Bigots want the right to discriminate. We must protest to stop them.


April Holcombe from  Community Action For Rainbow Rights shares her fears about the proposed Religious Discrimination bill.

I remember the day, four years ago, when Australia voted overwhelmingly for a YES to equal marriage rights. The following evening, 10,000 of us marched in victory down Sydney’s Oxford Street. I remember the feeling of pride, of power. I had come to the big city straight from high school, in 2011, and came out as transgender. It was a very difficult time. Street harassment, physical intimidation and violence, job discrimination, and police harassment were part of my daily life.

Things have come a long way for transgender people in these 10 years. The marriage equality protests played a big role, emboldening LGBTI people and galvanising supporters. I know because I was in the thick of it. As soon as I came to Sydney, I joined the left-wing activists building the movement through Community Action for Rainbow Rights.

Our smashing victory in the Liberals’ plebiscite demolished the myth that homophobes were the ‘silent majority’. I never stood taller or prouder than the day we won. We did so much more than win marriage rights: we effected a social transformation in attitudes and values.

That is what the hard right has been desperately seeking to wind back ever since. A week after the YES victory, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull appointed an “expert panel” to investigate religious freedom in Australia. It was a life raft for a rump of nasty bigots who should have been washed away for good.

This contemptible elite had used the party platform, the press, the police and the pulpit to violently oppress LGBTI people for decades. Now they have rebranded themselves as ‘mum and dad’ victims of a zealous gay lobby. Many on our side say a religious discrimination bill ought to be “a shield, and not a sword”. Yet the very terrain of the debate acts as both: a shield for Trumpian conservatives and powerful church hierarchies to hide behind while they sharpen the sword.

The latest version of the bill drops some of the worst elements from the previous one. With more public opposition, we can and should defeat the bill entirely. Otherwise, it will override anti-discrimination law, and enable bigots to bully, harass and vilify unfettered, so long as it is their “religious opinion”.

It is not simply what the bill legalises, but the message it sends. It will be a green light for religious schools to “clean house”: the recent sackings of lesbian teachers Karen Pack and Steph Lentz will be the opening act of a hateful counteroffensive.

The effects will ripple out beyond religious institutions. For example, I am studying to be a high school teacher. Will public school principals protect transgender teachers from bigoted parents or students? Or will it be less trouble simply not to hire us if the latter keep complaining to a “Religious Freedom” Commissioner? What if the principal is a transphobe? Multiply this by every workplace in Australia.

If the bill passes, the conservative right will come for more. NSW One Nation leader Mark Latham’s “Parental Freedoms” bill would sack teachers who discuss transgender rights in school. Members of Labor and Liberal have both expressed support. The new NSW premier celebrated Trump’s election and thinks government welfare erodes the heterosexual nuclear family. Where the hell are we going? There are echoes here of the conservative backlash in the United States, where nearly every state legislature is debating anti-LGBTI proposals – and many are passing.

This opening battle of a right-wing culture war must be turned into a rout. Only public opposition in the streets will achieve that. The rich and powerful do not care about our opinion if it’s passive or expressed in private meeting. The Labor Party must also be shamed, not pleaded with, for its appalling silence and tacit support for the bill. YES in 2017 showed us that ideas can change. But the question now is: for better or worse? Will we keep advancing or let our enemies wind back the clock?

That is why Community Action for Rainbow Rights has called a big demonstration for Sunday 5 December in Sydney. We are bringing together many different organisations – LGBTI groups, trade unions, civil society and progressive faith bodies – to show the forces of bigotry that we shall not let them pass.

I’m not going back to the world I came out to ten years ago. My students will have a transgender teacher, and they will be free to be who they are.

Yet we’re not on a travelator. Standing still won’t take us forwards. If we want to protect what we’ve won, and keep building a better world, we must fight.

Details of the Sydney protest available here, and Brisbane’s protest on 4 December here.

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