The worst of times

As the dust settles on the recent federal election, and the new Albanese Labor Government settles into office, I wanted to take this short(ish) opportunity to reflect on the term of Parliament just ended, and especially its impact on LGBTIQ Australians.

To the surprise of few readers of this blog, the reflection of the past three years in the rear-view mirror (now thankfully receding into the distance) is far from pretty. Indeed, in my opinion, the 2019-2022 term of the Morrison Liberal/National Government was the worst for LGBTIQ people in my lifetime, by some margin.

There are many reasons for arriving at this conclusion, chief among them the Religious Discrimination Bill, which came to dominate the Morrison Government’s legislative agenda, especially in its dying days.

Remember, this was a law that sought to legally protect offensive, humiliating, insulting and ridiculing comments against women, LGBT people, people with disability and people of minority faiths. By over-riding existing state and territory anti-discrimination laws, it also procedurally denied access to justice for victims of discrimination.

The Coalition’s Religious Discrimination Bill featured the broadest special privileges allowing religious organisations to discriminate against employees and people accessing their services of any anti-discrimination law in Australia. 

If passed, it could have entrenched existing discrimination against LGBT students ‘under the guise of religious views’ – while it definitely would have permitted new forms of discrimination against LGBT teachers by over-riding states and territories that had already protected them.

For more on the problems of the Religious Discrimination Bill, read: Why the Religious Discrimination Bill must be rejected (in 1,000 words or less) 

And even though LGBT people were obviously not the only targets of what I would describe as legislated hatred, I don’t think anyone would deny that denying the rights of LGBT Australians was a primary motivator both for the Morrison Government itself, and for the religious fundamentalists who supported the Bill.

But the Religious Discrimination Bill was by no means the only attack on LGBTIQ people by the Morrison Government.

In the final 12 months alone, we saw all bar six Liberal and National Party Senators vote for a One Nation motion calling for an end to gender-affirming and supporting health care for trans children and teenagers (in June 2021).

In September, the Coalition also rejected straight-forward amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) which would have seen trans, gender diverse and intersex workers protected on exactly the same basis as others, including lesbian, gay and bisexual workers (for more, see: Pathetic, and antipathetic, in equal measure).

In February 2022, on the very day that the Religious Discrimination Bill was finally abandoned, Tasmanian Liberal Senator Claire Chandler introduced legislation seeking to ban trans women and girls from participating in sport. Despite being a private member’s bill, it was later explicitly and repeatedly supported by Morrison himself, and no doubt would have been a priority for his Government had they been re-elected.

And of course the election campaign itself was marred by the toxic transphobia of candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves, hand-picked by Morrison himself in a transparent effort to invent a culture war and win the votes of bigots (for more, see: Ten months of transphobia). 

Then there was the issue of LGBT students in religious schools, a topic about which the Morrison Government continually found new ways to disappoint, ultimately abandoning some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

Morrison had promised way back in October 2018 to protect LGBT kids before the end of that year – a commitment he spent the following three and a half years running away from (for more, see: Scott Morrison’s Broken Promise to Protect LGBT Students is Now Three Years Old). By the time he was booted from office, his broken promise to end discrimination against LGBT students was 1,318 days old (and yes, I was counting).

The appalling treatment of LGBT kids during the Religious Discrimination Bill debate in February demonstrates just how little he, and his Ministers, cared about this group. Not only did Morrison’s proposed amendments only seek to prohibit expulsion – which would have allowed religious schools to continue to mistreat students in 1,001 other ways, from differential treatment and exclusion, through to discipline, detention, suspension and even asking them to leave).

But the calculated choice to exclude trans and non-binary children from any and all protection whatsoever (and therefore only to prohibit the technical expulsion of lesbian, gay and bisexual kids), was a wholly-prejudiced policy so heinous it can never be forgiven, and that includes anyone who voted for it.

The mistreatment of LGBT students also neatly illustrates why the last term of Parliament was truly the worst of times because, as much as what made the past three years horrific were the constant attacks on our community, just as damaging in the long run was the Morrison Government’s failure to take action to address long-standing human rights abuses against LGBTIQ Australians.

Not least of which are coercive surgeries and other non-consenting medical interventions on children born with innate variations of sex characteristics (otherwise known as intersex children).

Not only did the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison Governments successively fail to implement any of the recommendations of the ground-breaking Senate Inquiry into this issue from October 2013 – almost nine years ago – but, as far as I am aware, they also didn’t even acknowledge, let alone respond to, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Report from October 2021 either (‘Ensuring health and bodily integrity: Protecting the human rights of people born with variations in sex characteristics in the context of medical interventions’).

Now, as someone who is in their mid-40s, I’m old enough to recognise that the last term of Parliament is not the only three-year period which has been challenging for LGBTIQ Australians.

Indeed, I suspect readers are probably thinking of two other terms which were also brutal – the 2001-2004 term of the Howard Government during which the marriage ban was originally passed, and the 2016-2019 term of the Turnbull/Morrison Government, and especially the plebiscite debate and then postal survey.

But I would argue that neither was as relentlessly awful as the three years just concluded.

In terms of Howard, it was really only the final six months of the 2001-2004 term during which he sought to use same-sex marriage (as it was then called) as a wedge against the Labor Opposition – the first two and a half years were awful for other reasons (especially in the (mis)treatment of First Nations people, and people seeking asylum) but did not specifically target LGBTIQ Australians in the same way as the Morrison Government.

And in terms of the 2016-2019 term of the Turnbull (and later Morrison) Government, I absolutely acknowledge that the debate about the plebiscite, in the last half of 2016, and then the postal survey (which, let’s not forget, was the idea of now-Opposition Leader Peter Dutton) in the last half of 2017, were completely unnecessary, totally divisive and ultimately damaging for far too many LGBTIQ people.

At the same time, it was nevertheless a debate about improving the legal recognition of LGBTIQ relationships, and the Australian people eventually delivered marriage equality, which was a welcome and long-overdue step forward (no thanks to the Liberal Party, who must never be allowed to claim credit for this outcome – see: Liberals Claiming Credit for Marriage Equality Can Get in the Bin).

In contrast, the debate around the Religious Discrimination Bill concerned a law that sought to strip existing rights away from LGBT people, including protections against discrimination, and the ability to go about our day-to-day lives without being subjected to offensive, humiliating, insulting and ridiculing comments simply because of who we are.

The Religious Discrimination Bill debate also dragged on far longer than the plebiscite/postal survey – with the first exposure draft released in August 2019 (followed by a second in December of that year), and the Bill not stopped until February 2022 (30 months later).

I should at least acknowledge two additional contextual factors which help to explain just why the past three years have been so rough – although neither reduces the culpability of the Morrison Government for its actions.

The first is that there was obviously a cumulative effect of the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Government’s homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex discrimination. With the safe schools debate and decision to de-fund it occurring in the first term, and the plebiscite debate and postal survey (plus religious freedom review) in the second, the LGBTIQ community was already worn down by seemingly continuous debates about our lives.

Although, as the Treasurer who allocated funding for the plebiscite and then postal survey, Scott Morrison is responsible for a significant share of that accumulated stress.

The second is there is no doubt the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic since early 2020 has exacerbated the harms caused by the Morrison Government’s attacks on our community, especially because it left us isolated and alone in our homes when we needed each other for support and reinforcement to fight back against the Religious Discrimination Bill.

But once again, that context does nothing to exculpate the outgoing Government – indeed, the fact they were willing to push ahead with this divisive legislation, during bushfires, and floods, and a global pandemic, and instead of doing anything to alleviate climate change, only renders them more guilty.

There is one last question which needs to be addressed, and that is: why does writing this down matter? Especially post-election?

After all, the Morrison Government has been defeated. The country has (thankfully) moved on. While for the LGBTIQ community, we already know the past three years were the worst of times, because we endured them, and for many have the scars to prove it.

To which I say there are still (at least) two reasons for publishing this article.

The first is to ensure the Coalition’s homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex discrimination is properly recorded.

This is especially important as the Liberal Party inevitably tries to rewrite the history of the recent past, to present some kind of softer, kinder, gentler image to the electorate. But there was nothing soft, or kind, or gentle, about 2019, 2020, 2021, and early 2022 for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer Australians.

The second is because I think it helps to explain how many of us are feeling, right now. Yes, there is a sense of relief the attacks on us have ended (for now), but that welcome feeling doesn’t even begin to outweigh the sheer exhaustion from fighting constant battles over the last three, or six, or nine, years.

The tiredness in our collective bones.

On a personal level, and as an advocate with more than two decades experience, I will willingly concede the past three years have been the toughest of them all. 

The end of 2021, when two years of a global pandemic was followed by the introduction of the final Religious Discrimination Bill in late November, was particularly rough. It is definitely no coincidence that, in late December, exactly three days after lodging our submissions to both Parliamentary inquiries into the Bill, I came down with shingles (the working title for this post was actually ‘Scott Morrison’s Homophobia Gave Me Shingles’ but I assumed, probably correctly, nobody would click on that).

My body was saying, loudly and clearly, enough. Especially as illness ruined the planned summer break, preventing me from seeing my parents in Queensland.

Of course, the Religious Discrimination Bill debate continued, relentless, rolling on into Committee hearings in early January and Parliamentary debate in early February. But so did my need to stand up for my community, and try to see it defeated. Which we did. Collectively. But it came with a significant cost.

For me, that was burnout worse than anything I have experienced before, and – being completely honest – which I’ve only just recovered from (and which helps to explain the lack of recent posts).

Anyway, the point of this is not to say ‘woe is me’ (I’m fine, now). But it is to acknowledge there are a lot of people still feeling pretty bruised and battered by the past three years. And so we should try to show the care towards each other that the Morrison Government didn’t.

Together, we saw off the Religious Discrimination Bill. Together, we can put the worst of times behind us.

NB This post is written in a personal capacity, and does not reflect the views of employers past or present.

Scott Morrison’s defeat ended the worst Commonwealth Parliamentary term for LGBTIQ rights in my lifetime.

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Ten Months of Transphobia

The ‘star candidate’ of the first week of the election campaign – for all the wrong reasons – has undoubtedly been the Liberal candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves.

Hand-picked by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the head of anti-trans lobby group Save Women’s Sport Australasia has left a long trail of public comments for the media to scrutinise. And, well, the results aren’t pretty.

Already this week, they have reported on posts:

  • Describing trans kids as ‘surgically mutilated and sterilised’, while sharing topless images of a trans teenager who had undergone top surgery.
  • Saying she is ‘triggered’ by the rainbow pride flag (‘I get triggered by it. Whenever I see it on social media I think ‘What now? What are they demanding now?’ And I grew up with gay relatives and siblings and hung out in Surry Hills and X in Sydney in the 1990s. Lots of LGB family and friends, their movement has been destroyed.’)
  • Likening her lobbying against the participation of trans women and girls in sport to standing up against the Holocaust.[i]
  • Alleging ‘half of all males with trans identities are sex offenders’ (her tweet: ‘Half of all males with trans identities are sex offenders, compared with less than 20% for the rest of the male estate. That should tell you something.’), and
  • Belittling the serious mental health harms caused by transphobia (‘We hear from the other side the toll, all the harm, the devastation, we’re all going to commit suicide and blah blah’).

When confronted by the media about the above, Deves has been forced to apologise. It seems inevitable there will be more transphobic comments found, and more apologies, in coming days.

For people who only pay attention to federal politics every three years, Deves’ comments must seem bizarre, and extreme. And they are obviously both.

But, one thing they are *not* is an outlier.

Unfortunately, the Liberal candidate for Warringah’s views must be seen in the context of a rising tide of transphobia in Australian political discourse over the past six or seven years.

This includes the moral panic against the Safe Schools program in 2015 and early 2016, after which then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull first reviewed it, then ‘gutted’ its contents, before finally de-funding it completely.

And the same-sex marriage postal survey in the second half of 2017, which became a platform for groups opposing marriage equality to target trans and nonbinary children (indeed, one of the leading organisations against equality, the Marriage Alliance, has since become anti-trans lobby group Binary Australia).

Following his elevation to the Prime Ministership, Scott Morrison himself has engaged in the anti-trans culture wars on a number of occasions (tweeting against teacher support for trans kids – describing them as ‘gender whisperers’ – in September 2018; criticising a trans-inclusive Cricket Australia participation policy in April 2019; and personally intervening to remove gender identity-inclusive toilet door signs in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in August 2019).

However, from my perspective I would argue that the Coalition’s political campaign against trans and gender diverse Australians has really escalated in the past ten months.

In fact, I would pin-point that escalation to ten months ago yesterday (15 June 2021), when the Senate considered a motion from extremist One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts on the subject of ‘childhood gender dysphoria’, which effectively called for gender-affirming health care to be denied to trans and nonbinary children and young people.

Not only was Roberts’ motion not based on either the evidence of experts in the field, or the lived experience of trans people themselves, but if adopted as public policy would directly lead to serious health and mental health harms for gender diverse kids.[ii]

Despite this, the Morrison Liberal/National Government granted its Senators a conscience vote, and they supported this attack on trans health care by a margin of 21 to 6.

Coalition Senators voting to deprive trans kids of evidence-based support included Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, and Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General Amanda Stoker.

The only Coalition Senators who voted to support trans kids were Simon Birmingham, Andrew Bragg, Richard Colbeck, Jane Hume, Marise Payne and Dean Smith (thank you).

Thankfully, the motion was defeated overall (because Labor, the Greens and Jacquie Lambie opposed it), but from my perspective it marked a turning point in debate, with attacks by the Government only becoming more frequent in the months since.

For example, less than three months later in September last year the Government voted against straight-forward amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), which simply would have ensured trans, nonbinary and intersex workers had exactly the same access to the Fair Work Commission as other employees.

There was absolutely no justification for their opposition. Not only because gender identity and intersex status were already included in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), but also because the then-Tony Abbott-led Liberal/National Opposition had actually supported the inclusion of those protected attributes back in 2013.

The Government’s position on trans (and intersex) rights had effectively gone backwards in the eight years since. It was, as I wrote at the time, both a pathetic position to take, and antipathetic to the rights of some of the most vulnerable members of the community. 

Then of course there was the Religious Discrimination Bill, introduced to Parliament less than three months later again, in November of last year.

As I have written previously, this was damaging and divisive legislation that (among other things): 

  • Overrode existing state and territory anti-discrimination laws to allow demeaning and derogatory comments against women, LGBT people, people with disability and even people of minority faiths, provided they were religiously-motivated
  • Overrode existing state and territory anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT teachers in religious schools against discrimination (especially in Tasmania, the ACT and Queensland, and soon to commence laws in Victoria), and
  • Introduced religious exceptions which may have allowed discrimination against LGBT students in religious schools ‘under the guise of religious views’.

From this list it is clear trans people were one of many groups who stood to lose out under this legislation (so it wasn’t *only* a transphobic Bill).

But it is also undisputed that trans people were squarely in the sights of religious fundamentalists as they contemplated how they might (ab)use their new special privileges to discriminate had the laws passed (including Citipointe Christian College’s enrolment contract which primarily targeted trans kids, and Senate evidence of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria demanding the ability to misgender trans people in the workplace).

The Government then sought to mistreat trans people again when the Religious Discrimination Bill was considered by Parliament in February 2022, with Prime Minister Morrison introducing amendments that only protected lesbian, gay and bisexual students in religious schools against discrimination (and even then only against expulsion).

Trans and nonbinary students were excluded from any and all protection, breaking Scott Morrison’s own promise from October 2018 without any justification whatsoever.

Even worse, after the Religious Discrimination Bill package was amended by the Opposition, cross-bench and five moderate Liberal MPs to protect trans and nonbinary kids, Morrison then chose not to have the Bill considered by the Senate at all (at least partially at the behest of the Australian Christian Lobby and Christian Schools Australia).

That is how much the Liberal/National Government opposes the rights of trans and nonbinary children: they were prepared to abandon another of their core promises entirely just because gender diverse students might have been protected as a by-product.

Then, on the very same day the Religious Discrimination Bill was placed on pause (to the relief of many, myself included), Tasmanian Liberal Senator Claire Chandler introduced a private members Bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act in order to exclude trans women and girls from participating in women’s sport (a law which also would have had a significant detrimental impact on intersex women).

Within two weeks, the ‘Save Women’s Sports’ Bill had been personally endorsed by Prime Minister Morrison himself, while campaigning in Tasmania. Even though it is still not ‘official’ Government policy, this endorsement dramatically increases the risk this law will be passed should the Coalition win in May.

Finally, in the dying days of the Parliamentary term in early April, Liberal Senator Alex Antic misused Senate Estimates hearings by asking a range of witnesses how they would define ‘woman’, which is simply re-heated transphobic culture war nonsense copied directly from the Republican Party handbook in the United States.

A few things become clear when looking back on the events of the past ten months in this systematic way.

First, the Liberal/National Government’s war on the rights of trans Australians is relentless.

Second, their attacks only seem to be becoming more frequent.

Third, far from being an outlier, a candidate like Katherine Deves is likely to feel right at home inside the Coalition.

Indeed, her advocacy efforts, aiming to exclude trans women and girls from participating in women’s sport, seems to be the main reason why she was chosen in the first place.

On the first full day of the campaign (Monday 11 April) Morrison told 2GB radio that:

‘She’s [Deves is] standing up for things that she believes in, and I share her views on those topics. And, and I think it’s important that they’re raised and it’s got nothing to do with, you know, the broad agenda debates. This is just about, you know, common sense and what’s right. And I think Katherine’s right on the money there.’

Before telling another radio station later that day, during a discussion of trans inclusion in (or exclusion from) sport: ‘I welcome Katherine’s selection, pleased to play a role in that. I think she’s raised very important issues. I think Claire Chandler’s also been outspoken and brave on these issues. I share their views’ (emphasis added).

Katherine Deves was not chosen as a candidate in spite of her transphobic views. Deves was hand-picked as a candidate, by Scott Morrison, as a direct result of her anti-trans advocacy.

In fact, it seems to have been her primary ‘contribution’ to public life. The only other time I have come across her previously was listening to her as a witness at hearings into Mark Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, in April 2021.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Deves (wearing her Save Women’s Sport Australasia hat) supported Latham’s Bill to erase trans students from classrooms and schoolyards across NSW – legislation which was so extreme that the NSW Perrottet *Liberal/National* Government ultimately rejected it because it ‘may lead to targeted discrimination against a marginalised community which already experiences poorer mental health and wellbeing outcomes’.

I started this post by highlighting some of the more appalling social media posts and other public comments for which Deves has been forced to apologise this week. But, rather than the (admittedly extreme) ways in which she expresses her position, it is the substance of those views – seeking to exclude trans women and girls from sport, supporting laws to erase trans kids and nonbinary students from classrooms – for which she should apologise.

But we already know that she won’t, because campaigning against trans rights is what Katherine Deves is known for.

I will now end this post by making three final points.

First, none of the above is news to trans and gender diverse Australians, who have been enduring this culture war for the past six or seven years, and are all-too-aware of its escalation over the past ten months. We already know it is having a devastating impact on their mental health and wellbeing, and will continue to do so for as long as it is allowed to go on.

Second, none of this will stop until the rest of us stand up and make it stop. Trans and gender diverse Australians have been fighting this battle on their own for far too long. It’s time for cis allies, including within the LGBTIQ community, but also in the Labor Opposition, Greens, moderate Liberals, and everyday members of the community, to tell the Morrison Liberal/National Coalition that enough is enough.

Trans women are women.

Trans men are men.

Trans rights are human rights.

And trans kids will be protected with all of our collective might.

Third, perhaps the most frustrating part of all is that spending significant time fighting back against attacks on trans rights means there’s less time to advocate for much-needed positive changes to improve the lives of trans Australians, because the project of trans equality is far from complete.

This obviously includes amending the Fair Work Act to explicitly protect trans and nonbinary (and intersex) workers.

And amending the Sex Discrimination Act to remove the ability of religious schools to lawfully discriminate against LGBT students, and teachers and other staff members.

It also includes removing the high out-of-pocket costs for gender-affirming health care which places transition financially out of reach for too many trans Australians (and leaves others under severe financial stress).

And plenty more besides.

These are the things we need to happen. Not another ten months of unrelenting attacks on the trans community. And not the election of candidates like Katherine Deves, or other people with views like hers.

For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/ or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

NB This post is written in a personal capacity, and does not reflect the views of employers past or present.

Katherine Deves

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Footnotes:


[i]  Full quote: ‘I’ve always loved 20th-century history and I think many people would say to themselves, ‘I’d never been to villages that stayed quiet, while the trains went past or whatever, I would have been part of the French Resistance, the underground, you know, I would be one of those people.’ And when all of this was happening, and no one was speaking out, I thought, this is it. This is the moment in my life, when I’m going to have to stand up and say something against the status quo and against the establishment and say, ‘I don’t think this is right’.’

[ii] Full text:

‘That the Senate-

(a) notes that:

(i) in 100 years of diagnostic history of childhood gender dysphoria (GD) there is an alarming trend that teenage girls, with no history of GD, have become the largest group seeking treatment,

(ii) in the United States of America, girsl requesting gender reassignment surgery in 2016-17 rose 400%,

(iii) in the United Kingdom, girls presenting with GD in the last 10 years rose 4000%, and

(iv) Australia’s Royal Children’s Hospital indicates referrals have grown from 1 every two years to 104 patients in 2014;

(b) further notes that:

(i) Sweden’s leading gender clinic has ended treatment of minors with hormonal drugs due to safety concerns, citing cancer and infertility, and

(ii) suicide mortality rate for transgendered people is 20 times higher than comparable peers;

(c) supports children presenting with GD to be given:

(i) the ‘wait and see’ method as the first choice, since evidence shows between 70-90% of young people’s dysphoria resolves itself by puberty, and

(ii) a comprehensive therapeutic pathway, since a large percentage of these children have pre-existing mental health issues, and not a medical pathway; and

(d) condemns the practice of children receiving:

(i) experimental and unproven medical treatments of irreversible puberty blockers and sex hormone treatments, and

(ii) irreversible transgender surgery.’

5 things we learned from the Senate Hearings into the Religious Discrimination Bill

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee has been conducting an inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 over summer.

As part of that inquiry, it held two days of public hearings, on Thursday 20 and Friday 21 January, with a range of witnesses from religious organisations, civil society, business, legal groups, the Australian Human Rights Commission and Attorney-General’s Department.

Here are five things we learned from those hearings, ahead of the Committee’s final report, which is due to be tabled this afternoon (Friday 4 February), prior to debate on the Bill resuming in the House of Representatives next Tuesday (8 February).

  1. Citipointe’s conduct is not an outlier – in fact, it’s exactly the point

By now, most people will be familiar with the situation at Citipointe Christian College in Brisbane, which this time last week, issued a new enrolment contract seeking to discriminate against LGBT students generally, and trans and gender diverse students in particular.

What is also important to note is the way in which they sought to justify this discrimination. Clause 26 of their contract in particular tries to dress it up as discrimination on the basis of religious belief about gender identity, rather than on the basis of gender identity itself:

‘The Parents acknowledge and accept that, should I/we not share the College’s commitment to fostering these fundamental doctrinal precepts, this will constitute a serious departure from the religious precepts upon which Citipointe Christian College is based and will afford Citipointe Christian College the right to exclude a student from the College who no longer adheres to the College’s doctrinal precepts including those as to biological sex, which constitute an important tenet of the College’s Christian religion (emphasis added).’

Now, it is highly likely that Citipointe’s actions would be unlawful under the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991, not just because that legislation does not allow religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of gender identity, at all, but also because neither does it allow them to discriminate against students on the basis of religious belief beyond the point of initial enrolment.

Therefore, even if the school was successful in arguing this was indeed discrimination on the ground of religious belief about gender identity, it still couldn’t lawfully discriminate against existing trans and gender diverse kids.

Unfortunately, the same safeguard does not exist in the Religious Discrimination Bill, which allows religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of religious belief not just at the point of enrolment, but throughout their education.

And this right will exist, even if Liberal moderates are successful in amending the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) to remove specific exceptions allowing religious schools to discriminate under that law.

Which means, if the Religious Discrimination Bill is passed in its current form, religious schools will continue to discriminate against LGBT students, ‘under the guise of religious views’, rather than sexual orientation and gender identity.

But the outcome will still be the same: LGBT kids mistreated because of who they are.

Above all, the attempted actions by Citipointe on this issue are not an outlier – in fact, multiple religious organisations at the Senate hearings told us this is what they would do.

For example, there was this exchange involving Mr Mark Spencer, Director of Public Policy, Christian Schools Australia:

Senator Andrew Bragg (Liberal): Finally – I’m just conscious of time – on the issue of children in schools, I understand that there was some discussion earlier about the different clauses that may or may not be considered by this parliament. My question is really more on the principle here, which is: do you want to have a right in the law to expel gay kids?

Mr Spencer: Again, you’re making a sweeping statement there that needs a bit more nuance. For a start, you talk about gay kids. Are you talking about same-sex attracted kids who might be committed to living a biblical authentic life? Are you talking about young people who may be, by their behaviour, not meeting the conduct standards of the school? There are a whole range of difference scenarios in there that you need to be unpacking and considering. The short answer is: no, no child has been, and no child do we want to sack simply because they might be same-sex attracted.

Senator Bragg: So your answer is no?

Mr Spencer: The answer is: no child do we want to expel simply because they’re same-sex attracted (emphasis added).

Translation: Christian Schools Australia reserve the right to discriminate against, and even expel, any gay student who is not ‘committed to living a biblical authentic life’. Which means affirming statements like ‘homosexuality is intrinsically disordered’, and pledging to be celibate for life.

In other words (or my words in fact): If a gay kid hates themself enough, they can stay. But if they do not believe who they are is inherently wrong, they can be lawfully mistreated.

Or this exchange with Right Reverend Dr Micheal Stead, Bishop of South Sydney, Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney:

Senator Bragg: I guess the question is: should you be allowed to discriminate against someone based on their sexual preference if they are teaching in accordance with the ethos of the school?

Bishop Stead: No – sorry, I may have misunderstood your question. None of the religious bodies are arguing for the right to discriminate on the basis of sexuality or gender. What we’re arguing for is the right to be able to discriminate on the basis of religious belief. If it happens that somebody’s religious belief also reflects their sexuality or their gender in a way which is inconsistent with the belief of the organisation-

Bishop Stead: Yes. The religious institutions are not seeking the right to discriminate on the basis of sexuality, gender or any of the other protected attributes-

Senator Deb O’Neill (ALP): Race, disability, age-

Bishop Stead: Thank you. They’re looking for the right to, in the wrong language, ‘discriminate on the basis of religion’. We would say ‘to preference on the basis of religion’ – to act in accordance with their religious belief. It’s only at the point at which somebody’s religious belief has changed to reflect their sexuality or gender that makes it inconsistent with the school that we’re into this area of intersectionality (emphasis added).

Again, they might say it’s discrimination on the basis of religious belief (or ‘preferencing’, to use their term), but it’s clear that in practice LGBT students and teachers will be the victims.

Or this exchange with Mrs Moira Deeming, Researcher, Church and Nation Committee, Presbyterian Church of Victoria:

Mrs Deeming: There are gay Christians and teachers – I am a teacher – who are Christians first and the way that they deal with whatever their sexuality feels like is expressed in a Christian manner. It’s about religious freedom and it’s about religious association. It’s not about finding out if someone is gay and cutting them out. It’s about working out: are you like minded with us? If you are like minded, join with us. Then there shouldn’t be an issue.

Senator Bragg: That wasn’t my question, but I know I am out of time. On notice, can you come back with exactly what your position is because, frankly, it’s a bit murky.

Mrs Deeming: Would you mind restating your question clearly just one more time?

Senator Bragg: The question is: do you want to be able to discriminate based on sexual orientation or preference in the hiring of your staff?

Mrs Deeming: That’s a corollary to preferencing based on religious belief. We’re not targeting anybody- (emphasis added)

All three witnesses appear to be saying: we reserve the right to discriminate against LGBT people, we’ll just call it discrimination on the basis of religious belief.

Which is exactly what Citipointe Christian College was trying to do with its contract. Fortunately, that was unlawful because of the much stronger anti-discrimination laws in Queensland.

But, discrimination protections for students and teachers under the Religious Discrimination Bill are much, much weaker, because of the excessive and extreme exceptions provided to religious organisations under this legislation, allowing them to lawfully discriminate.

As a result, there will be plenty more Citipointes around the country in future. And that’s not ‘murky’, it’s perfectly clear.

2. Workers from minority faiths are left unprotected by the Bill

The excessive and extreme religious exceptions contained in the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 don’t just affect LGBT people.

In fact, one of the groups who stand to lose the most are workers from minority faiths. This is because large, usually-Christian, publicly-funded service delivery organisations – including hospitals, aged care facilities, accommodation providers and disability service providers – will be able to lawfully discriminate on the basis of religious belief in employment. 

That means hiring (and firing), and providing (or denying) training, promotion, and other benefits, on the basis of faith rather than ability. Workers who are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic and atheist can be treated less favourably than Christians, just because of who they are.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Mr Surinder Jain, National Vice President of the Hindu Council of Australia, explaining the Bill’s impact on his community:

‘We have a lot of Hindus who work in aged-care services and disability services, predominantly being run by religious organisations. We have doctors working in private hospitals. We have IT people. Their jobs would be questionable. There is another category of people who are new migrants, who come here and who are desperately looking for a job and they find a job in a religious organisation. There is unsaid pressure on them that they should adapt to the religion of the organisation that they are in. This way the religious freedom [Bill] would actually be taking away their freedom of ideology and religion in declaring their faith and practising their faith and in not being pressured into adopting another faith.’

In short, the Religious Discrimination Bill privileges larger faiths at the expense of smaller ones, and especially employees of the latter.

3. A ‘mask off’ moment revealed what the statement of belief provision is really about

Through much of the hearings, and especially during the appearance by the Attorney-General’s Department on the Friday afternoon, defenders of the Bill attempted to downplay the impact of the unprecedented statement of belief override of all other Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws that protects religiously-motivated comments that offend, humiliate, insult and ridicule others.

They tried to make it seem like it was all very reasonable, rather than an extraordinary legal privilege to allow people to make demeaning and derogatory comments about women, LGBT people, people with disability and people of minority faiths in all areas of public life.

Well, not all of them – one witness on the Thursday afternoon let the ‘reasonable’ mask slip, confirming the statement of belief provision will provide a platform for transphobia: Mrs Moira Deeming, Researcher, Church and Nation Committee of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria.

I’ll reproduce the relevant part of the transcript below, but for context, remember that Greens Senator Janet Rice’s late wife was a trans woman:

Senator Janet Rice (Greens): We’re talking about, particularly, clauses 11 and 12 of this bill and, particularly, the statements of belief. The Australian Human Rights Commission say that statements of belief that will be legal under this legislation, which will override state and territory legislation, are currently considered discrimination, and they will no longer be considered discrimination.

Mrs Deeming: Multipartisan support – let’s get a controversial statement. ‘Trans women are men’. Would you consider that, in and of itself, a discriminatory statement that should never be uttered?

Senator Rice: If that were being stated in a workplace to a trans woman, absolutely.

Senator Rice: Do you believe that’s not discrimination?

Mrs Deeming: I just think it’s a statement of belief, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a religious belief.

Senator Rice: And, if it’s offensive to that trans woman, you that it’s acceptable?

Mrs Deeming: I think-

Senator Rice: It’s deeply offensive and potentially causing that trans woman to have severe mental health illness… to not be accepted in their gender identity.

Chair: Senator Rice, I’m just going to ask you to pause here.

Senator Louise Pratt (ALP): But, in the same workplace, someone won’t have the right to call the person who said that a bigot.

Chair: Senator Pratt, I’m just going to ask you to pause as well. Senator Rice has put a question to Mrs Deeming. Mrs Deeming, please answer the question. I don’t want any witness being interrupted, please.

Mrs Deeming: I pose that question because it’s obviously the most controversial one at the moment. It’s not specifically a religious view that biological sex cannot be altered. It’s not. There are many, many people – lesbians, in fact, and homosexual men and people from across the political spectrum, people in every single party here – that would agree with the statement that trans women are, by definition, male. They wouldn’t be making it on the basis of hate. What I’m interested her is finding out whether you’re going to try and take statements like that and class them as inherently harmful, where no offence was intended. It’s just a difference of belief. It’s a belief we don’t subscribe to.

Senator Rice: A difference of belief?… In that sort of instance, in a workplace, if that statement has been given to a young person who is attempting to affirm their gender, it leads to severe mental unwellness and severe impact on them – not being able to affirm their gender. It leads to suicidal ideation. It leads to potential suicide. That is the reality for trans and gender diverse people. So I put it to you that that is, in and of itself, a discriminatory and hateful statement if it is being made to those people.

Mrs Deeming: And I put it to you that it is psychologically abusive to coerce students and other people to say things that they do not believe, especially about the nature of biological-

*****

There’s a lot to take in there obviously, but some things stand out:

  • Deeming pro-actively chose to raise the statement ‘trans women are men’ – during an exchange with a Senator whose late wife was a trans woman
  • She argued that it’s ‘just a statement of belief’, and therefore should be legally protected
  • She did not agree with Rice’s comments about the harm caused by such statements to trans and gender diverse people
  • Instead, Deeming claimed it is ‘psychologically abusive’ to require students and other people to effectively treat trans and gender diverse people with respect.

In this exchange, Deeming confirmed that the statement of belief provision is not about providing protection for people who simply state ‘marriage is between a man and a woman’ – it is instead really about allowing people to make deeply transphobic comments to others, even to fellow employees in the workplace who are simply trying to do their job.

4. ‘The limit does not exist’ to the religious freedom agenda

There was another development over the course of the hearings which reveals a helluva lot about the ever-growing demands of the ‘religious freedom’ movement – and how it will continue to strip away the rights of others, with little care for the consequences it creates.

This relates to proposals to redraft clause 12 of the Bill – which is the ‘statement of belief’ provision – ostensibly to ensure it is constitutional. These changes were put forward by Professor Nicholas Aroney, who had previously served as a member of the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review (which helped to create the mess we are now in).

Anyway, from Mr Aroney’s submission to the Committee:

‘To maintain this policy objective while addressing any doubts about the effectiveness of clause 12 under section 109 of the Constitution it would be sufficient to amend the clause so that it reads:

(1) A statement of belief, in and of itself, does not constitute discrimination for the purposes of this Act.

(2) Notwithstanding any of the following State of Territory laws, it is not unlawful to make a statement of belief, in and of itself:’

The redrafted amendment then lists all four of the Commonwealth anti-discrimination Acts (Racial, Sex, Disability and Age), and each of the primary state and territory anti-discrimination laws (such as the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977).

Now, I am not a constitutional lawyer, so I can’t tell you whether it has made the provision more, or less, constitutional.

However, I am an expert on the Religious Discrimination Bill and I can tell you that with this drafting Mr Aroney has made sure the ‘statement of belief’ clause would explicitly override section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth).

As well as all state and territory anti-vilification provisions found in their primary Acts (like the prohibitions on racial, homosexual, transgender and HIV/AIDS vilification in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977).

This is because his version of clause 12 overrides all parts of these laws (by using the general phrase ‘it is not unlawful’), whereas even the current version of the Religious Discrimination Bill applies to discrimination only (it uses the phrase ‘does not constitute discrimination’ instead).

I can’t speak for Mr Aroney, so I don’t know whether this drafting is deliberate – and he meant to ensure religiously-motivated comments that breach laws like s18C should be protected – or whether it is simply careless.

But even if it was the latter, I think it is symptomatic of the overall ‘religious freedom’ agenda – and that is it is only ever concerned with securing more, and more, and more, rights for religious fundamentalists, like the right to be a bigot towards women, LGBT people, people with disability and people of minority faiths.

And rarely, if ever, do religious freedom advocates bother to step back to consider what is being stripped away from other groups in society. Such as, in this instance, racial minorities.

My view is reinforced by the fact, on Thursday 20 January, multiple witnesses, from a variety of different religious organisations, were asked whether they supported Mr Aroney’s changes. Those that offered their support for his drafting include:

  • Mr John Steenhof, Principal Lawyer, Human Rights Law Alliance
  • Mr Mark Sneddon, Executive Director, Institute for Civil Society
  • Professor Patrick Parkinson, Director, Freedom for Faith
  • Right Reverend Dr Michael Stead, Bishop of South Sydney, Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney
  • Reverend Christopher Duke, Convener, Church and Nation Committee, Presbyterian Church of Victoria
  • Pastor Michael Worker, General Secretary and Director, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty, Seventh-day Adventist Church in Australia, and
  • Pastor Mark Llewellyn Edwards, Australian Christian Churches.

Again, I have no idea if they each consciously support overriding s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), and other state and territory anti-vilification laws. But they absolutely supported amendments that have this practical effect. And at the very least it seems nobody even stopped to think about who was going to lose out as a result.

That is the insatiable religious freedom agenda in action. And you had best believe that, even if the Religious Discrimination Bill is passed, it will not stop eating away at the rights of others to live their lives free from discrimination.

5. Government Senators still haven’t grasped the full dangers of the Religious Discrimination Bill

It is fair to describe the Religious Discrimination Bills as complex, particularly because it contains a number of unique provisions that do things no other Australian anti-discrimination law has ever done before (like clauses 11 and 12, which specifically override, and undermine, anti-discrimination protections in other jurisdictions).

Nevertheless, it was disheartening when, on the final afternoon of two Senate hearings – which followed another three days of hearings into the Bill by the Joint Committee on Human Rights – the Chair of the Committee (Senator Sarah Henderson), was involved in the following exchanges, demonstrating she still hadn’t fully understood one of the Bill’s main problems:

Chair: Do you have to believe that it’s part of the doctrines and tenets of that religion? There has got to be a factual basis for that. You can’t just subjectively believe that.

Mr Walter [from the Attorney-General’s Department]: It’s a test of whether the individual believes it or not…

Chair: Does it have to be genuinely held in relation to you’ve got to factually be able to demonstrate that what you hold as your genuine belief reflect the doctrines and tenets of that religion? Your so-called relationship with God can’t be separated from, or not connected with, the doctrines and tenets of that religion. In other words, you can’t just make something up.

Senator Rice: You can. If you genuinely believe that your religion says so, you can.

Chair: That’s what I’m seeking to clarify. There’s been a genuine concern that many have expressed during these two days of hearings.

Mr Walter: Yes. What it doesn’t do is it doesn’t apply an objective text of saying, for example, ‘I believe X’…

Chair: Just to give you an example, could someone who is pro-euthanasia and has made some comments in relation to that issue genuinely consider that such a position is in accordance with the doctrines and tenets of Catholicism, for instance? The concern is that when you start to rely on the individual’s-

Senator Rice: It’s how it’s drafted.

Chair: genuine belief, which might not be connected in any way with the doctrine or tenet of that particular religion, isn’t there an issue with an objective test not applying?

Mr Walter: In that particular example, in theory, yes. However, that person needs to establish that they genuinely believe that. You’re going to be looking for a pattern of evidence that they’ve held that belief for a long time or they’ve expressed it in many ways-

Chair: Surely that doesn’t make sense, because that’s not consistent with the Catholic doctrine. How can they genuinely believe that that’s part of a tenet of that faith when it clearly, on its face, does not accord with the doctrines or tenets of Catholicism? How could that-

Senator O’Neill (ALP): That’s before we get to the religions that are new and don’t have such a body of evidence.

Senator Rice: Exactly.

Chair: That’s what makes this very complicated. Is there not a difficulty because there’s not an objective text; it’s a subjective test?

*****

At the very end, Senator Henderson was finally at least starting to ask the right question – because yes, there is a massive difficulty in that the definition of statement of belief is entirely subjective (with clause 5 of the Bill stating that only the person making the statement needs to ‘genuinely consider’ it to be in accordance with the religion).

That’s why this provision will protect an almost unlimited array of fringe beliefs – including white supremacist speech, as long as the person making it ‘genuinely considers’ it relates to their particularly-warped views of Christianity. It would not matter if every single church in Australia disagreed with them.

And the Attorney-General’s Department’s response – You’re going to be looking for a pattern of evidence that they’ve held that belief for a long time or they’ve expressed it in many ways – only makes things worse.

Apparently, if you can show you’ve made white supremacist comments, dressed up as religious belief, many times before, then it makes it more likely your comments will be protected from discrimination claims under Commonwealth, state and territory law.

The statement of belief provision is a mess. The whole Religious Discrimination Bill is a mess. And it must be rejected.

Conclusion

The above are just five of the issues which arose during the two days of hearings by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee into the Religious Discrimination Bill. There were many more I could have chosen to highlight here.

Despite this, based on media reports this morning, it seems likely that both Liberal and Labor Senators will recommend that the legislation be passed.

Which gives us just a matter of days to help stop this extreme, radical and unprecedented assault on the human rights of everyday Australians.

The best thing you can do at this point is to:

And if you need any further convincing of why this legislation should be defeated, try this: Why the Religious Discrimination Bill must be rejected (in 1,000 words or less).

The Religious Discrimination Bill might have been introduced by PM Scott Morrison, but it is just as big a test for Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese: will he support legislation that takes away rights from women, LGBT people, people with disability and people from minority faiths?

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

[NB This article is written in a personal capacity and does not represent the views of employers, past or present.]

Why the Religious Discrimination Bill must be rejected (in 1000 words or less)

The Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill is a serious threat to the rights of women, LGBT people, people with disability, people of minority faiths and many other Australians.

However, because anti-discrimination law is already highly technical, and the proposed Bill is both incredibly complex, and contains a range of provisions that are completely unprecedented, it can be difficult to understand exactly what is at stake.

The following, then, is my attempt to explain the major problems contained in the Religious Discrimination Bill in 1000 words or less:

*****

The statement of belief’ provision protects offensive, humiliating, insulting and ridiculing comments against women, LGBT people, people with disability, people of minority faiths and others on the basis of who they are.

It does this by taking away existing protections against discrimination under all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, including targeting the best practice provisions of Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act.

As long as they are motivated by religious belief, people will be empowered to make demeaning and derogatory comments in all areas of public life: in workplaces, schools and universities, hospitals, aged care, public transport, cafes, restaurants and shops. Everywhere.

And because the definition of statement of belief depends only on the subjective interpretation of the person making them, it protects fringe or radical views, including religiously-motivated anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and even racism.

By overriding all other anti-discrimination laws, the ‘statement of belief’ provision also denies access to justice to victims of discrimination.

This is because it effectively introduces a Commonwealth ‘defence’ to state laws, meaning state tribunals – which hear the majority of anti-discrimination cases – will be unable to resolve complaints where this issue is raised.

These cases will instead need to be heard by state supreme courts, or federal courts, at massively-increased costs to complainants.

The groups most likely to experience religiously-motivated discrimination – women, LGBT people, people with disability and people of minority faiths – will lose the most.

The ‘statement of belief’ provision also grants extraordinary powers to the Commonwealth Attorney-General to take away existing rights in other areas, by ‘prescribing’ additional laws that will be undermined.

Laws that are at risk include:

  • ‘Safe access zone’ protections covering pregnant people seeking lawful terminations
  • Bans on sexual orientation and gender identity conversion practices, and even
  • Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which prohibits racial vilification.

The ‘religious exceptions’ in the proposed Bill are just as dangerous.

While many anti-discrimination laws contain ‘religious exceptions’, the special privileges allowing religious organisations to discriminate under the Religious Discrimination Bill are far broader than any other Commonwealth, state or territory anti-discrimination law.

This is both because it adopts a much more lenient test than other laws to determine when this discrimination is permitted (only requiring that one other person of the same religion could reasonably consider the discrimination to be justified).

And because it applies to a much wider range of organisations than other laws, covering charities, hospitals, aged care facilities, accommodation providers, disability service providers, camps and conference sites and even religious organisations undertaking some commercial activities.

Unlike the Sex Discrimination Act and similar laws, the Bill does not require these bodies to have been ‘established for religious purposes’, imposing the much easier test of ‘conducted in accordance with’ religious beliefs.

The people who stand to lose most from these exceptions are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and atheist workers denied jobs, promotions and training they are qualified for simply because of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

These exceptions also apply to ‘religious educational institutions’, covering everything from child-care and early learning centres, through to schools, colleges and universities.

However, unlike best practice provisions in Tasmania, Queensland, the ACT and NT which limit these exceptions to enrolment only, the proposed Bill permits discrimination against students on the basis of religious belief throughout their education.

In this way, the Religious Discrimination Bill allows discrimination against children and young people, denying them their religious freedom to question, explore and develop their own faith as they learn and grow, without fear of punishment.

The same provisions could also be used by religious schools to discriminate against LGBT kids, not on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity itself, but on whether they affirm statements like ‘homosexuality is intrinsically disordered’ or ‘God created man and woman, therefore being transgender is sinful’. The outcome would nevertheless be the same: LGBT kids being mistreated because of who they are.

This means that, even if the Morrison Government finally implements its promise to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to protect LGBT students, religious schools could still discriminate against them via alternative means.

The Bill also allows discrimination against teachers and other employees of religious educational institutionsmeaning they can be hired and fired on the basis of their faith, not their skills.

In addition, it grants extraordinary powers to the Commonwealth Attorney-General, allowing them to take away existing rights from teachers under state and territory anti-discrimination laws.

This includes recently-passed laws in Victoria which only permit discrimination where it is an inherent requirement of the role, and ‘reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances’, as well as similar laws in operation in Queensland for two decades, and in Tasmania and the ACT.

As with students, these provisions could also provide an alternative means to permit discrimination against LGBT workers ‘under the guise of religious views’. LGBT teachers and other staff are potentially at risk in Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT.

Finally, the Bill includes a range of other significant problems:

  • Removing the ability of qualifying bodies to take appropriate action about harmful ‘statements of belief’ made by professionals outside the workplace (for example, protecting repeated homophobic and transphobic comments by a doctor in a small town, even where this makes it unsafe for LGBT people to access essential healthcare)
  • Providing an unprecedented ability for religious organisations to make discrimination complaints in their own right, including allowing faith bodies to take legal action to prevent Commonwealth, state and territory governments from requiring organisations that receive public funding not to discriminate against LGBT people
  • Preventing local governments from passing by-laws to address harmful anti-LGBT ‘street preachers’
  • Introducing a totally unnecessary amendment to the Charities Act to ‘protect’ charities advocating a ‘traditional view of marriage’ (and those charities only), and
  • Expanding ‘religious exceptions’ in the Marriage Act to allow religious educational institutions to deny the use of their facilities for LGBTI-inclusive weddings, even where these facilities are offered to the public on a commercial basis.

Overall, the Religious Discrimination Bill promotes rather than prohibits discrimination. It must be blocked.

(999 words)

*****

The above summary does not even cover all of the many problems created by the Religious Discrimination Bill. If you would like to know more of the technical details, I encourage you to read the public submissions made by:

  • the Public Interest Advocacy Centrehere;

and

  • the Australian Discrimination Law Experts Grouphere

to the two Parliamentary committees (Joint Committee on Human Rights, and Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs) which have been holding inquiries into this legislation over summer.

Both Committees are due to table their final reports to Parliament on Friday 4 February, meaning the Religious Discrimination Bill could be debated, and passed, in the sitting weeks beginning on Tuesday 8 February.

There is, however, still time to stop this extraordinary and extreme, radical and unprecedented – and downright dangerous – law, but only if you make your opposition to it known right now.

There are a number of actions you can take, today:

  • Contact the following list of moderate and/or lesbian and gay Liberal MPs and Senators, expressing your serious concerns about the Bill and asking them to cross the floor to protect the rights of all Australians (using their contact details from Parliament House):
    • Angie Bell (Member for Moncrieff)
    • Dave Sharma (Wentworth)
    • Katie Allen (Higgins)
    • Fiona Martin (Reid)
    • Trevor Evans (Brisbane)
    • Tim Wilson (Goldstein)
    • Trent Zimmerman (North Sydney)
    • Warren Entsch (Leichhardt)
    • Bridget Archer (Bass)
    • Andrew Bragg (Senator for New South Wales)
    • Richard Colbeck (Senator for Tasmania), and
    • Dean Smith (Senator for Western Australia).

Together, we can ensure the Religious Discrimination Bill is rejected, for the benefit of women, LGBT people, people with disability, people of minority faiths and many, many other Australians whose rights would be at risk if this divisive law was allowed to pass.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

[NB This article is written in a personal capacity and does not represent the views of employers, past or present.]

LGBT kids don’t need more hollow promises

On Thursday, it was reported that Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has written to the Australian Law Reform Commission, asking for ‘detailed drafting’ to protect LGBT children from discrimination in faith-based schools.  

‘It is … the government’s position that no child should be suspended or expelled from school on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity,’ wrote Cash.

There are at least six reasons why this seemingly positive expression of support for LGBT kids is a bitterly disappointing statement of hollow nothingness.

First, we’ve heard this all before.  On 11 October 2018 the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, stated unequivocally: ‘We do not think that children should be discriminated against’. He promised to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination before the end of that year.

That was more than 3 years ago. 1,137 days to be exact (and yes, I’m counting). In that time, the Morrison Government has failed to do anything concrete to implement its promise.

Second, the Attorney-General was writing to ask the ALRC to do what it was already tasked to do by her predecessor, Christian Porter, back in April 2019. His original terms of reference requested the Commission to review religious exemptions, ‘having regard to… the importance of protecting the rights of all people, and children in particular, to be free from discrimination in education.’

More than 30 months later, the new Attorney-General is trying to spin a request for ‘detailed drafting’ as being something new. Exactly how that varies from ordinary ALRC recommendations is a distinction without a difference.

Third, we don’t need ‘detailed drafting’. We know how to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination.  Four jurisdictions – Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and NT – have already done so. Tasmania has been protecting LGBT kids, successfully, for more than 23 years. The amendments required are simple. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

Fourth, there’s not even a need to invent a new Bill. In response to the Prime Minister’s promise to protect LGBT kids in October 2018, the Labor Opposition introduced their own legislation the following month (the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018). The schedule of substantive amendments came to a grand total of 70 words.

If the ALRC reports in 2023, and the Government finally takes action that same year (both of which remain big ifs), it could end up taking them 5 years to draft 70 words. At just over one word per month, they’re certainly pacing themselves.

Fifth, we can see from the time and energy expended on the Religious Discrimination Bill where the Government’s real priorities lie. 

We’ve already gone through two rounds of public exposure drafts on the ‘religious freedom’ Bills package (which actually comprises three separate Bills). We’ve had 157 pages of draft legislation, before we even get to the third and final version(s) next week.

The drafting effort that has gone into the Religious Discrimination Bill demonstrates what happens when a Government wants to get something done. The comparative lack of effort in drafting straight-forward amendments to protect LGBT kids reveals what happens when they don’t.

Sixth, based on Senator Cash’s correspondence, it’s not even clear whether the Government supports ending all discrimination against LGBT students, or only removing the ability of religious schools to suspend or expel them. If it’s just the latter, then other forms of mistreatment would continue to be permitted, and the harm they experience will go on.

A child who was in Year 7 when the Prime Minister first promised to protect them from discrimination is on track to finish high school before he keeps that promise. That’s an entire generation of LGBT kids abandoned because they’re not considered a priority by their own Government.

LGBT kids don’t need more ‘detailed drafting’. They need action. What do we have instead? The Attorney-General sending the emptiest of gestures to the Australian Law Reform Commission, asking them to do something they’ve already been tasked to do.

It is a fig-leaf trying to cover up years of the Morrison Government’s inaction. But nothing can hide their lack of care about this issue. Because if they cared, it would have been fixed years ago.

The tragedy of it all is that, for as long as the Government prevaricates and obfuscates, vulnerable children are left exposed to abuse and mistreatment, discrimination, suspension and even expulsion, just because of who they are.

LGBT students deserve the right to learn in safety. Instead, Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws grant religious schools extraordinary special privileges to discriminate against them.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Pathetic, and antipathetic, in equal measure

Pathetic: adjective, ‘unsuccessful or showing no ability, effort, or bravery, so that people feel no respect’

Last week, the Senate witnessed one of the most pathetic votes by any Government in recent memory: on Wednesday 1 September, Liberal and National Party Senators voted against amendment sheet 1427 to the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021.

As that description suggests, those amendments, moved by the Australian Greens, were largely technical in nature. All they did (or at least would have done, had they passed), was ensure the terms gender identity and intersex status were included in exactly the same sections of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) which cover other protected attributes, such as race, sex, disability and sexual orientation.

That includes provisions which protect workers against adverse action (section 351(1)) and unlawful termination (section 772(1)(f)) on the basis of who they are, meaning the amendments would have guaranteed trans, gender diverse and intersex employees the exact same ability to access the Fair Work Commission as women, people with disability and even lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. [For more background on this issue, see ‘Unfairness in the Fair Work Act’]

As well as being largely technical, they also should have been entirely uncontroversial. Gender identity and intersex status are already protected attributes in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth). The amendments were simply intended to bring these two pieces of legislation into closer alignment.

Indeed, the Greens changes in sheet 1427 directly tied the proposed definitions in the Fair Work Act back to the Sex Discrimination Act:

‘gender identity has the same meaning as in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

intersex status has the same meaning as in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.’[i]

And yet, these largely technical and entirely uncontroversial changes were still rejected by the Coalition Government. Together with One Nation, their votes were enough for the amendments to be voted down, leaving the rights of trans, gender diverse and intersex workers in doubt.

It seems like anything that advances the rights of LGBTI Australians, even if just an inch, will inevitably be rejected by the Morrison Liberal/National Government. Which is, frankly, pathetic.

*****

Antipatheic: adjective, ‘showing or feeling a strong dislike, opposition, or anger’

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this situation is that the 2021 Coalition were voting against the protection of groups which the Coalition had actually supported eight years earlier.

In 2013, the Liberal/National Opposition, under the leadership of Tony ‘no friend of the gays’ Abbott, voted in favour of the then-Labor Government’s historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

That legislation inserted gender identity and intersex status into the Sex Discrimination Act in the first place. But, eight years later, the Coalition refused to back the inclusion of the exact same terms, with the exact same definitions, in the Fair Work Act.

Think about that for a second. The current Government is more opposed to the rights of trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians than the Abbott Opposition was back then.

The ‘strong dislike, opposition or anger’ towards trans rights from notoriously transphobic Senators like Claire Chandler has overwhelmed any semblance of support from other, more sympathetic sections of the Morrison Government.[ii]

The Coalition’s antipathy to trans rights also seems to have overwhelmed their ability to make political judgements that benefit them.

This amendment was a potential win for them. Almost 28 months into a maximum 36-month parliamentary term, it is increasingly likely the Government will not pass a single pro-LGBTI Bill before the next election (including a failure to introduce legislation to implement Scott Morrison’s since-broken promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination).

If they had chosen to vote for these changes – the most straight-forward of amendments, merely introducing consistency in the groups protected under the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work Acts – moderate Liberal Senators, and Liberal candidates for socially-progressive electorates, could have pointed to this outcome as evidence they care about LGBTI rights.

Instead, by voting against these amendments, everybody can see that they don’t care, about anybody whose gender identities or sex characteristics are different to societal expectations.

*****

The Government’s reasons for not supporting these amendments also demonstrate the simultaneously pathetic and antipathetic nature of their opposition. Attorney-General, Senator Michaelia Cash, made the following comments in relation to the Greens’ amendments:

‘The government will also be opposing the amendment moved by the Australian Greens. The 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 prohibits discrimination on these grounds in a range of areas of public life. The primary purpose of this bill is to implement the government’s commitments in its response to the Respect@Work report and to implement, as a matter of urgency, measures to strengthen national laws to better prevent and respond to sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. Discrimination on the basis of gender identity and intersex status is already prohibited in the Sex Discrimination Act…’

Cash raises a number of different arguments there. Unfortunately, none of them are compelling upon closer inspection.

For example, her attempt to declare that the primary purpose of the legislation is ‘to implement the government’s commitments in its response to the Respect@Work report’, might be an explanation of why they did not include these changes in the original Bill. It is not a justification for voting against these changes when they are moved by others.

Even worse, Cash’s argument is directly undermined by the words of her own Department, exactly one year-to-the-day beforehand. In response to my letter to then-Attorney-General Christian Porter calling for him to address this very issue, I received a reply dated 1 September 2020 from an Assistant Secretary in the Attorney-General’s Department, which included the following paragraph:

‘I note the discrepancies you raise between the language in the Fair Work Act 2009 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. At this point in time, the Australian Government has not indicated an intention to amend the Fair Work Act 2009 to explicitly include gender identity or intersex status as grounds for lodging an adverse action or unlawful termination application. In saying this, however, you may be interested to know that the Australian Government is currently considering its response to a number of recommendations made in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report. This process provides scope for the issues you have raised here to be considered further in the implementation of any proposed recommendations.’ [emphasis added]

Not only did the Department acknowledge this legislative gap, but they highlighted the Respect@Work response as an opportunity for this issue to be resolved. It was the Government itself, and possibly even Michaelia Cash herself or her predecessor Christian Porter, who actively decided to ignore, rather than address, this discrepancy.

Cash’s other arguments are just as flawed. She mentions not once, but twice, that discrimination on the basis of gender identity and intersex status is already prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act. Which, well, yes, of course it is. As is discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation.

The point is, while sex and sexual orientation are also explicitly included in the Fair Work Act, gender identity and intersex status are not. Meaning women, lesbians, gay men and bisexuals have clear rights to access the Fair Work Commission, while trans, gender diverse and intersex workers do not. That inequality of access is exactly the issue the Greens’ amendments were intended to address, amendments the Government chose to reject.

Which reveals the lie at the heart of Cash’s introductory comment, that ‘[t]he 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.’

No. No, you don’t. If you did, you would have voted for these amendments.

*****

Of course, for most people paying attention to Australian politics these days, the fact the Coalition Government doesn’t really give a shit about LGBTI Australians is no surprise.

Last Wednesday’s vote by Liberal and National Party Senators against amendments to explicitly include trans, gender diverse and intersex workers in the Fair Work Act wouldn’t even make a list of the top five worst things the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Government has done in relation to LGBTI rights over the past eight years.

[A list that, from my perspective, would include (in no particular order):

  • Holding an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive public vote on our fundamental human rights
  • Defunding an evidence-based program against anti-LGBTI bullying in schools
  • Detaining LGBTI people seeking asylum in countries that criminalise homosexuality
  • Failing to implement the recommendations of the 2013 Senate Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People (allowing these human rights violations to continue to this day), and
  • Breaking its promise to protect vulnerable LGBT kids against abuse and mistreatment by publicly-funded religious schools.]

It probably won’t even be the worst thing the Coalition Government does to LGBTI Australians this year, with Cash also committing to introduce the recently-revived Religious Discrimination Bill before the end of 2021.

This is legislation that, based on the Second Exposure Draft, would encourage anti-LGBT comments in all areas of public life, as well as making access to essential healthcare much more difficult, among other serious threats. [For more background on this issue, see ‘The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must Be Blocked’

Nevertheless, just because this isn’t the worst thing they’ve ever done, doesn’t mean their vote on Wednesday was any less abhorrent.

And just because I earlier described these amendments as largely technical in nature, doesn’t mean they were any less important.

As well as guaranteeing access to the Fair Work Commission, these amendments were an opportunity for the Government, and Parliament more broadly, to reaffirm that trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians should enjoy the same rights as everyone else.

In rejecting the Greens’ amendments to add gender identity and intersex status to the Fair Work Act, the Government repudiated this fundamental principle.

The Senate vote last Wednesday perfectly encapsulates the Morrison Government’s pettiness, and the meanness of its approach, when it comes to LGBTI rights.

How pathetic in their lack of principle, and basic decency.

How antipathetic to the human rights and dignity of their fellow Australians.

In roughly equal measure.

Morrison, Turnbull and Abbott, divided by political ambition but united in their pathetic, and antipathetic, approach to LGBTI rights.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Footnotes:


[i] Earlier amendments (sheet 1373) that would have introduced the protected attribute of sex characteristics, rather than intersex status, in the Fair Work Act to reflect both best practice and the views of intersex advocates such as Intersex Human Rights Australia, failed with both the Government and Labor expressing their opposition. Sheet 1427, which included intersex status based on the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act was then moved by the Greens because it was seen as being entirely uncontroversial and therefore more chance of succeeding.

[ii] NSW Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg did refer to the issue of trans, gender diverse and intersex inclusion in the Fair Work Act in his second reading debate speech, expressing support for it being addressed at some point, but did not find the courage to cross the floor on the amendment itself.

It’s time Scott Morrison stopped running away from his promise to LGBT kids

Today marks an unhappy milestone for LGBT Australians: 1,000 days since Scott Morrison first committed to ending discrimination against LGBT students by religious schools, saying ‘We do not think that children should be discriminated against.’

It was a promise made amidst the significant backlash following the leaking of the Religious Freedom Review recommendations, from a public who were surprised to learn taxpayer-funded faith schools could mistreat, and even expel, kids just because of who they are. And it was made in the middle of the Wentworth by-election campaign.

In committing to remove these special privileges before the end of 2018, Morrison said what he needed to say to get himself out of a tricky political situation. But he never did what was needed to be done to ensure LGBT students were finally protected under the Sex Discrimination Act.

Instead, Morrison has been running away from his promise ever since. If only he ran the national vaccine rollout as quickly, maybe I wouldn’t be writing this from lockdown.

Morrison never even introduced amendments to Parliament to give effect to his commitment, let alone tried to pass them. And refused to support Labor legislation which would have achieved the same goal.

By April 2019 – on the day before the writs were issued for the federal election – Morrison’s then-Attorney-General Christian Porter referred the broader issue of ‘religious exceptions’ to anti-discrimination law to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) for review.

After his re-election, Morrison preferred to prioritise granting even more special privileges to religious organisations through the ‘Religious Freedom Bills’, and put the fate of LGBT students on hold. Literally. In March 2020, Porter amended the ALRC reporting deadline to be ’12 months from the date the Religious Discrimination Bill is passed by Parliament.’

With the Religious Discrimination Bill delayed by the pandemic, the earliest it could be passed is the end of 2021, meaning the ALRC won’t report until at least late 2022.

And, of course, given the serious problems of the first two exposure draft Religious Discrimination Bills – including undermining inclusive workplaces and access to healthcare – there are many who will be trying to stop it from passing (myself included).

Either way, based on current ALRC timelines, and assuming both that Morrison wins re-election and still feels bound by a promise first made in October 2018, he will not even start drafting legislation until 2023. LGBT students in religious schools would not be protected against discrimination until 2024. At the earliest.

Put another way, LGBT students in year 7 when Scott Morrison first promised to protect them will have finished school before he finally gets around to doing it. If he ever does.

Today might mark 1,000 days since Morrison’s broken promise, but I am more concerned about a larger number: the thousands, and perhaps even tens of thousands, of LGBT students who have been, and are still being, harmed because of his inaction.

For many, that harm will be long-lasting, scarring them far beyond the school gates. I know, because that’s what happened to me.

Not only was my religious boarding school in 1990s Queensland deeply homophobic, from rules targeting same-sex students to a pastor implying gay kids should kill themselves, it helped create a toxic environment which encouraged verbal, and physical, abuse by students against any kid who exhibited any kind of difference. I suffered both.

Like Scott Morrison, I attempted to run away; I spent more than a decade trying to outrun the depression caused by those experiences. But it eventually caught up to me, and age 29 I almost succeeded in what that pastor had hinted I should do.

I was extremely lucky to survive, and even luckier that, with self-care, plenty of support and the love of a good man, I finally managed to thrive.

But whether LGBT kids are able to survive their childhoods should not be a matter of chance. Every LGBT student, in every school, deserves the right to thrive.

As dark as my story is, there is also hope. Because in 2002, the Queensland Government amended their Anti-Discrimination Act to remove the ability of religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students. And I am reliably informed, by multiple sources, that my boarding school is now vastly more accepting of diversity of sexual orientation.

All it takes is a commitment to actions, not just words. Indeed, the ACT Government also responded to the 2018 Religious Freedom Review with a promise to protect LGBT students, and teachers, in religious schools – something they passed before the end of that year.

In contrast, Prime Minister Morrison is still running. Running away from his October 2018 promise. And running away from his obligation to ensure all students have the right to learn in a safe environment. It’s time Morrison stopped running, and allowed LGBT kids to thrive.

*****

Take Action

It is clear from the history of this issue that Prime Minister Morrison is not going to take action just because it is the right thing to do. He will only make this change if we put enough pressure on him. On that basis, it’s up to all of us to tell Morrison that:

  • It’s time to honour your October 2018 promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination on the basis of who they are
  • It’s time to help LGBT kids thrive no matter which school they attend, and
  • It’s time to stop delaying this much-needed reform and just get it done already.

There are a variety of ways you can let him know your thoughts:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ScottMorrisonMP

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/scottmorrison4cook

Email webform: https://www.pm.gov.au/contact-your-pm

Mail: The Hon Scott Morrison MP Prime Minister Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600

Telephone (Parliament House Office): (02) 6277 7700

Don’t forget to add a personal comment explaining why this issue is important to you.

Oh, and just in case Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese feels like he can avoid this issue, we also need the ALP to be much clearer on where it stands. In particular, we should be asking ‘Albo’:

  • Do you publicly commit to protecting LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination on the basis of who they are? and
  • Will you pass legislation giving effect to this commitment in the first six months of your term if you win the next federal election?

Anthony Albanese’s contact details include:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AlboMP

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AlboMP

Email: A.Albanese.MP@aph.gov.au

Mail: The Hon Anthony Albanese MP PO Box 6022 House of Representatives Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600

Telephone (Parliament House Office): (02) 6277 4022

So, readers, it’s time to get writing/calling. Thanks in advance for standing up for LGBT kids.

*****

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

Or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

[Scott Morrison with Member for Wentworth, Dave Sharma]. Morrison first committed to protecting LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination during the October 2018 Wentworth by-election – a promise he has been running away from ever since.

Finally, if you have appreciated reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Scott Morrison’s Broken Promise to Protect LGBT Students is Now Three Years Old

Update: 11 October 2021

Today marks three years since Scott Morrison first stated ‘We do not think that children should be discriminated against’, before going on to promise to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination before the end of 2018.

Three years later, and not only has the Prime Minister failed to take any steps to implement this promise, but the prospect of the Morrison Liberal/National Government doing anything about it seems more distant than ever.

The losers from Scott Morrison’s broken promise are the generation of students, going to school right now, being discriminated against right now, being harmed right now, because he said one thing to try to win the Wentworth by-election, and then did nothing afterwards – presumably because he doesn’t really care about LGBT kids, and he never really did.

**********

Original Post: 11 October 2020

Two years ago today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students in religious schools against discrimination. He stated, unequivocally: ‘We do not think that children should be discriminated against.’ 

This promise was made following the leaking of the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review’s recommendations, which sought to clarify but not repeal the existing ability of religious schools to discriminate against LGBT kids just because of who they are, and the significant public backlash it received from people who did not realise these schools already enjoyed this extraordinary special privilege under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

Morrison further committed to introducing amendments to prevent religious schools mistreating LGBT students in this way before the end of 2018, saying: ‘I believe this view is shared across the Parliament and we should use the next fortnight to ensure this matter is addressed.’ 

Scott Morrison has reneged on his promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination. Brazenly. Deliberately. And without any apparent consideration of the serious harms his broken promise will cause to a generation of LGBT kids.

Morrison’s Government never even bothered to introduce a Bill into Parliament to attempt to implement his commitment, let alone tried to have it passed.

When the Greens, with the Discrimination Free Schools Bill 2018, and then Labor, with the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018, both sought to do so themselves, the Liberal/National Government referred these Bills to Senate inquiries rather than debating them.

Even after those inquiries, which took place in late 2018 and over the summer of 2018/19 respectively, handed down their reports, the Morrison Government failed to support those proposals and still did not propose a Bill of their own. Instead, they stalled and effectively counted down the clock until the 2019 Federal election. 

On the very last day before the writs were issued for that election, Attorney-General Christian Porter referred the issue of ‘religious exceptions’ generally to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) for a detailed, 12-month review. 

After the Morrison Government was re-elected on 18 May 2019, they returned to power with even less sense of urgency to give effect to his promise from October 2018. Instead, they gave priority to preparing two Exposure Drafts of the Religious Discrimination Bill, in late 2019 and early 2020, legislation that would

  • Make it easier to make comments that ‘offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule’ minorities, including LGBTI people
  • Make it easier for health practitioners to refuse to provide services that benefit minorities, including LGBTI people
  • Make it easier for religious organisations to discriminate against others, and
  • Make it more difficult for big business to promote diversity and inclusion, including for LGBTI people.

On the other hand, they first delayed the ALRC’s reporting timeline until December 2020. And then, on 2 March 2020, the Attorney-General amended the ALRC’s reporting deadline to be ‘12 months from the date the Religious Discrimination Bill is passed by Parliament.’ 

That change alone is enough to guarantee Morrison’s promise – which, let’s remember, was to protect LGBT students before the end of 2018 – will not happen this term.

First, the Religious Discrimination Bill may not pass (and, in its current form, it most definitely should not). Second, even if it passes, it will not happen until the first half of 2021 at the earliest. At a minimum, that makes the ALRC’s new reporting deadline the first half of 2022, which is when the next federal election is due (by May 2022, although there is increasing speculation it will instead be held in late 2021).

Even after the ALRC ultimately delivers its report, it usually takes a Government at least six months to prepare a formal response, and six months again to introduce legislation based on its response. 

Which means, even if the Government still feels bound by Morrison’s original promise from October 2018, even if the Liberal/National Government is re-elected, even if Morrison remains Prime Minister, even if the ALRC recommends how to implement his commitment, even if the Government accepts the ALRC recommendation, even if the Government prepares and introduces legislation to make this change and even if Parliament passes it, that legislation will not happen until 2023, and will likely not take effect until 2024.

A student in Year 7 when Scott Morrison first promised to urgently protect LGBT kids in religious schools against discrimination will finish Year 12 before his Government gives effect to it – if they ever do.

This isn’t just any ordinary broken promise either. In raising hopes that some of the most vulnerable members of our community might finally be legally protected, and then comprehensively dashing them, Morrison has broken hearts, while leaving a trail of broken lives in his wake.

That’s because anti-discrimination exceptions allowing religious schools to mistreat LGBT students just because of who they are inflict serious, real-life harm on those kids.

Religious schools can harm LGBT kids through the hateful things they say to them. And they can harm LGBT kids by not saying anything positive at all, leaving children who are struggling to figure out who they are to suffer, alone, in the all-enveloping silence of the closet.

Religious schools can harm LGBT kids by expelling them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But, generally, they don’t need to – the threat alone is enough. Where a student does bravely decide to come out despite that school’s prejudiced views, the school can ‘encourage parents to find a more suitable environment for their child’ (and what parent would force a school to expel their child in such circumstances?).

Religious schools can harm LGBT kids in myriad ways that fall short of expulsion too, from special rules targeting same-sex attraction, and erasing gender diversity.

Above all, religious schools can harm LGBT kids by creating a toxic environment, where those students know they will not receive safety and protection if they need it – something other kids figure out all too quickly, and take advantage of with impunity. 

I know the above from bitter personal experience – barely surviving five years at a religious boarding school in Brisbane in the early 1990s.

When they weren’t saying hateful things about my sexual orientation (like the pastor who suggested that, for kids struggling with ‘confusion’, killing themselves was not the worst possible outcome), they said nothing at all, leaving a dangerous void in which homophobia can, and did, flourish.

Their explicit rules against same-sex attraction didn’t need to be enforced either – all students knew being ‘out and proud’ simply wasn’t an option. Worst of all, the school’s anti-LGBT stance meant other boarders were free to ‘police’ any students who displayed even the subtlest signs of difference: I was subjected to both verbal, and at times physical, abuse.

The most depressing part of all is the realisation that, in many parts of Australia, little has changed in the past 25 years. While, thankfully, Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and Northern Territory have all legislated to remove the special privileges allowing religious schools to discriminate against LGBT kids, other jurisdictions have not. 

In 2020, it is appalling and infuriating that religious schools in NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia can still legally mistreat LGBT students simply because of who they are. 

And they still do, too. As Oliver Griffith wrote, in 2018, about his own, more-recent experiences at a religious school (in an article called Growing up gay in a Christian school had lasting effects on my life’):

‘Growing up gay in an environment like this is a challenge because you are faced with your realisation of your own identity and at the same time are taught by people you trust that you are a deviant, a danger to society, and otherwise should be shunned from the community… the open criticism of homosexuality meant that I was always aware that revealing who I was to the people around me could result in being ostracised from my friends and the teachers I had learnt to respect. Despite becoming aware of my sexuality at the age of 14, I never revealed this publicly until I was in my 20s.’

My, and Oliver’s, stories of survival are by no means unique. And, of course, there are the countless stories we will never get to hear, because those students took their own lives as a direct consequence of the homophobia, biphobia and transphobia of religious schools, all legally supported by our Commonwealth Government.

The serious harms caused by the special exceptions provided to religious schools is backed up by the evidence. As expert in this area, Dr Tiffany Jones, wrote in the conclusion of their submission to the 2018 Senate inquiry titled ‘The Wrong of ‘Discrimination Rights’:

The data outlined in this submission adds to the author’s past submissions on [Sex Discrimination Act] Drafts citing evidence showing that the majority of LGBT students who attended religious schools rated them as homophobic spaces and that many LGBT students in religious schools suffered attempts to be ‘converted to heterosexuality’ or were forced out of their schools (eg in 2012). This submission shows new evidence that this trend continues in Australian religious schools, especially for people on the trans-spectrum. This is despite the fact that conversion attempts are widely and strongly denounced by peak psychology bodies.

Past submissions from the author showed there are significantly fewer policy-based protections for LGBT students in religious schools, which is highly problematic as policy protections are associated with decreased risks of experiencing homophobic and transphobic violence and decreased risks of self-harm and suicide rates for the group. However, the 2018 data shows that anti-LGBT conversion approaches contribute to harm the wellbeing of not only LGBT students, but most people attending those schools – who are significantly more likely to consider self-harm and suicide, and attempt self-harm and suicide.

The 2018 data show ‘gay’ is still the top insult in Australian schools. Trans-spectrum people suffer from more staff targeting just attending school as legally enforced. If our nation requires youth to attend school, and insists on funding religious schools, then those schools must be safe. The small portion of extremist conservative religious schools of Australia (not all religious schools, but those taking advantage of the SDA’s exemptions which effectively endorse anti-LGBT approaches) provide an educational environment lacking in basic social competencies for entering a modern diverse Australia and following its laws outside of the unrealistic ‘bubble’ of these schools. We need to ensure safety and better citizenship education at these schools. Not only for LGBTs, but for all students experiencing the wellbeing and educational deficits of discrimination on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. [emphasis in original]

Dr Jones is correct – if we compel students to attend school, then we must ensure that all school environments are safe for all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids.

Currently, they are not. Religious schools are legally allowed to harm LGBT students, by what they say, and what they don’t say. By what they do (in enforcing anti-LGBT policies and rules), and what they don’t need to (because of the threat hanging over the heads of LGBT kids). And most of all, religious schools are legally permitted to harm LGBT students by creating toxic cultures in which homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying and violence can thrive.

Two years ago today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination. He has done nothing in the two years since to give effect to this commitment.

While Scott Morrison might be able to walk away from his words, he cannot walk away from his responsibility for the serious harm being inflicted, needlessly, on another generation of LGBT kids because of his inaction. Harm that will still be felt by too many long after his time as Prime Minister comes to an end.

**********

It is clear from the history of this issue that the PM is not going to take action just because it is the right thing to do. He will only make this change if we put enough pressure on him. On that basis, it’s up to all of us to tell Morrison that:

  • It’s time to honour your October 2018 promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination on the basis of who they are
  • It’s time to help LGBT kids thrive no matter which school they attend, and
  • It’s time to stop delaying this much-needed reform and just get it done already.

There are a variety of ways you can let him know your thoughts:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ScottMorrisonMP

Email webform: https://www.pm.gov.au/contact-your-pm

Mail: The Hon Scott Morrison MP Prime Minister Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600

Telephone (Parliament House Office): (02) 6277 7700

Most importantly, don’t forget to add a personal explanation of why this issue is important to you. Thanks!

**********

For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/ or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

Scott Morrison’s broken promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination turns two years old today (11 October 2021).

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Welcome to Sydney: Australia’s Capital of Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia

Over the past week, the Australian media has been busy re-living the Sydney 2000 Olympics during its 20thanniversary. While this trip down nostalgia lane has been a welcome distraction from the living nightmare that is 2020, it has also been a reminder of the lost opportunity to build on that brief moment of unity.

To borrow from a certain fracking drag queen reality TV host, in the two decades since the Olympics Sydney[i] has been ‘resting on pretty’.

In terms of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, the situation could just as easily be described as ‘resting on party’.

Known around the world for the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, Party and Festival, Sydney’s reputation as an LGBT-inclusive city is not reflected in the reality of its laws, politics and media.

Indeed, in terms of legal rights, Sydney and the state of NSW now have the worst LGBTI laws of any jurisdiction in Australia. If that sounds like a hyperbolic claim, consider this:

For lesbians and gay men, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (ADA) offers the weakest protections against discrimination of any state and territory anti-discrimination law.

That is because the exceptions in section 56(d) – allowing religious organisations to lawfully discriminate against us – are the equal-broadest in the country (and a long way behind the best practice laws in Tasmania), while NSW is the only place to allow all private schools, religious and non-religious alike, to discriminate against students, teachers and other staff on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

For bisexuals, the situation is even worse. The ADA is the only anti-discrimination law in Australia that does not actually protect bisexual people against discrimination. At all. 

For trans and gender diverse people, NSW’s laws – covering multiple areas of life – are also the worst in the country.

The ADA only protects transgender people with binary gender identities (‘male-to-female’ or ‘female-to-male’), while excluding people who identify as non-binary (although, sadly, it is not the only jurisdiction to do so: Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory also offer limited protection). 

As with lesbians and gay men, however, the ADA allows all private schools, even those that are non-religious, to discriminate against transgender students, teachers and other staff.

NSW also has the equal-worst framework for trans and gender diverse people to access birth certificates reflecting their gender identity: alongside Queensland, it still requires surgery in order to obtain new identity documents. Unlike Queensland, however, there has been zero indication the NSW Government is interested in removing this unjust and unnecessary hurdle.[ii]

Intersex people might be the only LGBTI group in respect of which NSW does not have the outright worst laws in Australia. Sadly, that’s more due of the lack of progress in the majority of states and territories, than it is because of any particular progress on intersex law reform here.

The ADA does not provide anti-discrimination protection on the basis of ‘intersex status’[iii] or ‘sex characteristics’[iv] – although neither does Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia or the Northern Territory.[v]

Meanwhile, no Australian jurisdiction has prohibited the ongoing human rights abuses that are unnecessary surgeries and other involuntary medical treatments on children born with intersex variations of sex characteristics.

In encouraging news, the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute recommended criminalisation of non-consensual, deferrable medical interventions on children in June 2020, while the Australian Human Rights Commission is currently also engaged in a project on this issue. However, as far as I am aware, there is no equivalent work being undertaken by the NSW Government.

Finally, Queensland recently introduced prohibitions on sexual orientation and gender identity conversion practices (albeit only within healthcare settings), while the ACT passed more comprehensive reforms which targeted conversion practices more broadly, including in religious environments.

Bans on gay and trans conversion practices are also seriously being considered in South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria. However, once again, there have been no signs whatsoever that the NSW Government, or Parliament, are interested in ending this psychological torture.

Overall, then, it is clear that on contemporary LGBTI law reform issues – from expanding anti-discrimination protections, enacting birth certificate reform, ending non-consensual medical interventions on intersex children, to eradicating gay and trans conversion practices – NSW is a laggard.

Sydney might be a beautiful city, but on LGBTI rights NSW is undeniably backward.

Some people might argue that the people of Sydney are more accepting of the LGBTI community than their politicians. And that may be partly true, especially in patches. However, the outcome of the 2017 same-sex marriage law postal survey contradicts that view.

NSW was the only state or territory in Australia where the Yes vote for marriage equality was lower than 60%: just 57.8% of people in NSW supported removing anti-LGBTI discrimination from the Marriage Act 1961(Cth). The next lowest state was Queensland, but its result was nearly 3 points higher (60.7%).

More damningly, only 17 electorates around Australia did not record a majority Yes vote. 12 of those were found in metropolitan Sydney,[vi] including the seven electorates with the highest No vote (reaching up to 73.9% No in Blaxland).

Based on this (admittedly context-specific) example, Sydney has the highest rates of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the entire country.

The history of marriage equality in Australia is just as illustrative of the corrosive impact politicians from Sydney have had on the rights of all LGBTI Australians.

The Liberal Prime Ministers who first banned marriage equality (John Howard), first proposed to hold an unnecessary, wasteful, divisive and harmful public vote on our rights (Tony Abbott),[vii] actually held that vote (Malcolm Turnbull) and paid for it (Scott Morrison, as Treasurer), were all from Sydney.

Morrison in particular is on track to be the worst Prime Minister on LGBTI issues in Australia’s history, from his ‘gender whisperer’ comments, to his broken promise to protect LGBT students against discrimination, and the proposed Commonwealth Religious Discrimination Bill which overrides, and undermines, existing LGBT anti-discrimination protections. 

It is likely no coincidence Sydney is the home of News Corp Australia, where it publishes Bernard Lane’s campaign against trans-affirming healthcare (in The Australian) and Miranda Devine’s columns targeting LGBTI-inclusive education (in the Daily Telegraph).

Perhaps the most depressing realisation of all is that, in September 2020, there is more chance things will get worse rather than better.

As we have already seen, there are no public signs the NSW Government is interested in reforming trans and gender diverse access to birth certificates, ending non-consensual medical interventions on intersex children, or banning gay and trans conversion practices.

Nor is there any current indication they will act to modernise the nation’s worst LGBTI anti-discrimination law, to include bisexuals, non-binary people and intersex people, and repeal the exceptions which allow religious organisations, and private schools, to lawfully discriminate against our community.

Even at a procedural level, the NSW Government does not have a formal LGBTI consultative mechanism, unlike the Victorian LGBTIQ Taskforce, Queensland LGBTI Roundtable, ACT LGBTIQ+ Ministerial Advisory Council, and a range of long-standing Tasmanian LGBTIQ+ Government working groups.

On the other hand, while there are no legislative proposals to improve the rights of LGBTI people currently before NSW Parliament, there are several Bills which, if passed, would set our legal rights back even further.

That includes the Mark Latham/One Nation Anti-Discrimination (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020, that would undermine our existing, limited protections against discrimination, which the Government and Opposition nevertheless saw fit to refer to a Joint Select Committee for consideration.

And then there’s the truly awful Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 – also from Latham/One Nation – which not only seeks to erase trans and gender diverse students and teachers entirely from all NSW schools, but also attempts to introduce a UK ‘section 28’-style provision making life difficult for all LGBTI kids, while introducing an erroneous and stigmatising legislative definition of intersex, too.

That Bill has also been referred to a Parliamentary Committee for inquiry – with the Committee chaired by Mark Latham himself.

We are now 18 months into the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government’s term. It is time for them to step up – not just to defend LGBTI people in NSW against Mark Latham’s, and One Nation’s, attacks on our community, by rejecting outright his deeply flawed ‘religious freedom’ and anti-trans kids legislative proposals.

But also to make long-overdue progress on other important issues, including birth certificate changes, protecting intersex kids, ending conversion practices and engaging in broader anti-discrimination reforms.

As of this week, they have 30 months left until the next State election. How they use their time between now and 25 March, 2023, will determine whether NSW will continue to have the worst LGBTI laws in Australia, or at least something closer to the national average.

There is another significant event in Sydney from mid-February to early March in 2023 which is highly relevant to this conversation: World Pride will be hosted by the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.

Assuming it is not cancelled because of coronavirus, large numbers of LGBTI eyes from around the globe will be focused squarely on us. The world already knows Sydney puts on a good party, Olympics, Mardi Gras or otherwise. But during World Pride they will also be looking at the State of our rights.

If the NSW Government doesn’t undertake essential, and long overdue, reforms in the next two-and-a-half years, we will be greeting our international guests by saying ‘Welcome to Sydney: Australia’s capital of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia’.

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Take Action

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are at least three things you can do to avoid that potential embarrassment (a good outcome) and make the lives of LGBTI people in NSW better on a day-to-day basis (a great one):

  1. Get involved

For too long, the burden of fighting for our rights has been borne by too few. There are a range of different organisations you can join or support to help make a difference, including:

And there are plenty of others too (including Union Pride, as well as LGBTI advocacy groups within political parties). 

2. Defend our community against attacks

As the above article (hopefully) makes clear, LGBTI rights in NSW are currently under attack by Mark Latham.

You can help the campaign against One Nation’s Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill, aka the anti-trans kids Bill, in the following ways:

  • Sign the Gender Centre, just.equal and AllOut petition 
  • Sign Sam Guerra’s individual Change.Org petition (which is already over 80,000 signatures), and
  • Use Equality Australia’s platform to write to the Premier, Deputy Premier, Education Minister, Opposition Leader and Education Minister here.

You can also find out about, and take action against, the One Nation Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020 on the Equality Australia website here.

3. Support campaigns for positive change

A lot of our time, at both NSW and Commonwealth level, is currently being spent fighting against proposals that would take our rights backward. That is necessary and important work – but we won’t achieve progress without campaigns which seek to make our existing laws better.

Whether it is anti-discrimination law reform, improving birth certificate access, ending non-consensual medical interventions on intersex children, or banning gay and trans conversion practices – or a wide range of other important LGBTI issues – find a campaign and help drive it forward.

Positive change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens when we use our voice.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Footnotes:

[i] I should clarify here that this post is about the small ‘c’ city of Sydney (meaning the large metropolitan area of 5 million people), and not the capital ‘C’ City of Sydney Council, which is largely progressive.

[ii] Disappointingly, the Queensland Government has failed to make progress on birth certificate reform since its 2018 Discussion Paper, and, as far as I am aware, have not promised to take action on this issue even if they are re-elected on 31 October.

[iii] Which is a protected attribute in both the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA).

[iv] Which is the preferred protected attribute for intersex advocates, as per the March 2017 Darlington Statement, and was recently included in the Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT), while the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 covers ‘intersex variations of sex characteristics’.

[v] ‘Intersex status’ was included in the 2018 amendments to the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), which prohibited ‘public threats of violence on grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex or HIV/AIDS status’, although to date this legislation has still not been used.

[vi] Of the other five, three were in regional Queensland, and two were in suburban Melbourne. Zero electorates in Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory voted No.

[vii] Tony Abbott’s decision, as Opposition Leader, to deny Coalition MPs and Senators a conscience vote also cruelled any chance of Stephen Jones’ 2012 marriage equality legislation being passed.

Don’t Rain on Our Parade

It’s reached that point in late February where, every day at 4:20pm, I visit the Bureau of Meteorology website to check the forecast for Saturday night’s Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.

 

But, irrespective of whether the BoM says it will rain, hail, (smoke) or shine, there’s a much larger cloud hanging over Australia’s LGBTI community: the Morrison Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.

 

This legislation has the potential to adversely affect nearly every aspect of our existence.

 

From health-care, where it will allow doctors and pharmacists to deny hormone therapy, including puberty blockers, to trans and gender diverse people. And to refuse to provide access to PEP, and PrEP, exposing gay and bisexual men to greater risk of HIV transmission.

 

To the workplace, where employers and colleagues will be able to make comments that offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule us, as long as those statements are based on religious belief.

 

A manager could tell a staff member that gay sex is sinful, and same-sex relationships are intrinsically disordered.

 

An interviewer may inform a trans applicant that gender is binary, and therefore their gender identity is not real.

 

A colleague could respond to a lesbian co-worker showing pictures of her family in the lunch-room that she has deliberately denied her children of a father, and will be condemned by god for her ‘lifestyle’ choices.

 

These are all entirely plausible scenarios. And all would be legally permitted under the Religious Discrimination Bill, because statements of belief are effectively exempt from all Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws.

 

Indeed, statements of belief would be protected across all areas of public life, not just employment.

 

If this legislation passes, international tourists visiting Sydney this time next year could be subjected to degrading and demeaning comments anywhere and everywhere, at the airport, in the taxi or uber, on buses, trains and ferries, at the hotel or B&B, at tourist attractions, in cafes and restaurants, at shops and on the streets.

 

That sounds more like hate-song than ‘matesong’.

 

Except, once the party is over tourists will be able to leave these homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic comments behind, while LGBTI Australians will be stuck with them, like unshakeable glitter, invading every nook and cranny for years to come.

 

As a certain bank tried to remind us last week – and was then itself reminded by the community – ‘words do hurt’. It is unacceptable that our own Government is so focussed on ensuring we are all exposed to more hurtful words in our lives.

 

The Bill also further entrenches the special privileges granted to religious schools and other faith-based organisations to discriminate against teachers, other employees, students and, in some cases, people accessing their services, on the grounds of religious belief or lack of belief. Even where these services are being delivered using public funding.

 

It doesn’t explicitly grant new powers to religious schools to discriminate against LGBT teachers and students. But then it doesn’t need to, either – because those powers already exist under the Sex Discrimination Act and, despite promising to protect LGBT students before the end of 2018, the Morrison Government has so far failed to shield some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

 

The theme for this year’s Mardi Gras is ‘What Matters’. In pushing ahead with the Religious Discrimination Bill, despite criticism from LGBTI organisations and a wide range of other civil society bodies, while failing to protect students in religious schools, it is clear the right to be a bigot matters much more to them than the safety of LGBT kids.

 

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the current debate is that, from an LGBTI advocate’s perspective, it is a purely reactive one – defending existing rights under what are already-flawed anti-discrimination laws, rather than trying to make those laws better (for example, including bisexual, non-binary and intersex people in NSW’s out-dated Anti-Discrimination Act).

 

It takes attention away from other urgent law and policy reform, too.

 

We shouldn’t forget that this Saturday’s march takes place in a state where trans people still need to have surgery – which is both expensive, and for some people, unwanted – before being able to update their identity documentation.

 

And in a country where children born with variations in sex characteristics continue to suffer massive human rights violations, including coercive, intrusive and irreversible surgery and other medical treatments.

 

The Religious Discrimination Bill will take LGBTI rights in Australia backwards, when there is still so much progress left to be made, on these and many other issues.

 

It’s time the Morrison Government abandoned this legislative attack on our community, and instead worked with us to achieve positive change – maybe then we can finally celebrate under clear skies.

 

Mardi Gras flag

 

For more on this subject, see The Religious Discrimination Bill: What you should know.

 

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus