Queer Law Reform: Why We Need More Than Lip-Service

Queer Law Reform: Why We Need More Than Lip-Service

We have same-sex marriage in Australia, and now birth certificate reform for transgender people in Victoria and Tasmania. That’s great, but who do these laws really benefit? Who’s being left behind? Sumarlinah feels like there’s still work to be done, for the good of the whole community.

It’s been almost a month since the Victorian and Tasmanian government reform passed that allows trans people to change their sex on their birth certificates without undergoing sex reassignment surgery.

While I’m happy that now we can have legal documents that reflect our gender without having to prove our transness, this whole debacle—just like the same-sex marriage vote—leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

What makes me uncomfortable with both of these “wins” is the way white queers and allies view them as proof that we live in a progressive society.

Two cartoon people beside the title 'A quick guide to sexual orientation, sex and gender identity* a super simple comic guide

Check out Rooster Tails for a quick guide on terminology in an easy, accessible and comic format

When the same-sex marriage results were announced, white Australians were quick to blame immigrants for voting “no” in Western Sydney. But as queer Chinese Australian activist Carrie Hou points out, white Australia is quick to forget that the No campaign was supercharged by the Australian Christian Lobby, and that the end results nation-wide were 61.6% “Yes” to 38.4% “No”.

So what I’m hearing when white Australians jump up and down celebrating how progressive their country is:

“Ooh look at us, we did it. We are so much better than our Pacific and Asian neighbours because just over half of us think gay marriage should be allowed! If less immigrants moved here we would have had this sorted out years ago!”

Venn diagram with large circle titled 'issues faced by the queer and trans community' and a smaller overlapping circle with title 'acts that make wider society feel good about themselves. The arrow pointing from the part where the circles overlap is titled 'same-sex marriage and birth certificates reform'

Venn diagram by Sumarlinah Raden Winoto

For me, they’re forgetting that First Nations people of this continent, as well as most of the countries surrounding us, have ancient mythologies, names and respect for gender-nonconforming and trans people in their communities.

They’re forgetting that many of the countries that are more conservative today are most likely to have developed these policies due to Christianity that was forcibly imported when Europeans colonised them. And they’re forgetting that, for queer people of colour in Australia, being able to marry is not their biggest hurdle.

The ways queerness intersects with racism, bigotry, internalised hate and structural violence is not remedied by a piece of paper stating that I am just as human as you. 

It’s frustrating, we’re just repeating history

Let me take you back to the early days of queer visibility in the Western world, in Greenwich Village, New York. It was one of the first documented suburbs to be labelled as having a “queer scene”.

This is where the Stonewall Riots took place in 1969. In this era, being gay or gender-nonconforming was illegal in the United States. Up until 2019, it wasn’t common knowledge within the gay community, let along the mainstream population, that the key figures in these protests were black trans women

As director Lee Daniels says: “Stonewall has been sanitised, as has our whole history, of people of colour”.

When homosexuality was legalised in New York in 1980, this was seen as a win for middle-class gay white men, and for the progressive straight community. For queer people of colour, trans people, and even white gay women, it was a different story. Because the stigma of being black, brown, trans or a woman is not changed by legalising homosexuality.


Circular graph. The big circle is titled 'entire human population'. The tiny circle inside the big circle is labelled 'subsection that is wealthy+straight+white+cis+male. The large circle has an arrow with extra label as 'people who cannot (and should not have to) change who they are.

Graph by Sumarlinah Raden Winoto 


Laws don’t protect all of us against stigma and discrimination

Same-sex marriage does not change the discrimination faced by people living in black and brown bodies, people living with disability, or trans bodies. It doesn’t change if you can’t make rent, are on a bridging visa, or if you get harassed on the street for wearing a dress.

I argue that, as with Australia legalising homosexuality back in 1994, the same-sex marriage laws, and the birth certificate changes—while definitely good things—are benefitting the people closest to the rich, straight, white, cis (definition: a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person has or was identified as having at birth) ideal and thus are still enforcing a status quo that undervalues the health and wellbeing of anyone not naturally a wealthy, young, straight, white, cis man.

Wealthy, young, gay, white men benefit most from same-sex marriage. Wealthy, young, gay trans men will benefit most from the birth certificate changes.

These are important rights we should all have, but the energy, money and attention being poured into these policies are suggesting to the public that we are progressive and good while distracting us from the structural issues marginalised people face.

What about the issues that come with being queer and Indigenous? What if “Yes” supporters are being racist, thereby excluding queer people of colour from their communities?

A report published by the Australian Psychological Society details the mental and emotional toll the same-sex marriage vote had on the LGBTQIA community. Being exposed to bigotry and hate makes people feel dehumanised. Being Indigenous, black, brown, femme or trans or living with disability means you’re facing hate and discrimination from a multitude of places.

It’s time to get beyond the traditional human ideal

I feel like the huge momentum during the “Yes” campaign has mainly dissipated. But for queer people of colour who exist as multiple minorities, there is no break. We constantly have a new battle to fight.

While I applaud the birth certificate reform, I know it will do nothing for my trans sisters to wave their new paperwork in front of a bigot’s face if he wants to kill them. I know it will do nothing for the racists my black and brown siblings come up against. I know it will do nothing for the queer First Nations peoples who still need to fight the very same Victorian government trying to bulldoze their land.

If we want to uplift people the way we like to say we do, then what we need is structural change, a complete re-ordering of society where the ideal human is someone happy, healthy and loved for the way they are, instead of someone trying to emulate whiteness, straightness and a nonsensical gender binary. Lip service won’t cut through the white noise.