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.

 

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’.

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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.

It’s Not Over Yet

Just when you thought Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t physically be any more disappointing on marriage equality than he already is, he goes and announces his support for adding new forms of discrimination to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (aka the Smith Bill).

 

That’s right, less than 24 hours after yesterday’s emotional celebrations when that Bill cleared the Senate – something which Turnbull himself tweeted showed ‘Parliament at its best today – the Senate passed the same-sex marriage bill’ – he has revealed he will support multiple negative amendments in the House of Representatives, including some that were explicitly rejected in the upper house.

 

This significantly increases the chances that the legislation that is ultimately adopted falls well short of genuine marriage equality, even risking the passage of the Bill entirely if we end up with deadlock between the two chambers.

 

It is unclear whether Turnbull actually believes in the amendments himself, or if he is simply supporting them in a(nother) craven capitulation to capital ‘c’ Conservatives within his party, in a last-ditch effort to save his leadership.

 

Frankly, my dear readers, I don’t give a damn what his motivation is. Because, far more importantly, it is clear what the impact will be: more discrimination against LGBTI couples, and LGBTI Australians more broadly.

 

Let’s turn to the possible amendments themselves. Based on media reports in The Australian, and Guardian Australia, it appears Turnbull now supports at least two, probably three, and potentially even more amendments undermining the Smith Bill, which as we already know is a significant compromise. These include:

 

  1. Providing all civil celebrants with an ability to discriminate on the basis of their personal conscientious or religious belief

 

As reported by The Australian, “[t]he Prime Minister supports… provisions that would ensure that marriage celebrants are able to decline to solemnise marriages which they do not wish to solemnise.” Presumably, this means supporting Attorney-General George Brandis’ amendments on this topic.

 

This proposal is so terrible it is almost unbelievable we have to keep explaining why, but just to reiterate the many reasons why we should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants:

 

  • Civil wedding ceremonies are not religious, therefore a celebrant’s personal beliefs are irrelevant
  • The ability to discriminate does not currently exist with regards to divorcees remarrying, so should not be introduced for LGBTI couples
  • Civil celebrants are performing a duty on behalf of the state, so should not have the power to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status
  • Commercial businesses should not be able to discriminate on the basis of personal religious or conscientious belief
  • If civil celebrants are allowed to discriminate, it is difficult to withhold this privilege from other wedding-related businesses, and
  • Allowing civil celebrants to discriminate creates a terrible precedent for anti-discrimination law in Australia, opening the door to further discrimination in the future.

 

  1. Reinforcing the ability of charities to discriminate against LGBTI people

 

These amendments are being sold as a supposed ‘shield’ to protect charities from some unspecified, nefarious action by future governments. In reality, they are more likely to be used as weapons against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, further entrenching the ability of religious organisations to discriminate against employees, and people accessing their services.

 

Irrespective of which view you adopt, however, the amendments are completely unnecessary. As revealed by Liberal Senator Dean Smith during Senate debate of his Bill on Tuesday, he wrote to both the Australian Commissioner of Taxation, and the Acting Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commissioner, about the impact of his proposed legislation. From Hansard:

 

“I asked the charities commissioner two questions. The first was whether a religious charity that currently holds and/or expresses a view of or a position on marriage will be able to continue to do so without any negative impacts on its charitable status following the enactment of amendments to the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry – that is, the future act. ‘The short answer’, the commissioner said to me, ‘to this question is yes’.

“The second question I asked the charities commissioner was whether the lawful refusal to conduct a marriage ceremony, deliver goods or services, or hire facilities to same-sex couples or other couples in accordance with the future Marriage Act and current exemptions in federal, state and territory anti-discrimination laws would result in any adverse consequences in relation to an entity’s charitable status. ‘The short answer’, he says in correspondence to me, ‘is no’.

“For the sake of completeness, the Australian Taxation Commissioner says:

… a religious charity holding or expressing a view of a religious nature (position on marriage) will not have an impact on [Deductible Gift Recipient] endorsement.

He goes on to say:

Similarly, lawful refusal to conduct a marriage ceremony, deliver goods and services or hire facilities in accordance with the future Marriage Act will be unlikely to impact DGR endorsement. These activities would fall outside the scope of the general DGR categories and would not prevent DGR endorsed religious charities from fulfilling their DGR purposes.”

 

Turnbull’s own Government agencies – including the Taxation Commissioner himself – have effectively rejected any need for amendments in this area. He should not be jeopardising the introduction of marriage equality for the sake of something that is, at best, unnecessary, and at worst, a Trojan horse for increased discrimination against LGBTI people.

 

  1. Including a declaratory statement about ‘religious freedom’ in the Marriage Act

 

Another Trojan horse for new, adverse treatment of LGBTI Australians is the second of Attorney-General Brandis’ failed amendments: a proposal to add a statement from Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in the objects of the Marriage Act itself.

 

At this stage, there are mixed signals about whether the Prime Minister supports this change. What is not ‘mixed’ – indeed, what is unequivocal – is that such a change must be rejected.

 

In the words of ALP Senate Leader Penny Wong, during the same debate on Tuesday:

 

“As has been pointed out by a number of legal advisers, and also referenced in some of the documentation provided by the Human Rights Law Centre, there are some questions about the extent to which there may be unintended adverse consequences in relation to this amendment. I would also make the point that we find it somewhat odd that one would cherrypick the ICCPR in this way. For example, article 18.1 is singled out but not article 18.3, which states:

Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

“Obviously, 18.3 constrains to some extent the rights articulated in 18.1 and reflected in the amendment that Senator Brandis has spoken to. I also note that article 26 of the ICCPR commences as follows:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law.

“I pick up those two aspects of the covenant because it seems to us on this side that there’s obviously, certainly in this chamber and to some extent in the community, an interest in discussing the place of religious belief and the way in which the law might safeguard better the right to have such a belief—the right to hold beliefs—and a discussion about the extent to which that belief might affect the application of Australian law. However, as I have said on a number of occasions today, that is a reasonably complex and at times controversial discussion, and it is certainly a discussion that goes quite directly to the way in which religion is dealt with in a secular state and to the extent to which absolute belief, and limited protection under the law for that, need to be balanced.

“The Labor Party’s view reflects to some extent Senator Brandis’ introduction to this amendment, which is that this is a matter that rightly should go through the process that Prime Minister Turnbull has established [the Ruddock review]. We believe that an amendment of this sort would better be considered in the context of that process.”

 

Greens’ Senator Nick McKim noted even more serious concerns with this amendment:

 

“Enacting only the first sentence of article 18.1 leaves out the limitations on freedom of religion that are found in the remainder of 18.1 and in article 18.3 and… transforms what is a limited right into an absolute right.

“…I want to note that there is a trend around the world in Western democracies—and this is the case in Europe as well as the United States—where conservative Christian pro bono law groups are pursuing aggressive litigation strategies to justify discrimination against LGBTIQ people. Including article 18.1 of the ICCPR in Australian law will make freedom of religion justiciable and fuel legal conflict in our country. Last year we saw the Australian Christian Lobby establish the pro bono Human Rights Law Alliance… they established that alliance precisely for the purpose of litigating against LGBTIQ people, and the alliance is already running a number of cases on behalf of conservative Christians, including challenges to anti-discrimination law on the basis of the religious freedom provision in the Tasmanian Constitution, the constitution of my home state. Senator Canavan described this amendment as ‘a shield’. It’s not a shield; it’s a sword. It’s a sword that will be wielded by the conservative right against LGBTIQ people in this country, and that’s why it should be stridently opposed.”

 

**********

 

I started this post by expressing my disbelief that Malcolm Turnbull could have found a new way to let me, and LGBTI Australians, down. Again.

 

But, putting aside my own incredulity, that’s exactly what he’s done. Again.

 

Even after deciding that LGBTI Australians must be subjected to an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on our fundamental human rights.

 

Even after that was rejected by the Senate, and he determined that we would be subjected to an unprecedented three-month, $100 million postal survey instead.

 

Even after Australians overwhelmingly voted Yes, and he refused to put forward marriage equality legislation that simply amended the definition, and recognized foreign marriages – without additional discrimination against LGBTI couples.

 

Even after the Smith Bill was passed by the Senate. Now that legislation that would finally allow all LGBTI couples to marry is before the House of Representatives, and its passage is so close we can almost touch it, the Prime Minister is still finding new ways to treat us as second-class citizens.

 

But, just as we’ve overcome all of the previous hurdles that have been placed in our way, we must do everything we can to clear this one too.

 

That means taking action one more time to say that second-class is not good enough. That we won’t accept new forms of discrimination as part of any marriage equality Bill. That the House of Representatives must reject any amendments that can be used to discriminate against us.

 

Please make sure you complete the #equalmeansequal webform, calling on MPs to vote against new discrimination: www.equal.org.au/equalmeansequal

 

Because now is definitely not the time to hold your peace.

 

151222 Turnbull

Prime Minister Turnbull, who wants to add new discrimination to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill in the House of Representatives.

Quit Playing Games

With marriage equality set to be debated in Commonwealth Parliament during the next fortnight, I have written the below letter to all MPs and Senators, calling on them to legislate for genuine marriage equality, not a Bill (or amendments) that entrenches our second-class status. To send your own message that #equalmeansequal, click here.

 

**********

 

Dear MP/Senator

 

I met my fiancé Steven two weeks after my 30th birthday.

 

Within a few months it was clear this relationship was something special. Just 17 months after we met, in January 2010, we did what most couples who are in love do: we got engaged.

 

That means we have been engaged, waiting for the right to marry, for almost eight years.

 

Obviously, a lot of ‘life’ can happen in eight years. We’ve moved cities, changed jobs – almost as many times as the country has changed Prime Ministers – and even bought a home together (well, the small fraction that isn’t owned by the bank).

 

But, nearing the end of 2017, we still can’t plan our wedding day. I want to draw your attention to one of the consequences of our extended, involuntary wait.

 

My grandmother, who is now in the second half of her 90s, would have been able to attend our wedding had we held it when most couples do, within a year or two of our engagement.

 

Instead, with her health declining and having recently moved into assisted living, she won’t be there when Steven and I tie the knot.

 

The delay in passing marriage equality, due to the intolerance, and intransigence, of too many politicians over too many years, has stolen that moment of celebration from us all.

 

Steven’s situation is only slightly better. With a Portuguese background, family is even more important to him. He would love nothing more than to be able to wed in front of his grandmother.

 

But, in her late 80s and having recently had a pacemaker installed, we cannot ignore the possibility his dream may not come true, especially if marriage equality is delayed any further.

 

I think I will be even more upset for him if that moment is stolen, too.

 

Of course, the failure to lead on this issue by Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, and Malcolm Turnbull among others, has taken much, much more from other couples, including Peter Bonsall-Boone and Peter de Waal who, after 50 years together, will forever be denied the ability to marry each other.

 

It’s time for you, as our elected representatives, to end the interminable wait for marriage equality, a wait that has already proven too long for too many.

 

Quit playing games with our relationships. Pass marriage equality now.

 

**********

 

I met my fiancé Steven one week after my brother’s wedding. Two years earlier I attended my sister’s wedding.

 

I look forward to being able to invite both of my siblings, and their respective spouses, to Steven and my nuptials.

 

When we finally say ‘I do’, though, there is a real chance our marriage will be subject to different terms and conditions than theirs. Because the legislation that will give us the right to marry will likely take away our rights in other areas.

 

The Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, introduced by Liberal Senator Dean Smith, is already deeply flawed, allowing existing civil celebrants to simply declare themselves ‘religious marriage celebrants’ in order to turn away same-sex couples, and unnecessarily duplicating religious exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act within the Marriage Act.

 

Yet, there are many MPs and Senators who seem intent on making this unsatisfactory legislation even worse.

 

From Attorney-General George Brandis, who wants to provide all civil celebrants with the ability to discriminate against couples on the basis of their personal religious or conscientious beliefs, even though their role is entirely secular in nature.

 

And to add a ‘religious freedom’ declaration to the Act that will almost inevitably be used by the Australian Christian Lobby-created Human Rights Law Alliance to litigate to establish new ways of discriminating against LGBTI couples.

 

To Treasurer Scott Morrison, who apparently thinks school students need to be protected from learning about couples like Steven and me, and wants to legislate an unprecedented power for parents to withdraw their children from any class that even mentions the fact same-sex marriages exist.

 

Then there’s Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm, who has already circulated amendments that would allow commercial businesses to discriminate against LGBTI couples on their wedding day. And, if they hold one, at their engagement party. Oh, and on all of their wedding anniversaries too.

 

None of these so-called ‘freedoms to discriminate’ operate currently with respect to inter-faith marriages, or to divorced couples remarrying. The fact they are being proposed now is homophobic.

 

Nor are any of these new religious exceptions necessary.

 

All that is required to introduce marriage equality is to amend the definition in the Marriage Act to be the union of two people, and to recognise the foreign marriages of same-sex couples that already exist. Nothing more.

 

After all, when Steven and I do eventually marry, there is absolutely no reason why we should be treated any differently to, or worse than, my brother or my sister were.

 

Quit playing games with our rights. Pass genuine marriage equality.

 

**********

 

I met my fiancé Steven four days before the 4th anniversary of John Howard’s ban on marriage equality.

 

His Government’s discriminatory Bill was rushed through the Parliament, and passed by the Senate on Friday 13 August, 2004.

 

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians have spent more than 13 years trying to undo his changes, and for a better, fairer, and more-inclusive Marriage Act to be adopted in its place.

 

The process for doing so should have been the same one employed by the then-Liberal Prime Minister: a parliamentary vote.

 

Instead, our two more-recent Liberal Prime Ministers have both argued that LGBTI Australians should have to overcome hurdles that have not been placed in front of other groups.

 

First, it was the proposed plebiscite – a national, non-binding vote that has only been used three times in the 117 years since Federation, but not once to decide on the human rights of a minority, and not once in my lifetime.

 

Then, when that process was firmly rejected by the Senate – at the request of the LGBTI community itself – the Turnbull Government decided to invent a ‘postal survey’ run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a 3-month, $100 million farce that confirmed what every opinion poll of the last decade had already found, while also stirring up homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the community.

 

Let’s be clear: the postal survey should never have been held. And it must never, ever be imposed on any other group.

 

Now, having jumped through those extra hoops, and with marriage equality set to be debated by Commonwealth Parliament, the rules have apparently changed once more.

 

Instead of respecting the outcome of the process they chose, which overwhelmingly supported marriage equality, some MPs and Senators are spending more time creating additional restrictions to ensure our relationships are considered lesser than the marriages of cisgender heterosexual couples.

 

They are trying to change the rules of the game, right when LGBTI couples finally get the chance to take our rightful place on the field. Or at the altar. Or wherever we decide to marry.

 

That simply isn’t good enough.

 

Quit playing games with our community. Pass marriage equality, and stop creating new ways to discriminate against us.

 

**********

 

I met my fiancé Steven at a time when I had started to genuinely wonder whether I would ever find someone to spend my days with, let alone share a wedding day.

 

As an LGBTI advocate, the ability to marry felt like an abstract, or even hypothetical, right – important, yes, but not something I thought I would exercise myself.

 

Fortunately, falling in love made the hypothetical real, and today, more than nine years into our relationship, our desire to get married is more real than ever.

 

Unfortunately, public discussion over the past few weeks has at times felt ‘un-real’, as some MPs and Senators have debated the abstract ability of people to discriminate against LGBTI couples, rather than the practical rights of those couples to marry.

 

They have focused on hypothetical homophobic bakers, florists, and wedding-venue providers, and lost sight of the fact marriage equality should be about removing discrimination, not adding to it.

 

Once this parliamentary debate is over, if any of their amendments are passed, the rights of people to discriminate against us will sadly be very real.

 

The message that parliament would send – that our marriages are second-class – would be very real too. And LGBTI Australians would be reminded of that fact every time we are turned away by civil celebrants, or other wedding-related businesses, for years or even decades into the future.

 

It’s time for you, as our elected representatives, to decide what kind of legacy you want to leave. A better, fairer, and more-inclusive Australia. Or a country that chose something else, something lesser.

 

I started this letter by noting that Steven and I met two weeks after my 30th birthday. As much as I might try to deny it that means next year we will celebrate two major milestones: my 40th birthday and, much more significantly, our 10th anniversary.

 

As verbose as I am, I don’t actually have the words to express how much it would mean to me to finally be able to marry the man I love after all this time.

 

And so, I make this final plea to you:

 

Quit playing games. Pass marriage equality now. But, when you do, make sure it treats all couples equally. Because we are. Equal.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

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Why we should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants

The issue of marriage equality will be decided by Commonwealth Parliament in the next fortnight, first in the Senate (from Monday 27 November) and then, assuming it clears the upper house, in the House of Representatives (from Monday 4 December).

 

The ‘starting point’, problematic though it may be, is Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. Although what this legislation looks like by the end of this process remains unpredictable.

 

That’s because a wide variety of Coalition MPs are likely to put forward an even more diverse range of amendments. In this post I will discuss just one, already foreshadowed by Senator George Brandis: to provide all civil celebrants with the ability to discriminate on the basis of their personal religious or conscientious beliefs.[i]

 

I do so because, at this stage, this amendment seems to have a better chance of being successful – in part because of who is proposing it (the Attorney-General, a supposed ‘moderate’ within the Government) and also because it is marginally less extreme than some of the other changes flagged by people like James Paterson, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton.

 

I don’t, however, support Senator Brandis’ amendment, for the following reasons:

 

  1. Civil wedding ceremonies are not religious. Indeed they were explicitly created as an alternative to religious ceremonies – and are now a very popular alternative, accounting for 3-in-4 weddings in Australia in 2015. If the wedding itself is not religious, surely the religious beliefs of the person officiating it are irrelevant.

 

  1. The ability to discriminate does not currently exist. There are a wide range of religious beliefs around marriage, including people who don’t support marriages between people of different faiths, while others don’t believe in divorce and remarriage. And yet, civil celebrants do not enjoy a special privilege to discriminate for these reasons. That it is being contemplated now, when LGBTI Australians might finally be able to wed, reveals that such an amendment is fundamentally homophobic.

 

  1. Civil celebrants are performing a duty on behalf of the state. Only people who are formally registered are given the legal authority to officiate marriage ceremonies – their role is regulated by, and delegated by, the Commonwealth Government. If the Government is not able to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then nor should people who are fulfilling a secular function on its behalf.

 

Some people do not accept this characterisation, instead asserting civil celebrants are more akin to small business owners. But even on this theoretical foundation, there is absolutely no basis to provide them with special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples (or any other couples for that matter):

 

  1. Commercial businesses should not be able to discriminate on the basis of personal religious or conscientious beliefs. They cannot be allowed to hang signs in their windows – real, or online – saying ‘no gays allowed’. In 2017, it feels strange to actually have to put that down in black and white, but it is the inevitable consequence of Senator Brandis’ proposal. And others within the Turnbull Government would go even further (with Kevin Andrews arguing Jewish bakers should be able to refuse Muslim customers, and vice versa).

 

  1. If civil celebrants are allowed to discriminate, it is difficult to withhold this privilege from other wedding-related businesses. While some claim civil celebrants play such a central role in weddings they alone should be able to discriminate, philosophically it is hard to distinguish their position from others closely involved in the same ceremonies (including photographers, wedding venue-providers and even florists). If the former is permitted to reject couples on the basis of personal prejudice, why not the latter? By opening the door to civil celebrants, we may end up inadvertently allowing plenty of others to walk through – when all should be kept outside.

 

  1. Allowing civil celebrants to discriminate creates a terrible precedent for anti-discrimination law in Australia. Currently, the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act, and most state and territory anti-discrimination laws, only permit religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people. They do not provide the same special privileges to individuals. The Australian Christian Lobby desperately wants an individual ‘freedom to discriminate’ against people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. By granting this ability to civil celebrants in the Marriage Act, a change that may seem small to many, we would actually be handing Lyle Shelton a large victory, and an invaluable tool in his ongoing campaign against LGBTI equality.

 

For all of these reasons, I think that anyone who supports genuine marriage equality – including the LGBTI community, our families, friends and allies, and the 61.6% of the population who voted Yes – should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

**********

 

It would, however, be remiss of me not to address an argument that is commonly used to support such special privileges, one that is advanced even by some within the LGBTI community itself. That is the view that ‘why would couples want to be married by someone who disagrees with their relationship?’

 

The answer, of course, is that the vast majority of couples do not (although some, especially in rural and regional areas, may have few other options).

 

But, with all due respect to the people making this case, so what? That response doesn’t actually deal with the substantive issue at hand, and completely misunderstands the essential role of anti-discrimination law.

 

To see why, let’s apply the same question to other scenarios: Why would anyone want the florist for their wedding to be prejudiced against LGBTI people? The (now clichéd) baker? The wedding venue-provider?

 

Why would an LGBTI couple want to spend their honeymoon at a hotel where the proprietor disagrees with their relationship? Or to celebrate their anniversary at a restaurant whose owner is homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic?

 

Why would a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex employee want to work for an anti-LGBTI employer?

 

The answer, again, is that most LGBTI people do not want to find themselves in any of these circumstances. But, for a variety of reasons (including the impact of historical discrimination, ongoing homophobic attitudes in society-at-large, and differences in power and privilege) plenty of people do – and that is the reason we have anti-discrimination laws in the first place.

 

The Sex Discrimination Act, and its state and territory equivalents, operate to protect vulnerable groups against adverse treatment, wherever it occurs: the provision of goods and services, education, employment and other areas of public life. That obviously covers civil celebrants offering their services to the public, too.

 

In amending the Marriage Act, we should not support anything that undermines these vital anti-discrimination protections. By conceding that discrimination by civil celebrants should be allowed, by effectively ‘picking and choosing’ when anti-LGBTI prejudice is made lawful, we would be doing exactly that.

 

Once this broader principle of anti-discrimination has been sacrificed, our opponents will stake their claims for ever-widening ‘freedoms to discriminate’. Indeed, Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm has already circulated amendments to the Smith Bill that would make it entirely legal to discriminate against LGBTI couples in providing goods, services or facilities in relation to:

“(a) the solemnisation of a marriage under the Marriage Act 1961; or

(b) the preparation for, or celebration of, such a marriage; or

(c) the preparation for, or celebration of, events associated with such a marriage, including:

(i) an event announcing or celebrating the engagement of the parties to be married; and

(ii) an event celebrating the anniversary of the marriage.”

 

No doubt other conservative MPs and Senators will move their own amendments in the course of parliamentary debate, some perhaps more expansive, and even worse, than these.

 

They must, of course, be rejected – for exactly the same reasons that we must reject Senator Brandis’ amendment concerning civil celebrants. Because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians should not be discriminated against in any area of public life. No exceptions.

 

If you agree, please take two minutes to write to Commonwealth MPs and Senators to let them know that #equalmeansequal, and that there should be ‘No compromise on equality’ (click here).

 

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One final point before I conclude. By now, I have hopefully convinced you to say ‘I don’t’ to Senator Brandis’ amendment to create religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

If that is the case, then logically you should also say ‘I don’t’ to the Smith Bill itself – because all of the above arguments can also be made against sub-section 39DD(2), which would allow existing civil celebrants to nominate to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’, and discriminate against LGBTI couples, based on nothing more than their personal religious beliefs.

 

That’s why I and others have argued passionately that the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, as it currently stands, does not offer genuine marriage equality. And why we should be pressuring Labor, the Greens and anyone else who claims to support LGBTI equality to amend that legislation to remove such discriminatory provisions.

 

I guess we’ll all find out in the coming fortnight how real their commitment to equality actually is.

 

George Brandis 25

Attorney-General George Brandis, who is proposing religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Interestingly, Senator Brandis is doing so even though civil celebrants themselves do no support such an amendment. As reported this week in the Sydney Morning Herald , Dorothy Harrison, the chair of the Coalition of Celebrant Associations, said: “We don’t approve of exemptions. We feel that if that’s the law of the country, then that’s what you do. We have discrimination laws and we have to live by them.”