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I Still Don't Feel Comfortable Holding Another Man's Hand

This was a hate crime of the most extreme kind.

15/06/2016 2:21 PM AEST | Updated July 15, 2016 12:54
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Australians value real equality and inclusiveness. It's time our laws -- and parliamentarians -- caught up.

This week, a horrific hate crime targeting a gay nightclub in Orlando has devastated LGBTI communities and their allies right across the world.

It is a stark and sobering reminder that acts of violence are still an all too real experience for many LGTBI people, even in places known for their liberal values and ideals of equality. Despite all we've achieved in the journey for human rights, prejudice and homophobia persist as dangerous forces in our world.

Safety is still a big issue for LGBTI people in Australia, and homophobic bullying, violence and intimidation still happen in our public places. I'm a gay man in my early thirties and I still don't feel comfortable holding another man's hand or kissing him in a public place. I know that's a common experience for many LGBTI people.

Here in Australia, as in the United States, the gay bar has always been considered a safe space where you can go to be accepted for who you really are, without fear of prejudice. In my home state of South Australia, the Mars Bar is an institution. Many gay bars in cities around the world enjoy a similar status. To see that safe space being attacked in this way, adds another distressing dimension to this tragedy.

Without a doubt, this was a hate crime of the most extreme kind. But while it was a singular event, in terms of its scope and savagery, the intolerance and hatred that motivated it can be found in each of the violent attacks directed at gay, lesbian and transgender people that happen every day.

While these attacks continue to occur, we all need to take responsibility. We need to demand that our governments, our education system, our legal institutions and our community leaders step forward to condemn hatred and bigotry in all their forms.

The leadership that's needed has been sorely lacking in successive federal governments. We still have laws that allow active discrimination against people based on their sexuality or the fact that they are transgender. We still don't have marriage equality and face the prospect of a costly and divisive plebiscite, that will come with an anti-marriage equality campaign sure to be venomous and destructive.

We are locking up asylum seekers fleeing homophobic persecution in detention centres, regardless of the impacts on their personal safety or mental health. And this year our Prime Minister allowed the neo-conservative agenda to prevail with the announcement that federal funding of the much needed Safe Schools anti-bullying program, that actively promotes diversity and inclusion, would be withdrawn.

These kinds of policies say that LGBTI people are undeserving of full equality. They say that we are less worthy of protection. They send the message that we are somehow lesser members of our society.

In the wake of the Orlando shootings, Australians have come out in droves to candlelit vigils and commemorations. These events are being held to show support for the victims, their friends and families, and for all who have been affected by the devastating events. They are also public statements about the kind of society that we are and that we want to be. Inclusive and compassionate. Proud of our diversity. Protective of the right of all to be safe, secure and loved.

It is clear that Australian culture is changing and communities are becoming more inclusive and supportive of LGBTI people. More and more Australians are championing LGBTI rights. By turning up in the tens of thousands to line Oxford Street as they cheer on the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. By consistently backing marriage equality, even in the absence of parliamentary leadership. By expressing outrage at attacks on Safe Schools program. That's because Australians value real equality and inclusiveness. It's time our laws -- and parliamentarians -- caught up.

This week's tragic events have been a sad reminder that homophobia and transphobia are still very real. And also a reminder that we need to keep LGBTI rights firmly on the agenda; both in our community and in our political debate.

We have to continue to say that our communities demand better. That laws shouldn't be influenced by hate and intolerance. And that everyone has a right to feel safe and secure, regardless of who they are or who they love.

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