On November 29 2002, the Queensland State Labor Government passed some amendments to the Discrimination Act 1991. These amendments included prohibiting discrimination on the basis of family responsibilities, prohibiting discrimination against women who are breastfeeding, introducing sexuality vilification laws and inserting a new uniform definition of ‘spouse’ in all Queensland legislation which incorporates de facto partners, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. So what these amendments have done is give same sex couples the same legal rights as de facto and married heterosexual couples in many instances where they were formerly excluded.
Some of the areas where this will have an affect on the lives of people in same sex relationships are:
– Succession law. If your same sex partner dies without a will, you will actually be legally acknowledged as their partner and entitled to their assets, superannuation, etc (unlike before).
– Helath and hospital stuff. You can be given information by an ambulance officer, have visiting rights, have a say on transplants, etc (unlike before).
– If you partner dies, you may be able to seek compensation (e.g. under WorkCover).
Marital status was a category that was protected by discrimination law. That was changed to relationship status so you cannot be discriminated against for any kind of relationship you have (whether that’s a same sex relationship or a marriage).
While this all sounds fantastic (and I think it is) doctors are still allowed to refuse assisted reproductive technology (including IVF) treatment to lesbian women! There were a number of acts (of parliament) that were not amended and that is because they are undergoing review. These include acts to do with adoption, native title, evidence and maintenance.
The change to discrimination law means that the category of ‘gender identity’ will, for the first time, protect transgender people. The bill also amended the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages Act to enable transgenders over 18 who have undergone reassignment surgery to have their gender altered on their birth certificate. The category of “lawful sexual activity” hase been changed to mean a person lawfully employed as a sex worker.
Before the last couple of state elections the Labor Party, led by Peter Beattie, actively courted the queer vote. Many organizations that advocate for the rights of bisexual, transgender, intergender, lesbian and gay people told the Labor Party what it is they would want from a government in terms of legislations to help achieve equal rights. I had started to hear many grumblings from queer people about the lack of action from the state government on this issue, especially after they had specifically courted their vote. So it was great to see the government come through with the goods and extend the rights that heterosexual couples enjoy everyday to people in same sex relationships.
When someone emailed me a speech to parliament on the amendments by the Attorney-General, Rod Welford I was so excited by the proposed reforms, but also, to see that bisexuality was mentioned along with heterosexuality and homosexuality as a form of sexuality that should be protected by anti-discrimination laws (wow, we really do exist!).
It was interesting to read what many members of the Queensland Parliament said during the two-day debate on the bill (if you’re interested, go to the Qld Parliament website, and search Hansard for November 28 and 29 2002). There were some quite worrying remarks (Fiona Simpson of the National Party, I’m looking at you!) and there were a lot of really heart-warming speeches, not to mention heaps of Christian references, mostly calling for love and tolerance. Lesley Clark (Australian Labor Party – ALP) spoke of her bisexual daughter who had had loving heterosexual and lesbian relationships, and how happy she was that her daughter would no longer be discriminated against. Joan Sheldon (Liberal Party) said people were judged by how they treated others and she did not believe they were kept out of heaven based on their sexuality. A number of members spoke of the effects that homophobia can have on queer people – Lindy Nelson-Carr (ALP) and Karen Struthers (ALP) spoke of specific instances of young men committing suicide because they were gay. The Premier, Peter Beattie said we need more love in the community and it’s important that we support these loving relationships (Awwwww! How lovely).
In 1999, the state government changed some laws to acknowledge the existence of same sex couples. These laws recognized same sex couples in domestic violence laws and they also gave some property rights in the event of a relationship break up (because people were going before the courts suing for half of property they felt entitled to). I watched reporting of the law changes and even Channel Nine described the opposition’s response as homophobic. It was interesting to see the angry reactions to the idea that any kind of same sex relationship should be given recognition and legitimacy. National Party member, Vaughan Johnson said Jesus Christ would strike down the Labor Party for these laws. During the debates for the latest laws he apologized for the comments he made and said he was sorry for the hurt he may have caused people. Fiona Simpson said that she did not agree with the gay lifestyle, that if you looked at the Gay Liberation Front’s manifesto on the internet, you would see they were aiming for the total abolition of the family and she also gave out the phone number in parliament for the ex-gay ministry exodus (which ‘counsels’ ex-gay people into living a ‘straight’ life).
While I think this kind of law reform can be good, it does, ultimately reinforce the sexual hierarchy that currently exists. This hierarchy has married, monogamous heterosexuals at the top, followed by unmarried, monogamous heterosexuals, then nonmonogamous heterosexuals, then people in long-term monogamous same sex relationships, then promiscuous homosexuals, and at the bottom (the order varies) are sex workers, sadomasichists and paedophiles (and many others). The new laws will still maintain this sexual hierarchy, it’s just that monogamous homosexuals get to move up a few rungs. The traditional, long-term, monogamous relationship between two people who live in the same abode, is still privileged and given certain rights other kinds of relationships don’t get.
Some of the problems of striving for queer law reform were witnessed with the introduction of laws in 1991 that prohibited discrimination on the basis of ‘lawful sexual activity’ but included exemptions for religious schools and hospitals. What these laws did was, for the first time, actually connect homosexuality with the corruption of children and enshrine this in law. I personally don’t think these kinds of laws help advance the rights of queer people but I guess sometimes we take two steps forward and three steps back.
When the latest lot of reforms were proposed the churches were up in arms that the government looked like it would be removing the exemption that church-run schools and other organizations had to the discrimination laws. Fortunately, after consulting with church leaders, the state government compromised only to the extent that church-run organizations can demand that teachers and others involved in religious instruction do not act in a way that defies the teachings of the church, but the blanket ban has been removed.
While I think it is great to see anti-vilification and anti- discrimination laws include transgender and intergender people to protect them, and new laws which allow people to change the sex on their birth certificates, people can’t actually do this unless they undergo sexual reassignment surgery. Unfortunately, this reinforces the male/female dichotomy, upholding the idea that there are only two genders and if you don’t fit into one, then you should fit into the ‘opposite’ one. This kind of thinking has made a lot of people undertake radical surgery they perhaps could have done without if there were more gender options. Forcing people to choose to be ‘male’ or ‘female’ has meant that people have adopted very stereotypical ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ behaviours to convince the world of their ‘new’ gender, further reinforcing the male/female divide.
I do not mean to be too negative. These laws could really help many people and their families lead ‘normal’, happy lives free from harassment and prejudice. Only time will tell whether these laws will work and have any impact in breaking down prejudice in Queensland.