Image for Stopping attacks on gay people is not an attack on freedom

In a recent interview with The Australian newspaper, former Prime Minister John Howard argued that people these days are “too scared to speak their views”, saying there was a “minority fundamentalism” emerging, preventing free speech.

In doing so, Mr Howard repeated the myth that anti-discrimination law in Tasmania had been used to “silence the Catholic Church from stating its position on marriage.” This is not true. 

The Catholic booklet ‘Don’t mess with marriage’ which the Church issued across the nation to all its school students is still available in Tasmania and remains online. There has been no recall, censorship, ban or silence.

It is true that under Tasmania’s anti-discrimination laws, a citizen of the Island State has lodged a complaint against three sentences in this 16 page booklet, but the complaints are not against the churches’ arguments on marriage. There are against offensive claims about same-sex couples and gay parenting.

These include the claim that only heterosexual people “can be whole”, that only children raised by heterosexual couples can be “healthy and well rounded” and that children in same-sex households will be “hurt” and “messed with.”

If the Church suggested that Aborigines are not whole people, that children of interracial partners are unhealthy, or that Asians mess with their kids, there would be an outcry. Anti-vilification complaints would be swift and plentiful and community leaders would call for tolerance. 

So why should it be any different when gay people are subjected to this condemnation? 

Certainly, the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner agrees there is a prima facie case to answer. However, if this matter goes to a tribunal it will take up to three years for a ruling, well past any plebiscite on the issue of marriage equality. In the meantime, nothing has changed.

Surely the Church can easily make its case against same-sex marriage without resorting to offensive, hurtful and humiliating claims about gay couples and same-sex families.

As it happens, this particular case has gone to conciliation, with the complainant sitting down with the Archbishop of Hobart, Mr Julian Porteous, to see if they can agree on rewording aspects of the booklet in such a way as to ensure the church can get its message out without resorting to statements deemed abusive or offensive. 

Despite agreeing to this process, I seriously doubt the Church will settle on any conciliated outcome, because it wants a fight. It wants to portray itself as a victim of censorship. It wants the Tasmanian law to change so it can go full-throttle on any anti-gay statements it wants to and remain above the law.

Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman has already said that if the anti-discrimination commission rules against the church, he will “review the law”. So, the church has every inducement to play martyr and doesn’t have to play nice.

The neat trick which religious conservatives are trying to pull, not just in Tasmania but across the country, is to shout down every legitimate claim of anti-gay bigotry and homophobic abuse as being “an attack on freedom of religion.”

Suddenly, any denouncement of homophobic attacks on gay people or same-sex families is labelled as “trying to silence opposition to gay marriage.”

Any anti-gay group which claims that homosexuals “mess with kids” can now simply claim that it’s expressing support for traditional marriage despite no connection between their abusive statements and the topic itself.

Recently Fairfax newspapers revealed that former Howard Government parliamentary secretary and Tasmanian MHR, Chris Miles, had funded and authorised a leaflet he plans to issue across New South Wales and perhaps the whole country. It purports to be a campaign message against same-sex marriage.

Yet it goes so far as to claim that children of gay and lesbian parents are more prone to “abuse and neglect”, more likely to be unemployed, abuse drugs and suffer depression.

According to his pamphlet, a full list of potential “social outcomes” for the children of same-sex couples includes: “Sexual victimisation, sexual transmitted disease, drug use/abuse, depression and suicidal thoughts. No source is provided to verify these claims.

This is not freedom of speech. It is not freedom of religion. It is not “reasonable debate in favour of traditional marriage.”

This is hate speech. If it were directed at any other minority group it would be howled down by community leaders and bombarded with anti-discrimination complaints.

Chris Miles has not yet distributed his leaflets and it’s hard to see them withstanding any anti-vilification complaints in state and federal jurisdictions, but I wonder if that’s his aim? This exercise seems to be more a provocation of the laws rather than a serious attempt to inform or persuade.

It’s another manufactured-martyr situation designed to facilitate a ‘victim narrative’ for religious conservatives.

Such people have every right and opportunity to oppose marriage equality and support what they see as traditional marriage, but they have to do it within the law. 

What this means for a potential plebiscite on marriage equality in 2017 is unclear, but a starting point for publishers, TV and radio stations, and Billboard owners must be a protocol on acceptable debate.

This can easily be done by using the ‘race test.’

Any advertising outlet approached by opponents of gay marriage to carry their campaign material must ask themselves, “If this material was targeted at people on the basis of race would we publish it, put it to air or screen it on TV?”

If the Catholic Church claimed that children in interracial households “will be hurt and messed with” would newspapers run that advert? 

If the Australian Christian Lobby claimed that Asian adoption was a form of ‘stolen generations’, would radio stations air such adverts? 

If Chris Miles claimed that children in Arabic families were more prone to sexual victimisation, depression and suicide, would printers publishes those leaflets? 

Discussion and debate on marriage equality can be done in measured, reasonable ways.

There is no need for abuse from anyone. But the real damper on hate speech should not come so much from state laws, but common decency.

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*Brian Greig OAM, became involved in ‘gay law reform’ in his home state of WA in 1989, when the decriminalisation of homosexuality was a controversial topic around much of Australia. Reform was partly achieved then but much more remained to be done and so Brian served as WA’s spokesperson for Gay and Lesbian Equality (GALE) for most of the 1990’s. During this period he became that state’s first openly gay person elected to public office (Town of Vincent 1995), and then in 1998 was elected to the federal senate for The Australian Democrats. In doing so he became the first GLBTI activist elected to any Australian parliament. He served a six year term including briefly as Party Leader, a career that was dominated by his pursuit and profile around GLBTI issues. In 2002 he became the first MP to put forward marriage equality legislation. In 2011 Brian received his Member of the Order of Australia honours for “service to the community as a social justice advocate for the gay and lesbian community”. Since leaving parliament Brian has been working in media and public relations in Perth and is a volunteer to Australian Marriage Equality.