Friends, Jagged Little Pill and Transphobia in the NSW Legislative Council

In 1996, Australians were watching Friends and listening to Alanis Morissette while the NSW Upper House was the site of a toxic debate about trans law reform.

In 2021, Australians are watching the Friends Reunion, can book tickets to Jagged Little Pill: The Musical and the NSW Legislative Council is once again hosting hostile discussion about the rights of its trans citizens.

It is perhaps disappointing to realise how little progress has been made in terms of pop culture and representations of transgender people – with the Friends Reunion refusing to address the recurring transphobic jokes made at the expense of Chandler’s parent, and Jagged Little Pill: The Musical erasing the gender identity of a fictional nonbinary character on its journey to Broadway.

But it is downright depressing comparing the circumstances surrounding the Transgender (Anti-Discrimination and Other Acts) Act 1996 – which received royal assent 25 years ago this Saturday (19 June 1996) – and the current Parliamentary inquiry into the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020.

For a start, much of the language in the two debates, a quarter of a century apart, is disturbingly similar, with both deliberate misgendering,[i] and scaremongering about trans women in sports, playing starring roles in each.

With more than a hint of hyperbole, Liberal MLC Marlene Goldsmith declared in 1996 ‘This legislation will mean the end of women’s sports as a concept, an entitlement and a right.’

In 2021, Katherine Deves, speaking on behalf of something called ‘Save Women’s Sport Australasia’, complained that ‘gender identity’ requires women and girls ‘to forego their right to compete on a level playing field in sport because fair competition is destroyed, athletic opportunities are lost and players’ safety is completely disregarded.’

Meanwhile, any small advances – multiple references to ‘tranys’ in the 1996 Hansard[ii] thankfully haven’t been repeated more recently – don’t begin to overcome larger retreats elsewhere.

In the intervening 25 years, opponents of legal equality for trans people have pivoted from expressing pity about their plight, while dismissing trans issues as unimportant,[iii] to portraying trans people as potential predators, and a fundamental threat to ‘Western civilisation’.

This dramatic escalation in rhetoric comes not just from the mover of the latter Bill (One Nation’s Mark Latham, who described trans-inclusive education as ‘part of the post-modernist attack on the nuclear family’ in his Second Reading Speech), but also from multiple witnesses who appeared at April’s hearings into his horrific law.

For example, Mark Sneddon of the Institute for Civil Society said (rather uncivilly, and somewhat ominously) in supporting the Bill: ‘What we are trying to do – or what I understand this Bill is trying to do – is to reduce the social contagion influence of putting more people onto the conveyor belt of gender transition.’

Even fear campaigns about women’s bathrooms have worsened, rather than improved, over the past quarter century.

The only reference to toilets I could find in the 1996 Legislative Council debate came from Fred Nile (yes, the same one still sitting in that chamber), who said: ‘Because I am obviously not a woman, I do not know [how] a woman would feel to have a transsexual who was born a male sitting beside her in a woman’s washroom or powder room in a factory, office or club.’

In 2021, this argument has been weaponised, much more explicitly utilising the language of ‘threat’, with Terri Kelleher of the Australian Family Association giving evidence that ‘Is it not discrimination against natal girls if natal male students who identify as female are allowed to use their toilets, change rooms and showers and share overnight school camp accommodation? What about their right to feel safe and to their privacy in spaces where they may be in a state of undress or asleep?’ and later ‘Now, that is not saying that all males or all boys who identify as girls are going to be a threat, but it sets up a situation where that can occur. That is very serious in the light of the child-on-child sexual abuse in schools.’

And, although most participants in the 1996 debate seemed to at least accept that transgender people are who they say they are, by 2021 a number of extremists appearing before Latham’s Committee were regularly making points about high rates of ‘de-transitioning’ and distinguishing between ‘genuine’ and ‘non-genuine’ trans people, before citing ‘social contagion’ and ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’ (despite all four arguments being completely unsupported by any evidence whatsoever).

However, the toxic atmosphere surrounding Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, and the fact contemporary discussion seems to be even worse than it was two and a half decades ago, is merely one small part of much larger frustrations about the situation we find ourselves in today.

At the very least, the 1996 debate was about legislation that would ultimately deliver multiple steps forward for trans rights in this state. Not only did the Transgender (Anti-Discrimination and Other Acts) Act insert transgender as a protected attribute in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, it also saw NSW become the first jurisdiction in Australia to legally prohibit transphobic vilification (something that still hasn’t happened under Commonwealth law, nor in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory).

The same Act also amended the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 to allow transgender people who had undergone gender affirmation surgery to access identity documentation reflecting their gender identity.

These were genuinely historic reforms.

In contrast, the deceptively-named Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 seeks to completely erase real-life trans and nonbinary students from classrooms and schoolyards across NSW, censoring the curriculum and denying them affirmation and support from teachers, principals and even school counsellors.

As I have written elsewhere, this legislation is the worst legislative attack on LGBTI rights in Australia this century.

Some people might be tempted to dismiss this threat given it is merely the product of fringe extremists in the NSW Upper House (one of the chamber’s perennial features). Except the positions of the major parties on this Bill are, so far, worse than when a generation of young people were mislearning the definition of ironic (myself included).

Back then, the Carr Labor Government relentlessly pursued their reforms to anti-discrimination and birth certificate laws. And, while the Collins Liberal/National Opposition ultimately voted against them (because of baseless concerns about the impact of birth certificate changes to women’s sport, including nonsensical statements about the Sydney Olympics), they at least expressed in-principle support for trans anti-discrimination protections.[iv]

In contrast, in the 10 months since Latham introduced his legislative assault on trans kids, neither the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government nor the McKay, and now Minns, Labor Opposition have publicly condemned it.

Indeed, they both voted in the Legislative Council for the Bill to be considered in more detail by a Committee chaired by Latham himself, while the Liberal Parliamentary Secretary for Education Kevin Conolly has expressed his personal support for it.

In failing to reject Latham’s transphobia, could the major parties be any more pathetic?

But the most frustrating part of all is that we need to expend significant time and energy working to defend existing rights, instead of campaigning for improvements to those same reforms passed in 1996.

Because those changes were far from perfect, even when they were first passed.

For example, the amendments to the Anti-Discrimination Act inserted a definition of ‘recognised transgender person’, applying to people who have undergone gender affirmation surgery and had that recognised under the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act, even though it is irrelevant to determining whether anti-trans discrimination was prohibited under Part 3A (poor drafting which is still causing confusion in 2021, as demonstrated by transphobic discrimination by McIver’s Ladies Baths in Coogee earlier this year).

Unfortunately, neither the definition of ‘recognised transgender person’ nor Part 3A introduced protections against discrimination for trans and gender diverse people whose gender identity was nonbinary (instead only covering people who ‘identify as a member of the opposite sex’).[v]

The 1996 Anti-Discrimination Act reforms also permitted discrimination against trans students and teachers in publicly-funded ‘private educational authorities’, including (but not limited to) religious schools.[vi] Something that was difficult to justify 25 years ago, and is impossible to defend now.[vii]

Finally, in limiting access to updated birth certificates to people who have undergone gender affirmation surgery,[viii] the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act changes excluded the majority of trans and gender diverse people who are either unable to access such procedures (including for financial reasons) or who do not wish to. After all, trans people should be in control of their gender identity, not the(ir) doctor.

This weakness is not brand new information, either. The serious limitations of the birth certificate changes were raised by both Democrat[ix] and Greens MLCs[x] at the time.

Indeed, over the last decade, South Australia, the ACT, Northern Territory, Tasmania and Victoria have all removed any requirement for transgender people to have physically invasive medical treatment in order to obtain new identity documentation.

While the re-elected McGowan Labor Government in WA is under pressure to implement the recommendations of a 2018 WA Law Reform Commission Report which supported the same, and the Palaszczuk Labor Government has committed to introduce its own changes later this year.

Which means it is likely that at some point this term NSW will become the only jurisdiction in Australia which still requires trans people to undergo surgery to access a new birth certificate. Just in time to be subjected to (well-deserved) global scorn as Sydney hosts World Pride in February and March 2023.

Nevertheless, just as the Liberal, National and Labor Parties have refused to publicly reject Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, none are currently promising to fix the problems in the Anti-Discrimination Act first introduced back in 1996, nor have any committed to finally bring the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act into the 21st century by allowing people to update their birth certificates without surgery or other physically invasive medical treatments.

This ongoing silence, on the fundamental human rights of the trans community, is simply not good enough. We really oughta know where the major parties stand on Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, anti-discrimination reform and birth certificate requirements by now.

We must use whatever influence we have to demand more on these issues from our elected representatives. And by ‘we’ here I’m not talking about trans and gender diverse people, who are already fighting just for the ability to live their lives without discrimination, and to learn without erasure.

It’s time for cisgender members of the LGBT community, as well as our cis-het allies, to step up, and put pressure on Gladys Berejiklian and her Cabinet, and Chris Minns and his Shadow Ministers, to prioritise the dignity and equality of NSW’s trans and nonbinary citizens.

We must do so urgently, too. Because right now, trans and gender diverse people have very few friends in the NSW Legislative Council, and NSW Parliament more broadly.

While there remains a real chance their legal rights will go backwards, rather than forwards, in the near future. Which would be a very jagged little pill to swallow.

*****

Take Action

Following correspondence I sent in February calling on NSW MPs to reject the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, today I sent the below short email to the Premier, Opposition Leader, and the Education Minister and Attorney General, plus their shadows. I encourage you to do the same (their contact details are included underneath the text):

Dear Premier

I am writing to urge you to publicly oppose the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, legislation which would erase trans and nonbinary students from classrooms and schoolyards across NSW, as well as censor the curriculum and deny them access to affirmation and support from teachers, principals and even school counsellors.

This Bill is the worst legislative attack on LGBTI rights anywhere in Australia this century. It is simply not good enough that, more than 10 months after it was introduced, the people of NSW still don’t know whether you and your Party condemn or condone the harm it will inevitably cause.

Nor is it good enough that trans and gender diverse people in NSW are forced to live with second-rate anti-discrimination and identity documentation laws.

Therefore, I also urge you to publicly commit to amend the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 to:

  • Remove the unnecessary and confusing definition of ‘recognised transgender person’,
  • Replace the protected attribute of ‘transgender’ with an attribute of ‘gender identity’ and a definition which ensures nonbinary people are protected against discrimination, and
  • Remove the special privileges which allow publicly-funded ‘private educational authorities’, including religious schools, to discriminate against trans and gender diverse students and teachers simply because of who they are.

Finally, I urge you to amend the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 to allow trans and gender diverse people to self-determine their gender identity without the need for physically invasive medical treatment, such as surgery, as well as to recognise a wider range of gender identities, including nonbinary.

If the NSW Parliament fails to amend these laws, it is highly likely we will soon be the only jurisdiction in Australia which places this unfair and unnecessary barrier in front of its trans and gender diverse citizens. These hurdles must be removed as a matter of priority.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

*****

Premier Gladys Berejiklian webform: https://www.nsw.gov.au/premier-of-nsw/contact-premier

Education Minister Sarah Mitchell webform: https://www.nsw.gov.au/nsw-government/ministers/minister-for-education-and-early-childhood-learning

Attorney General Mark Speakman webform: https://www.nsw.gov.au/nsw-government/contact-a-minister/attorney-general-and-minister-for-prevention-of-domestic-and-sexual-violence

Opposition Leader Chris Minns email: kogarah@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Deputy Opposition Leader and Shadow Minister for Education Prue Car email: londonderry@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Shadow Attorney General Michael Daley email: maroubra@parliament.nsw.gov.au

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Footnotes:


[i] In the 1996 debate, trans women were erroneously described by opponents as ‘transsexual males’, while in the 2021 hearings trans girls were commonly called ‘biological males’ or ‘natal males’. Mark Latham also deliberately used the deadname of a prominent transgender Australian on 20 April.

[ii] The term ‘tranys’ was used by both supporters and opponents of the 1996 legislation, perhaps indicating that this language did not carry the same pejorative connotations it does today. Either way, it was confronting seeing the frequency with which the term was used back then.

[iii] National Party MLC Duncan Gay opposed the 1996 reforms, stating: ‘I am going to be brief in my opposition to this bill. I am amazed about the amount of time spent by honourable members on what I believe is the most stupid and most unnecessary bill to ever come before this Parliament.’

[iv] With Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, John Hannaford, stating: ‘I accept the need to deal with discrimination against members of the transgender community. I acknowledge that violence is committed against such members of the community and also that those members suffer discrimination. It is necessary to address such elements of violence and discrimination.’

[v] Unfortunately, this problem – only protecting trans people with binary gender identities – is shared by the anti-discrimination laws of Queensland, Western Australian and the Northern Territory. For more, see: A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.  

[vi] One of many reasons why the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act is the worst LGBTI anti-discrimination law in Australia. For more, see: What’s Wrong with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?

[vii] Disturbingly, these represent only the most prominent of the problems with trans protections in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act. One of the provisions inserted in 1996 provided an exception allowing discrimination by superannuation funds:

‘Section 38Q: A person does not discriminate against a transgender person (whether or not a recognised transgender person) on transgender grounds if, in the administration of a superannuation or provident fund or scheme, the other person treats the transgender person as being of the opposite sex to the sex with which the transgender person identifies.’

Interestingly, the then Attorney General, Jeff Shaw, made the following comment about this provision in his Second Reading Speech:

‘Granting legal recognition also has implications for the superannuation sector in terms of differential contributions and benefits. These implications have not yet been fully determined. The legislation therefore provides for an exemption to legal recognition in this area. Nevertheless, I wish to advise the House that the Government is currently examining this matter with a view to possible further amendments at a later date.’

Except, as you’ve probably guessed by now, those changes never happened – and this exception remains, with the exact same wording, today.

[viii] Interestingly, the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 provisions were amended in 2008, to replace the original terminology of ‘sexual reassignment surgery’ with ‘sexual affirmation procedure’, but the requirement for surgery was not altered.

[ix] Democrat MLC Elisabeth Kirby stated: ‘Although I support the Government’s amendments to the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages Act, I request that the Government give serious future consideration to an expansion of the criteria under which a new birth certificate can be obtained’ before highlighting that only a minority of transgender people undergo surgery.

[x] Greens MLC Ian Cohen also expressed his ‘reservations’ about ‘the certificate provisions not including transgender members of our community who, for whatever reasons, decline surgical intervention’ and later that ‘By using medical interventions as the benchmark for altering documents of identity, the legislation leaves out in the cold 80 per cent of the transgender members of our community who do not avail themselves of medical interventions.’ Perhaps with misplaced confidence he subsequently noted that ‘I am certain that with the passage of time this flaw will be recognised and rectified.’ Well, we’re now at 25 years and counting…

A Pride Flag for NSW

Today (26 March 2021) marks exactly ten years since the election of the NSW Liberal/National Government.

In that decade, and especially in their early years, they have passed a few important LGBT law reforms, including the long-overdue abolition of the homosexual advance defence (or ‘gay panic’ defence) in 2014 and establishing a scheme to expunge historical criminal records for same-sex intercourse in the same year.

However, the pace of reform has slowed markedly in recent times. The last new LGBTI laws were both passed in 2018, with the removal of ‘forced trans divorce’ (although this was necessitated by the passage of marriage equality in Commonwealth law, while NSW failed to seize the opportunity to amend identity laws more generally) and the introduction of an offence for publicly threatening or inciting violence against others, including on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status (although it replaced existing criminal vilification offences on the basis of homosexuality and transgender status, and as far as I am aware has not been enforced since it commenced).

Indeed, with this week also marking the halfway point of the Liberal/National Government’s third term, there have been no new laws passed addressing LGBTI issues since then, and none appear to be on the horizon.

This is not because the job of LGBTI law reform in NSW is complete. Far from it. As I have written previously, NSW now has the worst LGBT laws in Australia, and is only saved from that title with respect to intersex issues because some other jurisdictions are similarly appalling.

At least part of the problem is that many people, both inside and especially outside our communities, erroneously believe the struggle is over. Which is where my idea for a pride flag for NSW comes in.

From my perspective, the pride flag is inherently political. A symbol of our strength and resilience in overcoming anti-LGBTI prejudice and abuse, as well as a reminder to continue fighting until all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are truly ‘free and equal’.

With that in mind, here is what I think the six colours of the ‘traditional’ pride flag[i] could stand for in NSW today, as a way of bringing attention to at least some of the essential reforms which are still yet to be won here.

Red: Ban conversion practices

Anti-gay and anti-trans conversion practices (sometimes described as ‘ex-gay’ or ‘ex-trans’ therapy) continue in Australia today. Several jurisdictions have already taken steps to ban these practices, with general prohibitions, including in religious environments, now law in Victoria and the ACT, and a more limited ban, only covering health settings, in Queensland. Other states, including Tasmania, are actively considering their own legislation.

To date, the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government has given no firm indication they are considering laws to outlaw these destructive practices. They need to be pressured into taking urgent action to stop them.

Amber/Orange: Protect LGBT students & teachers

By now, we are all familiar with ‘amber alerts’ in the media to draw attention to vulnerable children in danger. Well, every day in NSW there should be an amber alert for LGBT kids – because, in 2021, religious schools are still legally permitted to discriminate against them on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

That is in part because of Scott Morrison’s broken promise from 2018 to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984(Cth) to remove the special privileges allowing religious schools to abuse, mistreat, suspend or even expel students just because of who they are.

But it is also because the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government refuses to repeal the special privileges contained in its own law, the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW). Indeed, the exceptions in NSW are actually worse, because they permit all private schools, colleges and universities to discriminate, not just those that are religious (making NSW the only jurisdiction in Australia to do so).

Of course, LGBT students are not the only victims of such discrimination. The same provisions also allow private educational authorities to discriminate against LGBT teachers.

If we genuinely want our schools to be safe learning environments where all people are encouraged to reach their full potential, then the NSW Government must protect both LGBT students and teachers from discrimination.

Yellow: End coercive intersex surgeries

As I have written elsewhere, the worst human rights abuses currently affecting any part of the Australian LGBTI community are coercive medical treatments, including surgeries and other interventions, on children born with intersex variations of sex characteristics.

These egregious human rights violations carry lifelong consequences which is why they must be deferred until intersex people can consent, or not consent, to them. Some jurisdictions, including Tasmania and the ACT, appear to be moving in that direction. As yet, there is no sign of similar progress in NSW.

[NB The yellow comes from the intersex pride flag, which is yellow and purple.]

Green: Improve birth certificate access

NSW now has the equal worst birth certificate laws in Australia, alongside Queensland. 

Under the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 (NSW), trans and gender diverse people must undergo ‘a surgical procedure involving the alteration of a person’s reproductive organs… for the purpose of assisting a person to be considered a member of the opposite sex’ before being allowed to update their birth certificate to reflect their gender identity.

This requirement is both unnecessary and inappropriate, especially when some people may not wish to undergo such surgeries, while others cannot afford to do so given the prohibitive costs involved.

NSW has fallen behind the majority of other Australian jurisdictions which have updated their birth certificate laws to allow access based on self-identification only (which is best practice), or at least without physical medical interventions. It is time the Government gave the green light to trans and gender diverse people here to access birth certificates without any medical gate-keeping.

Blue[ii]: Trans discrimination law reform

Trans and gender diverse people in NSW are also let down by confusing and outdated anti-discrimination protections, as amply demonstrated by the controversy surrounding discriminatory efforts to prevent trans women who have not undergone surgery from accessing McIver’s Ladies Baths in Coogee.

On one hand, there is a definition of ‘recognised transgender person’ in section 4 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) which some people might, mistakenly, try to use to justify limiting access on the basis of surgery:

‘recognised transgender person means a person the record of whose sex is altered under Part 5A of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995[iii] or under the corresponding provisions of a law of another Australian jurisdiction.’

Except the substantive protections against transgender discrimination apply irrespective of whether the person has had surgery. According to section 38A:

‘A reference in this Part to a person being transgender or a transgender person is a reference to a person, whether or not the person is a recognised transgender person

(a) who identifies as a member of the opposite sex by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the opposite sex, or

(b) who has identified as a member of the opposite sex by living as a member of the opposite sex…

and includes a reference to the person being thought of as a transgender person, whether the person is, or was, in fact a transgender person’ [emphasis added].

Which means discriminating against transgender women who have not had surgery would probably be found to be unlawful.

Given this, the misleading definition of ‘recognised transgender person’ should be removed from section 4.

However, that would still not address a far bigger problem, including with the broader definition in section 38A: it likely only applies to people with ‘binary’ gender identities, because of its use of the outdated concept of ‘opposite sex’.

In other words, non-binary people in NSW are not explicitly covered by the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977. The NSW Government must remedy this by replacing ‘transgender’ with ‘gender identity’, potentially based on the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth):

‘gender identity means the gender-related identity, appearance or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of a person (whether by way of medical intervention or not), with or without regard to the person’s designated sex at birth’.

Lavender/Purple: Bisexual discrimination law reform

The definition of transgender is not the only outdated terminology in the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW). The other protected attribute covering (some parts) of the LGBTI community is currently ‘homosexual.’ Section 4 of the Act defines that term to mean ‘male or female homosexual.’

That narrow definition means NSW’s anti-discrimination laws are the only such laws in Australia that fail to protect bisexuals against discrimination.

This omission is truly appalling. It is well beyond time for the NSW Government to update the Anti-Discrimination Act to cover sexual orientation generally, in line with other jurisdictions including the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984:

‘sexual orientation means a person’s sexual orientation towards:

(a) persons of the same sex; or

(b) persons of a different sex; or

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

[NB The lavender comes from the bisexual pride flag, which is pink, lavender and blue.]

The six issues discussed above are of course not an exhaustive list. There are plenty of other LGBTI laws and policies which also need to be amended by NSW to provide genuine equality to its citizens irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.[iv]

But, in my opinion, these are some of the most essential reforms in order for people to feel pride that we are making real progress in overcoming homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

I started this article by highlighting the fact today is the 10th anniversary of the election of the NSW Liberal/National Government.

Coincidentally, today also marks 100 weeks until the planned opening ceremony of World Pride 2023 in Sydney.

That means Premier Gladys Berejiklian has exactly 100 weeks to deliver on each of the six issues identified here.

If her Liberal/National Government fails to make these long-overdue and much-needed changes in that time, then I suggest we fly this ‘pride flag for NSW’ at half-mast during that opening ceremony to acknowledge the damage inflicted and pain caused by their ongoing inaction.

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Footnotes:


[i] I also personally support the newer ‘Progress’ version of the pride flag, incorporating both elements of the trans flag, and black and brown stripes to represent people of colour.

[ii] The blue here could either represent part of the trans pride flag – which is blue, pink and white – or the blue of the Pacific Ocean at McIver’s Ladies Baths.

[iii] Which, as we have seen, only allows the granting of new identity documentation following invasive surgeries.

[iv] Indeed, the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) also needs to be updated to include a new protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’ covering intersex people, and to remove the general exception in section 56(d) which allows a wide range of religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT employees and people accessing their services.

Letter to WA Political Parties re Anti-Discrimination and Birth Certificate Reform

The writs for the Western Australian state election will be issued at 6pm today (3 February 2021). The upcoming poll, on Saturday 13 March, is an opportunity to make long-overdue progress on a range of important policy issues affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.

As with elections last year in the Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory and Queensland, I am writing to political parties contesting the WA election asking for their commitments on LGBTI law reform.

While there are a variety of different policy issues that must be addressed, my letter focuses on two areas where I have the most expertise:

  • Reform of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA),[i] and
  • Changes to identity documentation for trans and gender diverse people.[ii]

This letter has been sent to the leaders of the WA Labor Party, Liberal Party and National Party, as well as to all MLCs from other parties: The Greens; One Nation; Liberal Democrats; Shooters, Fishers and Farmers; and Western Australia Party. As with previous elections, I will post any responses I receive from these parties below.

*****

Given the upcoming Western Australian state election, I am writing to ask about your Party’s positions on two important issues for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.

I do so as a long-term advocate for the LGBTI community, including via my website www.alastairlawrie.net where I focus on anti-discrimination and anti-vilification law reform around Australia, among other topics.

The first issue I would like to ask about is reform of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA), which is necessary to address its serious shortcomings in relation to discrimination against and vilification of LGBTI people in Western Australia. Specifically:

  1. Will you protect intersex people against discrimination by introducing a new protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’?
  2. Will you protect all trans and gender diverse people against discrimination by replacing the current inappropriate, ineffective and outdated protected attribute of discrimination against ‘a gender reassigned person on gender history grounds’ with a protected attribute of ‘gender identity’?
  3. Will you protect LGBT students, teachers and other staff at religious schools against discrimination by removing the special privileges which currently allow them to discriminate?
  4. Will you protect LGBT employees at, and people accessing services from, religious organisations in health, housing and other community services against discrimination by amending religious exceptions generally, based on the best practice approach in Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1998?
  5. Will you protect LGBTI people against hate speech by introducing prohibitions on vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics?

The second issue I would like to ask about is access to identity documentation, including birth certificates, for trans and gender diverse people, which is another area where Western Australia’s legislative approach has fallen far behind most other jurisdictions. Specifically:

  1. Will you allow trans and gender diverse people to update their birth certificates and other identity documents without requiring surgery, other medical treatments or counselling?
  2. Will you allow trans and gender diverse people to update their birth certificates and other identity documents based on self-identification alone?
  3. Will you allow trans and gender diverse people to update their birth certificates and other identity documents by identifying as male, female, non-binary or ‘other, please specify’, in line with recent reforms in both Tasmania and Victoria?

Thank you in advance for your prompt consideration of this request. Please note that any answers provided will be published via my website, to assist LGBTI people in Western Australia make an informed choice on Saturday 13 March.

Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details provided, should you require clarification of the above.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

*****

Update: 13 February 2021

During the week, I received the first formal Party response to the above correspondence, from the WA Greens. Their commitments are reproduced below:

Dear Alastair

Thank you for your email to WA Greens MPs.

I am pleased to advise that the Greens are committed to removing discrimination on the grounds of gender identity or sexuality from all federal and state laws. We want the process for legal recognition of gender in Western Australia to be simplified and for Western Australian birth certificates to have an X gender marker, in line with most of the rest of Australia.

The Greens (WA) will encourage and support legislation and actions that ensure that intersex and transgender people, without undertaking surgeries, are able to alter their sex on all official documents, consistent with how they live and identify, and irrespective of their marital status.

As the Member for the North Metropolitan Region and Greens (WA) spokesperson I have been a long term advocate in this space. In 2018 I introduced a Private Members Bill into the WA Legislative Council, the Equal Opportunity (LGBTIQ Anti-Discrimination) Amendment Bill 2018, seeking to end discrimination against LGBTIQ parents, students and staff by religious schools. Disappointingly, this bill has not received the support necessary from other political parties for it to be passed and to become law.

The Greens will continue to fight to remove all exceptions in the Equal Opportunity Act that permit discrimination against people on the basis of their gender identity and/or sexuality.

If you would like more information, the Greens (WA) Sexuality & LGBTQIA+ Issues and Gender Identity policies provide more information about our party’s commitments in these areas.

The Greens have also proposed a WA Charter of Rights to provide further protections against rights-based infringements including discrimination.

Thank you for your interest and advocacy in this important area.

Kind regards

Alison

Hon Alison Xamon MLC (BA, LLB, Cert IV HS, Cert Adv Arb)

Member for the North Metropolitan Region, Legislative Council, Parliament of Western Australia

*****

Update: 25 February 2021

On Tuesday (23 February 2021), I received the following reply from the Leader of the WA Nationals, Mia Davies, which, as you will see, does not give specific commitments on either LGBTI anti-discrimination law reform or improved access to birth certificates for trans and gender diverse people – other than that Nationals MPs would be granted conscience votes on both issues.

Dear Mr Lawrie

2021 STATE ELECTION: LGBTI LEGISLATIVE REFORM

Thank you for your correspondence dated 3 February 2021. I appreciate your advocacy in relation to LGBTI legislation and the need for reform.

One of the founding principles of The Nationals WA is that regional West Australians deserve access to relevant services and protections against discrimination, regardless of their postcode. As you would be aware the day-to-day issues faced by LGBTI people are often exacerbated by remoteness and isolation from services and support networks.

If legislation to resolve the issues raised was introduced to Parliament, voting on it would be a matter of conscience for Members of The Nationals WA team. I encourage you to send your questions to each local candidate in The Nationals WA team for their individual responses. Their details can be found on our website http://www.nationalswa.com/

Although not specific to LGBTI individuals and families, The Nationals WA have made the following election commitments to date which may be of interest:

-$15 million for an office of the State Rural Health Commissioner, to complement the work done at a national level. This office would be independent of Government, providing advice and reporting on rural and regional health concerns.

-$140 million for regional mental health services, including demographically targeted funding for regional community support hours.

Further details on these and other election commitments can be found on our website.

Yours sincerely

Hon Mia Davies MLA

LEADER

Footnotes:


[i] For example, see What’s wrong with Western Australia’s Equal Opportunity Act 1984?  and A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.

[ii] For example, see Identity, Not Surgery and Did You Know? Trans People in NSW and Queensland Still Require Surgery to Update Their Birth Certificates.

LGBTIQ Law Reform Priorities for 2021

ANU Gender Identity + Sexuality Law Moot Webinar Presentation

In October 2020, I was invited to be a judge for the round robin stage of the inaugural ANU Gender Identity + Sexuality Law Moot. In the lead-up to the moot itself, I participated in a webinar for participants about the state of LGBTIQ law reform in Australia, including being asked to address the following two questions:

What are, in your view, the most significant issues that need legal reform with respect to LGBTIQ rights and inclusion? and

How can we ensure that workplaces are inclusive and safe for people from all backgrounds but in particular for the LGBTIQ community?

While the panel ultimately adopted a more ‘free-wheeling’ approach to its discussion, I prepared the below, more detailed responses to these questions. Now that, at the end of a busy year, I’ve finally had the chance to tidy them up, I thought they might be worth sharing. I’m also keen to hear other people’s views, including on what you think the most significant issues that need legal reform are today – please leave your comments below.

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Question 1. What are, in your view, the most significant issues that need legal reform with respect to LGBTIQ rights and inclusion?

Despite what many people might assume – and what far too many members of our political and media classes seem to believe following the recognition of LGBTI marriage in 2017 – there remain a large number of outstanding legal reforms necessary for LGBTIQ rights and inclusion in 2020 [and I guess we can say 2021 now, too]. The following are my top three:

  1. Ending coercive medical interventions on children born with intersex variations of sex characteristics

Intersex people, and especially children born with intersex variations of sex characteristics, currently experience the worst human rights abuses of any group within the Australian LGBTIQ community.

Intersex people are born with physical sex characteristics that do not neatly fit medical norms for female or male bodies. Infants, children, adolescents and adults born with intersex variations risk or suffer forced and coercive medical interventions, designed to make their bodies more typically female or male. These interventions are not medically necessary, but instead rely on social or cultural rationales.[i]

The consequences of early and unnecessary deferrable interventions can include pain, trauma, shame, loss of sexual function and sensation, urinary incontinence and urgency, a need for ongoing medical treatment or repeat surgeries, experiences of violation and sexual assault, reinforcement of incorrect sex assignment and loss of choice.

These coercive medical interventions breach a large number of human rights principles, including the right to bodily integrity. They also adversely impact on rights to liberty, security, non-discrimination, privacy and freedom from torture, experimentation and harmful practices.

Unfortunately, coercive medical interventions on intersex people, and especially children born with intersex variations, have not been legally prohibited in any Australian jurisdiction. 

Instead, they are self-governed by clinical guidelines which support coercive interventions despite a lack of supporting medical evidence. And they are enabled by a legal system, including family law, which have permitted coercive interventions on the basis of (often poorly-informed) parental consent. The most infamous decision was the 2016 Family Court decision of Re: Carla, although it was merely one of a long line to contravene the human rights of intersex children.

In terms of law reform, there has been disappointingly little progress in this area. This month (October 2020) marks seven years since a bipartisan Senate Committee recommended new guidelines be developed that ‘should favour deferral of normalising treatment until the person can give fully informed consent, and seek to minimise surgical intervention on infants undertaken for primarily psychosocial reasons’ (among other recommendations).[ii]

Unfortunately, the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison Governments have effectively done nothing to implement even these modest proposals.

More encouragingly, in June 2020 the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute released the final report of its inquiry into the legal recognition of sex and gender. It made a number of recommendations about intersex law reform, including:

Recommendation 7

The Criminal Code should be reformed to criminalise non-consensual medical interventions in the following terms:

178F Unnecessary medical intervention to change the sex characteristics of children.

(1) Any person who performs a surgical, hormonal or other medical intervention to alter or modify the sex characteristics of a child is guilty of a crime, unless:

(a) it is performed to address a clear danger to the life or health of the child and it cannot be deferred until the child is able to give informed consent; or

(b) it takes place with the informed consent of the child.

(2) Nothing in this Section is intended to apply to interventions involving a consenting transgender child seeking treatment to delay puberty or secondary sexual differentiation.

Charge: Performing unnecessary medical intervention to change the sex characteristics of a non-consenting child.

Recommendation 8 of that report also recommended that:

‘intersex people should be able to pursue claims for compensation for personal trespass and breach of professional duty against doctors where medical interventions to alter intersex variations of sex characteristics have resulted in physical or mental harm, irrespective of any parental consent to the intervention at the time it was performed.’

The Tasmanian Government is now considering these recommendations, meaning it is possible it will become the first Australian jurisdiction to criminalise coercive medical interventions on children born with intersex variations.

Before moving on, I should note the Australian Human Rights Commission has also been undertaking a long-running project on these issues.[iii] I understand it is (finally) nearing completion, and my personal hope is it recommends all Australian jurisdictions criminalise these human rights abuses.

2. Trans and gender diverse birth certificate reform

Trans and gender diverse people should have access to birth certificates, and other identity documentation, based solely on self-identification, and without medical approval (because gender identity is exactly that, identity, and not a ‘medical’ issue). Currently only one Australian jurisdiction has completely achieved this model: Tasmania, following its historic 2019 birth certificate reforms.

Victoria is a close second, also following changes in 2019, which removed the involvement of medical gatekeepers, although unfortunately it does not fully realise self-identification, because applications must be accompanied by a statement from someone who has known the applicant for at least 12 months and ‘supports’ the application.

Three other jurisdictions – South Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory – have removed requirements for surgery or other physically invasive treatments. However, they still adopt a medical model, because they require engagement with psychologists or counsellors prior to approval. Ultimately, these laws will need to be updated.

However, the largest problems are in the other three states. NSW and Queensland still require surgery in order to access new identity documents, which is completely inappropriate not just because it unnecessarily medicalises gender identity, but also because not all trans and gender diverse people want surgery (or can afford it).[iv]

Western Australia’s legislation also requires surgery, although thanks to a favourable High Court decision, this has been interpreted to ‘only’ require some forms of physical treatment (such as hormone therapy).

Nevertheless, all three states – NSW, Queensland and Western Australia – must urgently amend their births, deaths and marriages laws to support self-identification for their trans and gender diverse residents [for more on this topic, see Did You Know? Trans People in NSW and Queensland Still Require Surgery to Update Their Birth Certificates].

3. LGBTIQ refugees in Papua New Guinea and Nauru

One LGBTIQ human rights abuse that is not technically in Australia, but is perpetrated by Australia, is the detention, processing and resettlement of LGBTIQ refugees and people seeking asylum in countries that criminalise them.

In particular, there remain LGBTIQ refugees and people seeking asylum who are trapped in Papua New Guinea – because the Australia Government put them there – a country which retains a maximum penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment for male same-sex activity.

And, even though Nauru decriminalised homosexuality in 2016, that does not necessarily translate into it being a safe environment for the LGBTIQ refugees and people seeking asylum which the Australian Government imprisoned there.

Of course, for anyone interested in international human rights law, all offshore detention, processing and resettlement is abhorrent, and should be ended for all refugees irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics (or other attributes).

However, we must not overlook the fact Australia’s immigration framework has a particularly awful impact on people fleeing persecution on the basis of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer. They should be brought to Australia immediately.[v]

Anti-Discrimination Reform

While there is no individual LGBTI anti-discrimination law reform issue which is as important as the above three topics, I would argue that addressing our inadequate, incomplete and inconsistent LGBTI anti-discrimination and vilification framework overall must also be a high priority. Specifically, the majority of Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws should be updated across three main areas:

Ensuring everyone is protected against discrimination. Most state and territory laws currently exclude at least some parts of our community. The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 is the worst – it doesn’t even protect bisexuals.[vi] While NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory don’t cover people with non-binary gender identities – and the same jurisdictions exclude intersex people as well.

Repealing the special privileges enjoyed by religious organisations. Loopholes allow faith bodies to discriminate against LGBT people, in employment and against people accessing services, even when they are delivering public services using public funding. Nearly all Australian anti-discrimination laws, including the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), need to be reformed – although the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 provides a template for how this can be done, by permitting religious organisations to preference people from their own faith (in limited circumstances), while not allowing discrimination on the basis of other attributes like sexual orientation or gender identity.[vii]

Obviously, the religious exceptions which have received the most public debate, at least in the past few years, are those allowing religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students, teachers and other staff. Positively, four jurisdictions (Tasmania, Queensland, the ACT and Northern Territory) have already legislated to cover LGBT students, although only two (Tasmania and the ACT) fully protect LGBT teachers and other staff. On the negative side, Scott Morrison’s Broken Promise to Protect LGBT Students is Now Two Years Old, and there’s little chance he will act on it for several years to come either.

Introducing prohibitions on anti-LGBTI vilification. There is currently no prohibition on anti-LGBTI vilification under Commonwealth law. Although they are by no means alone – currently Most Australian Jurisdictions Don’t Prohibit Anti-LGBTI Vilification. Of those that do (NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT), only Tasmania and the ACT protect all sections of the LGBTI community. Given homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia are just as damaging, and harmful, as racism, I firmly believe anti-LGBTI vilification should be prohibited on the same basis as racial vilification (equivalent to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth)). 

[For more on the overall state of LGBTI anti-discrimination and vilification law, see A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.]

Other LGBTIQ Law Reform Issues

There are a range of other LGBTIQ law reform issues which still need to be addressed, including:

  • Sexual orientation and gender identity conversion practices (sometimes called ex-gay or ex-trans therapy) should be outlawed across Australia. The Queensland Government recently introduced the first ban on these practices – although disappointingly it only applied in health care settings, and not in the religious environments where most anti-gay and anti-trans conversion practices occur. The ACT Government followed shortly thereafter, and their legislation has been welcomed by survivor groups because it covers both health care and religious settings. I understand that there are also moves to outlaw these practices in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia – although sadly not in my adopted home state of NSW [NB Since the webinar, Victoria has introduced their own Bill to ban conversion practices, which appears to be stronger than both Queensland and the ACT, while the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute has released an Issues Paper on ‘Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conversion Practices’, with submissions due 7 January 2021].
  • South Australia still needs to abolish the gay panic defence (or homosexual advance defence). Thankfully, after much prompting, the South Australian Government has finally released draft legislation that does just that, for public consultation. Hopefully it is finally removed from the statute books later this year or in early 2021. [NB South Australian Parliament passed legislation finally abolishing the gay panic defence on 1 December 2020].
  • Expungement regimes – which allow for historical convictions for same-sex sexual activity to be expunged from a person’s criminal record – should also be strengthened. In particular, there is a serious limitation in the Queensland scheme, which does not allow gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men who were convicted as a result of the unequal age of consent for anal intercourse between 1991 and 2016 to have their records expunged,[viii] and
  • The Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) needs to be amended to remove the unjustified special privileges that were introduced for existing civil celebrants, and religious organisations, as part of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017. Note that I usually do not refer to that legislation as providing ‘marriage equality’ as a result of these exceptions, because they mean LGBTI couples marrying now can be discriminated against in ways that divorced people remarrying before 2017 could not. We can get married, but it is still not equal.[ix]

Protecting Existing Rights

Some people take the quote ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’ a little too literally, and consequently fail to appreciate LGBTIQ rights can go backwards. Something which has happened multiple times in the past decade, including the Newman LNP Government in Queensland winding back civil partnership laws passed by the Bligh Labor Government.

In the area of anti-discrimination, we should also remember the Baillieu Coalition Government in Victoria undid the introduction of a modest ‘inherent requirements’ test for religious exceptions passed by the Brumby Labor Government in 2010 – before they had even commenced. While the Hodgman Liberal Government tried multiple times to undermine vilification protections for LGBTI Tasmanians (and other groups) as long as that vilification was religiously-motivated (although thankfully those efforts failed).

There are currently three major efforts to undermine LGBTIQ rights:

The Commonwealth Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill, of which we have seen two Exposure Drafts and was due to be introduced in March 2020 but has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. This legislation would:

  • Make it easier to make comments that ‘offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule’ LGBTI Australians
  • Make it easier for health practitioners to refuse to provide services to LGBTI patients
  • Make it easier for religious organisations to discriminate against others
  • Make it more difficult for big business to promote diversity and inclusion
  • Create a Religious Freedom Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission (when we still don’t have a Commissioner for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Sex Characteristics)
  • Entrench unjustified religious exceptions in the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth), and
  • Explicitly protect charities advocating against LGBTI relationship recognition in the Charities Act 2013 (Cth), despite it being completely unnecessary.

[For more, see The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must Be Blocked.] 

The Mark Latham/One Nation Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020 in NSW, which, similar to the Commonwealth Religious Discrimination Bill, seeks to privilege the rights of religious individuals and organisations over the rights of others, including the right of LGBTI people in NSW to be protected against discrimination [since the webinar, I had this opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald, outlining just one of the many serious problems created by the NSW ‘Religious Freedoms’ Bill], and

The Mark Latham/One Nation Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, also in NSW. This legislation does (at least) three awful things:

  • Prohibiting the teaching of ‘gender fluidity’ – where teaching includes anything to do with a school (including counselling) by anyone connected to a school (including volunteers), and ‘gender fluidity’ means acknowledging that gender identity can be different to biological sex at birth. In effect, it will mean erasing trans and gender diverse students, as well as teachers, in schools across NSW
  • Introducing a UK section 28-style law against ‘promotion’ of ideological views about sexuality and gender identity – which, just like section 28 did there, will impose a silence on LGBT students struggling with invisibility at the most vulnerable point in their lives, and
  • Enacting an erroneous and stigmatising definition of intersex in NSW law for the first time (‘disorders of sexual differentiation’).

[For more, see I Stand with Trans Kids, and Against Mark Latham.]

Of course, ordinarily, we wouldn’t be too concerned about legislation being proposed by fringe extremists in the NSW Legislative Council. However, the NSW Government and Opposition have both supported both One Nation Bills being referred to Committee for inquiry – with the anti-trans kids inquiry chaired by Mark Latham himself. Which means we must resist the laws themselves, as well as fighting against toxic debate surrounding them which has the potential to harm vulnerable younger members of our community, and especially trans and gender diverse kids.

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Question 2. How can we ensure that workplaces are inclusive and safe for people from all backgrounds but in particular for the LGBTIQ community?

My answer to this will (thankfully) be significantly shorter than for the previous question, in part because we’ve already discussed some of the reforms that are needed, especially in terms of anti-discrimination law reform, such as repealing the special privileges that allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT employees.

This includes amending the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) to protect LGBT teachers in religious schools, as well as reforms in the other jurisdictions where LGBT school staff are not fully protected (all states and territories bar Tasmania and the ACT).[x]

It also means ensuring LGBT employees in Government-funded aged care services operated by religious organisations are protected (where people accessing these services are currently covered under the SDA, but staff in those same facilities are not). There are several reasons for this, including because it is unfair on employees:

‘People should be hired, not hired or even fired, on the basis of how well they are able to provide care and support to the people accessing aged care services, not who they are attracted to or how they identify.’[xi]

It is also unfair on people accessing these services, who ‘have the right to expect the highest possible standard of care. That is not provided when an aged care service refuses to employ highly-qualified people simply because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.’[xii]

The same reasons also apply in terms of fighting against the Commonwealth Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill, especially in the era of coronavirus. That’s because the 2nd Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill allows hospitals to hire the most religious, not the most qualified: 

‘Surely, that must have an impact on the standard of care that patients will receive. Imagine the worry if one of your loved ones is taken to the emergency department of a faith-based hospital and you can’t be certain whether the health practitioner is there because of what they believe, not what they can do.’

Likewise, the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill allows aged care facilities to hire the most religious, not the most qualified. As I wrote earlier this year: ‘As someone with a grandmother who turned 99 last Wednesday, and who is in a nursing home, I would hate to think she is being cared for by someone who is there because of their views and not their vocational skills’.

[Both quotes taken from my March 2020 article Coronavirus and the Religious Discrimination Bill which I think holds up pretty well, 9 months later, as a strong argument against the RDB when the Morrison Government inevitably brings it back it in the first half of 2021.] 

But repealing religious exceptions is not the only law reform needed to make workplaces inclusive and safe for people from all backgrounds, and in particular for the LGBTIQ community.

One specific reform that should be introduced as a matter of priority are amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) to ensure it treats trans, gender diverse and intersex employees exactly the same as lesbian, gay and bisexual ones.

Currently, the adverse action protections in section 351(1), and unlawful termination protections in section 772(1)(f), of that Act cover sexual orientation, but do not explicitly include gender identity or sex characteristics.[xiii]

Unfortunately, despite this issue being raised repeatedly with the Turnbull and Morrison Governments, they do not appear to be in any hurry to remedy this omission.

A broader structural reform to anti-discrimination law is ensuring it is able to deal with real-life people, who are complex and have multi-faceted characteristics (covering race, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, sex characteristics and more attributes besides).

Often, it is impossible for people to know whether they have been discriminated against because of a particular protected attribute, or a combination of attributes. Any definition of discrimination must be able to deal with this complexity, and uncertainty. In my perspective, one of the best approaches is found in section 8 of the ACT Discrimination Act 1991:

‘Meaning of discrimination

(1) For this Act, discrimination occurs when a person discriminates either directly, or indirectly, or both, against someone else.

(2) For this section, a person directly discriminates against someone else if the person treats, or proposes to treat, another person unfavourably because the other person has 1 or more protected attributes.

(3) For this section, a person indirectly discriminates against someone else if the person imposes, or proposes to impose, a condition or requirement that has, or is likely to have, the effect of disadvantaging the other person because the other person has 1 or more protected attributes.’

One final point that should be mentioned, if we are genuine about making workplaces inclusive and safe for people from all backgrounds, is that there is a gap in terms of anti-discrimination protections around religious belief, and lack of belief.

It is unacceptable that the Commonwealth, NSW and South Australian anti-discrimination regimes do not protect people of faith, and no faith, against discrimination – this is something that should be addressed.

But it must not be addressed in the way proposed by the Commonwealth Religious Discrimination Bill, or the Mark Latham/One Nation Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020 in NSW. Because they are just as unacceptable.

People of faith, and no faith, should be protected against discrimination on exactly the same terms as everyone else, including to the same standard as sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

People of faith, and especially faith-run organisations, must not be given new special privileges to discriminate against others, including people of minority faiths or no faith, as well as women, LGBTIQ people, single parents, divorced people and people in de facto relationships, people with disability and plenty more.

Doing this one simple thing – protecting everyone against discrimination, equally – would help create an Australia where all people are accepted for who they are. And it would be a great leap forward for LGBTIQ people of faith too, many of whom experience discrimination on the basis of both sexual orientation/gender identity/sex characteristics and faith.

Footnotes:


[i] The information in this, and following, paragraph(s) is summarised from the website of Intersex Human Rights Australia. Please check them out here.

[ii] I made a submission to this inquiry way back in July 2013.

[iii] Please see my Submission to AHRC Consultation re Medical Interventions on People Born with Variations of Sex Characteristics.

[iv] This issue – financial barriers to trans healthcare – is something we don’t discuss enough. For more, see: Trans out-of-pocket medical costs.

[v] For more, see: Australia’s (Mis)Treatment of LGBTI Refugees.

[vi] For more, see: Did You Know? The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act Doesn’t Protect Bisexuals Against Discrimination.

[vii] For more, see: What’s Wrong With Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1998? 

[viii] An issue I raised in my Submission re Queensland Criminal Law (Historical Homosexual Convictions Expungement) Bill 2017

[ix] For more, see: No, We Don’t Have Marriage Equality Yet.

[x] For more, see: Back to School, Back to Discrimination for LGBT Students and Teachers

[xi] From my Submission to [the] Royal Commission into Aged Care.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] For more, see: Unfairness in the Fair Work Act.

Did You Know? Trans People in NSW and Queensland Still Require Surgery to Update Their Birth Certificates

This week marked an important milestone on the long march to trans and gender diverse equality in Australia. From 1 May 2020, trans and gender diverse people in Victoria can update their birth certificate and other identity documentation without requiring surgery.

Unfortunately, there are still two Australian jurisdictions that continue to impose this unjustified and unnecessary barrier, as well as a third where the laws also require urgent amendment.

New South Wales

Under section 32B of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995, in order to apply to alter the register to record a change of sex, a person must first have ‘undergone a sex affirmation procedure’, which is defined in section 32A as:

‘a surgical procedure involving the alteration of a person’s reproductive organs carried out:

a) for the purpose of assisting a person to be considered to be a member of the opposite sex, or

b) to correct or eliminate ambiguities relating to the sex of the person.’

The Berejiklian Liberal National Government has given no commitments to fix this appalling provision during the current parliamentary term, with the next election not due until 25 March 2023 (which would represent a dozen years of inaction on this vital reform).

If the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 (NSW) is not updated before then, another event in February and March 2023 – Sydney World Pride – will ensure that the Berejiklian Government is rightly subject to significant global criticism.

Queensland

Section 22 of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 2003 provides that ‘the reassignment of a person’s sex after sexual reassignment surgery may be noted in the person’s entry in the register of birth.’

The Palaszczuk Labor Government actually engaged in a public consultation process about removing this requirement, releasing the Registering Life Events: Recognising sex and gender diversity and same-sex families discussion paper more than two years ago.

Unfortunately, there does not appear to have been much movement on this issue since then, and time is quickly running out, with just five months left of sittings before Parliament is dissolved before the state election scheduled on 31 October 2020.

The clock is ticking for the Palaszczuk Government to fix the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 2003 (Qld) – trans and gender diverse Queenslanders have waited long enough for access to identity documentation that accurately reflects who they are.

Western Australia

The situation is only slightly better in the nation’s West, where section 14 the Gender Reassignment Act 2000 allows people to apply for gender recognition certificates where that person ‘has undergone a reassignment procedure’. Section 3 defines ‘reassignment procedure’ as:

‘a medical or surgical procedure (or a combination of such procedures) to alter the genitals and other gender characteristics of a person, identified by a birth certificate as male or female, so that the person will be identified as a person of the opposite sex and includes, in relation to a child, any such procedure (or combination of procedures) to correct or eliminate ambiguities in the child’s gender characteristics.’

Fortunately, following a decision of the High Court in AB v Western Australia; AH v Western Australia [2011] HCA 42 6 October 2011, this has been interpreted such that genital surgery is not required. However, physical medical treatment, such as hormone therapy, remains a pre-requisite to access a new birth certificate in Western Australia.

These issues were examined in the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia’s 2018 Report: Review of Western Australian legislation in relation to the registration or change of a person’s sex and/or gender and status relating to sex characteristics, which recommended that applications for change of gender involve a simple administrative process, including a statutory declaration, with no requirement for surgical or other medical treatment.

With less than 12 months left before the next state election, due on 13 March 2021, the pressure is on the McGowan Labor Government to implement these reforms.

South Australia, Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory

These three jurisdictions have abolished the requirement for trans and gender diverse people to have surgery, or other physical medical interventions, in order to access updated birth certificates and identity documentation.

However, they do still require doctors or other health practitioners, such as counsellors or psychologists, to approve such applications, which remains inappropriate medicalisation of people’s gender identities, that should instead be based on self-identification.

Section 29L of South Australia’s Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1996 provides that ‘if the Registrar is satisfied that the applicant has undertaken a sufficient amount of appropriate clinical treatment in relation to their sex or gender identity, the Registrar may make an entry about the change of the person’s sex or gender identity in the Register…’, with section 29H clarifying that ‘clinical treatment need not involve invasive medical treatment (and may include or be constituted by counselling).’

Likewise, section 24 of the Australian Capital Territory’s Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration 1997 provides that a person applying to have the register amended to reflect a change of sex must have ‘received appropriate clinical treatment for alteration of the person’s sex’. Clinical treatment is not further defined, meaning it does not explicitly require surgical intervention.

The Northern Territory has also adopted a similar approach, with section 28B of their Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act providing that trans and gender diverse people can update their birth certificates if they can show that they have ‘received appropriate clinical treatment in relation to the adult’s sex or gender’.

It is positive that each of South Australia, the ACT and NT have removed the requirement for surgery or other physical medical interventions. However, in order to reflect the self-determination of trans and gender diverse people, they should still amend their laws to remove the role of health practitioners as ‘gate-keepers’ of their identity.

Victoria

As indicated above, Victoria’s new birth certificate reforms mean trans and gender diverse Victorians can update their identity documentation without having surgery or other physical medical interventions.

Importantly, these changes, which were introduced by the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Act 2019 (Vic), also mean that trans and gender diverse people do not need approval from doctors or other health practitioners, such as counsellors or psychologists. Their role as ‘gate-keepers’ is over.

However, there is one requirement which fails the principle of complete ‘self-identification’. That’s because section 30A of the Victorian Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1996 requires adults to submit a ‘supporting statement’ made by a person who is aged 18 years or over and who has known the applicant for at least 12 months and state that the person making the supporting statement:

  • believes that the applicant makes the application to alter the record of their sex in good faith, and
  • supports the application.

This second requirement in particular (that another person must ‘support’ the application of a trans or gender diverse person for a new birth certificate) is unnecessary, and is the reason why Victoria’s new scheme, while a massive improvement from the previous regime, falls short of Australian best practice.

Screen Shot 2020-05-02 at 8.08.02 am

Ideally, access to accurate identity documentation for trans and gender diverse people should not depend on whether another person ‘supports’ their application.

Tasmania

That honour belongs to Tasmania’s Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1999. Following amendments earlier last year, it allows trans and gender diverse Tasmanians (aged over 16) to self-determine their own gender identity.

Without the need for surgery or other physical medical interventions. Without the need for medical approval. And based solely on self-identification.

When NSW, Queensland and Western Australia finally bring their own birth certificate laws into the 21st century, it is the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1999 (Tas) they should be emulating.

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This article is part of a series. Find other ‘Did You Know?’ posts here.

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An LGBTI Agenda for NSW

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Include bisexual people in anti-discrimination laws

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Include intersex people in anti-discrimination laws

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Remove excessive and unjustified religious exceptions

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Reform anti-vilification offences

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Reform access to identity documentation for trans people

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Ban involuntary sterilisation of intersex infants

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Ban gay conversion therapy

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Improve the Relationship Register

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Expand the Safe Schools program

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Ensure the PDHPE curriculum includes LGBTI content

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Appoint an LGBTI Commissioner

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Create a Pride Centre

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Gladys Berejiklian at Mardi Gras

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

 

Footnotes:

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

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

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

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