December 6, 2008
A major achievement of the Rudd Labor Government is the recent passage of historic legislation to remove discrimination against gay and lesbian couples from dozens of laws. As the celebrations die down, however, it is clear the win for human rights is a serious blow to many gay people.
Elderly gay couples will lose pension income, face Centrelink investigations into their sex lives and will be forced to “come out” of the closet and risk prosecution for fraud. Some in their late 60s, 70s and 80s have faced a lifetime of inequality; they missed out on benefits available to heterosexuals and many have felt the full force of the nation’s homophobia. Now they are too old to gain from the new legal equality won in areas as diverse as family law and insurance entitlements. Instead, from July 1 next year, they will suffer pension losses through being treated as a couple rather than as two singles.
The Government’s much-lauded same-sex reforms, ironically, have continued the tradition of treating gays differently from heterosexuals. Every significant change to social security laws passed in the last 15 years has included a “grandfather” clause to minimise harsh consequences for those already in the system.[…]
Take the case of a lesbian couple known to the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre. One of the women had planned to retire soon from her job in an alternative school. A pioneer in the gay liberation movement, she had stayed at the school for 30 years despite the low pay, believing a mainstream school would have sacked her over her political activism. Her partner had been dismissed after having “come out” to her religious employer. The dismissal was lawful because of the religious exemption to the anti-discrimination laws.
Partly because of the effects of the dismissal, and being shunned by her family and former congregation, the woman had been on the disability support pension. The employed teacher said she would have to defer retirement because of the new laws as she could not afford to pay her mortgage on a couple’s rate of pension, something she had not anticipated.
Another woman, with her children, had left a violent husband and had lived with her female partner for 30 years. Her female partner helped support the children but could not claim them for tax, Medicare safety net or other benefits. Now the couple are retired they faced a reduced pension income without having had time to prepare. They told the legal centre they considered themselves losers twice over.
As well, many elderly closeted gays in receipt of government payments are baulking at the prospect of having to register their relationship status with Centrelink from March, in effect “outing” themselves.[…]