In a major blow to the legal rights of survivors of sexual assault in Victoria new laws were quietly passed earlier this year preventing those individuals from ever revealing their identities. More outstanding is that fact these laws not only apply to new convictions, but also retroactively, essentially silencing survivors of institutional abuse, and many other advocates for change.

Despite there being little in the way of data, the studies that have been undertaken indicate that sexual assault within the LGBTQI community is still a major and prevalent concern. When LGBTQI issues are already too often sidelined the impacts of this new gag order could be catastrophic for the wellbeing of individuals who have been impacted by sexual assault.

“To me it’s a bit of a culture war around ill-informed notions about the rights of the perpetrator. It doesn’t make any sense to me, or the work we do at Switchboard,” Joe Ball, CEO of Switchboard Victoria told Star Observer.

Often the first point of call for many who have experience sexual violence Switchboard offers two phone lines, one as the Victorian partner for the national support service Qlife and the other a family violence phone line for the w|respect service.

Daily, we talk to people who tell us about their experiences of sexual assault, including recent and historical abuseBall explained“On both of our phone lines, the recurring theme is sexual violence, it is something that we regularly have people contacting us about.

There is often a misconception about LGBTQI communities from the mainstream that we don’t have high levels of sexual assault and sexual violence within our communities.

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 Having been described by professionals and activists alike as a “major victory” for convicted paedophiles and rapists this law means victims are now “muzzled” and prohibited from self-identifying in publications. The new laws also threaten the hard work of media outlets such as Star Observer in supporting survivors and places the transparency around issues that have serious impacts on our readers, community and collective wellbeing at risk.

Under these new laws, articles like the one Star Observer published last August on the trial of George Pell could ultimately be silenced. On the impacts these new laws will have on the survivors of institutional abuse Ball continued our interviewing by saying, “People have just gone through the George Pell incident, and we know how devastating that was, and we know that for a lot of people it felt like justice would never be served. This feels like an extension of that, a further cracking down on people speaking out.

Any attempt to silence survivors is something that Switchboard is completely opposed to. It’s a commonly understood fact the many in our community were and are targeted by institutional sexual abuse. People who are queer are often targeted because they are seen as more vulnerable and our sexuality is used against us when addressing historical and current sexual abuse.”

Up to four months jail and fines in excess of $3000 could be issued for individuals found to have broken the new laws, while media outlets face potential prosecution and fines in excess of $8000.

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 For survivors, the only way to now reclaim the right to self-identify in public is by taking the matter to court and obtaining a court order, though due to the significant costs incurred such a process will simply remain out of reach for many.

The carceral response of fining victims up to $3304 for speaking out is something I condemn and goes against our work at Switchboard to support LGBTQI survivors of sexual assault,” said Ball.

In a recent statement Victorian Attorney General Jill Hennesy said that when changing the laws in February there was no intention to introduce new restrictions for survivors who want to share their stories. Hennesy continued by saying, “I am aware of the concerns raised by victims and advocacy groups regarding the effect of these reforms and have asked the Department of Justice and Community Safety to urgently look at whether further changes are needed to ensure they are effective.”

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 To this point Ball concluded our interview by saying, “We welcome the government’s announced review into the gag orders and will welcome their repeal. If people need to talk, they can talk to us at Switchboard, both legally and from a peer support basis. People don’t need to be silent about this issue.”

Attorney-General, Jill Hennessy responded to concerns raised by sexual assault victims and their advocates by saying, “I have immense respect for victim-survivors who have the courage to speak out about their experiences and advocate for positive change. We hear you and we will take action.

“We are moving urgently to respond to victim-survivors who have raised concerns about their ability to share their stories, including developing urgent amendments to be introduced to Parliament this year.

“The voices of victim-survivors are a powerful and important part of the justice system. Their expertise will be invaluable as we make these urgent changes.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by Sexual Violence, you can contact:

QLIFE on 1800 184 527 or head to www.qlife.org.au

With Respect on 1800 542 847 or head to www.withrespect.org.au

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