It’s WorldPride in Sydney. Not only is the city once again turning rainbow for the annual Mardi Gras Parade but the march itself has returned to its spiritual home of Oxford Street. And it’s not just Aussies getting in on the action. The eyes of the world are upon us as we lay claim to being the first host in the Southern Hemisphere of the annual InterPride queer celebration.
2023 marks the 45th anniversary of the Mardi Gras Parade and, while it’s still an incredible celebration and testament to the achievements, power, and influence of queer culture, it’s also, fundamentally a protest.
With all the rainbow capitalism tie-ins and multicoloured everything at the supermarket, you may not know it. But Mardi Gras, and pride, are all about defiance in the face of opposition and a refusal to live in fear or in hiding.
While the country is very different today from what it was in the 70s, the current fight is more about combating negative social attitudes and banishing the last remaining legal protections for discrimination towards people across the gender and sexuality spectrum.
In 1978, the year the first Mardi Gras Parade walked down Oxford Street, homosexuality was illegal in New South Wales. Less than three decades prior, in Victoria, homosexuality was punishable by death. In fact, it was not made fully legal throughout Australia until 1997 when Tasmania finally decriminalised it. The age of consent for gay sex was also not equalised until 2016 with the change of law in Queensland.
As much as Australia likes to think of itself as a progressive, forward-thinking nation, it’s really only seen a shift in that direction over the span of roughly half one human lifetime. The divisive marriage equality plebiscite showed us just how deep-seated and prominent some of these regressive views are. Hence the need to march.
So, where are we in 2023? With a shift in government last year to a decidedly more liberal leadership, the country may feel as though it’s becoming increasingly welcoming and accepting of the broad spectrum of queer identities. In a sense, it is. However, the longstanding clashes around trans rights and the continued legality of conversion ‘therapy’ in some states however still indicate that we have a way to go.
Here’s what you need to know about the current state of queer rights in Australia.
Gay Rights in Australia
Rights for the LGBTQIA+ community in Australia have come a long way. In just the past few years we’ve seen the passage of marriage equality, marking its 5-year anniversary in 2023, the repeal of forced divorce laws for trans people wishing to transition, and the scrapping of ‘gay panic’ defence in murder cases across Australia. In 2021, the 12-month celibacy requirements for men and gender non-conforming individuals who have sex with men who wish to donate blood were cut to three months.
Indeed, Australia is now widely considered to be one of the most accepting societies on the planet when it comes to queer people. We have a strong cultural history of homegrown queer icons like Kylie Minogue and Dame Edna, while welcoming international stars like Elton John with open arms. The positivity, acceptance, and inclusion that the nation shows to queer people should be celebrated for the achievement that it is.
However, this is not to say that homophobia and discrimination, while mostly illegal, are not still major problems in this country. Nor should it excuse the fact that our legal system still does not fully protect all people across the gender and sexuality spectrum.
LGBTQIA+ human rights activist Rodney Croome has written that “Sydney has by far the worst attitudes and laws on LGBTIQA+ equality of any Australian state or territory capital”.
He notes that the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite revealed that Sydney’s suburbs responded with the lowest ‘yes’ vote of anywhere in the country. NSW has “Australia’s least effective laws against LGBTQIA+ discrimination” in that it still allows faith schools to expel queer students and fire queer teachers. There are no legal protections for discrimination towards bisexual, non-binary, or intersex people at all.
If the situation is still problematic in cities, it is decidedly worse outside of them. In the more regional areas of the country, homophobic views are likely to be more common. The plebiscite also revealed that rural areas of the country were far more likely to have majority ‘no’ views than metropolitan ones.
Croome is also right to point to education as one of the main pockets of society where homophobia is still allowed to lurk. A 2021 survey found that 90% of queer students in Australia have been subjected to homophobic language, while a third of them experience daily harassment. The survey also found that just 6% of gender and sexually diverse respondents said that teachers would intervene during harassment, while some reported that adults actively participated in it.
Of course, discrimination does not start and end in schools. Sport is another area in our society where discrimination is still blatantly apparent. Although sporting organisations are trying to use the games to teach equality to young people, a new study from Monash University has found that such training programmes have so far been broadly ineffective. In fact, young players were apparently more likely to use homophobic slurs after the training than before.
Attempts by large sporting organisations to increase diversity by hosting ‘Pride Rounds’ also appear ineffective. You only need to look at the lack of queer representation at the top level of sport in this country to see that queer or gender diverse people either do not feel safe to come out or are discouraged from participating along the way due to the present culture.
Finally, we have the religious and political element, which, in Australia, often intertwine. Under the Morrison government, queer issues were frequently used to score cheap political points. Morrison personally refused to ban faith schools from expelling and firing queer students and teachers on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. He also supported and endorsed Liberal candidates who had spread hateful messages about trans people. But, perhaps most grotesque, was Morrison’s multiple efforts to pass the Religious Discrimination Bill, something that was claimed to be used to protect people of faith from discrimination but, in actuality, would more likely grant those people a licence to discriminate.
Having the government that sanctioned the above ideas voted out of office is a good thing and a good sign for queer rights in this country. But is the current administration really any better?
The Labor government, during the election, promised to strengthen healthcare with an LGBTQIA+ focus and to set up a taskforce to end the HIV epidemic in Australia. They also said that they would adopt queer identity questions in the census and, crucially, bring in legislation that would protect the rights of queer people and students from being discriminated against in the school and workplace.
The policies, while better than the Coalition’s, were given a mixed review from Equality Australia which said that their anti-discrimination policies were lacking, as was their plan to combat conversion ‘therapy’, and domestic violence for queer people. They also had no policies to protect intersex people from harm.
In the October budget, Labor’s first in office, $1.3 million was earmarked over two years to support the health and wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ people, including consultations to understand barriers to healthcare access. Additional funding was also made available to the charity QLife to recruit more volunteer support workers and 15 LGBTQIA+ specific workers were included in additional frontline service people to support domestic violence.
However, the budget did not include funding for LGBTQIA+ aged care, intersex public service funding, or gender-affirming care in the public service.
LGBTQIA+ Health congratulated Labor on the budget and said that it was “a step in the right direction” but said a lot more work needed to be done “to address the crisis in the mental health of LGBTQIA+ communities.”
While Labor has yet to reform religious discrimination laws, steps have been made. Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has commissioned a review into the country’s religious exemption rules for schools, the first formal step towards reform. That review is not due until April, with Labor unlikely to make decisions on it until June.
So, progress does appear to be being made. Last week, Albanese confirmed he would become the first Prime Minister to march in the Mardi Gras Parade and, with Penny Wong as Foreign Minister, he has the first openly-gay woman in one of the top jobs in his cabinet.
“We speak a lot about tolerance – and tolerance is really important – but this is about a step that is way more important than tolerance,” Albanese said.
“We need to celebrate our diversity, not just tolerate it, because our diversity is what gives our society strength”.
Even Dominic Perrottet, the devout Catholic Premier of NSW, has considered it too divisive to stand firm on his initial ‘lets think about it’ position on conversion ‘therapy’ — the bizarre religious idea that you can ‘convert’ people’s sexuality through brutal mental practices and prayer. He has, as of Friday, said that he would support a ban of the practice if re-elected.
It’s certainly progress. But until politicians no longer run ‘quietly’ on progressive queer policies, until trans and intersex people are protected to the same degree straight people are, and until the mental health crisis in the LGBTQIA+ community is given the funding and the support it deserves, we are still a long way from achieving the equality we so aspire to.
Still, we should celebrate how far we’ve come and enjoy WorldPride as the symbol it is for the world that we hope to create.