Dear LGBTIQA+ visitors to World Pride 2023,
Welcome to Australia from every corner of the globe for what is sure to be an enjoyable World Pride 2023.
But I want you to know something about Sydney few of you will hear from World Pride organisers and spruikers: you are travelling to Australia’s most homophobic and transphobic city for an event that perpetuates the dangerous myth Sydney is Australia’s queer paradise.
Sydney is Australia’s capital of queerphobia. Sydney has by far the worst attitudes and laws on LGBTIQA+ equality of any Australian state or territory capital.
NSW Has Australia’s Worst Queer Laws
In the 2017 national survey on marriage equality, the lowest Yes vote was recorded in the city’s suburbs. The national vote was 61.6% but some voting divisions in Sydney returned less than half that. This low level of support for LGBTIQA+ equality reflects in Australia’s worst queer laws at a state level.
The state of New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital, has Australia’s least effective laws against LGBTIQA+ discrimination. It still allows faith-based schools to expel queer kids and fire gay teachers. It doesn’t protect bisexual, non-binary or intersex people at all.
Soon NSW will be the only place in Australia that requires trans and gender-diverse people to have genital surgery to access affirming identity documents.
In the last three years, NSW has also seen some of the western world’s most draconian anti-trans and “religious freedom” legislation introduced into its state parliament. Thankfully, these proposals didn’t become law but their mere existence has set a dangerous precedent and caused great harm.
Obviously, there’s a glamorous, raucous, progressive side to Sydney. But the influence of that Sydney has declined.
It’s true, the city’s eastern suburbs recorded a high Yes vote for marriage equality in 2017, but that wasn’t enough to counteract the strong No vote with New South Wales returning the lowest Yes vote of any state or territory.
It’s true NSW has a conservative state government at the moment, but other states with conservative governments have moved forward. The NSW Labor Opposition has made some pre-WorldPride commitments on banning conversion practices and having an inquiry into discrimination reform. But these commitments are much less than the state needs and other states have.
Credit to independent state MP, Alex Greenwich, for developing a bill to fill the holes in NSW law, but at this stage, it’s unlikely to pass.
It’s true Sydney has a long, glorious queer history including protests against repressive laws and police brutality, Australia’s biggest LGBTIQA+ ghetto around Oxford Street’s Golden Mile, and the Mardi Gras parade that attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators.
But the glamour has faded. The Mardi Gras faces protests about co-option by corporations and the ghetto is draining away as LGBTIQA+ people stay in or move to regional areas. The queer Golden Mile is now more memory and memorials than reality.
Lobbyists And Bureaucrats
It’s true that Sydney has some strong and formidable grassroots advocates and more than its share of ground-breaking artists and writers. But they seem largely excluded from political influence by a small, tight group of managers and professionals.
The World Pride Human Rights Conference is a good example. There are lots of big names but there is also something missing.
In recent years some Australian states have enacted the world’s best gender recognition and conversion practice laws, but the people involved in those pioneering, community-led, grassroots campaigns that overcame substantial opposition have not been given space to speak at the conference.
This is because their success defies the false Sydney narrative that change is only possible if it is led from the top by professional lobbyists and bureaucrats.
Australia’s Most Conservative City
The root problem is that Sydney has more deeply conservative institutions than Australia’s other capitals.
The city’s religious leaders are some of the most anti-queer in the nation. So are leading figures in the two main political parties as well as the city’s tabloid newspapers and radio talk-back hosts.
Some people refuse to recognise this and blame immigrant communities in South West Sydney and/or white evangelical megachurches in North West Sydney, both being areas where the marriage Yes vote was low. But there are immigrant communities and Bible belts in other Australian cities that haven’t formed anti-LGBTIQA+ voting blocs.
The issue is the anti-queer belligerence of parts of the city’s establishment, and the lack of a meaningful response from the city’s LGBTIQA+ leadership.
The 2017 marriage equality survey set the tone for this toxic dynamic with the most aggressive opposition to reform coming from Sydney-based politicians and campaigners. In response, the pro-reform campaign adopted a small-target strategy, deliberately and knowingly abandoning trans people, young LGBTIQA+ people and suburban Western Sydney to the hatemongers.
There was an opportunity after the 2017 marriage vote for LGBTIQA+ leaders in Sydney’s relatively queer-friendly eastern suburbs to rectify that mistake, to acknowledge the city’s problem and turn their attention to helping to empower LGBTIQA+ activists and their allies in Western Sydney.
Instead, they spent valuable resources on celebrating the national vote, commemorating past queer achievements and throwing ever-larger parties.
A History Of Denial
World Pride is the latest expression of this history of denial, of Sydney trying to pretend it’s still a synonym of liberation when it has become exactly the opposite.
Yes, there will be some World Pride events in Sydney’s western suburbs. That’s great. But this falls far short of the sustained, government-funded, locally-led campaigns that could make a real difference.
Sydney drags the nation down. Why does this matter to someone like me who lives in a more progressive state?
It’s simple: I want the Sydney myth to end because, for too long, it has dragged the rest of Australia down. A good example was a proposed national religious freedom law that would have rolled back existing LGBTIQA+ discrimination protections in places like Tasmania, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory.
At the behest of the conservative federal government and with the support of Labor, the religious freedom bill was passed by the lower house of Australia’s national parliament in February 2022 after three years of constant and corrosive debate about the need for “more religious freedom”.
The bill, which thankfully didn’t pass into law, was an attempt by the conservative government to win seats from Labor in Western Sydney. Australia came dangerously close to sacrificing existing progressive LGBTIQA+ state laws on the altar of Sydney’s homophobia.
Camouflaging Homophobia And Transphobia
The same dynamic has played out over and over for twenty years. In 2004 a conservative government with Labor support banned same-gender marriage chiefly to win or keep seats in Western Sydney.
In the following years, and for the same reason, successive conservative and Labor governments quashed civil partnership schemes in the Australian Capital Territory, culminating in the quashing of a Territory’s same-gender marriage law in 2013.
In 2019 national conservative and Labor figures condemned and/or threatened to override groundbreaking transgender self-identification laws in Tasmania, again to win votes in Western Sydney. During the 2022 federal election, the conservatives put up anti-trans candidates and Labor ran on its least detailed LGBTIQA+ policy platform for twenty years, again to win votes in Western Sydney.
The problem with holding World Pride in Sydney is that it camouflages this homophobia and transphobia. It perpetuates the myth everything is okay when it is not and diverts precious resources from tackling the problem.
It prepares the political soil for yet more, inevitable attacks on LGBTIQA+ equality in the name of winning votes in Sydney.
I genuinely hope you enjoy World Pride. There are sure to be wonderful and inspiring events. But while you’re in Sydney, remember you’re in a bubble people like me are desperate to burst.
Our rights as LGBTIQA+ people depend on it.
Rodney Croome is a long-time Australian LGBTIQA+ human rights advocate. In recognition of his work he was made a Member of the Order of Australia.