Reflecting on the attention-grabbing headlines of the past few months, it’s clear that although our society has changed for the better in so many ways when it comes to discrimination and equal opportunity, it’s still a work in progress.
Just as Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace shows us how the sexual harassment of women by powerful men remains endemic in some industries, the marriage equality survey illustrates the level of restriction and exclusion that is still routinely endured by members of the LGBTIQ community.
Speaking out and debating such issues of human rights forces the community to evolve and become more progressive — but that transformative experience can also be painful.
A shift is coming
Take the marriage debate. There’s no doubt the survey has polarised Australia and caused a significant amount of psychological distress on both sides of the fence.
But it also reflects the degree of social change that has come within a relatively short amount of time. To have even raised this topic 20 years ago would have been completely unthinkable.
Just over 40 years ago, homosexuality was decriminalised for the first time in Australia by South Australian Premier Don Dunstan. At that time, same sex couples couldn’t parent children, or walk the streets hand in hand, and young people couldn’t discuss their emerging sexual identity or gender openly without fear of being labelled ‘mentally ill’.
Regardless of the outcome of the marriage equality survey, what we are seeing now is the start of an important shift in the normative culture of our society. And it’s positive.
Legal changes send a strong message about equality
I thought about these points recently as I delivered an address to a local LGBTIQ Symposium. I was explaining some of the recent changes to our state legislation that will deliver the kind of equality so many people have longed for — but many have not lived to see.
These include ways to make it easier for trans and gender diverse people to change their registered gender on documentation, including birth certificates (with their rights to privacy being maintained), and the full legal recognition of relationships regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity — including the right to access IVF and adoption.
While changing legal structures like these is a huge leap forward, it’s just the beginning of breaking down a history of discrimination and injustice for LGBTIQ people.
What needs to follow now is a profound change in community attitudes that should see LGBTIQ people readily accepted across all areas of society, without fear of discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.
We need to banish notions of the ‘other’
Our culture has a tendency to create a category of ‘other’ for anyone it considers ‘different’. The effects of this categorisation have been profoundly damaging, with individuals feeling rejected, excluded, ignored and devalued. Unfortunately, for many LGBTIQ people the experience also includes one of discrimination, harassment and hostility.
An Australian Human Rights Commission survey in 2015 found more than 70 per cent of LGBTIQ people had experienced violence, harassment or bullying. Sadly, more than 80 per cent of this bullying occurs at school, which should be a wake-up call for educational institutions to ensure they have appropriate protective policies in place.
Discrimination and exclusion are also factors for mental ill-health. Almost half of all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people hide their sexual orientation or gender identity in public. And LGBTIQ people are three times more likely to experience depression, compared to the broader population.
Equality matters for everyone
What matters is the integrity of individuals, not their sexual orientation or gender. Luckily both national and state legislation is moving to support this. In order to embrace the change, we need to challenge long-held cultural assumptions and biases around gender, identity, relationships and family, and to recognise more fluid, diverse constructions of these as ‘normal’.
Acceptance, inclusion and respect are all behaviours that we need to nurture, not just at home but in workplaces, educational institutions, health services, retail outlets, and community clubs.
Diversity isn’t something to be feared, it’s something to be celebrated because it enriches the community.
Being able to discuss social issues, to challenge attitudes, and to acknowledge when change is needed is a great achievement and a sign that our democratic processes are working. We just need to make sure the community upholds these values.
In the meantime, my team and I will be here to support LGBTIQ victims of discrimination who feel they have been treated unfairly in areas of public life, as well as to inform and guide those in schools, workplaces and the broader community to ensure equality of opportunity and inclusiveness are respected.
Dr Niki Vincent is the Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in South Australia.
If you believe you have been treated unfairly because of your sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in employment or public life you can contact the Commission on 8207 2250. The EOC also undertakes training, culture change programs and provides an advisory service for employers in SA.