As we head into the second half of 2016, some might accuse Australia of fiddling while Rome burns. We are debating the why, when and how of a plebiscite on marriage equality when lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in other countries are being persecuted and killed because of who they are.
Achieving marriage equality in much of the Americas and Europe has freed advocates in those parts of the world to start playing a more active role in fighting for the human rights of LGBTI people globally.
For example, the International Commission of Jurists, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and the Human Dignity Trust all played key roles in challenging the validity of laws in Belize that criminalised consensual gay sex between adult men in private. That litigation resulted in a court last week declaring such laws – a legacy of British colonialism – were unconstitutional.
What’s happening on our doorstep?
Twenty countries in the Asia-Pacific region have laws criminalising sex between consenting males: 12 in Asia, eight in the Pacific.
In some of these countries, LGBTI people are being targeted with increasing hostility. Brunei’s proposed introduction of sharia law, which includes death by stoning for those who commit the “crime” of homosexuality, and escalating attacks on Indonesia’s LGBTI community are evidence many LGBTI people in the region are far from safe.
Even when laws criminalising same-sex sexual conduct are not enforced, they still have a chilling effect on the ability of LGBTI people to lead lives of dignity and equality. It is difficult to assert a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of your sexual orientation or gender identity when the law says your very identity makes you a criminal.
With such persecution of LGBTI people taking place on our doorstep, you would expect human rights activists in Australia to be working hard to advance the rights of LGBTI people in the region. A few are trying to assist local activists in their fight for respect and equality. But the vast majority are concentrating their efforts on achieving marriage equality at home.
What Australia’s lack of progress means
This single-minded focus on what’s happening in Australia has regional ramifications.
First, not allowing same-sex couples to marry has a negative impact on our credibility as a country that respects LGBTI rights.
In the UN Human Rights Council’s review of Australia’s human rights record in November 2015, several countries commented on our lack of marriage equality and encouraged the government to amend the Marriage Act to allow all couples to marry regardless of their gender.
Second, the resources needed to convince the government not to hold a plebiscite, which will be divisive and harmful to vulnerable LGBTI youth, while lobbying to ensure the terms of any plebiscite that is ultimately held are fair and just, and simultaneously preparing a campaign to convince the majority of Australians to vote in favour of marriage equality leaves little time or energy to work on other issues facing LGBTI communities.
The long campaign for marriage equality is already leading to volunteer fatigue. By the time same-sex couples are finally able to wed in Australia, activists may be burnt out and unable to contribute to the fight for human rights of LGBTI people elsewhere.
Our inward focus on marriage equality means Australia is largely absent from efforts to increase respect for LGBTI people in our region. Initiatives that focus on regional LGBTI issues – such as the LGBTI Pacific Youth Forum, funded by the US State Department and being held in Sydney in October – are likely to be a rarity until Australia achieves marriage equality.
Only once we have our own house in order will we be in a position to work on advancing LGBTI rights in the many countries that have few or no safeguards to protect LGBTI people from discrimination and persecution.
Thus, one of the real – but largely unacknowledged – costs of prolonging the fight for marriage equality in Australia is that we are failing to contribute to global efforts to advance respect for the rights of LGBTI people.
This is one of many reasons why federal parliament should get on with its job of legislating to allow same-sex couples to marry without resorting to an unnecessary plebiscite.
Authors: Paula Gerber, Professor of Human Rights Law, Monash University