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Thursday, 12 March 1998
Page: 994

Senator BARTLETT (6:09 PM) —I rise to speak today on the report from the Senate's Legal and Constitutional References Committee into sexuality discrimination which was tabled in this place on 2 December last year. I was not able at that time to speak at length because of the pressure of business at that time of year.

I would like to start by using the words of another and more famous Democrat, former US Attorney-General Robert Kennedy. In 1966, he spoke the following words that have been frequently quoted, reminding us that:

Each time someone stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

I hope this report is part of those ripples and that current that will help reduce and remove the oppression that currently exists in the Australian community. I address this report as the Australian Democrat spokesperson on sexuality and transgender issues. It has responsibility for the piece of legislation that was the central focus of this committee report. I hope to see that legislation debated in the Senate at some stage soon to build on the good work that this committee did and that this report does.

As a political party, the Democrats have been pro-active in championing the rights of lesbian and gay Australians since our inception in 1977. The very first branch meeting of our party was held in the lounge room of Christopher Byron Carter—an openly gay man who was also a founding member of the party and who later served on the staff of former Senator Don Chipp and someone who has a strong legacy in the Democrats.

It is important to remember that 1977 was only 21 years ago, but Australia was a very different place in lots of ways. With the exception of South Australia, at that time, consensual same sex activity was a criminal offence in every state and territory of this nation. Prosecutions were relatively common as was the regular pastime of police randomly raiding gay and lesbian social venues and blackmail, humiliation and intimidation of patrons was a common occurrence.

It is important for the Senate to note that within the last 15 years in some places we are still imprisoning mainly gay men for being simply who they are. It took the riots at the first Mardi Gras in 1978 to set gay law reform firmly on the political agenda in Australia. I acknowledge the hard work and dedication of activists everywhere in pursuing reform. I was very proud to be part of the very large and enthusiastic Democrat contingent that helped commemorate the 20th anniversary of that civil rights movement with 700,000 other people in Sydney on 28 February this year.

Regardless of the reforms and the advances that have been made in the last 20 years, complacency is certainly not warranted, as this report so strongly indicates. As recently as August 1994, Victorian police raided the Commerce Club in Melbourne—a well-known gay and lesbian night club—and unlawfully strip searched 463 of its patrons. To our great shame, the Tasmanian parliament only decriminalised same sex activity last year, with the Western Australian parliament still to catch up with the rest of the country. It still remains the fact that your human rights will be different if your are lesbian, gay or transgender depending on where you live in this country. I would like to take the opportunity to mention the work of my state colleague the Hon. Helen Hodgson MLC, who has introduced decriminalisation and anti-discrimination measures in Western Australia.

If Australia is to retain its rightful place amongst the community of nations as a country which promotes human rights, then we must do so in a clear, unambiguous and universal way. Amnesty International has documented the international position in their publication Breaking the silence last year by illustrating that torture and political imprisonment are not uncommon in many countries of the world simply on the grounds of sexuality.

It remains a source of some puzzlement to me that some people are perfectly comfortable with the notion of anti-discrimination on the grounds of race, gender and disability but seem to get all up in arms when we talk about applying the same principles on the grounds of sexuality or for people who are transgendered. No doubt many senators will, like me, have been inundated in the last week or so by letters claiming that the Sexuality Discrimination Bill, which was the main focus of this inquiry, constitutes everything from an endorsement of paedophilia to a concerted attack upon religious teachings. It is clear from the tone and phrasing of these letters that a smear campaign or a misinformation campaign is under way. It is also clear that the writers of these letters have, at the very least, been told some very severe misinformation about this legislation or have failed to read or understand its contents or its scope.

One of the most important things about this inquiry, and its report, was the opportunity it gave lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to put their case—for them to have a voice—and that is one of the great roles that Senate committees can play. Those people overwhelmingly informed the committee that their experience was one of significant disadvantage in many aspects of their daily lives. In areas of employment, more than 45 per cent of lesbians and gay men have experienced discrimination in the workplace including the loss of jobs because of their sexuality. Almost one-third report harassment in their schools and universities. One-fifth report inadequate and inappropriate medical treatment, while a staggering 70 per cent have had some experience of being verbally abused, threatened or bashed in a public place. In the Sydney area alone, over 35 men have been murdered in the past 10 or so years because their assailants thought they were gay. Clearly, this is an issue that must be addressed.

Some concern has been expressed over the inclusion of transgender people in this bill. The status of being transgendered is a medically recognised condition known as gender dysphoria. It does not include transvestitism or what is often called cross-dressing. I am sure that senators would agree that it is inappropriate and unfortunate that some people have chosen to ridicule persons who are receiving medical treatment for a medical condition, and the report recommended that the bill's aim be to protect those people who are gender dysphoric. After all, who amongst us would like to be treated the way we as a society treat gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Australians every day of the week? The sort of treatment that those people are subjected to came out very strongly in much of the evidence that was given to the committee.

It is important to emphasise that the bill that the report addresses does not force the Christian or other religions to change their beliefs or to employ gay, lesbian or transgender people. As with other equal opportunity laws in Australia, the bill includes certain exemptions including religious organisations and churches. It does not place children at risk. It does not make unlawful acts lawful. It does not require that homosexuality be taught in schools. It does not force anyone to accept anyone else's lifestyle. It does not legitimise any specific sexual practices. It does not allow people to cross-dress in schools or at work, or allow biological men to compete in women's sport. It does, at a basic level, allow people who have been unfairly discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality or their transgender status to achieve a level of justice.

In essence, it seeks to protect all Australians, including heterosexual people, if they have been wrongfully dismissed or refused employment, accommodation or access to goods and services, or have been disadvantaged while attending or applying to educational institutions on the grounds of their sexuality. At its core this bill is basically about ensuring that all Australians are given a fair go through universal legislation common across the country to enable that to occur.

I am quite proud of the Democrats' role in this report and in the legislation that it examines. It is a serious look at the conditions faced every day by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in all parts of Australia. I will close by noting a 1986 statement from the Catholic church issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled The pastoral care of homosexual persons. It stated:

It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church's pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.

When enacted, the sexuality and gender identity bill, which this report deals with, will implement that very important principle. I commend the report to the Senate and to the Australian public for their consideration. I know it has been a very popular report as there have been a lot of requests for copies and for information about its contents. It is a great report, and I hope everybody takes the chance to examine it.