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Why Israel Folau’s fight for protection of religious freedoms is a redundant argument

Boleyn is a Sydney-based queer-pop artist whose latest single “re: 21” is out now.

I was 12 the first time I was called a faggot. To be honest, I don’t remember the first time it happened, or who said it first. What I do remember was the almost daily onslaught at school. My grades sank as I stopped putting my hand up to answer questions – not wanting to draw any unnecessary attention to myself. Things thrown at me in hallways, or at the back of my head in assemblies. Taunts and jests. In hindsight, it was mean kids doing mean things. But anyone who’s been bullied knows these things quickly find a home. We internalise these lies, until they become truth. Shame, fear. Unworthy. Unloved. It takes years, hours of therapy to unravel. Some never get that chance.

This story is not a new story. For members of the LGBTQI community it is a daily reality. And for all the progress we’ve seen in recent times, with the passing of marriage equality in Australia and the first openly gay man running for President of the United States, we are still so far. So far from queer kids suffering in high school, or getting expelled from high school, or from growing up without being told they’re going to hell.

Israel Folau had his employment with Rugby Australia terminated after three members of an independent panel found that his social media posts, vilifying gay people, was a ‘high-level breach’ of his contract. Rugby Australia’s move, unlike the last time this happened , sent a swift and unambiguous message to all Australians that homophobic views are not welcome in the game.

Homophobic rhetoric in the public sphere is not a distant memory. It wasn’t long ago that the Australian Liberal Government, led then by Malcolm Turnbull, abdicated their duty as our elected representatives and forced through the Marriage Equality Plebiscite. The LGBTQ community in Australia had to endure the consequences of religious freedom then – as we sat through prime-time advertisements in between watching The Project with our families, which insinuated that we were somehow a threat to society. During that time, views like those of Israel Falou and Margaret Court’s were given legitimacy and were engaged with in rational debate, as though “they’re after our young ones” was a legitimate concern and not a well-trodden homophobic trope. I remember getting a peak hour train ride into work one morning to find pamphlets strewn across the carriage letting morning commuters know that, apparently, I was destined for hell. According to the ABC, nine high-profile leaders in the Christian community recently wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and then-Opposition Leader Bill Shorten about the protection of religious freedoms. A concern we know, from the trauma of 2017, is simply unfounded.

There is a place for free speech and for freedom of religious expression in Australia as in every 21st century democracy. But as Sally Rugg has highlighted , this doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. Israel is entitled to his belief that I’m going to hell. And, in general, he’s entitled to express those beliefs. But the fact is, Israel willingly agreed to Part 2, section 1, clause 1.3 of Rugby Australia’s Players’ Code of Conduct, which states:

“Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in Rugby.”

And in exchange for this agreement – this contract – Israel was set to receive $4 million dollars. He signed on the dotted line and then didn’t hold up his end of the bargain. It really is that simple. Folau has said that his faith means more to him than his football career and that he ‘lives for God.’ Which begs the question, if he really is prepared to walk away from his job why then did he request the code of conduct hearing instead of accepting Rugby Australia’s decision? He could have taken his bag and gone home. More to the point, given his commitment to his beliefs, why bother signing the contract in the first place, if he knew he would breach it? Jennifer Wilson has rightly questioned the ethics of ‘signing a contract for a large amount of money when you know that contract is in conflict with your beliefs and you are fairly certain you will break it, given your faith demands that you proselytise.’ Curiously though, that’s not a conversation many seem interested in having. Everyone seems much more focused on religious freedom and freedom of expression, when we know that those things are not in danger.

How else do we know that religious freedom and freedom of expression are safe in Australia? Because a candidate in the federal election can equate homosexuality with paedophilia and remain endorsed by the Liberal Party . Because a United Australia Party candidate can go on a homophobic rant and remain preferenced by the Liberal Party . Because you can call LGBTQ issues “ridiculous rubbish”, abnormal and destructive, remain a Liberal Party candidate and even have a Liberal government minister back you up. Tony Abbott, the former Liberal Member of Warringah, actively campaigned against marriage equality when in office, and when his constituency voted overwhelmingly in support of it, he slapped them in the face once more, by walking out of Parliament when the final votes were cast. When he was Prime Minister , Abbott told the same-sex partner of the Australian Ambassador to France to “wait in the car” rather than be permitted to great the then Prime Minister on his arrival to Paris. Our current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has said that bisexual people make his ‘skin curl,’ and that gay conversion therapy was ‘not an issue’ for him. Right now, in Australia in 2019, an LGBTQ child is legally allowed to be expelled from school. Right now, in Australia in 2019, an LGBTQ teacher is legally allowed to be fired – not for breach of contract, like Israel Folau, but for their very existence. These are things our Government has decided is good and proper for our country. These are views which are legal to have – legal to express.

There is a discussion to be had about the power of employers to regulate their employee’s behaviour outside of the office. It’s one that the legal system is currently grappling with . Nevertheless, Rugby Australia’s swift action should be applauded. It is a step in the right direction for the LGBTQ sporting community and sends a clear message to fans of the code. On the issue of religious freedoms though? You’ll find me playing the world’s smallest violin for the people who want to retain the power to expel queer kids from school, simply for being who they are.