In a major legal milestone, new protections against discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people are to be introduced. The new law broadens the basis for protection against discrimination to include “sexual orientation”, “gender identity”, “intersex status” and “marital or relationship status”.

This is the first federal legal protection in Australia for LGBTI people. It is also represents the first legal recognition and protection for intersex people, as a specific group, anywhere in the world. For transgender people, the changes set out a new definition of “gender identity” that addresses the gaps in state legislation. Where states or territories do currently have general anti-discrimination protections, it is transgender and intersex people who are the most likely to be left out of the law.

Morgan Carpenter, secretary of Organisation Intersex International (OII), welcomed the bill while reminding people of some of the reasons more work is needed. Morgan said, “Intersex people face discrimination because we have queer bodies. We face discrimination in access to healthcare, employment and schooling.”

A Gender Agenda executive director Peter Hyndal added, “Ninety percent of transgender and intersex people experience discrimination, with almost 40 percent experiencing discrimination on at least a weekly basis… These experiences have a profoundly negative effect on the mental health outcomes for transgender and intersex people. This legislation will make a very real difference to the lives of so many transgender and intersex people within our community.”

The changes have been the product of more than 17 years of parliamentary debate and community lobbying, including at least five different inquiries. And while the new law is undoubtedly a step forward, significant areas of discrimination remain untouched. Most notably, the law allows faith-based organisations to continue to discriminate in a number of areas.

In a concession to bigotry, religious organisations and schools have the right to deny employment and services to LGBTI people in all areas except aged care. It remains entirely legal for a faith-based school, even if funded by the state, to expel students on the basis of their gender identity or to refuse to hire a gay teacher.

Hospitals connected to religious bodies can openly make employment decisions on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. A faith-based homeless shelter can evict or refuse to house a transgender resident.

The laws also fail to establish full equality in marriage, which is specifically exempted from anti-discrimination provisions. This enormously symbolic affront to LGBTI people, which enshrines the idea that only heterosexual relationships are legitimate or worthy of recognition, must also be scrapped for full legal equality to become a reality.

These changes are a welcome and overdue step. That the law no longer wholly legitimises bigoted attitudes is very important. But legal changes alone cannot change well-established attitudes, practices and cultural norms that in myriad subtle ways contribute to the oppression and marginalisation of LGBTI people.

We need ongoing action and struggle in workplaces, schools, universities in the streets to win real and meaningful social equality. These laws are welcome encouragement and a major milestone in that fight.

Amber’s Story

Amber Maxwell

As a young trans person living in Perth, my experience attempting to find housing illustrates the discrimination that transgender people face on a daily basis. I’ve been rejected from share-houses on the basis that the advert specified they were looking for a female and I don’t “fit that criterion”. Several times I was rejected on the basis that the house was looking for “real girls”.

When I sought their assistance, Youth Futures, Western Australia’s TINOCA (Teens In Need Of Crisis Accommodation) service, informed me that it is their policy to house young people with people of the same physical sex, regardless of gender identity. I was refused access to the service because I objected to this policy. A different service hung up on me after telling me that they only had spaces for females (evidently I didn’t sound female enough).

Perth Inner City Youth Services is currently the only youth crisis accommodation service in Western Australia that has a specific LGBTI program. It currently has a waiting list of well over six months. This is little comfort to any young trans person with nowhere to go.

Until very recently in WA, there was only one psychiatrist who dealt specifically with transgender patients. There are now two in the entire state who accept referrals. Before beginning hormone therapy, it’s a legal requirement that you have a referral from a psychiatrist. The dire lack of qualified professionals means that obtaining this referral can take many months or even years.

While initially attempting to access services to help me transition, I came across a “youth specialist” who after three sessions informed me that he had only ever met one other person my age who identified as transgender. He then went on to explain that he had convinced this person that it was not in their best interests to transition and that consequently he neither could nor would help me.

In addition to this, my experiences with doctors from whom I’ve sought assistance for other issues made clear the serious lack of suitable health care for trans people. I was admitted to hospital in December last year with an admission document that, I later found out, described me as a “transitioning transvestite”.

I was also told by another doctor that though the staff were aware of my status as a trans person and aware that I identified as female, I would have to constantly remind people and correct them if they misgendered me. This same doctor also asked me whether I planned to have genital surgery, regardless of the fact that this had no relevance to the issue I was hospitalised for.

Life as a transgender or gender diverse person is often characterised by difficulty and discrimination. Family rejection, homelessness, depression, attempted suicide – these are a regular part of our existence.

There are, however, rays of hope. The campaign for equal marriage rights provides both a source of inspiration and a platform from which other issues faced by LGBTI people can be addressed.

Let’s use that platform and fight against the oppression that we face. The history of the LGBTI struggle has taught us that things change only when we stand up and make it happen. Let’s organise and fight right now.