Some have likened it to a return to the years of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and some, who are too young to know what those years were like, may see it as the greatest struggle for civil rights in their lives. However it has been described or experienced, the eight months since the election of the Newman Liberal National Party (LNP) government in Queensland has been a turbulent time for the LGBTI community in the Sunshine State.
Whilst the Bligh Labor government was deeply unpopular among Queensland voters, many in the LGBTI community were thankful for the moves they made in regards to achieving equality and giving the community the respect it deserved. “No government or political party is perfect and there was a lot more to be achieved before we gained full legal equality. However it was great to see the gains made under the former government for LGBT equality, in particular surrogacy and civil unions. Queensland was leaving the school of thought that we are 20 years behind,” Brisbane LGBTI rights advocate Phil Browne told the Star Observer.
A devastating landslide victory in the March election saw the LNP almost wipe out the ALP in Queensland’s only house of Parliament, winning 78 out of 89 Legislative Assembly seats.
“I pledge to you that we will conduct ourselves with humility, grace and dignity we will work for all Queenslanders regardless of their vote tonight,” Premier Campbell Newman said in his acceptance speech.
“I thank you for your trust.”
The LGBTI community was then caught completely unaware by sudden reforms to the state’s only gay health organisation, LGBTI rights and associated laws, political advocacy and HIV prevention campaigns.
In February, the Civil Partnerships Act came into effect after passing Parliament in November, 2011. After its introduction, 609 civil unions had been registered and many had celebrated with ceremonies.
Despite stating that he was actually in favour of marriage equality prior to the election, Newman moved to rollback the legislation after his sweeping victory. While not repealing the legislation completely, the LNP severely watered down civil unions to ‘registered relationships’ and removed access to state-sanctioned ceremonies.
President of Parent and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), Shelley Argent, criticised Newman for betraying his original beliefs and not trying to use his position to progress conservative politics.
“Newman is the leader and should act as one. He sold his soul and what he believed in to keep his job,” Argent told the Star Observer.
Given that in recent weeks it was revealed that a major religious leader had extensive communication with the premier and ministers prior to the rollback, many in the community who were already suspicious are now questioning the true motives behind the rollback.
Head of Queenslanders for Equality, psychologist Paul Martin, fervently believes that the motives were deeply enshrined in religious ideology.
“The way that the rollback was passed was done in a such way that indicated the amount of power that the ideologically driven evangelical Christian power brokers in the leadership have. It also demonstrated their incredible arrogance in the way the rollback was passed in consultation with religious leaders. LGBTI lobby groups were never met with,” Martin said.
Newman was quoted as saying that the LNP’s amendments to civil unions showed “good faith” to the Christian lobby groups who campaigned on the issue. There are currently no plans to further change the relationships register legislation.
One of the most dramatic moves made by the Newman government in its first few months of power was its decision to completely strip the state’s only LGBTI health organisation, the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities (QAHC), of its $2.6 million in government funding.
Health Minister Lawrence Springborg announced the sudden move without any community consultation, citing a failure to reduce HIV rates and too much of a focus on “political issues” as reasons enough to remove funding.
There has been considerable community backlash against the move and the data that Springborg used to defend his decision was challenged.
“We’re continuing to see reasons given by the minister for defunding QAHC are being challenged, discounted or found out not to be accurate. It can only leave one to question what were the underlying motives. Evidence-based, rational decision making doesn’t seem to have been part of the reasons for defunding,” QAHC executive director Paul Martin told the Star Observer last month.
HIV/AIDS physician Dr Wendell Rosevear, who earlier this year resigned from Springborg’s newly created Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on HIV/AIDS, told the Star Observer: “I don’t think the real motive has been uncovered and I think that the government does seek to get power and votes out of the homophobic, bigoted vocal minority.”
“The question must be asked: why was it only the organisation providing education to gay/bi men that had their funding cut?” Brisbane LGBTI rights advocate Phil Browne said.
In February 2010, the Bligh government passed amendments to surrogacy laws to make it legal for any person, regardless of relationship status, to enter into altruistic (non-commercial) surrogacy arrangements.
Prior to the election, Newman stated that there wouldn’t be any changes made to these amendments.
“We will not be making any changes to the laws on those matters,” he told Seven News.
During debate over the rollback of civil unions, Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie indicated that the government was going to make changes to the laws to ban single people, same-sex couples and de facto couples of less than two years. There were fears the ban may also include a jail-term of up to three years.
“Surrogacy had been up and running for a year and people can see that nothing negative has happened since the legislation was passed but now there’s a lot of uncertainty and emotional upheaval in the community. The government has no idea how important the surrogacy legislation is for same-sex parents,” Argent said.
The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) Queensland director Wendy Francis welcomed the news of the amendments and said that same-sex couples should be banned from “acquiring babies”. “ACL congratulates the government on this move. This is the right thing and is in the best interest of the child, something the state is bound to uphold under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” Francis said.
It appears that the planned jail term will not be included when the amendments are brought before Parliament next year and Newman confirmed that the amendments would not be retroactive.
Gay panic defence
In July, a campaign to end the state’s controversial provocation defence (known as the ‘gay panic’ defence) was relaunched by Maryborough Catholic priest Father Paul Kelly following remarks by the attorney-general that changes to the law were unnecessary and that he was unlikely to act on the issue.
Kelly’s Change.org campaign, as of this week, has attracted over 214,000 signatures and is believed to be the largest Australian petition ever hosted on the site.
However, in August, Kelly told the Star Observer that progress was stilted and that he left a meeting with Bleijie feeling that a change was not likely.
“He certainly made it clear he’s of the mind not to change it,” Kelly said.
After the defunding of QAHC, Springborg moved to start up the committee that he believed would responsibly and effectively help to deal with the issue of HIV in the state. He also delivered the controversial ‘Let’s End HIV’ campaign, which met with mixed reaction.
The first TV ad of the campaign featured the image of the Grim Reaper, a throwback to the infamous 1980s HIV/AIDS campaign that many claimed demonised and added to the stigma already surrounding the issue. The Grim Reaper also featured heavily on the campaign’s website.
The use of the Grim Reaper was labelled “a missed opportunity” by QAHC.
“It is… a missed opportunity to encourage people who may be at risk to come forward for testing and treatment and to inform and remind people how to prevent transmission of HIV,” Paul Martin said.
As of September, images of the Grim Reaper were removed from the campaign’s website without notice.
After a protest during a parliamentary debate regarding the rollback of civil unions and the amendments to surrogacy laws, controversial parliamentary speaker Fiona Simpson moved to ban protesters from entering state Parliament.
Simpson, who told Parliament in 2002 that gay people could “grow into heterosexuality over time”, signed a directive that gave her the power to refuse access to the Legislative Assembly to anyone she believed would likely disrupt parliamentary sittings and debates.
Where to from here?
Many in Queensland’s LGBTI community have been left with a sense of hopelessness and a feeling that their rights will continue to be infringed upon because of the massive majority that the LNP holds in government.
Phil Browne believes that while times are tough, there is still a great need for respectful protests and said that continued lobbying for LGBTI rights shouldn’t stop.
“It’s important for people to speak up and say we are not second-class citizens and do not deserve less civil rights. Start conversations with people. Talk about what it feels to be treated inferiorly and to have less rights under law, because once people understand this, they will often support full equality.”
Star Observer will feature an in-depth interview with Queensland Health Minister Lawrence Springborg next week.