7 things we need to do now

Commonwealth_ Sex Discrimination Act 1984-3

 

At the end of a long week – which felt more like a month, and frankly had a year’s worth of ups and (mostly) downs – it’s time to take stock, and work out what we do next.

 

Thankfully, there are now two challenges to the Government’s pseudo postal plebiscite (aka the Australian Bureau of Statistics ‘Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey’), which will be heard by the High Court on September 5 and 6.

 

However, while we might hope for the best – that the judiciary finds this extraordinary and unprecedented process to be an unconstitutional abuse of executive power – we must also prepare ourselves for the worst.

 

In that context, I offer the following seven suggestions of how we should respond to Malcolm Turnbull’s supposed statistical survey:

 

  1. Enrol

 

The Government has already announced that, in order to participate in the ‘plebiscite’, you must be on the electoral roll by 6pm on Thursday 24 August.

 

So, the most immediate thing you need to do is:

 

  • Check your enrolment here.

 

  • If you aren’t enrolled, enrol to vote here.

 

Even if you are currently intending to boycott the ‘Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey’, you might end up changing your mind in the coming weeks and months, so please update your enrolment now and leave your options open in September and October.

 

  1. Engage

 

This step is harder than the first, especially when emotions are understandably running high and we feel that the process that has been inflicted upon us is incredibly unfair (because it is). But that doesn’t mean the pseudo postal plebiscite is necessarily going away either.

 

Which means we need to engage, with our family members (including extended family), our friends, our colleagues, our peers, basically anyone and everyone we have connections with, to encourage them to support the fight for equality.

 

Of course, there are limits to this ask. Don’t engage with trolls, or with people who show they are unwilling to genuinely engage with you (neither group is worth your time). And don’t engage where you don’t feel comfortable, and above all, safe in doing so.

 

But, please have these conversations wherever and whenever you can, because that’s how we remind people who are already on our side what they need to do, and how we persuade the people who have yet to make up their minds.

 

  1. Educate

 

This step, which is related to number two, is much more difficult again. It is hard when the decision by the Turnbull Coalition Government to hold this pseudo postal plebiscite has already politicised every minute, every hour and every day of our lives – politicised our mere existence – until this farce is over.

 

And there’s no denying the perennial problem that in struggles for justice, the burden of educating the oppressors falls disproportionately on the oppressed (when people should instead bear responsibility for educating themselves).

 

Nevertheless, there will still be many opportunities in the months ahead for genuine education. To provide information to people who may not have thought about LGBTIQ issues before. To answer questions from those who don’t know a lot about us, or our relationships, but who show a sincere desire to learn.

 

Of course, for many in our community, for different reasons, this task is not something they are willing or able to do – and that’s totally okay. And for anyone who does decide to engage in these discussions, you should always remember that your personal information is yours, and you should only disclose as much as you feel comfortable. Nobody has a ‘right’ to know everything about you.

 

But for those of us who are in a position to have these conversations, we should. And if you need help getting started, Australian Marriage Equality/The Equality Campaign have produced a number of useful resources (including translations into Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Arabic, Hindi, Greek, Italian, and Spanish).

 

  1. Vote

 

We’ve reached the fourth step on my list, and the third most important: to vote (and obviously to vote yes).

 

Before I start, I’d like to say to anyone who is currently considering boycotting the pseudo postal plebiscite that I completely understand where you’re coming from. It is a bullshit process, imposed for bullshit reasons. It is inherently offensive to LGBTIQ people; it is insulting, and demeaning, to our relationships.

 

In fact, the decision by Liberal and National MPs and Senators to adopt a supposed statistical survey on marriage equality made me even more angry, and frustrated, about a subject that I thought had exhausted my reserves of both. Despite all this, I have decided that I will vote, and I urge you to do the same, for the following reasons:

 

a) Most LGBTIQ people think we should

 

Before the Government’s appalling actions this week, PFLAG and just.equal conducted a survey of 5,261 LGBTI Australians to ascertain their views about a possible postal vote, and how we should respond as a community.

 

Only 15.2% thought we should boycott such a vote, with more than half publicly opposed to a postal ballot but prepared to win it if it’s held. And, even though that survey was conducted based on a hypothetical, and the subsequent reality might have changed the depth of our feelings, I don’t think it has altered our thinking.

 

b) Most LGBTIQ community organisations think we should

 

For people who have been engaged in LGBTIQ advocacy for a while, it’s no secret we sometimes don’t play well together. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that nearly all major community organisations have come out in the past 24-48 hours to say that, while they oppose the pseudo postal plebiscite, they will fight to win it.

 

How ironic that Malcolm Turnbull’s divisive debate, that will cause such disharmony across Australian society, could end up being a powerful unifying moment within the LGBTIQ community itself.

 

c) Pragmatic politics

 

There are several political reasons why we should vote, including the obvious one: that a yes vote offers the best chance (albeit no guarantee) of marriage equality being passed this year. A significant yes majority will also diminish the influence of the groups that oppose LGBTIQ rights, like the Australian Christian Lobby, not just on this topic but across all issues.

 

But, even if we lose (which is a real possibility, given a voluntary postal opinion poll has significant flaws, and skews towards older, more conservative voters, effectively stacking the decks against us), the closer the loss the easier it will be for Labor and the Greens to introduce marriage equality in future.

 

d) Personal

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a strong personal motivation to campaign for equality: the desire to finally marry my fiancé of seven and a half years. However, as much as I love Steven – and trust me, it’s a lot – he’s not the reason I will be voting, and voting yes.

 

Teenage Alastair is. Who realised he was gay on his first day at a religious boarding school in Brisbane in 1991. Who took about a month to understand just how homophobic his surrounding environment was, and became depressed. Who, from the second term of year 8, until the final term of year 12, thought about ending his life every day, multiple times a day, because he feared he would never find acceptance for who he was.

 

Alastair aged 12 to 17 probably wouldn’t have understood the ethical reasons why some people in the LGBTIQ community might have wanted to boycott a supposed statistical survey. But he definitely would have understood the message of a large no victory: that his country was explicitly rejecting him, and anyone like him.

 

So, I’m voting for him.

 

Many of us have been that person. Most of us know someone who has been through something similar. All of us can empathise with what that fear, that isolation, that loneliness, feels like. So let’s stand up for all of them – including those who tragically didn’t make it – and vote yes.

 

  1. Take Care of Yourself

 

We already know that, if the pseudo postal plebiscite is not rejected by the High Court, the next four months are going to be awful. There will be misinformation, and outright lies, spread against us by those who wish to do us harm. Indeed, their hate-based campaign has already started – so much for the Prime Minister’s so-called #respectfuldebate.

 

We should not underestimate the impact that this battle will have on all of us, or the fact it will disproportionately affect the more vulnerable groups within the LGBTIQ community itself (including young people, trans and gender diverse people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTIQ people and rainbow families and their children).

 

Throughout this process, we must all take care of ourselves.

 

There are services in place that can help if you need it, including:

 

  • QLife, the national telephone and web counselling service for LGBTI people, families and friends. Call 1800 184 527, 3pm to midnight everyday.

 

 

For a longer list of the support services available to LGBTIQ+ community, see this article by SBS.

 

Beyond these formal services, however, there are plenty of other ways to practice self-care, and self-love, during this time. If you need to talk to someone, reach out to your friends and other people in your life. If you are finding yourself negatively affected by the public debate and/or social media, switch off. If you have to take a break from the campaign, do – drop out for as long as you need.

 

For other tips on what you can do to take care of yourself, see the helpful info-graphic produced by ACON at the end of this article. If you are a member of an LGBTIQ family, you can also check out this handy guide produced by Rainbow Families. And if you are aware of, or come across, other useful resources, please don’t hesitate to share them in the comments below.

 

  1. And Each Other

 

The other, equally important, part of this equation is to look out for, and take care of, each other.

 

It is difficult to imagine a process that causes more damage, or has the prospect for greater division, than the three-month long, voluntary, non-binding ‘Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey’ designed by the Turnbull Government.

 

Indeed, that may have been the intention of some of those who advocated this option. At best, Coalition MPs and Senators have shown that they are completely indifferent to the harm the pseudo postal plebiscite will cause the LGBTIQ community.

 

They don’t care about us. So we must care about each other.

 

Be pro-active. Check in with the people around you to see they are okay. If you notice someone struggling, ask how they’re going, give them a call, have a cup of tea, offer a helping hand – or a shoulder to cry on.

 

Over recent decades, the LGBTIQ community has had to endure many challenges, to show resilience in the face of adversity. We need to do so again now.

 

**********

 

These last two steps – Take Care of Yourself. And Each Other – aren’t just the catchphrase of a trashy 90s talk-show host. They are also the two most important things we need to do in the coming weeks and months. Because while winning this vote, and achieving marriage equality, might be important, we – the members of the LGBTIQ community – are more important.

 

Before I finish, however, there is one last point that I need to make:

 

  1. Allies – It’s time to step up

 

I still remember early last year (although it seems longer) standing in front of a room full of mostly-cisgender, heterosexual activists and asking them for their help to win ‘Plebiscite 1.0’ – because the LGBTIQ community could not possibly win it on our own.

 

Well, that plea is just as relevant, probably even more so, for ‘Plebiscite 2.0’, especially with the challenges of voluntary postal voting, and an overall process engineered to benefit the side of those opposed to marriage equality.

 

If you consider yourself an ally of the LGBTIQ community, it’s time to step up. If you are a family member, friend, colleague or peer of an LGBTIQ person, it’s time to get involved.

 

Enrol. Engage and Educate (and, if you need to, educate yourselves). Vote, and encourage others to vote, too. I also have no doubt it will be an awful experience for many of you to see the trauma inflicted on the LGBTIQ people close to you – so look after them, as well as yourselves.

 

Most importantly, stand with us, by our sides, in this battle. Sit with us, and listen to us, if we ask you to. And fight for us, because we need you to.

 

And, if you’re not convinced by me, listen to the excellent advice of the even more excellent GetUp marriage equality campaigner, Sally Rugg:

 

“If you have ever put a rainbow filter on your Facebook profile picture, return your ballot paper the day you receive it.

 

If you have a friend, a family member or a co-worker who is LGBTIQ+, return your ballot paper the day you receive it.

 

If you have ever cringed at the words “one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others” at a wedding, return your ballot paper the day you receive it…

 

The postal plebiscite will be won or lost on how allies of the LGBTIQ+ community step up over the next two months.”

 

Over to you.

 

20728981_10156450372983222_6525108270708426171_o

2,756 Days. Frustration and Love.

It’s five o’clock in the morning. I’m sitting on a bus leaving Sydney, and I finally have some time to process the extraordinary events of the past few days.

 

It really is hard to put into words just how devastating, heart-breaking and frankly appalling the actions of the Liberal Party room on Monday evening, and Turnbull Coalition Government yesterday, have been.

 

First, was the devastating decision not to adopt a conscience vote on marriage equality, but to instead push once more for a ‘traditional’ plebiscite.

 

That’s the same unnecessary and wasteful non-binding opinion poll that was rejected by the Senate in November 2016, at the request of LGBTI Australians, because of the harm it will inevitably cause young and vulnerable members of our community.

 

It is no exaggeration to say that lives could be lost as a direct result of the extreme, hateful, hurtful bigotry that would accompany any such vote.

 

Second, was the heart-breaking decision that, even if the Senate once again rejects the legislation for a ‘traditional’ plebiscite (as it appears highly likely to do), the Government will attempt to hold a ‘postal’ plebiscite on the issue.

 

A ‘postal’ plebiscite has all of the disadvantages of a ‘traditional’ plebiscite, plus a few more of its own, including that it will be voluntary rather than compulsory to participate, it will disenfranchise large sections of the community, including young Australians (as even Malcolm Turnbull conceded, about the last one held twenty years ago) and, without legislation to give it effect, is constitutionally doubtful.

 

Which brings me to the third, and perhaps worst, decision of all – that they now intend to hold it as a ‘statistical survey’ conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, rather than an actual vote overseen by the Australian Electoral Commission.

 

This ‘pseudo postal plebiscite’ is nothing more than a naked attempt to circumvent not just the will of the Parliament, but also the legitimate limitations of the Constitution.

 

Thankfully, multiple groups campaigning for marriage equality have already indicated they are seeking legal advice before potentially challenging this postal plebiscite-in-all-but-name in the High Court. Here’s hoping they are successful, and that this bad joke of a policy is stopped before it starts to wreak its damage.

 

These three decisions, taken together, reveal the absolute contempt that some members of the Liberal and National Parties have for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

No other group has ever been subjected to this kind of process merely for the chance of being treated equally under secular law. No other group has ever been expected to jump through these ridiculous hoops just to have their human rights recognised.

 

Of course, in a debate that is about symbolism as much as it is about substance, it isn’t just the process they have chosen to adopt that is offensive – it is the way in which they have carried on the debate, a depressing mixture of denial, inconvenience and frustration.

 

Denial that marriage equality is an issue that is important to everyday Australians (it is). Denial that LGBTI couples, our families and friends exist in every electorate across the country (we do).

 

And denial that access to marriage rites is a fundamental right (it is – and if it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be so many Coalition MPs and Senators who have chosen to exercise that rite, and right, themselves).

 

It seems like many in the Liberal and National Parties find the entire marriage equality debate, and the ongoing demands of LGBTI Australians for equality under the law, to be terribly inconvenient (I’m sure there are some who probably find the mere existence of LGBTI people to be inconvenient too, but that is a topic for another time).

 

It is as if they are somehow ‘hard done by’ just by being forced to consider this issue, and wish it would all go away (here’s a newsflash for those MPs and Senators who mustn’t have been paying attention until now – we will not go away until we are truly equal, and we will keep on making ourselves as ‘inconvenient’ as possible in the meantime).

 

Then there are those, like Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who have actually said, out loud, that they are ‘frustrated’ by this issue, and frustrated by the fact they cannot spend their time talking about ‘more important issues’.

 

Frustrated? Are you f#$%ing serious?

 

With all due respect, they have absolutely no idea what frustration about this subject feels like.

 

Frustration is being a member of the LGBTI community, and having your human rights, your dignity and your worth as a person publicly debated, year after year, with no apparent resolution in sight.

 

Frustration is being the family member or friend of LGBTI couples, wanting nothing more than to celebrate the wedding of your loved ones, but being denied that ability because of the ongoing, unjustifiable and inexcusable inaction of Commonwealth Parliamentarians.

 

Frustration is me typing this, on day two thousand, seven hundred and fifty-six of my engagement to my fiancé Steve, and still having no idea when we will finally be able to ‘tie the knot’.

 

We have been engaged now for more than seven and a half years (it bears repeating, for the benefit of those MPs and Senators who think that marriage equality is a hypothetical issue, one that doesn’t affect the lives of real people).

 

In that time, we have been involved in campaigns to change the ALP platform to support marriage equality (which was won almost six years ago), and to adopt a binding vote (partially won, coming into effect at the next federal election).

 

We spent the better part of twelve months fighting against ‘Plebiscite 1.0’, even though it could have meant us marrying sooner, because the recognition of our relationship as adults was not worth the harm it threatened to LGBTI young people, and the children of rainbow families.

 

We could not stomach the thought of saying ‘I do’, while knowing the pain that would have been inflicted on 15-year olds around the country, just like 15-year old Steve and Alastair had once been, in order to for us to walk down the aisle.

 

And, just when we thought the marriage equality debate in this country couldn’t go any lower, it reaches a new nadir, with ‘Plebiscite 2.0’ (or a postal plebiscite, or a ‘pseudo postal plebiscite’ dressed up as a supposed statistical survey).

 

Whatever it is called, we’ll fight it too – to stop it from happening, and if it does proceed, to win it. Because, no matter how tired we are, we must.

 

The worst part of all of this is that it is a completely unnecessary battle, imposed upon us by a Government that refuses to do its job – by voting on legislation, in Parliament – but instead shirks, and outsources, its basic responsibilities.

 

Indeed, today could have been the day that a Bill to introduce marriage equality, one that stood a decent chance of success, was finally introduced into the House of Representatives.

 

That would have been a lovely way for Steve and I to celebrate nine years of being together (did I forget to mention that we first met on this day way back in 2008?)

 

Instead, we’ll remember our anniversary as the day the Turnbull Government reintroduced the Plebiscite (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill in the Senate, its latest attempt to delay, and if possible derail, the equal treatment of our love.

 

Of course, despite that personal indignity, there is another date, and another anniversary, this week that is far, far more depressing.

 

This coming Sunday it will be 13 years since the Senate approved the Howard Government’s original ban on marriage equality, on August 13 2004.

 

The passing of a law the sole aim of which was to treat LGBTI people and our relationships as lesser than other Australians was unconscionable.

 

The fact that, today, the Marriage Act 1961 continues to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics is unconscionable.

 

That MPs and Senators in successive Parliaments have failed to take action to remove this stain from our statute books, meaning that many, many couples have died while waiting for the ability to wed, is unconscionable – and unforgivable.

 

And the fact that, through its actions, the Turnbull Government apparently wants nothing more than to unnecessarily prolong the engagements of couples of Steve and me, and to ensure all LGBTI Australians endure as much vitriol as possible in the meantime, is completely unconscionable too.

 

**********

 

It is now almost 8am and the bus will soon be pulling into Canberra, where I will be spending the next three days at a conference just across the lake from our institutions of Government.

 

From a Parliament, and Senate, that I hope will reject the reintroduced legislation to hold a traditional plebiscite.

 

From an Executive that will respond by pushing ahead with a ‘pseudo postal plebiscite’, a mean and tricky proposal that will cause serious and sustained injury to young and vulnerable members of the LGBTI community, and waste $122 million in the process.

 

And from a Judiciary who I hope will find this entire farce to be unconstitutional.

 

Like many in the LGBTI community, I know I am going to find today to be incredibly challenging, just like yesterday was and the day before – and probably tomorrow, and the weeks and months ahead too.

 

But I am going to try my best to spend the rest of today thinking about Steve, and our relationship, and not the parliamentarians who wish to do us harm.

 

Because I love him with all my heart. Because the last nine years have undeniably been the best years of my life.

 

And because one day I will marry him. It won’t be on day 2,756 of our engagement. It probably won’t be on day 3,000 either. But it will happen, and there is nothing, and nobody, who I will let stand in our way.

 

311032_10150319757443027_200380029_n

Steve & I at one of the many marriage equality rallies we’ve attended over the years. We’ll keep fighting until it’s won.

 

Dear Malcolm Turnbull. Pass. Marriage. Equality. Now.

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP

Prime Minister of Australia

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

Saturday 27 May 2017

 

Dear Prime Minister

Pass. Marriage. Equality. Now.

I am writing to you again about a subject that may be just another political problem for you to deal with, but for me is something very close to my heart.

And that is to ask you, and the Government you lead, to allow a parliamentary vote on marriage equality so that tens of thousands of couples around Australia can finally get married.

Couples like my fiancé Steven and me.

We’ve been together for almost nine years. We’ve been engaged for more than seven. And yet it is now looking increasingly unlikely Steven and I will be able to wed before our 10th relationship anniversary in August 2018.

The way things are going, we may not even be able to get married by our 10th ‘engagement-versary’ in January 2020.

All because we are two men, in love, but whose Parliament continues to refuse to treat that love equally to that between a man and a woman.

It’s not right. We know it. As opinion poll after opinion poll demonstrates, the vast majority of the Australian community know it. Deep down, you know it too.

You must know that all Australians deserve the same right to marry their partner that you enjoyed with your wife Lucy more than 37 years ago – and that right must not be denied simply because of the sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status of the people involved.

It’s time for you to act on that knowledge. It’s time for you to summon the courage to stand up to the homophobes who believe that the Marriage Act should define some couples as being more worthy of legal recognition, and acceptance, than others.

It’s time for you to bring on a free vote inside the Parliament to resolve this issue once and for all.

Steven and me – and literally tens of thousands of couples just like us – have waited long enough for the right to say ‘I do’. All it takes to fix this horrible, and frustrating, situation is for you to finally show some leadership.

In doing so, however, you must also ensure that any amendments that are passed do not simply replace one form of discrimination with another.

I make that request because the draft legislation released by your Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, in October of last year, would have done exactly that.

The Exposure Draft Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill would have allowed same-sex couples to legally marry, but it would also have allowed civil celebrants, religious-operated ‘for profit’ businesses and even military chaplains to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people who simply wanted the right to wed.

Even worse, it singled out LGBTI couples, and LGBTI couples only, for this adverse treatment. Such homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia is unacceptable.

Changes to the Marriage Act 1961 should be aimed at removing these prejudices from Commonwealth law, not inserting them into new areas.

Given my serious concerns about the possibility of new ‘special rights to discriminate’ being introduced as part of any reforms, I started a petition on Change.org demanding that ‘Equal love should not be treated unequally’.

With little promotion, almost 800 people have signed this petition to you, endorsing the message that:

“Marriage equality should be exactly that: equality. It should not be undermined with provisions that treat the marriages of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians differently from anyone else.

“Unfortunately, your proposed Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill would create new special rights to discriminate against any couple that is not ‘a man and a woman’.

“Please replace this legislation with a Bill that achieves genuine marriage equality, and most importantly one that would not see LGBTI couples treated worse than their non-LGBTI counterparts.”

I attach a copy of this petition with this letter. I encourage you to read the many passionate comments shared by its signatories, including:

“Equality cannot be conditional: that means we must have the same laws and the same language for everyone.”

“I want my gay daughter to be exactly equal under the law, not almost equal!”

“Marriage equality must be equal, without any added clause that would allow discrimination.”

“There should not be any people more equal than others. And there should definitely not be anyone allowed to discriminate against LGBTI couples. Equal means equal. Full stop.”

“Equality should be equal, simple as that. The Bill should make all couples equal, not with some being more equal than others.”

“Equality has no exemption clauses.”

“To allow this bill to pass in its current form is to give approval to more homophobia. The current religious exemptions are enough – there is NO NEED to allow celebrants, or any business, to discriminate against LGBTI people and in fact to do so is just plain wrong. Change it now.”

“Everyone should have the right to marry if they wish. Allowing individuals such as celebrants and organisations that provide goods and services to discriminate is not acceptable. Equality is the aim and should be able to be achieved quite simply and easily.”

The full list of comments is available here: Equal Love should not be Treated Unequally Petition – Comments

These are people expressing not only their desire for marriage, but just as importantly the need for genuine marriage equality – with a Marriage Act that treats all couples exactly the same. Nothing more. Nothing less. And, really, that’s not much to ask for.

Finally, I am sure that you are already aware of the recent death of long-time LGBTI rights campaigner Peter ‘Bon’ Bonsall-Boone.

Earlier this year, in a much-shared video he and his partner of more than 50 years, Peter de Waal, personally urged you to pass marriage equality. Knowing that he was terminally ill, Bon said that:

“Marriage for Peter and me would be a great fulfilment of many years of association and love, and then I will know that we are officially a part of each other. Which we have been of course, for 50 years, but that’s unofficially part of each other. To make it official would be just great.”

Unfortunately, Peter and Bon never got their wish. Not because it couldn’t have been passed in time – it could have. Simply because our country’s politicians lacked the will to do so.

Obviously, that includes you too. As Prime Minister, you bear more responsibility than any other person in Australia for the failure of marriage equality to be passed this year. And last year. Indeed, you shoulder a significant share of the blame for the twenty months since you assumed ‘the top job’ in September 2015.

Peter and Bon are not the first couple in that period where one (or both) has passed away, denied forever their chance to be treated equally under the law. They are simply the most high profile.

Nor will they be the last to suffer that fate.

But the question of how many more LGBTI couples are permanently denied the right to legal equality is something you have control over.

You cannot undo the past, but, if you choose to act now, you can prevent other couples from experiencing the same heart-breaking outcome as Peter and Bon, and countless other couples before them.

The disappointing thing is, I don’t actually believe you entered politics with the desire to be the Prime Minister that unnecessarily extended the mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and our relationships.

But that is the role that you are currently playing, and will continue to play, until you allow a parliamentary vote and ensure marriage equality is finally passed.

In the meantime, Steven and I, our family members and friends, and tens of thousands of other LGBTI couples and their families and friends – indeed all Australians who support the equal treatment of equal love – are left waiting, in a state of fading hope and growing desperation.

Please, Prime Minister, allow a free vote and Pass. Marriage. Equality. Now.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

Malcolm Turnbull Hands

How many more people die without enjoying equality is in your hands, Prime Minister Turnbull.

Malcolm Turnbull, If you want to ‘strengthen’ anti-vilification laws, here’s something you can do

Update 29 April 2017:

In early April, I wrote to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis suggesting that, it they genuinely wanted to ‘strengthen’ Australia’s anti-vilification protections, they should introduce laws prohibiting vilification against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

In that letter, I included statistics from The State of Homophobia, Biphobia & Transphobia Survey Results, Part 1: Verbal Harassment and Abuse which found that 74% of LGBTIQ Australians experienced homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic verbal abuse at some point in their lives, with 48% reporting anti-LGBTIQ harassment in the past 12 months alone.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Australian Government isn’t particularly interested in doing anything to address this epidemic of anti-LGBTI abuse – there is no LGBTI equivalent to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and, based on the response I received this week from the Attorney-General’s Department (see below), the Turnbull Government will not introduce one.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the Government’s letter is the reference to ‘sexual harassment’ provisions within the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, as offering protections against anti-LGBTI vilification. The definition of sexual harassment under that legislation is as follows:

Section 28A

Meaning of sexual harassment

(1) For the purposes of this Division, a person sexually harasses another person (the person harassed) if:

(a) the person makes an unwelcome sexual advance, or an unwelcome request for sexual favours, to the person harassed; or

(b) engages in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the person harassed…

(2) In this section:

‘conduct of a sexual nature’ includes making a statement of a sexual nature to a person, or in the presence of a person, whether the statement is made orally or in writing.”

This definition, and its focus on ‘of a sexual nature’, means that while LGBTI people are protected against ‘sexual harassment’ under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, only a small fraction of the anti-LGBTI verbal abuse that is experienced by LGBTI Australians would be covered by this provision – the vast majority of harassment and abuse, including nearly all of the comments reported in The State of Homophobia, Biphobia & Transphobia, would remain entirely legal.

Of course, given their ongoing refusal to pass marriage equality without a completely unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite, and the attacks on and dismantling of the Safe Schools program, it was always unlikely that the Turnbull Government would do anything substantive to tackle anti-LGBTIQ verbal harassment and abuse.

Still, now that they have been presented with the evidence, they can no longer claim that there is no problem with homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in Australia. They know it exists – they are simply choosing to ignore it.

Here is the full response from the Attorney-General’s Department:

27 April 2017

Dear Mr Lawrie

Thank you for your correspondent of 3 April 2017 to the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, regarding Commonwealth anti-vilification laws. Your letter was referred to the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, as the matter falls within his portfolio. The Attorney-General has asked me to respond on his behalf.

The Australian Government believes that people are entitled to respect, dignity and the opportunity to participate in society and receive the protection of the law regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) prohibits discrimination on these grounds in a range of areas of public life.

The Sex Discrimination Act also prohibits sexual harassment in a number of areas of public life. Under the definition of sexual harassment, the circumstances to be taken into account include, but are not limited to, the sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status of the person harassed.

Criminal laws in Australia generally prohibit conduct which threatens or results in harm to a person, regardless of the individual attributes of the victim.

The Australian Government considers these protections, in conjunction with other protections under Australian law, are appropriate in addressing the behaviour outlined in your letter.

Thank you for bringing your concerns to the attention of the Australian Government.

Yours sincerely

[Name withheld]

Director, Human Rights

Civil Law Unit

 

**********

 

Original Post:

 

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP

Prime Minister

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

Monday 3 April 2017

Dear Prime Minister

Commonwealth Anti-Vilification Laws

I am writing to you about a subject that has preoccupied your Government in recent weeks: Commonwealth anti-vilification laws.

However, I do not wish to re-litigate the debate over your proposed amendments to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, especially now that those changes have been comprehensively rejected by the Senate (happily from my perspective, presumably less so from yours).

Instead, I wish to discuss an area where it appears that, at least based on your public statements, you and I agree.

Specifically, during the course of the debate around 18C, two key principles emerged from media releases and speeches made both by yourself, and by the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis.

First, your Government believes that there is a place for legal protections against vilification.

This is apparent not just from the fact that you chose to try to amend section 18C, rather than repeal it (therefore acknowledging the overall legitimacy of anti-vilification laws), but also through your comments at the joint Press Conference on 21 March, announcing the changes:

“We are defending the law by making it clearer. We are defending Australians against racial vilification.”

And from the Attorney-General’s Second Reading Speech:

“I have always believed that there is no inconsistency whatever between effective, appropriately-worded racial vilification laws, and the robust defence of freedom of speech.”

Second, your Government believes that such legal protections against vilification should be ‘strong’.

Indeed, both you and your Attorney-General repeatedly claimed that the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 would strengthen existing vilification protections.

At your joint Press Conference you stated that “[W]e are announcing changes to the Racial Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Commission legislation, which will strengthen the protection of Australians from racial vilification” and that it was time to “defend Australians with effective laws, clear laws, against racial vilification.”

The Attorney-General similarly claimed in his Second Reading Speech that the changes were being proposed “to strengthen its anti-vilification provisions.”

Taking you at your word(s) then, you both believe there is a place for anti-vilification laws, and that such laws should be strong and effective.

I agree with these two principles (even if we disagree on how they should be reflected in the Racial Discrimination Act).

Which is why, now that your changes to section 18C have been defeated, I write to suggest an additional way in which you can protect Australians against vilification: by introducing anti-vilification protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

As you would be aware, there is currently no Commonwealth protection against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Nor are there LGBTI anti-vilification protections under the laws of Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia or the Northern Territory (meanwhile, the protections that exist under NSW law are overly-narrow, and fail to protect some parts of the community).

This leaves a significant proportion of Australia’s LGBTI communities without any legal protections against homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification.

Unfortunately, such vilification remains all-too-common in Australia.

In a survey that I conducted at the start of 2017, 74% of LGBTIQ respondents reported being subject to anti-LGBTIQ verbal abuse or harassment at some point during their lives[i].

Disturbingly, 48% of respondents reported that at least one instance of such abuse or harassment occurred during the last 12 months.

These figures were even higher for some sections of the LGBTIQ community:

  • 68.2% of trans respondents
  • 65% of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander LGBTIQ respondents, and
  • 74.5% of LGBTIQ respondents aged 24 or under

reported verbal abuse or harassment in the past 12 months alone.

I hope that you agree these rates of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic verbal abuse are simply unacceptable.

And if you are unconvinced by the raw numbers, then I suggest that you read the even rawer, and in some cases quite horrific, examples of anti-LGBTIQ harassment shared by the 1,672 people who took part in my survey (attached).

The challenge for you is that this abuse is happening on your watch.

If you genuinely believe there is a place for anti-vilification laws, and that such laws should be strong and effective, then I believe you should respond to this epidemic of anti-LGBTI verbal abuse and harassment with Commonwealth anti-vilification laws covering sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, on an equivalent basis to existing racial vilification protections.

After all, if racist vilification is considered so serious as to require legislative intervention, then there is no logical reason why homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification should not be similarly prohibited.

If you do not take action to address this issue, then by implication you are suggesting that you and your Government find anti-LGBTIQ vilification to be less offensive, and arguably more ‘acceptable’, than racial vilification.

In conclusion, I will return to another comment made by you at the joint Press Conference on 21 March:

“Ensuring Australians are protected from racial vilification, likewise, is part of that mutual respect of which I often speak, which is the foundation of our success as the greatest and most successful multicultural society in the world.”

My question to you is: do you believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians also deserve ‘mutual respect’?

If you do, then please take action to protect LGBTI Australians from the homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification that far-too-frequently mars our own participation in the country you currently lead.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Cc Senator the Hon George Brandis

Attorney-General

PO Box 6100

Senate

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

Malcolm Turnbull Hands

Whether LGBTI Australians receive anti-vilification protections under Commonwealth law is now in Malcolm Turnbull’s hands.

Footnotes:

[i] For full results, see The State of Homophobia, Biphobia & Transphobia, Survey Results Part 1: Verbal Harassment and Abuse

Malcolm Turnbull – ‘Mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’

When Malcolm Turnbull’s political career is finally over – and that could be sooner rather than later – it is likely that the ‘highlights’ package run by TV stations – which, based on his ‘achievements’ to date, will also be shorter rather than longer – will include at least a brief mention of his role as head of the unsuccessful ‘Yes’ campaign in the 1999 republic referendum.

 

The footage they will probably show will be his (in)famous description of John Howard as ‘the Prime Minister who broke this nation’s heart’.

 

Almost 18 years later, it is somewhat ironic that this description could just as easily be applied to Turnbull’s own stint as the country’s leader.

 

Despite coming to the top job with enormous public good will, amid widespread relief that Tony Abbott was no longer Prime Minister, just 18 months later he has seemingly squandered it all.

 

It is almost as if he consciously set about smashing the high hopes and expectations the public once held, as the modern, moderate Malcolm rapidly became traditional ‘Tory’ Turnbull.

 

We may not be ‘broken-hearted’ (that description always was a touch grandiose), but we have certainly been left disheartened, and deeply disillusioned, by a man who has sold out his principles across a wide range of issues – from climate change to marriage equality, and most things in between – merely to keep his place in The Lodge.

 

This past week it appears Malcolm’s stint as PM has officially reached its nadir. And this time it is a different quote about John Howard that springs to mind.

 

On both section 18C, and the postal plebiscite, the Turnbull Government has revealed itself to be ‘mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’, which is how then Liberal Party President Shane Stone notoriously described the Howard Government in an internal memo in early 2001.

 

**********

 

The proposed reforms to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which will make it easier to vilify people on the basis of their race (or, as Attorney-General Brandis once admitted, ensure people ‘have the right to be bigots’), are nakedly ‘mean-spirited’.

 

The Liberal-National Government is seeking to undermine anti-vilification laws that have protected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and other Australians from ethnically diverse backgrounds, for more than two decades.

 

The entire justification for their unrelenting assault on section 18C is to simply repeat the word ‘freedom’ over and over again, and hope nobody notices that a largely homogeneous group of MPs and Senators, most of whom will never experience racism, are taking away protections from people who, depressingly, still need them.

 

The move to change the wording of section 18C, by replacing the words ‘offend, insult, humiliate’ with ‘harass’, is tricky, too.

 

Not just because the Prime Minister has tried, on multiple occasions, to describe this amendment as ‘strengthening’ anti-vilification laws (sorry, Prime Minister, we’re not that gullible).

 

But also because, on at least five separate occasions before the July 2016 federal election, Malcolm Turnbull said that his Government had no plans to change the Racial Discrimination Act.

 

Being confronted with this inconvenient history this week led Mr Turnbull to engage in this, frankly, extraordinary exchange:

 

“Journalist: But on backflips, you back flipped on 18C, you changed your mind on 18C. Don’t you agree this is what politicians do, they change their position?

 

Prime Minister: Again, I don’t accept that proposition at all.

 

Journalist: You said five times before the election that you wouldn’t change 18C and now you’re pushing through changes?

 

Prime Minister: What we said before the election was that we did not have any plans to change 18C and that was absolutely true. So again, as a guardian of the truth, you should be more careful with the language you attribute to me…”

 

‘Honest’ John Howard would be proud of that evasion. And it seems like the Australian electorate are the ones who need to be more careful, and not believe any future promises that Malcolm Turnbull might make.

 

Amending the wording of 18C is also the definition of a niche political issue, demonstrating that the Government is comprehensively out of touch with the concerns ordinary Australians.

 

It doesn’t take Einstein to realise most Australians are far more interested in health, education and employment – and increasingly, the cost of housing – than the supposed troubles of Andrew Bolt or (the late) Bill Leak.

 

Speaking of which, even Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce spoke against the proposals in the joint party room meeting on Tuesday (21 March), reportedly saying ‘the move to amend 18C is really dumb and it will lose the Coalition votes’.

 

Barnaby knows that this issue is not what John Howard called a ‘barbecue stopper’. For many people, if 18C came up at all it would most likely be in the context of wondering why the Turnbull Government is so obsessed by an issue that, as Treasurer Scott Morrison previously conceded, ‘doesn’t create one job, doesn’t open one business, doesn’t give anyone one extra hour’.

 

Of course, that is not to say nobody is focused on, or affected by, this issue. For a significant minority, and especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Australians from ethnically diverse backgrounds, the changes to 18C are a threat to vital protections against the hate-speech that remains far-too-common.

 

And they have been making their voices heard, providing literally hundreds of submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee that considered this issue at the start of the year.

 

In the five days since these reforms were announced, there have also been joint statements against proposed changes to 18C by ‘[r]epresentatives from Greek, Armenian, Indigenous, Jewish, Indian, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese and Lebanese organisations.’

 

But the Turnbull Government is not listening to the millions of people who would be adversely affected by these new definitions.

 

Quite literally, in fact, as the Aboriginal Legal Service discovered when it attempted to provide evidence to the Senate Inquiry into the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 on Friday, and Liberal and National Party Senators voted not to hear them.

 

Instead, the Turnbull Government is listening to the (maybe) tens of people – at the Institute of Public Affairs, and the Herald Sun and The Australian newspapers – who have been clamouring for these changes.

 

Or, as Barnaby Joyce acknowledged (and yes, I’m just as surprised as you are that I’m quoting him, approvingly, twice in the same article):

 

“This is an issue, it is an issue but I’ll be frank, it lives in the extremities of the bell curve. Where do you meet those people [who care about 18C]? At party meetings, they are absolutely blessed people and they are terribly politically involved and they have an intense interest in some of the minutiae of debate. They come into your office to rant and rave about it, all four of them.”

 

It is hard to summarise the proposed changes to 18C much better than that – the racial vilification laws that protect millions of Australians from hate-speech are being wound back because of the passionate and vocal interest of extremists inside the Liberal and National Parties who ultimately won’t be affected by it in the slightest.

 

**********

 

Not content with displaying its fundamental flaws in relation to 18C, the past week also saw the Turnbull Government debating another subject on which it is consistently ‘mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’: marriage equality.

 

Specifically, the man most likely to replace Malcolm as Prime Minister, Peter Dutton (now that’s a phrase I’d hoped never to write), has been actively pushing a proposal to hold a ‘postal plebiscite’ on this issue.

 

To be fair to the incumbent, Turnbull has so far not expressed formal support for this idea. But then he hasn’t ruled it out either, and, given he maintains his predecessor, Tony Abbott’s, policy in favour of a ‘traditional’ plebiscite, there is a real risk the postal plebiscite will become Government policy.

 

This is, at its core, another mean-spirited proposal.

 

Imposing a plebiscite – traditional or postal – to determine whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should enjoy equal rights under the law is a hurdle that no other social group has been forced to overcome.

 

The idea that we need to hold such a vote to determine whether couples like Steve and me can say ‘I do’ is so ridiculous that it should have been laughed off. But it isn’t just couples like Steve and me, who have only been together eight and a half years, affected by the ongoing ban on marriage equality.

 

It also denies the rights of couples like Peter de Waal and Peter Bonsall-Boone, who have been together for more than 50 years, and who simply want to be married under the law just like any other couple.

 

Holding a postal plebiscite will take several months, and a positive result would still need to be confirmed by legislation afterwards. This is time that some couples do not have:

 

“I doubt that I will live long enough to see same-sex marriage,” said Bonsall Boone, who is now battling cancer. 

 

Therefore, the idea that the Government could hold a postal plebiscite on marriage equality isn’t just unprecedented, or ridiculous, it is downright offensive, especially when the alternative is so obvious.

 

As De Waal says: “[t]he simplest, cheapest, quickest and fairest way to resolve this inequality is a free vote in federal parliament now!”

 

The postal plebiscite is also tricky in two key ways. First, the legislation to hold a traditional plebiscite on marriage equality was firmly rejected by the Senate in November last year.

 

Having failed in that attempt, for the Government to turn around and hold one anyway, this time via post and therefore not requiring parliamentary approval, is both sly and underhanded.

 

Or, as Liberal backbencher Trent Zimmerman acknowledged: “it [is] the wrong path because it would be seen as ‘tricky and sneaky’, it would be non-binding and its result could be disregarded” [emphasis added].

 

Second, the nature of a postal plebiscite would effectively stack the decks against marriage equality. The group most likely to engage via post – older Australians – are also the least likely to support marriage equality. The converse is also true – many younger people, who are overwhelmingly in favour of the equal rights of LGBTI people, would be less likely to vote this way.

 

A postal plebiscite would also inevitably be a contest between passionate advocates at either end of the debate, instead of the middle Australia who, as demonstrated by opinion poll after opinion poll, are, to use John Howard’s phrase, entirely ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about the idea of two men, or two women, marrying.

 

Finally, as Mr Zimmerman suggests, the lower turnout of a postal plebiscite would also reduce its legitimacy, making a public ‘yes’ vote easier for MPs to ignore (remembering that the same conservatives who now support a plebiscite questioned the validity of the Irish marriage equality referendum because ‘only’ 60% of people voted).

 

Just as with the changes to section 18C, the push for a postal plebiscite on marriage equality also reveals just how out of touch the current Liberal-National Government has become.

 

While the proposal to hold a traditional plebiscite was initially popular, that support dropped away dramatically through 2016 as people increasingly understood it would be unnecessary, wasteful and divisive.

 

A postal plebiscite is just as unnecessary, and would still be preceded by a bitter and hate-filled public debate. Perhaps the only ‘improvement’, if you could call it that, is that it would waste tens, rather than hundreds, of millions of dollars.

 

The idea itself seems to have appeared out of nowhere. I cannot recall any news story, or opinion piece, published prior to last week where anyone was calling for the plebiscite to be revived and for it to be conducted via post.

 

That simply confirms that this proposal is not about meeting any demonstrated need from the community – instead, it is being driven by the internal politics of a dysfunctional Government that steadfastly refuses to do the one thing that would actually end this issue once and for all: hold a free vote in parliament.

 

Finally, this is another instance of the Turnbull Government not listening to the people who are affected by this issue: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

As a community, we said a very firm ‘no’ to the idea of a traditional plebiscite in the second half of 2016, in large part because of the harm it would cause to young and vulnerable members of our community.

 

Based on everything that has been said since the absurd notion of a postal plebiscite was floated last week, we reject the idea of an optional opinion poll via return mail, too (perhaps even more strongly).

 

As Rodney Croome of just.equal notes: “[r]egardless of the model, a plebiscite does not mean more power to the people, but an abdication of responsibility by politicians. It is the coward’s way out.”

 

Or, in the words of Alex Greenwich from Australian Marriage Equality, it is a ‘desperate ploy’, and “[i]t would be seen as a pretty sneaky and underhanded way to do it, I mean, bypassing the parliament.”
All-in-all, this is an issue that only really affects LGBTI people, and our family members and friends. And we’ve already made our views on this topic very clear – we want marriage equality, we want it now, and we want it passed in the ordinary way: in parliament.

 

Almost 13 years after marriage equality was originally banned by John Howard’s Coalition Government in August 2004, it is time for Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition Government to start listening to us and just get it done already. If they don’t, they might find themselves with a lot more free time come 2019.

 

**********

 

These two policies – the proposed reforms to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and the possible postal plebiscite – don’t just reveal a Government that is ‘mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’. They are also two of the worst, and most indefensible, policies of an era that is already renowned for poor governance.

 

This Government actually wants to make it easier to vilify people on the basis of their race. Voluntarily holding a national public vote on marriage equality will see people vilified on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, too.

 

They also share another similarity – they are things not even John Howard did. He had almost twelve years as Prime Minister, including two and half with a Senate majority, in which to wind back our racial vilification laws, and chose not to do so.

 

And, even though he legislated the ‘wrong’ way, he also knew that the issue of marriage equality was one that could and should be settled by our 226 elected representatives, sitting in our nation’s parliament.

 

In this way, we can see that Malcolm Turnbull won’t just be remembered as one of our most disappointing, and disheartening, Prime Ministers, someone who has comprehensively failed to live up to such high expectations. He will also go down as one of the worst. Period.

 

Howard and Turnbull

One of these things is too much like the other.

If we want genuine marriage equality, we’re going to have to fight – & write – for it

2017 might be the year that Australia finally introduces marriage equality[i].

If it is, it will only be because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians, and our families, friends and allies, have fought long and hard to make it happen.

However, there is also a very real risk that we end up with something less than genuine equality.

This is because there are some members within the Liberal National Coalition who are willing to support the right of LGBTI couples to marry, but only on the condition that new special rights to discriminate against us are included in any amendments to the Marriage Act.

That is simply not good enough.

As the US Supreme Court found more than 60 years ago[ii], separate but equal is not equal. And so we must reject any attempt to impose a 2nd-class system of marriage for LGBTI Australians, where we can be treated differently to cisgender heterosexual couples, merely because of who we are.

In the same way that we have fought, and continue to fight, for the right to marry, we must also fight for the right to marry equally.

The battleground for this campaign is the Government’s Exposure Draft Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, released in October 2016. This is the legislation that the Government would have introduced had its (unnecessary, wasteful and divisive) plebiscite been held, and had it been successful.

While the Bill allows any two people to marry – and therefore would provide LGBTI Australians with the ability to finally tie the knot – it also proposes four new special rights to discriminate against any relationship that is “not the union of a man and a woman[iii].” This includes:

  1. A specific provision allowing ministers of religion to reject LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[iv] – even though ministers of religion can already reject any couple for any reason. That means this clause is both unnecessary, and unfairly targets our relationships.
  1. An entirely new right for civil celebrants to reject LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[v]. No other section of the Marriage Act 1961 currently allows these celebrants to discriminate. This homophobic provision is especially concerning given three out of every four weddings in Australia are conducted by civil celebrants.
  1. A specific provision allowing ‘religious bodies and organisations[vi] to deny facilities to, and withhold goods and services from, LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[vii]. This has been included despite existing religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws, at both Commonwealth and state and territory level, and applies even where these groups are engaged in commercial enterprise.
  1. A new right for Defence Force chaplains to reject LGBTI couples, and only LGBTI couples[viii]. This is despite the fact these chaplains are public servants, paid for by all taxpayers – including LGBTI Australians – and that they are expected to “administer spiritual support to all members, regardless of their religion” (emphasis added)[ix].

None of these new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples are necessary. All are completely unjustified. All must be challenged.

Fortunately, this Bill generally, and these proposed new ‘religious exceptions’ specifically, are currently the subject of a Senate inquiry.

The Select Committee examining this Bill has called for public submissions, which close next Friday (13 January). Full details of the Inquiry, including how to lodge, can be found here.

I encourage you to make your own submission, calling for the Committee, and ultimately the Parliament, to reject these four new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

In doing so, you could make the following two main points:

  • This Bill is NOT marriage equality

While the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill would allow LGBTI couples to finally marry, by including new special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples – and only LGBTI couples – the Bill actually establishes a 2nd-class system of marriage for some Australians based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. ‘Separate but equal’ is not equal – which means this Bill would not deliver genuine marriage equality.

  • The exceptions included in this Bill do not protect religious freedom, they promote homophobia and transphobia

There are a variety of different religious beliefs about marriage. Some people believe only cisgender heterosexual couples should be able to marry[x]. Others do not believe in divorce, and therefore oppose the right of people to participate in second (or subsequent) weddings. Some even continue to hold the (once widespread) belief that people of different faiths should not marry.

If the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill reflected genuine concerns about protecting ‘religious freedom’, it would allow civil celebrants, religious bodies and organisations and Defence Force chaplains to discriminate against divorced people, or against inter-faith couples[xi].

The fact that it does not, and that it establishes new special rights to discriminate solely against LGBTI couples, reveals the fundamental truth of this legislation: it has very little to do with protecting religious freedom, and much more to do with promoting homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia[xii].

**********

3 Ways to Take Action

If you agree with me, then now is the time to get involved, to get fighting – and writing – to let the Senate Committee, and the Government, know that marriage equality should mean exactly that: equality. And we won’t accept anything less.

Here are three ways you can take action in the next week:

  1. Write your own submission to the Senate Inquiry. As noted above, details on how to do so can be found here. Alternatively, two LGBTI organisations have designed web platforms to make writing a submission easier:
  1. Complete these surveys about the Bill. Both the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby and just.equal (& PFLAG Australia) are consulting the LGBTI community about what they think of the proposed religious exceptions. Let them know your views here:
  1. Sign and share this petition to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, demanding that Equal love should not be treated unequally.

Above all, if you think that equal means equal, no ifs, buts, or maybes, then it’s time to get writing…

equalmeansequal-3

Footnotes:

[i] Of course, if Malcolm Turnbull continues to fail to show any leadership on this issue, we might instead be forced to wait until 2019 or 2020.

[ii] Brown v Board of Education, 347 US 483 (1954)

[iii] Interestingly, this phrase would not cover all LGBTI couples – for example, civil celebrants, religious bodies and organisations and Defence Force chaplains would not be able to reject heterosexual couples where one or both members are transgender and where the couple identifies as a man and a woman.

[iv] Proposed sub-section 47(3)

[v] Proposed new section 47A

[vi] It is worrying that these terms are not defined in the Bill, meaning the number of bodies or organisations allowed to discriminate against LGBTI couples could be high.

[vii] Proposed new section 47B

[viii] Proposed new note to section 81

[ix] For more on why these new special rights to discriminate must be rejected, see The Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill in Unacceptable.

[x] Of course, they should not be able to impose that belief on others through secular law.

[xi] I am not arguing for either to be made lawful, merely highlighting the double-standard that lies at the heart of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill.

[xii] The Government, having revealed its (homophobic) intentions, also cannot now turn around and extend these new special rights to discriminate against divorced people and inter-faith couples because they will only be doing so to ‘cover up’ the anti-LGBTI nature of its original legislation.

2016: Annus Homophobicus

 

In November 1992, the Queen of England (and, unfortunately, still the Queen of Australia too) gave a speech in which she described the previous 12 months as her ‘annus horribilis’.

 

To be fair, it had been a rough year for Ms Windsor, with the separation of her eldest son from his wife, the divorce of her only daughter from her husband, frequent tabloid scandals (hello toe-sucking!) and even a fire in one of her (many) houses[i].

 

But, as bad as Elizabeth II’s year was back then, it’s frankly got nothing on how depressing, and frustrating, 2016 has been for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

 

So, as the year draws to a close, and we look back on the (too few) highs and (far too many) lows, it feels apt to declare the past 12 months to be our very own ‘annus homophobicus’.

 

It started in January with the launch of a ferocious, and well co-ordinated, attack on the Safe Schools program by the Australian Christian Lobby, The Australian newspaper and extremists in the right-wing of the Liberal-National Government.

 

And, even after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ‘gutted’ the program in early March, the campaign against what is a vital anti-bullying program designed to help LGBTI students has continued, as unyielding as it is lacking in compassion.

 

The year ended with the tragic death of 13-year-old Brisbane high school student, Tyrone Unsworth, in late November. Indigenous and gay, Tyrone had suffered relentless bullying because of his sexual orientation, until he ultimately took his own life.

 

A death that, understandably, shook many members of our community to the core, it was particularly hard for LGBTI Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[ii] It was a tragedy that demonstrated the very need for a program that homophobic bigots had spent the best part of a year trying to dismantle.

 

In between, 2016 was dominated by Turnbull’s proposed plebiscite on marriage equality – a policy that was completely unnecessary, fundamentally wasteful and, if held, would inevitably be harmful for countless young and vulnerable members of the LGBTI community, including the children of rainbow families.

 

It took the collective efforts of a variety of LGBTI groups, alongside the work of many individual activists, over several months, to finally defeat the planned plebiscite in early November. But that sustained campaign, against a proposal that had been put forward simply to delay or defeat rather than achieve equality, left a large number of people almost completely drained (myself included).

 

The past 12 months has also witnessed a rise in homophobic and transphobic hate-speech. It seems that anti-LGBTI rhetoric is both more common, and more ‘acceptable’, in Australia now than at any point over the past 10 to 15 years.

 

And it certainly does not help that the frequent abuse of LGBTI people coming from inside the Government, by the likes of Cory Bernardi and George Christensen, has gone without any obvious punishment from an allegedly-moderate Prime Minister too scared to stand up to his more-conservative colleagues.

 

Even worse than hate-speech, 2016 has seen plenty of horrific hate-based actions, both here and around the world.

 

This includes the almost unspeakable tragedy in Orlando on June 12th, with the mass murder of 49 people, and wounding of 53 others, at Pulse. With the popular gay nightclub holding a Latin night, most of the victims were young and Latinx. Six months later, it remains impossible not to cry when reading or watching tributes[iii] to the casualties of this terror attack.

 

pulse-tribute

Tributes to victims outside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

 

Acts of homophobic and transphobic violence were not limited to the United States, however. In Australia, too, there were countless assaults on LGBTI people.

 

The one that hit closest to home – both literally[iv] and figuratively – was the young Sydney man who was ‘gay-bashed’ twice in one night[v], the second time by a supposed ‘good Samaritan’ who had initially helped him after the first attack, only to assault the victim himself after learning he was gay.

 

This was a crime based on homophobia that could happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime, including my fiancé Steven and me.

 

**********

 

The net effect of these events, alongside other shocking outcomes of the past year (including Brexit and the election of Donald Trump), has been sufficient to undermine the belief that progress is somehow inevitable, that the future will always be better than the past.

 

But, as LGBTI Australians, we don’t need the fear-fuelled success of a xenophobic campaign against immigrants in the UK, or of a sexist and racist tyrant-in-training in the US, to remind us that political change is not inherently positive.

 

As many of you would know, the past few years have seen a number of areas where progress on LGBTI policy and law reform hasn’t just stalled, but been actively wound back.

 

One of the first acts of the Campbell Newman-led Liberal-National Queensland Government in 2012 was to abolish ceremonies as part of the recently-passed civil partnership scheme in that state[vi].

 

In Victoria, the Baillieu Coalition Government repealed the ‘inherent requirement’ test from that state’s Equal Opportunity Act – which had required religious employers to demonstrate that discrimination against LGBT employees was an essential part of the role – before it had even commenced operation in 2011[vii].

 

The Tasmanian Liberal Government not only made discrimination by religious schools easier in 2015 (thereby undermining what has been the nation’s best anti-discrimination scheme), it is currently committed to reducing protections against vilification, including those enjoyed by LGBTI Tasmanians.

 

And we shouldn’t forget the decision by Prime Minister Turnbull to discontinue funding for the Safe Schools program (with Commonwealth money to cease from 2017), an initiative that his predecessor, Tony Abbott, had actually implemented less than three years earlier.

 

It is clear then, that progress on LGBTI issue is not inevitable. And it is almost enough to challenge the wisdom of one of Martin Luther King, Jr’s many note-worthy quotes, namely that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

 

Almost, but not quite.

 

As painful as the past 12 months have been for many, especially for members of Australia’s LGBTI communities, we nevertheless must see these events in their historical context, and recognise that – at least on a (much) longer time-scale – overall, things are still headed in a positive direction. And that remains the case even if there are twists and turns, even significant bumps, along the way.

 

But the most important lesson to remember is that, while the arc may ‘bend toward justice’, it only does so because good people come together to take action to make change happen.

 

Just as US cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead famously observed: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

 

One of the best examples of this maxim actually comes from one of the major LGBTI victories of 2016 – the long overdue equalisation of the age of consent for male homosexuality in Queensland.

 

While this was discriminatory legislation that affected many, its repeal was only a priority for a dedicated few[viii], including long-time LGBTI activist John Frame[ix] among others.

 

Through painstaking, and often thankless, campaigning over years and eventually decades, they chipped away at an unjust law until it was finally amended in September this year, almost 25 years since it was first introduced.

 

There were other wins this year too. The Palaszczuk Labor Government in Queensland also passed legislation to allow adoption by same-sex couples, while the Weatherill Labor Government in South Australia ended 2016 with a flurry of pro-LGBTI law reform, including relationship recognition, same-sex adoption and trans birth certificate changes[x].

 

And of course, there was the LGBTI community’s success in defeating the marriage equality plebiscite, a victory that was by no means guaranteed at this point last year[xi].

 

All of which is to show that, despite the increasingly toxic political environment that we appear to be operating in, and the significant losses cited above, positive change is still possible – if we keep our sights on the country, and world, that we want to create, and work towards it patiently, gradually, relentlessly.

 

**********

 

For my part, as I look ahead to 2017, I will be redoubling my efforts to improve Australia’s incomplete, inconsistent and in many cases inadequate system of LGBTI anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws.

 

I know others will concentrate their energies on (finally) achieving marriage equality, as well as a myriad of other reforms, from ending the involuntary sterilisation of intersex infants, to further trans birth certificate changes, ending the inhumane detention of LGBTI refugees and reinvigorating the Safe Schools program.

 

So, let’s end 2016 by reflecting, relaxing and hopefully recuperating, so that when the new year rolls around we are ready to dust ourselves off, fight once more and bend that arc towards a more just country for LGBTI Australians.

 

**********

 

I have one final favour to ask. Could you please take 5-15 minutes to complete this short survey about your experiences of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination, over the past 12 months, and previously?

 

The results of this research will be used to advocate for better protections against discrimination for LGBTI people across Australia, as well as to campaign for the introduction of LGBTI anti-vilification laws where they do not currently exist.

 

Please TAKE THE SURVEY NOW.

**********

 

If this post has raised any issues for you, you can contact:

 

  • QLife, Australia’s national telephone and web counselling and referral service for LGBTI people. Freecall: 1800 184 527, Webchat: qlife.org.au (3pm-midnight every day)
  • Lifeline: 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au

 

Footnotes:

[i] See The Guardian “How the Royal Family Bounced Back from its Annus Horribilis” 24 May 2012.

[ii] If you have a chance, please read Dameyon Bonson’s excellent op-ed “I am Indigenous. I am Gay. Unlike Tyrone Unsworth, I Survived” in The Guardian Australia, 28 November 2016.

[iii] For example, see Anderson Cooper’s emotional tribute on CNN in the days after the tragedy here.

[iv] The victim lived in our apartment complex, with the second attack happening just 50 meters from our building.

[v] The Daily Telegraph “Gay man bashed twice in Waterloo: I’ve never been so scared in my life, and thought I would die” 23 February 2016.

[vi] Thankfully, these ceremonies were reintroduced by the subsequently (and surprisingly) elected Palaszczuk Government.

[vii] The current Victorian Liberal-National Opposition, led by Matthew Guy, defeated Andrews Labor Government legislation to reinsert this test in November 2016.

[viii] With many focusing on more ‘popular’ issues like marriage equality.

[ix] See samesame.com.au “It’s time to update Queensland’s sex laws” 23 August 2015.

[x] For more on LGBTI successes of the past 12 months, see Lane Sainty’s summary in Buzzfeed “13 Times Australia’s LGBTI Community Had a Win in 2016” 16 December 2016.

[xi] For more, see Pride, Pressure & Perseverance.