The State of Homophobia, Biphobia & Transphobia Survey Results, Part 1: Verbal Harassment and Abuse

With unrelenting attacks on the safe schools program, divisive debate about the proposed marriage equality plebiscite, the horrific mass murder at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the tragic suicide of Indigenous gay youth Tyrone Unsworth, the past 12 months have undeniably been tough on members of Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) communities.

Now we have empirical evidence to prove that last year was indeed an annus homophobicus.[i]

At the start of this year I conducted a survey of LGBTIQ Australians asking about their experiences of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in 2016, covering a range of topics including verbal harassment, physical violence, the places where prejudice occurs, and discrimination in education, employment and other areas.

Excluding responses from non-LGBTIQ people, and from LGBTIQ people outside Australia, a total of 1,672 people completed the survey in the four weeks between 26 December 2016 and 21 January 2017.

This post is the first in a series of six reporting the results of this survey, with a particular focus on three questions about the verbal harassment and abuse experienced by LGBTIQ Australians.

For many people, a number of the results will be unsurprising and yet still shocking – although, even for hardened campaigners such as myself, there are a few findings that are both depressing and disturbing, especially the varying impact of verbal harassment on different sections of the LGBTIQ community.

The State of Homophobia, Biphobia & Transphobia (4)

Question 1: Have you ever experienced verbal harassment or abuse because of your sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status?

&

Question 2: Has one or more instances of this verbal harassment or abuse occurred in the past 12 months?

Overall, 74% of survey respondents – 1,226 people out of the 1,655 people who answered question 1 – indicated they had experienced verbal harassment or abuse because of their LGBTIQ status at some point in their life.

799 people – or 65% of respondents who answered yes to question 1[ii] – then answered question 2 by stating that at least one instance of this anti-LGBTIQ verbal harassment or abuse had occurred during the last 12 months.

Even including those who answered no to question 1, that still means 48% of all respondents reported experiencing verbal harassment or abuse in the past year alone.

These numbers might not be surprising to members of our community, but it is nevertheless shocking to confirm that 3 out of every 4 LGBTIQ Australians have been verbally harassed because of who they are, with almost half of all respondents reporting homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic verbal abuse in the last 12 months.

The following sections show the results to these two questions according to different demographic groupings, including LGBTIQ status, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, age, and residence by state and territory.

LGBTIQ Status

There were similarities, as well as some stark differences, in how lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people experienced verbal harassment and abuse. Their respective answers to questions 1 and 2 are as follows:

Lesbian: 77.6% have ever experienced anti-LGBTIQ verbal harassment, and of those 68.7% indicated at least one instance during the past 12 months[iii]

Gay: 78% ever, and of those 56.5% during the past 12 months[iv]

Bisexual: 63.9% ever, of those 68.8% in last 12 months[v]

Transgender: 81% ever, of those 84.4% in last 12 months[vi]

Intersex: 88.2% ever, of those 93.3% in last 12 months[vii], and

Queer: 79.8% ever, of those 79.9% in last 12 months[viii].

Among lesbian, gay, transgender and queer respondents, the proportion that had experienced verbal harassment or abuse at some point in their lives was remarkably consistent – all falling somewhere between 77.6% and 81%. The proportion of bisexual people reporting lifetime abuse was somewhat lower, at 63.9%[ix].

However, there were much larger differences between groups in terms of experiences of anti-LGBTIQ verbal harassment and abuse over the past year.

While 43.4% of all gay respondents, and 44% of all bisexual respondents, reported verbal harassment or abuse during the last 12 months[x], this figure rose to 53.1% of all lesbian respondents (slightly above the overall average).

In terms of queer respondents the figure was higher still, at 63.9%, while for transgender people it rose again to 68.2%.

Think about that for a second: more than two-thirds of transgender people reported being verbally harassed or abused simply because of who they are in the past 12 months alone.

Further, while there is little difference between gay and transgender people in reporting lifetime verbal harassment (78% and 81% respectively), transgender people were 57% more likely to report verbal abuse over the past year.

Of course, all of these figures are far too high; no level of homophobia, biphobia or transphobia is acceptable. Nevertheless, we must not ignore the fact that, when it comes to verbal harassment and abuse over the last year, the burden has fallen much more heavily on transgender and queer Australians.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

A total of 62 survey respondents indicated that they were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander (or 3.7% of the sample).

83.3% reported that they had ever reported verbal harassment or abuse because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status[xi]. Of those, 78% reported verbal harassment or abuse during the past 12 months[xii].

That means 65% of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTIQ respondents reported homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic abuse during the last 12 months, significantly above the national average and placing them at similar risk to transgender and queer Australians.

Age

The survey asked respondents to nominate their respective cohort: 24 and under; 25 to 44; 45 to 64; or 65 and over. The answers provided by these different groups were relatively similar for question 1, although varied greatly for question 2.

Have you ever experienced verbal harassment or abuse because of your sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status?

  • 24 and under: 70.6% yes[xiii]
  • 25 to 44: 78.2% yes[xiv]
  • 45 to 64: 79.5% yes[xv], and
  • 65 and over: 69.4% yes.[xvi]

Prima facie, the fact the figures for people aged under 25 are slightly lower than the two generations that preceded them might seem encouraging.

However, looked at in a different way, they are a cause for serious alarm: in 2017, a young LGBTIQ person is almost as likely to have experienced homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic verbal abuse at some point in their comparatively shorter life as someone with 20 or even 40 more years life experience.

This concern is borne out by the answers to the second question:

Has one of more instances of this verbal harassment or abuse occurred in the past 12 months?

  • 24 and under: 74.5% yes[xvii]
  • 25 to 44: 58.9% yes[xviii]
  • 45 to 64: 46.1% yes[xix], and
  • 65 and over: 33.3% yes[xx].

The net effect of these two questions reveals that 54.6% of all respondents aged 24 or under have been verbally harassed or abused because of who they are in the last year, compared to 46.1% of respondents aged 25 to 44 and 36.3% of respondents aged 45 to 64.

To put it another way: young LGBTIQ Australians were 50% more likely to be subject to homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic verbal harassment and abuse in 2016 than LGBTIQ people aged 45 to 64.

This result simultaneously proves and undermines the ‘It Gets Better’ message – yes, it gets better for individuals as they grow older, but, on the basis of these findings, it does not seem it has gotten significantly better for young LGBTIQ people today.

Personally, I believe this result at least partially reflects the fallout of attacks on the safe schools program by religious fundamentalists and right-wing extremists, with a potentially devastating impact on young LGBTIQ people, many of whom are only beginning their journey toward self-understanding and self-acceptance, and consequently may be lacking the same resilience as their older counterparts.

State or Territory of Residence

In contrast to the significant differences in results based on age, the levels of anti-LGBTIQ verbal harassment and abuse reported in different jurisdictions around Australia were remarkably consistent. The respective answers to question 1 and 2 are as follows:

New South Wales: 74% have ever experienced anti-LGBTIQ verbal harassment, and of those 64.8% indicated at least one instance during the past 12 months[xxi]

Victoria: 74.1% ever, and of those 67.3% during the past 12 months[xxii]

Queensland: 76.2% ever, of those 63% in last 12 months[xxiii]

Western Australia: 76.3% ever, of those 65.5% in last 12 months[xxiv]

South Australia: 71.1% ever, of those 66% in last 12 months[xxv]

Tasmania: 70.3% ever, of those 77.9% in last 12 months[xxvi]

Australian Capital Territory: 73.2% ever, of those 51.2% in last 12 months[xxvii], and

Northern Territory: 76.2% ever, of those 56.3% in last 12 months[xxviii].

Including those who answered no to question 1, this means for most states and territories the proportion of LGBTIQ people reporting verbal harassment or abuse in the last 12 months was between 42.9% (NT) and 50% (WA)[xxix].

The jurisdiction with the lowest incidence of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic verbal abuse in the last year was the ACT at 37.5%; the highest was Tasmania at 54.1% of all respondents.

Of course, while the rates of anti-LGBTIQ verbal harassment may be similar across Australia, the options available to victims of such abuse vary considerably.

Only four jurisdictions offer any legal protections against vilification to the LGBTI community (NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT[xxx]). With no equivalent to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, LGBTI people in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory are not protected against vilification at any level[xxxi].

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Question 3: If you feel comfortable, please provide an example of this homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic verbal harassment or abuse [Optional]

This question allowed respondents to provide an example of the verbal harassment or abuse they had received, irrespective of when it had occurred.

A large number of LGBTIQ respondents took up this opportunity, and the results are sobering, and frequently heart-breaking, to read. A lightly-edited[xxxii] version of these comments can be found at the following link:

question-3-verbal-harassment-and-abuse-comments [PDF]

I encourage you to take the time to read the survey respondent’s very personal stories of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic abuse, of them experiencing verbal harassment simply because of who they are.

Ideally, conservative and/or right-wing politicians, many of whom claim that anti-LGBTIQ prejudice either doesn’t exist, or is no longer a serious problem, would read them too. If they did, they would have their ‘relaxed and comfortable’ ideas shattered by the irrefutable evidence provided via these real-life stories.

From my perspective, some of the derogatory comments related to sexual orientation that stood out include:

“I was just coming out of a convenience store and walked past this man who was staring at me. Then suddenly he started screaming “Faggot, faggot!!” at me. No one around me said or did anything. I just tried to not react and get away as soon as I could.”

“I normally get something once a year. Walking down the street in Brisbane, my (now) husband and I were shouted at by a couple of blokes who started by saying: ‘you have got to be fucking kidding’ in reference to the fact we were holding hands.”

“I recently saw two young gay men, a couple, who were walking up Chapel Street holding hands. A group of 3 older men were harassing them, following them. I joined the 2 gay men and told them to cross the road and ignore the others. I was then also subjected to the same vitriol with comments such as ‘there’s another one’ and ‘look at the 3 poofters’. We walked into a crowded shop and they didn’t follow us. I was extremely upset by this as were the 2 other younger fellows.”

“I was in my Drs surgery last year & I was abused, & my children were abused, by another patient. My Dr had to drag him away. Some of the names I was called were pervert, deviant, faggot. My kids were called queer, sexually perverted and confused.”

“A co-worker was informed that I identify as bisexual. She berated me openly, saying that I was merely attention seeking and that my children would be very confused adults with such poor guidance in life. She then contacted my husband through social media and told him to take my children and leave because raising them with a mentally ill person was dangerous.”

Transphobic harassment, and verbal abuse on the basis of gender identity, was also disturbingly widespread:

“Public name calling outside a local pub, shouting to others that I don’t have a penis… Being deadnamed in public despite being asked not to, in dismissal of transition or gender status… All in the last 3 months.”

“I was harassed outside a disabled toilet, which I went to because I was uncomfortable in gendered toilets. I overheard someone talking about a ‘faggot’ and learned they were talking about me. I was called transsexual repeatedly against my will by someone. Constant misgendering, deadnaming and disrespect on a daily basis just for being me…”

“Without going into detail, I have been referred to as a tranny, and had both my sexuality and gender identity mocked and invalidated repeatedly. I have been told to kill myself an innumerable amount of times, including being told to ‘get my teeth and gender straight or kill myself’, and that my gender is ‘cancer’. This is just a short list of the abuse I’ve suffered.”

“Demeaning laughter. Hostile stares. Derogatory language (eg ‘faggot’, ‘it’), usually just spoken audibly to others in front of me occasionally yelled from cars. Deliberate misgendering. I’ve noticed increased hostility from authority figures (eg ticket inspectors) in response to me looking more identifiably trans also. When I was closeted, I used to find people making transphobic jokes in front of me a common and painful experience.”

“Because of my choice of clothing/hairstyle I get called shemale. Heshe. Thing. It. Freak. Pervert. Dyke. Faggot. And that’s just the shortlist, and the most common insults I deal with, especially when I go clothes shopping or use a public restroom.”

This story was worrying, both because of the source of the discriminatory comments, but also because of the lack of action by authorities:

“I’m a pre-service teacher (still in university completing a bachelor). While on one of my teaching placements I received verbal harassment intermittently from the year 6 classes. When I reported this I was underwhelmed by the response from the faculty, both at my teaching school and the university faculty. The underlying cause of transphobic slurs directed towards me was undermined by only addressing ‘disrespect’ and they refused to address anything extending from that. When I expressed my concern in not addressing homophobia and transphobia directly I was met with hostility from the faculty, which made my teaching the remaining 3 weeks very uncomfortable.”

The most common story shared in response to this question concerned homophobic, biphobic or transphobic abuse from people in passing cars: at least 78 different comments cited this type of harassment.

This is both an extraordinary total, and an extraordinary indictment of the kind of person who would engage in the behaviour of shouting anti-LGBTIQ abuse at strangers from the safety, comfort and anonymity of their vehicles.

A typical story related to this type of harassment: “Minding my own business at a train station waiting to be picked up and a car full of guys and girls were yelling out ‘faggot’ to me just because they didn’t like the look of me.”

Although perhaps my favourite comment (for reasons that will soon become obvious) was this: “I was on a date walking with the guy and a guy started yelling at us from his car while he was driving, he lost control of the car and crashed into a sign.” #karma

Another common story was homophobic, biphobic or transphobic harassment on public transport, including trains, buses, trams and even taxis: at least 34 comments reported this kind of abuse. This included:

“Frequent dirty looks in public. Once on a bus (my partner and I were holding hands and talking) a woman stood up from her seat [and] said loudly that ‘we didn’t need to rub our sexuality in everyone’s face’ and moved to a seat further away from us.”

“On a packed train going home and one man took offense to another man’s skin was touching him (we were crammed in together… everyone was touching everyone). He started screaming about how the next person doing ‘any more gay shit’ to him was going to cop it. And screamed at the poor man who tried to defend himself. Anyone who tried to get him to calm down was met with homophobic language and threats. It was very scary.”

“(I’m a trans man, my husband is a cis man – we married and had a daughter before I transitioned). Just last week my husband and I were boarding a bus to the local shopping centre with our 4 year old daughter in tow. The myki machine was taking a bit of time to read each card. A man behind us shouted ‘move it, faggots!’ at us several times. Our daughter became visibly upset. No one stepped in to help or say anything. The man spent the entire bus ride glaring at us and making snide comments to the person in front of him.”

Perhaps most disappointing about the comments in response to question 3 was the fact approximately 20 people described homophobia, biphobia or transphobia from other members of the LGBTIQ community. This was particularly aimed at bisexual people, and to a slightly lesser degree transgender people[xxxiii]. For example:

“Told I’m greedy for being bi, that bisexuality is an excuse to hide that I’m ‘actually gay’, told that I’m a disgrace to the LGBT+ community for ‘not being able to decide’/’pick a side’…”

“Mostly it’s been lesbians telling me that bisexuals are just straight people trying to be trendy and undermining my identity…”

“There have been quite a few instances over the years where people have learned my sexuality and gone on a rant on how disgusting it is, and in some instances behaved threateningly while doing so. This comes from both non-LGBT+ and LGBT+ people.”

“Spat on in a gay bar for being transgender. Called a freak and told to kill myself. Been told I’m not a real man.”

If we are going to campaign for the elimination of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia from society, then it is incumbent upon us to do better on these issues within our own communities, too.

One small positive from the responses to question 3: the old stereotype of gay man (or trans person) as ‘paedophile’ appears to be fading away, with only eight comments including this description as an element of the verbal harassment or abuse received. That particular form of abuse cannot die soon enough.

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Conclusion

The results of this survey suggest that 3 out of every 4 LGBTIQ Australians have experienced homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic verbal harassment or abuse at some point in their lives.

The survey also confirms that 2016 was a bad year for the LGBTIQ community, with 48% of people reporting that at least one instance of this anti-LGBTIQ verbal abuse occurred in the past 12 months.

These figures are unacceptably high to begin with, but we must also not overlook the fact these proportions are higher still for several groups within the LGBTIQ community who are particularly vulnerable:

  • Transgender individuals were 57% more likely to report verbal harassment and abuse in the past 12 months than gay people
  • Queer individuals were 47% more likely than gay people to experience recent verbal abuse
  • Almost two-thirds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents were subject to homophobic, biphobic or transphobic verbal harassment throughout the course of the past year, and
  • LGBTIQ people aged 24 or under were 50% more likely to have experienced recent verbal abuse than their counterparts aged 45 to 64.

These statistics show that the state of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in Australia, in 2017, features far more anti-LGBTIQ verbal harassment than any of us would like. The stories shared in response to question 3, detailing personal accounts of this abuse, powerfully reinforces this fact.

As noted at the beginning of this post, this has been the first in a series of six articles reporting the results of my ‘The State of Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia’ survey.

The next five, which focus on physical abuse or violence, the places where prejudice occurs, and discrimination in education, employment and other areas, will be published during March and April.

If you would like to receive updates of these results, please sign up to this blog: on mobile, at the bottom of this page, or on desktop at the top right-hand corner of the screen.

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

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

Footnotes:

[i] See 2016: Annus Homophobicus.

[ii] Only people who answered yes to question 1 were provided with the opportunity to answer question 2, with 1,220 people completing the second question and 421 people (or 35%) indicting they had not experienced verbal harassment or abuse because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in the past 12 months.

[iii] Question 1: 253 yes/73 no. Question 2: 173 yes/79 no.

[iv] Question 1: 501 yes/141 no. Question 2: 280 yes/216 no.

[v] Question 1: 333 yes/188 no. Question 2: 229 yes/104 no.

[vi] Question 1: 303 yes/71 no. Question 2: 255 yes/47 no. For those respondents who identified as both trans and bisexual, this figure was even higher – 86.3% reporting lifetime abuse. Queer trans respondents also reported higher rates (86.2% lifetime abuse).

[vii] Question 1: 15 yes/2 no. Question 2: 14 yes/1 no. Note that, given the low number of respondents, the proportions re intersex status must be treated with caution. For this reason, intersex status is also omitted from some of the discussion/analysis throughout the article.

[viii] Question 1: 394 yes/100 no. Question 2: 314 yes/79 no.

[ix] Without additional information, it is difficult to reach any firm conclusions about why this is the case, although one factor may be historically lesser visibility of bisexuality (which may reduce verbal harassment and abuse, but also exacerbates exclusion and isolation).

[x] Noting that this calculation includes the numbers of respondents who answered no to question 1.

[xi] Question 1: 50 yes/10 no.

[xii] Question 2: 39 yes/11 no.

[xiii] 627 yes/261 no.

[xiv] 341 yes/95 no.

[xv] 221 yes/57 no.

[xvi] 25 yes/11 no. Note that, given the low number of respondents, the proportions re people aged 65 and over must be treated with caution. For this reason, this group is also omitted from some of the discussion/analysis throughout the article.

[xvii] 485 yes/141 no.

[xviii] 201 yes/140 no.

[xix] 101 yes/118 no.

[xx] 8 yes/16 no.

[xxi] Question 1: 401 yes/141 no. Question 2: 259 yes/141 no.

[xxii] Question 1: 286 yes/100 no. Question 2: 191 yes/93 no.

[xxiii] Question 1: 192 yes/60 no. Question 2: 121 yes/71 no.

[xxiv] Question 1: 116 yes/36 no. Question 2: 76 yes/40 no.

[xxv] Question 1: 96 yes/39 no. Question 2: 62 yes/32 no.

[xxvi] Question 1: 78 yes, 33 no. Question 2: 60 yes/17 no.

[xxvii] Question 1: 41 yes/15 no. Question 2: 21 yes/20 no.

[xxviii] Question 1: 16 yes/5 no. Question 2: 9 yes/7 no. Note that, given the low number of respondents, the proportions re people in the Northern Territory must be treated with caution.

[xxix] Full results (reporting verbal harassment of abuse in the past 12 months, all respondents):

  • NSW 47.8%
  • Victoria 49.5%
  • Queensland 48%
  • WA 50%
  • SA 45.9%
  • Tasmania 54.1%
  • ACT 37.5%
  • NT 42.9%

[xxx] Although NSW does not include vilification protections for bisexual or intersex people, and Queensland does not protect intersex people.

[xxxi] Obviously, depending on the circumstances of the verbal harassment or abuse, only some of the responses given to the survey would fit the legal definition of vilification, irrespective of the ground on which it was based.

[xxxii] Comments were edited to, amongst other things:

-Remove identifying information

-Remove defamatory comments, and

-Remove offensive remarks (for example, deleting explicitly racist comments and/or unnecessary descriptions of a person’s race).

[xxxiii] Although I was particularly disturbed by a small number of respondents who included transphobic comments in their answers to question 3 itself, which were subsequently edited to remove the most offensive elements.

Submission to Inquiry into Freedom of Speech in Australia

Update 1 March 2017:

The Joint Committee on Human Rights handed down its report on Freedom of Speech in Australia yesterday (Tuesday 28 February). A full copy of the report can be found here.

On the positive side, the Committee did not make formal recommendations to wind back, or even repeal, section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, although it did include a number of options that, if implemented, would effectively undermine racial vilification protections in this country.

On the negative side, and despite accepting and publishing my submission (see below), the Committee apparently failed to consider the issue of whether anti-vilification laws should be expanded to cover other groups who are currently not protected in Commonwealth law, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

Disappointingly, Labor members did not refer to this issue in their additional comments, nor did the Australian Greens as part of their dissenting report. All of which means that the campaign to secure Commonwealth LGBTI anti-vilification laws that are equivalent to section 18C must continue.

 

Original post:

As many of you would be aware, Commonwealth Parliament is currently conducting an inquiry into ‘freedom of speech in Australia’ – specifically whether the racial vilification protections offered by section 18C in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 should be restricted.

The following is my submission to this inquiry, arguing that not only is there insufficient justification to amend (or even repeal) 18C, but that Parliament should instead be considering how to better protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians against vilification.

Full details of the Inquiry, including the 374 submissions (and counting) that have been published, can be found here.

 

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Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights

18Cinquiry@aph.gov.au

 

Dear Committee Members

Submission to Inquiry into Freedom of Speech in Australia

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to this inquiry into what is an important issue.

 

In this submission I will primarily focus on terms of reference 1 (concerning sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975) and 4 (how the Australian Human Rights Commission can better protect freedom of speech), rather than terms of reference 2 (regarding the processes that apply to complaint handling) or 3 (‘soliciting complaints’).

 

I am writing this submission from the perspective of an Australian with Anglo-Celtic heritage, and therefore someone who is unlikely to be subject to racial vilification in this country.

 

However, I also write as an out gay man, who has witnessed, and experienced, vilification on the basis of sexual orientation. Those experiences particularly inform the latter part of this submission.

 

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Term of Reference 1: Whether the operation of Part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) imposes unreasonable restrictions upon freedom of speech, and in particular whether, and if so how, ss 18C and 18D should be reformed.

 

No law is ever perfect. Each piece of legislation that exists today could probably be better drafted in some way (or indeed many ways).

 

That statement applies to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, in the same manner as any other law, including its provisions that make racial vilification unlawful.

 

As the Committee would be aware, section 18C stipulates that:

 

“(1) It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:

  • the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and
  • the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.”

 

As I wrote in my submission to the Government’s Exposure Draft Freedom of Speech (Repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014, “I do not believe that, were provisions regarding racial vilification to be drafted today, they would include the terms ‘offend’ or ‘insult’ (or at least not without aggravating factors or considerations).”

 

It is at least possible to argue that the type of conduct that is, prima facie, captured by these terms – insult and offend – is too broad.

 

But, as I then went on to observe in that same submission, “it is one thing to suggest that the drafting of a provision is something less than ‘ideal’ – it is another to suggest that poor drafting has directly caused problems that mean it must be amended.”

 

And it is on that second point that I believe the case to amend or even repeal section 18C falls down. Because I am yet to be convinced that the drafting of 18C itself has caused serious problems in the operation of Australia’s racial vilification framework.[i]

 

There are three main arguments that support this conclusion.

 

First, racial vilification generally, and section 18C specifically, has been subject to considerable public debate since the election of the then-Abbott Liberal-National Government in September 2013.

 

Many critics have argued, at times vociferously, that the section as drafted is an unacceptable infringement upon the right to free speech. If such a claim were true, then these same critics should be able to provide examples of speech that are unlawful currently, that would be lawful if this section was reformed, and which are clearly in the public interest to be heard.

 

I am unaware of anyone who has, over those past three years, been able to provide a compelling example. That failure seriously undermines the case for change.

 

Second, I believe it is equally difficult to find an example of section 18C being applied incorrectly in case law, such that speech that should have been lawful was, ultimately, found to be unlawful by the courts.

 

The most famous (or infamous) case that is often cited is Eaton v Bolt [2011] FCA 1103. However, as I observed in my submission to the Government’s Freedom of Speech (Repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014, “it is not clear that the outcome of the “Bolt case” makes any persuasive case for change.”

 

I went on to write:

 

“In the summary of that decision, Justice Mordecai Bromberg explained that “I am satisfied that fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed by the newspaper articles” of Mr Bolt (para 17).

 

“Justice Bromberg also explained that Mr Bolt’s conduct could not fit within what are, to be frank, extremely generous exemptions in section 18D, writing that “I have not been satisfied that the offensive conduct that I have found occurred, is exempted from unlawfulness by section 18D. The reasons for that conclusion have to do with the manner in which the articles were written, including that they contained errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language” (para 23, emphasis added).

 

“In his summary, Justice Bromberg also articulates at least one of the reasons why laws should exist to prohibit writings such as those of Mr Bolt: “People should be free to fully identify with their race without fear of public disdain or loss of esteem for so identifying. Disparagement directed at the legitimacy of the racial identification of a group of people is likely to be destructive of racial tolerance, just as disparagement directed at the real or imagined practices or traits of those people is also destructive of racial tolerance” (para 22).

“In short, there appears to at least be an arguable case that not only was the “Bolt case” decided correctly on the existing law, but also that the current provisions are operating as intended to limit the negative effects of racial intolerance. Conversely, I believe it is difficult to argue, solely on the basis of Eatock v Bolt, that section 18C is so deficient that it should be amended, and amended as a matter of high priority.”

That remains my opinion today.

 

Third, it is impossible to argue for amendment to, or repeal of, section 18C in isolation, and without considering the generous exemptions provided by section 18D:

 

“Section 18C does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith:

  • in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work; or
  • in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose or any other genuine purpose in the public interest; or
  • in making or publishing:
    1. a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest; or
    2. a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment.”

 

These provisions, and especially the protections for ‘fair comment’ on a ‘matter of public interest’ if it is ‘an expression of a genuine belief’, cover an extremely wide range of potential statements where they otherwise offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate other persons or groups on the basis of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

 

Once again, it is up to advocates for change to the existing law to provide examples of speech that remains unlawful, despite section 18D, and that it is clearly in the public interest to hear. As with section 18C discussed above, I am not aware of any such example.

 

Recommendation 1: Sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 should remain as currently drafted.

 

In the absence of a compelling case to amend or repeal sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, I would like to suggest an alternative area of anti-vilification law reform for which there is, from my perspective, a clear and urgent need for reform: the introduction of vilification protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

 

Despite the almost relentless criticism of racial vilification laws over the past three years, and especially in certain mainstream media publications in 2016, there has been comparative silence, or near silence, about the fact there are currently no Commonwealth protections against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

The Commonwealth is not alone in failing to offer these protections: only NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT have laws that expressly prohibit anti-LGBTI vilification[ii].

 

This is an issue that I have repeatedly attempted to draw attention to, via multiple policy submissions (including the already-mentioned submission on the Government’s Exposure Draft Freedom of Speech (Repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014, a submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Inquiry into Traditional Rights and Freedoms, and a submission in response to their Interim Report, as well as a submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s consultation on Rights & Responsibilities, led by the now-Member for Goldstein, Tim Wilson).

 

In each process I have made the case that, if race-based vilification is considered legally unacceptable, then so too should be homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification.

 

As I wrote in the Star Observer newspaper in May 2014[iii]:

 

“[T]here is no conceptual or philosophical reason why racial vilification should be deemed to be so serious a problem as to require a legal complaints and resolution scheme, but vilification based on homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and anti-intersex prejudice should not.

 

“After all, both groups – Australians of diverse racial backgrounds and LGBTI people – are regularly subject to vilification in public contexts, whether that be in political or media debates, or in harassment and abuse in public spaces.

 

“For LGBTI people, this includes comments made in Federal Parliament itself. Over the past [15] years, we have had three… senators rhetorically link marriage equality with bestiality, repeat claims that allowing two men or women to wed will create another stolen generation, and smear an openly-gay High Court Justice with allegations of paedophilia (apparently solely on the basis of the judge’s homosexuality).

 

“Vilification based on sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status occurs all-too-frequently at the everyday ‘street level’, too. Anyone who is visibly identifiable as LGBTI, including non-LGBTI people who are perceived as being LGBTI by others, or indeed anyone who simply wants to engage in the tender act of holding one’s same-sex partner’s hand, knows the risks that expressing who you are in public can bring, from being yelled at from passing cars, to the very real threat of much worse.

 

“Such fears are grounded in hard statistics. A 2003 NSW Attorney-General’s Report found that in the previous 12 months, 56 per cent of gay men and lesbians had been subject to one of more forms of homophobic abuse, harassment or violence. And that’s before we take into account the disturbingly high number of gay and bisexual men violently murdered in Sydney during the 1980s and 1990s, but whose deaths are only now being properly investigated.

 

“The consequences of anti-LGBTI vilification are also reflected in figures that show that LGBTI Australians continue to experience disproportionately high rates of mental health issues, including depression, self-harm and, most tragically, suicide. It is not hard to draw a link between public denigration and contempt for a person’s identity or status, and poorer personal mental health.

 

“So, if Australians of diverse racial backgrounds and LGBTI people are both subject to vilification, and both experience negative outcomes as a result, why shouldn’t both vulnerable groups have the same level of legal protection?”

 

That question remains relevant to this Committee today, and especially to this particular Inquiry.

 

I would argue that, given the harms of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification outlined above, rather than recommending amendment to or repeal of sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Vilification Act 1975, the Committee should instead support the introduction of equivalent provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to prohibit vilification against LGBTI Australians.

 

Recommendation 2: The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 should be amended to make vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status unlawful. These provisions should be drafted on the same basis as existing prohibitions against racial vilification in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

 

**********

 

Term of Reference 4: Whether the operation of the [Australian Human Rights] Commission should be otherwise reformed in order better to protect freedom of speech and, if so, what those reforms should be.

 

I would like to make one final point, related to the previous discussion, about the terms of reference to this inquiry, and the overall direction of anti-vilification reform in Australia.

 

Namely, there continues to be disproportionate focus on freedom of speech, with little attention paid to the potential harmful outcomes from unfettered or completely unregulated speech.

 

This ideological bent is already apparent in the term of reference highlighted above (focused on free speech and not its effects), but is revealed even more clearly by examining the paragraph in the Terms of Reference that follows:

 

“The Committee is asked, in particular, to consider the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission in its Final Report on Traditional Rights and Freedoms – Encroachments by Commonwealth Laws [ALRC Report 129 – December 2015], in particular Chapter 4 – “Freedom of Speech”.

 

Turning to that Report, the relevant recommendation is found at 4.251 on page 126:

 

“The ALRC concludes that the following Commonwealth laws should be further reviewed to determine whether they unjustifiably limit freedom of speech:

  • Pt IIA of the RDA, in conjunction with consideration of anti-vilification laws more generally.”

 

That last phrase – “in conjunction with consideration of anti-vilification laws more generally” – only fully makes sense when considered in the context of the preceding discussion in paragraphs 4.207 to 4.209 on page 119 of the Report:

 

“The ALRC has not established whether s 18C of the RDA has, in practice, caused unjustifiable interferences with freedom of speech. However, it appears that pt IIA of the RDA, of which s 18C forms a part, would benefit from more thorough review in relation to freedom of speech.

 

“In particular, there are arguments that s 18C lacks sufficient precision and clarity, and unjustifiably interferes with freedom of speech by extending to speech that is reasonably likely to ‘offend’. The provision appears broader than is required under international law to prohibit the advocacy of racial hatred and broader than similar laws in other jurisdictions, and may be susceptible to constitutional challenge.

 

“However, any such review should not take place in isolation. Stakeholders put forward arguments that people should also be protected from vilification on other grounds, including sex, sexual orientation and gender identity” (emphasis added).

 

In short, the Government asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to examine traditional rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech. The ALRC then considered sections 18C and 18D in detail, but was not in a position to determine whether or not these sections unjustifiably interfered with freedom of speech.

 

Instead, the ALRC recommended that this part of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 be reviewed further – as part of a broader review of anti-vilification laws, including whether these protections should be extended to others grounds, such as sexual orientation and gender identity.

 

However, in establishing this Inquiry, the Government appears to have done the exact opposite: it has focused solely on the protection of freedom of speech, and not at all on the consequences of unfettered free speech, ignoring any possible need to introduce additional protected attributes in Commonwealth anti-vilification law.

 

Once again, I would urge the Committee – and through you, the Parliament – to consider the issue of whether LGBTI anti-vilification protections should be established in Commonwealth legislation, and in this way to give full effect to the recommendation of the ALRC.

 

**********

 

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide this submission, and for taking it into account as part of the Committee’s deliberations.

 

Should you have any questions, or to request additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me at the contact details provided with this submission.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

Friday 9 December 2016

 

Footnotes:

[i] Please note here that, as stated in the introduction, I am not commenting on the processes that apply to complaint handling, which includes complaints with little or no substance, as well as the timelines involved in resolving complaints. Other individuals and/or organisations are better placed to make recommendations on those particular matters (although I suspect it may involve a combination of procedural changes, and increased funding for the Commission and Courts to enable the existing caseload to be dealt with in a more timely manner).

[ii] Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia have racial vilification laws but no LGBTI equivalent, while the Northern Territory has neither.

[iii] Star Observer, “Where’s the LGBTI Equivalent of Section 18C?” 19 May 2014.

Back to School, Back to Discrimination for LGBT Students and Teachers

Every year, millions of students, and hundreds of thousands of teachers and other staff, start at Australian schools excited by the possibilities of the following 12 months – of the opportunities to learn (or teach) about the world around them, and about themselves.

 

However, for far too many students – and teachers and other staff – in schools around the country it will be another year in which they have to worry about being discriminated against, lawfully, simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

That’s because, under the anti-discrimination laws of five out of nine Australian jurisdictions, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students can legally be treated adversely by religious schools[i]. Six jurisdictions allow discrimination against LGBT teachers and other staff – plus one state which has a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach.

 

To find out what the law is in your jurisdiction, see below. And to find out just how many students, teachers and other staff are potentially affected by these discriminatory provisions, please read to the end of the article.

 

**********

 

Commonwealth

 

While LGBT students, teachers and other staff are protected against discrimination under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, these protections are fundamentally undermined by the inclusion of two excessively broad exceptions for religious organisations.

 

The first is contained in sub-section 37(1)(d), which states that:

 

“Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects… any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”

 

It is highly likely that this provision allows religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students, teachers and staff. But, just in case there was any doubt, the Act includes an additional ‘right to discriminate’ just for religious schools:

 

“Section 38

Educational institutions established for religious purposes

(1) Nothing in paragraph 14(1)(a) or (b) or (14)(2)(c) renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on the ground of the other person’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy in connection with employment as a member of the staff of an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.”

 

Sub-section 38(2) establishes a similar ‘right to discriminate’ against contract workers, while sub-section 38(3) reiterates the ability of religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students.

 

In short, instead of protecting LGBT students and teachers at religious schools against discrimination, the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 authorises their mistreatment (a pattern that, as we shall below, is sadly replicated in most states and territories).

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT students under Commonwealth law? Yes.

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT teachers and other staff under Commonwealth law? Yes.

 

**********

 

New South Wales

 

As I have written elsewhere[ii], despite being the first Australian jurisdiction to introduce gay anti-discrimination laws, NSW now has perhaps the worst LGBT anti-discrimination legislation in the country. A key reason for that is the extremely generous exceptions provided to religious (and other non-government) schools.

 

As with the Commonwealth, it is likely NSW religious schools have the ‘right to discriminate’ against LGBT students, teachers and other staff[iii] as part of the general religious exception provided by sub-section 56(d):

 

“Nothing in this Act affects… any other act or practice of a body established to propagate religion that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

 

And, just like the Commonwealth, there is also a specific exception applying only to schools – however, in what is a unique approach, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 actually allows all non-government schools to discriminate against students on the grounds of homosexuality or transgender status, even where they are not religious:

 

“Section 49ZO Education

(1) It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a person on the ground of homosexuality:

(a) by refusing or failing to accept the person’s application for admission as a student, or

(b) in the terms on which it is prepared to admit the person as a student.

(2) It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a student on the ground of homosexuality:

(a) by denying the student access, or limiting the student’s access, to any benefit provided by the educational authority, or

(b) by expelling the student or subjecting the student to any other detriment.

(3) Nothing in this section applies to or in respect of a private educational authority” (emphasis added).

 

Section 38K establishes a similar right for NSW non-government schools (religious and not-religious alike) to discriminate against transgender students.

 

There are also equivalent sections regarding lesbian, gay and transgender teachers and other staff at non-government schools (religious and not-religious alike): section 49ZH and 38C respectively.

 

Therefore, all NSW non-government schools are able to fire (or not hire) LGT teachers and other staff under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, and to refuse to admit, treat adversely and even expel students merely for being lesbian, gay or transgender. That is, in a word, appalling.

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT students under NSW law? Yes – and that includes non-government schools that are not religious, too.

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT teachers and other staff under NSW law? Yes, including non-government schools that are not religious.

 

**********

 

Victoria

 

Victoria is another jurisdiction that has adopted the ‘two-fold’ approach to permitting discrimination by religious schools against LGBT students, teachers and other staff.

 

First up, sub-section 82(2) of the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010 states that:

 

“Nothing in Part 4 applies to anything done on the basis of a person’s religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity by a religious body that-

(a) conforms with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion; or

(b) is reasonably necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of the religion.”

 

This is then supplemented by section 83, which is entirely concerned with providing religious schools with an explicit ‘right to discriminate’:

 

Religious schools

(1) This section applies to a person or body, including a religious body, that establishes, directs, controls, administers or is an educational institution that is, or is to be, conducted in accordance with religious doctrines, beliefs or principles.

(2) Nothing in Part 4 applies to anything done on the basis of a person’s religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity by a person or body to which this section applies in the course of establishing, directing, controlling or administering the educational institution that-

(a) conforms with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion; or

(b) is reasonably necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of the religion.”

 

In 2016, there were two attempts to limit the impact of these sections – the first, by the Andrews Labor Government, would have compelled religious schools (and other religious employers) to demonstrate that discrimination against LGBT employees was an ‘inherent requirement’ of the respective position[iv]. The second, by the Victorian Greens, would have prohibited discrimination against LGBT students.

 

Unfortunately, both Bills were voted down by the Upper House (and specifically by Liberal and National Party MLCs) leaving LGBT students, teachers and other staff in Victorian religious schools exposed to mistreatment solely because of who they are.

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT students under Victorian law? Yes.

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT teachers and other staff under Victorian law? Yes.

 

**********

 

Queensland

 

It may be surprising for some (especially given they only equalised the age of consent in 2016), but Queensland is one of four jurisdictions that does not provide carte blanche for religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students, teachers and other staff.

 

That is because they have adopted a more limited version of the broad general exception enacted elsewhere. Section 109 of the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 provides:

 

Religious bodies

(1) The Act does not apply in relation to-

(d) unless section 90 (Accommodation with religious purposes) applies – an act by a body established for religious purposes if the act is –

(i) in accordance with the doctrine of the religion concerned; and

(ii) necessary to avoid offending the religious sensitivities of people of the religion.

(2) An exemption under subsection (1)(d) does not apply in the work or work-related area or in the education area (emphasis added).

 

LGBT students are protected from discrimination as a result of this provision.

 

Prima facie, it would appear that LGBT teachers and other staff should be too – after all, sub-section (2) says the religious exception does not apply to work.

 

However, there is an additional section of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 that does authorise discrimination against LGBT employees of religious schools in certain circumstances. Section 25 states:

 

“25 Genuine occupational requirements

(1) A person may impose genuine occupational requirements for a position.

Example 4- employing persons of a particular religion to teach in a school established for students of the particular religion

(2) Subsection (3) applies in relation to-

(a) work for an educational institution (an employer) under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes…

(3) It is not unlawful for an employer to discriminate with respect to a matter that is otherwise prohibited under section 14 or 15, in a way that is not unreasonable, against a person if-

(a) the person openly acts in a way that the person knows or ought reasonably to know is contrary to the employer’s religious beliefs-

(i) during a selection process; or

(ii) in the course of the person’s work; or

(iii) in doing something connected with the person’s work; and

Example for paragraph (a)- A staff member openly acts in a way contrary to a requirement imposed by the staff member’s employer in his or her contract of employment, that the staff member abstain from acting in a way openly contrary to the employer’s religious beliefs in the course of, or in connection with the staff member’s employment.

(b) it is a genuine occupational requirement of the employer that the person, in the course of, or in connection with, the person’s work, act in a way consistent with the employer’s religious beliefs.

(4) Subsection (3) does not authorise the seeking of information contrary to section 124.

(5) For subsection (3), whether the discrimination is not unreasonable depends on all the circumstances of the case, including, for example, the following-

(a) whether the action taken or proposed to be taken by the employer is harsh or unjust or disproportionate to the person’s actions;

(b) the consequences for both the person and the employer should the discrimination happen or not happen.”

 

Summarising the above, religious schools in Queensland can discriminate against LGBT teachers and other staff if:

  • the employee acts in a way contrary to the employer’s religious beliefs during the selection process, at work or in connection with work, and
  • the employer can show it was a genuine occupational requirement that the employee act in accordance with those religious beliefs.

 

But, if the teacher or staff member does not act in such a way (which presumably includes the mere acknowledgement of having a same-sex partner, for example), they cannot be punished simply for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Further, the religious school cannot ask whether the employee is LGBT.

 

In short, Queensland allows a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to LGBT teachers and staff in religious schools – but they can still be fired for being ‘out’ at work. Of course, more than two decades of US military policy demonstrated the folly of DADT – and it says a lot about the terrible state of Australian LGBT anti-discrimination laws that the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 remains the second-best law in this particular area.

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT students under Queensland law? No.

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT teachers and other staff under Queensland law? Yes, in some circumstances (including where it is a genuine occupational requirement, and the employee is ‘out’ at work). No, when the employee is not ‘out’ – and a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy applies.

 

**********

 

Western Australia

 

The Western Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984 is far less complex – and far less positive – in terms of its approach to LGBT anti-discrimination protections for students, teachers and staff in religious schools.

 

Just like the Commonwealth, NSW and Victoria, Western Australia provides ‘dual’ exceptions to religious schools granting them the ‘right to discriminate’. Sub-section 72(d) notes:

 

Religious bodies

Nothing in this Act affects… any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”

 

Section 73 then sets out specific, additional exceptions with respect to teachers:

 

(1) “Nothing in this Act renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on any one or more of the grounds of discrimination referred to in this Act in connection with employment as a member of the staff of an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed”

 

And students:

 

(3) “Nothing in this Act renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on any one or more of the grounds of discrimination referred to in this Act, other than the grounds of race, impairment or age, in connection with the provision of education or training by an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in favour of adherents of that religion or creed generally, but not in a manner that discriminates against a particular class or group of persons who are not adherents of that religion or creed.”

 

Prima facie, that means Western Australian religious schools can only discriminate against students on the basis of their religion, not their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, unlike Queensland’s section 109(2), there is no equivalent limitation on the general religious exception in WA, meaning religious schools still (probably) retain the right to discriminate against LGBT students under section 72(d).

 

Overall, then, Western Australia provides multiple grounds for religious schools to discriminate against LGBT teachers and other staff, and likely one ground to discriminate against LGBT students.

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT students under Western Australian law? Yes (probably).

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT teachers and other staff under Western Australian law? Yes.

 

**********

 

South Australia

 

The Equal Opportunity Act 1984 makes it clear that religious schools in South Australia can discriminate against LGBT teachers and other staff, as a result of a specific exception in section 34. However, it imposes strict procedural requirements if a religious school wishes to utilise such exceptions:

 

(3)         This Division does not apply to discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in relation to employment or engagement for the purposes of an educational institution if— 
(a)         the educational institution is administered in accordance with the precepts of a particular religion and the discrimination is founded on the precepts of that religion; and (b)         the educational authority administering the institution has a written policy stating its position in relation to the matter; and 
(c)         a copy of the policy is given to a person who is to be interviewed for or offered employment with the authority or a teacher who is to be offered engagement as a contractor by the authority; and 
(d)         a copy of the policy is provided on request, free of charge— 
(i)         to employees and contractors and prospective employees and contractors of the authority to whom it relates or may relate; and 
(ii)         to students, prospective students and parents and guardians of students and prospective students of the institution; and 
(iii)         to other members of the public.

 

The situation for LGBT students is slightly less clear-cut, with sub-sections 37(1) and (2) providing that:

 

Discrimination by educational authorities

(1) It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a person on the ground of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity-

(a) by refusing or failing to accept an application for admission as a student; or

(b) in the terms or conditions on which it offers to admit the person as a student.

(2) It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a student on the ground of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity-

(a) in the terms or conditions on which it provides the student with training or education; or

(b) by denying or limiting access to a benefit provided by the authority; or

(c) by expelling the student; or

(d) by subjecting the student to other detriment.”[v]

 

These protections, for LGBT students, appear to be quite strong – however, it should be noted that the general religious exceptions featured in section 50 may still apply to this situation. Again, unlike Queensland’s section 109(2), there is no equivalent limitation on the Act’s general religious exceptions, meaning religious schools still (probably) retain the right to discriminate against LGBT students under sub-sections 50(ba) and (c).

 

This also appears to be the view of the Equal Opportunity Commission, as expressed in its submissions to the Law Reform Institute review of LGBTI laws in South Australia[vi].

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT students under South Australian law? Probably.

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT teachers and other staff under South Australian law? Yes, although procedural requirements apply.

 

**********

 

Tasmania

 

Despite being the last Australian jurisdiction to decriminalise homosexuality, Tasmania was the first – and, to date, remains one of only two – states or territories to ensure that all LGBT students, teachers and staff cannot be discriminated against solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

That is because the religious exceptions offered under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 are narrowly drafted. In terms of employment, section 51 states that:

 

Employment based on religion

(1) A person may discriminate against another person on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to employment if the participation of the person in the observance or practice of a particular religion is a genuine occupational qualification or requirement in relation to the employment.

(2) A person may discriminate against another person on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to employment in an educational institution that is or is to be conducted in accordance with the tenets, beliefs, teachings, principles or practices of a particular religion if the discrimination is in order to enable, or better enable, the educational institution to be conducted in accordance with those tenets, beliefs, teachings, principles or practices.”

 

In short, a Tasmanian religious school can discriminate against a teacher or staff member because of their religion – but there is no equivalent right to discriminate on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

The protection in relation to LGBT students is even more unambiguous. Section 51A provides:

 

Admission of person as student based on religion

(1) A person may discriminate against another person on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to admission of that other person as a student to an educational institution that is or is to be conducted in accordance with the tenets, beliefs, teachings, principles or practices of a particular religion.

(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to a person who is enrolled as a student at the educational institution referred to in that subsection.

(3) Subsection (1) does not permit discrimination on any grounds referred to in section 16 other than those specified in that subsection.

(4) A person may, on a ground specified in subsection (1), discriminate against another person in relation to the admission of the other person as a student to an educational institution, if the educational institution’s policy for the admission of students demonstrates that the criteria for admission relates to the religious belief or affiliation, or religious activity, of the other person, the other person’s parents of the other person’s grandparents.”

 

Not only does this section only apply to admission (and therefore does not authorise discrimination once a student is enrolled, including potential expulsion), it also only applies to the grounds of religious belief or affiliation, and religious activity.

 

Once again, a religious school can only discriminate against students on the basis of their (or their parents’/grandparents’) religion – they cannot legally mistreat students on the basis of their, or their family’s, sexual orientation or gender identity. In this way, the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 provides a model to which other Australian jurisdictions should aspire (and which the ACT Government has recently emulated).

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT students under Tasmanian law? No.

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT teachers and other staff under Tasmanian law? No.

 

**********

 

Australian Capital Territory

 

The ACT Government recently passed the Discrimination Amendment Act 2018 which has successfully adopted the best-practice approach of Tasmania in this area.

 

The previous specific exceptions for religious schools (in section 33) were abolished, and the general religious exception (in section 32) has been limited, and now does not allow religious schools to discriminate against students, teachers and other staff on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

Like Tasmania, they do allow schools to preference students and teachers in admission and employment, respectively – although have gone even further than Tasmania by requiring schools that want to discriminate in this way to publish their policies.

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT students under ACT law? No.

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT teachers and other staff under ACT law? No.

 

**********

 

Northern Territory

 

The Northern Territory allows discrimination by religious schools against LGBT teachers and other staff. Arguably, it does so only once (instead of providing two separate ‘rights to discriminate’, like the Commonwealth and some other states) – although once is still one time too many.

 

While the ‘general religious exception’ in the NT’s Anti-Discrimination Act is comparatively constrained (covering “an act by a body established for religious purposes if the act is done as part of any religious observance or practice”: sub-section 51(d)), there is an additional special ‘right to discriminate’ against LGBT teachers and staff. Section 37A provides that:

 

“An educational authority that operates or proposes to operate an educational institution in accordance with the doctrine of a particular religion may discriminate against a person in the area of work in the institution if the discrimination:

(a) is on the grounds of:

(i) religious belief or activity; or

(ii) sexuality; and

(b) is in good faith to avoid offending the religious sensitivities of people of the particular religion.”

 

However, there is no equivalent right to discriminate against LGBT students – indeed, like the current Tasmanian legislation, the NT only allows religious schools to discriminate on the basis of the student’s faith (sub-section 30(2) provides that “[a]n educational authority that operates, or proposes to operate, an educational institution in accordance with the doctrine of a particular religion may exclude applicants who are not of that religion.”)

 

Combined with the more limited general religious exception outlined above, that means NT religious schools probably cannot discriminate against LGBT students. Consequently, the Northern Territory actually has the fourth-best LGBT anti-discrimination laws in Australia on this issue.

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT students under Northern Territory law? No.

 

Can religious schools discriminate against LGBT teachers and other staff under Northern Territory law? Yes.

 

**********

 

Summary

 

In conclusion, then, far too many LGBT students, teachers and other staff members will start the 2019 school year in a vulnerable position – they can be lawfully discriminated against simply because of who they are.

 

In terms of students, such discrimination is permitted in religious schools under the anti-discrimination laws of:

  • Commonwealth
  • New South Wales
  • Victoria
  • Western Australia (probably), and
  • South Australia (probably).

 

Only Queensland, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory have chosen to protect students in religious schools from homophobic, biphobic and transphobic discrimination.

 

As we have seen, the situation for teachers and other staff members is even worse – they can be legally mistreated under anti-discrimination legislation in:

  • Commonwealth
  • New South Wales
  • Victoria
  • Western Australia
  • South Australia (although procedural requirements apply), and
  • Northern Territory.

 

In Queensland, LGBT teachers at religious schools can be discriminated against if they are ‘out’ – otherwise a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy applies. Only Tasmania and the ACT refuse to provide religious schools with an explicit ‘right to discriminate’ against LGBT teachers and other staff.

 

Up to this point, this discussion has been very ‘legal’, and somewhat technical. But it is important to remember that the impact of these religious exceptions is significant in practical terms.

 

Based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics[vii], in 2015 there were more than 1 million students enrolled at Australian schools where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students could be discriminated against simply because of who they are.

 

In fact, the exact number was 1,007,864[viii]. With the number of students in non-government schools rising by 1.4% per year, this has likely risen to above 1,040,000 at the start of 2019 (despite recent changes meaning LGBT students in Canberra are now protected).

 

The number of teachers and other staff that can be lawfully discriminated against is just as confronting.

 

In 2015, 110,073.8 Full Time Equivalent positions[ix] were at religious schools that could legally discriminate against teachers and other staff members who were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

 

An additional 28,944.1 FTE positions – employees at religious schools in Queensland – could be adversely treated if they were ‘out’ at work.

 

In fact, of the 141,806.1 FTE positions at religious schools nationally, only the 2,788.2 FTE positions in Tasmania were fully protected against discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity – or less than 2% of teachers and staff members at religious schools nationally. Although, from the 2019 school year, they will be joined by teachers and other staff at religious schools in the ACT (2,690.8 FTE positions in 2015).

 

The numbers of students, teachers and staff who can legally be discriminated against if they happen to be LGBT are almost too large to comprehend. They remain so even when broken down by jurisdiction.

 

For example, in my (adopted) home state of NSW, 409,728 students[x] attend, and 41,487.8 FTE[xi] teachers and other staff members are employed at, religious schools that can practice this (abhorrent) discrimination.

 

Of course, not all religious schools engage in the mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, teachers and staff. I’m sure there are many that refuse to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and aspire to be genuinely inclusive learning environments.

 

But the fact remains that these schools retain the legal ability to exclude LGBT students and employees simply because of who they are – and, in my opinion at least, I do not believe they can be fully inclusive until this ‘right to discriminate’ is removed.

 

And so, with the school year commencing, and parliamentary sittings set to resume around the country shortly, I would argue that Commonwealth, state and territory MPs (outside Tasmania and the ACT) should educate themselves about this unacceptable discrimination.

 

If they do, they might finally take action to ensure that all students can learn in classrooms that are free from anti-LGBT discrimination – and are taught by the best teachers available, including LGBT teachers, and not just the best cisgender heterosexual teachers.

 

If they don’t – if Members of Parliament continue to allow more than 1 million students to attend, and more than 110,000 teachers and staff to be employed at, religious schools that can lawfully discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity – then those MPs deserve to receive an ‘F’, in 2019, and for every year until this unacceptable situation is fixed.

 

theres-no-place-for-discrimination-in-the-classroom

And there’s no place for discrimination in the school staffroom, either.

 

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] Intersex students (and teachers and other staff) are not included in this article because, irrespective of their jurisdiction, they should be protected by the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and, according to major religious groupings during the development of that legislation, the religious exceptions contained therein do not apply to intersex status.

[ii] What’s Wrong With the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977.

[iii] It should be noted that the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of bisexuality, at all – it is included as part of the LGBT acronym here for the sake of consistency across the article.

[iv] For more, see Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016.

[v] Note that these provisions only apply to students – there is no equivalent section for teachers and other staff.

[vi] This would also reflect judicial interpretation of the general religious exception in NSW (including in cases like OW & OV v Members of the Board of the Wesley Mission Council [2010] NSWADT 293 (10 December 2010)).

[vii] Australian Bureau of Statistics – 4221.0 Schools, Australia, 2015, released 04/02/2016

[viii] This calculation is based on the total number of students attending Catholic and Independent schools nationally (1,305,843) minus the number of similar students in those jurisdictions where they are protected from discrimination: Queensland (262,166); Tasmania (24,142) and Northern Territory (11,671). Unfortunately, the dataset provided does not identify Independent schools as religious versus non-religious, although the proportion that are non-religious is considered to be extremely small. Therefore, for the purposes of calculating this estimate, all Independent schools have been allocated as ‘religious’.

[ix] As with the previous calculation, this figure is based on the number of FTE positions at Catholic and Independent schools Australia-wide (141,806.1) minus the 28.944.1 in Queensland where the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy applies, and 2,788.2 in Tasmania, where LGBT teachers and staff are protected against anti-LGBT discrimination. Once again, the dataset provided does not identify Independent schools as religious versus non-religious, although the proportion that are non-religious is considered to be extremely small. Therefore, for the purposes of calculating this estimate, all Independent schools have been allocated as ‘religious’.

[x] Noting that the caveat that applies to national figures (about the treatment of religious versus non-religious Independent schools) does not apply here – all non-government schools in NSW can discriminate against LGBT students, including non-religious schools.

[xi] The caveat – about the treatment of religious versus non-religious schools – does apply here however, because non-religious Independent schools in NSW cannot discriminate against LGBT teachers and staff, only LGBT students.

2016: Annus Homophobicus

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

pulse-tribute

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Almost, but not quite.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

**********

 

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

 

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

 

Please TAKE THE SURVEY NOW.

**********

 

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

 

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

 

Footnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill is Unacceptable

This time last week, our major focus was, understandably, on ensuring Bill Shorten and the Australian Labor Party listened to the concerns of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community and agreed to block Malcolm Turnbull’s unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite.

With that particular mission (almost) accomplished – although the plebiscite’s enabling legislation won’t be ‘dead, buried and cremated’ until it is finally voted down by the Senate in November – it is time to turn our attention to another battle, and that is the issue of religious exceptions.

Last Monday night (10 October 2016), the Government, via Attorney-General George Brandis, released an exposure draft of the legislation it would put before parliament in the event the plebiscite is held, and if that vote was successful.

Since that time, a number of people have expressed their serious concerns about the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, and especially about the broad ‘rights to discriminate’ contained within. Now that I have had the opportunity to examine this Bill in detail, I am afraid I must join their condemnatory chorus.

Nearly everything about this Bill, from its title down, is unacceptable. It is far more focussed on ensuring that religious organisations, and even individuals, can refuse to serve LGBTI people, than it is about ensuring LGBTI couples are treated equally, and above all fairly, under the law. And, for the reasons that I will outline below, I sincerely believe it should be rejected in its current form.

**********

First, let’s start with that title, and specifically the phrase ‘same-sex marriage’, which is also used in the Bill’s long title (“A Bill for an Act to provide for same-sex marriage, and for related purposes”).

For the umpteenth time, and for the benefit of slow learners like Prime Minister Turnbull and Senator Brandis, ensuring that all LGBTI Australians can marry is not ‘same-sex marriage’, but ‘marriage equality’.

The former phrase is narrow and excludes non-binary trans people, as well as many intersex individuals. Only the latter phrase captures all couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Fortunately, the substance of the Bill actually does include all people – the primary clause would amend the homophobic definition of the Marriage Act enacted by John Howard’s Liberal-National Government in 2004 to read “marriage means the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

If that is the case, then why has the Government used the inaccurate phrase ‘same-sex marriage’ in the Bill’s title?

Perhaps it is simply politics, and the ongoing inability of the Coalition’s right-wing to acknowledge that this is, fundamentally, an issue of equality (although not referring to it as marriage equality even after the majority of the population voted for it – which is the precondition for this Bill – would seem to me incredibly petty).

On the other hand, maybe Turnbull and Brandis are right to shy away from describing this legislation as ‘marriage equality’ – because, in the vast majority of its provisions, it is nothing of the sort. Indeed, most of the Bill’s clauses are actually concerned with ensuring couples other than ‘a man and a woman’ are able to be refused service in a wide range of circumstances.

Which means that a far more accurate title for this legislation might be the ‘Marriage Amendment (Allowing any 2 adults to marry, but then allowing them to be denied service if they are LGBTI) Bill’. But, as well as being a mouthful, that might be a little too much ‘truth in advertising’ for this particular Government.

**********

Turning to the more substantive faults of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, and the first concerns the rights of ministers of religion to refuse to conduct LGBTI weddings.

Now, let me begin by saying that I actually agree that ministers of religion should legally have the ability to accept, or reject, any couple who wishes to be married by them through a religious ceremony (even if I personally believe that such discrimination is abhorrent).

Indeed, that ‘right’ is already provided to ministers of religion under section 47 of the Marriage Act 1961: “Ministers of religion not bound to solemnise marriage etc. Nothing in this Part: (a) imposes an obligation on an authorised celebrant, being a minister of religion, to solemnise any marriage…”

Which means that no amendments are required to the Act to allow ministers of religion to refuse to officiate LGBTI weddings (and none have been proposed by previous marriage equality Bills from Labor, the Greens and even last-year’s cross-party Bill from MPs including Liberal Warren Entsch). So why then does the Bill repeal section 47 and replace it with the following:

Ministers of religion may refuse to solemnise marriages

Refusing to solemnise a marriage that is not the union of a man and a woman

(3) A minister of religion may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite any law (including this Part) if:

(a) the refusal is because the marriage is not the union of a man and a woman; and

(b) any of the following applies:

(i) the refusal conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the minister’s religious body or religious organisation;

(ii) the refusal is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion;

(iii) the minister’s conscientious or religious beliefs do not allow the minister to solemnise the marriage.”

Ministers of religion will still have exactly the same right to refuse to perform any wedding, including newly-recognised LGBTI weddings[i], that they have now. Arguably, it would provide a greater ability for religious organisations to impose their official doctrine on ministers of religion within their faith – although, as we have seen recently, imposing such views is already commonplace.

But the overall power will remain basically the same. So, why introduce these new provisions, spelling out in detail the ability to decline non- ‘man/woman’ marriages, at all?

It is difficult to see any other motivation than plain old homophobia and transphobia.

And that becomes apparent when comparing it against another issue that is also contrary to some religious views – divorce and remarriage[ii]. The Catholic Church in particular espouses an official view against both, and its ministers would therefore reserve the right to decline to officiate second (or third, fourth or even fifth) weddings.

Under both the existing, and the proposed new, sections 47 a minister of religion has the ability to reject couples in these circumstances – without it being spelled out. Just as the wording of the existing section 47 would allow them to reject LGBTI couples, were it to be retained following the introduction of marriage equality, without it necessarily being spelled out.

Which means there is absolutely no valid reason to insert new provisions that single out LGBTI couples (or non- ‘man/woman’ couples) for special, and detrimental, treatment, as part of a redrafted section 47.

Therefore, while the continuing ability of ministers of religion to decline to officiate weddings is not particularly problematic (from a legal point of view anyway), the unnecessary insertion of clauses which specify the right to discriminate against LGBTI couples – but not any other couples – definitely is.

The proposed new section 47 is homophobic and transphobic. It is unacceptable, and it must be rejected.

**********

Sadly, it only gets worse from here. The second substantive fault of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill is the creation of an entirely new ‘right’ to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

Currently, only ministers of religion have an explicit ‘opt-out’ clause. No equivalent provision or power exists for civil celebrants[iii] – which is entirely reasonable, given they are essentially ‘small businesses’, providing a service that the government has authorised them to, and explicitly not acting on behalf of any religion or religious organisation.

However, the Government is proposing, through this Bill, to allow even these ‘secular’ civil celebrants to reject LGBTI couples simply because of who they are (again, this is something that has not been included in most previous Bills, other than that from Senator David Leyonhjelm[iv]). Proposed new section 47A reads:

Marriage celebrants may refuse to solemnise marriages

(1) A marriage celebrant (not being a minister of religion) may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite any law (including this Part) if:

(a) the refusal is because the marriage is not the union of a man and a woman; and

(b) the marriage celebrant’s conscientious or religious beliefs do not allow the marriage celebrant to solemnise the marriage.”

This is, to put it simply, outrageous.

There is absolutely no reason why someone who is engaged in small business should be able to discriminate in such a way, against people who are LGBTI, simply because of their ‘personal beliefs’. It is the equivalent of encouraging them to put up a sign saying ‘no gays (or lesbians, or bisexuals, or trans people, or intersex people) allowed.’

And exactly how outrageous, and offensive, is revealed by once again comparing it to the situation with divorce and remarriage.

Despite whatever personal beliefs a civil celebrant may hold, and even after the Government’s Bill was passed, they would still not be able to formally decline to officiate someone’s second (or subsequent) wedding. Indeed, it is likely such discrimination would be unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which includes ‘marital or relationship status’ as a protected attribute in section 6[v].

In contrast, if the new section 47A was included in any amendments to the Marriage Act, these same celebrants would be able to reject LGBTI couples on the basis that they were not ‘a man and a woman’[vi], and for no other reason.

In effect, Malcolm Turnbull and his Government are saying that the religious beliefs of civil celebrants can be used to justify discrimination – but only if those religious beliefs are anti-LGBTI (and not, for example, if they are opposed to divorce).

Once again, I am forced to conclude that the proposed new section 47A is homophobic and transphobic. It is unacceptable, and it must be rejected.

**********

But it’s not just civil celebrants who will be allowed to put up unwelcome, on multiple levels, signs saying ‘no gays (or lesbians, or bisexuals, or trans people, or intersex people) allowed’. Religious bodies or organisations will also be able to do so as part of proposed new section 47B, which reads:

Religious bodies and organisations may refuse to make facilities available or provide goods or services

(1) A religious body or a religious organisation may, despite any law (including this Part), refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage, if:

(a) the refusal is because the marriage is not the union of a man and a woman; and

(b) the refusal:

(i) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the religious body or religious organisation; or

(ii) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”

If this provision were solely concerned with providing clarity that religious bodies were not obliged to conduct any weddings that they did not condone in their places of worship, like churches, then it may have almost been reasonable.

However, section 47B goes far beyond what would be required to achieve that limited goal. Instead, it provides a wide-ranging ‘right to discriminate’ against LGBTI couples, one that is problematic in at least three key ways:

  • It applies to more than just facilities, but also to the provision of ‘goods and services’, which, given the extent of influence of religious bodies and organisations in Australia, is incredibly broad
  • Sub-section (2)[vii] makes it clear that this right extends to religious bodies or organisations that are engaged in providing commercial services, for profit, and
  • The phrase “for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage” is vague, and left undefined, and could potentially capture a range of facilities, goods or services that are not directly connected to either a wedding ceremony or reception.

This section is also cause for concern in that it establishes a precedent whereby discrimination against LGBTI couples is encouraged. One consequence is that, while the current Bill does not allow florists, wedding cake-bakers, photographers or reception venues to refuse service (unless of course they themselves are run by a religious organisation), their voices demanding such exceptions in future will only get louder.

But again the major problem with this section is that it is singling out LGBTI couples – or anyone who doesn’t fit within the definition of ‘a man and a woman’[viii] – for special, and detrimental, treatment. And literally nobody else.

As with civil celebrants, it is only homophobic and transphobic religious belief that is preferenced here – other sincerely-held religious beliefs, for example, against divorce and remarriage, do not attract any such right. Which means that, yet again, the Liberal-National Government is expressing its support for religious freedom, but only as long as the beliefs concerned are anti-LGBTI.

The only possible conclusion is that proposed new section 47B is homophobic and transphobic, which makes it unacceptable. It must be rejected.

**********

The fourth and final substantive fault in the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill is the addition of a note to section 81, which deals with the rights of Defence Force chaplains to refuse to solemnise weddings.

The new note reads: “Example: A chaplain may refuse to solemnise a marriage that is not the union of a man and a woman where the refusal conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the chaplain’s church or faith group.”

I am strongly opposed to allowing these chaplains to discriminate against LGBTI couples in this way. Which might be surprising to some, especially given my view, expressed above, that ministers of religion should legally have this right.

Surprising, that is, until you consider that Defence Force chaplains are public servants, paid for out of everyone’s taxes – LGBTI and non-LGBTI, and religious and non-religious, alike[ix]. Indeed, the Defence Jobs Australia website indicates that chaplains are paid over $94,200 following completion of basic training.

The same website also claims that chaplains must “administer spiritual support to all members, regardless of their religion.”

Therefore, allowing discrimination by Defence Force chaplains fails in principle on two counts:

  • As public servants they should not be able to discriminate against members of the public simply because of their personal beliefs (otherwise we are allowing the Australian equivalent of Kim Davis), and
  • In providing spiritual support to Defence Force personnel, they are expected to do so for all people, not just those who are cisgender and/or heterosexual.

Which means that, if Defence Force chaplains are to continue to be authorised to officiate any weddings, then that must include the weddings of LGBTI people.

To do otherwise is, once again, homophobic and transphobic. It is unacceptable, and it must be rejected.

**********

There follows a few provisions that are actually positive in nature – removing the existing prohibition on the recognition of foreign marriages between two men, or two women[x] – before one final provision that establishes, clearly, that the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill is more concerned with promoting homophobia and transphobia than in addressing LGBTI inequality.

That is an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act provision[xi] that currently provides an exception for conduct which is “in direct compliance with” the Marriage Act – because, for example, a civil celebrant is unable to lawfully marry an LGBTI couple.

The introduction of genuine marriage equality should lessen that discrimination, and potentially even obviate the need for such a provision to begin with.

Instead, this amendment expands the exception, by adding conduct that is “authorised by” the Marriage Act, thus ensuring that the exceptions to Australia’s federal LGBTI anti-discrimination framework, which are already too broad[xii], are broadened even further.

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SENATE SINODINOS DEBATE

Attorney-General George Brandis’ Bill is not aimed at achieving genuine marriage equality, and should perhaps be renamed the Marriage Amendment (Allowing any 2 adults to marry, but then allowing them to be denied service if they are LGBTI) Bill.

It is disappointing, although perhaps not entirely surprising, to observe that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National Government just don’t get it when it comes to marriage equality.

First, they sought to impose an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on LGBTI Australians in order for our relationships to simply be recognised as equal under secular law.

Then we discover that their planned ‘reward’ – if the plebiscite is held, and if we are ultimately successful in their $200 million+ national opinion poll – is actually a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation, that spends more time and effort in expanding the rights of religious bodies, and civil celebrants, to discriminate against us than in actually implementing marriage equality.

We all know, far too well, that the equal recognition of our relationships is long overdue in Australian law. Unfortunately, that equality, genuine equality, will not be achieved via passage of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill.

At its core, it is homophobic and transphobic, making it unacceptable. I believe that, just as we have campaigned for Parliament to reject the plebiscite, and adopt a better process, we must also demand that they reject this ill-conceived legislation, and replace it with a better Bill.

If you believe that marriage equality should be exactly that – equality – please sign & share this petition to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: Equal Love Should Not Be Treated Unequally.

Footnotes:

[i] It would appear that this provision does not explicitly allow ministers of religion to discriminate against trans individuals or couples where the union is between two people who identify as a man and a woman – although the catch-all ‘right to discriminate’ in 47(1) “A minister of religion may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in this part” would nevertheless still apply.

[ii] Please note that I am not expressing support for such beliefs (against divorce and remarriage). I am merely using this example because, given many people sincerely hold such views, their differential treatment under the Bill makes it clear that the legislation is not concerned with protecting religious freedom, but instead aims to legitimise homophobia and transphobia.

[iii] Curiously, both the Attorney-General’s Media Release announcing the Exposure Draft Bill, and sub-section 2 of the proposed new section 47A, imply that civil celebrants do have such a power. This may be based on a very generous interpretation of section 39F of the Marriage Act 1961 which notes that “A person who is registered as a marriage celebrant may solemnise marriages at any place in Australia” – and in particular that the word may is used here rather than must.

However, it is just as easily argued that the fact ministers of religion currently enjoy an explicit ‘right to discriminate’ under section 47, while there is no equivalent section for civil celebrants, means civil celebrants cannot simply reject couples for any reason whatsoever.

More importantly, without an explicit power, it is likely the actions of civil celebrants would be captured by the anti-discrimination protections of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 – currently, with respect to sex and relationship status, and, if marriage equality is passed, with respect to sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status (unless a new right to discriminate is inserted).

[iv] For more, please see: Senator Leyonhjelm’s Marriage Equality Bill undermines the principle of LGBTI anti-discrimination. Should we still support it?

[v] With the definition of ‘marital or relationship status’ in section 4 of the Sex Discrimination Act explicitly including “(d) divorced”.

[vi] Interestingly, my interpretation of this provision means that, unlike ministers of religion, civil celebrants would not be able to reject trans individuals or couples who identify as a man and a woman, particularly because there is no other stand-alone right to refuse.

[vii] Which reads “Subsection (1) applies to facilities made available, and goods and services provided, whether for payment or not.”

[viii] Interestingly, this section would not allow religious bodies or organisations to refuse to provide facilities, goods or services to weddings involving one or two trans people where the couple identified as a man and a woman, although it is possible religious exceptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 would make such discrimination lawful.

[ix] Of course, I would argue that the High Court should find this arrangement – the use of taxpayer funds to hire people to perform an explicitly religious function – to be unconstitutional under section 116, but that is an argument for another day (and probably for a more adventurous High Court too).

[x] Sections 88B(4) and 88EA.

[xi] Subsection 40(2A)

[xii] For more, please see: What’s Wrong With the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984?

Victoria’s Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016

Update: 14 January 2017

 

Unfortunately, this necessary and important legislation was voted down by the Victorian Legislative Council on December 6 2016.

 

As reported by SBS here (‘Gender change voted down in Vic parly’), the Victorian Liberal and National Parties combined with cross-bench conservative MLCs to reject the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016.

 

In the process, Victorian Coalition MPs have ensured that the process for transgender people to amend their birth certificates remains onerous, and continues to exclude a large number of trans and gender diverse people completely, especially those who identify as non-binary and gender-fluid.

 

The decision to reject this vital reform was shameful, and will hopefully be remembered by all LGBTI Victorians when they go to the polls next, in November 2018.

 

Original post:

 

The Andrews Labor Government, elected in November 2014, has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Victorians in its first two years in office. This includes:

  • Creating the nation’s first Minister for Equality (Martin Foley)
  • Appointing a Gender and Sexuality Commissioner (Rowena Allen) and establishing an LGBTI Taskforce
  • Legalising adoption by same-sex couples
  • Apologising to people unjustly convicted for historical homosexual offences
  • Committing funds to establish a Pride Centre, and
  • Defending the Safe Schools program from Commonwealth Government attacks.

It is currently pursuing two further important items of law reform. The first of these is the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016 (the second, the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016, will be the subject of a later post).

As noted by Attorney-General Martin Pakula in the Bill’s second reading speech, “[t]he bill implements the government’s pre-election commitment to remove barriers for trans, gender diverse and intersex Victorians to apply for new birth certificates.”

Specifically, the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016 will:

  • Remove the requirement for trans and gender diverse people to undergo gender affirmation surgery in order to alter their official records, including birth certificates
  • Remove the requirement for trans and gender diverse people to be unmarried in order to alter their records (thus ending the policy of ‘forced trans divorce’)
  • Simplify the process for adults to alter their records – with the new system based on a statutory declaration by the individual, supported by a statement from another adult who has known them for more than 12 months
  • Allow children to alter their records for the first time (with the application made by parent(s) or guardian(s), and supported by a statement from a doctor or registered psychologist that the alteration is in the child’s interest), and
  • Allow individuals to nominate a descriptor of their choice – ‘male’, ‘female’ or any other term chosen by the applicant (provided it is not obscene or offensive) – to recognise their trans, gender diverse or non-binary identity.

Writing as a cisgender gay man, these reforms seem very straightforward – allowing trans and gender diverse people to access documentation that reflects their identity, removing inappropriate and unjust barriers (such as the requirement to undergo gender affirmation surgery – something many trans people will never do – and abolishing the horrific practice of forced trans divorce).

The reforms also appear to be widely supported by trans, gender diverse and intersex advocates, with Transgender Victoria’s Chair Brenda Appleton noting that “[t]his is a profoundly important reform for our community, as many of us are currently prevented from changing the most basic form of documentation to reflect our true identity.”[i]

Intersex advocate Gina Wilson also welcomed the changes in the same media release: “[f]or the Victorian Parliament to say ‘we give you here a document that acknowledges the truth of your life’ would be life changing… It is very difficult to explain to someone who has never struggled to fit in the way Intersex people often have to how much joy and relief that would bring.”

Consequently, one would hope such legislation, respecting the autonomy of people to nominate their own gender identity or sex, rather than having one imposed upon them (by the medical profession, and ultimately by the Government), would be uncontroversial.

Alas, those hopes were forlorn. The Bill has been opposed by the ‘unholy’ triumvirate of contemporary Australian politics: the right-wing of the Coalition, the Australian Christian Lobby, and News Corp (in this case, via the Herald Sun).

The Bill has already been debated, and voted on, in the Legislative Assembly, where it only passed by a margin of 45 votes to 35. The debate leading up to this vote saw a number of ill-informed and, frankly, intolerant, contributions by some members of the Liberal and National Parties, perhaps none ‘less-informed’ than that by the Member for Ripon, Louise Staley. Her speech included the following ignorant observations:

“I oppose this bill. This bill goes too far. This government is in thrall to highly contested gender theories. This is the sort of post-modernist mumbo jumbo we have come to expect from the Andrews Labor Government…

“I ask the house to reflect on what we are doing when we allow a man – and the statistics show most transgender people are born male – who has male chromosomes and who naturally has the right to enjoy the privileges we as a society still give to men, such as earning more and dominating business and politics, to choose to be recognised by the state as a woman because he feels like a sex he biologically is not and cannot by definition actually ever experience. I cannot help feel that such men are engaged in a radical form of mansplaining, telling women what really makes one a woman…

“The feminist in me objects strongly to a man changing his birth certificate to female because he feels enough of a woman to identify as one but not enough to take the step of permanently doing so…

“There are also women-only spaces, services, shelters et cetera that explicitly exclude men for feminist or safety reasons. Allowing preoperative transgender people to join these bodies – especially, I may add, to make political points or to pursue activism – will at some point cause great distress to all involved.”

Many of the worst aspects of transphobia – deliberately misgendering trans people, invalidating non-binary identities, creating panic about trans women accessing women’s spaces – are present and accounted for in Ms Staley’s offensive and outrageous speech. If you want to read the full catastrophe, you can find it here (but make sure you don’t eat immediately beforehand).

160930-louise-staley

Transphobic Victorian Liberal MLA Louise Staley

Of course, right-wing Liberal and National Party MPs are not the only ones capable of extreme transphobia. As expected, Lyle Shelton and the Australian Christian Lobby have lived down to their already-low public reputation by inciting bathroom panic as part of their campaign against the Bill. In a web post titled “Why is This Government Putting Women at Risk?”[ii] (yes, seriously), they wrote:

“Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton said radical changes that would allow men identifying as women to enter women’s private spaces such as toilets and change rooms needed wider discussion…

“Mr Shelton said Mr Andrews [sic] new laws would make private space unsafe for women. “Why should a man identifying as a woman be allowed into a woman’s gym or a domestic violence shelter? Why should biological males identifying as women be allowed into women’s public toilets and shower facilities?””

It seems the ACL is intent on importing the worst kind of hate-speech from its international counterparts, and especially from anti-LGBTI groups in the United States, whipping up fear against trans women and vilifying people on the basis of their gender identity[iii].

And of course, where right-wing Liberals and Nationals and the ACL ‘lead’ (into the gutter), News Corp papers usually follow – with the Herald Sun backing the transphobic campaign against what should, on its merits, be uncontentious legislation.

In an appalling article titled “Laws allowing Victorians to choose sex on birth certificate raise safety concerns,”[iv] Rita Panahi wrote:

“New laws allowing Victorians to choose their sex on a birth certificate will compromise the safety of female-only spaces, including single-sex schools  changing rooms, domestic violence shelters and even prisons, according to a women’s rights group…

“The proposed changes, which passed the Lower House earlier this month, could see boys and men identifying as female – but with no intention of undergoing gender reassignment or clinical treatment – being allowed access to areas reserved for girls and women.”

Umm, Rita, that would be because they are girls and women, and therefore have the right to access ‘areas reserved for girls and women’. And, just like Ms Staley and Mr Shelton before you, you should already be aware that deliberating misgendering trans people in this way is extremely offensive.

The Bill that has prompted this backlash is expected to be debated in the Legislative Council in the week beginning Tuesday 11 October. Given that the ALP does not have a majority in the Upper House (even with the addition of Greens and Sex Party MLCs), and the ongoing scare campaign against its provisions, it is now uncertain whether the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016 will in fact be passed.

As a result, I have sent the below short email to all Members of the Victorian Legislative Council, calling on them to support the Bill. If you have time between now and October 10th, I encourage you to do the same. You can find the contact list for MLCs here.

**********

Friday 30 September 2016

Dear Member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly

Please Support the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016

I am writing to you to urge you to support the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016 when it is debated and voted upon in October.

This legislation is important because it will remove the barriers that exist for trans, gender diverse and intersex people in terms of accessing new birth certificates.

Specifically, I understand that the Bill will:

  • Remove the requirement for trans and gender diverse people to undergo gender affirmation surgery in order to alter their official records, including birth certificates
  • Remove the requirement for trans and gender diverse people to be unmarried in order to alter their records (thus ending the policy of ‘forced trans divorce’)
  • Simplify the process for adults to alter their records – with the new system based on a statutory declaration by the individual, supported by a statement from another adult who has known them for more than 12 months
  • Allow children to alter their records for the first time (with the application made by parent(s) or guardian(s), and supported by a statement from a doctor or registered psychologist that the alteration is in the child’s interest), and
  • Allow individuals to nominate a descriptor of their choice – ‘male’, ‘female’ or any other term chosen by the applicant (provided it is not obscene or offensive) – to recognise their trans, gender diverse or non-binary identity.

These appear to be straightforward reforms that respect the autonomy of people to nominate their own gender identity or sex, rather than having one imposed upon them by clinicians or the Government. I note they are also supported by trans, gender diverse and intersex advocates.

As highlighted by Jo Hirst, these reforms “won’t mean much to most Victorians, but to an estimated 4 per cent of the population it means everything. It’s certainly significant for my little boy, who’s transgender. He recently told me it would mean more to him than food.”[v]

Hirst then further observes that “[t]o have their birth certificate reflect their true identity would empower young transgender people to fully participate in all the educational, social, sporting and job opportunities our society has to offer. Most importantly it would give them a sense of validation that would help them feel whole.”

I therefore call on you to support the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2016 to better recognise the human rights of trans, gender diverse and intersex Victorians, by simplifying the process by which they can ensure official records reflect their gender identity or sex.

If you have any questions or would like additional information, please contact me at the details provided below.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

**********

Footnotes:

[i] Media Release, Birth certificate reforms will deliver respect and recognition for trans, gender diverse and intersex Victorians, 12 September 2016.

[ii] Australian Christian Lobby, Why is this Government Putting Women at Risk?, 29 August 2016.

[iii] Noting of course that anti-LGBTI vilification is not prohibited currently under either Victorian or Commonwealth law.

[iv] Herald Sun, Laws allowing Victorians to choose sex on birth certificate raise safety concerns, 27 September 2016.

[v] Sydney Morning Herald, Surgical sterilisation shouldn’t be the cost of correcting a transgender person’s birth certificate, 15 September 2016.

Submission re Tasmania’s Proposed Anti-Discrimination Amendment Bill 2016

Update 19 January 2017:

Unfortunately, the Tasmanian Government has pushed ahead with its flawed legislation to allow greater rights to vilify LGBTI people, and especially vilification by religious organisations.

The Anti-Discrimination Amendment Bill 2016 – full text here – was passed by the Legislative Assembly on 25 October 2016.

This includes an expansion of the ‘public purpose’ defence for vilification, to cover “a public act done in good faith for… religious purposes” where religious purpose is defined as “includes, but is not limited to, conveying, teaching or proselytising a religious belief.”

Disappointingly, the Legislative Council failed to refer the Bill to an inquiry, although the Government ran out of time for the Bill to be passed in 2016 – the Attorney-General, Vanessa Goodwin, stated that:

“Due to our heavy legislative agenda and given the proximity to the end of the parliamentary year, the Government does not intend to bring the bill on for debate until next year. This will allow further time for community debate and stakeholder feedback to MLCs on this important issue.”

With Tasmanian Parliament resuming on March 7, that means there’s now less than 7 weeks left to convince upper house MPs not to undermine what has been, until now, Australia’s best anti-discrimination scheme.

Original Post:

Department of Justice

Office of Strategic Legislation and Policy

GPO Box 825

Hobart TAS 7001

c/ legislation.development@justice.tas.gov.au

Friday 9 September 2016

To whom it may concern

Submission re Proposed Anti-Discrimination Amendment Bill 2016

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission in relation to the Government’s proposed amendments to Tasmanian anti-vilification laws, which are included in the Anti-Discrimination Amendment Bill 2016 (‘the Bill’).

I make this submission as an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) equality, and as someone who takes a keen interest in anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws, both at the Commonwealth level, and in Australia’s states and territories.

My first comment in response to the proposed Bill is to observe that it appears to be a ‘solution’ in search of a problem.

As far as I can ascertain, there seem to be two main motivations for these reforms. The first is to satisfy the demands of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), who have repeatedly requested that state and territory LGBTI anti-vilification laws (where they exist) be suspended, or even abolished, in the lead-up to the potential national plebiscite on marriage equality.

The obvious response to such a demand is that, if their arguments against the equal treatment of LGBTI people under secular law require them to breach anti-vilification laws, perhaps they need better arguments rather than worse laws.

The second motivation appears to be a recent case, involving Mr Julian Porteous, following the distribution of the Don’t Mess with Marriage booklet by the Tasmanian Catholic Church that stated same-sex parents “mess with kids”, and that same-sex partners are not “whole people”. Possibly the most salient point to note is that the complaint was subject to attempted conciliation, which did not result in it being resolved, but then did not even proceed to the Tribunal.

I would argue that these two motivations – to allow the ACL to contravene vilification standards during any forthcoming plebiscite debate, and to respond to a single case that did not even make it to the Tribunal – are not sufficient justification to propose reforms that would ‘water down’ the anti-vilification protections that are currently offered to LGBTI Tasmanians.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what this Bill attempts to do. By replacing the wording of section 55, and expanding the exceptions to the vilification protections offered under sections 17(1) and 19 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (‘the Act’), the Bill would effectively allow greater vilification of people on the grounds of sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, gender identity and intersex (among other grounds).

In doing so, it would wind back hard-fought, and hard-won, protections introduced after the long-running decriminalisation campaign of the 1980s and 1990s. It is very hard to see, 18 years since its original passage, why there is a need to make anti-LGBTI hate speech easier in the contemporary environment.

I have two more-specific concerns about the proposed changes to section 55.

The first is to question why the exception, which would be expanded to include ‘public acts done reasonably and in good faith’ for a ‘religious’ purpose (where ‘religious purpose includes, but is not limited to, conveying, teaching or proselytising a religious belief’), should apply with respect to section 19[i], which establishes the more serious offence of ‘inciting hatred’ (whereas sub-section 17(1)[ii] regulates ‘conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules’).

It is difficult to comprehend why the Act should be amended to make lawful the incitement of ‘hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of’ people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual (noting that section 19 currently does not offer protection to transgender or intersex people) merely because it is done for a ‘religious purpose’.

According to advocate Rodney Croome “Worst of all is the Government’s decision to erode hate speech protections even more than people like Julian Porteous want. He has called for the law against denigrating statements to be watered down, but has said the law against the more severe crime of incitement to hatred [ie section 19] should be kept intact.”[iii]

It seems this particular ‘solution’ isn’t just in search of a problem, it is lacking beneficiaries too (although it is clear who the losers will be from such an amendment: lesbian, gay and bisexual Tasmanians).

My second concern is to question the limits of the proposed exception for vilification for ‘religious purposes’, with respect to both sections 17(1) and 19. In particular, and noting it will be challenging for the Tribunal, or courts more broadly, to determine when a public act for a ‘religious purpose’ is ‘done reasonably and in good faith’ or not, how far will religious individuals or groups be allowed to go in ‘proselytising’ a religious belief that itself incites hatred?

An example of such a belief would be for an extremist christian organisation to promote a ‘literal’ reading of Leviticus 20:13, which has been interpreted as “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them”[iv].

And, before it is suggested that this example is implausible, we should recall that it is only four years since a senior figure within the Salvation Army publicly defended this belief – that gay people should be put to death – live on radio[v].

Given this, how would the proposed amended law deal with a situation where, instead of distributing the booklet Don’t Mess with Marriage, a religious school sent children home with a pamphlet entitled Gay Men Should Die (or perhaps slightly more generously, Gay Men Should Die Unless they are Celibate) conveying the ‘religious belief’ that men who have same-sex sexual intercourse ‘shall surely be put to death’?

It is reasonably clear such a pamphlet would ‘offend, humiliate, intimidate, insult or ridicule’, as well as likely inciting ‘hatred, serious contempt for or severe ridicule’ of, people on the basis of both sexual orientation and lawful sexual activity, and in doing so contravene both sections 17(1) and 19 of the Act.

But it is also possible the proposed new section 55 would ‘excuse’ these actions because it would be a public act done in ‘good faith for a religious purpose’, as it was ‘conveying, teaching or proselytising a religious belief’, no matter how offensive it is, to young people at a school operated by that organisation[vi].

I would argue that this would be an unacceptable outcome, and hope that the legislative sponsors of these amendments, and indeed anyone pushing for changes to Tasmania’s vilification laws, would agree.

It is particularly concerning that such an undesirable result could be achieved given we have seen above that there doesn’t actually appear to be any justification for the introduction of this Bill.

More generally, as someone from outside the State I would argue that the undermining of Tasmania’s anti-vilification regime, which is currently among the best, if not the best, law in the country, in this way would be a negative precedent for other jurisdictions.

This is especially important given only four states and territories currently have any anti-vilification protections for any sections of the LGBTI community (Tasmania, Queensland, NSW and the ACT). Nor do such laws exist federally. Even where they do exist, such as in NSW, they have significant flaws (for example, only protecting lesbians, gay men and some transgender people from vilification, and not protecting bisexuals or intersex people at all).

In my view, the Tasmanian Government should be concentrating on ensuring its anti-vilification laws are comprehensive (such as by amending section 19 to prohibit the incitement of hatred, serious contempt for or severe ridicule of transgender and intersex people) and effective, instead of making it easier for people to vilify others because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Thank you again for the opportunity to make this submission and for taking it into consideration. Should you require clarification, or additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided below.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

Footnotes:

[i]19. Inciting hatred

A person, by a public act, must not incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, a person or a group of persons on the ground of –

  • the race of the person or any member of the group; or
  • any disability of the person or any member of the group; or
  • the sexual orientation or lawful sexual activity of the person or any member of the group; or
  • the religious belief or affiliation or religious activity of the person or any ember of the group.”

[ii]17. Prohibition of certain conduct and sexual harassment

(1) A person must not engage in any conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules abother person on the basis of an attribute referred to in section 16(e), (a), (b), (c), (d), (ea), (eb) and (k), (f), (fa), (g), (h), (i) or (j) in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances would have anticipated that the other person would be offended, humiliated, intimidated, insulted or ridiculed.”

NB This covers sexual orientation (16(c)), lawful sexual activity (d), gender identity (ea) and intersex (eb).

[iii] The Mercury, Talking Point: Green light being given to homophobia and any bigot with a bible’, 31 August 2016. http://www.themercury.com.au/news/opinion/talking-point-green-light-being-given-to-homophobia/news-story/00ffb213c903540b1febfdb94dbef243

[iv] Of course, such a position would overlook the inherent contradictions of adopting a ‘literal’ interpretation of some sections of the bible, while rejecting literal readings of others, a double standard which has been perfectly encapsulated by the now famous ‘Letter to Dr Laura’ (responding to a US radio host’s bible-based description of homosexuality as an ‘abomination’):

dear-dr-laura

[v] Huffington Post, Andrew Craibe, Salvation Army Official, Implies Gays Should be Put to Death in Interview, 26 June 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/26/andrew-craibe-salvation-army-official-gays-put-to-death_n_1628135.html

Joy 94.9FM presenter Serena Ryan: According to the Salvation Army, [gay people] deserve death. How do you respond to that, as part of your doctrine?

Craibe: Well, that’s a part of our belief system.

Ryan: So we should die.

Craibe: You know, we have an alignment to the Scriptures, but that’s our belief.

[vi] The only question is whether the public act was ‘done reasonably’, although I would suggest there is a risk at least some Tribunal members or judges may view the promotion of any religious belief, no matter how offensive, to be reasonable provided that belief was sincerely held.