Why I Have To Hide My Identity Around Religious People Now
It was sometime after 8pm that I called for an Uber after a long day at work.
As I got into the car, the first thing I noticed was the big wooden cross hanging from the rear-view mirror.
As a Palestinian Australian with an Arabic name, it is almost inevitable that an Arab driver will ask me “Are you Lebanese?” before starting friendly conversation.
And so, in a suit on my way home from the office, completely unmarked by any outward sign of difference, my driver assumed that his fellow Arab Australian would agree with his opposition to same-sex marriage.
He didn’t know and I didn’t feel safe -- trapped in that car for 25 minutes -- saying anything about my same-sex partner of seven years. While my driver felt perfectly safe to express his Catholic, heterosexual (‘my wife and children…’), Lebanese identity, I hid my gay one.
Some say that people feel unable to express their religious views in today’s Australia -- that we need to protect better religious freedom. Some say that those of fervent religious belief are shuddering silently in fear of speaking their truths (as their voices are syndicated in media outlets across the country).
I understand the profound oppressiveness of feeling unable to express your true self.
I understood it for years, before I summoned the courage to speak my truth to the loving migrant parents who I feared disappointing.
I understand it today, in every moment that I second-guess whether it is safe to hold hands with my partner in the street.
And I understood it most clearly in that Uber. Trapped in a car, with a driver who knew where I lived, I kept silent and hoped that every traffic light would just turn green.
Nothing stings like injustice -- the injustice of having your dignity stripped from you in the most mundane of activities. In that moment, it didn’t matter that I too was a taxpaying, adult Australian -- because I was gay, and as my driver reminded me, my equal citizenship is always subject to debate.
If passed in its current form, the Religious Discrimination Bill will stand behind every driver who wants to say disrespectful things to a customer cloaked in the respectability of religion.
The Bill proposes to protect certain ‘statements of belief’, despite existing discrimination protections that ensure our workplaces, schools and public commercial spaces are dignified places for women, people with disabilities, people of minority faith, gay Australians and others.
In its outline, it explains: "This provision will mean that a person cannot be found to have discriminated against a person under any anti-discrimination law for merely expressing their genuinely held religious beliefs in good faith. This could include, for example, merely stating a biblical view of marriage".
In other words, every single Australian discrimination law, protecting against discrimination on every single ground, will have to give way to polite bigotry dressed as religious belief.
That's not religious freedom. It's discrimination.
The Religious Discrimination Bill will cancel out protections for thousands of Australians who are the target of various and conflicting religious views. The laws will arm a small yet loud minority of people who want to -- and already -- say disrespectful things to us in our workplaces, schools, shops, hospitals and on public transport. This is not the Australia my parents and I came to, or helped build.
Arab Australians know more than most the destructive impact of breaking us up into Christians and Muslims, and further into Shias and Sunnis.
We have felt the sting of injustice when our faiths were called 'backward', 'oppressive', and 'breeding grounds for terrorism'. (Such ‘statements of 'belief’, by the way, may also be protected.)
And we felt the sting of injustice when angry young people on a beach in south Sydney yelled ‘you flew here, we grew here’.
So, of course, we know and treasure the freedoms that Australia provides for us all. But those freedoms are enjoyed by all of us because we recognise that we all have a responsibility to treat each other well, leave the judging to God (if that’s what you believe) and ensure we all can enjoy the beach -- or a drive home after work -- without someone taking away your dignity while the law looks on, protecting one but not the other.
That is why, if we are to have a Religious Discrimination Bill, it must be fair and balanced and protect all Australians, including people of faith or no faith, equally.