Latham’s anti-trans bills threaten to roll back hard-won rights

NSW One Nation Party leader, Mark Latham. Image: Dan Himbrechts/AAP (The Guardian)

No stranger to media controversy, right-wing politician Mark Latham has proposed two radical parliamentary bills which could seriously alter the lives of trans and gender diverse school students in NSW. Feature article by youth editor Corin Shearston.

In 2020, three years after Australia legalised same-sex marriage, NSW One Nation’s controversial party leader, Mark Latham has proposed two bills which threaten to deny the existence of trans and gender diverse school students in our state. They also encourage further discrimination against these groups who are already experiencing a higher suicide rate and increased levels of truancy from school as a result of poor mental health. Still awaiting a vote in NSW parliament, there’s still a chance that parts of Latham’s two bills could become law before Australia’s next federal election, which is expected to take place during March 2022. 

In further investigating this human rights issue, The Sentinel has received new insight into the content of the bills, the threats that are being posed, and what we can do to protest against them. 

The Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 

Just.Equal spokesperson Rodney Croome.
Photo: The Mercury.

The first of Latham’s two main bills to be introduced, in August of last year, this bill mainly aims to erase the identity of trans and gender diverse students across NSW, giving it the sinister alternative title, ‘the trans erasure bill’. The bill also seeks to restore a higher amount of parental control in influencing the decision-making of their children, due to Latham’s ‘very public and paranoid personal crisis about “the family unit”’, as a journalist from Sydney Criminal Lawyers recently described it. 

When Latham entered parliament in 2019 as the NSW leader of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, he also claimed that the “new left” were trying to turn state schools into “gender fluidity factories”, something that this bill aims to retaliate against. In a recent statement from social enterprise, Child Wise, the other aims of the bill were listed. 

Giving his opinion on the devised rules that follow, spokesperson from LGBTQIA+ advocacy group Just.Equal Australia, Rodney Croome, summarised his view of the bill to the The Sentinel, describing it as being “cynical in its intent, murderous in its effect, and authoritarian in its method.”

The bill aims to achieve seven things that will “render trans and gender diverse young people invisible”, Croome stated. Firstly, it restricts school staff from affirming a student’s gender, while also restricting school staff from helping these students to access support without medical and/or parental involvement. The extreme irony of this is that these potentially-affected students often seek school support before involving their parents in gender-based situations or mustering up the courage to come out to them. Latham’s apparent ignorance of this would likely result in students having to come out to their parents first before receiving support from their school. 

This situation worsens with four prohibitions concerning trans and gender-diverse students: the banning of teaching about trans and gender diverse identities along with a ban on using bathrooms aligning to identity, a ban on safe participation in team sports, and a ban on allowing trans and gender diverse students to have a say in the most fundamental decisions around their identity. 

As Child Wise have stated, many trans young people already know themselves and what they need, and they don’t need adults to give them unsolicited advice. Furthermore, the bill enables parents to remove their children from lessons which contradict their social and political values, even when those lessons may be the one time that a trans young person gets to hear something positive about their identity.

Speaking on behalf of The Gender Centre, spokesperson Eloise Brook critiqued the Education Legislation Amendment. “[This bill] still has to address the issue of being able to restrict the education of a section of the Australian community, trans young people”, she stated. “[If this bill was passed], the backlash would affect state governments, because of the way that it discriminates against children and young people’s [abilities] to access education the same as everyone else…if the issue is too problematic, it [won’t] stand.” 

Eloise Brook from The Gender Centre.
Photo: Facebook.

The Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020          

The other main piece of Latham legislation that has many concerned is his proposed amendment to NSW’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1977. His “religious freedom” amendment would give schools, charities, and private business the right to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people, women, and minority religions, on the grounds of religious belief. 

Apart from Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act 1984, NSW’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 is the broader and older piece of existing legislation to stand in Latham’s way. The act is defined as prohibition of unlawful racial and sexual discrimination in certain circumstances, while promoting equality of opportunity for all people.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 mainly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia. Alleged breaches of the act are investigated by the Australian Human Rights Commission, which should be the due process for Latham’s troublesome bills.

An almost-identical bill to Latham’s Anti-Discrimination Amendment has also been proposed by the ruling Morrison Liberal Government, which LGBTI advocate and writer Alastair Lawrie believes could be introduced into Commonwealth Parliament before the end of 2021. “They remain committed to introducing [it]”, he states.

As Lawrie explains, the four major problems with Morrison’s Religious Discrimination Bill are the exemption of statements of belief from Commonwealth, state, and territory anti-discrimination laws, increased difficulty for big business to promote diversity and inclusion, an easing of the process of health practitioners refusing to serve minorities, and an easing of the process of religious bodies to discriminate against others. 

Investigation into discrimination

When Latham first introduced his Education Legislation Amendment, the Coalition and Opposition parties could have immediately rejected it, as Lawrie notes, but they instead voted to refer the bill for inquiry by the Portfolio Committee No. 3 – Education. This committee happens to be chaired by Mark Latham himself. “[This creates] a serious and ongoing conflict of interest”, writes Lawrie. 

Two days of hearings were conducted into the bills, across 20-21 April 2021. Forty-two witnesses were scheduled to give evidence. Among these people, there was only one certified trans witness, (Teddy Cook, Acting Director of the AIDS Council of NSW), along with one parent of a trans child. 

Speaking at the hearings, Cook stated: “Trans people are not an ideology…we have always existed, we have always been in schools, we are not new.”

“Mark Latham’s Inquiry into Mark Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill has been as unbalanced and transphobic as his legislation is”, Lawrie expressed. He goes on to describe the Education Legislation Amendment as “the worst legislative attack on LGBTQIA+ rights in Australia this century”. 

Teddy Cook, Acting Director of the AIDS Council of NSW.
Photo: The ABC.

After it concluded, the committee report continued to recommend retaining the Education Legislation Amendment. It also recommended removing the ‘gender fluidity’ ban from the bill itself before placing it in Bulletin 55: Transgender Students in Schools, whose changes in Recommendation 8 are extremely unjust.

These seemingly malicious changes include not allowing students to self-determine their gender identity, outing students’ gender identities to parents, and preventing students from adopting a new name without approval from both parents. They proceed to ban trans kids from competing in school sports according to their gender identity beyond Year 6, to ban trans girls from using girls bathrooms unless they have had a ‘full medical transition’, to stop school counsellors from supporting trans and gender diverse students at risk without parental approval, and to identify trans students to all the parents of other students in their year group. 

With at least four Government MPs now joining the campaign against trans and gender diverse students, (Liberal and Labor members included), concerns have been legitimised for the Government introducing some of these points as law. Although they may not be as dire as new rules in the Latham bill, or the changes in Recommendation 8 of the Committee Report, passage of the Latham bill shouldn’t be entirely disregarded yet. 

The Government response to Latham’s Committee Report is due on 7 March 2022, which happens to be Monday after Mardi Gras. Until that day comes, we may not know which side the Government shall lean towards. There is still a chance for the Government to pass something before the next Federal election in March 2022, and there is no guarantee of the Labor Opposition voting against it at this stage. 

LGBTQIA+ advocate Garry Burns gave his thoughts on the matter and stated the following: “I verily believe that a tolerant and decent Parliament of 2021 will reject a bill that hurts our most vulnerable asset: our children.”

As for Morrison’s Religious Discrimination Bill, “Attorney-General Michaelia Cash is seeking to avoid the scrutiny of a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill”, writes Lawrie. “It remains unclear what Labor’s position is on whether there should be a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill.” 

Campaign considerations VS human rights oversights 

Dr. Tracie O’Keefe from SAGE.

In proposing these bills, it’s evident that Latham put a high amount of consideration into their rules on behalf of his voter body, as a possible reaction to the same-sex marriage campaigns of 2017. The resulting rules of the Education Legislation Amendment constitutes a form of apartheid. These are the opinions of Dr. Tracie O’Keefe from the political lobbying group Sex and Gender Education Australia (SAGE).

Along with holding various health titles, including clinical hypnotherapist, psychotherapist, and sex therapist, O’Keefe happens to be a British intersex and trans woman. She’s also one of the millions of British people who remember Margaret Thatcher’s severe fifteen-year-long ‘Section 28’ prohibition on positive teaching and references about LGBTQIA+ people, which was active in the UK from 1988 to 2003. When it was repealed, Thatcher’s conservative successor David Cameron apologised for the legislation, referring to it as “offensive”, and a “mistake”. Fortunately, O’Keefe doesn’t believe that Latham’s new bills could result in the same disastrous outcome as Section 28.  

Writing for The Sentinel, queer rights hero Peter Tatchell urges Australia’s political parties to reject any similar legislation that leaves LGBTQIA+ students unsupported and approves bullying on the grounds of sexual identity and gender. 

Commenting on the legislative obstacles that will hopefully threaten the future of these bills, O’Keefe notes, “the problem in these two bills going through is the Sex Discrimination Act [of 1984]…we spent years trying to get sex and gender and sexuality included in the act, which we were very successful in doing..[introducing these bills] will undo all that work.” 

Advocacy against Latham’s bills

Due to the posing of such draconian conditions, this bill has undergone a period of intense scrutiny, leading to public rallies, petitions, letters to MPs/representatives, and advocacy-based media (such as this article). However, based on a general consensus that ignoring new government developments ultimately empowers them, the Liberal and Labor parties’ refusal or neglect to publicly comment on these bills now appears as a backward step in the fight against them. 

Major decision makers who are most responsible for resistant action include NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, former Premier Berejiklian, and Education Minister Sarah Mitchell. In parliament last month, prompted by a question from NSW Legislative Assembly member Alex Greenwich, Perrottet vowed that he would defend the rights of LGBTQIA+ people to ensure they weren’t discriminated against. This contradicts his past work as an avowed conservative who disagreed with same-sex marriage in the postal survey of 2017. As Perrottet has not yet commented against Latham’s proposed bills, the honesty of this vow is still to be proven. 

LGBTQIA+ advocate Garry Burns. Photo: Facebook.

To this end, Garry Burns wrote a tough letter to Perottet himself, stating that Perottet’s own child might one day identify as transgender. In Burns’ letter, he asks Perottet how he would feel if he supported legislation in 2021 that said his child doesn’t exist, which could cause his child so much trauma that he or she suicided. 

Rodney Croome has overseen the launching of an international petition against Latham’s Education Legislation Amendment. “We’re hopeful that more and more [people] will realise how dangerous this is, [and they’ll] sign the petition [to] take action”, he states. 

He also notes that the issue ultimately has to be resolved in Australia, which would be significantly aided by the writing of advocacy letters to local State and Federal MPs and representatives. “So for those people in Sydney [and] across NSW who are concerned about this bill, I’d say contact your local MP immediately”, Croome told The Sentinel. “Speak out against it now and hold them to account.”

Sydney’s council elections are occurring on 4 December, which appears as a good opportunity for proper action to be taken against the bills and amendments of One Nation and Morrison’s Liberal Party. 

Sydney’s debut hosting of the international World Pride festival is expected for 2023, along with a double-sized Mardi Gras and hopes for an Oxford Street parade. Action needs to be taken against these anti-LGBTQIA+ bills now, so that every type of person can still celebrate in our city.

Get involved with Just.Equal’s petition for the Government to affirm trans kids, and not erase them. Speak out against the religious privilege bill, and consider writing a letter to your local state or federal MP. Follow Community Action for Rainbow Rights (CARR) to discover information about their upcoming public rallies and similar oppositional events from other groups.

Corin Shearston is the youth editor for The Sydney Sentinel.