Lessons from the Rainbow Isle: Rodney Croome on advocacy

Rainbow Isle

When it comes to LGBTIQ legal rights, Tasmania is another country. The Rainbow Isle enjoys the most robust LGBTIQ human rights protections in Australia. Indeed, the gulf between Tasmanian laws and those in many other states is astonishing.

Even more remarkably, Tasmania arrived at this point after coming from well behind. It was the last state to decriminalise homosexuality. It was also the only state that ever criminalised cross-dressing.

Rodney Croome first came to national attention as an activist when police arrested him at Hobart’s Salamanca markets in 1988. In the decades since he remained at the forefront of battles for LGBTIQ+ rights both in his home state and on the mainland.

In the 1980s and 90s, when Tasmanian activists organised campaigns for law reform, the authorities responded with the cruellest and most repressive homophobic offensive experienced in modern Australian history. Police arrested LGBTIQ activists for setting up a stall in a public market. Anti-gay rallies were held around the island. Legislators called for the deportation of homosexuals. Around the world, the Rainbow Isle was jeered as ‘Bigot’s Island’.

The Rainbow Isle: from worst to best

But since then, in a single generation, we have gone from worst to best; ‘from Alabama to Vermont’ as one American journalist put it. Tasmania’s profound transformation highlights that far too little has changed in the other states as well as providing valuable lessons about how this can be rectified.

The three charts included in this article compare Australian state laws on discrimination, harmful speech and transgender rights. They summarise the detailed analysis of Alastair Lawrie, one of Australia’s foremost experts on LGBTIQ legal rights. They illustrate the stark difference between Tasmania and much of continental Australia.

What these charts don’t show is that, in addition to the best laws, Tasmania often led the way. The Island State enacted Australia’s first civil partnership law. Then, same-sex marriage advocates enlisted the support of both major parties — an Australian first. As a result, the Tasmanian Parliament was the first to recognise overseas same-sex marriages, introduce a same-sex marriage law and pass motions calling for federal reform. Later, a Tasmanian Liberal Premier was the first government leader in Australia to commit to a public apology for historical gay and trans convictions.

rainbow Isle

rainbow isle

Gold standard

Looking across all of Tasmania’s gold-standard laws highlights another distinctive feature. They are founded on a set of basic principles. Our relationship laws do not privilege cohabitation or conjugality when it comes to which relationships are considered worthy of recognition. That effectively allows Tasmanians to define for themselves which of the personal relationships is most important and deserves legal rights. Tasmanian discrimination laws prohibit discrimination against LGBTIQ people by faith-based organisations or in the name of faith. Our laws against harmful speech prevent not only incitement to hatred but all forms of intimidation, humiliation and bullying against the broadest range of people. Our gender laws not only allow trans people to amend their birth certificates without surgery, but also empower Tasmanians to remove gender altogether, so they are no longer defined by it.

Individual choice, no religious privilege, and protecting the vulnerable are the values that animate these laws.

Tasmanian laws have proved their worth in terms of practical impact on the lives of everyday people. In the last two years, researchers at the University of Tasmania conducted two studies comparing the experiences of LGBTIQ employees in Tasmania and other states. One focused on the employees of faith-based organisations, and the other looked at employees generally.

In both studies, LGBTIQ Tasmanians consistently scored higher than other LGBTIQ Australians when it came to feeling protected from discrimination and having equal opportunity in the workplace. The gap between Tasmanian and continental Australian LGBTIQ employees in faith-based organisations was particularly pronounced.

Rainbow Isle LGBTIQ organisations and Government

When it comes to policy reform, Tasmania has the most, and the longest-lived LGBTIQ/Government reference groups. Reference groups in health, police, education, justice and the whole-of-government go back, in some cases, a quarter-century. They meet several times a year with the whole-of-government group chaired by the Premier.

These groups are responsible for Tasmania leading on everything from school inclusion, through police training to health policy.

For example, in the last few months, the State Government developed a new mental health strategy with a particular focus on LGBTIQ mental health. It will soon launch an LGBTIQ community survey to determine future priorities for its whole-of-government LGBTIQ strategy.

It recently funded gender-neutral toilets in Devonport and LGBTIQ advocacy training statewide.

Such policy initiatives also occur in other states. But notably, in Tasmania, they are happening under a Liberal Government and have been happening for decades.

Most importantly, Tasmania’s leadership in law and policy reform is built on a solid foundation of transformed community attitudes. When the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality began in 1988, only 31% of Tasmanians supported reform, well below the national average.

Yet, in the 2017 marriage postal survey Tasmania returned a Yes vote above the national average. It was second only to Victoria among the states.

The state achieved that high Yes vote despite having the oldest, poorest, least educated and most rural population in Australia. Traditionally, this demographic profile has been seen as unfriendly to LGBTIQ equality. But as Tasmania shows, that doesn’t have to be the case.

We have truly earnt the title of the Rainbow Isle.

Tasmanians know how far we have come. That is why heterosexual decision-makers have funded plaques and monuments commemorating our transformation in Hobart, Ulverstone and elsewhere.

Foreigners can also see it. In 2014, a delegation of Hong Kong police visiting Australia included Hobart in their itinerary. The reason? Because they saw the Rainbow Isle had the best model for LGBTIQ police liaison in the nation.

The religious right is also alert to the higher standards set in Tasmania. Stuart Robert, Lyle Shelton and any number of conservative pastors and prelates single out Tasmanian LGBTIQ laws for criticism.

There’s a reason Christian Porter’s Religious Privilege Bill explicitly targets only one state’s laws, Tasmania’s. Our laws pose the most serious threat to those prejudices, and to the privileges anti-LGBTIQ campaigners want to protect.

However, not everyone acknowledges Tasmania’s transformation and our leadership.

Cultural bias

Culturally-entrenched habits-of-thought see the Rainbow Isle as the dark place modern Australia emerged from rather than an enlightened place it should move toward.

This is partly because the roots of many Anglo-Australian family trees lie in the gloom and brutality of Tasmania’s early convict prisons, and it is only later in Sydney and Melbourne that these trees bloomed.

Some Australians also have a Freudian habit of projecting on to Tasmania everything they don’t like about themselves, not least their prejudices against Indigenous people and LGBTIQ folk.

Whatever the reason, Australians are more familiar with seeing Tasmania in their rear vision mirror than on their GPS.

Because of these cultural biases, I’ve heard the Tasmanian achievement dismissed as a fluke, an aberration, a boast.

That’s frustrating. It ignores facts and it stops people asking obvious and necessary questions: How did Tasmania change so much? What can we learn from its success that will help the whole nation move forward?

I often find myself invited to write about Tasmania’s transformation. However, there are others equally qualified to provide insights, so I canvassed the opinions of four long-time Tasmanian LGBTIQ advocates.

Jen Van-Achteren

Jen Van-Achteren

A long-term board member of Equality Tasmania (then known as the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group), Jen is also a member of Bi-Tasmania.

“The gay law reform campaign raised awareness. It also inspired the Tasmanian community to resist allowing a place in future for the hate and discrimination witnessed during that debate.

“The determination of LGBTIQ+ advocates and the respectful manner of their protests won the admiration of even their opponents.

“LGBTIQ+ folk related their personal stories to politicians, the media, community groups, their family and networks. That won the hearts and minds of our beautiful heart-shaped home.

“Advocates refused to compromise on reforms. We did not do deals, sell out other community members or settle for incremental reforms. Our LGBTIQ+ community is too small to be divided in its quest for human rights and dignity. As a result, unlike most states, all members of our community benefitted from protections, not only gays and lesbians.

“We fought for legislation to benefit all Tasmanians. Sometimes, legislation that discriminated against us also impacted other minority groups, such as people living with a disability. In those cases, we included the other minorities in our efforts.

“Activists must stay vigilant because the battle is never over. Fearmongering and new legislation can undo hard-fought wins. Listen to all viewpoints. Keep raising awareness, telling the stories of real people; respectfully, and with good intent. Your sincere actions will open hearts and minds.”

Lee-Gwen Booth

Lee-Gwen Booth

Arrested defending the LGBTIQ rights stall at Salamanca Place in 1988, Lee-Gwen later became secretary of the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group. In that capacity, she spoke to a range of groups across Tasmania in the early 1990s.

“Malcolm X said, ‘You can’t legislate goodwill — that comes through education’.

“Direct action is essential to achieving legislative change. Willingly being confrontational, putting oneself in harm’s way, and even inviting arrest when necessary can help push the issues to the forefront of the political debate. It is also important to be relentless — to know what you want and to keep trying new strategies when old ones fail. Sometimes, as with Toonen v. Australia, you may succeed when the best minds say it’s a mistake!

“However, as well as legislation, the goal should be to create a healthy, welcoming environment, a sense of belonging and community. Sensational, splashy news events will get the nation talking, but it is not just the nation we need to affect. To effect lasting change, we need to bring the community with us. We must consider the impact of words and actions on the hearts and minds of those watching.

“What we did right in Tasmania was to foster civil debate and personal connections. In addition to peaceful protests and rallies, we tirelessly discussed the issues with individuals and groups. We deemed no group too unimportant or too small to be worthy of attention. We talked — and talked and talked — about our lives in Tasmania, about the pain anti-gay laws caused, about our hopes for the future. And, in so doing, we not only changed the laws… we changed our little part of the world.”

Mike Cain

Mike Cain

A current board member of Equality Tasmania, Mike Cain took a landmark discrimination case against the gay blood ban in 2005.

“Tasmania leapfrogged the other states because of the invigoration of young people assisting change-makers in getting messages off the ground. We also possessed a parliament determined not to return to the dark ages of pre-1997.

“As Darwin said, it’s not the strongest species that survive, it’s those most adaptable to change. Tasmanian advocates modified their message and its delivery to the circumstances. They adapted to technological advances. They influenced the community, but it also influenced them. Advocates grew smarter and wiser; I think motivated by a passion not to return to the pre-1997 days.

“We never gave up. It can seem hopeless sometimes, like a wave crashing against the Twelve Apostles, a battle you might never win. But perseverance and gaining strength from the rightness of the cause gets you through. Opponents want us to give up in the face of constant opposition, but like the tide, we will wear them down because of our stronger conviction.”

Angie Dwyer

Angie Dwyer

Professor Angela Dwyer is an academic specialising in criminology and a board member of Equality Tasmania.

“The key reason I see for Tasmania having the best LGBTIQ rights laws in Australia is the level of advocacy work. Tasmania has some of the foremost LGBTIQ advocates in Australia. They have worked tirelessly.

“LGBTIQ advocates in Tasmania spend long hours meeting with politicians to gauge their position on legislative change and to educate them about the importance of reform. They organise media releases, rallies, pledge signings and media campaigns.

“Tasmania enjoys a unique position. Advocates can easily access parliamentarians, unlike Victoria, for example, where it might take months to organise a meeting. However, a group of people tasked with regularly catching up with parliamentarians does effect change.

“Advocates in Tasmania are well educated about the processes of advocacy work and legislative change. These forms of understanding are crucial to achieving the introduction of new legislation.

“Existing advocates, with their experience of making legislative change happen, need to start educating future LGBTIQ advocates now! They will need a thorough understanding of the political process and legislative change. A future collective of LGBTIQ people with these skills will maintain an awareness of LGBTIQ issues on the political radar.”

Michael Dempsey

Michael Dempsey

In addition to undertaking several successful complaints about hate speech, including against John Laws, Michael is a former board member of the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group.

“We have convinced the general community in Tasmania that the LGBTIQ community and members matter. We showed that we are a better society for giving every opportunity for every person to thrive, whether young or old, new or born here and LGBTIQ or not. That created a groundswell of support for Tasmania as a shining beacon for an inclusive society. To paraphrase pioneering Tasmanian wilderness photographer, Olegas Truchanas:

“‘Is there any reason why Tasmania should not be more beautiful on the day we leave it than on the day we came?… If we can revise our attitudes towards the land under our feet; if we can accept a role of steward and depart from the role of the conqueror if we can accept that man and nature are inseparable parts of the unified whole, then Tasmania can be a shining beacon in a dull, uniform and largely artificial world.’

“Early advocates enabled those who followed to tell our story, by putting in place the legal protections to do so in the knowledge that we were secure in our homes, jobs and families. From that springboard, lots of other matters could be tackled.

“My advice, is follow your heart and dreams, tell your friends and family how you feel and what you want, contact politicians to have a meeting, and of course have fun.”

Rodney Croome

Prejudice, discrimination and stigma

LGBTIQ people are a long way from being free and equal. Prejudice, discrimination and stigma continue to nip at our heels and sometimes yell in our face. Indeed, across the western world, resurgent anti-LGBTIQ prejudice is attacking our hard-won rights under the banners of ‘religious freedom’ and the ‘gender binary’.

The Rainbow Isle is no exception. Powerful elements in the state government have sought to water down our Anti-Discrimination Act and remain unhappy about our landmark gender reforms. But so far they have failed to make inroads thanks to our activism and the depth of commitment to LGBTIQ equality in Tasmania’s institutions and the broader community.

As well as combatting resurgent discrimination, we must move ahead on many important and urgent reforms. These include a thoroughgoing ban on conversion practices and ideology that affirms LGBTIQ people, systemic LGBTIQ inclusion programs in all schools and adequate funding for LGBTIQ health services.

Some folk may think this article glosses over those problems and challenges. Some may accuse me of fostering a sense of complacency. But my intention is precisely the opposite. The point of this article is to inspire Tasmanians to work for greater inclusion and equality by reminding us how far we have come and how we got here. My intention is also to inspire LGBTIQ advocates in other Australian states. If we Tasmanians can do it, so can you.

No second-rate reforms

In particular, I want to show that LGBTIQ people need not accept compromised or second-rate reforms. Too many recent LGBTIQ reforms have been deeply caveated with religious opt-out clauses and the omission of difficult or controversial elements.

For example, there were the 2017 marriage amendments with their ‘religious freedom’ carve-outs. Then there were the 2019 Victorian gender reforms that precluded the possibility of removing gender from birth certificates, and Queensland’s recent conversion practices ban that excluded religious settings where most conversion practices take place.

Tasmania shows we need not accept these legislative indignities. It demonstrates we can have full equality. It illustrates how much is possible when we act boldly and believe in ourselves.

I hope that within a few years every box on the tables above will contain a little blue dot. All LGBTIQ Australian should feel they live in the same country with the same rights. The sooner the rest of Australia heeds the lessons from the Rainbow Isle, the sooner that time will arrive.

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Rodney Croome

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