New Zealand prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and has made progressive steps towards implementing human rights standards. For example, New Zealand legally recognises same-sex relationships, including property rights and obligations, and registration of civil unions.
Sexual orientation was introduced as a prohibited ground of discrimination under section 21 of the Act in 1993. The Commission accepts complaints of unlawful discrimination from gender minorities (trans or intersex people) on the grounds of sex and interprets sex to include gender and gender identity.
There is a lack of comprehensive data on the gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and intersex (GLBTI) population in New Zealand which impacts on the case for resources and may cause policy makers to devote insufficient attention to the needs of the GLBTI community. The Census does not include a question about sexual orientation. The only official information available in the Census about the demography of sexual orientation is the number of people who indicated in the 1996 or the 2001 census that they were a 'same sex' couple living together.
This lack of data inhibits research, policy and practice. Although some surveys have been undertaken in New Zealand, little is known about the realities of the ways in which lesbian and gay people participate in society. There is no systematic identification of data gaps, nor a framework for data collation and analysis.
Discrimination towards gay workers is reported in the New Zealand media and negative perceptions and practices still persist. In one case allegations of ‘gayness’ were central when two customs officers were sacked for leaking information to the media about a gay colleague. At the centre of the argument was the accusation that a gay person can’t perform strip searches in a professional manner.
Complaints and enquiries
Complaints and enquiries on the grounds of sexual orientation make up a small proportion (2% over the last 3 years) of all complaints to the Commission. The most common issues brought to the Commission include bullying, harassment and derogatory comments particularly in employment, refusal to employ, or the threat in pre-employment to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, refusal of services and termination of employment. For transgender people the most common issue is the general treatment they experienced.
In 2010 the Commission received a complaint by a gay netball coach who was fired from a Christchurch Christian school. The 28-year-old man was employed as a girls’ netball coach but was dismissed by the board of trustees after members discovered his sexual orientation. The school principal said that the board had decided the coach’s homosexuality was a problem. The sacked coach complained to the Commission and the matter was resolved after mediation. The school was ordered to apologise and pay the man a confidential compensation sum. The board was also told to attend a human rights awareness course.
In 2006, in response to well-documented patterns of abuse, international human rights experts met in Yogyakarta, Indonesia to outline a set of international principles relating to human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Yogyakarta Principles provide a universal guide to human rights which affirms binding international legal standards to which all States must comply. Principle 12: The Right to Work compels States to “take all necessary legislative, administrative and other measures to eliminate and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in public and private employment.”
What the Commission has done
Participants in the Commission’s National Conversation about Work raised a number of discrimination issues based on sexual orientation. Gay and lesbian workers said that it was important that employers did not focus on being gay but on ensuring that the workplace is inclusive and that it is “OK to be who you are, no matter what.”
In 2006 the Commission launched the world’s first inquiry by a national human rights institution into discrimination experienced by transgender people. The inquiry found transgender people experience significant difficulties finding employment and more often than not are discriminated against.
The Commission has also been working on inclusion of Census questions to help identify GLBTI numbers in New Zealand. Currently the omission of a question on sexual orientation in the Census means there are no statistics on the number of GLBTI people in New Zealand, which results in (i) invisibility; and (ii) lack of consideration in policy making. Information provided by Statistics NZ shows that Census data is considered an integral part of policy making and funding decisions.
Employer support networks
The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) is taking steps to be more inclusive of its gay personnel. A Defence Force Gay and Lesbian Information Service (DEFGLIS NZ) will act as a sounding board, advice group and social network for regular, reserve and civilian members of the corps. The New Zealand Navy announced gay-friendly policies in 1998, issuing pink triangle stickers to indicate safe places for gay navy personnel.
Police Diversity Liaison Officers (DLOs) contribute towards an inclusive work environment for gay police employees within the New Zealand Police and provide advice and support to colleagues on GLBTI communities, and sexual orientation and gender identity in general.
In the private sector, large corporates such as IBM have strong support networks for employees.
The inclusion of a question on sexual orientation should be trialled by Statistics New Zealand with a view to its inclusion in the 2016 Census.