What ever happened to protecting LGBT students against discrimination? An explainer.

In the last 18 months, anti-discrimination law reform has been the subject of considerable public attention.

 

Following the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review, and including multiple Senate inquiries, hopes had been raised that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students might finally be protected against discrimination by religious schools under Commonwealth law.

 

So far, those hopes have been dashed. Despite promising to do so, the Morrison Liberal-National Government failed to pass any changes to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) to repeal or limit the exceptions that allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT kids prior to the election being called.

 

In this article, I will attempt to explain how we got here (including where things stand now), who is to blame and what will likely happen from here.

 

How did we get here?

 

In November 2017, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull referred the issue of whether Commonwealth law adequately protects religious freedom to a panel headed by former Liberal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock.

 

This was to appease conservatives within his Government who were seeking to amend Senator Dean Smith’s flawed Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 to include even more religious exceptions than it already did.

 

The Ruddock Review investigated a wide range of issues, including religious exceptions to LGBTI anti-discrimination laws, before handing its report to Turnbull in May 2018 – which the Liberal-National Government then sat on.

 

In October 2018, the Sydney Morning Herald published the leaked recommendations of the Review, focusing on proposals to clarify the existing right of religious schools to discriminate against, and expel, LGBT students.

 

This prompted significant public outcry, including from many parents who had no idea that religious schools, funded by enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money, could lawfully mistreat vulnerable kids in such an abhorrent and appalling way.

 

New Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded by saying his Government would amend the Sex Discrimination Act to prohibit discrimination against LGBT students before the end of the year (2018). It is probably also useful to remember he did this in the context of the lead-up to the Wentworth by-election, which the Government feared losing to a backlash from moderate voters (narrator: they did).

 

The Greens introduced their own Bill to the Senate – the Discrimination Free Schools Bill 2018 – that sought to protect both LGBT students and teachers in religious schools. That was then the catalyst for the first Senate inquiry, looking at ‘Legislative exemptions that allow faith-based educational institutions to discriminate against students, teachers and staff’.

 

That Committee reported in late November, recommending that “the Australian Government amend section 37 and remove subsection 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and amend any other relevant legislative provisions, to prohibit discrimination against students on the grounds of the protected attributes in the Act” [Recommendation 3].

 

This report was immediately followed by Labor introducing their own Bill, the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018. As the name suggests, its sole focus was on removing discrimination against students, in line with what Morrison had promised in October.

 

However, instead of passing it as he had committed, the Senate referred this Bill off to a second inquiry over the summer break – meaning LGBT students would not be protected for the start of the 2019 school year.

 

In the meantime, the Government finally released the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review in full, in December 2018 (after sitting on it for almost seven months).

 

Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter simultaneously provided the Government’s response, in which they abandoned the earlier, explicit promise to protect LGBT students at religious schools, instead committing to send the entire issue of religious exceptions in Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) for yet another review.

 

It was therefore unsurprising when, in February 2019, the Government-dominated Senate Committee inquiring into Labor’s Bill recommended that not only should Labor’s Bill not be passed, but that “the bill, circulated amendments and all relevant matters be referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission for full and proper consideration.”

 

Given the Liberal-National Government’s ongoing opposition to legislation addressing this issue, that meant no amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 were passed in February or March.

 

Instead, on Wednesday 10 April 2019 – less than 24 hours before the election was called – Attorney-General Porter announced he had referred the issue of religious exceptions to the ALRC for an inquiry lasting 12 months, not reporting back until 10 April 2020.

 

Where do things stand now?

 

Despite the flurry of activity on this issue over the past 18 months, and the past six months in particular, the legal situation now is unchanged:

 

Under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), religious schools are legally permitted to discriminate against, and expel, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students on the basis of who they are.

 

They are also free to fire, and refuse to hire, LGBT teachers and other staff, despite the significant amount of taxpayers’ money used to pay their salaries.

 

This is obviously incredibly disappointing, especially given the supposed bipartisan commitments to address this issue made late last year. Which prompts the equally-obvious question:

 

Who is to blame?

 

While responsibility for major #auspol policy failures like this can usually be shared around, the blame for the lack of action in this particular area lies squarely at the feet of the Morrison Liberal-National Government.

 

The have failed to progress anti-discrimination law reform in four key ways:

 

  1. The Morrison Liberal-National Government refused to introduce its own Bill to protect LGBT students

 

Despite Prime Minister Morrison’s October 2018 commitment to introduce and pass amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to protect LGBT students before the end of the year, his Government never actually introduced its own Bill to make these changes. Which, you’d have to admit, makes it extremely difficult to actually pass anything.

 

Indeed, if the Liberal-National Government was ‘fair dinkum’ about fulfilling its promise, it would have at least tried to move its own legislation on this issue. With a Prime Minister who is quite fond of saying ‘if you have a go, you get a go’, his Government didn’t bother to have a go at changing this law – meaning LGBT students don’t get a go at learning in a discrimination-free environment.

 

  1. The Morrison Liberal-National Government sought to introduce new powers to discriminate

 

As noted above, the Labor Opposition and Greens both introduced their own Bills to protect LGBT students, and LGBT students and teachers, respectively. The Labor Bill in particular was subject to Senate debate in late 2018, before being referred to the second Committee inquiry.

 

During this debate, the Liberal-National Government introduced amendments that would ensure that, even if religious schools lost their specific exception in section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act, they would continue to be able to discriminate under the general religious exception in section 37(1)(d) [Government amendment KQ147].

 

They also sought to expand the reasonableness test for indirect discrimination to include consideration of whether any “condition, requirement or practice is imposed, or proposed to be imposed, in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed” [Government amendments KQ148, 150 and 151]. This would have effectively expanded rather than restricted the range of groups who could be discriminated against because of religious beliefs to include intersex students as well (among others).

 

Finally, the Government wanted to allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBTI students if it was part of teaching activity (broadly defined to capture “any kind of instruction of a student by a person employed or otherwise engaged by an educational institution”) as long as it was done “in good faith in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed” [Government amendment KQ149].

 

If any or all of the Morrison Government’s amendments had been passed, it would have meant religious schools could have continued to discriminate against LGBT students – it just would have been done under different sections of the Act.

 

  1. The Morrison Liberal-National Government tried to limit changes to preventing expulsion only

 

Another way in which the Government undermined anti-discrimination law reform was by narrowing its scope to preventing religious schools from expelling or refusing to enrol LGBT students, while continuing to allow them to discriminate against, and mistreat, vulnerable kids in other ways.

 

This approach formed part of Prime Minister Morrison’s early rhetoric following the leaking of the Ruddock Review Recommendations in October 2018, as he focused on expulsion: “I don’t think if someone’s at a school they should be kicked out because they have a different sexuality to what might be believed to be the appropriate thing by a particular religious group” [emphasis added].

 

While subsequent debate seemed to broaden to cover all forms of discrimination against LGBT students, in February 2019 Government Senators once again tried to limit the reforms to preventing expulsion only, with The Australian reporting Government members of the Senate Committee sought a deal with the Opposition on this issue (‘ALP stops bid to protect gay kids’, The Australian, 19 February 2019).

 

Thankfully, the Opposition rejected this narrow approach. This is important because there are many different ways in which religious schools can discriminate against LGBT kids, without necessarily expelling them, and they are all harmful (see, for example, my own story here: The longest five years’ ).

 

Only removing the power to expel, while allowing schools to mistreat students in myriad other ways, would have been completely inadequate and inappropriate.

 

  1. The Morrison Liberal-National Government has done everything in its power to delay reform

 

There is absolutely no reason why the Commonwealth Government, and Parliament, could not have passed reforms to the Sex Discrimination Act, protecting LGBT students, before the end of 2018.

 

How can I say that so confidently? Because the ACT Government did exactly that, passing it owns reforms – based on the best practice Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 – between the leaking of the Ruddock Review Recommendations in October and the end of the year. These reforms, which protect both LGBT students and teachers, will commence by 6 June 2019 at the latest.

 

Instead, at Commonwealth level, we have had Labor and Greens Bills, and two Senate inquiries, but no Government legislation and no change to the law.

 

Even worse, we now have a reference to the ALRC that won’t report on the issue until 10 April 2020, meaning any Bill arising from it will likely not be debated until the second half of next year. Consequently, any reforms to protect LGBT students wouldn’t take effect until the start of 2021 – at the earliest.

 

Christian Porter

Attorney-General Christian Porter

 

It is clear, from these four arguments, that the Morrison Liberal-National Government is responsible for the fact LGBT students are still not protected against discrimination as we start the federal election campaign.

 

What people may not be aware of is that they are also responsible for two major threats to LGBT anti-discrimination laws in the near future.

 

The first is the ALRC inquiry itself. Its terms of reference includes the following:

 

consideration of what reforms to relevant anti-discrimination laws, the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) and any other Australia law should be made in order to:

  • limit or remove altogether (if practicable) religious exemptions to prohibitions on discrimination, while also guaranteeing the right of religious institutions to conduct their affairs in a way consistent with their religious ethos; and
  • remove any legal impediments to the expression of a view of marriage as it was defined in the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) before it was amended by the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 (Cth), whether such impediments are imposed by a provision analogous to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) or otherwise.

 

Now, some people might see the first dot point, and specifically the reference to limiting or removing religious exemptions, as encouraging. And it could be – except that this is also what religious fundamentalist organisations, such as the Australian Christian Lobby, also want (for example, the ACL’s own submission to the Ruddock Review stated that ‘State and Commonwealth Anti-Discrimination laws establish an unhelpful and incomplete framework of religious exemptions which inadequately balance the right of religious freedom against the right to non-discrimination’ before recommending ‘that existing exemptions in anti-discrimination law re reframed as ‘general limitations clauses’).

 

The remainder of that clause – ‘while also guaranteeing the right of religious institutions to conduct their affairs in a way consistent with their religious ethos’ – is where the danger lies. Namely, religious exceptions may simply be replaced by the introduction of positively-framed rights to discriminate against LGBT people.

 

The second dot point is just as problematic. Despite the fact there is limited, or no, evidence that people expressing discriminatory views of marriage are suffering real-world adverse consequences, the ALRC is supposed to give significant attention to ‘protecting’ them.

 

This includes undermining the best practice LGBTI anti-vilification laws found in the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (which are equivalent to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the primary reason why the RDA has been raised in this context) [For a comparison of LGBTI anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws, click here].

 

The second threat comes from another part of the Morrison Liberal-National Government’s response to the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review: its commitment to introduce a Religious Discrimination Bill.

 

Once again, this should be a positive development. Most people interested in human rights, including myself, support the inclusion of religious belief or lack of belief as a protected attribute in anti-discrimination law in jurisdictions where it is not currently protected (specifically, the Commonwealth, New South Wales and South Australia). This will help ensure religious minorities are protected against discrimination in education, employment and service delivery.

 

On the other hand, a Religious Discrimination Bill could become a vehicle to include positively-framed rights for religious individuals and organisations to discriminate against others, becoming a stealth ‘Religious Freedom Bill’, in the same way that some Liberal-National MPs and Senators tried to turn a same-sex marriage bill into anti-LGBTI equality legislation.

 

The truth is we will not know which option, good or bad, the Government is pursuing until we see the text of the Bill itself. Which is why Attorney-General Porter’s announcement that the Religious Discrimination Bill would not be released until after the election is so worrying (‘Religious freedom bill fails to meet election deadline’, The Australian, 10 April 2019).

 

Despite saying in December at the release of the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review that “the Religious Discrimination Bill, which we are well-advanced on the drafting of and which we would have out early next year, so that people can see it”, LGBTI Australians will now be kept in the dark on a key new law that could have a significant impact on our rights (although it is probably safe to assume major religious organisations have been consulted on its drafting).

 

Not only has the Morrison Liberal-National Government stopped laws to protect LGBT students against discrimination from passing during the 45th Parliament, they have already started two processes (the ALRC Inquiry, and the Religious Discrimination Bill) that could see LGBT rights go backwards in the 46th.

 

What about the other parties?

 

The Labor Party has largely been supportive of LGBTI rights throughout this (sometimes convoluted, but consistently frustrating) process.

 

As discussed earlier, they introduced the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018 that does just what it says on the box. They have been very clear they will protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination if they are elected next month.

 

However, the ALP has been somewhat less clear in terms of their plans for teachers. While committing to remove the exceptions that allow religious schools to fire, and refuse to hire, LGBT teachers and other staff, they have also made vague comments about introducing amendments to ensure religious schools can continue to impose their ‘ethos and values’. Bill Shorten and the Labor Party need to outline exactly what they intend to do on this issue, before the election.

 

[Update 11 May 2019: While Labor have reiterated their intention to protect LGBT teachers and other staff, they have still not clarified the scope of any amendments to protect the ‘ethos and values’ of the school. More concerningly, they have indicated they will wait for the ALRC to conduct its inquiry into religious exceptions before protecting LGBT students or teachers. This is unacceptable – students deserve to be protected as quickly as possible, and there is a Bill ready and waiting to be reintroduced. It should be one of the first items of business of a new parliament.]

 

The Greens are obviously supportive of removing exceptions that allow discrimination against both LGBT students and teachers. They have also indicated that religious exceptions should be removed in other areas (including health and community services), as well as in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).

 

In terms of the minor parties, the right-wing fringe groups (including Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives and the racist Senator who shall not be named) are exactly as homophobic and transphobic as you would expect, and don’t deserve our attention.

 

However, one minor party earns a special mention – although not for reasons they would appreciate. That is because the Centre Alliance (the renamed Nick Xenophon Team) supported some of the Government’s amendments that, in practice, would have permitted religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students. In fact, the position of the Centre Alliance is the reason that Labor’s Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill could not at least pass the Senate in late 2018.

 

What happens next?

 

The outcome of the federal election on Saturday 18 May will determine what happens next in terms of anti-discrimination law reform.

 

If the Morrison Government is returned, it is unclear whether LGBT students will be protected, and if so what that change would look like. Even if they remove the specific religious exceptions in the Sex Discrimination Act, it is highly likely they will simply replace them with new, positively-framed rights for religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people, including in education.

 

Any reforms under a re-elected Liberal-National Government will also be delayed until at least the second half of 2020 (after the ALRC has completed its inquiry), meaning LGBT students in religious schools will be exposed to discrimination until at least 2021.

 

And, as discussed above, both the ALRC inquiry itself, and the imminent (although still secret) Religious Discrimination Bill, could see LGBTI rights actually go backwards under a 2nd term Morrison Government.

 

If the Labor Party is elected, on the other hand, it is highly likely that LGBT students will be protected against discrimination as a matter of priority. It is also probable that LGBT teachers and other staff will be protected in some form – although it will be up to LGBTI organisations to push them to make sure any such changes are as straight-forward as possible, and not undermined by ‘ethos and values’-style amendments (an increased Greens presence in the Senate would also assist in this respect).

 

Nevertheless, we must remember that the only thing in this area that is guaranteed to happen, every school day of this election campaign – and for months, and possibly years, afterwards – is that too many LGBT students will attend a school where they can be lawfully discriminated against.

 

And the primary reason is that Prime Minister Scott Morrison broke his promise, made just six months ago, to do something about it.

 

**********

 

Disclaimer: As with all posts, this article reflects my own views and not those of any employer, past or present.

 

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

 

The longest five years

[Content warning: homophobia; violence; suicidal ideation]

 

Those eyelashes.

He had beautiful blue eyes, scruffy blond hair and a mischievous smile, but it’s his eyelashes I remember most more than a quarter of a century later.

The day before, my Mum had driven me the eight hours from the farm west of Rockhampton where I was raised, to this boarding school in Brisbane’s inner-west. The day after I would start year 8, and what would be the longest five years of my life.

But that January afternoon, as the new boarders got to know each other down at the pool, I was transfixed by his eyelashes, droplets of water on them glistening in the Queensland summer sun.

That moment crystallised the feelings of difference that had slowly accumulated over the previous few years. At 10 and 11, I had grown increasingly bewildered as the other boys and girls at Blackwater primary began to express interest in each other.

At 12, in this unfamiliar environment, a long, long way from home, I finally understood why.

I liked boys.

 

**********

 

It took me another month or so to learn the right language to describe who I was. But I realised quickly afterwards that being gay was unlikely to be welcomed. Not by my National Party-voting parents (my Dad had actually nominated for federal pre-selection the year before). Not by my classmates. And definitely not by my school.

This was 1991. Homosexuality in Queensland had only just been decriminalised – and even then, the Parliament had imposed an unequal age of consent for anal intercourse (to ‘protect’ boys from being recruited to the homosexual lifestyle), something that would not be repealed until 2016.

Social attitudes were changing, but at a glacial pace. Many parts of the state were still firmly stuck in the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era. My school was one of them.

Based on the Lutheran faith, it enforced both religious indoctrination, and homophobia, with steely German efficiency.

We had chapel five times a week (Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and an hour-plus every Sunday), and bible studies another two or three times.

The school rules, which were printed in the student diary, were based on supposedly ‘christian’ principles, and included the statement that homosexuality would not be tolerated because it was not in accordance with god’s will.

The sex education that was provided was a superficial, hetero-normative joke. While the jokes made by my classmates, often within earshot of unresponsive staff, were frequently homophobic.

If I was going to survive here, I would have to suppress my burgeoning same-sex attraction with all my might.

 

**********

 

It is hard, even now, especially now, to find the words to describe the utter loneliness of what followed.

Being surrounded 24/7 by 180 other boys, at a school of 1600 students overall, but having absolutely no-one to talk to, or confide in.

Needless to say there were no ‘out’ role models to look up to.

So, I quickly cut myself off, socially and emotionally, rather than risk the ostracism – or worse – of letting slip my secret.

Looking back, it was probably the only rational course of action. But it would slowly erode, and corrode, my self-esteem.

 

**********

 

I became so withdrawn that the rest of year 8, and most of year 9, was a numb blur.

As an academic child – some (well, if I’m being honest, most) might say nerd – I concentrated on my schoolwork.

The only snippets I learnt about what it meant to be gay came from pop-culture.

Sneaking peaks at Outrage magazine at the newsagent between school and the local shopping centre.

Scanning newspapers for any gay references I could find. One article about homosexuality from The Australian, back when it actually did journalism, sticks out in my mind, at least in part because of the scantily clad male torso it featured.

Trying to stay up late in the dorm to watch Sex with Sophie Lee, and Melrose Place featuring Matt the (largely-sexless) gay social worker.

Not exactly the most well-rounded education on ‘gayness’, but I devoured any morsel I could get.

 

**********

 

My clearest memory of year 9 came one evening during our allocated study period, during which each boarding house year group was supervised by a year 12 student.

This particular night our allocated ‘senior’ was joined by his twin brother and their friend, and they proceeded to discuss, in front of us, what they had got up to during the previous weekend.

On the Saturday night they and some others had apparently gone to a major bridge in Brisbane, found a toilet block where ‘faggots’ (their word, not mine) congregated, and ‘rolled’ them.

They were confessing to gay-bashing. Except this was no ordinary confession. They were smiling. Joking. Laughing. They were bragging.

Long before the term ‘toxic masculinity’ was popularised, I was learning what it meant, face-to-face.

I could not be 100 per cent certain whether what they were saying was true, or just teenage ‘bravado’ (even if it was the opposite of real bravery).

But I was now absolutely sure of one thing. Being gay at this school would not just lead to social exclusion, and possible expulsion. Being gay here was physically dangerous too.

I retreated even further into my closet. It became my whole world.

 

**********

 

Unsurprisingly, denying who I was, and isolating myself from my surrounds, was profoundly damaging to my mental health.

I suffered what I would later understand was major depression.

By the second term of year 8, I was already contemplating what seemed like the only way out: ending my life.

At first these thoughts came weekly. Then every few days.

By the start of year 10, I was thinking of killing myself upwards of a dozen times every 24 hours.

There wasn’t a day from then until after I finished year 12 that I didn’t think of committing suicide.

 

**********

 

Amidst the gloom, year 10 provided the one enjoyable term of my entire five-year stint of boarding school.

That was an eight-week ‘outdoor education’ program, where each class of about 30 lived in spartan accommodation in the hills north of Toowoomba.

By spartan, I really mean it. No flushing toilets. No running water full stop. To have a hot shower you had to build the fire, and boil the water, yourself. And after all that it only lasted for a total of about 30 seconds.

Still, there was something enjoyable about having no classes, and being immersed in an environment where kids could just be kids for a bit. I finally managed to make a few friends, mostly among the female students, something that would come in handy during the remaining two and a half years of hell in that school.

 

**********

 

Even out there, however, we couldn’t fully escape the religious inculcation the school was so expert in. We still had group daily prayer. And church every Sunday.

As part of its stereotypically ‘protestant’ emphasis on self-reliance, towards the end of the eight weeks we were also made to do a 24- or 48-hour ‘solo’, where we were left in the middle of the bush, with little other than a flashlight and a bible for company.

So I read it, cover to cover, in the desperate hope I might find something in there to help me overcome my predicament.

Which began a period of about 6 months where I would engage in an individual nightly prayer, wishing I would wake up as something other than myself. Each morning I was profoundly disappointed.

I was more lost than ever.

 

**********

 

The nadir of this search for ‘redemption’ came late in year 10, when I sought the assistance of one of the pastors to be baptised.

For a couple of months that involved spending an hour each week with him, discussing faith and what it meant to me.

We didn’t discuss homosexuality. I wasn’t going to raise it, and he certainly didn’t ask.

But it must been have clear to this kind old man (and that is still how I remember him) that the young boy in front of him was drowning.

If it was, then he himself was too far out of his depth to help.

My strongest memory of that entire process was sitting in his office, listening to – but not really hearing – his words, as it felt like my whole body dissolved into the couch, until I wasn’t there anymore.

It was clear that religion was not going to be my life-raft.

 

**********

 

Perhaps surprisingly, by year 11, things had slowly started to improve.

The friendships I had made with a few of the female day students strengthened. Even if I felt I couldn’t disclose my secret to them, just having someone, anyone, to talk to, even about random, meaningless stuff, made the days seem not so long, and the nights not quite so terrifyingly alone.

I was also learning more about this whole ‘gay’ thing.

One of the advantages of being a nerd meant I was free to visit, unsupervised, the University of Queensland Social Sciences Library, ostensibly to undertake research for my school assessments. In fact, I was becoming closely acquainted with the work of Alfred Kinsey and his ‘Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male’.

I surreptitiously picked up a few copies of Brother-Sister (the 90s, Brisbane equivalent of the Star Observer), reading them cover-to-cover and then throwing them away before heading back to campus.

It was reassuring to know that a gay world did exist out there, somewhere – a suburb, and a galaxy, removed from where I was.

Pop-culture was also steadily expanding its, and my, gayze. Tales of the City (the TV series) was an eye-opener, with its heady depiction of gay life in 70s San Francisco. It even made being gay look like it could be fun.

And I distinctly recall the moment I first saw the photos of Ian Roberts in Blue Magazine (images that were committed to memory for several years after that).

Life in the dorms even got slightly easier with the installation of shower curtains. Which, unless you’ve lived in a boarding house, may not seem like a big deal, but finally provided enough privacy to do what teenage boys do… A lot…

It felt like the invisible but ever-present weight I had been carrying was slowly lifting. There was much less ‘praying the gay away’, replaced with the almost imperceptibly small beginnings of self-acceptance.

 

**********

 

Any progress I had made was stopped in its tracks by a moment of brutality.

Well, two moments.

Physically, I had matured faster than some of my peers, and at 15 had a nascent patch of hair on my chest (which, I’ll be honest, I was a little bit chuffed about).

One evening early in year 11, after study a group of about half-a-dozen boys from my year ambushed me between two buildings, pinned me down and removed my shirt.

I struggled to break free, but there were too many of them.

I called out for help, which was then muffled by one of their hands across my mouth.

No-one came.

I didn’t comprehend what was going on, until one of them took out a razor and shaved my chest.

I think the whole thing was all over in about three minutes.

Looking back, I don’t know how but I somehow managed to compartmentalise this un-provoked attack. Pretending it didn’t mean anything. That it was ‘just’ some harmless hazing. That this kind of thing happened to everyone. Didn’t it?

Perversely, the dissociation of more than three years in the closet helped me to detach myself from this incident.

I tried to move on. I was even partially successful. Until it happened again.

 

**********

 

The second assault, towards the end of year 11, was much, much worse.

The modus operandi was similar – the shaving of my by-then slightly thicker thatch.

There were more people involved, this time at least a dozen, maybe 15 (including, sadly, my year 8 crush, the one with those ‘eyelashes’).

It happened in the dorm cubicle I shared with three other students, on the floor right next to my bed, stripping away any sense of safety it had previously provided.

The fact they came prepared with shaving cream, in addition to a razor, revealed just how pre-meditated it was.

I didn’t struggle. Or call out for help. The first attack had shown there was no point.

In fact, what sticks with me is just how quiet it was.

The sound of squeaky sneakers on the wooden floor. The whirr of the shaving cream. That’s all.

They didn’t even need to talk to each other. They knew what they were doing, having taken the school’s German efficiency and applied it to brutalising another student.

This was an act of dominance, and humiliation. I was confronted by my sheer powerlessness in comparison.

But the biggest psychological damage was inflicted by its mere repetition.

This was not, could not, be written off as simple ‘hazing’, lazily picking on outward physical difference.

Even if they didn’t express it – and I couldn’t say the words out loud – I knew they had worked out I was different in an inward, and far more significant way.

They were going to make me pay for it. I did. They had broken me.

 

**********

 

I didn’t report them. How could I? They constituted about a third of all the year 11 students in the boarding house. The popular boys. The rugby players. People who I continued to share a ‘home’ with, and see every morning, afternoon and evening of every single day.

I knew, without qualification, that if I complained, and any of them (or all of them) were punished as a result, the following 12 months would be living hell. The violence wouldn’t stop; it would escalate.

So I lowered my head.

I did confide in a couple of my female friends, Jo and Cindy. Who were rightly horrified and who, unbeknownst to me, reported the second incident to the school.

The school’s response was, to put it mildly, shocking.

They knew what had happened. And they knew exactly who had been involved. Nevertheless, they refused to take action unless I made a formal complaint – something which they must also have realised I couldn’t do, based on an entirely legitimate fear for my own safety.

We reached a stand-off.

The boarding house’s improvised approach was to take me out of study one night, and sit me alone on an uncomfortable chair in a fluorescently-lit corridor. They forced all of the boys who had been involved (thus conceding they knew exactly who did it) to come and apologise to me, one after another.

I don’t remember much of that experience. I certainly don’t recall any genuine contrition on their parts for the actual attack. Although I do remember several of them thanking me for not ‘dobbing’, and others apologising to me because they incorrectly thought that I had complained but now knew I hadn’t. Such were the warped moral priorities of the teenage male boarding student.

 

**********

 

About a week after those ‘nonpologies’, the school announced the student body leaders for the following year.

One of the boys who had assaulted me was named school captain.

Another was made head boarder.

If that wasn’t enough of a sick joke, because of my grades I was also named a prefect – and so would have to spend even more time alongside them.

 

**********

 

The icing on the cake of that almost unbelievably horrible year came a couple of weeks later.

As was the style at the time – but probably also as a reaction to what had happened to me – I had clippered my hair in a buzz cut.

Sitting in the back row of my Economics class, the teacher, who was also the ‘dean of student welfare’ for year 11, joked to the class, “didn’t you get enough of having your hair shaved in the boarding house, Alastair?”

 

**********

 

It was clear the school would never give a shit about me.

After four years in the closet, and beatings both physical and psychological, I barely cared about myself.

Which meant that year 12, for me, was simply a battle for survival.

The lowest point arrived in chapel one morning when, in front of years 11 and 12, a new pastor gave a sermon about a teenager from his previous parish.

The boy had come to see him, ‘confused’ about life and his place in it. The pastor claimed he had tried to help, but the boy ultimately took his life.

The pastor described how he was now in a better place, in a way that suggested this was not the worst thing the boy could have done in those circumstances.

That pastor had effectively ‘dog-whistled’ his insidious homophobia to a room full of 600 impressionable 15, 16 and 17 year-olds, intimating that they should consider killing themselves if they were confused.

Fortunately, my contrarian nature meant my immediate reaction was to think, “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”. It was possibly even the first day I believed I might eventually outlive that school.

But I often think about how the other 40 or 50 queer kids who were in chapel that morning reacted to his hate.

 

**********

 

The highest point of senior year came one August afternoon, as I sat in the office of my favourite English teacher, and the dean of student welfare for year 12, crying.

Yes, crying. Why was that a highlight? Because I had just committed the ultimate act of defiance in a school that was intent on erasing any student who happened to be gay or lesbian.

I had come out.

It almost goes without saying that it was the most difficult thing I had ever done. I was so emotionally spent afterwards that, even though Gayle was supportive (and wanted to help me attend a support group outside of school), I did not have sufficient energy left to take the next step. Or any steps.

Indeed, it would be another two years before I told another soul.

But it was enough that someone finally knew my secret.

It was also a pre-emptive act of remembrance. If I took my life in the weeks or months that followed, someone would know why. And they might be able to address the set of circumstances that contributed to it.

 

**********

 

The final term of year 12 was like the home straight of a marathon, as I limped and staggered towards the end. I literally had nothing left of myself to give.

Even my grades started to suffer (although I suspect Gayle encouraged some of the other teachers to give me special consideration).

But as I fell through the finish line tape, and started to maybe hope that the future could have something, anything, better to offer than the previous five years had mercilessly dispensed, the school had one last insult to add to my many injuries.

At the conclusion of each year in the boarding house, the senior students handed out ‘awards’ to the year 8, 9, 10 and 11 kids, while the year 11 students were given responsibility to dole out awards to the seniors.

Mine? In front of the entire boarding house, including staff, I had to walk up and collect the ‘Big Fat Poof’ award.

None of the staff intervened. All of the other kids laughed.

Those students had found the language to describe what the year 11s the year before – my classmates – had suspected. They saw right through me.

It almost seems appropriate my time at that wretched institution ended in one final act of humiliation before I walked out of its unwelcoming gates.

 

**********

 

A couple of days after final exams, my Dad drove me that same eight hour-trip back to my childhood farm in Central Queensland for the final time.

Sitting in the passenger seat, I was, in many ways, the same kid I had been five years prior. My physical age might have been 17, but emotionally I was only 12; specifically, that 12 year-old boy transfixed by those eyelashes, experiencing the exciting and confusing first throes of a teenage crush.

Except those subsequent years had stripped away any optimism I might have once held about the future, as my school and classmates collectively drummed into me that who I was was something to be ashamed of.

My teenage years had been stolen from me by religious indoctrination, and homophobia – which, at least in that environment, were very closely inter-twined.

I would have to ‘do over’ my adolescence, in the months and years to come. To make stupid mistakes, and learn from them. To grow up. To fall in – and out – of love.

Fortunately, the world outside would prove a far more accepting, and interesting, place than my boarding school had been.

It’s hard to imagine how it could have been any worse.

 

**********

 

Ten years later I found myself attending my school reunion on a rainy night in a dingy function room in the Valley.

You may ask why I would subject myself to that (and I certainly am as I write this) but, at the time, I felt like I had something to prove.

Unlike Romy, it wasn’t to show how successful or popular I was, merely to demonstrate that they hadn’t broken me. After everything they had put me through, I was still standing.

It wasn’t necessarily true. My personal life was basically a mess, and would be for another few years, right up until I met my fiancé Steve. But that wasn’t going to stop me from faking it.

Nevertheless, I am thankful I went for one reason. Early in the evening, one of the boys who had been involved in the second assault on me saw me through the crowd, made a beeline straight toward me, and unprompted offered me his apology for what he, and the others, had done.

Not only was it sincere, it was obvious the incident had weighed heavily on him in the decade since.

Nothing was going to take back what had happened. But it was comforting to hear the wrong acknowledged, and to know at least one of the perpetrators was genuinely remorseful.

 

**********

 

Another decade later I went to my school’s 20-year reunion on a sunny afternoon at a bowling club down by the Brisbane River.

This time I didn’t have anything to prove, but I did have something to gain – to reconnect with some of the friends I had made during my time there. Which I did, although once again the highlight was a pleasant surprise.

Mid-afternoon I found myself having a chat with the boy (well, now middle-aged man) with those ‘eyelashes’, as well as another student with whom I had shared a dorm cubicle all the way back in 1991.

The crush was long gone (what had I been thinking?). Instead, we had a lovely conversation about our lives and what we were up to. They offered their heart-felt congratulations on my engagement to Steve, even remarking that he was a ‘good-looking fella’ (well, I certainly think so).

It was all incredibly natural, and showed how much they had evolved in the intervening decades.

Indeed, we had all changed.

 

**********

 

Well, nearly all. While it had eventually got better for me, I was soon reminded that it didn’t get better for everyone.

I sat outside on the wooden steps leading down to the green chatting with another student from my year. After I told him about my relationship, he volunteered that he had been out on the gay scene during his twenties, but that he had since rediscovered Jesus and was now straight.

Worse still, he was employed by a faith-based organisation working with troubled youth on the streets. He was likely perpetuating the same harmful messages we had received, and subsequently contributed to him becoming ‘ex-gay’, inflicting them on another generation.

While I had somehow managed to survive that horrific school, and was living a beautiful life teenage Alastair scarcely would have dreamed possible, for him those same five years seemed to be stuck on repeat.

 

**********

 

For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/

Or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

 

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At my grandma’s house, during a break between school terms.

 

Postscript: 19 April 2019

 

It is now just over a month since I shared this story. It’s fair to say it is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. But choosing to press publish was even harder. The response has been overwhelming. From friends who offered their love and support. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

 

From others who shared their own, similar experiences. The countless tweets, and messages, saying that if you simply changed the date or location, their story mirrored mine. I thank you for your honesty, and honour your courage.

 

From people who I went to school with. Many of whom who wrote to say they wish they had known at the time, and could have done something to help (that’s one of the worst things about ‘the closet’, it isolates you from people who could be allies). I thank you for your support.

 

I have also received messages from other students who attended the same school, who’ve detailed their own shocking experiences of abuse and discrimination. Except for them the cause wasn’t homophobia, but racism. Which is not at all surprising – if an environment is toxic for one group, it’s highly likely to be toxic for others too. But it was still depressing to learn the horrors they endured. I thank you for your strength.

 

Just this week I received a message from one of the teachers at the school. Who expressed her sincerest sympathy about what had happened to me. In doing so, she confirmed one of the worst elements of the story: the pastor’s sermon. And she informed me that multiple teachers had told the school afterwards that it was unacceptable.

 

I’m thankful for that as well. Not just to know some of the teachers had tried to stand up for teenage me, and all the other queer kids who were there. But also because it was the part I had most trouble writing, and publishing. Ultimately, the version I included in the story was toned down from the reality – in truth, the pastor was much more explicit that gay kids should consider killing themselves.

 

While my recollection of what had happened was extremely vivid, the possibility that anyone would tell a chapel full of several hundred 15, 16 and 17 year olds that ending their life was a better outcome than being homosexual was so horrific that I doubted myself. I shouldn’t have.

 

Several people have asked why I wrote this story. The answer to that is complex. In part, it is an act of preservation, of making sure stories like mine are not forgotten. In another sense it has been about catharsis – it has been genuinely liberating to share these experiences publicly, and let go of them privately.

 

It is also an act of defiance. To let schools like mine know that mistreating kids just because they are gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or trans, was not acceptable in Queensland in the 1990s. It’s not acceptable in Australia in 2019. And it won’t be acceptable in the future. Your religion has never been, is not, and will never be, justification for homophobia, transphobia or any other kind of prejudice.

 

That message is especially important now, as religious organisations desperately fight to retain their special privileges that allow them to discriminate against students, teachers and other staff solely on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

 

We must not let them get away with it. Because if we do, we’ll be reading stories like mine in 2043. And, most importantly, let’s never forget those stories we will never get to hear.

 

**********

 

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Increasing LGBTI Representation

This post is part of a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia. You can see the rest of the posts here.

 

Over recent years there have been a number of legal and policy reforms that have benefitted the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community (not the least of which was the passage of same-sex marriage).

 

However, many of these changes have been piecemeal in nature, and too often they have been unnecessarily compromised by limitations or religious exceptions (once again including same-sex marriage, see No, we don’t have marriage equality yet).

 

At least part of the reason for the ad hoc and incomplete nature of these reforms is the lack, or insufficient amount, of representation of the LGBTI community in decision-making.

 

For the purposes of this article, by LGBTI representation I mean:

 

  • Representation in Parliament
  • Representation in the Executive, and
  • Representation through Consultation

 

I will address each of these areas in turn.

 

bob-brown_217x200px

Australia’s first out Commonwealth representative, former Senator Bob Brown.

 

LGBTI Representation in Parliament

 

It is fair to say that there has been rapid improvement in this area in the last four years, especially in relation to Commonwealth Parliament.

 

When I wrote about this issue early last term (see LGBTI Voices Absent from the Chamber), there had still never been an out LGBTI member of the House of Representatives. Now there are five:

 

  • Trent Zimmerman, who was the first out gay man elected to the lower house in late 2015
  • Julian Hill, Trevor Evans and Tim Wilson, who were all elected at the 2016 federal election, and
  • Kerryn Phelps, who became the first out lesbian elected to the House of Representatives in late 2018.

 

These MPs have joined the four current LGBTI Senators:

 

  • Penny Wong, who was the first out lesbian elected to either chamber
  • Louise Pratt and Dean Smith, and
  • Janet Rice, who I understand was the first out bisexual elected at Commonwealth level.

 

There have also been three previous gay Senators (Bob Brown, who was the first out gay man elected to either chamber, Brian Greig and Robert Simms).

 

So, in the lead-up to the 2019 election, we now have nine LGBTI MPs and Senators, out of 226 in total, which is an encouraging start.

 

However, if one of the main benefits of having LGBTI representation in Parliament is to ensure it hears from a diversity of views, then those LGBTI representatives should themselves reflect the diversity of our community.

 

Unfortunately, at this stage that is clearly not the case. As with the Parliament more generally, LGBTI MPs and Senators have so far been predominantly cis white men.

 

There have been twice as many male LGBTI MPs and Senators as female ones (with a similar discrepancy in the NSW Parliament as well).

 

There has still never been a transgender MP or Senator in Australia, or even an MP at state or territory level (for comparison, New Zealand’s first transgender MP, Georgina Beyer, was elected almost two decades ago).

 

Despite making up a large proportion of the LGBTI community, there has only been one out bisexual MP or Senator.

 

There has also been only limited representation of queer people of colour, with Penny Wong federally, Harriet Shing in Victoria’s upper house and Chansey Paech, the first gay Indigenous MP in the Northern Territory Parliament, and

 

There has never been an out intersex MP, at Commonwealth or state and territory level, although Tony Briffa was the first intersex person elected mayor in the Western World.

 

While increasing the number of MPs and Senators who are LGBTI is important, so too is ensuring that they come from across the LGBT and I communities, so that we do not continue to have a mostly white, mostly gay male, with some lesbian and one bisexual, but not transgender or intersex, parliamentary contingent.

 

150404 Penny Wong

Australia’s first out female Commonwealth representative, Senator the Hon Penny Wong.

 

LGBTI Representation in the Executive

 

Perhaps just as important as having LGBTI voices in the Parliament, is having LGBTI representation formally embedded within the executive arm of Government.

 

The most obvious example of this would be having a formally appointed Minister for Equality, a role Martin Foley has played in the Victorian Government for more than four years.

 

There is no equivalent position within the Morrison Liberal-National Government federally, although Louise Pratt is currently the Shadow Assistant Minister for Equality in the Labor Opposition (and would presumably fulfil this role in a Shorten Government, should they be elected in May).

 

As far as I am aware, there is also no current Minister or Shadow Minister for Equality in NSW, although perhaps that is something that could change after the upcoming state election on Saturday 23 March 2019.

 

At the Commonwealth level at least there is another way in which LGBTI issues should be represented, and that is through the appointment of a standalone Commissioner for LGBTI issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

 

As I have written previously (see 5 Years of Commonwealth LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws. 5 Suggestions for Reform), the Commission is currently unable to adequately perform this function, with LGBTI issues forming just one part of the overall policy responsibilities of the Human Rights Commissioner, sitting alongside ‘religious freedom’ (with which it often competes for attention, sometimes unsuccessfully).

 

Fortunately, the appointment of a standalone LGBTI Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission has been promised by the Shorten Labor Opposition, so this is potentially something that may change in the near future.

 

Another model of LGBTI representation that has been adopted in Victoria is a Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality within the public service, to coordinate LGBTI policy and programs across Government. This is something that again should be considered elsewhere, including at Commonwealth level and in NSW.

 

Any Minister for Equality and/or public service LGBTI Commissioner should also be supported by an office for equality within a central agency, preferably the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and its respective state and territory equivalents.

 

Adopting any of the above formalised representation structures within executive government (and preferably all of them), will hopefully ensure that LGBTI issues are adequately considered by Governments of all persuasions.

 

LGBTI Representation through Consultation

 

The third and final means of LGBTI representation is no less important than the first two – and that is ensuring Government hears from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities themselves about the issues that affect them.

 

While this happens occasionally now (with Governments consulting directly with a few key groups on select policy proposals) what is needed is an ongoing, formalised structure whereby LGBTI organisations, and individuals with relevant expertise, are appointed to panels to represent the views of the LGBTI communities to decision-makers on a consistent basis.

 

Given the impact of justice, health and education laws and policies on LGBTI communities, especially at state and territory level, I would suggest (at least) three standing committees on each of these respective portfolio areas, and in other areas on an ‘as needed’ basis.

 

There are of course risks to this model, including that panel members do not accurately, or adequately, reflect the views of the communities they are supposed to represent.

 

These risks can be minimised by ensuring there are open application processes, and that applicants demonstrate how they propose to reflect the opinions of the LGBTI community in performing their role. Consideration could also be given to term limits to ensure appointees are not ‘captured’ by the bureaucratic process, thereby reducing their effectiveness in advocating to Government.

 

Ultimately, if LGBTI representation can be increased in Parliament, the Executive and through Consultation, we will see better decision-making by Governments on LGBTI issues, for the benefit of the entire community.

 

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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 handed down an interim report in late February, recommending that it be re-established after the election. However, in my view a parliamentary inquiry is insufficient to properly investigate this issue, including both 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. Fund an LGBTI 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, with major decisions made by the community itself.

 

  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] For more, see: Increasing LGBTI Representation.

Submission to NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Gay and Trans Hate Crimes

Update 31 August 2019:

 

In what was a big news week re LGBTI rights in Australia (see also the release of the Government’s draft Religious Discrimination Bill), the NSW Parliament also tabled the Berejiklian Government’s short response to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Gay and Trans Hate Crimes.

 

Well, a partial response anyway, with NSW Police responding to recommendation 3 only, with a one-page letter including this statement:

“While the Inquiry identified historically negative attitudes from Officers towards members of the LGBTIQ community, I am confident the views and attitudes of the NSW Police Force today towards this community are positive, respectful and professional.”

 

At this stage, the new Parliament (elected on 23 March 2019) hasn’t re-established the inquiry, which was the primary recommendation of the original inquiry (see below).

 

Update 4 March 2019:

 

The Committee handed down an interim report on Tuesday 26 February (just before the issuing of the writs for the 2019 State election). That report can be found here.

 

The primary recommendation (Recommendation 1) is:

 

That the NSW Legislative Council re-establish the inquiry into Gay and Transgender hate crimes between 1970 and 2010 in the 57th Parliament and the terms of reference for further inquiry and report be subject to a decision of the House.

 

This is important, both because the work of the inquiry could not possibly have been completed in the short time available, and also to ensure that evidence of anti-LGBT hate crimes from regional, rural and remote NSW is gathered.

 

The other encouraging recommendation (Recommendation 4) is:

 

That, should the inquiry be re-established consistent with Recommendation 1, the committee invite witnesses to address the issue of the appropriate mechanism for independent review of past gay and transgender hate crimes.

 

Therefore, while the Committee has not agreed to support a Royal Commission at this stage (which was the main recommendation in my personal submission, published below), it has left the door open to recommending a Royal Commission or some other form of independent judicial inquiry in the future.

 

Perhaps just as interesting are the recommendations that had been featured in the draft report, but were removed at the behest of Committee members (as detailed in the minutes of the Committee published in an appendix).

 

Thus (Christian fundamentalist) Labor MLC, Greg Donnelly, moved that the following recommendations be axed:

 

That the NSW Police Force, in meeting Recommendation 3, increase the time currently allocated to the training of new policy recruits in modules relating to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people.

 

That the NSW Police Force implement a program of ongoing education modules relating to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people for all officers and other employees.

 

That the NSW Police Force increase the number of specialist Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) Liaison Officers, particularly in rural, regional and others areas that do not currently have access to such officers.

 

That the NSW Police Force implement a new service to enable lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people to more readily access the services and support of a specialist officer to make it easier to report crimes or seek the assistance of police.

 

Christian Democrat MLC, Fred Nile, also caused the following recommendation to be removed:

 

That the NSW Police Force change the name of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officer program to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) Liaison Officer Program.

 

Meanwhile, National MLC Trevor Khan (who is usually an ally for the LGBTI community) moved that the following recommendations be axed:

 

That the NSW Attorney General issue a reference to the NSW Law Reform Commission to require that it undertake a comprehensive review of the law of homicide and homicide defences in New South Wales to ensure that recent legal reforms have effectively removed any potential for injustice to occur.

 

That the Judicial Commission of New South Wales review the content of jury directions to ensure that they adequately ensure the fair and equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people and acknowledge the historical legacy of the ‘gay panic defence’.

 

Thus, while the interim report itself is not bad – recommending further investigation by the next Parliament, and leaving the door open to a Royal Commission or other independent judicial inquiry – it could, and indeed should, have been a whole lot better.

 

Original submission:

 

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.

Who pays for homophobia, biphobia and transphobia?

Prejudice against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community comes with a hefty price tag.

 

It is paid for by the individuals who are subject to direct and indirect acts of discrimination, being denied employment, or services, because of who they are, who they love or how they identify.

 

And by others, who self-censor, missing out on opportunities and on full participation in society, because of the legitimate fear of such discrimination.

 

It is paid for in the adverse mental health impacts experienced by the LGBT community, with depression, anxiety and other mental illness caused by homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

 

And most tragically by those who end their lives as a consequence.

 

It has even been estimated that homophobia costs the global economy at least $119.1 billion in lost GDP every single year (and presumably more if the effects of biphobia and transphobia are included).

 

But, in this post, I want to take this question – who pays for homophobia, biphobia and transphobia – more literally.

 

In essence, who provides the money that funds anti-LGBT prejudice? Who allows it to occur in the first place?

 

The answer (or at least one of the answers), sadly, is all of us. Let me explain.

 

You are probably aware that most religious schools in Australia currently enjoy special privileges that permit them to discriminate against LGBT students, teachers and other staff.

 

This includes religious exceptions such as section 38 of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, as well as equivalent anti-discrimination laws in New South Wales and Victoria.

 

In fact, Tasmania and now the ACT are the only Australian jurisdictions that do not allow religious schools to discriminate against teachers and students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status.

 

All of the other states and territories allow at least some discrimination against LGBT students, or teachers, or in many cases both (Queensland actually comes closest to matching Tasmania and the ACT’s ‘best practice’ approach: it does not permit discrimination against LGBT students, while LGBT teachers are subject to a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ regime – although that still means they can be fired if they even mention having a same-sex partner in the workplace).[i]

 

And you likely also know that in Australia, religious schools receive significant government funding.

 

But you are probably not aware just how much public money – taxpayers’ money, your money – is given to these institutions.

 

According to the 2018 Budget, the Commonwealth Government will provide:

 

  • $11.829 billion to non-government schools in 2018-19
  • $12.452 billion in 2019-20
  • $13.145 billion in 2020-21, and
  • $13.821 billion in 2021-22.

 

That’s a total of $51.247 billion in taxpayers’ money going to non-government schools in just four years.

 

In fact, it’s even worse than that. In September, the Morrison Liberal-National Government announced an extra $1.1 billion for non-government schools over the next four years (and $4.5 billion over the next decade).

 

And these numbers don’t include the funding provided by state and territory governments.

 

Based on averages published by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), state and territory governments provide approximately one-third of the amount funded by the Commonwealth.

 

That means an extra $17.43 billion of public funding over the next four years alone, bringing the overall total to $69.78 billion.

 

Now, a couple of important caveats. Given religious schools in Tasmania are not permitted to discriminate against either LGBT students or teachers, let’s subtract $1.438 billion from this figure (the $1.079 billion allocated to Tasmanian non-government schools in the Commonwealth Budget, plus an extra third for additional state government funding) as well as $1.083 billion for the ACT (the $811.7 million allocated by the Commonwealth, plus an extra third from the Territory government).

 

And, with a small proportion of non-government schools being non-religious in nature and therefore generally not allowed to discriminate (except in NSW, where the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 permits all private schools, religious or otherwise, to discriminate against homosexual and transgender students and teachers), let’s be generous and subtract another 5%.

 

That still leaves $63.83 billion in Commonwealth, state and territory government funding allocated to religious schools over the next four years even though they are allowed to discriminate against LGBT teachers, students or both.[ii]

 

And who picks up the tab for this Government-sponsored homophobia, biphobia and transphobia? You do of course.

 

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in June 2017 there were 19.963 million Australians aged 15 and over (and therefore potentially of taxpaying age).

 

This means that for every Australian individual taxpayer Commonwealth, state and territory governments will collectively give $3,198 over the next four years to religious schools that have the legal right to discriminate against LGBT students and/or teachers. Roughly $800 every year, per person, spent subsidising anti-LGBT prejudice.[iii]

 

What makes these figures truly offensive, obscene even, is remembering that this money is coming from LGBT teachers, who are paying for religious schools to have the ability to deny them employment in up to 40% of the jobs for which they are qualified.

 

From the parents of LGBT children, who are paying for the special privileges of these institutions to reject their child’s enrolment simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

And from same-sex couples in rainbow families, who are paying for religious schools to deny their children admission on the basis of their parents’ relationship.

 

Indeed, the homophobia, biphobia and transphobia of religious schools is being paid for by the taxes of all LGBT Australians, our families, friends and allies.

 

And by the 61.6% of voters who just last year said that we are, or should be, equal irrespective of our sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

Despite that result (or perhaps even because of it) the Liberal-National Government seems intent on making what is a horrible situation worse.

 

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commissioned the Ruddock Review of Religious Freedom during last year’s same-sex marriage parliamentary debate.

 

The contents of that review’s final report, delivered to the government in May but not yet released to the public, were leaked yesterday to Fairfax newspapers, and appear to support the further entrenchment, and possible expansion, of the ‘right’ of religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students and teachers.

 

This could potentially include the Commonwealth Government using the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to override the anti-discrimination laws of states and territories like Tasmania and the ACT (and to a lesser extent Queensland) that have moved to limit these special privileges.

 

New Prime Minister Scott Morrison does not seem opposed to such a development, saying that the right to discriminate against gay students ‘already exists’ (ignoring the fact it has been curtailed in some jurisdictions).

 

Three weeks’ ago he also told Sky’s Paul Murray that:

 

Let me give you this example. I send my kids to a Christian school, I think that Christian school should be able to ensure they can provide education consistent with the Christian faith and teaching that I believe as a parent. That’s why I’m sending them there. I don’t think that school should be told who they can and can’t employ, or have restrictions on them in ensuring that they’re delivering to me – the parent, their client, their customer – what I’ve invested in for my children’s education.

 

What he fails to mention is that, by virtue of public funding for religious schools, we are all ‘investing’ in his children’s education.

 

And what the Ruddock Review, Prime Minister Morrison and some members of his Government seem to want is for all of us to pay even more to allow more religious schools to discriminate against more LGBT students and teachers.

 

Well, fuck that. Enough is enough.

 

It’s time we stopped handing over money so that religious schools can fuck over LGBT students.

 

And it’s time we stopped coughing up cash so that these institutions can tell LGBT teachers and other staff to fuck off.

 

These human rights violations have gone on long enough.

 

To borrow a phrase from the American Revolution, there should be no taxation without anti-discrimination protection. Or even more simply:

 

No Taxation For Discrimination.

 

Instead of being an excuse for expanding religious exceptions in relation to religious schools, the Religious Freedom Review should be the catalyst for these special privileges to finally be subjected to proper scrutiny.

 

If the Morrison Government introduces amendments to entrench and expand the exceptions in section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act, and potentially to override the best practice approaches of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act and ACT Anti-Discrimination Act, it will be up to Labor, the Greens and the cross-bench to block it (for his part, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is making the right noises, saying “The fact is every child is entitled to human dignity. We shouldn’t even be having this debate”).

 

The pressure will also be on Liberal moderates, who like to claim credit for delivering marriage equality (they didn’t, but that’s a post for another day), to stand up and help defeat proposals that will increase discrimination against that same community.

 

But stopping things from getting worse would hardly be a heroic achievement. The religious exceptions of the Sex Discrimination Act, and the equivalent laws in most states and territories that promote anti-LGBT prejudice, must be repealed.

 

Because LGBT teachers should be employed on the basis of their abilities, not their orientations or identities.

 

And LGBT students should not be refused enrolment, expelled, or discriminated against in any way, shape or form, just because of who they are. Not one student. Not ever.

 

While the rest of us shouldn’t be forced to pay for it, literally funding the homophobia, biphobia and transphobia of religious schools.

 

Bottom line: if religious schools want one cent from us, they must be decent to us, and that means ending their special privileges to discriminate against LGBT students, teachers and other staff once and for all.

 

To take action, please sign and share this petition from just.equal: www.equal.org.au/protectourkidsandteachers

 

aud100front

Your hard-earned dollars are funding anti-LGBT prejudice.

 

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Footnotes:

[i] For more information about these laws, see: A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.

[ii] I am not suggesting that all of these schools would discriminate against LGBT students and/or teachers. In practice, a number provide welcoming environments irrespective of sexual orientation and gender identity. However, these schools retain the legal right to discriminate on these grounds.

[iii] By way of comparison, the Commonwealth Government will provide $245.6 million over the next four years to another inappropriate and unjustified school funding initiative (the National School Chaplaincy Program), or the equivalent of $12.30 for every Australian aged 15 and over. On the other hand, the Turnbull Government, of which Scott Morrison was Treasurer, axed the $8 million Safe Schools program in 2016 – in effect, they could not even be bothered spending 40c per taxpayer, spread over four years (so just 10c per taxpayer per year), to help address homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in schools.

5 Years of Commonwealth LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws. 5 Suggestions for Reform.

This post is part of a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia. You can see the rest of the posts here

 

Five years ago today, Commonwealth Parliament passed the historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

 

Almost four decades after the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and nearly three decades after the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians finally received protection against discrimination under Commonwealth law.

 

While the SDA amendments were ground-breaking at the time, no piece of legislation is ever perfect. Five years into its operation, here are five areas in which I believe this Act can and should be improved.

 

  1. Update ‘intersex status’ to ‘sex characteristics’

 

With the passage of the 2013 amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act, Australia became one of the first jurisdictions in the world to explicitly protect people with intersex variations against discrimination.

 

This is because it added ‘intersex status’ as a stand-alone protected attribute, which was defined under section 4 as:

 

‘means the status of having physical, hormonal or genetic features that are:

(a) neither wholly female nor wholly male; or

(b) a combination of female and male; or

(c) neither female nor male.’

 

However, since then intersex advocates have expressed concerns about this wording, including that it may not adequately protect all intersex people (for example, potentially conflating or confusing issues of biology and identity).

 

For these reasons, in the landmark March 2017 Darlington Statement, OII Australia (now Intersex Human Rights Australia) and other intersex representatives ‘call[ed] for effective legislative protection from discrimination and harmful practices on grounds of sex characteristics’ [emphasis added].

 

Sex characteristics was then defined in the Yogyakarta Plus 10 Principles ‘as 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.’

 

Australia helped lead the world in including ‘intersex status’ in the Sex Discrimination Act. Five years later we should take action again by updating this attribute to refer to ‘sex characteristics’ instead.

 

  1. Protect LGBT students against discrimination

 

A positive feature of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 was the aged care ‘carve-out’ from the otherwise overly-generous (see below) exceptions provided to religious organisations.

 

Sub-section 37(2) of the amended Sex Discrimination Act provides that the general exception ‘does not apply to an act or practice of a body established for religious purposes if:

(a) the act or practice is connected with the provision, by the body, of Commonwealth-funded aged care; and

(b) the act or practice is not connected with the employment of persons to provide that aged care.’

 

In effect, religious-operated aged care facilities that receive public funding are not permitted to discriminate against LGBT people accessing those services (although unfortunately they can still discriminate against LGBT employees).

 

Five years since this clause was passed, and there is exactly zero evidence that it has had any negative impact on the supposed ‘religious freedom’ of these institutions – and plenty of evidence that it has helped to protect older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from unjustifiable discrimination.

 

Now, it is time to ensure that an equivalent provision is introduced to protect people at the other end of the age spectrum from similar mistreatment: younger LGBT people who are students at government-funded religious schools and colleges.

 

These students are just as vulnerable as older LGBT people accessing aged care services, and just as with the ‘carve-out’ in sub-section 37(2), there is no reason why taxpayer money should be used to discriminate against them on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

It is time to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to remove the special privilege enjoyed by publicly-funded religious educational institutions to discriminate against LGBT students. This could be achieved by adding a similar carve-out in sub-section 37(2), and repealing sub-section 38(3), which also allows discrimination by religious schools against LGBT students.

 

  1. Limit overly-generous general religious exceptions

 

While I believe the exceptions allowing discrimination against LGBT students deserve special attention, it is also important to reform the broader religious exceptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act.

 

Sub-section 37(1) currently provides that none of the Act’s LGBT discrimination protections apply to:

(a) ‘the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order;

(b) the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order;

(c) the selection or appointment of persons to perform duties or functions for the purposes of or in connection with, or otherwise to participate in, any religious observance or practice; or

(d) any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.’

 

[Section 38 provides a similarly-worded exception in relation to education, with sub-section 38(1) allowing religious schools to discriminate against teachers and other employees, and sub-section 38(2) permitting discrimination against contract workers.]

 

These clauses, and especially s37(1)(d), provide religious organisations with carte blanche to discriminate against LGBT Australians on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Such discrimination often has very little to do with sincerely-held religious beliefs, but is instead simply homophobia, biphobia or transphobia dressed up in a cloak of religious-sounding language.

 

I believe this discrimination has no place in 21st century Australia – and suspect most ordinary Australians agree (something that was confirmed in October in the wake of the leaking of the recommendations of the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review).

 

Fortunately, one Australian jurisdiction provides a much better precedent in this area, with legislation that still protects genuine religious freedom without endorsing broader anti-LGBT discrimination.

 

The Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 allows discrimination in certain circumstances in employment (section 51), admission as a student (section 51A) and participation in a religious observance (section 52), but only on the basis of religious belief or affiliation, and not because of sexual orientation or gender identity (or sex, pregnancy, relationship status or other attributes).

 

The Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act should be amended to adopt the much-preferable Tasmanian approach to religious exceptions, thereby dramatically narrowing the special privileges allowing them to engage in discrimination that would otherwise be unlawful.

 

  1. Introduce protections against anti-LGBTI vilification

 

Currently, only four Australian jurisdictions have anti-vilification laws which protect members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community: NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT. Of those, Queensland doesn’t cover intersex people, while NSW includes LGBTI people in the new criminal offence of ‘publicly threatening or inciting violence’ but only lesbians, gay men and trans people with binary gender identities can make civil complaints of vilification under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

 

There are still no protections against anti-LGBTI vilification in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia or the Northern Territory. And there is no LGBTI equivalent of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 under Commonwealth law either.

 

This is a situation that must change. Because homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification is just as serious, and just as damaging, as racial vilification.

 

This was unequivocally demonstrated, and witnessed by the entire country, during last year’s same-sex marriage postal survey, with anti-LGBTI (and especially anti-trans) rhetoric in mainstream media and across society more generally. And while there were temporary, narrowly-defined prohibitions on vilification for the duration of that campaign (which have now expired), the hate-speech against our community that it stirred up continues unabated.

 

For all of these reasons, I believe it is beyond time for the Sex Discrimination Act to be amended to prohibit vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

 

  1. Create an LGBTI Commissioner

 

From the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) website:

 

‘The Commission has a President and seven Commissioners:

  • President Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Ms June Oscar AO
  • Age Discrimination Commissioner The Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO
  • Children’s Commissioner Ms Megan Mitchell
  • Disability Discrimination Commissioner Mr Alastair McEwin
  • Human Rights Commissioner Mr Edward Santow
  • Race Discrimination Commissioner Mr Chin Tan
  • Sex Discrimination Commissioner Ms Kate Jenkins.’

 

Notice who’s missing? Of the major groups protected against discrimination under legislation administered by the AHRC, only one does not have a stand-alone Commissioner of their own: the LGBTI community.

 

Responsibility for LGBTI issues has instead been allocated to the Human Rights Commissioner (both the current office-holder, and his predecessor, Tim Wilson) but it is merely one of a number of different, often competing priorities of their role – sometimes directly so, given their simultaneous responsibility for promoting religious freedom.

 

It is inevitable that, under this organisational structure, LGBTI issues will not be given the same level of attention as those of race, sex, disability and age. The best way to change this is to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to create a full-time Commissioner dedicated to addressing anti-LGBTI discrimination.

 

**********

 

The passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 was an important achievement in the long struggle for LGBTI equality in Australia, in my opinion just as significant as the recognition of same-sex de facto relationships in 2008, and the long overdue legalisation of same-sex marriage late last year.

 

But, just five years old, these historic reforms are already showing their inherent limitations. It’s time for Commonwealth parliament to take action to ensure that the Sex Discrimination Act is effective in addressing anti-LGBTI discrimination and vilification. The five reforms suggested above would be a good place to start.

 

julia

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard passed the historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 in the dying days of her leadership.

 

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