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We Must Smash Margaret's Homophobia Off The Court

Passing marriage equality would bring significant mental health benefits for people who identify as LGBTQ.

29/05/2017 11:44 AM AEST | Updated 29/05/2017 12:54 PM AEST

This month in Aceh, Indonesia, two young gay men were flogged with a cane 83 times each. They were found guilty under Sharia law of homosexual sex, after vigilantes entered their private apartment room and found them making love. The vigilantes kicked, slapped and insulted the pair before the police arrested and incarcerated them for more than 10 days prior to their public torture.

The next day, Reverend Margaret Court invoked her reputation as a tennis champion to publicise her faith-based views on homosexuality. In this instance she expressed her opposition to same-sex marriage and Qantas's support thereof, but in 2013 it was to allege that tennis player Casey Dellacqua was causing harm to her baby by raising it with a female partner, and in 2012 it was to condemn consensual anal sex as an "abominable sexual practice".

Channel 7 reporter Blake Johnson has tweeted photos of pamphlets distributed at Rev Court's church last year that claimed homosexuals are "brainwashing our children into homosexuality".

Over the weekend in Melbourne, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) drew praise at its national conference from Labor and Greens leaders for adopting a position statement in favour of marriage equality on health grounds.

The AMA policy comes one year after the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists' similar position statement, and five years after the Australian Medical Students' Association's. (Coincidentally, the 20-year-old man flogged in Aceh is a medical student.)

The evidence cited by these medical bodies in arguing for marriage equality is based on the significant mental health disadvantage observed among persons who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBTQ).

At the pointiest end, this translates into higher suicide rates, with the AMA paper referencing data that suicide attempts are up to 14 times higher among same-sex attracted Australians compared to their heterosexual peers. Indigenous and rural LGBTQ Australians are thought to be at even greater risk.

There is no genetic basis for the increased rates of depression, anxiety and substance misuse observed among the gender and sexual diverse, which leaves psycho-social factors to blame. Most of the difference is thought to be explained by 'minority stress', the internalised harm of decades of societal stigma and discrimination.

For instance, Rev Court's unrevoked assertion that Ms Dellacqua's baby would be better off with a father -- in 2006 an extensive report published in the United States medical journal Pediatrics proved the contrary, concluding that: "There is ample evidence to show that children raised by same-gender parents fare as well as those raised by heterosexual parents. More than 25 years of research have documented that there is no relationship between parents' sexual orientation and any measure of a child's emotional, psychosocial, and behavioral adjustment."

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Inconveniently for Rev Court, the report even argued that same-sex marriage would benefit children: "The rights, benefits, and protections of civil marriage can further strengthen these families."

In Australia, it was illegal to have homosexual sex in Tasmania right up until 1997, and age of consent laws discriminated against homosexuals in Queensland until 2016. Acceptance of gender and sexual diversity is improving, but until it is safe for any young person to come out, we are not there yet. Earlier this month, a school vice-captain coming out in front of his school assembly made national headlines for the bravery and novelty involved.

Things could be worse, of course. According to Amnesty International, Indonesia is among 76 nations that still criminalise homosexual acts. Many of these countries are Commonwealth nations that inherited laws against sodomy from the British, something former High Court Judge Michael Kirby has described as "England's least lovely criminal law export".

England long-ago changed its laws, but progress elsewhere has been slow. In the case of India, home to 18 percent of the world's population, the High Court of Delhi revoked the inherited British law in 2009, only to have homosexual acts recriminalised by a decision of the Supreme Court in 2013.

The Indian Ocean separates Perth from Aceh, but it would be folly to think that we are not linked. Rev Court repeatedly cites the Bible as support for her homophobia, just like so many in Aceh turn to the Quran. Both readings are contested by theologians, yet when legitimised by some religious leaders they result in physical and psychological harm to individuals, like the two young Indonesian men or the scores of LGBTQ persons we have lost in Australia to suicide.

Rev Court is not being silenced when others use their voices to counter hers -- rather, the arguments that she leveraged her fame to have printed in a major newspaper are being exposed for the personal prejudices that they are.

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Benjamin Veness is a medical doctor training in psychiatry who also holds a Master of Public Health. He was the author of the Australian Medical Students' Association's original 2012 marriage equality and health policy. Twitter @venessb

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