George Orwell’s mordant satire of politics and bureaucratic doublespeak famously featured the slogan that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. Watching the brouhaha about the Doctors for the Family submission to the Senate Inquiry into legal recognition of same-sex relationships (aka gay marriage), it’s difficult not to wonder whether all Australians are equal, but people with medical degrees and godfearing straight married people are more equal than others.
The short, emotive and - in my opinion - academically problematic submission was made by 150 medical practitioners and academics, including Professor Kuruvilla George. The professor is Victoria’s deputy chief psychiatrist and a member of the board of the Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC), a state government agency. According to today’s Age newspaper the fallout is likely to result in his resignation from the Commission.
The Doctors for the Family submission ignores the substantial body of research that is contrary to the beliefs of its signatories. It also draws strong conclusions from documents such as Patrick Parkinson’s report For Kids’ Sake. Parkinson’s report asks questions about family breakdown and the impact of poverty; it doesn’t try to demonise gay families.
The submission is merely an expression of “white coat magic”: opinion taken seriously by some readers (including, presumably, its authors) because it comes from people with medical qualifications and senior positions within academia. But it has real effects on the lives of gay people who face discrimination, and their parents, siblings and friends.
The significance of the discrimination has been noted by the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Psychological Society. The effects range from depression, anxiety and alienation that has sometimes resulted in suicide (a particular problem among gay teens), through to hate crimes that involve “gay bashing” and murder (on occasion “justified” through the “gay panic defence”).
Neither group shares the Doctors for the Family’s views about harms supposedly attributable to a “homosexual lifestyle” or same-sex parenting.
Orwell would have savoured yesterday’s “don’t blame us” media release from the VEOHRC, which indicates that “all people are equal before the law and have a right to equality”. As the agency responsible for protecting human rights in Victoria, the Commission sees the harmful effects of discrimination and the hurt and damage caused by prejudice, vilification and stereotypes.
In a liberal democratic state, senior officials such as the deputy chief psychiatrist, legislators and members of bodies such as the VEOHRC should be free to privately voice statements that some people find repugnant. Those statements should be assessed without reference to the profession or government body with which the speaker is associated.
But it’s puzzling that a board member of the Commission should be endorsing claims that are, at best, contentious and at worst, appear to be directly in conflict with both Victorian anti-discrimination legislation and the role of the VEOHRC to reduce “hurt and damage” attributable to homophobic vilification.
Professor George has reportedly now offered to resign from VEOHRC, after defending his signature on the basis that it was a private decision.
Doctors for the Family worries that gay marriage will mean that “freedom of speech and belief regarding the position we believe marriage has in society will be more limited”. It also worries that there will be “charges of ‘hate-speech’ and vilification, if we voice our belief that every child needs a mother and a father”.
From a legal perspective, the group’s anxieties are justified. Australian law has – often belatedly, often inadequately – recognised that women, Indigenous Australians and other groups can expect equal treatment rather than being “less than equal” or having half the rights enjoyed by their peers. It’s inevitable that same-sex couples will receive legal equality through marriage, in the same way that a woman is now seen as legally equal to a man (and not deprived of the vote or paid at 50% or 75% of her male counterpart).
Over the years, we’ve seen the community shocked that distinguished academics would call for sterilization of the “unfit”, for radical surgery to “cure” masturbation or psychosurgery to “cure” a disorder known as homosexuality. The history of Australian medicine has been disfigured by such calls, meaning that advocacy by groups such as Doctors For The Family should be analysed rather than taken at face value.
Freedom and sincere belief do not legalise hate-speech and do not mean that we should suspend critical evaluation of claims by people in white coats. All statements, with apologies to Animal Farm, are equal but some are nastier and sillier than others.