From Shadows to Pride:

The Transformation of LGBT+ Rights in Australia

It’s Pride Month around the world (UNYA, n.d.) and while some parts of the world allow people to celebrate who they are freely without fear, it’s not the same everywhere. Much of Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia are unsafe for LGBT+ people (Human Dignity Trust, 2023). And while countries like the UK and USA and backsliding on the rights of LGBT+ people (ACLU, 2023; Brooks, 2023; Levin, 2021), Australia remains a safe harbour (GayGuide UG, 2023) that continues to progress the rights of LGBT+ people (Frost & Gore, 2023; Hernandez, 2023).

And while Australians have a lot to be proud of when it comes to the current legal status of LGBT+ people, it hasn’t always been the case and it has been a long, painful and hard-fought battle to get to a place where equality is the law. This is what we’ll be looking at today. Do note that I’ll be focussing mostly on the legal changes over time, and not the significant advocacy and pressure groups that forced governments and parliaments to become more humane over time.

Note: This article will include details that some people might find distressing. The past really was the worst.


The Early Legal Landscape and the Criminalisation of Homosexuality

The legal rights of LGBT+ people were effectively non-existent once the British colonisation of Australia began. The Australian colonies, with their origins in British rule, effectively adopted the ethos of UK laws at the time, including those that criminalised homosexuality, such as the Buggery Act of 1533. These ideas were upheld and codified by the colonial parliaments that later formed with the passage of criminal sodomy laws in the 19th Century, of which the punishments were often death. Even after the Federation of Australia in 1901, when the colonial parliaments transitioned to state parliaments in a modern nation state, the anti-gay laws continued to be enforced. From 1890, there was a transition from the death sentences to life sentences in jail, however the state of Victoria took a bit longer, retaining the death penalty for sodomy until 1949 (Carbery, 2010; Moore, 2007).


The Decriminalisation Movement and Legal Reforms

In the 1960s, lobby groups began to campaign against the criminalisation of gay men (Willett, 2014).  In 1973 the Prime Minister John Gorton presented a motion in the Australian House of Representatives stating that what “consenting adults” did in private shouldn’t be criminalised. The three main political parties at the time allowed their members to vote according to their conscience, instead of along party lines, and it passed the chamber 64 votes to 40 (The Canberra Times, 1974). Unfortunately, as sodomy laws were passed by the state parliaments, this was only a symbolic gesture, and it would require the states themselves to decriminalise since it was not an area that the federal parliament had constitutional jurisdiction over.

Public support for decriminalisation grew and from 1975 to 1997 each state and territory in the country repealed the sodomy laws and related anti-gay legal concepts like “gross indecency”. The Australian Capital Territory, ever the heart of LGBT+ advocacy, wanted to act in 1973 however it did not have its own government and was subject to the will of the Parliament of Australia (ABC News, 2015; Roberts, 2022).

Here is how decriminalisation proceeded:

  • South Australia in 1975
  • Victoria in 1980
  • The Northern Territory in 1983
  • New South Wales in 1984
  • Western Australia and Queensland in 1990 (ABC News, 2015)

Tasmania was a special case because the lower house voted in favour of reform, but the upper house blocked it. The case was taken to the High Court of Australia which drew a lot of public attention to the situation as this was the final state to resist change. The upper house felt pressed enough by this attention and legal action to relent and allow decriminalisation to occur (ABC News, 2015).

Having said that, men with sodomy convictions were still listed as guilty of crimes until several decades later. South Australia once again led the way with “laws allowing for the expungement of historical offences for gay sex” in 2013 (AGD-GSA, 2013). The other states and territories followed, with the Northern Territory becoming the final jurisdiction to act in 2018 (Northern Territory Legislation Database, 2018).

In 2009, while same-sex couples could not yet marry, the Rudd Labor Government made many significant changes that removed legal discrimination “to equalise the treatment of same-sex couples, and any children raised by those couples”. This included things like “taxation, superannuation, health, social security, aged care and child support, immigration, citizenship and veterans’ affairs” (Singerman, 2008).


The Recognition of Same-Sex Relationships and Marriage

In Australia, the Marriage Act 1961 stated that marriage was “the union of 2 people” but didn’t specify genders because by convention it was assumed that the couple would consist of a man and woman. By 2004, the Howard Liberal/National Coalition Government was lurching further into religious fundamentalist waters (Porter, 2005) and understanding that there was increasingly public support for gay couples to marry, it committed what was, in my opinion, the ultimate act of bastardry by amending the law to specify that marriage was only “between a man and a woman”. And beyond that, required that the marriage officiant or celebrant was forced to make this exclusionary statement out loud (Marriage Amendment Act 2004).

Celebrants hated saying it, most people at weddings hated hearing it (Dolan, 2017), and I’m sure gay people knew it was a deliberate slap in the face and attempt to make them feel unwelcome by out of touch politicians (Tasevski, 2018; Tatz, 2015) who at best didn’t care about them and at worst actively hated them (I don’t have a source for this part; it just seems obvious to me so take it as my unsubstantiated opinion if you must).

In 2011, the Labor Party had adopted a policy of half-heartedly supporting marriage equality but would not bind its members to vote in favour of it (Simms, 2015). Unfortunately, the ruling Liberal/National Coalition Government was extremely divided on the subject. In 2017, a nation-wide survey of all Australian voters saw majority approval to change the Marriage Act to allow partners to marry without consideration of their “sex or gender”. This allowed the Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to force his ruling coalition to allow a free vote on the topic in Parliament, which saw a majority vote it into law: marriage equality had been achieved (AGD-AG, 2018). And since 2018, same-sex couples across Australia have been allowed to adopt children (HRLC, 2018).


The Abolition of the “Gay Panic Defence”

In the past, courts in Australia allowed the provocation doctrine as a legal defence against violent crimes like murder if the victim was gay. Being able to argue a murder charge down to manslaughter due to provocation literally allowed people to get away with murder (Shaw, 2016).

Different jurisdictions had different solutions to this obvious problem. Tasmania, New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria abolished the use of provocation as a defence entirely (Blore, 2012; Brook, 2014). The Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory didn’t do exactly the same but did remove the justification of “non-violent homosexual advance” in defence (Blore, 2012). Similarly, in 2017 Queensland removed “unwanted sexual advance” from provocation defence (Robertson, 2017a) and, uncharacteristically late to such reforms, in 2020 South Australia removed the “common-law gay panic defence” leaving the entire nation free from such type of defence (Dayman, 2020).


LGBT+ Rights in Schools and the Safe Schools Coalition

The Safe Schools Coalition was launched in 2010 to reduce the bullying and assaults on LGBT+ children in Australian schools, which was recognised as a major problem (Alcorn, 2016a). Victorian schools adopted the Safe Schools programme in 2010, and in 2014 the Abbott Liberal/National Coalition Government adopted it across Australia (Ryall, 2016). Safe Schools was warmly regarded by many state governments and non-governmental groups, and more importantly was improving the lives of LGBT+ children (Alexander, 2016).

However, in 2015 and 2016 social conservatives decided to focus their ire on it, portraying it as some kind of depraved sex dungeon for children and in true ‘won’t someone think of the children’ style enough people lapped up the confected outrage.

Unsurprisingly, the same sorts of figures who staunchly opposed marriage equality were involved in this fearmongering propaganda (Alcorn, 2016a; Moulton, 2015) and the Turnbull Liberal/National Coalition Government gutlessly caved to this contrived outrage and gutted much of the program as a condition to continuing to fund it (SBS News, 2016). Only the Victorian and the Australian Capital Territory governments stayed strong in the face of this manufactured farce by continuing with the original programme and funding it themselves, while the other state and territory governments either cravenly agreed with the Federal Government or limply protested the changes but went along with them anyway (Alcorn, 2016b).

And ultimately in 2017, the Morrison Liberal/National Coalition Government axed the national programme in its entirely, meaning that lies, disinformation, and fearmongering successfully scored a cheap victory for anti-LGBT+ forces as the Safe Schools Coalition dissolved that same year (Robertson, 2017b). This sordid ending was not exactly Australia’s finest hour when it came to caring for our LGBT+ youth.


The History and Impact of Conversion Therapy

Conversion therapy is a horrific pseudoscientific practice that seeks to “cure” LGBT+ people by seeking to change their sexuality, gender, or identity from what they themselves identify as to what cisheteronormative moral guardians deem ‘suitable’. It is a dangerous and harmful practice with no scientific or medical basis to supports its use. It is entirely an attempt at brainwashing people and causes negative effects on victims including but not limited to “low self-esteem, depression and suicide ideation”. It unfortunately has a long history in Australia, dating back to at least the 1950s (Johnson & Bennett, 2018).

Today, as people increasingly realise how fraudulent and harmful it is, it has become more of a secretive, underground practice run mostly by fundamentalist religious organisations. Governments in Australia have received pressure to ban and root out the practice because it only causes harmful outcomes (Tran, 2018).

Fortunately, individual states and territories have been acting on this, albeit slowly:

  • In 2020, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory became the first jurisdictions in Australia to pass laws banning conversion therapy under penalty of jail time (Adams, 2020; Brown, 2020)
  • In 2021, Victoria followed (Lambert-Smith, 2021)
  • In the past few years there have been several attempts to ban the practice in South Australia, but to date no laws have yet been passed (Richards & Skujins, 2020; Thomas, 2022)
  • In 2022, Western Australia announced plans to pass laws banning the practice, but this process is not yet complete (Hastie, 2022; Medhora, 2017; SARAA, n.d.)
  • Tasmania is shaping up to be a battleground akin to the Marriage Equality Debate and Safe Schools with the usual suspects using the same specious arguments of “free speech” and “religious freedom” in opposition to the government’s stated plans to outlaw the harmful practice (Bird, 2022; Holmes, 2022)
  • The Liberal and Labor Party leaders in the 2023 New South Wales state election both agreed to outlaw the practice but this process has not yet happened (Kidd, 2023)
  • I couldn’t find any information about the status of conversion therapy in the Northern Territory, which makes me suspect it has not yet been banned.

With less than half of the states and territories in Australia having outlawed conversion therapy, this is an active and harmful black spot on Australia’s record and needs to be addressed promptly.


The Recognition of Transgender and Intersex Rights

The first reported case of an Australian receiving gender-affirming surgery was in 1956 (Mirror, 1956), and in 1987 a trans person was legally recognised and allowed to change her birth certificate gender which led to increased awareness of trans people and trans issues and the laws around passports were also amended (Wood, 2020). In 2013, a trans person asked to be the first Australian to be legally regarded as “neither a man nor a woman” (Simmonds, 2013) and in 2014 the High Court of Australia confirmed that this was to be allowed (Bibby & Harrison, 2014; High Court of Australia, 2014).

Australia was a world leader in 2013 when it established protections in anti-discrimination legislation for intersex persons and was the first country to hold “a parliamentary inquiry into intersex medical interventions” (Australian Senate Community Affairs Committee, 2013). In 2016, Intersex Human Rights Australia made submissions to the UN Committee Against Torture regarding the “dignity and rights” of intersex people, especially regarding the harmful medical procedures undertaken on intersex children without their consent (Morgan, 2016). The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 has also been amended to include “intersex status” as a “protected attribute”, meaning discrimination against a person on the grounds of their intersex status is unlawful (AHRC, 2013).

In the current month, as of this article being published, the Australian Capital Territory passed the first law in the country that banned “unnecessary and irreversible medical procedures for intersex people”. Many intersex children have been subjected to unnecessary surgery (often for cosmetic reasons) and this law would prevent such actions until they’re of an age to consent to such treatment. Notably, this law allows for cases of emergency intervention when truly necessary (Frost & Gore, 2023).

And even more recently than that, Queensland changed the law to allow trans and gender-diverse people to change their birth certificate gender without the need for surgery (Jurss-Lewis, 2023). This leaves New South Wales as the last major jurisdiction in Australia where surgery is required to change gender (Hernandez, 2023).


LGBT+ Rights in the Military

Gay and lesbian people were not allowed to join the Australian military until 1992, although many did anyway, especially during the armed conflicts Australia participated in during the 20th Century. The Keating Labor Government lifted the ban in 1992 (Smith, 2009; The Associated Press, 1992), however in an act of spite typical of the Howard Liberal/National Coalition Government, in 2003 “same-sex partners” of serving members were prevented from access to “the benefits of a support program” that mixed-sex couples were eligible for (Walsh, 2003). In 2009, the Rudd Labor Government extended military benefits to same-sex couples that they had previously been denied (ABC News, 2008), and in 2010 under the Gillard Labor Government trans people were allowed to openly serve in the Australian Defence Force without penalty (Beck, 2010).


The Culture War Imports

Australia is no stranger to the importation of culture wars from places like the USA, as shown with the Howard Liberal/National Coalition Government’s prosperity gospel style of governance (Porter, 2005), but in the last year or so there has been a dramatic increase in anti-trans propaganda and fearmongering from the UK and USA.

Anti-trans bigotry is running rampant in the United Kingdom (John, 2021; Nagesh, 2022), and some of these British bigots must have decided Australia was ripe for conversion. Unfortunately for them, they misjudged Australia and protestors easily outnumbered supporters of bigotry. It also didn’t help their cause that the neo-Nazis supporting them performed Nazi salutes at one of their public appearances (Cosoleto, 2023; Elkin, 2023).

It wasn’t of a particular surprise to me, hate attracts hate after all, but it did make many people aware of that anti-trans people who call themselves ‘feminists’ find common cause with far-right misogynists and anti-women groups (Cosoleto, 2023; Elkin, 2023). This blow-in anti-trans hatemonger who I’m not even going to name was ultimately drowned out by protesters who correctly pointed out to her that she had Nazis on her side and that she should go back home because such hate-speech isn’t wanted in this country (Hansford, 2023).

Across the United States, there have been threats made from bigots and far-right extremists against events where drag queens read books to children in libraries (Bollinger, 2021; Brend, 2022). This type of political violence has now begun to creep into Australia, with the Goulburn Mulwaree Council and Monash City Council cancelling events in response to threats by angry bigots.

Not all councils have gutlessly given in to extremists, but those two councils definitely have and it’s a mistake (Woodburn & James, 2023): according to experts on political violence, allowing far-right extremists to successfully cause events to be cancelled by making threats only emboldens them and teaches them if they just make enough death threats, bomb threats, or other threats of violence, they’ll be able to get what they want. These bigots need to be pushed back against and investigated, not coddled or catered to (Alfonseca & Guzman, 2023).



While Australia has taken a long time to get here, when compared to other developed nations like the USA and UK, Australia is a much safer place for LGBT+ people. Rights are not being undermined and rolled back like they are in those countries (ACLU, 2023; Brooks, 2023; Levin, 2021), and in some cases are progressing forward. I think as an Australian I can be proud of where we stand today. But we should never lose sight of ways to improve: by fully stamping out conversion therapy in all states and territories, and pushing back on the bigoted culture war imports.

A particularly sinister version of countries exporting bigotry is what we’ve seen recently in Uganda, which has passed horrific new anti-gay laws including 20-year jail terms and in some cases the death penalty (ABC News, 2023b). It’s worth noting that such hateful laws aren’t entirely homegrown: there is a concerted campaign of funding and coordination by anti-LGBT+ rights people from Western nations (Wepukhulu, 2023).

When even the Pope has spoken out against the criminalisation of gay people (ABC News, 2023a), it’s a good indication that anti-LGBT+ people are on the wrong side of not only history, but also ethics, morality, and human decency.



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