Shelved discrimination Bill will still impact LGBTQI+ people: GP

Morgan Liotta

11/02/2022 3:52:24 PM

The Religious Discrimination Bill may be on hold, but GPs are still likely to encounter patients experiencing the health impacts.

LGBTQI flag on school building
Transgender people are at increased risk of mental health issues including self-harm and suicide.

On 10 February, the contentious Religious Discrimination Bill passed through the House of Representatives, but not before several amendments were made aimed at providing more extensive protections for gay and transgender students.
The changes led the Bill to stall in the Senate, as instead of voting for its own legislation, the Coalition pushed for a Senate inquiry into the amendments, ostensibly due to the potential for ‘unintended consequences’ that Attorney General Michaelia Cash claims could harm students.
But while the Religious Discrimination Bill’s future is now uncertain, recent events remain triggering for many in the LGBTQI+ community, according to Dr Clara Tuck Meng Soo, a transgender woman and GP.
‘The experience of seeing the debate over the merits of the Bill would have had negative mental health impacts on some LGBTQI+ people,’ Dr Soo told newsGP.
‘Children of diverse sexuality and gender would have heard a debate over whether the rights and protections that all other kids take for granted would be granted to them or not. This has the potential to make some question their self-worth and to encourage denigration, victimisation and bullying towards them.
‘Already, the debate about the Religious Discrimination Bill is sending messages to LGBTQI+ children that their sexuality or gender identity is problematic and restrictions may have to be put on the expression of their sexuality or gender identity.’

Although current laws are in place to prevent gay students from being discriminated against, there are concerns that the Religious Discrimination Bill, if it eventually passes, will fall short in protecting transgender and gender diverse students.
The RACGP, along with other peak medical bodies like the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and Australian Medical Students’ Association, has previously voiced these concerns, cautioning that elements of the Bill remain discriminatory and fail to safeguard members of the LGBTQI+ community.
This week, President Dr Karen Price reiterated that the college stands by a previous submission commenting on the Bill, which states that the proposed legislation has the potential to undermine medical professional standards, compromise medical education, training and career development, and adversely impact patients’ health, wellbeing and access to care.
‘It’s unnecessary to introduce “religious freedom” laws when these rights are already protected under Australian law,’ Dr Price said.
‘Furthermore, we remain concerned of the potential impact of the Bill on the delivery and access to some women’s health services, and vulnerable groups’ access to suitable healthcare or particular health services.
‘[In particular], the proposed law could compound negative community attitudes toward those most vulnerable including minority groups and the LGBTQI+ community, as well as those in rural areas with fewer health services available.
‘Given Australia is already in the grips of a mental health crisis, we must do everything in our power to prevent this.’
Discrimination already an issue
Research suggests the risk of mental health issues among LGBTQI+ people is already high, with almost half of transgender people having attempted suicide, and over 60% having previously self-harmed.
Recent Australian studies also show that many adverse health outcomes for transgender and gender diverse people are associated with high levels of open discrimination, including within the healthcare setting.
Meanwhile, results from a recent survey of 6418 LGBTQI+ people found that in the past 12 months only 7% of this population received any help or support from a GP or medical service in dealing with harassment or assault based on sexuality or gender identity.
Caring for the LGBTQI+ community across practices in Canberra and Hobart, Dr Soo knows first-hand the health impacts and discrimination this population face.
‘As a GP who does a lot of work with the LGBTQI+ community, I see lots of people who have grown up with the consequences of the negative messages they have received all their life about their sexuality or their gender,’ Dr Soo said.
‘These people suffer from poor mental health, alcohol and drug dependencies, broken relationships and difficulties coming to terms with their own sexuality and gender.
‘These problems happen because they have been told many times, especially as children and in their schools, that they are wrong, they are unclean or even evil.’
In addition to the adverse impacts on school students, Dr Soo has other concerns should the Bill pass through Parliament.
‘The Bill would [also] entrench the right of religious organisations to discriminate against their employees and so perpetuate the need for some people to hide their sexuality or gender identity at work,’ she said.
‘People of diverse sexuality and gender identity would still feel uncomfortable about full expression of their sexuality and gender identity, and this can have detrimental effects on their self-acceptance and mental health.
‘Work is an important part of good mental health for many of us and having to hide one’s sexuality or gender at work undermines good mental health.
‘Discrimination has negative effects on everyone who is exposed to it, and we need to do our best to protect all people from the effects of discrimination, not just some of us.’
Previous research has highlighted the importance of inclusive healthcare and equal access to care, linking to primary prevention of mental health issues through ongoing community support, early intervention models, inclusive support programs, tackling stigma and embracing diversity.
Dr Soo supports this approach.
‘Transgender children have the highest rates of mental health problems and suicide or attempted suicide amongst their age group peers in the country,’ she said.
‘We also know from research that affirmative treatment and support for transgender children can improve their mental health to being as good as their age group peers.
‘The younger they are when they get this support, the better the outcomes are.’
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