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

[NB This article is the third in a series looking at the ‘unfinished business’ of LGBTI equality in Australia]

 

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.

 

  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.]

 

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.

 

Fortunately, one Australian jurisdiction provides a much better precedent in this area, one 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 Dr Tim Soutphommasane
  • 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.

 

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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, who opposed marriage equality and transferred LGBTI refugees to countries that criminalise them for ‘off-shore processing’, also passed the historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 in the dying days of her leadership.

 

 

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An LGBTI Agenda for NSW

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Include bisexual people in anti-discrimination laws

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Include intersex people in anti-discrimination laws

 

The historic 2013 reforms to the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 also meant that Australia was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to provide explicit anti-discrimination protection to people with intersex traits.

 

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

 

  1. Remove excessive and unjustified religious exceptions

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Reform anti-vilification offences

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Reform access to identity documentation for trans people

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Ban involuntary sterilisation of intersex infants

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Ban gay conversion therapy

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Improve the Relationship Register

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Expand the Safe Schools program

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Ensure the PDHPE curriculum includes LGBTI content

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Appoint an LGBTI Commissioner

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Create a Pride Centre

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Gladys Berejiklian at Mardi Gras

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

 

Footnotes:

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

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

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

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

Letter to Candidates and Parties re LGBTI Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Vilification

[Update 29 June 2016: Responses received by midday today have been posted at the end of this post, generally in the order they were received. Further responses will be added if they are received by 5pm Thursday 30 June.]

 

I will be sending the below letter to all candidates contesting my local electorate (Sydney) and all parties vying for NSW Senate seats at the upcoming July 2 Federal Election (with candidates and tickets announced by the Australian Electoral Commission on Friday 10 June 2016).

 

Specifically, I am asking for their views on how the anti-discrimination laws that cover lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians can be improved. This includes the removal of religious exceptions, both generally and specifically in relation to education, the introduction of LGBTI anti-vilification protections, and the establishment of an LGBTI Discrimination Commissioner.

 

It also seeks their commitment not to introduce new ‘special rights’ to discriminate against LGBTI couples as part of any marriage equality legislation – because the recognition of equal love should not be undermined by including provisions supporting differential treatment.

 

As always, I will post any responses that I receive here. Please feel free to send similar letters to the candidates and parties contesting your electorate and Senate seats respectively.

 

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Dear [candidate/party]

 

LGBTI anti-discrimination & anti-vilification

 

I am writing to you in your capacity as a [candidate for my electorate of Sydney/party contesting the NSW Senate] at the July 2 Federal Election.

 

Specifically, I am writing to seek your commitments to help improve the current anti-discrimination and anti-vilification protections provided to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

 

While the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 was historic, introducing LGBTI anti-discrimination laws at Commonwealth level for the first time, the protection that it offers remains incomplete.

 

For example, the exceptions provided by sections 37 and 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (‘the Act’) to religious organisations and religious schools ensure that LGBTI people remain subject to discrimination across a wide range of areas of public life.

 

Unlike the laws prohibiting racial vilification in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, there are also no protections against LGBTI vilification under Commonwealth law.

 

Nor does the Act establish a Commissioner with responsibility to address LGBTI Discrimination – whereas the Australian Human Rights Commission does have Commissioners for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice, Age Discrimination, Disability Discrimination, Race Discrimination, Sex Discrimination and a Children’s Commissioner.

 

For more on what I believe are the limitations of current Commonwealth LGBTI anti-discrimination law, please see “What’s wrong with the Sex Discrimination Act 1984?”

 

There is one final issue relating to LGBTI anti-discrimination law that is also likely to arise in the next term of Parliament – and that is the question of whether the legislation which, hopefully, introduces marriage equality in Australia will also include new ‘special rights’ for civil celebrants, and businesses that provide wedding-related services, to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

 

In my opinion, the law that finally recognises equal love in this country should not be undermined by provisions that allow for differential treatment (for more on this subject, please see “In the battle for marriage equality, we must not forget to fight against religious exceptions”).

 

I am seeking your views on the above issues – and would therefore appreciate your answers to the following five associated questions:

 

  1. Will you repeal sub-section 37(1)(d) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which currently allows religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTI employees, and LGBTI people accessing services, in a wide range of areas of public life?

 

  1. Will you repeal section 38 of the Act that provides religious schools with the ability to discriminate against LGBTI teachers and students?

 

  1. Do you commit to introducing new laws to protect LGBTI Australians against vilification, on an equivalent basis to racial vilification laws?

 

  1. Will you establish a position of LGBTI Discrimination Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission, with similar responsibilities to existing Commissioners covering the areas of Race, Sex, Disability and Age?

 

  1. Will you oppose the inclusion of new exceptions in any marriage equality legislation that would seek to provide civil celebrants, and businesses providing wedding-related services, with the ability to discriminate against LGBTI couples?

 

I look forward to receiving responses from you in advance of the July 2 Federal Election on these issues of concern to me, and to other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

N-3

Responses from Candidates for the Seat of Sydney

 

Tula Tzoras – Online Direct Democracy

Tom Geiser – Science Party

Peter Boyle – Socialist Alliance

Tanya Plibersek – Australian Labor Party

Sylvie Ellsmore – Greens

 

Responses from Candidates for the NSW Senate

 

Ross Fitzgerald – Australian Sex Party

Colin Broadbridge – Christian Democratic Party (Fred Nile Group)

Phil Jobe – Family First

Ray Bennie – Veterans Party

Ingrid Ralph – Australian Cyclists Party

Jai Cooper – Australian Cyclists Party

Ken Canning – Socialist Alliance

Party Response – Socialist Alliance

Andrew Katelaris – Marijuana (HEMP) Party

Greg Frearson – Mature Australia

Ken Stevens – Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party

Ann Lawler – Citizens Electoral Council

Barry Keldoulis – The Arts Party

Stacey Dowson – Drug Law Reform

Janise Farrell – Voluntary Euthanasia Party

Darren McIntosh – Pirate Party Australia

Party Response – Australian Labor Party

Shayne Higson – Voluntary Euthanasia Party

 

Bryan Lambert – Independent

Nick Chapman – Independent

David Ash – Independent

 

 

What’s Wrong With the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984?

This post is part of a series examining anti-discrimination laws around the country, focusing on how well, or in many cases how poorly, they protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians against discrimination and vilification. The other posts can be found at the page LGBTI Anti-Discrimination[i] while the text of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (‘the Act’) can be found at the Federal Register of Legislation.[ii]

 

In this post I will be analysing the Act in terms of three main areas: protected attributes, religious exceptions and anti-vilification coverage. I will then briefly discuss any other key ways in which the protections offered by the Act could be improved or strengthened.

 

As we shall see, while the fact the Sex Discrimination Act includes all sections of the LGBTI community is to be welcomed, there are still some serious deficiencies that need to be remedied before it can be considered an effective anti-discrimination, and anti-vilification, framework.

 

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Protected Attributes

 

The Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 is one of only four anti-discrimination laws in Australia that explicitly includes all of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals[iii], and transgender[iv] and intersex[v] people (with the other jurisdictions being Tasmania, the ACT and South Australia).

 

This high level of inclusivity is in large part a consequence of the fact the Commonwealth was the last jurisdiction in Australia to introduce any protections against anti-LGBTI discrimination.

 

The Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 was only passed in June 2013, taking effect on August 1st of that year – more than three decades after the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 first covered homosexual discrimination (way back in 1982).

 

It is perhaps logical then that the most recently passed anti-discrimination law in the country would use the most contemporary terminology. Nevertheless, the achievements of the Act, and the breadth of the protected attributes that are covered, should still be celebrated.

 

In particular, the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 was the first national anti-discrimination law in the world to explicitly include intersex status as a stand-alone protected attribute. Although, it should be noted that, in the March 2017 Darlington Statement, intersex activists called for this terminology to be replaced by the protected attribute ‘sex characteristics’.

 

The definitions of the other protected attributes introduced – sexual orientation and gender identity – are progressive in that they do not reinforce a sex or gender ‘binary’.

 

Sexual orientation in the Act refers to attraction to “the same sex” or “a different sex” (rather than the opposite sex), while the definition of gender identity does not require a transgender person to identify as male or female (and does not impose any medical or surgical requirements to receive protection either).

 

Overall, then, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 is strong in terms of the protected attributes that it covers. Unfortunately, it is mostly downhill from here.

 

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Religious Exceptions

 

While the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 is close to the best of any jurisdiction when it comes to protected attributes, in terms of religious exceptions it repeats the same mistakes of most state and territory anti-discrimination legislation.

 

Under sub-section 37(1), the Act provides religious organisations with extremely broad special rights to discriminate against LGBT[vi] Australians:

“37 Religious bodies

(1) Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects:

(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.”

 

If religious exceptions are supposed to protect ‘religious freedom’, then the first three paragraphs above, (a)-(c), at least have the benefit of being targeted at activities that are essentially religious in nature (the appointment of religious office-holders, and the holding of religious ceremonies).

 

However, paragraph (d) appears to endorse discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians across large swathes of public life, including in community, health and welfare services, provided the organisation that does the discriminating was established by a religious body.

 

This is overly generous, and completely unjustified – especially, although not solely, because the vast majority of these services receive public funding. After all, the sexual orientation or gender identity of a social worker or healthcare professional has absolutely zero bearing on their competence in their role.

 

The same provision also means that these services can turn away lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clients – irrespective of their personal circumstances and need – which is perhaps even more offensive than discriminating against LGBT employees.

 

Just in case there was any doubt whether religious schools were covered by sub-section 37(1)(d)[vii], the Act then includes an entire section which allows these schools to discriminate against LGBT teachers[viii], contract workers[ix] and students[x].

 

It appears some religious schools believe the capacity of a person to teach mathematics or science or English is somehow affected by their sexual orientation or gender identity. And it seems that the teachers employed by these schools are expected to impart the values of exclusion and intolerance to their students – what better way for young people to learn to discriminate against LGBT people, all endorsed by the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

 

There is however one area in which the Act refused to provide carte blanche to religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTI people, and that was through the inclusion of sub-section 37(2):

“Paragraph (1)(d) 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.”[xi]

 

In other words, religious organisations that operate Commonwealth-funded aged care services cannot discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people accessing those services (although they can continue to fire, or refuse to hire, LGBT employees).

 

This ‘carve-out’ was passed despite opposition from some sections of the then Tony Abbott-led Liberal-National Opposition, including Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis[xii], as well as some particularly vocal and extreme religious organisations, with the provisions taking effect on August 1st 2013.

 

In practice, there has been no controversy about the operation of this carve-out[xiii] – basically, it works to protect LGBT people accessing aged care services, irrespective of who operate those services, while having no adverse impact on religious freedom.

 

It is now time that this approach – limiting the ability of religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people in one area of public life – was expanded to protect LGBT employees in those same aged care services, as well protecting employees and clients across education, community, health and welfare services[xiv].

 

After all, the worthy objects of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, including “to eliminate, so far as is possible, discrimination against persons on the ground of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, marital or relationship status, pregnancy or potential pregnancy or breastfeeding in the areas of work, accommodation, education, the provision of goods, facilities and services, the disposal of land, the activities of clubs and the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs”[xv] cannot be met if, in the same text it allows LGBT Australians to be discriminated against by a large number of organisations, and across a wide range of services.

 

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Anti-Vilification Coverage

 

This section will be the shortest of this post because, well, there isn’t any – the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 contains no coverage against vilification for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

This stands in marked contrast to the situation for vilification based on race, which is prohibited by section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 – a section that has operated effectively for more than two decades (just ask Andrew Bolt), and which has withstood multiple recent attempts at its severe curtailment.

 

Given homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification are just as serious, and just as detrimental, as racial vilification, there is no reason why LGBTI Australians should not have equivalent protections under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984[xvi].

 

This would also bring the Commonwealth into line with the four Australian jurisdictions[xvii] that already prohibit vilification against at least some parts of the LGBTI community.

 

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Other Issues

 

There are several other areas in which the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 does not currently provide adequate protections for the LGBTI community, including:

 

The failure to create an LGBTI Commissioner

Part V of the Act creates the position of Sex Discrimination Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). Other areas of discrimination also benefit from the appointment of stand-alone full-time Commissioners, whose primary purpose is to combat such discrimination (including the Race, Age and Disability Commissioners).

 

However, no equivalent position, addressing LGBTI discrimination, was created with the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

 

This serious oversight meant that, for most of the last term of Parliament, LGBTI issues were handled on a part-time basis by the then ‘Freedom Commissioner’ (and now Liberal MP), Tim Wilson, whose primary role was to ‘defend’ traditional rights. Whenever those two areas of human rights were deemed to come into conflict, LGBTI issues seemed to come off second best[xviii].

 

If LGBTI discrimination is to be treated seriously by the Commonwealth Government, it must provide the same level of resources to address it within the AHRC – and that means introducing an LGBTI Commissioner as a matter of priority.

 

Superannuation protections exclude transgender and intersex people

Section 14 of the Act prohibits discrimination in employment, with sub-section 14(4) focusing on superannuation. However, while it prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, it excludes gender identity and intersex status from the list of relevant attributes[xix], apparently leaving transgender and intersex people without protection in this area.

 

Partnerships of five or less people can discriminate against LGBTI people

Section 17 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 prohibits discrimination in relation to ‘partnerships’, including who is invited to become a partner and the terms and conditions on which they are invited. However, these protections only apply to situations where there are six or more partners, meaning that LGBTI are not protected where there are five or less partners[xx].

 

Voluntary bodies have no restriction on their ability to discriminate

Section 39 of the Act provides a very broad ‘right’ for voluntary bodies to discriminate on a wide range of protected attributes, including sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, including in determining who may be admitted as members, and the benefits that members receive. While acknowledging the importance of the ‘freedom to associate’, it seems strange that there is no requirement that the discrimination be related to the purpose of the voluntary body, but is instead essentially unrestricted.

 

Discrimination by marriage celebrants

As part of the recent passage of LGBTI marriage by Commonwealth Parliament, the Sex Discrimination Act was amended so that, in addition to the existing ability of ministers of religion and military chaplains to decline to perform wedding ceremonies, the new category of ‘religious marriage celebrants’ will also be free to discriminate against LGBTI couples seeking to marry[xxi]. This is despite the fact this includes existing civil celebrants who have nominated to so discriminate based on nothing more than their personal religious beliefs.

 

Protections in sport exclude transgender and intersex people aged 12 and over

Section 42 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 limits the coverage of anti-discrimination protection in relation to sport, in particular by allowing discrimination against transgender and intersex people in “any competitive sporting activity in which the strength, stamina or physique of competitors is relevant” where the participants are aged 12 or over. As with the voluntary bodies provision, this exception appears unnecessarily broad.

 

Requesting information that does not allow options other than male or female is not prohibited

Finally, section 43A provides that “[t]he making of a request for information is not unlawful… merely because the request does not allow for a person to identify as being neither male nor female” and that “[n]othing… makes it unlawful to make or keep records in a way that does not provide for a person to be identified as being neither male nor female.” If we are to truly recognise diversity in sex and gender, it should be reflected in requests for information.

 

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Summary

 

Based on the above discussion, the LGBTI anti-discrimination protections that were introduced via the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 can be described as a good start (albeit one that was long overdue).

 

That it includes all sections of the LGBTI community is obviously welcome, and the ‘carve-out’ of aged care service provision from religious exceptions is important in and of itself, as well as demonstrating that those same exceptions are both unnecessary and unjustified.

 

On the other hand, the fact the Act permits discrimination by religious aged care services against LGBT employees, as well as religious organisations providing education, community, health and welfare services – against employees and clients – is its biggest downfall.

 

Other major problems include the complete absence of anti-vilification coverage for the LGBTI community (unlike section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975), and the failure to create an LGBTI Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

 

All of which means there is plenty of work left to do until the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 provides a comprehensive and effective anti-discrimination, and anti-vilification, framework for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

Christian Porter

Will new Attorney-General Christian Porter (who has replaced Senator George Brandis in that position) improve, or undermine, the Sex Discrimination Act?

 

Footnotes

[i] See LGBTI Anti-Discrimination / #NoHomophobiaNoExceptions

[ii] See the Federal Register of Legislation

[iii] Discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation is prohibited by section 5A, with sexual orientation defined by the Act in section 4 as “sexual orientation means a person’s orientation towards:

(a) persons of the same sex; or

(b) persons of a different sex; or

(c) persons of the same sex and persons of a different sex.”

[iv] Discrimination on the ground of gender identity is prohibited by section 5B, with gender identity defined by the Act in section 4 as “gender identity means the gender-related identity, appearance or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of a person (whether by way of medical intervention or not), with or without regard to the person’s designated sex at birth.”

[v] Discrimination on the ground of intersex status is prohibited by section 5C, with intersex status defined by the Act in section 4 as “intersex status 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.”

[vi] Prima facie, it also appears to allow discrimination against intersex people, although the lengthy consultation process that preceded the legislation’s passage demonstrated that religious organisations did not propose to use this exception for that purpose. The Explanatory Memorandum for the Act also indicates these exceptions should not be used with respect to this protected attribute.

[vii] There isn’t really any doubt – sub-section 37(1)(d) clearly applies to religious schools, which means that, just like the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, religious schools can actually choose from between two different exceptions to defend their discrimination against LGBT teachers and students.

[viii] Section 38 Educational institutions established for religious purpose

(1) Nothing in paragraph 14(1)(a) or (b) or 14(2)(c) renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on the ground of the other person’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy in connection with employment as a member of the staff of an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.

[ix] Section 38(2) Nothing in paragraph 16(b) renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on the ground of the other person’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, martial or relationship status or pregnancy in connection with a position as a contract worker that involves the doing of work in an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.

[x] Section 38(3) Nothing in section 21 renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on the ground of the other person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy in connection with the provision of education or training by an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.

[xi] This provision is reinforced by sub-section 23(3A) which states that religious organisations cannot discriminate against LGBT residents of Commonwealth-funded aged care facilities in terms of accommodation: “Paragraph 3(b) does not apply to accommodation provided by a religious body in connection with the provision, by the body of Commonwealth-funded aged care.”

[xii]See #QandA, Senator Brandis and LGBTI anti-discrimination reforms

[xiii] Given the wide range of scare campaigns run by the Australian Christian Lobby, and others, over recent years (calling for the abolition of the Safe Schools program, and their unsuccessful opposition to marriage equality) there is no doubt if there had been any practical problems with the aged care provisions they would have been splashed across the front page of The Australian by now.

[xiv] This would involve repealing sub-section 37(1)(d) entirely, as well as restricting related provisions (such as sub-section 23(3)(b) that allows religious bodies to discriminate in the provision of accommodation) so that they only apply with respect to the appointment and training of ministers of religion, and the holding of religious ceremonies.

[xv] Sub-section 3(b).

[xvi] For more on this issue – the contrast between section 18C of the RDA, and the lack of LGBTI anti-vilification protections federally – see Don’t Limit Racial Vilification Protections, Introduce Vilification Protections for LGBTI Australians Instead

[xvii] Queensland, NSW, the ACT and Tasmania.

[xviii] For more on this issue, see Why we need a full-time LGBTI Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission

[xix] (4) Where a person exercises a discretion in relation to the payment of a superannuation benefit to or in respect of a member of a superannuation fund, it is unlawful for the person to discriminate, in the exercise of the discretion, against the member or another person on the ground, in either case, of the sex, sexual orientation or marital or relationship status of the member or that other person.

[xx] The same situation applies with respect to sex, marital or relationship status, pregnancy or potential pregnancy, breastfeeding or family responsibilities.

[xxi Section 40 includes the following:

“(2A)  A minister of religion (as defined in subsection 5(1) of the Marriage Act 1961) may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in Division 1 or 2, as applying by reference to section 5A, 5B, 5C or 6, if any of the circumstances mentioned in paragraph 47(3)(a), (b) or (c) of the Marriage Act 1961 apply.

       (2AA)  A religious marriage celebrant (as defined in subsection 5(1) of the Marriage Act 1961) may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in Division 1 or 2, as applying by reference to section 5A, 5B, 5C or 6, if:

                     (a)  the identification of the person as a religious marriage celebrant on the register of marriage celebrants has not been removed at the time the marriage is solemnised; and

                     (b)  the circumstances mentioned in subsection 47A(1) of the Marriage Act 1961apply.

       (2AB)  A chaplain in the Defence Force may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in Division 1 or 2, as applying by reference to section 5A, 5B, 5C or 6, if any of the circumstances mentioned in paragraph 81(2)(a), (b) or (c) of the Marriage Act 1961apply.

Note:          Paragraph 37(1)(d) also provides that nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects any act or practice of a body established for religious purposes 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.”