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OP-ED: How religious freedom is oppressing queer rights

As a gay King's graduate it is disappointing to watch my school now attempt to support queer discrimination

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During Year 12 I came across the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act in my boarding house and realised my high school could expel me on the grounds of being gay. Rationally, I knew it wouldn’t happen—for one thing, it would be terrible PR. But it did make me feel like a second-class citizen, and was partly why I thought it prudent to stay closeted at school. As a gay King’s graduate it is disappointing to watch my school now attempt to support queer discrimination at the federal level.

I have spoken to gay teachers from both private and public schools, and their opinions on the matter have ranged from “discriminating against gay people is wrong” to “discriminating against gay students is wrong but the teachers know what they sign up for”. The public school teachers who are covered under the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act were more forthcoming with their views than their private and religious school counterparts. The latter were circumspect, and reluctant to reveal their views. To my mind, this is suggestive of the psychological pressure that religious exemptions place on gay teachers.

After the majority of Australians voted to legalise marriage equality, then-Prime Minister Turnbull followed through with his promise to legislate marriage equality into law. However, to placate the religious conservatives Turnbull set up the Ruddock inquiry into religious freedoms. The Ruddock report has been delivered to the government, though its report remains confidential, and Turnbull has been ousted for a religiously conservative Prime Minister and a conservative cabinet.

The religious conservatives have seized on an opportune moment to strike. 34 Anglican schools, including King’s, have signed a letter to all Federal MPs supporting religious exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act, which allows for the discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

There has been a large backlash by both the public and the alumni of the Anglican schools, with three of the schools distancing themselves from the letter: Abbotsleigh, Barker College and Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). The headmaster of Shore described his decision to sign onto the letter as “the most humiliating moment of my career”. While it was heartening to see some schools respond to community feedback, other schools, including my own, doubled down. In a statement to media, the headmaster of King’s refused to back down from his position, while in the same breath claiming that the school would not expel gay students or staff (he made no mention of trans or intersex people).

If the schools are not going to discriminate on sexuality, gender identity or intersex status why do they need an exemption? The inference is that queer people would less capable at upholding the school’s ethos and, therefore, the school needs to be able to fire them on their identity as opposed to the quality of their character or work.

In a statement on Facebook, King’s wrote: “We recognise that we live in a time of heightened sensitivities in which proponents of gender extremism persist in a battle over religious belief.”

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It is unclear what exactly the school means by “gender extremism”, but it is often used to decry trans activism. It is a difficult enough time coming to terms with a gay identity in a boarding school but I cannot imagine how it must feel to come to terms with a trans identity at a boarding school where trans activism is cast as a form of “extremism”. King’s deleted their statement after I asked for comment.

The 31 schools maintain that these exemptions are necessary because a “positive right” to religious freedom has not been legislated yet. With the rhetoric coming out of King’s, I can only assume that this “positive right” will be a Trojan Horse, allowing for queer discrimination. We must remove these unjust exemptions and keep vigilant against any covert attempts to legislate them under the guise of “religious freedom”.