The Rainbow’s Silver Lining

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Tara Wesson takes you through a history of the LGBTQIA+ community in Australia. It’s the good, the bad and the ugly, it’s the past and the present… and it’s the leaps we still need to make to Live Your Best Life.

Hop aboard, because today, we’re taking a trip! Our journey starts before Australia was even around. In ancient times, homosexuality was often celebrated. The indigenous people of America revered in the gender diverse, “two-spirited” people in their communities, as they were known. In Japan, homosexuality was closely linked to the Buddhist monastic lifestyle, and influenced a strong tradition of painting and literature that celebrated this. Thailand has unquestionably accepted the notion of a third gender for centuries now, going back to ancient times. In Europe, same-sex relationships originated in Ancient Greece - just look at Plato and the legend of Sappho on the island of Lesbos (etymology, anyone?).

Long before Captain Cook washed up on Aussie shores, The Buggery Act — outlawing anal sex and bestiality — was enforced in Britain. The fact that homosexuality was considered on the same plane as bestiality… it’s totally nuts. When Australia federated in 1901, it adopted Britain’s laws on homosexuality, and that was that.

Between 1968 and 1971, the first gay rights groups started popping up around Australia. South Australia was pretty onto it; they were the first to decriminalise male acts of homosexuality in 1975.

Unfortunately, instances of police brutality were still pretty frequent at this time. A man was thrown into the Torrens River; the home of a gay couple was raided and police arrested over 100 men for homosexuality, on an undercover to entrap offenders; police arrested 53 people at Australia’s first Mardi Gras in 1978, and injured many more.

Thankfully, Mardi Gras 2018 was a much happier sight - not only were we celebrating 40 years since the first, but we were also celebrating the legalisation of same-sex marriage four months earlier. But let’s not jump forward too quickly.

In 1978, the year of the first Mardi Gras, homosexual acts were still considered illegal in New South Wales, and would be for another six years. But in 1982, New South Wales was the first state in Australia to pass laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals.

1982 also saw the first reported case of HIV/AIDS. Predominantly transmitted sexually, it became a big issue especially within the gay community. AIDS is the syndrome that progresses on from the HIV virus: moreover, it’s an advanced form of HIV.

And then, there was the "gay panic" defence: 1992 saw its first use. Basically, the gay panic defence is a legal defence that downgrades a murder charge to manslaughter, if the accused felt provoked by homosexual advances from the victim. Totally archaic and draconian, right?! 1992 had a bit of a silver lining though, because the Keating government did legalise the LGBTQIA+ community’s service in the military.

In 1994, Nicholas Toonen brought a landmark case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. He complained that Australia’s laws around consent and anti-sodomy breached international laws on human rights. He lost his job at the Tasmanian AIDS Council when the Tassie government threatened to cut the organisation’s funding if he wasn’t fired. The UNHRC, however, ruled in Toonen’s favour, marking an unprecedented victory for the LGBTQIA+ community in Australia. In response to this, the government passed a law — the Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Act — designed to override all state and territory legislation about sexual conduct and consent.

Three years later in 1997, male acts of homosexuality were decriminalised in all states across Australia, with Tasmania the last state to do it.

That same year, the gay panic defence was upheld in the High Court of Australia. The gay panic defence was abolished by Tasmania — the first state to do it — in 2003. In the fourteen years that followed, every state except South Australia did the same. They still haven’t abolished it.

2004 was a monumental year for the Australian LGBTQIA+ community - the ACT passed legislation that allowed same-sex couples to adopt, being the first state to do so. In the next 12 years to date, every state and territory except the Northern Territory has followed.

Also in 2004, the Howard Liberal government amended the Marriage Act to specifically exclude same-sex couples from getting married, defining marriage as the “union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” The Howard government kept up the great work and also planned to ban same-sex adoption across Australia, but Labor won the election, and all was not great, but again… silver lining, folks!

And thank goodness for Labor. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of the Labor party, they did some good things for the LGBTQIA+ community over the next few years. They essentially removed discrimination from 85 federal laws that included tax, social security and health issues. For example, same-sex couples were able to leave superannuation entitlements to their partners after their deaths, under these changes. Same-sex couples became recognised as de-facto, and rainbow families were given access to the family courts. The Rudd government also legislated allowing for an ‘x’ gender option, for intersex people, on passports.

The Gillard government also began providing ‘Certificates of No Impediment to Marriage’ to same-sex couples. These certificates confirm, to overseas governments, that couples planning to marry in their country are not already married in another country. As these certificates were not previously accessible to same-sex couples, dual citizens or citizens with foreign partners were unable to get married overseas until this time.

There’s no doubt we’ve come pretty far, but there’s still a long way to go.

This government also, in 2013, amended the Sex Discrimination Act, making it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ individuals.

In 2013, the ACT attempted to pass legislation legalising same-sex marriage… who thought the most boring state in Australia would actually be the most progressive?! But the High Court overturned this, ruling that states couldn’t override federal laws. There was still a win in 2013, however, as trans kids no longer required court approval to access puberty blockers.

2015 marked the beginning of the long journey towards same-sex marriage. The Abbott Liberal government committed to a national plebiscite (or plebby-shite: call it what you will) on changing the legislation. For the first time, soon after Malcolm Turnbull took the Liberal leadership, both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader supported same-sex marriage.

2016 was the year of apologies. The Premier of Victoria issued a formal apology for the state’s history of anti-gay laws, while the NSW police and state government apologised for the arrests and beatings at the first Mardi Gras, all those years ago.

In 2017, 62 per cent of Australia voted YES to legalising same sex marriage. Hours after the survey results were released, parliament drafted a bill changing the legal definition of marriage to the “union of two people”. Tim Wilson, an openly-gay MP and same-sex marriage advocate, proposed to his partner in the public gallery. Bolger, his partner, said yes, and this was the first engagement on the floor of the House of Reps. The bill passed on 7 December 2017 and received royal assent the following day. This marked perhaps the biggest change in Australia’s treatment of the LGBTQIA+ community to date, but there’s still work yet to be done.

Transgender rights have a long way to go. People in the trans community still can’t change the sex on their birth certificate with medical approval, unless they’re in the ACT or South Australia. Married transgender people are still required to divorce their partners in order to transition on official documents, in Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. On 22 June 2018, Victoria abolished this legislation and a day later, a bill was proposed to do the same in New South Wales.

Men who have had sex with men in the last twelve months cannot donate blood. And, religious schools and hospitals are still exempted from LGBTQIA+ anti-discrimination laws in Australia, which is absolutely ridiculous, really. This basically means that these institutions - which are publicly funded - are allowed to fire staff and turn away clients based on their beliefs, sexuality or gender identity. Proponents call it “the right to discriminate” and preach freedom of religion as the main argument for this.

There’s no doubt we’ve come pretty far, but there’s still a long way to go. As this history clearly shows, the strength is in the small wins, as we inch towards becoming a more accepting society as a whole. There’s been literal blood, sweat and tears. People have been murdered, vilified and ostracised: there’s no putting it lightly, and it would be dishonest of me to write anything but the truth.

But there’s always that silver lining. I remember being on the phone to my friend at fifteen, knowing for the first time that I was bi, and crying out of sheer confusion. Coming out to a small group of friends, first, when I’d had too much to drink one night. And then coming out to my parents on 10 April 2018, while they were watching TV… and their reaction being beautifully nonchalant and anticlimactic.

And that’s just me, adding my own piece of history to this bigger timeline. The history that precedes me has forged the social conditions that have allowed me to live my best life.

Which brings me to UTSoC’s campaign - Live Your Best Life at UTYes. We’re collaborating with the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion, to raise awareness on Wear It Purple Day, and to encourage an environment that allows pride and visibility with LGBTQIA+ identifying students - another step closer to complete equality. 

Tara Wesson is a second-year Journalism and Creative Writing student. She likes long walks on the beach, piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain. But no, she's really just a book-lover with a dog called Shorty, a love of travel, and a penchant for dad jokes.