ONE of the major political debates during March and April this year concerned vilification laws, specifically whether Commonwealth Attorney-General George Brandis’ proposed reforms to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act were justified, or whether they unnecessarily restricted existing protections against racial vilification.
The undeniable size and impact of Australia’s racism issue obviously makes the question of how to deal with race-based vilification an important one to consider. This means it is difficult to begrudge the significant coverage devoted to this policy issue in recent months.
While there currently are limited vilification protections in NSW, which cover lesbian, gay and trans* people but leave bisexuals and intersex people out in the cold, there is no federal equivalent. There are no LGBTI vilification protections in Victoria, either.
The question must be asked: why not? There 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 12 years, we have had three still-serving senators rhetorically link marriage equality with bestiality, repeat claims that allowing two men or two 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 or 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?
Personally, I think it would be far more productive for Senator Brandis to try to answer that question, rather than put forward amendments that are, at least arguably, more concerned with satisfying the demands of a certain News Ltd columnist from Melbourne.
However, it is up to our community to put the pressure on him, and his parliamentary colleagues, to consider what additional legal protections are required to deal with Australia’s ongoing problem of homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and anti-intersex prejudice.
It took 38 years for the LGBTI community to achieve the same anti-discrimination protections under Commonwealth law as those contained in the Racial Discrimination Act. Given section 18C was introduced by the Racial Hatred Act in 1995, a similar delay would put us on track to have equivalent protections against vilification sometime in the early 2030s.
Let’s work now to make sure it happens much sooner than that.