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.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #9: Because sometimes I feel guilty for having #firstworldproblems

Have you ever felt that pang of guilt that we in Australia spend so much time campaigning for marriage equality when so many of our LGBTI comrades around the world are fighting for things that are even more fundamental, like the right to simply be who they are without fear of criminal prosecution?

I must admit I have – sometimes, when I am writing my umpteenth submission calling for the right to simply marry my fiancé, or attending my 20th or even 30th rally supporting marriage equality, I do feel slightly guilty for having what on twitter might be referred to as #firstworldproblems (albeit of a far less trivial nature than complaints like ‘my raisin bran had too many raisins in it this morning’).

When you look at this recently released map from ILGA (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association):

ILGA 2016

ILGA, June 2016.

and see large sections of the globe coloured orange (where being gay is a criminal offence) and even dark red (countries which have the death penalty for homosexuality) – and they are at least as large as, and include many more people, than the sections which are dark green (ie countries and states that have full marriage equality) – then experiencing such guilt might seem understandable.

Now, before I get roundly slammed for expressing this view, I acknowledge that this perhaps says more about me than about the Australian marriage equality movement per se. I also recognise that these thoughts are likely the products of internalising a couple of the arguments which have been used against LGBTI equality for some time.

The first, that people elsewhere have it worse off than us (undoubtedly true), and that we should be grateful for what we have (also true – although from my perspective I am grateful to the activists who have brought that situation about), is essentially an attempt to say that we already have ‘enough’ rights, and therefore should stop campaigning for more.

This argument is easy to reject – just because we have already achieved some rights (decriminalisation, anti-discrimination protections etc), doesn’t mean we should accept anything less than full equality – and that includes exactly the same legal recognition of our relationships as already enjoyed by cisgender heterosexual couples.

However, the second, related argument is a little more difficult to dismiss out of hand, and that is that there are bigger and more important issues in the world, and consequently we should be concentrating our efforts on those instead.

In the domestic context, this type of argument is used by marriage equality opponents to say that jobs, the economy, health, education – indeed, all manner of things – are more important than marriage equality, and that we should just ‘drop it’ and put those other issues first.

Of course, our straightforward response to that argument is that Parliament is capable of dealing with more than one issue at a time, and therefore there is no need to put things like marriage equality on the backburner until somehow all of those other issues are magically ‘fixed’ first.

In the international context, the argument would go something like: given there are still roughly 75 countries where being gay is a crime, achieving decriminalisation globally is far more important than campaigning for marriage equality in countries like Australia where we already enjoy most substantive rights, and therefore that is where we should exert all our energies.

Based on the domestic example (above), the most logical response is to say that we are capable of doing both – that there is absolutely no reason why we cannot simultaneously campaign for marriage equality within Australia (and similar countries), while also supporting movements for decriminalisation elsewhere.

But, and here’s the important thing, the strength of that argument is based on us actually DOING both. If we only look at improving our own (already quite privileged) lot, and effectively ignore the struggle for more basic equality from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in other countries then, at the very least, we expose ourselves to the potential criticism that we are being indulgent (even if most would see such criticism as unfair).

That is not to say that anyone should feel guilty for campaigning for their own individual equality or rights – and not just because, as I have discovered perhaps a little late in life, guilt is not an especially productive emotion. To me, one of life’s great joys lies in finding the strength to stand up against the discrimination or prejudice that we encounter.

But I guess I am saying that, if we are interested in campaigning for full equality for ourselves, by securing marriage equality domestically, we should also see that struggle in its appropriate context, and also devote some of our time and effort to helping the fight for equality by our LGBTI comrades in other countries.

NB If, after reading this, you agree with me and want to do more (or even if you disagree vehemently with what I’ve written but still want to help international LGBTI equality), here are five groups which you might consider joining/supporting:

Letter to Prime Minister Abbott re Intercountry Adoption by Same-Sex Couples Part 2

In early March I wrote to Prime Minister Abbott about the review, then being undertaken by his department, of Australia’s inter-country adoption arrangements. Specifically, I asked that same-sex couples be included in any potential reforms to be considered at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting scheduled for Friday 2 May (see original letter here: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/03/08/letter-to-prime-minister-abbott-re-inter-country-adoption-by-same-sex-couples/ )

I did not receive a response to my letter until after the COAG meeting (on Monday 5 May), although it was dated 1 May. The reply stated:

 

Dear Mr Lawrie

 

Thank you for your letter of 8 March 2014 to the Prime Minister regarding overseas adoption. I have been asked to reply on the Prime Minister’s behalf. I apologise for the delay in replying.

 

This is an issue that could benefit from attention at the highest levels of government. That’s what it will be getting between now and the next meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.

 

As you note, at present there is no consistency across Australia on whether same-sex couples can adopt a child. The requirements of foreign countries are also relevant, with most of Australia’s current partner countries not allowing adoption by same-sex couples.

 

The Commonwealth Government is committed to working with our state and territory colleagues and stakeholders in this area, including the non-government sector, to deliver reform.

 

Thank you for letting the Government know your views on this issue.

 

Yours sincerely

 

Name Withheld

Assistant Secretary

Which, it has said to be said, was a pretty underwhelming response, especially given the paucity of firm details or commitments. I also cracked a wry smile at the statement that the issue would be getting attention between now (ie the time of writing) and the next COAG meeting – which was held the following day.

In any event, the issue of inter-country adoption was discussed at COAG on Friday 2 May. The Prime Minister, and State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers, agreed to the following in the official Communique:

Intercountry adoption of children

 

Adopting a child from overseas is an emotional and complex undertaking. Different requirements across Australia can create even more difficulty for families wanting to adopt a child from overseas.

 

COAG supports adoption conducted in the best interests of the child and consistent with the safeguards of the Hague Conventions.

 

COAG agreed in principle to the Commonwealth’s proposal to provide a new national intercountry adoption service for all Australians wanting to adopt a child from overseas.

 

Under the new service, the Commonwealth will fund either a new accredited non-government organisation or organisations, or a Commonwealth agency, to provide services for intercountry adoption by early 2015.

 

The Commonwealth and the States and Territories will work closely together to make sure there is a smooth transition to the new system.

So, some more detail (albeit only a little bit), but also some unanswered questions (including whether same-sex couples are to be included), as well as some new questions (if a non-government organisation contracted to provide inter-country adoption services was religious, could they refuse to provide those services to same-sex couples – but more on that particular issue later).

On the following Monday, 5 May, Prime Minister Abbott issued a Media Release, which revealed a little bit more:

REFORM AND ACTION ON INTERCOUNTRY ADOPTION

 

The Commonwealth Government is committed to adoption reform to enable more people to find families.

 

A new report has identified significant barriers facing Australian families wanting to adopt from overseas.  Inconsistent rules, costs and the lengthy wait to adopt currently deter many people from even starting the adoption process.

 

Last Friday, COAG agreed to a national system for intercountry adoption. The Commonwealth will work vigorously with the States and Territories to have a new system operating by early 2015.

 

The report into intercountry adoption also recommended establishing new country programmes to help more Australian families to adopt.  A new intercountry adoption programme between Australia and South Africa is now in place.

 

South Africa has a strong commitment to finding families within its borders to care for children in need. Where, for whatever reason, a South African family cannot be found, Australian families will be able to help provide permanent loving homes to South African children.  Many of these children will have health needs, and would benefit from the caring environment that Australian families can provide.

 

The Government will introduce amendments to the Australian Citizenship Act so that obtaining Australian citizenship can happen in a child’s country of origin. As well, we will fix the problems associated with the visa system. It is too complicated at the moment and processing times are too long.

 

For too long children who legitimately need a safe and loving home and Australians who dream of providing this home have been hindered by red tape and confusion. The Government is pleased to be able to undertake real action to bring families together.

The accompanying Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption provided some additional information (see link to report here: <http://www.dpmc.gov.au/publications/docs/idc_report_intercountry_adoption.pdf ), although undoubtedly would have provided more had pages 41 onwards, which contained Options for Reform and Recommendations to Government, not been deliberately withheld from the public.

The table on page 30 of the section of the Report that was released at least acknowledged that in four Australian jurisdictions – NSW, Western Australia, Tasmania and the ACT – adoption by same-sex couples is already legal.

On page 32, Table 11: Country of Origin Requirements then spelled out all the different countries where agreements exist, but which deem same-sex couples to be ineligible. Sadly, none of the countries listed currently permit inter-country adoption that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

The discussion on page 31 helpfully (or should I say rather unhelpfully), noted that “[r]estrictions on same-sex couples adopting was raised by several submissions as a problem… [But] It seems that changes to these criteria would probably have limited impact on intercountry adoption given the country of origins’ criteria.”

Which is absolutely correct. But still does not answer the question of what would happen if Australia were to sign an inter-country agreement which did allow same-sex adoption (or even, as I suggested in my original letter, if Australia were to actively seek to include non-discrimination as a key clause in all of our inter-country agreements)?

And the media release, and accompanying IDC report, didn’t even address the most obvious question of all – given South Africa already allows same-sex couple adoption, and Prime Minister Abbott announced a new inter-country adoption program with South Africa, would Australian same-sex couples be able to adopt under that program?

The mainstream media didn’t appear to follow up on this question – although fortunately, Benjamin Riley of the Star Observer newspaper stepped into the breach to report the following:

SAME-SEX COUPLES INCLUDED IN OVERSEAS ADOPTION AGREEMENT FOR THE FIRST TIME

 

BEJAMIN RILEY – May 5, 2014

 

SAME-sex couples are included in Australia’s new agreement with South Africa on overseas adoption announced today by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after being excluded from every previous intercountry adoption agreement between Australia and another country.

A spokesperson for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet told the Star Observer the agreement with South Africa is the first such arrangement with a country that allows same-sex couples to adopt children.

 

Although there is currently inconsistency across Australian states and territories around same-sex adoption, same-sex couples can legally adopt in NSW, ACT, Tasmania and Western Australia. However, until now this has been irrelevant due to the explicit exclusion of same-sex couples from Australia’s intercountry adoption agreements.

 

The Prime Minister announced the agreement with South Africa today along with a range of reforms to streamline the overseas adoption process, allowing children to obtain Australian citizenship in their country of origin, and simplify visa processes. These reforms have come out of a new report by the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption.

 

The Prime Minister’s office confirmed the eligibility of same-sex couples to adopt under the new agreement with South Africa, and told the Star Observer these reforms will consider inconsistencies between the states and territories on same-sex couples adopting.

 

“Current eligibility requirements vary across Australia via states and territory requirements. We will most be certainly considering this issue — together with other eligibility criteria — as we finalise the new national approach to intercountry adoption,” press secretary Sally Branson said.

 

“This just isn’t an issue for the home country of the adoptive parents — the requirements of overseas countries are also relevant. The South Africa agreement will allow for same sex couples to adopt.”

 

A Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting on Friday also flagged the development of a new national service for intercountry adoption by early-2105. The service would be either a funded non-government organisation or a Commonwealth agency.

 

The announcement prompted calls by the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights lobby to ensure a new national framework would operate with equality for LGBTI people looking to adopt, and said the same should be true for any organisations assisting in the adoption process.

 

The Prime Minister’s office told the Star Observer there is no detail yet around how the national service would operate, but said the Federal Government would “ensure non-discriminatory service is provided to all stakeholders, and work with all stakeholders in a the same manner”.

 

Rodney Chiang-Cruise from Gay Dads Australia said the streamlined citizenship and visa processes wouldn’t change a great deal for Australian same-sex couples looking to adopt from overseas, but was glad the issue was being discussed.

 

“The Federal Government has not done anything on overseas adoption for decades… It sounds like a positive move, and hopefully it’s an indication of further moves in regards to what is a complex and difficult area,” Chiang-Cruise told the Star Observer [emphasis added, abridged]. Link to original article here: <http://www.starobserver.com.au/news/local-news/same-sex-couples-included-in-overseas-adoption-agreement-for-the-first-time/122370

As the article reports, this is a potentially significant breakthrough in terms of LGBTI equality – provided this agreement is implemented in line with state and territory requirements, for the first time ever, same-sex couples in NSW, WA, Tasmania and ACT will be treated equally in terms of overseas adoption.

However, the notes of caution expressed by Mr Chiang-Cruise also seem to be appropriate. After all, that still leaves LGBTI-inclusive couples in four Australian jurisdictions (Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory) out in the cold.

And, as described earlier, there is genuine concern that, should a religious organisation be awarded the contract to deliver inter-country adoption services, they might discriminate against same-sex couples and then use the (incredibly broad) religious exemptions offered under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to essentially ‘get away with’ such discrimination.

Which means, while some questions have been resolved – and the South African agreement is indeed a big step forward for same-sex couple adoption in Australia – there are still plenty of issues to be worked through in coming months. It also means there was certainly plenty of material to write a follow-up letter to Prime Minister Abbott on this subject. As always, I will post any reply that I receive.

The Hon Tony Abbott MP

Prime Minister

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Thursday 29 May 2014

Dear Prime Minister

INTER-COUNTRY ADOPTION BY SAME-SEX COUPLES

Thank you for the reply, from your Department, to my letter of 8 March, concerning the issue of inter-country adoption by same-sex couples.

Unfortunately, some of the issues raised in my letter were not answered. Additional issues have also arisen from the Communique of the COAG meeting on Friday 2 May, and from your media release on Monday 5 May, which was accompanied by the release of some sections of the Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption.

First of all, however, I wish to congratulate you on your commitment, as expressed by your office to the Star Observer newspaper on Monday 5 May, that same-sex couples will be eligible to adopt under the newly-finalised agreement with South Africa. This is a major step forward for the equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex-inclusive families.

Nevertheless, as highlighted in my original letter, and confirmed in the Report of the Interdepartmental Committee, it is highly unlikely that, due to differing legislation, same-sex couples in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory will be able to take advantage of this new agreement.

This is obviously an unsatisfactory outcome – that arrangements entered into by the Commonwealth will only provide benefit to couples in Sydney, not Melbourne, Perth not Brisbane, and Hobart but not Adelaide.

I therefore reiterate my call that you should use the process of establishing new inter-country arrangements over the coming year to urge those states and territories that have not yet made adoption non-discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status to finally do so.

Second, I wish to ask you about the proposal being considered that a non-government organisation may be funded to provide inter-country adoption services on behalf of the Commonwealth and states and territories. Specifically, if this organisation is itself, or is run by, a religious body, will you guarantee that they will not be able to deny these services to same-sex couples?

Again, it would be a deeply unsatisfactory outcome if, despite the successful inclusion of same-sex couples in formal arrangements between Australia and South Africa, these were undermined in practice because of the exemptions offered to religious organisations under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

Please ensure that whichever non-government organisation is funded to provide inter-country adoptions services on behalf of the Australian Government, and therefore the Australian people, they are legally bound not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Third, and finally, I return to a point made in my initial correspondence and that is that I believe the Australian Government should be actively seeking to include non-discrimination clauses in all future inter-country adoption agreements. This stance should apply irrespective of whether the country is like South Africa, and itself already recognises same-sex adoption, or another country that does not.

I acknowledge that it may not be possible to secure the inclusion of such a clause in every single signed agreement – because it is dependent on the response of the other country – but I can see no reason why Australia should not be directly and firmly putting forward the principle that all couples are able to be loving and nurturing parents, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Congratulations again on the inclusion of same-sex couples in the inter-country adoption agreement with South Africa.

I look forward to your response to the other matters raised in this correspondence.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Dear Joe Hockey, $245 million for School Chaplains? You Cannot be Serious

Just over a month ago I wrote to you arguing that, if you were serious about cutting Commonwealth expenditure, you must axe the National School Chaplaincy Program. (link: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/04/12/dear-joe-hockey-if-youre-serious-about-cutting-expenditure-you-must-axe-school-chaplains/ )

This program is a completely unjustifiable breach of the principle of the separation of church and state, supporting the appointment of people whose primary ‘qualification’ is their religion to positions in secular, government-run schools. It is also ineffective, with little or no evidence that employing chaplains benefits students overall (especially when compared with appointing properly-trained and qualified student welfare workers or counsellors).

Above all, with the National School Chaplaincy Program costing more than $50 million each and every year, this initiative is the epitome of waste. $50 million per year may not have seemed like a huge spend when it was first introduced (as Howard and Costello bathed in the rivers of cash flowing into the treasury coffers) but, in a post-GFC world, when the revenue stream has well and truly dried up, the largesse of this scheme is apparent.

Since I wrote to you, the final report of the National Commission of Audit has been released, and, much to my surprise, they recognised both the extravagance of, and lack of policy rationale for, this scheme, recommending that it be abolished. Even your hand-picked, right-wing Audit warriors thought funding school chaplains could not be justified.

So, when you rose to your feet to deliver the Budget on Tuesday night, the pressure was on you: were you in fact serious about cutting expenditure, including abolishing wasteful and ineffective programs irrespective of which side of politics had introduced them, or did balancing the Budget not matter as much as supporting narrow, ideological interests?

Alas, in the Budget papers, we the Australian public quickly discovered that, despite all the talk of ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘repairing the Budget’, you nevertheless had chosen to provide $245 million to the National School Chaplaincy Program, to continue its operation from 1 January 2015 to the end of 2018.

That decision in and of itself was terrible, but it is made worse, by several orders of magnitude, when it is contrasted with some of the other decisions contained in the Budget, including:

  • The introduction of a $7 co-payment for visiting a doctor, as well as a $5 increase in the cost of prescriptions through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme;
  • A $7.9 billion cut in the foreign aid budget over the next 5 years;
  • A $500 million cut to expenditure on indigenous programs over the next 5 years (this under the ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs’);
  • A rise in the pension age from 67 to 70 (phased in to 2035), as well as a reduction in future pension increases;
  • An increase in university fees, with loans to be charged at much higher interest rates and the repayment threshold significantly lowered; and
  • The introduction of a 6-month wait for access to unemployment benefits for people under 30 (and even then, payment at a reduced rate).

That list sounds like a ‘Tea Party’ inspired re-imagining of The New Colossus: “Give me your tired, your (global) poor, your sick, your Aboriginal, your elderly, your young, your students and your unemployed, and we will make them pay.” When you spoke of ‘sharing the burden’, it seems like you almost went out of your way to ensure that the burden was shared, disproportionately, by the most vulnerable.

In that context, it looks more than bizarre that one of the main groups who do not have to experience any Budget pain are school chaplains. The decision to give them almost a quarter of a billion dollars doesn’t even make sense when looked at exclusively in the context of the Education Budget.

The $245 million provided to the National School Chaplaincy Program is the single biggest spending initiative in the budget for schools, which implies that it is the Abbott Government’s biggest school-related priority for its first year in office. This funding also stands in marked contrast to the decision not to provide any additional funding for students with disabilities, despite that being a major pre-election commitment.

Do you really think that subsidising chaplains is more important than funding students with disabilities, or indeed funding anything else to do with schools?

The worst part is that the decision to refund the School Chaplaincy program is not even the worst part about this announcement.

In Tuesday night’s media release (“Keeping our Commitments: Funding a National School Chaplaincy Program”, issued by Senator the Hon Scott Ryan, the Parliamentary for Education) the Government stated that “[t]he renewed programme will be returned to its original intent; to provide funding for school chaplains.”

As made clear, in supporting documentation and subsequent media coverage, this means that, from 1 January next year, only religious appointees, from ‘recognised denominations’, need apply.

This is a return to the Howard Government designed scheme from 2007, and abolishes the only redeeming feature of the entire program – which was the 2012 amendment, made by then Education Ministers the Hon Peter Garrett MP, to allow schools the choice to employ secular student welfare workers rather than chaplains.

In doing away with qualified student welfare workers, you have also removed the only fig-leaf of credibility which (partially) covered up the nakedly-ideological, and evidence-free, nature of the overall scheme.

It is impossible for you, and the Commonwealth Government in general, to claim that the National School Chaplaincy Program is genuinely about improving the welfare of students, when you are explicitly denying schools the opportunity to employ the best people for the job.

In the absence of any student welfare-based rationale, everyone can now see that the decision to provide new funding to the National School Chaplaincy Program is, at its core, a joke. The changes to the scheme’s rules, which mean that all 2,900 people employed under the scheme must be religious appointees, and cannot be secular student welfare workers, make it a bad joke at that.

But maybe we only see it as a bad joke because the joke is on us. After all, we the taxpayers are the ones footing the $245 million bill to allow chaplains and other religious office-holders inappropriate access to the schoolyard, and the classroom.

There are, of course, others who are laughing at our expense: the religious organisations who have their ‘outreach’ work to young impressionable minds publicly-subsidised; the religious fundamentalists in the Liberal-National Government (and, it must be said, some in the ALP Opposition) who believe it is the role of Government to ensure Australia is a ‘Christian nation’; and the major churches who want to break down, once and for all, the already fragile separation of church and state in this country.

The group laughing hardest, though, must be the Australian Christian Lobby, because this is your, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s, extravagant, quarter of a billion dollar gift to them. It must gladden your heart that, in his post-Budget media release (where it should be acknowledged he at least made the effort to criticise the overall impact of Budget cuts on the poor and disadvantaged) ACL Managing Director Lyle Shelton still found time to be thankful for the Chaplaincy Program. As an aside: Lyle, if you are genuinely concerned about cuts to foreign aid, maybe you should by lobbying for that $245 million to go overseas instead.

So, when you stood up on Tuesday night and said that ‘we are a nation of lifters, not leaners’, it was, like so much of what you said, just empty rhetoric. Because, as you have so amply demonstrated through this single, fundamentally wasteful decision, groups like the Australian Christian Lobby can always lean on you.

Of course, funding the National School Chaplaincy Program for another four years, and even changing its rules, probably wasn’t the worst decision contained in the Federal Budget. It definitely isn’t the decision that will cause the most harm to struggling individuals, both here and overseas (the list of other changes outlined above will likely all have far more deleterious consequences than simply putting 2,900 religious appointees in schools).

But the decision to award $245 million to this scheme reveals, probably more than any other choice made by you and the other members of the Expenditure Review Committee, just how twisted the Budget priorities of this Government really are. In amongst the carnage of savage cuts to health, to education, to the pension and to foreign aid, you and your colleagues nevertheless found room in your hearts, and our wallets, to fund the National School Chaplaincy Program.

The role of the nation’s Treasurer is a serious one, bringing with it solemn responsibilities. You are supposed to tax wisely, spend fairly, look after the most vulnerable and invest for our collective future. In your first Budget, you instead chose to hurt some of those who are the most disadvantaged, while still helping your – ideological and political – friends. I am sorry to say, Mr Hockey, but on May 13, you failed to live up to the serious responsibilities of Treasurer.

Treasurer Joe Hockey, not serious about cutting wasteful programs like school chaplains. Is serious about granting the wishes of groups like the ACL. (image source: news.com.au)

Treasurer Joe Hockey, not serious about cutting wasteful programs like school chaplains. Is serious about granting the wishes of groups like the ACL (image source: news.com.au).

Dear Joe Hockey, If you’re serious about cutting expenditure, you must axe school chaplains

As promised during the 2013 federal election campaign, one of the first actions of the Tony Abbott-led Liberal-National Government was to establish a National Commission of Audit, to review all Commonwealth expenditure in an effort to reduce spending and ultimately deliver a Budget surplus.

Indeed, the Terms of Reference for the Commission of Audit described it as a “full-scale review of the activities of the Commonwealth government to:

-ensure taxpayers are receiving value-for-money from each dollar spent;

-eliminate wasteful spending; …

-identify areas or programs where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate…” [among other objectives].

The Commission’s first report was delivered to the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, in mid-February, and the second was handed over at the end of March. The contents of both reports were, quite cynically, kept from the public ahead of the Western Australian half-Senate election on 5 April (because you wouldn’t want an electorate to actually be informed about impending spending cuts before they vote), although, with only one month left until the Federal Budget is handed down it’s highly likely they will be released in the next week or two.

It is expected that the Commission will recommended that the axe fall on (or at least make significant cuts to) a wide range of different programs, with apparently ‘authorised’ leaks focusing on things like the aged pension, Medicare (through a $6 co-payment) and other vital health, education and welfare services.

However, there is one program that, I believe, meets all of the above criteria and thoroughly deserves to be cut as part of any serious expenditure review: the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. It is almost impossible to argue that putting ministers of religion into government schools could ever be value-for-money, when compared with almost any other government expense. As well as being enormously wasteful spending, it would also seem to be the definition of a program where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate.

And yet, given the highly political nature of the Commission of Audit, I suspect it is unlikely the National School Chaplaincy Program is under any real threat. Even if the Commission were to recommend its abolition, it is hard to believe that Joe Hockey would actually follow through on any such advice when he rises to the dispatch box on the night of Tuesday 13 May.

More’s the pity. The National School Chaplaincy Program is amongst the worst examples of public policy over the past decade (and there have been some absolute shockers in that time). It was introduced by John Howard in the dying days of his government (2007), as he realised his grip on power was loosening with age – basically, it was a sop to ultra-conservatives and religious fundamentalists (both of which can be found in the form of the Australian Christian Lobby) to entice them to remain aboard his sinking electoral ship.

Alas, in a demonstration that poor policy, and religious pork-barrelling, can be bipartisan, the incoming Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, maintained the National Schools Chaplaincy Program throughout his first stint in the Lodge. When it came time to review the first three years of its operation, frustratingly he and his then Deputy, Education Minister Julia Gillard, chose to continue, rather than close, the program.

As Prime Minister in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, Gillard then announced a $222 million extension of the program til the end of this year (2014). This money was also provided to allow for expansion of the scheme’s coverage, from 2,700 schools up to 3,550 schools.

The only figure that accomplished anything to at least partially mitigate the genuine awfulness of the National Schools Chaplaincy Program over the past seven years was Education Minister Peter Garrett, who changed the program guidelines from the start of 2012 to allow schools to choose between chaplains or qualified student counsellors (hence the revised name). He also attempted to introduce a requirement that all workers, including chaplains, have some level of relevant qualifications, although recognition of ‘prior learning’ on the job was also encouraged.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of people employed as a result of this scheme remain ministers of religion. Imagine that: in 2014, the Commonwealth Government provides up to $24,000 per year to more than three and a half thousand schools to subsidise the employment of someone whose primary ‘qualification’, indeed whose primary vocation full stop, is to proselytise.

Ironically, the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program Guidelines then go to great lengths to attempt to limit the ability of chaplains to proselytise or evangelise from their position of authority within the school community, which is about as useful as telling a tree to stop growing leaves (or telling Cory Bernardi to stop being a bigot). It seems like the apotheosis of a set of rules where adherence, rather than breach, will be the exception.

The Guidelines themselves are also full of loopholes, allowing chaplains to “provid[e] services with a spiritual content (excluding religious education) including facilitating discussion groups and lunch time clubs” with approval and consent, as well as “performing religious services/rites (such as worship or prayer during school assembly etc), with… appropriate prior consent”.

This is an obvious and serious contravention of the principle of the separation of church and state. In the United States, such a program – paying for men (and some women) of faith to introduce their religion into government schools – would be struck out as unconstitutional by their Supreme Court.

Sadly, the anaemic interpretation of section 116 of the Constitution adopted by the High Court of Australia in the “DOGS case” [Attorney-General (Vic); Ex Rel Black v Commonwealth [1981] HCA 2; (1981) 146 CLR 559 (2 February 1981)] meant that it was never going to be struck down here, or at least not on those grounds.

Even after the program was successfully challenged by Toowoomba father, and man of principle, Ron Williams in 2012, with the High Court finding that the scheme did not have a legislative basis to appropriate money, the Government squibbed the ideal chance to abandon a flawed program and instead rushed through legislation to support its ongoing operation [as an aside, the High Court will be hearing a further challenge from Mr Williams, on May 6-8 2014, that the rushed omnibus Bill was itself unconstitutional].

And even if the National School Chaplaincy Program is ultimately found to be constitutional, there is still absolutely zero evidence that it is effective at improving the overall welfare of students.

If any of the Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Rudd (again) or now Abbott Governments genuinely considered that student welfare was a matter of priority, they would properly fund, rather than part subsidise, actual student counsellors or social workers to perform that function in every school, not implement a scheme where cashed-up churches could target individual cash-starved schools and offer the ‘services’ of ministers of religion, essentially as a backdoor way of indoctrinating a fresh generation of children.

There are ways in which the introduction of ministers of religion into schools can lead to direct harm too, not least of which being the issue of potential child sex abuse. In fact, at the same time as the hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, the Government continues to encourage the employment of ministers of religion in public schools, with a code of conduct that allows them to have physical contact with students because “there may be some circumstances where physical contact may be appropriate such as where the student is injured or distraught”. [NB Obviously I am not saying that most, or even many, school chaplains are child sex abusers, but it seems unnecessary, and unnecessarily risky, to bring in people from institutions with a long history of covering-up such abuse and placing them in positions of trust in public schools.]

In addition, some (although obviously not all) ministers of religion also present a clear and present danger to young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students, given the blatant homophobia adopted by particular churches and their officials. This threat is explicitly acknowledged by the Guidelines, which in response attempts to prohibit discriminatory behaviour on the basis of sexuality (although it doesn’t appear as though either gender identity or intersex status are mentioned at all).

In the same way as the prohibition on ‘proselytising’ described above, however, it is inevitable that there will be some ministers of religion, in some schools, who deliberately flout those rules, and in the process cause untold harm to young LGBTI students.

In short, the National Schools Chaplaincy Program is philosophically unsound, has no evidence that it benefits student welfare, is expensive, potentially causes harm and is clearly an inappropriate activity to be funded through taxpayers’ money. Surely, out of all of the programs funded by the Commonwealth, across almost all areas, it should be at or near the top of any Commission of Audit ‘hit-list’.

Even if the Commission of Audit abrogates its basic responsibility to recommend that the National School Chaplaincy Program be axed, Treasurer Joe Hockey will still have to make a decision on the future of the program as part of the 2014-15 Budget, because, as noted earlier, funding for the scheme runs out at the end of this year.

What action Joe Hockey takes on this will reveal a great deal about what kind of Treasurer he intends to be. Of all the incoming Abbott Ministers, Hockey has been the loudest in condemning middle-class welfare, in arguing that the role of Government must be smaller, and that inappropriate or unjustifiable programs should be cut.

Well, here is an ideal opportunity to live up to at least some of that rhetoric, savings upwards of $222 million in the process (that’s the equivalent of one and a half $6 GP co-payments for every person in Australia). If he does so on 13 May, then he should be applauded for it (noting of course that there might, just might, be some other things in the Budget that warrant a somewhat different response).

If Hockey fails to rise to the occasion, and extends or even expands funding for ministers of religion in our public schools, then it will show that he is not serious at all about reining in inappropriate spending, and does not believe in small Government – instead, it will simply demonstrate that he believes in big government of a different kind, one that takes money from genuine welfare programs and places it in the hands of ministers of religion for the propagation of their beliefs.

So, now it’s over to you Joe: would you rather take money from people who simply want to see their doctor via a bulk-billed appointment, or from a program which funds the placement of ministers of religion into our public schools? I know which one I would choose. I guess we’ll find out on Budget night which one you do.

Letter to Prime Minister Abbott re Intercountry Adoption by Same-Sex Couples

The Hon Tony Abbott MP

Prime Minister

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Cc Dr Ian Watt

Secretary

Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet

PO Box 6500

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Saturday March 8 2014

Dear Prime Minister

INTER-COUNTRY ADOPTIONS BY SAME-SEX COUPLES

I am writing regarding the issue of inter-country adoptions. Specifically, I call on you to ensure that the processes governing inter-country adoptions treat all couples equally, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

I note that you announced in December 2013 that the Department of Premier and Cabinet would be investigating the issue of inter-country adoptions, reporting to you on ways the processes governing inter-country adoptions can be streamlined ahead of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting, now scheduled for Friday 2 May in Canberra.

I also note recent reports about the potential for new arrangements for recognising adoptions by Australians with respect to children from Taiwan and South Korea.

However, I am unaware of any reports about work underway to ensure that all bilateral and, where relevant, multilateral, agreements concerning adoption entered into by Australia recognise the equal rights of all couples, including same-sex couples, to adopt.

There is no legitimate reason to prevent couples that may include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) individuals from adopting.

In fact, the most recent report on the issue of same-sex parenting, commissioned by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, reaffirmed independent research over the past decade in finding that “there is now strong evidence that same-sex parented families constitute supportive environments in which to raise children.”

The report – Same-Sex Parented Families in Australia by Dr Deborah Dempsey (December 2013) – further confirmed that “children in such families do as well emotionally, socially and educationally as their peers from heterosexual couple families.”

Speaking about the report to the Sydney Morning Herald in February 2014, author Dr Dempsey said “[i]t’s not the family structure that matters so much as the kind of care; that children are loved, and are taken care of.” In practice, same-sex couples are just as capable of providing for the best interests of the child as opposite-sex couples.

Given these and other research results, I seek your commitment to ensure there is no discrimination against same-sex couples contained in any inter-country adoption agreement which Australia signs.

On a related issue, one of the administrative barriers to efficient inter-country adoption processes must be the variety of different, often conflicting, adoption criteria that operate in Australian states and territories.

For example, while my fiancé Steven and I would likely be eligible to adopt in Sydney, we would not be eligible to adopt were we to relocate to Melbourne. I doubt that our suitability as parents would differ simply because we moved 1000km to the South.

As before, there is no legitimate reason to prevent couples that include LGBTI individuals from adopting, and that must include within and between Australian jurisdictions.

The report which you have commissioned and will be presenting to the COAG meeting in May is an ideal opportunity for you to call on the states and territories to adopt uniform adoption laws, in particular to ensure that all Australian states and territories allow all couples to adopt, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

This would be a benefit not just to the administrative efficiency of Australia’s inter-country adoption processes, but also to the equal rights and status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

Finally, I note during the week reports of disagreement within the Coalition partyroom on the subject of single and same-sex couple parenting. Specifically, it was reported that Senator Cory Bernardi expressed his support for Minister Kevin Andrews’ defence of so-called ‘traditional families’.

In response, Liberal MP for Herbert, Ewen Jones, defended families headed by single people, and same-sex couples, saying that what was more important was that children were loved, not what gender their parents were. Mr Jones later told Fairfax Radio “I think it’s the quality of the role model, male or female, not the sexuality of the parents that maters” – a sentiment similar to that expressed by Dr Dempsey, above.

It was also reported that you responded to the debate by saying “[w]e need to be as supportive of people as possible, regardless of their circumstances.”

Taking you at your word, I sincerely hope that you will be supportive of all Australian couples, including same-sex or otherwise LGBTI-inclusive couples, having the same rights to adopt children from other countries.

You have the chance to demonstrate this support through the review of inter-country adoption which you have commissioned, and through your advocacy at the upcoming COAG meeting which will discuss this issue. I and other same-sex couples around the country will be watching which approach you take.

Thank you in for your consideration of this correspondence.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

The last major battle for gay & lesbian legal equality in Australia won’t be about marriage

[Updated March 4th 2015]

This Saturday, the 37th annual Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade will work its way up Oxford St with its now traditional mix of politics, colour and movement, and above all, pride. Pride in who we are, pride in our community, and pride in what we have managed to achieve.

Because life is unarguably better for the vast majority of Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) population in 2015 than it has ever been before. And that indeed is something to be proud about.

Following the first Mardi Gras on 24 June 1978, many of the barriers to legal equality have been removed. NSW passed anti-discrimination laws in 1982, followed by the decriminalisation of gay sex in 1984. Same-sex couples have since achieved de facto relationship recognition, and there is now equal access to assisted reproductive technology and adoption in most Australian jurisdictions.

It is likely that one area where legal rights have yet to be achieved will, once again, be the dominant theme of many of the more politically-oriented floats in this year’s parade – the Australian Parliament’s ongoing refusal to recognise marriage equality between all couples.

As someone who is engaged to be married, and who has been for more than four years but is currently prohibited from doing so, I understand why marriage equality is an issue which arouses such intense passion, and an admirable level of commitment from many activists around Australia.

But marriage equality is also something which most of us know is probably, some might say almost inevitably, going to be achieved at some point in the next five, at most 10, years.

When that day comes, when the first couples legally married under federal law have shared their vows and celebrated their commitments to each other in front of their families and friends, there will still be a major outstanding issue of legal inequality confronting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians.

It appears just as inevitable that, long after those couples dance their waltzes and cut their wedding cakes, the anti-discrimination protections which are offered to LGBT Australians under most state and federal laws will continue to be seriously undermined by the wide-ranging exceptions which are offered to religious organisations (NB Intersex is not included here because religious exemptions under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply on those grounds).

These exceptions allow religious schools to actively discriminate against LGBT teachers and students. Religious hospitals and community welfare organisations can utilise these loopholes to discriminate against LGBT employees, as well as patients and clients. And, while the historic federal reforms passed via the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 do not allow religious-operated aged care facilities to discriminate against LGBT people accessing their services, LGBT people can still be denied employment in those facilities simply because of who they are.

All of these services – education and health, community welfare and aged care – are located firmly and squarely in the public sphere, and address some of the most fundamental human needs in life. It is these same characteristics, that they are public services meeting public needs, that are used to justify the substantial amounts of public funding which subsidise the religious organisations running them, money which comes from all taxpayers, religious and non-religious, LGBTI and non-LGBTI alike.

Yet, despite operating in the public sphere, almost always using public money, these organisations are granted exceptions from the same legal obligations that are imposed on any other group, namely the responsibility not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The justification for these ‘special rights’? Basically, that the ability to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is so fundamental to the exercise of religious freedom that it cannot be limited.

Note that we are not here talking about who is appointed as office-holders, including ministers, within a religion itself, what a particular religion may or may not believe in terms of morality, how religious ceremonies are undertaken, or even who can attend a religious ceremony. These are things that are central to religious freedom, and most people would not advocate the imposition of limits on the ability of religious organisations to discriminate in these areas.

Instead, some religious organisations (and we must say some, because not all groups hold these views) believe that they should have the right to fire a gay teacher, to expel a bisexual school student, to refuse to employ a lesbian aged care worker, or to deny services to someone who is transgender, even when all of the above is clearly done in the public sphere.

This is a much more substantive denial of rights than simply being denied access to marriage rites. Religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws can affect LGBT people in multiple areas of their lives, including times and places when they are at their most vulnerable. In practical terms, I believe it is religious exceptions and not marriage inequality that is the biggest battle left to be won for full gay and lesbian legal equality.

It is also a battle that looks set to be fought more ferociously than that over marriage equality. Some of the largest religious organisations in the country don’t just support these exceptions, they are prepared to wage cultural war to defend them.

The Wesley Mission recently spent eight years, and went all the way to the NSW Court of Appeal, defending their right to deny allowing a male same-sex couple to become foster carers to children in need. Wesley did so on the basis that: “[t]he biblical teaching on human sexuality makes it clear that monogamous heterosexual partnership within marriage is both the norm and ideal” (OW & OV v Members of the Board of the Wesley Mission Council [2010] NSWADT 293 (10 December 2010).

Further, they submitted that: “Wesley Mission’s tradition views a monogamous heterosexual partnership in marriage as the ideal family role model for the vulnerable and sometimes damaged children we foster. Other understandings fall short of that norm.” And finally that “[t]he proposition that we should provide a framework for children to be cared for and nurtured within the context of a homosexual lifestyle is fundamentally unacceptable to our evangelical teaching and practice.”

The irony, some might say hypocrisy, of these statements is that, in the same case, Wesley Mission admitted that single people could themselves become foster carers through their service. Apparently they believed that two dads or two mums had less to offer foster children than one.

The net effect of the Wesley Mission case was to provide judicial confirmation of the breadth of the religious exceptions offered under section 56(d) of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977. That section reads: “[n]othing in this Act affects: any other act or practice of a body established to propagate religion that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

In short, if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, then you have no legal right or expectation to be treated fairly and without discrimination by a religious employer, or religious-operated service, in NSW.

It is no surprise then that, when the Federal Parliament was considering the Exposure Draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination (HRAD) Bill 2012, the precursor of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, key NSW religious organisations would argue for religious exceptions to be established in Commonwealth law, too.

What is perhaps surprising is that some churches made submissions to the Senate inquiry considering the HRAD Bill that these exceptions do not go far enough.

The Standing Committee of the Synod of the Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney, and the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney (including the Diocese of Parramatta and the Catholic Education Commission of NSW), both argued that the concept of exceptions was problematic, and that the right to discriminate against LGBT people should instead be re-contextualised as a positive right.

From the Anglican submission: “[w]hile exceptions are necessary, casting the protection of these rights in a wholly negative manner, in the form of ‘exceptions’, does not do justice to their importance. It suggests they are merely to be tolerated rather than positively recognised and upheld as legitimate and important in themselves.”

Meanwhile, in a ‘Diedre Chambers’ style coincidence, the Catholic submission also wrote: “the terminology of “exceptions” is problematic and fails to acknowledge that the right of freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, which the Commonwealth government is obliged to protect under international law. In our view, the terminology of “exceptions” should be replaced with the terminology of “protections”. Using the terminology of “protections” would recognise that conduct which is deemed not to be unlawful because it is covered by an exception related to religion is in fact lawful because it accords with the fundamental human right of freedom of religion” [emphasis in original].

Both submissions also go further than concerns surrounding terminology to argue that the exceptions which are offered to religious organisations should also be available to individuals – that is, that their personal beliefs should allow them to discriminate, even in their professional lives and when not working for a religious organisation.

For example, the Anglican submission recommended that “[a]n employee should not be required by their employer to undertake particular tasks or provide services in a particular context that are contrary to the employee’s genuinely held religious convictions where this is reasonable.”

Thankfully, that style of exception, which is located somewhere on the bottom half of the slippery slope down to the abhorrent type of laws currently attracting controversy in several US states, was not included in the final Commonwealth legislation. But in making that submission, the Anglican Church of Sydney has made clear the direction it wants anti-discrimination, or more accurately, pro-discrimination, laws to head [As an aside, if it had been passed then, when marriage equality does eventually become a reality, such provisions would have allowed individual employees to refuse to sell wedding cakes, or serve as wedding photographers, merely because of the sexual orientation and/or gender identities of the couples involved].

And they will fight equally hard to ensure that the current framework of exceptions applies in as many contexts as possible. The eventual removal of these exceptions in terms of people accessing aged care services was strongly resisted from some religious bodies, even if their arguments for doing so were quite weak (the Anglican submission on the HRAD Bill suggested that “[i]t may be unsettling to these communities to have residents who do not share their beliefs, values and ethos facility on matters of sexual practice”).

They have been more successful in fighting against recent proposed changes to NSW law that were simply attempting to remove the right of religious and other private schools to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender students (NB Bisexuality is shamefully still not a protected attribute in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977). Alex Greenwich’s amendments are currently on hold, at least in part because of the influence of the two major churches in the Parliament.

As we have seen, some religious organisations have demonstrated over the past 10 years that they are prepared to fight, by whatever means necessary (through the courts, in parliamentary inquiries, by lobbying parliamentarians directly and in public debate) to maintain and even extend the reach of these exceptions.

While this may seem to some like a theoretical (or even theological) debate, they are not doing so because they want the law to recognise abstract rights – they are engaged in this battle because they want the retain the ability to actively discriminate against LGBT people in real life.

Sadly, there are too many stories of this happening, of religious exceptions causing real-world harm to LGBT people. In the lead-up to Mr Greenwich’s Bill being introduced, several lesbian and gay students came forward with stories of being sent to the counsellor’s office for being “sick” (that is, for being gay), of being called disgusting and a disgrace – by a teacher no less – and threatened with exclusion from senior school, and of being told not to talk about their sexuality in addition to being excluded from school events (source: “Discrimination has no place in schools” Alex Greenwich, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September, 2013).

Not forgetting the recent incident where the Sacred Heart Primary School at Broken Hill, which falls within the Wilcannia-Forbes Catholic Diocese, rejected a young girl’s kindergarten application simply because her parents were two women (source: “Same-sex enrolment row prompts call for law change”, ABC News Online, 15 December 2011).

Of course, these are just some of the stories that we are aware about. Most people who are discriminated against by religious organisations, either directly or indirectly, do not speak up, because they are aware that the discriminatory actions of those bodies are entirely lawful, or because they fear retribution from those organisations if they do so.

Which brings me back to the Mardi Gras Parade. While for many of us the decision to participate on Saturday is an easy one, choosing to celebrate pride in who we are and as part of our community, for others the decision whether to be visible or not in this manner can be significantly more complicated.

For people already engaged with religious organisations in different ways, or whose profession may involve applying for jobs with them (for example, more than a third of schools in Australia are religious, an even higher proportion amongst secondary schools), choosing to be ‘out’ through Mardi Gras can have serious repercussions.

Some people can and do have a legitimate fear that being identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender could result in them being fired, or being refused employment in the first place, in being expelled from school (or seriously mistreated while there), or being denied necessary services. Neither state nor federal anti-discrimination law would currently protect them in these circumstances.

In this respect, despite all of the progress in law reform since the first Mardi Gras parade was held back in 1978, there is still an incredibly long way to go. That is one of the reasons why we must ensure that Mardi Gras, as well as being a celebration of pride, also continues to serve its role as a political protest.

It is also why me must continue to campaign for equality, and to fight for our rights, including the right not to be discriminated against. Given the scale of the challenge involved in removing these unjust religious exceptions, and how hard (some) religious organisations will struggle to retain them (and therefore to maintain their position of privilege in society), we should be aware that it is not a fight that we will win in months. It will take several years, at least – if not decades.

But it is a battle we must wage nonetheless. Because, if LGBT Australians are ever to be truly equal under the law, then the special exceptions granted to religious organisations under Commonwealth, state and territory laws must end.

Explanatory notes: I have attempted to be clear in this post about when I am speaking about gay and lesbian, or LGBT, or LGBTI, because sometimes the law affects these groups in different ways (and please accept my apologies if I have made some errors in this respect). For example, removing religious exceptions cannot be the last major battle for bisexual legal equality – especially if they are not included in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act in the first place.

Equally, I am not in a position to argue that religious exceptions are the biggest legal issue confronting transgender Australians when uniform positive recognition of gender identity is not yet a reality. And, while intersex people are not subject to religious exceptions under the Sex Discrimination Act, I also wouldn’t describe this issue as more important than banning involuntary medical sterilisation, something I have written about previously (see link: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/12/25/no-3-senate-report-on-involuntary-or-coerced-sterilisation-of-intersex-people-in-australia/).

Finally, while I wrote in the second paragraph that, for the vast majority of LGBTI Australians, life is unarguably better than it has ever been before, I do not wish to underestimate the ongoing problems of mental illness, depression and suicide which affect many young LGBTI people, or indeed the plight of LGBTI asylum-seekers, who Australia continues to send to Nauru and Manus Island, PNG, for ‘processing and resettlement’.

One (more) final thing: if you liked this post, please consider sharing. Thanks, Alastair