to third parties without consent.”

While I understand that the terms of reference state that “[t]he inquiry will focus on individuals who are not recognised health practitioners, and organisations that are not registered health service providers”, given the significant levels of harm involved in these practices against intersex people, I would encourage the Committee to nevertheless examine this subject.

I would therefore recommend the Committee take into consideration the 2nd Report of the Senate Standing Committee on this topic, as well as OII Australia’s submissions to that Inquiry. I have also attached my own submission from that inquiry with this submission (link here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/07/01/submission-to-involuntary-and-coerced-sterilisation-senate-inquiry/ ).

Thank you for considering my submission on these important topics.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

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