No 1 Australia Sends LGBTI Refugees to Countries which Criminalise Homosexuality

I wish that I could have finished this countdown with something more positive. Indeed, I was tempted to elevate the achievement of the Sex Discrimination Amendment Act 2013 to No 1, just so I could end on a high note.

Alas, Australia’s ongoing mistreatment of refugees, including the gross violation of their human rights, is simply too heinous to ignore, and too severe to downplay. And in 2013, these abuses reached a new low, with the then Rudd Government introducing, and the incoming Abbott Government retaining, a new policy to permanently resettle refugees who arrive by boat in Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

More than just a fundamental breach of Australia’s international obligations, this policy is an attempt to permanently turn our backs to the humanity of people fleeing persecution in other countries, people who were seeking our compassion but, when they arrived, found none.

All of this is bad enough to attract the opprobrium of anyone interested in human rights, including LGBTI rights. But there is a special reason for LGBTI activists and advocates to oppose the resettlement of refugees in Nauru and Papua New Guinea – and that is that both countries continue to criminalise male homosexuality, by up to 14 years imprisonment.

While the letter of the law only applies to male homosexuality, any place which criminalises sex between people of the same-sex is not a safe environment to send refugees who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. The potential dangers of doing so were apparent when the then Gillard Government first announced that Nauru and Manus Island were to be re-opened as ‘offshore processing centres’ in mid-2012.

At the time I wrote to the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, asking him whether the Government supported the rights of LGBTI asylum-seekers, and whether they could guarantee that the laws criminalising homosexuality would not be applied to the people we sent there (original letter: https://alastairlawrie.net/2012/09/07/letter-to-chris-bowen-on-lgbti-asylum-seekers/). A similar letter was sent to then Opposition Immigration Spokesperson Scott Morrison.

It took almost ten months, and some harassment, for the Government to reply, and when they finally did, in June 2013, they did not answer the question – effectively conceding that the criminal laws of Nauru and Papua New Guinea do apply to LGBTI refugees we send there (response here: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/06/30/lgbti-refugees-on-nauru-manus-island/).

In a sign of things to come, Mr Morrison never replied. All of which meant that I was completely unsurprised by the Amnesty International Report “This is Breaking People”, released on 11 December 2013, which spelled out just how awful the consequences of this policy are for LGBTI asylum seekers (report here: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA12/002/2013/en/b2f135dc-3353-420d-b587-05d2b3db6e2f/asa120022013en.pdf see especially discussion on pages 73-75).

But just because I am unsurprised, does not mean I am not outraged – and you should be too. In short, gay refugees sent to Manus Island are:

  • Told that same-sex sexual activities are prohibited
  • Told that, if they engage in same-sex sexual activities, they will be reported to PNG Police (despite there being no legal onus for the operators to do so)
  • NOT provided with condoms (and with safe-sex education comprising a talk telling them not to have sex) and
  • Subject to bullying and harassment from other detainees on the basis of their sexual orientation.

In such circumstances, it is even less surprising that the senior Australian Government official at the camp, Renate Croker, said she was unaware of any person claiming asylum on the basis of persecution due to their LGBTI status.

Not only is this apparently incorrect – with Amnesty International interviewing several gay male asylum-seekers, including at least one quoted as saying he had made a claim on that basis – it also ignores the fact that people can be LGBTI but claim asylum because of persecution on other grounds (eg race, religion).

Indeed, one of the refugees interviewed claimed that other people have considered changing and/or changed their applications to be refer to other grounds, rather than be exposed to further bullying or harassment inside the camp, as well as to minimise the threat of being reported to PNG Police. He further “explained that some gay men have chosen to return to their home countries with IOM [International Organization for Migration]’s assistance, despite the risks they face upon return.”

All of which made the comments of Minister Morrison in response to the report all the more chilling. The following excerpt is taken from Oliver Laughland’s excellent article in the Guardian Australia on 13 December (titled Scott Morrison denies Amnesty report findings on Manus island detention):

Morrison said this [automatic reporting to PNG Police] was not the policy of the government but added all asylum seekers on Manus were provided with “clear advice” on “relevant laws” in Papua New Guinea. Homosexuality is illegal in PNG and can carry a 14-year sentence. Morrison was asked repeatedly by Guardian Australia if the “relevant laws” included those relating to homosexuality but he declined to go into detail, adding: “In these press conferences you get to ask the questions, you don’t get to give the responses as well.” Morrison added that the department was “unaware of any claims or declarations of homosexuality or of any reports of homosexuality being investigated by the police at the centre”. [full article here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/13/scott-morrison-denies-amnesty-report-findings-on-manus-island-detention).

In short, our current Immigration Minister has all-but confirmed that PNG laws criminalising homosexuality apply to LGBTI refugees sent there, as well as expressing a clear lack of understanding about the nature of sexual orientation, homophobia and the reasons why LGBTI refugees might not want to make a ‘declaration’, including but not limited to the risk of criminal punishment.

All-in-all, the situation confronting LGBTI refugees sent to Manus Island, and by extension, Nauru, is a nightmare. But it cannot be divorced from the broader nightmare that is Australia’s bipartisan ‘Pacific Solution Mark II’. The fact that we are sending any refugees to be processed, and permanently resettled, on Nauru and in PNG is a massive failure of our political system, and of the Australian people for allowing it to happen, for it to be done in our name.

Tragically, as 2013 draws to a close, it is unclear how any of this is going to change. I would like to be able to end this article, and this countdown, by saying something like “Here’s hoping in 2014 we take the first steps towards a humane refugee assessment system.” But the pessimist in me, reflecting on all of the events of the past 12 to 18 months, wants to say instead “Please just don’t let it become any worse”.

LGBTI Refugees and the 2013 Federal Election

It appears that my previous post on LGBTI asylum seekers was overly optimistic (well, to be perfectly honest it wasn’t that optimistic to begin with – it’s just that the reality has turned out to be even worse than the already dire situation).

After more than 9 months of trying to get an answer out of the Commonwealth Immigration Minister (first Chris Bowen, and then Brendan O’Connor), when I eventually received a response from the Immigration Department instead in June, it failed to answer whether the criminal laws against homosexuality of Nauru and Papua New Guinea applied to refugees in processing centres there.

This omission clearly implied that the criminal laws do in fact apply. However, the letter left open an interpretation that refugees who were LGBTI, and feared persecution (or prosecution) in these countries, could apply to the Minister to be transferred to Australia, on the basis that their rights could not be guaranteed in those countries.

Unfortunately, that no longer appears to be the case. In the time since that response the Prime Minister changed, and within a month of Rudd’s return he had announced the ‘PNG Solution’, with a similar deal with Nauru revealed shortly afterwards. These policies moved beyond offshore processing, to include the permanent ‘resettlement’ in those countries of any and all refugees who arrive in Australia by boat.

Now, let me say from the outset that I completely oppose these policies, and believe them to be unconscionable, inhumane, and probably contrary to international law. Australia should not be in the business of abrogating its responsibility to offer protection to people who are fleeing persecution by simply dumping these people in other countries. And my opposition applies to the ‘resettlement’ of all refugees, irrespective of the grounds of their persecution (eg race, religion, nationality etc).

However, as a gay man, and in particular as a passionate advocate for LGBTI rights, I find policies that involve the resettlement of LGBTI refugees in countries that criminalise homosexuality particularly abhorrent. That is exactly what Australia is doing – taking any LGBTI refugee who arrives by boat and sending them to countries which make male homosexuality a criminal offence, liable to up to 14 years’ imprisonment.

I know that many other people agree with me – in fact, the only pleasing thing arising from this horrible situation has been the emergence of a variety of voices condemning these policies. This has meant that the Labor Government has been unable to avoid questions on this particular topic (something which they had largely managed to successfully do in the previous 10 months).

But it doesn’t make the answers given by Government Ministers any easier to stomach. On 8 August, Serkan Ozturk of the Star Observer reported that the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus (an intelligent man who really should know better): “confirmed the government intends to send all asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat without a visa – including LGBTI people fleeing persecution and people living with HIV – to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for processing and permanent resettlement despite laws criminalising homosexual sex, high rates of HIV infection and limited medical and social infrastructure on the impoverished island-nation…

When questioned by the Star Observer on whether LGBTI asylum seekers would be sent to PNG, Dreyfus was unequivocal.

“You’ve outlined an aspect of PNG law which is of general application but as I say we are not ruling out any group,” Dreyfus said.

“At the same time our Minister for Immigration, Tony Burke, has made it very clear that those transfers won’t occur until there is appropriate accommodation and appropriate circumstances for everyone who is sent.”

Pressed on whether that meant the Australian government would be placing pressure on PNG to reform legal codes, Dreyfus said he would not be drawn “giving a running commentary” on the laws of neighbouring countries, including PNG, Indonesia or Malaysia.

“We don’t think that’s necessary in order for Australia to comply with our international legal obligations and the obligations we have under the Migration Act.””

The fact that the Government is aware of this situation, and specifically the potential consequences of sending LGBTI refugees to these countries, but has continued on along this path irrespective of the dangers, is damning.

Sadly, the Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, isn’t any better. On 6 August the ABC reported (from what I believe was a response to an oursay question from Senthorun Raj) that Senator Carr similarly confirmed that homosexual asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat will be resettled in PNG despite facing prison under local laws, even though those laws conflict with contemporary Australia values.

“I am concerned about… what we see as a grotesquely outdated, legal position applying in PNG. I understand – and I know this is little comfort – but there have been few if any charges laid or prosecutions made under laws prohibiting homosexual activity in PNG,” he said. You are right on one thing, Senator Carr: that is little comfort.

Tony Burke, the current Minister for Immigration (and the third person to hold that post this year), also believes that this policy is appropriate. However, in one of the most Orwellian moments of the 2013 federal election campaign (or indeed in recent Australian politics more generally), he stated that he had been advised that ‘no part of the caseload so far’ had arisen (ie no LGBTI person had been sent to Nauru or PNG so far).

The transcript, from a media conference on 1 August, is as follows:

Question: Sorry Minister, just to go out to Manus Island for a moment. Given that homosexuality is still considered a crime in PNG, but our government has pledged to transfer all asylum seekers regardless of their sexuality, what efforts have been undertaken to make sure that those transferred will not be persecuted for their sexuality, either as detainees, or if they are then settled in PNG?

Tony Burke: In the first instance we have no part of the caseload so far where this issue has arisen, no part of the caseload where this has arisen. In…

Question: So does that mean…

Tony Burke: Please, please, when other people were talking over you I made sure you got the run so allow me to answer your question.

I’ve been very careful throughout all of this to not carve out any exclusions from the policy. And I explained the implications of that with the specific reference to what the Opposition have attempted to do with women and children. There are very deep implications if we start carving people out. And if you do that, you are by no means taking a – I’m saying you, but anyone doing that is by no means taking a compassionate response because of the automatic reaction that people smugglers will engage in.

My language on this has not changed, which is people will be sent when we are confident they will be safe, when we are confident that appropriate accommodation and services are in place, and I’m not going to define it further than that.”

Which raises far more questions than it provides answers. It is possible that what he meant to say was that no-one sent to Manus Island has lodged a refugee claim on the basis of persecution of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. But that doesn’t mean those claims won’t emerge at a later point (it is definitely possible that a LGBTI refugee will not disclose their status in the limited time after arrival in Australia and before transfer, but that it would instead emerge at a later point).

And it ignores the fact that someone who is seeking refugee protection on the basis of race, religion or other grounds can also be LGBTI (even if just as someone who has sexual intercourse with someone else of the same sex). This would not be immediately apparent to an interviewer and there are foreseeably several reasons why they would NOT disclose their particular circumstances (especially if fleeing as part of a family group where their family is unaware of their sexual orientation).

But the most obvious flaw in Minister Burke’s advice is that all refugees who arrive by boat, including children, are being ‘resettled’ in PNG and Nauru. Those children could grow up to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or they may have been born intersex, and it may not be known to that child, their family or indeed anyone else at the time of resettlement. It does not make it any more acceptable that as a country we exposed that child to future criminal prosecution (or at the very least, societal discrimination), simply because we didn’t know of their status.

We DO know that this policy is wrong and should be stopped, which means that we are collectively responsible for what happens in the future as a result of it.

Unfortunately, while some of the positive reforms of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Labor Governments will be dismantled by the incoming Abbott Liberal-National Government it seems there is bipartisan agreement on the idea of resettling refugees in South Pacific countries. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, and Shadow Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison, both appeared to welcome the announcement by Rudd of the PNG policy, while they have also announced their own plans to resettle refugees in Nauru (aka “tent city”).

It should also be pointed out that, last September, at the same time that I wrote to the Immigration Minister (and Prime Minister and Attorney-General), I also wrote to the Shadow Minister, Opposition Leader and Shadow Attorney-General, raising the same concerns about the processing or resettlement of LGBTI refugees in countries which criminalise homosexuality. No-one from the Opposition ever responded to these letters, which perhaps indicates how seriously they take those concerns.

The fact that, as it stands, both major parties endorse this policy means that, no matter who is elected on Saturday, the incoming Government will continue to abrogate its responsibilities to offer protection to all refugees, including refugees who are LGBTI. That it will inevitably continue to be cheered along by sections of the press will make it even harder to endure.

Perhaps the only ray of hope in this awful mess is that the High Court might do what the public should (but won’t) on Saturday – tell our MPs, from both the ALP and the Liberal-National Coalition, that resettling refugees in PNG and Nauru is unconscionable, inhumane, and, hopefully, unlawful. So, to our distinguished High Court Justices I say: no pressure, but it seems this is now entirely up to you.

LGBTI refugees on Nauru & Manus Island

So, the past few weeks have been pretty busy (with the SDA Bill and my Change.org petition to help ensure the national Health & Physical Education curriculum is genuinely LGBTI-inclusive). One thing which happened earlier in June, which I had previously committed to place on my blog, is that I finally received a response to my letter to the then Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen – which I first sent in September 2012!

It has only taken 9 months, including a follow up letter to Minister Bowen, a new message to Minister Brendan O’Connor, who was appointed in February, and then some ongoing twitter harassment/stalking. Even after all of this the response which I have received is not from the Minister himself (either of them) but rather from the Director of the relevant Branch in the Department.

I have included the full text of the letter below. But I have chosen to omit the name of the Branch Director, because as a former public servant I can only imagine that they were instructed to draft the letter in this particular way, and after all, this is about the Government’s policy and not an individual.

In my original letter (see: https://alastairlawrie.net/2012/09/07/letter-to-chris-bowen-on-lgbti-asylum-seekers/), amongst other questions, I asked whether the Government supported the rights of LGBTI people to seek asylum, as well as whether these asylum seekers would be subject to the laws of Nauru and Papua New Guinea (Manus Island) which still criminalise homosexuality.

The response to the first question appears to be yes – the letter at least accepts the fact that people can claim refugee status on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (although it is less clear that intersex status is accepted). How well Australia implements this commitment is, of course, a much longer discussion.

However, the letter refuses to answer the second key point. I can only assume that, based on the Director’s avoidance of this issue, the criminal offences relating to homosexuality in Nauru and Papua New Guinea do, at the very least, technically apply to the asylum seekers which we as a country distressingly continue to send to these places.

The letter then rather cryptically goes into detail about what individuals can do if they object to being transferred to a particular Regional Processing Country. While I would fully expect that the ‘Ministerial discretion’ which is alluded to would be exercised to override such concerns, I believe that the lawyers who represent LGBTI asylum seekers being sent to Nauru or Manus Island should at the very least raise their concerns under s198AE with the Minister (whoever that might be after the reshuffle tomorrow).

As an aside I don’t actually think that it matters whether the particular asylum seeker is seeking protection because of persecution on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity (or intersex status), merely that they are LGBTI and fear persecution by the Governments of Nauru or Papua New Guinea because of their ongoing criminalisation of same-sex activity.

I will now endeavour to ensure that LGBTI and/or general refugee advocates are aware of this advice and can take any appropriate steps (noting that these applications may have already been made to, and rejected by, the Minister for Immigration since the detention centres were reopened last August).

Overall, of course, even if LGBTI asylum seekers were removed from Nauru and Manus Island, this would only be ‘fiddling at the edges’ of the revived Pacific Solution, a policy so awful that it brings shame to the entire Australian population, myself included. No asylum seeker, whether LGBTI or not, should ever be sent to such places, for an indefinite period, merely for exercising their fundamental right to seek protection from persecution.

Most depressingly of all, the upcoming federal election doesn’t appear like it will change these policies – if anything, the probable election of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, with Scott Morrison as Minister for Immigration, will make things substantially worse.

On that ‘glass-completely-empty’ note, here is the response from the Department which only took 9 months to conceive:

Dear Mr Lawrie,

Thank you for your email of 7 September 2012 to the former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, the Hon Chris Bowen MP, concerning the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) asylum seekers. Your letter has been referred to me for a reply. I apologise for the delay in responding.

The Australian Government’s commitment to removing discrimination was demonstrated by its reforms to remove discrimination from 85 Commonwealth laws. These reforms, which passed in 2009, removed discrimination and equalised treatment for same-sex couples in areas of taxation, social security, health, aged care, superannuation, immigration, child support and family law.

The Government is also proceeding with introducing long overdue protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. On 21 March 2013, the Attorney-General introduced the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013. This Bill will ensure that protections from discrimination for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex are put in place as soon as practicable.

Concerning the transfer of post-13 August 2012 irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs) to Regional Processing Countries (RPC) and the treatment of LGBTI asylum seekers, as a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (the Refugee Convention), Australia takes its international obligations seriously and is committed to providing protection to refugees consistent with the obligations set out in the Refugees Convention and other human rights treaties to which Australia is a party. Any person has the right to seek protection in Australia from persecution in their home country.

The Government has signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with the Governments of Nauru and Papua New Guinea which permit people who arrived irregularly by boat on or after 13 August 2012 to be taken to Nauru or Papua New Guinea (Manus Island) for assessment of their claims against the Refugee Convention. Changes to the Migration Act 1958 (the Act) which give effect to regional processing arrangements were passed by the Australian Parliament and became law on 18 August 2012.

The MoU signed with Nauru and Papua new Guinea reaffirms the commitment of both countries to the Refugee Convention, with people transferred to the Regional Processing Country (RPC) to be treated with dignity and respect in line with human rights standards.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship recognises that human rights abuses and gender-related persecution can also be experienced by people on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. As such, an applicant’s gender-related claims may include claims relating to their
sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

In the guidelines set out in the Departmental Procedures Advice Manual 3 (PAM3), for the guidance of interviewing officers, they are advised that

“Unlike other persecuted groups, sexual orientation and gender identity is not a readily visible characteristic and has to be revealed by the individual. Homosexual and transsexual applications may, therefore, have only spoken to a handful of people, or none at all, about their sexuality and have kept it a secret. Interviewers and decision makers should, therefore, not be surprised if an applicant suddenly raises the issue of sexual orientation or gender identity late in an application process, prefaced perhaps by an earlier weak or false claim on other grounds.”

Pre-Transfer Assessment is undertaken prior to a person’s transfer to an RPC to consider whether there are specific circumstances or special needs that mean it is not reasonably practicable to transfer an asylum seeker to an RPC at this time.

Where a person raises concerns against a designated RC, the Departmental officer refers to relevant country information, as well as the assurances received by Australia from the RPC governments, to assess if those charges are credible. If the person makes credible protection claims against all RPCs, the case is brought to the Minister’s attention in accordance with his guidelines for considering the exercise of his power under section 198AE of the Migration Act 1958 to exempt that person from transfer.

A copy of the Minister’s s198AE guidelines and the Pre-Transfer Assessment form and guidelines can be found at the Department’s website at: www.immi.gov.au/visas/humanitarian/whatsnew.htm

Also for your information, I attach a copy of the relevant sections of PAM3 regarding gender and sexual orientation. For a full interactive copy of that document you may need to contact your nearest public library which should be able to provide free access.

Thank you for writing about this matter and I apologise again for the delay in respond.

Yours sincerely

[Name withheld]

Director

Protection Policy Section

6 June 2013

My Top 12 of 2012

On the last day of 2012, I thought it might be an opportune time to reflect on the major achievements, and disappointments, for the LGBTI community over the past 12 months. The following list of 12 highlights (or indeed ‘lowlights’ for a few) include a mix of domestic, and international, developments, as well as a couple which are not directly LGBTI-related, but which indirectly could have a major impact on LGBTI people. Of course, any ‘list-making exercise’ involves inherently subjective judgments about what is important, and I would be interested to hear your views about what should have made the list but is not included (and vice versa).

And so, in no particular order, here are my 12 highs and lows of 2012.

Gardasil Vaccine Image

1. Boys to get free Gardasil vaccine

On 12 July, Federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek announced that, from next year, boys aged 12 and 13 would be provided with three free doses of the Gardasil vaccine, which protects against the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). This is a massive long-term win for the LGBTI community – and in particular gay and bisexual men – and finally overturns the homophobic decision of the previous Government to exclude teenage boys from the National Immunisation Program.

The then Health Minister, Tony Abbott, who initially resisted listing Gardasil for anyone, eventually chose to restrict free access to Gardasil to school-age girls on the basis that this would protect these girls from HPV, and the boys who would in future sleep with them, thereby reducing the prevalence of HPV across the ‘broader community’. Except that, obviously, it would do little to reduce HPV prevalence amongst men who have sex with men, who would not be immunised.

This is significant because, while most people understand that HPV causes cervical cancer, it also causes penile, anal, and mouth and throat cancers. So, as a result of Tony Abbott excluding boys from accessing this vaccine from its commencement in 2007, there will be a six year cohort of gay and bisexual men who could have been protected against the cause of many types of cancer, but will instead potentially suffer long-term serious health consequences. To me, that is the epitome of the phrase blood on his hands.

Still, this is not to detract from the announcement by Minister Plibersek, and the amazing achievement that all gay and bisexual men born in Australia from the year 2000 onwards will have a dramatically reduced risk of developing cancer. Well done, Tanya.

2. National LGBTI Aged Care and Ageing Strategy

Another major achievement by the Federal Government this year was the release of the National LGBTI Aged Care and Ageing Strategy by the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler. This strategy, released on 20 December, is absolutely essential to help end the stigma of silence surrounding, and the direct and indirect discrimination confronted by, older LGBTI people as they engage with aged care services and enter aged care facilities.

The fact that it was released at all is a testament to the hard work, over many years, by people such as academic Jo Harrison, and the National LGBTI Health Alliance, and of course to a Minister and Government that was willing to both listen to, and work with, the community on this issue. The strategy is also backed up with a commitment of funding (at least $2.5 million), which will help aged care service providers to learn how to be inclusive of LGBTI individuals, couples, carers and their families.

However, this is funding that must also be protected from a Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, who has already identified this bucket of money as a potential saving should the Coalition win Government next year. So, well done Mark, and hands off, Joe.

3. Government MPs, including PM Gillard, join with Coalition to vote down marriage equality

Of course, when it comes to assessing the record of the Federal Government on LGBTI rights in 2012, most people will (quite understandably) not be able to look past the failure of the parliament to pass marriage equality. Dozens of ALP MPs, including Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan, and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, joined with all but one member of the Coalition (Liberal Senator Sue Boyce, who notably abstained), to vote against legislation which would have finally granted genuine equality to same-sex relationships.

This defeat was inevitable because of the decision by the ALP national conference in December 2011 to grant a conscience vote to its parliamentarians, rather than enforce a binding vote in favour of marriage equality. But just because defeat was inevitable, and expected, does not mean it was any less devastating for those of us longing to be acknowledged as first-class citizens.

Indeed, the scale of the defeat – 98 votes against and 42 in favour in the House of Representatives, and a somewhat closer 41 votes against and 26 in favour in the Senate – was particularly disheartening, especially as it shows the fight for equal marriage is likely ten or more years away from success.

The fact that the Prime Minister was one of those who stood intransigently against LGBTI Australians is something that will never be forgotten. This is someone who is able to identify and eloquently denounce sexism and misogyny ‘wherever she sees it’, but who either has a blind spot when it comes to homophobia, or who warmly embraces it. Shame, Julia, shame.

*The one positive development when it comes to marriage equality under federal law came in January when the Attorney-General Nicola Roxon implemented another ALP national conference decision, which was to allow same-sex couples marrying overseas to be issued with Certificates of No Impediment (CNI). As well as overturning the homophobic policy of previous Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock, this decision means that many more Australian couples – like Steve and I – will at least be able to marry elsewhere, even if our own country doesn’t recognise it.

4. Campbell Newman rolls back the clock

One of the most disappointing developments of 2012, especially for someone who grew up in Queensland during the 1980s and early 1990s, was the speed and scale of the newly-elected Liberal-National Party Government’s ‘crusade’ against LGBTI rights. Elected with a huge majority (78 seats out of a parliament of 89), Campbell Newman and his colleagues wasted no time in identifying the number one issue which they needed to address – the fact that LGBTI Queenslanders had come dangerously close to being accepted as equal.

In their first 9 months in office, the Newman LNP Government has:

  • Removed funding for the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities (QAHC), the only HIV/AIDS peak body in the state which services the men who have sex with men (MSM) community. The Health Minister Lawrence Springborg attempted to justify this decision on the basis that HIV rates were rising faster in Queensland than in the rest of the country – but the figures released later in 2012 showed that HIV rates have actually declined in Queensland, counter to a national rise. Which leaves just one possible explanation for why QAHC was defunded – the homophobia of the LNP and Minister Springborg.
  • Amended the civil union laws, which had been introduced by the Bligh Government at the end of its term, to remove the ability of same-sex couples to have a legally-binding ceremony. Apparently having any ceremony at all was ‘mimicking’ marriage and needed to be outlawed as a matter of priority.
  • Announced that it will remove the ability of same-sex couples (as well as single people) to access surrogacy. It is still unclear what the penalty will be for couples who break this proposed law, although at various times during the year it appeared the Newman Government would introduce gaol terms for people whose only crime was attempting to found a family.
  • Introduced a new ‘student protection’ policy which will require school staff, including counsellors, to report to the principal any sexual activity between a student under 16 with someone over 16 (irrespective of their actual age difference), and of any student between the ages of 16 and 18 who has engaged in ‘sodomy’. This policy further entrenches the discriminatory age of consent provisions in Queensland (which has a higher age of consent for anal intercourse), and poses a danger to the health and safety of students who are simply seeking counselling and advice. At this stage it appears that school nurses – who are employed by Queensland Health rather than the Education Department – are exempt from this policy, although how long that exemption lasts remains to be seen.

The christian fundamentalist war against LGBTI people being waged north of the Tweed is a possible blueprint for a newly-elected Abbott Liberal-National Government to implement federally. Which makes the federal election to be held sometime during 2013 all the more important. In the meantime, the LGBTI people of Queensland are watching their rights being dismantled, one at a time. Shame, Campbell, shame.

5. Uganda debates ‘kill the gays’ bill

There have been several distressing stories internationally during the year. The appeals court in Cameroon upholding a three-year gaol term for Jean-Claude Roger Mbede simply for sending a text message to another man saying “I’m very much in love with you” was heart-breaking. The backwards steps being taken in Russia are also an obvious concern (not only do gay pride parades remain banned, but attacks against LGBTI Russians are rising at the same time the Russian parliament is considering legislation to outlaw ‘propaganda of homosexuality among minors’).

But without doubt the number one ‘lowlight’ internationally this year was the move by parliamentarians in Uganda to introduce capital punishment for homosexuality. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill (or Kill the Gays Bill as it is commonly referred), if passed, would mean Uganda would join 7 other countries where homosexuality is subject to the death penalty, out of 76 countries where being LGBTI is still a crime.

As the year ends there has been a short reprieve, with the Bill not coming on for a vote until at least February 2013, and some reports that the death penalty may ultimately be dropped from the Bill – although sadly not imprisonment. Still, the prospect of a country potentially introducing capital punishment for homosexuality this decade is almost too depressing for words.

Allout image

6. The emergence of AllOut (@allout)

One of the key groups which emerged to draw attention to, and fight against, the Kill the Gays Bill, was AllOut (a New York-based organisation which uses online and real-world tools to help the global LGBT movement for equality). In fact, I would argue that the emergence of AllOut is itself a major highlight of 2012.

AllOut is taking the best and most up to date models of activism and applying them to causes as diverse as LGBTI equality in Brazil, same-sex parenting in the EU, ending gay ‘cures’ in California, as well as trying to help stop the Ugandan Kill the Gays Bill. Here’s hoping that AllOut has a long and proud future, as it complements the work of existing and established organisations like the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA).

7. International moves towards marriage equality

Another highlight of 2012 was the ongoing progress of the marriage equality movement. Leaving aside victories in the US (which I will discuss below), marriage rights were extended to LGBTI couples in Denmark in June. And the governments of Scotland, Luxemburg and France have all committed to marriage equality in the next few years. In England and Wales, and New Zealand, it appears likely that equal marriage will be passed next year by parliaments with conservative governments (Tory Prime Minister David Cameron is helping to drive legislation in Westminster, while National Party Prime Minister John Key has indicated he will support a private member’s bill in the Beehive).

The fact that two conservative leaders have embraced marriage equality shows just how far this movement has come over the past few years, and the fact that further progress is inevitable. Of course, it also further underscores just how out of touch and embarrassing Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are on this issue, but one day they too will be mere footnotes to our record of achievement.

8. The United States takes a giant leap for LGBTI ‘humankind’

It seemed like 2012 was the year in which the United States of America, and its people, finally ‘got it’ when it comes to LGBTI equality. The President, Barack Obama, announced that he supported marriage equality back in May (in part because he could muster no arguments against it when discussing the topic with his daughters). He was subsequently re-elected to serve a second term, and it seems that his pro-equality stance was a help rather than a hindrance (something which Julia Gillard should – but probably won’t – notice).

But Obama’s re-election was just one of many victories on Tuesday November 6 – a date on which LGBTI rights in the US took a bigger step forward than any single day since the Stonewall Riots in 1969. After 32 consecutive losses in state-wide referenda on same-sex marriage, all four states which voted in November bucked the trend and supported equality. As a result, Maine, Maryland and Washington became the 7th, 8th and 9th US states to introduce marriage equality, while a referenda to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota was also defeated.

The significant of these victories should not be underestimated. For years, the radical right in the US has used these ballots to ‘get out the christian vote’ – indeed, Karl Rove employed this strategy to help George W Bush secure re-election as recently as 2004. Instead, in 2012, the American people decided to vote for acceptance and inclusion rather than intolerance and hate. What. A. Change.

To top things off, in Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin was elected as the first openly gay person ever to serve in the US Senate. And that’s not even counting the fact the most influential political analyst of the US election was a gay man, Nate Silver.

This truly was a watershed election, and paves the way for bigger changes in the future. Which might be upon us sooner than we thought, with the US Supreme Court to hear cases considering both Proposition 8 (the Californian ban on same-sex marriage), and the constitutional validity of the Defense of Marriage Act, in 2013. Let’s hope that the Court’s decisions are amongst the highlights (and not lowlights) of next year.

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9. Hip-hop comes of age

There was a similar sea-change when it came to US popular culture this year. After many, many, many years of waiting, it seems like hip-hop finally started to change its homophobic ways, and to deal with the subject of homosexuality with a little bit of respect rather than just a whole lot of ‘faggots’ and ‘fucking homos’.

Leading the charge was Jay-Z, who followed Obama’s announcement by declaring that he too backed equal marriage rights. Other hip-hop stars also expressed their support. Rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis then released one of the best bits of pro-LGBTI propaganda of the past few years (well, outside of the 2011 GetUp! video anyway) in the form of single Same Love, which was also used in the successful marriage equality referendum campaign in Washington State. And Azealia Banks (of 212 fame) came out at as bisexual in February, a statement which may take on even more significance in February 2013 when she releases her debut album.

But for mine the most important development in hip-hop in 2012 was the beautiful and tender letter written by rapper Frank Ocean, talking about his first love – a man – and published the week before his full-length debut Channel Orange was released. This was a hip-hop star not just coming out, but coming out at the start of his career, and making no apologies for who he was and who he loved.

Of course, there have been other music stars who have come out (Elton John, George Michael, KD Lang, Melissa Etheridge, and countless others), but usually this has been at the end of their careers – or at least long after they were well established. Even ‘out and proud from the beginning’ groups like the Scissor Sisters (personal favourites of mine) have played in the more traditionally gay-friendly genres of pop and dance, rather than the decidedly less accommodating field of rap/hip-hop.

What made Frank Ocean’s declaration even more significant was that he backed it up with what has been widely recognised as the best album of the year – which is just one of six categories in which he is nominated for a Grammy. Channel Orange is a brilliant collection of highly personal songs, including several which are sung to or about a male love interest. Bad Religion is just about the best piece of art on the subject of unrequited (same-sex) love ever. Frank Ocean didn’t just make gay hip-hop for a gay audience, he made great hip-hop that covered many topics, including same-sex love, and looks to have found a large audience around the world. Even if you don’t like his music, you cannot help but admire his accomplishments.

10. Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse

This is the first of two developments which are not explicitly LGBTI-related but which are fundamentally important to all Australians, including the LGBTI community. The decision by the Federal Government to appoint a Royal Commission into child sex abuse is a necessary first step in dealing with this evil scourge, as well as recognition of the courage of people like Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox and numerous others in pushing for it, despite many setbacks along the way.

There are two potential long-term consequences for the LGBTI community as the Royal Commission runs its course. The first is that the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, and other religious organisations, will become ever more apparent. Some of the same religious figures who have been arguing about the so-called ‘perils’ of recognising the love between two consenting adults, have also been involved in negligent inaction within their own churches about the very real problem of child sex abuse. Some may even ultimately be found to have engaged in the criminal cover-up of child sex abuse, instead preferring to pay hush money to the victims and simply moving the offenders around. The fact that the broader community will be able to see through the hypocrisy of these figures should make it much easier to push for LGBTI equality in the future.

The second consequence is much more ambiguous. One tactic which christian fundamentalists could resort to during the Royal Commission is to blame ‘gay priests’ for child sex abuse, and to try to link homosexuality and paedophilia in the public debate. This strategy, blaming ‘the gays’ for child sex abuse, was used by bigots like France Arena in NSW in the 1990s, and it is easy to see it being attempted again – with much unpleasantness all round.

But I think this ultimately could be a good thing. Public understanding of these issues has moved on since then. Provided the Royal Commission is handled sensitively and gay and lesbian lobby groups are ready for the debate, this could actually be an opportunity to forever break any connection between these two essentially unrelated ideas (homosexuality and paedophilia).

11. Asylum seekers are sent to Nauru and Manus Island

Again, this ‘lowlight’ is not directly LGBTI related. But I would include it here because any time a country turns its backs on asylum seekers – to the extent that it chooses to send them to detention centres in other countries for unspecified periods of time – is something so terrible that it cannot, and must not, be ignored. To put it bluntly, this is a national disgrace, and something which the Labor Government and Liberal-National Opposition should forever be ashamed about. Unfortunately, given the current state of political debate in our country, there does not seem to be much hope this situation will change any time soon.

Of course, as I have written previously, there are LGBTI dimensions to this issue as well. There will inevitably be some asylum seekers who are sent to Manus Island and Nauru who were seeking asylum in Australia because of LGBTI persecution in their home country. It should also be noted that, for gay and bisexual men who are detained in either of these centres, both Nauru and Papua New Guinea criminalise male homosexuality, and so they may be exposed to prosecution on that basis. Still, this is an issue which is larger than just these injustices to LGBTI asylum seekers – no asylum seeker should be imprisoned simply for seeking safety from persecution. Not now, not ever.

12. Exposure Draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012

I thought I might end on a positive note – and also something which represents unfinished business for 2013. In November, the Federal Government finally released the exposure draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012. As well as consolidating the existing protected attributes of race, sex, disability and age, this Bill would for the first time provide federal anti-discrimination protection to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians (*at this stage, intersex people are not properly protected, although hopefully that will be rectified during the committee stage).

If passed, this legislation would be another significant LGBTI-related achievement by the Labor Government. Building on relationship recognition and public sector superannuation reforms in 2008, passport changes for transgender people, Gardasil vaccinations for boys and the National LGBTI Aged Care and Ageing Strategy (both above), this would contribute to a fairly broad-based and substantial record of reform. To some extent, it is a shame that the failure to recognise marriage equality is so large a defeat that it overshadows much of this significant level of achievement. But then the Government has no-one to blame for that than itself.

Still, that is getting ahead of ourselves. Returning to the Bill, there are two major hurdles left to overcome. The first is in securing sufficient cross-bench support so that the Bill passes the House of Representatives, although the noises on this seem to be positive. The second, much more difficult, hurdle to overcome is ensuring that the legisation is passed before the federal election is called. With at most five months of sitting time left in this parliament, it is touch and go whether the Bill will be passed in time. Whether it does is the most important domestic LGBTI story of the first half of 2013. Fingers (and toes) crossed.