By April Holcombe
I remember the day, just over four years ago, when Australia voted overwhelmingly for a YES to equal marriage rights. The evening after, I marched down Sydney’s Oxford Street with 10,000 others. I remember the feeling of pride, of power.
I’d come to the big city straight out of high school, in 2011, and shortly afterwards came out as transgender. It was a very difficult time. I faced daily street harassment, physical intimidation and violence, job discrimination, and police harassment.
Things have come a long way for transgender people in these 10 years. The marriage equality protests had a ripple effect across society, emboldening LGBTQI people and galvanising supporters.
I know because I was in the thick of it. As soon as I came to Sydney, I joined the left-wing activists building the movement through Community Action for Rainbow Rights. I never stood taller or prouder than the day we won.
Ordinary People Value Equality
Our smashing victory in the Liberals’ plebiscite demolished the myth that homophobes were the ‘silent majority’. Ordinary people value equality and we challenged them to support ours. It was not up for negotiation: we didn’t share bigots’ concerns or take the insulting compromise of civil unions.
Opponents were called homophobes because that’s what they were. Decent people reflected, changed, and became passionate champions. We did so much more than win marriage rights: we effected a social transformation in attitudes and values.
That is what the hard Right has been desperately seeking to wind back ever since. A week after the YES victory, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull appointed an “expert panel” to investigate religious freedom in Australia. This panel consisted of a cabinet minister from the Howard government, a Jesuit priest, and a conservative law professor. It was a life raft to a bunch of nasty bigots.
This contemptible elite used the party platform, the press, the police and the pulpit to violently oppress LGBTQI people for decades. Now they rebrand themselves as ‘mum and dad’ victims of a zealous gay lobby.
This is simply a foothold from which to re-legitimise bigotry in public life. Many say a Religious Discrimination Bill ought to be “a shield, and not a sword”. Yet this whole debate has always been both: a shield for rich Trumpian conservatives and powerful church hierarchies to hide behind while they sharpen the sword.
We Can Force The Whole Thing To Be Abandoned
Despite finding no evidence of systematic discrimination against religious people in general, the Religious Freedom Review called for measures that have made their way into subsequent bills.
In particular, that religious schools everywhere should be able to expel LGBTQI students and sack LGBTQI staff – overriding the Tasmanian (and now Victorian) protections against this. Polls show this is opposed by more than 75 percent of the population.
The latest version of the bill drops some of the worst elements from the previous draft.
This is a promising sign that, with more public opposition, we can force the whole thing to be abandoned. Because if it passes, it will still override those anti-discrimination laws, and enable bigots in workplaces across Australia to bully, harass and vilify unfettered, so long as it’s their “religious opinion”.
It’s not just about what the bill explicitly allows, but the message it sends. It will be a green light to religious schools to “clean house”: the recent sackings of lesbian teachers Karen Pack and Steph Lentz will be just the opening act of a hateful counteroffensive.
Bullying Will Be Legally Protected
The effects will ripple out beyond those religious institutions. For example, I am a transgender woman studying to be a high school teacher. Will public school principals consistently protect us from bigoted parents or students?
Or will it be easier not to hire us if the latter keep taking their complaints to a “Religious Freedom” Commissioner? And what if the principal is a transphobe? Learn the law and play their cards right, and their bullying will be legally protected. Multiply this by every workplace in Australia.
If the bill passes, the conservative Right will be back for more, with an apparent mandate to do so. It will boost NSW One Nation leader Mark Latham’s “Parental Freedoms” bill, which would sack teachers who discuss trans rights in schools.
This bill is not a fringe irrelevancy: it was supported in a committee hearing by members of both Labor and Liberal. Now, the NSW Liberal government is headed from the hard-right by Dominic Perrottet, a Trump-supporting opponent of marriage equality who thinks welfare erodes the nuclear family.
Where the hell are we going? The whole situation is foreshadowing the United States right-wing backlash, where nearly every state legislature is debating anti-LGBTQI proposals – and many are passing.
Learning From The Fight For Marriage Equality
We need to turn this opening gambit of a right-wing culture war into a rout. The fight for marriage equality can teach us many things to achieve this.
Firstly, only by taking to the streets do we become a force to reckon with. Passive opposition, even of the vast majority, will not stop the rich and powerful.
Secondly, the Labor Party will only change their tune if maximum pressure is applied. We should not plead with them, but shame them for their silence over and tacit support for the bill.
Finally, ideas can change, for better or worse. Will we keep advancing the rights of LGBTQI people and women? Or will we stop here and let our enemies wind back the clock?
My students Will Have A Transgender Teacher
That is why Community Action for Rainbow Rights has called a big demonstration for Sunday, December 5, in Sydney. We are bringing together many different organisations – LGBTQI groups, trade unions, civil society bodies and progressive faith organisations – to show the forces of bigotry that we shall not let them pass.
We will defend the rights of every gay teacher, trans student, lesbian nurse, single-mother aged care worker. We will oppose every single piece of legislation they try to ram through parliaments. We will fight until they finally give up – something they should have done a long time ago.
I’m not going back to the world I came out to ten years ago. My students will have a transgender teacher, and they will be free to be who they are.
But we’re not on a travelator. We cannot stand still to go forwards. If we want to protect what we’ve won, and keep building a better world, we must fight.
See you at Taylor Square, Sydney, 1pm on Sunday 5 December. For details of the protest, check the CARR Facebook Page.
April Holcombe is the co-convener of Community Action for Rainbow Rights and a socialist active in campaigns for refugee rights, Palestine, and against the far Right. She is currently completing her Masters of Teaching at the University of Sydney.
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