23 LGBTI Issues for the 2019 NSW Election

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

It will determine who holds Government until March 2023.

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

 

  1. Provide anti-discrimination protection to bisexual people

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

 

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

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

 

  1. Provide anti-discrimination protection to intersex people

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 does not have a stand-alone protected attribute covering people born with intersex variations. It should be amended as a matter of urgency by adopting the Yogyakarta Principles Plus 10 definition of sex characteristics: ‘each person’s physical features relating to sex, including genitalia and other sexual and reproductive anatomy, chromosomes, hormones, and secondary physical features emerging from puberty.’

 

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

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alike, to discriminate on the basis of homosexuality and transgender status.[ii] These special privileges must be repealed, so that all LGBTI students, teachers and staff are protected against discrimination no matter which school or college they attend.

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

  1. Reform commercial surrogacy laws

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

 

  1. Recognise multi-parent families

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

 

  1. Modernise the relationships register

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

 

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

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

 

  1. Ban unnecessary and involuntary medical treatment of intersex children

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

 

  1. Ban gay and trans conversion therapy

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

 

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

In late 2018, the NSW Parliament commenced an inquiry into hate crimes committed against the gay and trans communities between 1970 and 2010. This inquiry will not be completed prior to the election, and has barely scratched the surface of the extent of these crimes, and the failures of NSW Police to properly investigate them. Any new Government should establish a Royal Commission to thoroughly examine this issue.[viii]

 

  1. Re-introduce Safe Schools

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

 

  1. Include LGBTI content in the PDHPE Syllabus

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

 

  1. Expand efforts to end HIV

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

 

  1. Appoint a Minister for Equality

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

 

  1. Establish an LGBTI Commissioner

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

 

  1. Create an Office for Equality

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

 

  1. Convene LGBTI education, health and justice working groups

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

 

  1. Investigate creation of a Pride Centre

Another initiative that is worth ‘borrowing’ from south of the NSW border is the creation of a Pride Centre, to house key LGBTI community organisations, potentially including a permanent LGBTI history museum. This centre would need to be developed in close partnership with LGBTI groups, and should be properly investigated during the next parliamentary term.

 

  1. Provide funding for LGBTI community organisations

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

 

  1. Develop and implement an LGBTI Strategy

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

 

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References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xiii] [To be added at a later date.]

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Saving Safe Schools

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’m sick of it.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Because our kids are counting on us.

 

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

 

Invisibility in the Curriculum

Did you know that the NSW Personal Development, Health and Physical Education K-10 Syllabus does not require schools to teach students what lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex mean, or even that they exist?

 

The NSW Education Standards Authority reviewed the PDHPE curriculum in 2017 (see my submission to that consultation here), and released its consultation report and final K-10 syllabus in early 2018.

 

It is now being progressively rolled out in NSW classrooms, with full implementation by the start of the 2020 school year.

 

This is despite the fact the new PDHPE curriculum is entirely unfit for the 21st century, contributing to the ongoing invisibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) content, and therefore of LGBTI students.

 

This can be seen in a number of ways. The first, and perhaps most important, is in its use – or, more accurately, lack of use – of the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex themselves.

 

In the 138 pages of the syllabus, these words occur three times each.[i] However, two out of these three appearances are found in the document’s glossary – with a definition of each term, and then as part of the broader definition of LGBTI people.

 

But teachers do not teach the glossary to their students. Instead, they are only required to teach the content for each year stage of the syllabus. And the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex can be found only once in the prescribed content, together on page 96:

 

‘investigate community health resources to evaluate how accessible they are for marginalised individuals and groups and propose changes to promote greater inclusiveness and accessibility eg people in rural and remote areas, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI), people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, people with disability.’

 

The problem with this is that LGBTI comes after ‘for example’ and therefore even referring to LGBTI people in this exercise is, on a prima facie reading, optional.

 

This issue – the status of content that appears after ‘eg’ in the syllabus – was raised, by myself and others, during the consultation process. The answer at the time was that whether this information was taught was at the discretion of the school and/or teacher. This appears to be confirmed in the consultation report, which states on page 18 that:

 

‘The content defines what students are expected to know and do as they work towards syllabus outcomes. Content examples clarify the intended learning. Teachers will make decisions about content regarding the sequence, emphasis and any adjustments required based on the needs, interests, abilities and prior learning of students.’

 

In practice, LGBTI people appear just once in the entire NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus, as part of an exercise about marginalised groups and inclusiveness, but schools and/or teachers can choose to remove even this most cursory of references.[ii]

 

This marginalisation, and exclusion, of LGBTI content and students is simply not good enough.

 

Another cause of the curriculum’s problems can be found if we return to the glossary, and inspect the definition of sexuality:

 

‘A central aspect of being human throughout life. It is influenced by an interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors. It is experienced and expressed in thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships.’

 

On a philosophical level, this is actually quite an inclusive and even progressive view of the complexity of human sexuality. But on a practical level, the absence of specificity in this definition undermines any obligation for schools and/or teachers to teach about real-world diversity of sexual orientation.

 

This lack of prescription means that, on page 96 – which is the only place in the general syllabus where ‘sexuality’ appears not following an ‘eg’ (and therefore is the only reference that isn’t optional)[iii] – content to ‘explore external influences on sexuality and sexual health behaviours and recognise the impact these can have on their own and others’ health, safety and wellbeing’ does not necessarily include lesbian, gay or bisexual sexualities.

 

It is a similar story in terms of gender,[iv] with the glossary definition (‘Refers to the concepts of male and female as well as the socially constructed expectations about what is acceptable for males and females’) not particularly useful in ensuring students learn about the diversity of gender identities. There also do not appear to be any references to non-binary or gender diverse identities.[v]

 

These definitions of sexuality and gender, and how they are employed throughout the syllabus, could be interpreted by some supportive schools and teachers to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender subject matter. But there is absolutely nothing that ensures schools and/or teachers must teach this content.

 

This erasure, or invisibilisation, of LGBTI people in the NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is nothing short of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic.

 

Which makes it somewhat ironic then that there are more references to homophobia and transphobia in its content than there are to LGBTI people.

 

On page 77: ‘describe forms of bullying, harassment, abuse, neglect, discrimination and violence and the impact they have on health, safety and wellbeing, eg family and domestic violence, homophobic and transphobic bullying, racism, cyberbullying, discrimination against people with disability.’

 

And on page 88: ‘propose protective strategies for a range of neglect and abuse situations, eg family and domestic violence, bullying, harassment, homophobia, transphobia and vilification.’

 

Although note of course that both times homophobia and transphobia appear after an ‘eg’, meaning whether they are taught in these contexts remains optional (and obviously neither of these sections explicitly refers to biphobia or intersexphobia either).[vi]

 

Another major problem with the new NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is its approach to sexual health.

 

There are only two compulsory references to sexual health in the content of the syllabus, one of which we have already seen (on page 96: ‘explore external influences on sexuality and sexual health behaviours and recognise the impact these can have on their own and others’ health, safety and wellbeing’).

 

The other reference, on page 95, describes ‘identify methods of contraception and evaluate the extent to which safe sexual health practices allow people to take responsibility for managing their own sexual health.’

 

There are two problems with this statement. First, it puts the emphasis on ‘contraception’ when sexual health, and LGBTI sexual health especially, is a much broader concept. Second, it does not specifically mandate that schools and teachers instruct students about sexually transmissible infections (STIs).

 

In fact, quite astoundingly, the only reference to STIs in the general syllabus,[vii] on page 84 (‘identify and plan preventive health practices and behaviours that assist in protection against disease, eg blood-borne viruses, sexually transmissible infections’) makes teaching about them optional. The only time the term HIV even appears in the entire document is in the glossary.[viii]

 

In terms of STI-prevention, it seems the NSW PDHPE syllabus has actually gone backwards from the previous 2003 document, which at least prescribed that students learn about:

 

‘sexual health

-acknowledging and understanding sexual feelings

-expectations of males and females

-rights and responsibilities in sexual relationships

-sexually transmitted infections, blood-borne viruses and HIV/AIDS’ as well as to

‘identify behaviours that assist in preventing STIs, BBVs and HIV/AIDS and explore the interrelationship with drug use.’[ix]

 

**********

 

The aim of the PDHPE K-10 Syllabus is explained on page 12 of the document:

 

‘The study of PDHPE in K-10 aims to enable students to develop the knowledge, understanding, skills, values and attitudes required to lead and promote healthy, safe and active lives.’

 

Unfortunately, the more than 100 pages of the new syllabus which follow that statement make clear that it does not, and cannot, promote healthy, safe and active lives for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students. After all, it is impossible for students to learn everything they need to be safe when they cannot see themselves in the curriculum.

 

This document represents a complete derogation of duty by the NSW Education Standards Authority, and Education Minister Rob Stokes and the Berejiklian Liberal-National that have overseen them.

 

They have also failed in their duty to keep all students safe, LGBTI and non-LGBTI alike, given the paucity of sexual health information, and specific content around sexually transmissible infections, in the syllabus.

 

To some extent it is perhaps a little unfair to single out NSW for these failures, because they are not alone in responsibility for them.

 

As this author has previously written, the national Health and Physical Education curriculum (which provides the framework for the NSW syllabus) developed earlier this decade by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), also abjectly fails to take the needs of LGBTI students seriously.

 

Despite repeated calls for him to intervene, then-Commonwealth Education Minister Christopher Pyne refused to take action to make LGBTI-inclusive content a priority either.

 

Ensuring that all teachers, in all schools, provide health and physical education content that is inclusive of all students and their needs has been placed in the ‘too hard basket’ by educational authorities, and Ministers, at multiple levels of government over multiple years.

 

It seems they would prefer to pretend LGBTI students do not exist rather than to take on the influence of religious schools and others who see anything that promotes the view that LGBTI people are part of the natural, beautiful diversity of humanity as some sort of ‘radical agenda’.

 

In this respect, the exclusion of LGBTI content from the NSW PDHPE K-10 Syllabus shares a lot in common with the current debate about the exceptions to anti-discrimination law that allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students, something the NSW Government has also ruled out fixing.

 

As with that issue, the losers out of the new PDHPE curriculum are the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex kids who have the right to learn about themselves, and to receive the information they need to keep themselves safe, but who are instead being made to feel invisible.

 

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NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes has overseen the development of a PDHPE K-10 Syllabus that is almost completely silent on LGBTI issues.

 

Footnotes:

[i] The term bisexual actually appears four times, with an additional appearance in the glossary in the definition of ‘same-sex attracted’, alongside ‘homosexual’ in its only appearance.

[ii] This interpretation – that teaching the examples which are included in the content is optional – is supported by page 24 of the consultation report, which states: ‘The content is presented to be inclusive and provide the flexibility for delivery based on the context and the ethos of schools. Schools will make decisions about the scope and range of examples to illustrate the diversity of groups in Australian society.’

[iii] There is a separate reference to ‘sexuality’ that is not optional on page 119 in the Life Skills section, for students with special needs, although it does not specifically refer to diversity of sexual orientations.

[iv] The definition of sex on page 135, described as ‘The biological characteristics that define humans as female or male. While these sets of biological characteristics are not mutually exclusive, as there are individuals who possess both, they tend to differentiate humans as males and females’, also does not ensure students learn about variations of sex characteristics.

[v] The definition of transgender or trans on page 137 states ‘A general term for a person whose gender is different to their sex at birth’.

[vi] As an aside, it must surely be difficult to teach students about homophobia and transphobia when the syllabus doesn’t require instruction about the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex in the first place.

[vii] At a minimum the Life Skills content for students with special needs makes teaching about sexually transmissible infections mandatory (on page 119: ‘recognise issues of safety in relation to sexual relationships, including contraception, sexually transmissible infections’).

[viii] In the glossary definition of sexually transmissible infections: ‘Any infection that can be passed from one person to another during sexual activity. Sexually transmissible infections include chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, genital herpes, scabies, pubic lice, hepatitis and HIV.’

[ix] On page 27 of the 2003 PDHPE 7-10 Syllabus, here.

No, We Don’t Have Marriage Equality Yet

12 months ago today, the House of Representatives passed Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017.

 

It was the culmination of more than 13 years of campaigning by Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities.

 

When that law took effect, two days later, Australia finally permitted same-sex couples to wed and recognised the marriages of most[i] LGBTI couples.

 

But we did not achieve genuine marriage equality – nor do we enjoy it exactly one year later.

 

This is because the terms and conditions which apply to the marriages of LGBTI couples after 9 December 2017 are different to those which applied to cisgender heterosexual couples before that date.

 

First, and most importantly, at the time of writing, forced trans divorce – where a transgender person who is already married cannot gain access to accurate identity documentation unless they first divorce their partner – still exists in Western Australia and Tasmania[ii] (while legislation to abolish forced trans divorce has only passed in the Northern Territory in the past fortnight).

 

One of the positive aspects of last year’s marriage Bill is that it included a 12-month phase out of exceptions to the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 which allowed states and territories to enforce these discriminatory laws.

 

Which means that, from this Sunday, trans people who are already married in WA and Tasmania will be able to lodge a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) about their mistreatment under the Gender Reassignment Act 2000 (WA) and the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1999 (Tas).

 

Presumably, they will also be able to seek a new birth certificate through this process (although whether the respective state Governments provide one remains to be seen).

 

Nevertheless, for as long as forced trans divorce sits on the statute books in any Australian jurisdiction, and we compel some trans people who are already married to take action with the AHRC – or even have to go to Federal Court – just to gain access to accurate identity documentation, it is inaccurate to say we have genuine marriage equality in Australia.

 

Second, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 didn’t just allow LGBTI couples to wed – it also inserted new ‘religious exceptions’ into the Marriage Act 1961 itself. For example, it gave existing civil celebrants the ability to nominate themselves as ‘religious marriage celebrants’ and thereby refuse to perform the ceremonies of same-sex couples.

 

Importantly, this didn’t just apply to civil celebrants who were ‘ministers of religion’ of unrecognised religions (sub-section 39DD(1), which is at least arguably consistent with freedom of religion).

 

It also allowed existing civil celebrants to gain access to these special privileges based on nothing more than their personal beliefs. As is now set out in sub-section 39DD(2) of the Marriage Act 1961:

 

Marriage celebrants who wish to be religious marriage celebrants on the basis of their religious beliefs

(2) The Registrar of Marriage Celebrants must identify a person as a religious marriage celebrant on the register of marriage celebrants if:

(a) the person was registered as a marriage celebrant under Subdivision C of this Division immediately before Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 commenced; and

(b) the person gives the Registrar notice that the person wishes to be identified as a religious marriage celebrant on the register:

(i) in writing; and

(ii) in a form approved by the Registrar; and

(iii) within 90 days after Part 1 of Schedule 1 of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 commences; and

(c) the choice is based on the person’s religious beliefs [emphasis added].

 

In effect, a civil celebrant who was registered before 9 December 2017 could simply sign-up to be able to say ‘no gays allowed’ (or no lesbians, bisexuals or transgender people allowed either).[iii]

 

[Update 13 December 2018: In fact, as revealed by the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review Report, 406 existing civil celebrants registered to take advantage of these new special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples. Which, to be honest, is even more people choosing prejudice over equal love than I had anticipated.]

 

Remember that these celebrants are not ministers of religion, and the ceremonies they officiate need not be religious. There is also no test of their beliefs – it is based solely on self-declaration.

 

In practice, this provision has very little to do with actual religious freedom, but instead provides new legal protections to homophobia, biphobia and transphobia as long as it is dressed up as ‘religious’.

 

That much is made abundantly clear by the fact similar provisions had never been introduced to ‘protect’ civil celebrants who wanted to refuse to (re-)marry people who had previously been divorced, or to reject ceremonies for couples of different faiths – both of which arouse strong religious beliefs for many people.

 

These provisions were introduced only when LGBTI couples were finally allowed to marry, demonstrating that they are not aimed at protecting genuine religious freedom at all – their real target is undermining LGBTI equality.

 

This is obviously a terrible provision in and of itself. It also sets a negative precedent for other laws.

 

After all, if civil celebrants – who are in reality a small business, offering commercial services to the public at large – are allowed to discriminate against their customers on the basis of the customer’s sexual orientation or gender identity, then why shouldn’t other businesses be allowed to do the same (a point that religious fundamentalists made frequently during the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review).

 

Indeed, that brings me to the third reason why we still don’t have genuine marriage equality in Australia.

 

Amidst all of the celebrations of the passage of same-sex marriage (and yes, as someone engaged to be married, I still think some celebration was justified), I wonder how many people understand that the following is now written into the Marriage Act:

 

47B Bodies established for religious purposes may refuse to make facilities available or provide goods or services

(1) A body established for religious purposes may refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage, if the refusal:

(a) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the body; or

(b) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.

(2) Subsection (1) applies to facilities made available, and goods or services provided, whether for payment or not.

(3) This section does not limit the grounds on which a body established for religious purposes may refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage.

(4) To avoid doubt, a reference to a body established for religious purposes has the same meaning in this section as it has in section 37 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

(5) For the purposes of subsection (1), a purpose is reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of marriage if it is intrinsic to, or directly associated with, the solemnisation of the marriage [emphasis in original].

 

This is an incredibly broad exception, applying to anything provided by a religious organisation that has anything to do with a LGBTI wedding – even where it is provided by a service that advertises to the public at large and is run for profit.

 

The most generous interpretation of the inclusion of this amendment is that it merely replicates, and reinforces, the existing religious exceptions found in section 37(1)(d) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (provisions which have come under scrutiny this week because they also allow discrimination by religious schools against LGBT students and teachers).

 

But, if that is the case, their inclusion in the Marriage Act is entirely unnecessary. And for a reform that has powerful symbolic value, what does it say about the passage of same-sex marriage that it was accompanied by these equally symbolic, but discriminatory, amendments.

 

On the other hand, it is arguable that the addition of section 47B has actually increased the range of circumstances in which religious organisations can discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

This is particularly the case in relation to Tasmania, where the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 remains the best practice LGBTI discrimination law in Australia.

 

This is because the religious exceptions in section 47B of the Marriage Act 1961 are framed in a positive way (‘a body established for religious purposes may refuse…’), whereas the existing Sex Discrimination Act 1984 exceptions are phrased in a negative way (‘Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects…’).

 

This is an important distinction because it is more likely that a positively-framed religious exception will override the anti-discrimination laws of jurisdictions which are inconsistent. In practice, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 has likely allowed new forms of discrimination in our most Southern state.

 

Even if that interpretation is incorrect, it should again be highlighted that this type of exclusionary provision was never needed to allow religious organisations to refuse to serve couples where one or both had previously been divorced, or where the couple had different religious backgrounds.

 

Section 47B was only introduced when LGBTI couples were allowed to walk down the aisle. It’s true purpose is to allow religious bodies – even where they are advertise to the public at large and are run for a profit – to tell same-sex couples to go somewhere else.[iv]

 

Perhaps the most disappointing part about the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 is that, despite being one of the worst marriage amendment Bills ever introduced into Commonwealth Parliament,[v] it was signed-off on by Australian Marriage Equality (AME), and the Equality Campaign, supposedly on behalf of the LGBTI community.

 

In the days after the announcement of the postal survey results, they presented Senator Dean Smith’s Bill as a fait accompli, arguing for its passage without calling for the removal of its unnecessary provisions regarding existing civil celebrants or wedding-related services, effectively making them accomplices to this new discrimination.

 

In my opinion, AME/The Equality Campaign were wrong to do so.

 

They were wrong on principle. As an organisation purporting to advocate for marriage equality, they should have been calling for genuine equality, not defending the inclusion of provisions that were never needed for anyone else, but were only introduced to target LGBTI Australians. Their acquiescence makes it harder to push for the removal of these provisions in the future.

 

They were wrong on strategy. The religious fundamentalists inside the Coalition Government were the ones who had pushed for the unnecessary, wasteful, harmful and divisive postal survey – and they lost, with the majority of Australians showing they supported the equal treatment of all couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics.

 

That is what the LGBTI community should have been demanding: full equality and nothing less. If the Coalition Government refused to pass it because it did not include new rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples, even after imposing an unprecedented $80.5 million three-month national opinion poll, then they would have experienced the biggest of backlashes. It was not up to the LGBTI community to save the Government from itself.

 

And they were wrong on process, because they never secured the informed consent of the LGBTI community to these changes. They never explained, in detail, what had been given up and why, and they never asked lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people whether it was a price they were prepared to pay.

 

Indeed, when other organisations like just.equal and PFLAG Australia did ask the community what they thought, the response was generally unequivocal – there must be no new discrimination.[vi] In the absence of other evidence, that is the position I think AME/The Equality Campaign should have adopted.[vii]

 

It is likely I will be criticised, possibly quite strongly, for writing this (and especially those last few paras). Many will argue that what’s done is done, and should therefore be left alone.

 

Maybe.

 

Except I would argue that what was done last year – the inclusion of new discriminatory provisions in the Marriage Act itself – needs to be undone.

 

In order to do so, we need to know what exactly is in the Act, and how and why it was included. And then we need to work out a strategy for ensuring sections 39DD(2) and 47B are removed from the statute books so that the stain of discrimination is washed clean, permanently.

 

And of course we need to support the efforts of groups like Transforming Tasmania and Transfolk of WA so that they are successful in finally ending forced trans divorce in Tasmania and Western Australia too.

 

Because for as long as any law requires people to divorce their partner in order to obtain accurate identity documentation, while any LGBTI couple is turned away by a homophobic or transphobic civil celebrant (calling themselves a ‘religious marriage celebrant’), and for as long as religious organisations enjoy special privileges to discriminate in the provision of wedding-related goods, services or facilities, then we don’t enjoy genuine marriage equality in Australia.

 

House of Reps Vote

The moment Commonwealth Parliament passed the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017. It introduced same-sex marriage. But it isn’t marriage equality.

 

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

 

Footnotes:

[i] See the discussion of forced trans divorce below.

[ii] Legislation to abolish forced trans divorce – as well as making the inclusion of gender on birth certificates optional – has passed Tasmania’s Legislative Assembly, but it is unclear if or when it will pass the Legislative Council. Legislation to abolish forced trans divorce has also passed Western Australia’s lower house, but the Legislative Council there does not sit again until 12 February 2019.

[iii] Authorised under section 47A:

Religious marriage celebrants may refuse to solemnise marriages

(1) A religious marriage celebrant may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in this Part, if the celebrant’s religious beliefs do not allow the celebrant to solemnise the marriage

Grounds for refusal not limited by this section

(2) This section does not limit the grounds on which a religious marriage celebrant may refuse to solemnise a marriage.

[iv] There is a fourth problem with the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 and that is it reinforces the ability of defence force chaplains to discriminate in terms of which marriage ceremonies they will officiate. As outlined in section 81 of the Marriage Act 1961:

(2) A chaplain may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in this Part, if any of the following applies:

(a) the refusal conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the chaplain’s religious body of religious organisation;

(b) the refusal is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion;

(c) the chaplain’s religious beliefs do not allow the chaplain to solemnise the marriage.

Grounds for refusal not limited by this section

(3) This section does not limit the grounds on which an authorised celebrant (including a chaplain) may refuse to solemnise a marriage.

This provision is offensive because military chaplains are public servants, paid for by the taxpayer (including of course LGBTI taxpayers), and obligated to serve all of the people supposedly under their pastoral care. They should be required to provide these services to all ADF personnel, irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity – and if they cannot, they should find another job.

On the other hand, it should be acknowledged that defence force chaplains already had the ability to determine who they performed marriages for (although the revised section 81 made this power even clearer) meaning it is somewhat distinct from the existing civil celebrant, and wedding-related services, religious exceptions, both of which are genuinely new ‘rights’ to discriminate.

[v] Perhaps equal worst with Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm’s Freedom to Marry Bill 2014, which allowed all civil celebrants to turn away LGBTI couples, but which did not insert new general religious exceptions in the Marriage Act itself.

Liberal Senator James Paterson’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Protection of Freedoms) Bill 2017 – written in conjunction with the Australian Christian Lobby – was obviously far worse than both, but it was never formally introduced.

[vi] See the results of their November 2017 community survey here.

In particular:

  • 63.1% of respondents opposed the Smith Bill’s civil celebrant provisions
  • 86.9% opposed the wedding-related services exceptions, and
  • 77.4% opposed provisions allowing military chaplains to refuse to officiate the ceremonies of LGBTI ADF personnel.

Importantly, 53.7% of respondents indicated they were willing to wait until marriage equality could be achieved without such provisions (while only 27.9% were not willing to wait and 18.4% were neutral on this issue).

[vii] For more on these issues, see Rodney Croome’s excellent recent article in New Matilda, ‘Yes Yes No: Why the History of Marriage Equality Must be Told Accurately’.

Submission to NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Gay and Trans Hate Crimes

NSW Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues

 

Wednesday 7 November 2018

 

To whom it may concern

 

Submission re Inquiry into gay and transgender hate crimes between 1970 and 2010

 

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

 

I do so as a long-term advocate for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, including for the past six years in New South Wales.

 

However, this timeframe means I did not live in NSW during the period 1970 to 2010. I consequently do not have a personal experience of anti-LGBTI hate crimes in this jurisdiction during that period.

 

Nevertheless, I acknowledge and endorse the work of others, both individuals and organisations, who have documented the appallingly high number of gay and trans hate crimes which occurred here over the course of the past four or five decades.

 

This obviously includes the work of ACON, whose excellent ‘In pursuit of truth and justice’ report is cited in the terms of reference to this inquiry, as well as that of journalist Rick Feneley, whose stories over recent years have finally started to give these crimes the attention, and scrutiny, they deserve.

 

And it includes the work of three former NSW Police employees or consultants – Steve Page, Sue Thompson and Duncan McNab – whose work has confirmed the failure by NSW Police to adequately investigate many of these same crimes.

 

This failure can be seen as one reason, perhaps even the primary reason, why, of the 88 homicide cases identified in In pursuit of truth and justice, approximately 30 remain unsolved today.

 

I therefore welcome the initiative of the Legislative Council in establishing this inquiry, to hear from people who have been affected by these hate crimes, either directly or who have valuable information about crimes committed against others.

 

Indeed, this fits with ACON’s recommendation 1.2:

 

ACON recommends the NSW Government, in partnership with community, undertake a process to comprehensively explore, understand and document the extent of historical violence experienced by the LGBTI community.

 

And also with recommendation 4.1:

 

ACON recommends an independent investigation into the actions of the various arms of the criminal justice system to fully understand the impediments to justice during this period in history, their relevance to current practices, and to identify opportunities to finalise unsolved cases.

 

However, I would argue that, while a positive start, a short parliamentary inquiry is unlikely to be sufficient in and of itself to comprehensively address these issues. I form this view on the basis of the following factors:

 

  • The sheer scale, and seriousness, of the subject matter involved, noting that we are discussing at least 88 homicides, with more that may yet be identified through this process,
  • Remembering that figure does not include the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of additional homophobic and transphobic hate crimes that occurred during this period, including serious and violent assaults, many of which have never been properly documented,
  • The role of NSW Police in failing to adequately investigate many of these crimes (both homicides and assaults), and
  • The allegations of complicity and/or even direct participation by NSW Police members in some of these horrific crimes.

 

Given all of the above, I believe that this subject matter should be investigated through a Royal Commission, which would have the appropriate powers, resources and timeframes to fully explore the gay and trans hate crimes which occurred in NSW over the past half-century.

 

Recommendation 1: That the Committee call on the NSW Government to establish a Royal Commission into the issue of gay and trans hate crimes in NSW since 1970.

 

In terms of the ‘gay panic’ or ‘homosexual advance defence’ and the role it ‘played in the culture of LGBTIQ hate crimes between 1970 and 2010’ and how it ‘impacted the delivery of justice and the treatment of gay men during LGBTIQ hate crime investigations and court proceedings’, I believe it did contribute both to helping to incite these crimes, and in undermining their proper investigation.

 

As I wrote to the Legislative Council Provocation Committee in 2012, calling for the abolition of the gay panic defence:

 

In my opinion, there is nothing so different, so special or so extraordinary, in the situation where the non-violent sexual advance is made by a man to another man, as to justify offering the offender in such cases any extra legal protection. In contemporary Australia, a man who receives an unwanted sexual advance should exercise the same level of self-control as we expect of any other person.

 

To have a separate legal standard apply to these cases is homophobic because it implies there is something so abhorrent about a non-violent sexual advance by a man to another man that a violent reaction is almost to be expected, and at least somewhat excused. This does not reflect the reality of contemporary Australia, where, with the exception of marriage, gay men enjoy the same rights as other men, and are accepted as equals by the majority of society.

 

Even if a small minority of people remain firmly intolerant of homosexuality, that does not mean there should be a ‘special’ law to reduce the culpability of such a person where they are confronted by an unwanted homosexual sexual advance. To retain such a provision is unjust and discriminatory, and is a mark against any legal system which aspires to fairness.

 

The above discussion outlines why the homosexual advance defence is wrong in principle. What should not be forgotten is that the homosexual advance defence is also wrong in practice, or in the outcomes which it generates. After all, the defence does not simply exist in the statute books, ignored and unused. Instead, it has been argued in a number of different criminal cases, sometimes successfully.

 

This means there are real offenders who are in prison (or who have already been released), who have had their conviction reduced from murder to manslaughter, and most likely their sentence reduced along with it, simply because they killed in response to a non-violent homosexual advance. The legal system has operated to reduce the liability of these offenders even when broader society does not accept that such a reduction is justified. As a result, these offenders have not been adequately punished, meaning that above all these victims have not received justice.

 

Similarly, the family members and friends of the victims killed in such circumstances have witnessed the trials of these offenders, expecting justice to be served, only to find that the killer is not considered a murderer under the law. Instead, these family members and friends find some level of blame is placed on the actions of the victim, that somehow by engaging in a non-violent sexual advance they have helped to cause and even partly deserved their own death.

 

The painful ‘lessons’ of the gay panic defence, which were learnt over many decades by the LGBTI community, included the following:

 

  • That the life of a gay man was valued at less than that of other victims,
  • That a non-violent sexual advance by a gay man to another man was abhorrent, and that a violent response to such an advance was at least partially justified, and
  • That the law enforcement and justice systems of NSW were not on our side.

 

These same lessons were learnt by the perpetrators of anti-gay and anti-trans hate crimes. They worked out that LGBTI people made for easy targets, both because we were unlikely to report crimes and, even if we did, that NSW Police were unlikely to do anything about it.

 

Based on the behaviour of some NSW Police officers, including reportedly in the 1989 assault of Alan Rosendale, as witnessed by Paul Simes (see Rick Feneley, ‘Erased from the records; Investigation into bashing of gay man by police in Surry Hills in 1989’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 January 2015), it seems that they too believed the lives of gay men mattered less than others.

 

It is perhaps unsurprising that, when the law – via the homosexual advance defence – said gay men’s lives were less valuable than those of heterosexual people, some members of the law enforcement arm of government acted in the same way.

 

So, while the abolition of the gay panic defence by NSW Parliament in May 2014 was a major step forward for LGBTI rights in this state, we should not underestimate the damage it caused during its (too-many) years of operation.

 

Thank you in advance for taking this submission into consideration as part of this inquiry. If you would like to clarify any of the above, or for additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

w1-truthandjustice

ACON’s excellent ‘In pursuit of Truth and Justice’ Report is available here.

7 Reflections on the Marriage Debate

It has truly been an amazing few days. With the House of Representatives vote on the Smith Bill on Thursday afternoon, its royal assent on Friday morning, and commencement at 12am Saturday (instantly recognising the overseas marriages of many LGBTI couples, and allowing thousands more to register their intention to marry), Australia is a different country – a better, fairer and more inclusive country – today than it was this time last week.

 

Now that I’ve had a few days to let this historic achievement sink in, here are some personal reflections on the marriage debate:

 

  1. It’s LGBTI marriage. It’s not marriage equality.

 

My first reflection is probably the most controversial: while the passage of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017, which permits all couples to marry irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics, is obviously welcome, it does not deserve the moniker ‘marriage equality’.

 

That is because, as well as amending its definition, it also changes the ‘terms and conditions’ surrounding marriage in Australia, simply because LGBTI couples are finally allowed to participate.

 

This includes enabling existing civil celebrants to nominate to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’, and discriminate against LGBTI couples, solely on the basis of their personal religious beliefs [sub-section 39DD(2)]. As well as unnecessarily duplicating religious exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 within the Marriage Act itself [section 47B].

 

The fact these amendments have been included now, but were not previously required in relation to divorced people re-marrying, suggests they have very little to do with ‘religious freedom’, and much more to do with homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

 

Informed by past experience, the majority of LGBTI Australians fear that new rights to discriminate will be primarily used to target us – with recent research finding more than 60% of respondents strongly agreeing that, even if these laws technically allow discrimination against all couples, ‘it will disproportionately discriminate against same-sex couples’.

 

Of course, in the interests of ensuring LGBTI couples are able to marry at all, many people were prepared to accept these concessions. I certainly understand that viewpoint. But from my perspective, it means we now enjoy LGBTI marriage (or what a respected friend of mine describes as ‘partial marriage equality’) rather than genuine marriage equality.

 

And I think it is important to remind ourselves of this compromise, so that we can work to remove these discriminatory provisions in coming years.

 

  1. It could have been worse

 

Despite the significant flaws of the Smith Bill, we should also remember that it could have been much worse. At the start of November, most media commentary focused on how many ‘conservative’ amendments would be passed, allowing even more discrimination against LGBTI couples.

 

There was even the short-lived Bill from Liberal Senator James Paterson, the entire purpose of which appeared to be about entrenching ‘religious privilege’. Followed by amendments put forward by Attorney-General George Brandis, and supported by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, to permit all civil celebrants to say ‘no gays allowed’.

 

One of the proudest moments of my own participation in the long fight for equality came in recent months, collaborating with a small group of advocates to oppose these changes. Rodney Croome, Felicity Marlowe, Shelley Argent, Brian Greig, Sharon Dane, Ivan Hinton-Teoh, Sharyn Faulkner, Robin Banks and Peter Furness all fought for the principle of full equality until the very end.

 

In that struggle we were not alone, with others – notably including the Equal Marriage Rights Australia Facebook page, Pauline Pantsdown, Jacqui Tomlins and Doug Pollard –making important public contributions.

 

I should also take this opportunity to thank everyone – family members, friends, blog readers, No Homophobia No Exceptions followers, and complete strangers – who completed the just.equal webform, to let MPs and Senators know there should be ‘No compromise on equality’. I understand close to 200,000 emails were sent, obviously having a massive impact. Thank you.

 

Together, we were able to alter the conversation, so that the Smith Bill was no longer seen as a ‘starting point’, to inevitably be dragged further to the right, but as the compromise it clearly was.

 

Together, we were able to persuade the Greens to introduce amendments to remove the egregious elements of the Smith Bill, amendments that, even if they failed last week, can be used for advocacy in the future.

 

Together, we helped to stop the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 from being much, much worse.

 

  1. It could still get worse

 

We must not overlook the fact that the reforms introduced last week are already under serious threat, as a result of the Review into ‘Religious Freedoms’ announced by Malcolm Turnbull on 22 November.

 

Former Liberal MP Philip Ruddock – the Attorney-General who oversaw the introduction of the ban on marriage equality in August 2004 – will spend the first three months of 2018 examining how Australian law can ‘better protect’ religious freedoms.

 

As we all know, increases in special privileges for religious individuals and organisations almost inevitably come at the expense of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians (as well as other groups, including women).

 

Despite this, the panel for the Ruddock Review does not include any representatives from the LGBTI community (with Ruddock joined by the head of the Australian Human Rights Commission Rosalind Croucher, retired judge Annabelle Bennett and Jesuit priest Frank Brennan).

 

So, by all means spend the remainder of December celebrating our recent success. Because when 2018 starts we must stand ready to defend those gains, as well as protecting a wide range of other existing LGBTI rights, which will likely come under sustained attack.

 

  1. Renewed appreciation of the importance of LGBTI anti-discrimination laws

 

Some of the rights most at risk in the Ruddock Review – as they were during the parliamentary debate of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill – are our essential LGBTI anti-discrimination protections.

 

Indeed, one of the few positives of the past few months, amid the intense lobbying surrounding the Smith Bill, Paterson Bill and attempted conservative amendments, has been renewed appreciation of the importance of these laws within the LGBTI community itself.

 

After all, it is difficult to convey the significance of provisions, like LGBTI anti-discrimination sections within the Sex Discrimination Act, that should be needed less and less in practice as homophobia recedes (although the experience of the postal survey indicates that hopeful vision of the future remains some way off).

 

However, even if we don’t individually use them to lodge complaints, we all rely on the standards these laws set. Hopefully, the recent focus on the subject of anti-discrimination laws means the LGBTI community will be ready to fiercely defend our existing protections in the near future.

 

But we must do more than merely maintain the status quo. We must campaign to improve the protections offered by these laws, especially in terms of who is covered, removing religious exceptions, and introducing LGBTI anti-vilification laws where there currently are none (Commonwealth, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory).

 

To find out more about the current status of these laws in your jurisdiction, see: A Quick Guide to Australians LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.

 

The first opportunity to improve these laws is the public consultation by the Northern Territory Government on modernisation of their Anti-Discrimination Act. Submissions close 31 January 2018. For more information, click here.

 

  1. Marriage is not, and never has been, the only LGBTI issue

 

This point may seem obvious to most (but sadly not all) people within the LGBTI community, but it is less so to those outside, including some who sit in our nation’s parliament.

 

The denial of the right to marry was never the only form of discrimination to adversely affect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians. For a lot of people, it wasn’t even close to being near the top of a long list of concerns.

 

Now that LGBTI marriage has been legalised, it is time to ensure a wide range of other issues receive the level of attention that they deserve, including (but definitely not limited to):

  • Ending involuntary surgeries on intersex children
  • Improving access to identity documentation for trans and gender diverse people
  • Ensuring the national Health & Physical Education curriculum includes LGBTI students, and content that is relevant to their needs
  • Implementing nation-wide LGBTI anti-bullying programs in schools
  • Fixing LGBTI anti-discrimination laws (including the broken NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977)
  • Stopping the offshore detention, processing and resettlement of people seeking asylum, including of LGBTI people in countries that criminalise them (such as Papua New Guinea), and
  • Ending HIV.

 

These last two issues directly affect the LGBTI community, albeit not exclusively. There are other issues that may not be specifically ‘LGBTI’ per se, but that we have an interest in, and a responsibility to help address.

 

That includes improving the treatment of people seeking asylum generally, supporting the campaign for constitutional reform for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – especially because the same-sex marriage postal survey was used to push the Uluru Statement from the Heart off the political agenda – and helping to Close the Gap. Oh, and addressing climate change (including stopping the Adani coal mine) because there’s no human rights on a dead planet.

 

  1. The ends do not justify the means

 

One of the most nauseating parts of the parliamentary debate last week (amid some fairly stiff competition) was the sight of Liberal and National Party MPs trying to retrospectively justify their decision to hold the postal survey in the first place.

 

They must never be allowed to get away with this argument.

 

The postal survey was unnecessary.

 

It was wasteful – at a final cost of $80.5 million (a figure that Coalition MPs should arguably be forced to repay).

 

And it was harmful, just as LGBTI Australians always said it would be: “experiences of verbal and physical assaults more than doubled in the three months following the announcement of the postal survey compared with the prior six months”, while “more than 90% reported the postal survey had a negative impact on them to some degree.”

 

As Junkee’s Rob Stott aptly described it: “Hey Malcolm, I’m glad you enjoyed the postal survey. It was one of the worst times of my life.”

 

Even the United Nations Human Rights Committee recently criticized the Government for this process:

 

“While noting that the State party is currently undertaking a voluntary, non-binding postal survey on the legalization of same-sex marriage, the Committee is of the view that resort to public opinion polls to facilitate upholding rights under the Covenant in general, and equality and non-discrimination of minority groups in particular, is not an acceptable decision-making method and that such an approach risks further marginalizing and stigmatizing members of minority groups.”

 

Which is exactly what happened.

 

The fact Commonwealth Parliament has since passed LGBTI marriage cannot be used to excuse the postal survey – because passing legislation is what parliaments are supposed to do. You know, like how John Howard banned marriage equality in August 2004, without an $80.5 million farce beforehand.

 

The postal survey should never have happened. And it must never be allowed to happen again.

 

  1. This was not Malcolm Turnbull’s victory. It was ours.

 

Another extremely nauseating moment last week was watching Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull try to claim credit for the passage of LGBTI marriage.

 

This is a so-called ‘leader’ who:

  • Refused to introduce legislation to legalise marriage equality
  • Instead, imposed an unnecessary, wasteful and harmful postal survey on the LGBTI community
  • Then refused to participate in the Yes campaign, and
  • When legislation was finally before parliament, supported amendments to allow even more discrimination against LGBTI couples.

 

Thankfully, his brazen ‘gloating’ has been called out by people like Magda Szubanski and perhaps even more powerfully by Jordan Raskopoulos.

 

Malcolm Turnbull does not deserve credit for what he did. He deserves our condemnation.

 

On the other hand, and given the sheer scale of the accomplishment, there are plenty of individuals and organisations that do deserve our thanks. Including the advocates I named earlier. As well as, obviously, the Yes Campaign and Australian Marriage Equality, GetUp!, PFLAG Australia, Rainbow Families Victoria, the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, just.equal, Equal Love, CAAH, Rainbow Labor and the unions (well, most of them), and the Greens. Plus many, many more.

 

Nevertheless, one of the best parts about the long struggle for LGBTI marriage in Australia is that it was truly a collective effort, much bigger than any one individual. Because it involved millions of actions, by millions of people, the vast majority of which will never be recorded by history. Which means the victory belongs to everyone who has contributed to the fight along the way. All of us.

 

**********

 

So, there you have it, my final thoughts on the marriage debate. Feel free to share yours – including where you may passionately disagree – in the comments below.

 

But now, on a personal level, it’s time for me to stop writing about the right to get married. And to instead go and exercise that right, by planning Steven and my long overdue wedding.

 

House of Reps Vote

The moment LGBTI marriage was passed by the House of Representatives.

The robo-debt letter that should be sent

This time last year, there was an emerging scandal for the Turnbull Government – the automated letters being sent to hundreds of thousands of people who had received social security seeking repayment of supposed debts worth tens of thousands of dollars.

 

Based on incomplete and often inconsistent information, a significant proportion of these notices were inaccurate, with many recipients owing nothing at all.

 

The ‘robo-debt’ letter program was nothing short of an omnishambles. Unfortunately, despite scathing assessments by both the Commonwealth Ombudsman and a Senate Inquiry, this scheme continues to this day.

 

Instead of targeting many of the most vulnerable members of the community, for debts they either don’t owe or can’t pay, there is one robo-debt letter that I think should be sent.

 

To a group of people that have cost Australian taxpayers a large amount of money, by failing to perform their most basic duties, and who definitely have the capacity to pay.

 

**********

 

Dear Liberal and National Senators and Members of Parliament,

 

We are writing to seek repayment of a significant sum you owe to the people of Australia. This debt has been incurred due to your failure to fulfil the minimum responsibilities of your employment.

 

In August 2017, instead of voting on legislation in Parliament – which is, after all, what you are elected to do – you decided to outsource your obligations to the general public, by holding a postal survey about same-sex marriage.

 

Your postal survey was unnecessary. Unlike Ireland, there was absolutely no requirement for this process, which could at best be described as a voluntary, non-binding, national opinion poll.

 

Your postal survey was harmful. Exactly as the LGBTI community had told you it would be: “experiences of verbal and physical assaults more than doubled in the three months following the announcement of the postal survey compared with the prior six months”, while “more than 90% reported the postal vote had a negative impact on them to some degree.”

 

Your postal survey was unprecedented. Never before has an optional survey, run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, been used to cast judgement on the fundamental human rights of a minority group. It must never be used again.

 

Your postal survey was wasteful. Originally budgeted at $122 million, it apparently came in under budget – at just $80.5 million*. This is money that could have been spent on health. Or education. Or any number of government programs that actually benefit the Australian community.

 

The historic events of the past fortnight have merely confirmed this monumental waste. LGBTI marriage has finally been passed in both houses of Parliament – the places where this important change should have been made all along.

 

Indeed, Commonwealth Parliament is the only place where it could ever have been achieved.

 

You are one of 105 Coalition Members of Parliament elected at the 2016 federal election. Your personal share of responsibility for this debt, of $100 million, has been allocated equally.

 

Your estimated debt is $766,666.67. We seek your repayment within 30 days of receipt of this letter.

 

Responsibility for seats currently unoccupied due to dual citizenship-related ineligibility – Liberal Senator Stephen Parry, Nationals Senator Fiona Nash and Liberal MP John Alexander – will fall on their respective political parties.

 

We understand a small number of you have consistently opposed your Government’s proposals to hold a plebiscite and then, when that legislation was rejected by the Senate, to conduct a postal survey instead. We thank you for your principled position.

 

If you fall into this category, please supply evidence of your denunciation of these policies, following its announcement by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in August 2015, and during the plebiscite debate in the second half of 2016 and the postal survey debate in August 2017, both under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

 

Once this evidence is received, you share of responsibility will also be allocated to your party’s head office.

 

Grievance procedures

 

It is possible some of you will feel aggrieved to receive this letter. If that is the case, please feel free to lodge a formal letter of complaint.

 

However, you should be aware we will give it the same level of consideration that you gave to the legitimate concerns expressed by the LGBTI community ahead of your decision to hold the postal ballot.

 

You should also consider yourselves lucky.

 

Lucky you are not having your wages deducted for all the years in parliament during which you failed to pass this most straight-forward of reforms (for some of you, stretching all the way back to the Howard Government’s original ban on marriage equality in 2004).

 

Lucky you are not being charged for all the time and expense wasted by LGBTI Australians, and our families, friends and allies, in having to fight for equal rights during your unjust, and unjustifiable, postal survey.

 

Lucky you will not have to pay damages for the emotional, mental and social harms you have caused by shirking your essential responsibilities and undertaking a bitter and divisive ‘vote’.

 

The LGBTI community was not so lucky. We were forced to wait more than 13 years for the equal recognition of our relationships. And then jump through hoops no-one else has ever been expected to negotiate.

 

We paid the price for your lack of leadership. Now it’s time for you to pay up.

 

Sincerely,

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, our families, friends and allies

 

Parliament House

*NB An earlier version of this article used the figure $100 million as the estimate announced by the ABS on the day the postal survey results were announced. On 8 December, Finance Minister Senator Mathias Cormann revealed the final cost to the Government was $80.5 million.