National Inquiry into Discrimination against People in Same-Sex Relationships:
Financial and Work-Related Entitlements and Benefits
Launch 3 April 2006
Launch Speech - Laurie Berg, Convener, Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (NSW).
When I was a kid, I thought that, when I grew up, I might l like to be an astronaut or an actress, or a lawyer fighting for clients on death row. It changed by the season. But at no point, that I can remember, did I want to grow up to be gay.
Gay people, as far as I could tell, didn't have families or long-term loving relationships. True, they got to dress up and have fun each year at Mardi Gras. But not much else about being gay appeared to be fun. And it certainly wasn't something to be proud of.
But hopefully, in some ways, things have changed - gay sex is no longer outlawed as a criminal act, Kissing Jessica Stein and Queer Eye have shown us that there are gay people all over the place, and they certainly aren't hiding their true feelings, or feeling ashamed. Not that we needed Hollywood to tell us that. It goes without saying that all over Australia , gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people, and their children, are living vibrant, fulfilling lives.
During the 1990s the Lobby campaigned for recognition of same-sex relationships as de facto relationships in NSW law. In 1999, we were finally successful and NSW law was changed to give us almost all of the rights held by straight de facto couples. But under federal law, same-sex couples have virtually none of the benefits given to straight couples. In response, the Lobby has begun to campaign for same-sex relationship recognition in federal law.
Like Lobby campaigns in years past, the first step is a series of community consultations to ensure the Lobby is campaigning for law reform that the NSW gay and lesbian community wants. So, with a Law and Justice Foundation grant, we have been talking to people throughout NSW about their same-sex relationships and what they want in the way of federal law reform. And when we say NSW, we're talking not only Darlinghurst but throughout Sydney , the Blue Mountains, Newcastle , Wollongong , Lismore and Bathurst .
We're asking people how they want their same-sex relationships to be recognised by federal law - would they want a civil union or a marriage? What does recognition mean to them? Do they want the piece of paper and the ceremony, or is it about having equal rights as de facto couples? Which rights have they been deprived of and which rights do they need? In short, what sort of problems do people face in a same-sex relationship and what sort of law reform would redress these issues? We're seeking answers to these questions and will publish our findings in July this year.
We've only just started, but so far, and unsurprisingly, we've found that in many ways same-sex couples go through exactly the same things as heterosexual couples. At one consultation, David proudly told the group that he was 71 years old and had been with his partner Ben for 35 years. "35 and a half", Ben interjected and shook his head; there'd be private words later that night.
Many of the gay and lesbian parents we've spoken to are too busy to have a gay agenda, unless that agenda is 1. cook dinner, 2. tidy up toys, 3. walk the dog. They're dealing with skinned knees, reading bedtime stories and never enough time in the day. These families face all the same joys and frustrations as other parents.
But same-sex couples are clearly not in the same boat as heterosexual partners. In case we were under any illusions about that, the Coalition and ALP closed ranks a year-and-a-half ago to explicitly 'clarify' that the institution of marriage in Australia is open only to one man and one woman. And, since then, the government has reportedly been refusing to issue single Australian gay men and lesbians with certificates of single status, in a futile effort to prevent them from marrying in Canada or Spain or having a civil union in New Zealand .
Certainly, the contours of gay rights around the world have changed dramatically in recent years. Now, thanks to Elton John, we can rejoice in queer celebrity weddings. But definitely not on Australian soil. And at the end of the day, once we're tired of poring over the glossy shots in Who Weekly, same-sex couples in Australia just want the ordinary rights afforded to heterosexual couples every day.
Back to David, who told us about the time he had to tell his local chemist that he and his partner weren't eligible for the couples' Medicare safety net. They were his longest standing customers. Even the chemist couldn't believe that they didn't qualify as a family unit for Medicare. Leanne talked about her anxiety for her partner, Sue. She's been financially supporting Sue and would continue to do so for at least the next two years. Leanne was extremely worried that if something happened to her in that time, Sue would have no access to Leanne's death benefits, and be left without any financial security.
So in many many ways, things haven't changed that much at all. While people are all individual and want different things, we can't get away from the fact that, generally, society sends clear messages about what is important: find a true love, maybe one day buy a home, have children, build a nest egg for retirement. And understandably people see these milestones as accomplishments; they can be a source of tremendous pride, both for the couple involved and their families and friends.
But when the law says that, if you build your life with someone of the same-sex, you don't have the same legal rights as a straight couple, the clear message is that your relationship doesn't count. These milestones - shared home, children - don't apply to you. The law's effect redoubles - it not only denies same-sex couples rights, but in doing so further diminishes our relationships as not as valuable as other relationships and our love as not equivalent to heterosexual love.
One last story. A few years ago, I met the love of my life overseas and we talked about how she might come to live here with me. We hadn't lived together for a full year, so it was going to be a stretch to make the case for an interdependency visa which is the only one allowing Australians to sponsor their same-sex partners. Obviously, even if we planned to have a commitment ceremony here, or a wedding in Canada , we wouldn't qualify for the 'fiance ©' visa open to straight couples. As it turned out, she was lucky enough to be sponsored by work and was able to make the move. But the point is that legal protection of our relationships shouldn't come down to luck.
The Lobby is extremely enthusiastic about HREOC's inquiry. Previous HREOC inquiries have led to substantial law reform. And, like past inquiries, this one will go a long way to making people in mainstream society aware of issues of discrimination affecting people throughout Australia . Everyone on the street knows about the gay marriage debate, but they are perhaps not so aware that Australian law systematically denies same-sex couples superannuation benefits, or workplace entitlements like carers' leave.
The audit of financial discrimination across all federal and states laws will be tremendously valuable as a resource for policy-makers and community advocates by identifying areas of discrimination and recommending reform. When the peak human rights organisation in Australia acknowledges what gay activists have been saying for a number of years - that gay rights are human rights - it challenges a prevailing myth that gay activists are the only people who are concerned about gay rights. And, significantly, it confirms that same-sex relationships are valuable to society and, like heterosexual relationships, are worthy of being nurtured and respected.