On the last day of 2012, I thought it might be an opportune time to reflect on the major achievements, and disappointments, for the LGBTI community over the past 12 months. The following list of 12 highlights (or indeed ‘lowlights’ for a few) include a mix of domestic, and international, developments, as well as a couple which are not directly LGBTI-related, but which indirectly could have a major impact on LGBTI people. Of course, any ‘list-making exercise’ involves inherently subjective judgments about what is important, and I would be interested to hear your views about what should have made the list but is not included (and vice versa).
And so, in no particular order, here are my 12 highs and lows of 2012.
1. Boys to get free Gardasil vaccine
On 12 July, Federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek announced that, from next year, boys aged 12 and 13 would be provided with three free doses of the Gardasil vaccine, which protects against the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). This is a massive long-term win for the LGBTI community – and in particular gay and bisexual men – and finally overturns the homophobic decision of the previous Government to exclude teenage boys from the National Immunisation Program.
The then Health Minister, Tony Abbott, who initially resisted listing Gardasil for anyone, eventually chose to restrict free access to Gardasil to school-age girls on the basis that this would protect these girls from HPV, and the boys who would in future sleep with them, thereby reducing the prevalence of HPV across the ‘broader community’. Except that, obviously, it would do little to reduce HPV prevalence amongst men who have sex with men, who would not be immunised.
This is significant because, while most people understand that HPV causes cervical cancer, it also causes penile, anal, and mouth and throat cancers. So, as a result of Tony Abbott excluding boys from accessing this vaccine from its commencement in 2007, there will be a six year cohort of gay and bisexual men who could have been protected against the cause of many types of cancer, but will instead potentially suffer long-term serious health consequences. To me, that is the epitome of the phrase blood on his hands.
Still, this is not to detract from the announcement by Minister Plibersek, and the amazing achievement that all gay and bisexual men born in Australia from the year 2000 onwards will have a dramatically reduced risk of developing cancer. Well done, Tanya.
2. National LGBTI Aged Care and Ageing Strategy
Another major achievement by the Federal Government this year was the release of the National LGBTI Aged Care and Ageing Strategy by the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler. This strategy, released on 20 December, is absolutely essential to help end the stigma of silence surrounding, and the direct and indirect discrimination confronted by, older LGBTI people as they engage with aged care services and enter aged care facilities.
The fact that it was released at all is a testament to the hard work, over many years, by people such as academic Jo Harrison, and the National LGBTI Health Alliance, and of course to a Minister and Government that was willing to both listen to, and work with, the community on this issue. The strategy is also backed up with a commitment of funding (at least $2.5 million), which will help aged care service providers to learn how to be inclusive of LGBTI individuals, couples, carers and their families.
However, this is funding that must also be protected from a Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, who has already identified this bucket of money as a potential saving should the Coalition win Government next year. So, well done Mark, and hands off, Joe.
3. Government MPs, including PM Gillard, join with Coalition to vote down marriage equality
Of course, when it comes to assessing the record of the Federal Government on LGBTI rights in 2012, most people will (quite understandably) not be able to look past the failure of the parliament to pass marriage equality. Dozens of ALP MPs, including Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan, and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, joined with all but one member of the Coalition (Liberal Senator Sue Boyce, who notably abstained), to vote against legislation which would have finally granted genuine equality to same-sex relationships.
This defeat was inevitable because of the decision by the ALP national conference in December 2011 to grant a conscience vote to its parliamentarians, rather than enforce a binding vote in favour of marriage equality. But just because defeat was inevitable, and expected, does not mean it was any less devastating for those of us longing to be acknowledged as first-class citizens.
Indeed, the scale of the defeat – 98 votes against and 42 in favour in the House of Representatives, and a somewhat closer 41 votes against and 26 in favour in the Senate – was particularly disheartening, especially as it shows the fight for equal marriage is likely ten or more years away from success.
The fact that the Prime Minister was one of those who stood intransigently against LGBTI Australians is something that will never be forgotten. This is someone who is able to identify and eloquently denounce sexism and misogyny ‘wherever she sees it’, but who either has a blind spot when it comes to homophobia, or who warmly embraces it. Shame, Julia, shame.
*The one positive development when it comes to marriage equality under federal law came in January when the Attorney-General Nicola Roxon implemented another ALP national conference decision, which was to allow same-sex couples marrying overseas to be issued with Certificates of No Impediment (CNI). As well as overturning the homophobic policy of previous Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock, this decision means that many more Australian couples – like Steve and I – will at least be able to marry elsewhere, even if our own country doesn’t recognise it.
4. Campbell Newman rolls back the clock
One of the most disappointing developments of 2012, especially for someone who grew up in Queensland during the 1980s and early 1990s, was the speed and scale of the newly-elected Liberal-National Party Government’s ‘crusade’ against LGBTI rights. Elected with a huge majority (78 seats out of a parliament of 89), Campbell Newman and his colleagues wasted no time in identifying the number one issue which they needed to address – the fact that LGBTI Queenslanders had come dangerously close to being accepted as equal.
In their first 9 months in office, the Newman LNP Government has:
- Removed funding for the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities (QAHC), the only HIV/AIDS peak body in the state which services the men who have sex with men (MSM) community. The Health Minister Lawrence Springborg attempted to justify this decision on the basis that HIV rates were rising faster in Queensland than in the rest of the country – but the figures released later in 2012 showed that HIV rates have actually declined in Queensland, counter to a national rise. Which leaves just one possible explanation for why QAHC was defunded – the homophobia of the LNP and Minister Springborg.
- Amended the civil union laws, which had been introduced by the Bligh Government at the end of its term, to remove the ability of same-sex couples to have a legally-binding ceremony. Apparently having any ceremony at all was ‘mimicking’ marriage and needed to be outlawed as a matter of priority.
- Announced that it will remove the ability of same-sex couples (as well as single people) to access surrogacy. It is still unclear what the penalty will be for couples who break this proposed law, although at various times during the year it appeared the Newman Government would introduce gaol terms for people whose only crime was attempting to found a family.
- Introduced a new ‘student protection’ policy which will require school staff, including counsellors, to report to the principal any sexual activity between a student under 16 with someone over 16 (irrespective of their actual age difference), and of any student between the ages of 16 and 18 who has engaged in ‘sodomy’. This policy further entrenches the discriminatory age of consent provisions in Queensland (which has a higher age of consent for anal intercourse), and poses a danger to the health and safety of students who are simply seeking counselling and advice. At this stage it appears that school nurses – who are employed by Queensland Health rather than the Education Department – are exempt from this policy, although how long that exemption lasts remains to be seen.
The christian fundamentalist war against LGBTI people being waged north of the Tweed is a possible blueprint for a newly-elected Abbott Liberal-National Government to implement federally. Which makes the federal election to be held sometime during 2013 all the more important. In the meantime, the LGBTI people of Queensland are watching their rights being dismantled, one at a time. Shame, Campbell, shame.
5. Uganda debates ‘kill the gays’ bill
There have been several distressing stories internationally during the year. The appeals court in Cameroon upholding a three-year gaol term for Jean-Claude Roger Mbede simply for sending a text message to another man saying “I’m very much in love with you” was heart-breaking. The backwards steps being taken in Russia are also an obvious concern (not only do gay pride parades remain banned, but attacks against LGBTI Russians are rising at the same time the Russian parliament is considering legislation to outlaw ‘propaganda of homosexuality among minors’).
But without doubt the number one ‘lowlight’ internationally this year was the move by parliamentarians in Uganda to introduce capital punishment for homosexuality. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill (or Kill the Gays Bill as it is commonly referred), if passed, would mean Uganda would join 7 other countries where homosexuality is subject to the death penalty, out of 76 countries where being LGBTI is still a crime.
As the year ends there has been a short reprieve, with the Bill not coming on for a vote until at least February 2013, and some reports that the death penalty may ultimately be dropped from the Bill – although sadly not imprisonment. Still, the prospect of a country potentially introducing capital punishment for homosexuality this decade is almost too depressing for words.
6. The emergence of AllOut (@allout)
One of the key groups which emerged to draw attention to, and fight against, the Kill the Gays Bill, was AllOut (a New York-based organisation which uses online and real-world tools to help the global LGBT movement for equality). In fact, I would argue that the emergence of AllOut is itself a major highlight of 2012.
AllOut is taking the best and most up to date models of activism and applying them to causes as diverse as LGBTI equality in Brazil, same-sex parenting in the EU, ending gay ‘cures’ in California, as well as trying to help stop the Ugandan Kill the Gays Bill. Here’s hoping that AllOut has a long and proud future, as it complements the work of existing and established organisations like the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA).
7. International moves towards marriage equality
Another highlight of 2012 was the ongoing progress of the marriage equality movement. Leaving aside victories in the US (which I will discuss below), marriage rights were extended to LGBTI couples in Denmark in June. And the governments of Scotland, Luxemburg and France have all committed to marriage equality in the next few years. In England and Wales, and New Zealand, it appears likely that equal marriage will be passed next year by parliaments with conservative governments (Tory Prime Minister David Cameron is helping to drive legislation in Westminster, while National Party Prime Minister John Key has indicated he will support a private member’s bill in the Beehive).
The fact that two conservative leaders have embraced marriage equality shows just how far this movement has come over the past few years, and the fact that further progress is inevitable. Of course, it also further underscores just how out of touch and embarrassing Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are on this issue, but one day they too will be mere footnotes to our record of achievement.
8. The United States takes a giant leap for LGBTI ‘humankind’
It seemed like 2012 was the year in which the United States of America, and its people, finally ‘got it’ when it comes to LGBTI equality. The President, Barack Obama, announced that he supported marriage equality back in May (in part because he could muster no arguments against it when discussing the topic with his daughters). He was subsequently re-elected to serve a second term, and it seems that his pro-equality stance was a help rather than a hindrance (something which Julia Gillard should – but probably won’t – notice).
But Obama’s re-election was just one of many victories on Tuesday November 6 – a date on which LGBTI rights in the US took a bigger step forward than any single day since the Stonewall Riots in 1969. After 32 consecutive losses in state-wide referenda on same-sex marriage, all four states which voted in November bucked the trend and supported equality. As a result, Maine, Maryland and Washington became the 7th, 8th and 9th US states to introduce marriage equality, while a referenda to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota was also defeated.
The significant of these victories should not be underestimated. For years, the radical right in the US has used these ballots to ‘get out the christian vote’ – indeed, Karl Rove employed this strategy to help George W Bush secure re-election as recently as 2004. Instead, in 2012, the American people decided to vote for acceptance and inclusion rather than intolerance and hate. What. A. Change.
To top things off, in Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin was elected as the first openly gay person ever to serve in the US Senate. And that’s not even counting the fact the most influential political analyst of the US election was a gay man, Nate Silver.
This truly was a watershed election, and paves the way for bigger changes in the future. Which might be upon us sooner than we thought, with the US Supreme Court to hear cases considering both Proposition 8 (the Californian ban on same-sex marriage), and the constitutional validity of the Defense of Marriage Act, in 2013. Let’s hope that the Court’s decisions are amongst the highlights (and not lowlights) of next year.
9. Hip-hop comes of age
There was a similar sea-change when it came to US popular culture this year. After many, many, many years of waiting, it seems like hip-hop finally started to change its homophobic ways, and to deal with the subject of homosexuality with a little bit of respect rather than just a whole lot of ‘faggots’ and ‘fucking homos’.
Leading the charge was Jay-Z, who followed Obama’s announcement by declaring that he too backed equal marriage rights. Other hip-hop stars also expressed their support. Rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis then released one of the best bits of pro-LGBTI propaganda of the past few years (well, outside of the 2011 GetUp! video anyway) in the form of single Same Love, which was also used in the successful marriage equality referendum campaign in Washington State. And Azealia Banks (of 212 fame) came out at as bisexual in February, a statement which may take on even more significance in February 2013 when she releases her debut album.
But for mine the most important development in hip-hop in 2012 was the beautiful and tender letter written by rapper Frank Ocean, talking about his first love – a man – and published the week before his full-length debut Channel Orange was released. This was a hip-hop star not just coming out, but coming out at the start of his career, and making no apologies for who he was and who he loved.
Of course, there have been other music stars who have come out (Elton John, George Michael, KD Lang, Melissa Etheridge, and countless others), but usually this has been at the end of their careers – or at least long after they were well established. Even ‘out and proud from the beginning’ groups like the Scissor Sisters (personal favourites of mine) have played in the more traditionally gay-friendly genres of pop and dance, rather than the decidedly less accommodating field of rap/hip-hop.
What made Frank Ocean’s declaration even more significant was that he backed it up with what has been widely recognised as the best album of the year – which is just one of six categories in which he is nominated for a Grammy. Channel Orange is a brilliant collection of highly personal songs, including several which are sung to or about a male love interest. Bad Religion is just about the best piece of art on the subject of unrequited (same-sex) love ever. Frank Ocean didn’t just make gay hip-hop for a gay audience, he made great hip-hop that covered many topics, including same-sex love, and looks to have found a large audience around the world. Even if you don’t like his music, you cannot help but admire his accomplishments.
10. Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse
This is the first of two developments which are not explicitly LGBTI-related but which are fundamentally important to all Australians, including the LGBTI community. The decision by the Federal Government to appoint a Royal Commission into child sex abuse is a necessary first step in dealing with this evil scourge, as well as recognition of the courage of people like Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox and numerous others in pushing for it, despite many setbacks along the way.
There are two potential long-term consequences for the LGBTI community as the Royal Commission runs its course. The first is that the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, and other religious organisations, will become ever more apparent. Some of the same religious figures who have been arguing about the so-called ‘perils’ of recognising the love between two consenting adults, have also been involved in negligent inaction within their own churches about the very real problem of child sex abuse. Some may even ultimately be found to have engaged in the criminal cover-up of child sex abuse, instead preferring to pay hush money to the victims and simply moving the offenders around. The fact that the broader community will be able to see through the hypocrisy of these figures should make it much easier to push for LGBTI equality in the future.
The second consequence is much more ambiguous. One tactic which christian fundamentalists could resort to during the Royal Commission is to blame ‘gay priests’ for child sex abuse, and to try to link homosexuality and paedophilia in the public debate. This strategy, blaming ‘the gays’ for child sex abuse, was used by bigots like France Arena in NSW in the 1990s, and it is easy to see it being attempted again – with much unpleasantness all round.
But I think this ultimately could be a good thing. Public understanding of these issues has moved on since then. Provided the Royal Commission is handled sensitively and gay and lesbian lobby groups are ready for the debate, this could actually be an opportunity to forever break any connection between these two essentially unrelated ideas (homosexuality and paedophilia).
11. Asylum seekers are sent to Nauru and Manus Island
Again, this ‘lowlight’ is not directly LGBTI related. But I would include it here because any time a country turns its backs on asylum seekers – to the extent that it chooses to send them to detention centres in other countries for unspecified periods of time – is something so terrible that it cannot, and must not, be ignored. To put it bluntly, this is a national disgrace, and something which the Labor Government and Liberal-National Opposition should forever be ashamed about. Unfortunately, given the current state of political debate in our country, there does not seem to be much hope this situation will change any time soon.
Of course, as I have written previously, there are LGBTI dimensions to this issue as well. There will inevitably be some asylum seekers who are sent to Manus Island and Nauru who were seeking asylum in Australia because of LGBTI persecution in their home country. It should also be noted that, for gay and bisexual men who are detained in either of these centres, both Nauru and Papua New Guinea criminalise male homosexuality, and so they may be exposed to prosecution on that basis. Still, this is an issue which is larger than just these injustices to LGBTI asylum seekers – no asylum seeker should be imprisoned simply for seeking safety from persecution. Not now, not ever.
12. Exposure Draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012
I thought I might end on a positive note – and also something which represents unfinished business for 2013. In November, the Federal Government finally released the exposure draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012. As well as consolidating the existing protected attributes of race, sex, disability and age, this Bill would for the first time provide federal anti-discrimination protection to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Australians (*at this stage, intersex people are not properly protected, although hopefully that will be rectified during the committee stage).
If passed, this legislation would be another significant LGBTI-related achievement by the Labor Government. Building on relationship recognition and public sector superannuation reforms in 2008, passport changes for transgender people, Gardasil vaccinations for boys and the National LGBTI Aged Care and Ageing Strategy (both above), this would contribute to a fairly broad-based and substantial record of reform. To some extent, it is a shame that the failure to recognise marriage equality is so large a defeat that it overshadows much of this significant level of achievement. But then the Government has no-one to blame for that than itself.
Still, that is getting ahead of ourselves. Returning to the Bill, there are two major hurdles left to overcome. The first is in securing sufficient cross-bench support so that the Bill passes the House of Representatives, although the noises on this seem to be positive. The second, much more difficult, hurdle to overcome is ensuring that the legisation is passed before the federal election is called. With at most five months of sitting time left in this parliament, it is touch and go whether the Bill will be passed in time. Whether it does is the most important domestic LGBTI story of the first half of 2013. Fingers (and toes) crossed.