NSW finally equalises age of consent

Issue 

BY DALE MILLS

SYDNEY — For years, NSW has had one of the most backward gay age of consent laws in the Western world. That changed with the May 27 passage of the Crimes Amendment (Sexual Offences) Bill through NSW parliament.

The bill reduces the age of consent for gay men from 18 to 16, bringing it in line with the heterosexual and lesbian age of consent. Until now, an 18-year-old man having sex with a 17-year-old man could be punished with five years of imprisonment.

The vote — 23 to 16 — led to stormy applause in a public gallery packed with supporters. A previous attempt to equalise the law, through a private members' bill put up by Jan Burnswoods in 1999, had been lost by one vote.

With the relief came a feeling that there was a lot of work to do. One of those in the gallery was Rathana Chea, National Union of Students queer officer. He told Green Left Weekly that "the vote was good because a lot of young people will be inspired — but liberation isn't won in parliament."

International comparisons

The age of consent in Australia varies between 16 and 17. In Queensland, while the age of consent for gay and straight people is equal, anal intercourse is banned for both until 18 years of age.

The age of consent for gay sex is 16 in Britain, Belgium, New Zealand, Germany, Norway and Portugal. It is 15 in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Poland and Sweden. France has had an age of consent for gay and straight sex set at 15 since 1810. It is 14 in Austria and Canada, and 13 in Korea.

The NSW equalisation was an important step towards ending discrimination against young gay men. Young gay men need to be able to approach health workers and sympathetic adults without having to admit to a "criminal" activity.

The NSW AIDS Council has pointed out that the previous law meant that educators, doctors and social workers feared prosecution under section 78Q of the NSW Crimes Act, which could have punished "inciting" or "advising" a 16- or 17-year old on how to have gay sex with two years' imprisonment.

It is true that prosecutions under the age of consent laws were rare (although a Nowra man was jailed from 1997 to 2001 for having sex with a 16-year-old).

But illegality produces an atmosphere of hostility and fear, rather than support for young men growing up in a homophobic environment. Homelessness, drug, alcohol and tobacco use combined with received verbal and physical abuse are almost inevitable.

The worst thing to call a boy in a school playground is a faggot. According to the parliamentary briefing paper prepared for the vote, young gay men are more than three times more likely to commit suicide than their straight male friends.

Homophobia

There was a considerable minority opposed to reducing the gay age of consent. Those who wished to display their homophobia had plenty of opportunity to do so, both inside and outside of parliament.

The May 18 issue of Catholic Weekly quoted the Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell: "Parliament should not enshrine the ideological claim that homosexual and heterosexual activity are morally equivalent." As a good Catholic, Pell adopts the Pope's line that homosexuality is inherently "disordered". Baptist churches also ran an intense email campaign.

Supporting the bill was the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, the Law Society, the Family Planning Association, the National Youth Roundtable, the AIDS Council of NSW and the Parents and Citizens Association. The equalisation was also recommended by Justice James Wood's 1997 royal commission into police corruption.

While the bill was introduced by the Labor Party and supported by Liberal leader John Brogden, neither Brogden nor NSW Premier Bob Carr campaigned for it. Quite the opposite, both major parties gave MPs a conscience vote on the issue. The National Party opposed the bill.

Fundamentalists

If the religious fundamentalists didn't have seats in parliament, their arguments would have been laughable. Liberal MP John Ryan said that he knew which way to vote by reading the Bible, even if Jesus didn't say a thing about homosexuality.

"Jesus is my friend", he said in parliament, as if they had just had coffee together. "He has been an important part of my life. I believe he is relevant today. I have no difficulty at all in picking up my Bible, understanding its principles and finding my way through the issues raised by this bill."

After extensive Bible quotes, Ryan explained that he wasn't obsessed by "the plumbing" involved in young men having gay sex, as he was opposed to all sex outside of marriage, regardless of age. However, Ryan confused the entire gallery by finishing with explaining that not everyone could live up to his ideals, and so he supported the bill.

Reverend Gordon Moyes of the Christian Democratic Party gave the house an explicit 538-word description of the mating habits of the Australian wedge-tailed eagle, which apparently had something to do with marriage.

Reverend Fred Nile spoke in favour of raising the female age of consent from 16 to 18.

Labor disgrace

The prize for disgrace, however, belonged to the Labor Party. By allowing a "conscience" vote, the party allowed a "bigoted conscience" vote.

In the first stage of the legislation, ALP member for Liverpool Paul Gibson said: "The legislation is a total sham. I have no doubt that the paedophiles will rejoice."

Thirteen Labor MPs voted against the legislation: Richard Amery, Marie Andrews, Paul Gibson, Kevin Greene, Noreen Hay, Grant McBride, Marianne Saliba, Toney Stewart and Joe Tripodi in the lower house, and Tony Burke, Tony Catanzariti, Tony Kelly and Eddie Obeid in the upper house.

National MP Russell Turner defied his party to vote for the change, saying: "My [gay] son has a partner, a business and a home in Orange. He is accepted by friends of my wife and I ... the arguments against equalising the age of consent are generally based on hatred of homosexuals."

The Greens campaigned strongly for the bill. They spoke eloquently for it, and Greens MLC Lee Rhiannon left the chamber repeatedly to brief supporters outside.

"Gay and lesbian people deserve the same rights as heterosexual people", said Rhiannon. "This bill goes a long way towards delivering those rights ... However, it is not good that the Labor Party has allowed its members a conscience vote on this issue. ... The Labor Party should implement its policy: that is what being a political party is all about."

Gay youth suicide

The youth suicide statistic quoted in the briefing papers is borne out by international studies. A study by Jay Paul published in the August 2002 issue of the American Journal of Public Health found that 12% of gay urban men attempted suicide, usually before they were 25. This was four to eight times higher than their straight comparators.

A study of 1019 gay men in New Zealand published in the March 2003 American Journal of Psychiatry found that gay men were five times more likely to harm themselves than straight men.

A survey of more than 4000 US high school students published in the US journal Pediatrics in 1998 found that gay males were 3.6 times more likely to have attempted suicide in the last year. They were also nine times more likely to have injected drugs and four times more likely to have been threatened at school with a weapon.

Extraordinarily, the very end of the debate in the upper house was ambushed by Liberal MP Charlie Lynn. He told an astonished upper house that a member of Bob Carr's cabinet had "fucked" and "robbed" a 15-year-old boy. The allegation, which had nothing to do with the matter before parliament, seemed designed to tarnish the presentation of the vote in the next day's media. Carr, who described the allegation as "incredible", referred it to the Police Integrity Commission.

[Dale Mills is a member of the Socialist Alliance].

From Green Left Weekly, June 4, 2003.

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