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8 hard-won rights for LGBTI Australians

  • Written byCampbell Rhodes
  • DateThu, 07 Sep 2017

The LGBTI community has a long history of struggling against prejudice and oppression, with many rights hard-fought and won over decades.

This article was written in 2017, It uses terminology that was common at time of writing but which may not be appropriate over time.

This article uses the term LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) throughout. There is no single community standard for this acronym, and this article has adopted the usual form used by government documents. The Museum recognises some groups consider the acronym inadequate, and does not wish to exclude any group of people from discussions of rights.

This article also uses terminology now considered outdated or offensive. This terminology is intended to be read purely in its historical context.

The author and the Museum would like to thank the members of the LGBTI community who helped with the writing of this article.

Here are some of the milestones in the struggle by LGBTI activists fighting for their rights in Australian society. This list is by no means extensive or definitive, and represents only a small part of the story of LGBTI rights in Australia. 

1975: Decriminalisation

The 1972 murder of gay Adelaide academic George Duncan was widely blamed on undercover police. The murder made Duncan a martyr to the gay rights movement, and sparked calls for reform. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Amendment Act 1975 made homosexual acts legal between consenting adults. The Australian Capital Territory followed in 1976, followed by Victoria in 1980. It would take more than a decade for all states to follow suit.

The Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Act 1994 formally legalised homosexuality across Australia, overriding state laws. The Tasmanian government had refused to act on law reform, and did not comply with recommendations to remove anti-sodomy laws on the basis of human rights and discrimination. The conflict between state and federal law went through several legal challenges, with campaigners like Rodney Croome and Nicolas Toonen arguing for the law’s repeal. Finally, in 1997, Tasmania repealed its sodomy laws, the last Australian jurisdiction to do so. 

A man, Don Dunstan, stands on decking overlooking a river, wearing a white skivvy and dark cardigan, with a film camera on a tripod in the background.

The charismatic SA Premier, Don Dunstan, was a leading force for the decriminalising of homosexuality. Much later in his life he came out as a bisexual man, but even before then, always supported the LGBTI community and championed their rights. Image: State Library of South Australia

1978: The first Mardi Gras

The 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York saw hundreds of LGBTI people revolt against their treatment by police, and saw the birth of the gay rights movement, as it was called at the time. On the anniversary of the riots, LGBTI people began leading marches and protests, and the gay pride parade was born. 

On the ninth anniversary of Stonewall, 24 June 1978, several hundred people marched from Taylor Square to Hyde Park in Sydney. When they tried to move through barricades, police moved in. 53 people were arrested, some of whom were violently assaulted.

The heavy-handed approach by authorities was strongly criticised, and led indirectly to a relaxation of protest laws in NSW. The event the next year was peaceful and successful, and it soon became a popular Sydney event: the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Today, the Mardi Gras contributes $30 million annually to Sydney’s economy and attracts crowds of hundreds of thousands.

A red double-decker bus with rainbow banners displaying the words '78ers: the first mardi gras' with people on top of the bus waving to crowds on each side of the street.

Participants in the original 1978 Mardi Gras proudly participating in the 2016 celebration. Image: Ashley Rambukwella via Flickr, published under Creative Commons

1982: Anti-discrimination laws

Even though homosexuality was still a crime, in 1982 the Wran government in New South Wales passed an amendment to the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, making it illegal to discriminate against LGBTI people.  The amendment was partly a response to conservative forces blocking moves to decriminalise homosexuality, which did occur two years later. The NSW amendment paved the way for other states and territories to follow. The federal parliament took much longer to pass a comprehensive ban, but finally did so on 25 June 2013. Of course, none of this legislation ended the discrimination, but it was hailed as a step forward in LBGTI rights.

1986: Recognition of transgender people

 In 1986, after a prolonged campaign of letter-writing and lobbying, transgender model and dancer Estelle Asmodelle won the right to amend her birth certificate to reflect her gender identity. The change meant it became possible for transgender people to have their documentation corrected; it subsequently became possible to change passports as well, with difficulty. The right to be legally recognised was an enormous milestone for the transgender community, which continues to face discrimination and harassment today. Asmodelle, and other pioneers in the transgender rights movement, are still active in providing support to LGBTI people.

From 2011, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade introduced new guidelines making it much easier for transgender and intersex Australians to hold correct passports. The guidelines removed the requirement for gender confirmation surgery in order to alter the gender on a passport, and gave three options – male, female or X.

Estelle Asmodelle

Estelle Asmodelle became the first Australian transgender person to amend her birth certificate in 1986. Image: Wikimedia Commons

1992: Removal of military service ban

In 1973, future PM Paul Keating had voted in the House of Representatives against the decriminalising of homosexuality in the ACT. By 1992, his attitude had changed. Defence Force chiefs and Keating’s own Defence Minister, Robert Ray, strongly favoured retaining a ban on openly gay men and women serving in the Australian Defence Force. Keating argued strongly in Cabinet against the ban, arguing the ADF should be brought in line with Australian community values and human rights obligations. Defence leaders and the Opposition strongly opposed any change, but despite that opposition, Cabinet voted to lift the ban and allow LGBTI people to serve.

In 2005 the ADF began ensuring equal benefits to the partners of LGBTI personnel.

1996: Representation in Parliament

The first openly LGBTI person elected to significant office in Australia was Ralph McLean, elected Mayor of Fitzroy in 1984. While the federal and state parliaments had a small number of LGBTI members, it took longer for openly LGBTI people to be represented in the federal parliament.

Bob Brown, a former Tasmanian MP and wilderness campaigner, was elected to the Senate in March 1996. When he formally became leader of the Australian Greens in 2005, he became the first LGBTI Australian to lead a national parliamentary party.

In 2002, Brown was joined in the Senate by Labor’s Penny Wong, the first openly lesbian federal parliamentarian. Wong became the first openly LGBTI federal minister when she served in the Rudd and Gillard ministries, and in 2013 the first LGBTI person to lead a major party in the Senate.

In 2014, Andrew Barr made history when he became Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory, becoming the first openly LGBTI person to lead an Australian government.

Senator Bob Brown

Senator Bob Brown became the first openly LGBTI person to serve in the federal parliament on 1 July 1996. Image: Australian Greens (Creative Commons)

2002: Adoption rights

While some jurisdictions had allowed LGBTI people to adopt children, most Australian states only permitted it, from the 1980s, under some circumstances. In 2002, Western Australia passed the Acts Amendment (Lesbian and Gay Law Reform) Act 2002 which made the sexual orientation and gender of couples irrelevant when considering their application for adoption.

In 2004 the ACT passed a similar law. It took a while for the other states to catch up, with the most recent change being made in South Australia in 2017. Today, only the Northern Territory prohibits LGBTI couples from adopting children.

A family photo of two women and two young children in rainbow shirts

From 2002, LGBTI people gained the right to adopt children. Image: Wikimedia Commons

2013: Convictions expunged

Beginning in 2013, an injustice was corrected when state and territory governments began expunging (removing) the historical convictions of LGBTI people convicted under sodomy laws. South Australia allowed sodomy convictions to become ‘spent’, not appearing on criminal records, in 2013. New South Wales removed all sodomy convictions in 2014, and Victoria and the ACT in 2015. On 24 May 2016, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews formally apologised to LGBTI people for their past treatment.

'We criminalised homosexual thoughts and deeds. We validated homophobic words and acts. And we set the tone for a society that ruthlessly punished the different – with a short sentence in prison, and a life sentence of shame. From now on, that shame is ours. This parliament and this government are to be formally held to account for designing a culture of darkness and shame. And those who faced its sanction, and lived in fear, are to be formally recognised for their relentless pursuit of freedom and love.'

- Daniel Andrews


Campbell Rhodes is MoAD's Copyright and Research Coordinator.