ACON’s “Pride Inclusion Programs” exclude democratic pluralism

ACON’s “Pride Inclusion Programs” exclude democratic pluralism

“Diversity and inclusion” are the watchwords of an ideology that is increasingly dictating Australian workplace policy in both the public and private sectors. The AIDS Council for NSW (ACON) continues to roll out a suite of “Pride Inclusion Programs”, working to a template developed by Stonewall in the UK, which helps employers comply with the new requirements to include “diversity”. Employer performance is published in ACON’s Australian Workplace Equality Index (AWEI), which serves as a national benchmark for “LGBTQ workplace inclusion from which Top Employers for LGBTQ people is determined”. Australian businesses and government departments are flocking to join.

Of course, “diversity” is code for “sexual and gender diversity”. This is a reference to queer theory’s claim that, if humanity were only liberated from the oppression of “heteronormativity” (i.e. the false belief that gender congruence and heterosexual attraction are normative), then the whole world would be free to express its true nature, which is to say, “queer” would be the new normal. The promotion of “LGBTIQ health” has been the been the excuse for Stonewall (in the UK) and ACON (in Australia) to embed a nation-wide incentive structure in our corporations and public institutions that rewards compliance with this premise and penalises the non-compliant.

The contention between conflicting belief systems now focuses particularly on the issue of “gender identity”. Queer theory insists that a subjective and poorly-defined “gender identity” must be acknowledged as the true marker of individual identity. This involves excluding traditional and feminist perspectives that regard biological sex as significant. The implications of enforcing the recognition of “gender identity” in the workplace are both broad and profound. Just as the Safe Schools program worked to make schools inhospitable to diversity of opinion on matters of sexuality and gender identity, so ACON’s program now works to ensure the workplace is hostile to individuals who contend that biological sex is significant. Effectively, the power of the state, as well as the power of private corporations, have been turned in unison to the common purpose of imposing compliance with queer theory on entire populations. As organisations in the UK begin to realise their error in obliging Stonewall’s demands and announce their departure from the program, in Australia, ACON’s membership list only continues to expand as more and more organisations pay up to get with the program.

ACON’s Pride Inclusion Programs

ACON was established in 1985 by the NSW Department of Health in response to the AIDS crisis that predominantly afflicted gay men. In the normal course of events, the great success in treating AIDS should have led to a corresponding reduction in both the scope of ACON’s work and their need for public funding. Instead of dwindling, however, ACON’s budget only seems to grow year-on-year. ACON’s 2020−21 Annual Report shows funding from the NSW Department of Health increased to $12,639,286 (up by $619,170 from the previous financial year). In addition, ACON received $584,291 from Local Health Districts (up by $144,588 from the previous year). Despite the “not-for-profit” claim, it is hard to see how the Pride Inclusion Programs could fail to generate a sizeable income for ACON, over and above its government funding. Hundreds of organisations are now listed on ACON’s website, each of which pays annual fees of between $3,600 to $10,250 to participate, with extra fees payable for inclusivity and diversity training, awards luncheons and conferences.

Shifting from their original purpose of ministering to the gay community, ACON now addresses anything that touches on “LGBTIQ+ health”. This expanded mandate allows them to take in the emerging health requirements of “trans” and “gender diverse” communities and workplace transformation falls under the umbrella. According to ACON’s website, the Pride Inclusion Programs are “social inclusion initiatives of ACON”:

“An important part of ACON’s mission is to help make the places where our community members live, work, study and play more inclusive of LGBTQ people, improving the mental health and wellbeing of our community through the reduction of stigma, discrimination and social exclusion.”

Ostensibly, ACON’s programs involve nothing more than a series of reasonable adjustments to workplace practice. The sum of these adjustments, however, renders the workplace inhospitable to anyone whose personal beliefs do not align with queer theory. By including “gender identity”, the sex-based rights of women are erased and the mechanisms for policing the thoughts and behaviour of employees throughout the workforce to ensure compliance with the demands of “inclusivity and diversity” have been created.

The ABC as an example of ACON’s influence

Documents obtained under FOI from the ABC in 2021 illustrate the dizzying range of requirements laid out by ACON for organisations that wish to advance in the AWEI. Each of the organisations signed up to ACON’s programs must designate a staff member to perform the duties of “diversity and inclusivity officer”, responsible for liaising with ACON staff and ensuring ACON’s recommendations are implemented. ACON requires all HR documents (maternity leave policies, for example) to be redrafted to make it “explicitly clear” that they apply to gender and sexually diverse employees. This involves removing gender-specific language, such as “mother”, “father”, “maternity”, “paternity”, etc.  LGBT-specific support services are needed, such as paid gender transition leave, access to counsellors trained specifically in the unique challenges of LGBT relationships, “all gender toilets”, “inclusive” dress codes, etc.

Codes of conduct require staff to adhere to behaviours consistent with the demands of “diversity and inclusivity”. In the case of the ABC, there was a Mardi Gras float to arrange, IDAHOBIT and Wear it Purple Days to celebrate; it was necessary to repeatedly “encourage” staff to donate to LGBT causes and then to garner evidence that staff had responded to this encouragement because evidence of these donations would improve the ABC’s AWEI score.

The ABC’s 286-page submission to AWEI for 2020 boasts of the following “big-ticket” diversity and inclusion initiatives for 2019−22:

  • Recruiting for diversity
  • An inclusive mentoring program
  • Monitoring and reporting the diversity of our workforce
  • Ensuring our leaders are engaged and accountable for diversity and inclusion
  • Diversity and inclusion training program
  • Tracking and measuring diversity in our content
  • New commissioning diversity guidelines
  • Diverse on-air talent identification and management
  • A central database of on-air contributors able to represent all corners of the Australian community.

In other words, ACON’s program amounts to a comprehensive effort to saturate the workplace in queer theory and exclude gender-critical perspectives; it demands outward compliance with a quasi-religious belief system that is unfamiliar to, and at odds with, the commonly-held beliefs of most Australians; it involves the active celebration and promotion of “sexual and gender diversity”.

Activists have achieved their objective by ignoring the law and changing policy instead

As things now stand in Australia, recognition of a very broadly defined understanding of “gender identity” that includes non-binary and gender fluid self-identification is consistent with the law. This broad definition was inserted in 2013, when amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act also removed the biological definition of woman as “a member of the female sex”. In the UK, by contrast, the Equality Act allows for the protection of individuals who have engaged with the legal and medical process of “gender reassignment” while still protecting the sex-based rights of females. This has enabled women’s rights advocates to challenge Stonewall’s workplace policies, arguing these impose requirements that a) extend significantly beyond what the law demands and b) interfere with women’s free enjoyment of their legal rights.

The case of Maya Forstater has been pivotal to this process of pushing back against Stonewall’s requirements. Forstater was fired from her job because her private social media posts in support of women’s sex-based rights were deemed “transphobic”. (We could point to a comparable experience of Karyn Lisignoli in Australia, who was also fired after activists accused her of “transphobia”). In the courts, Forstater prosecuted the simple argument that “the belief that sex is real and that sex matters is worthy of respect in a democratic society”. Forstater’s claim was eventually upheld, but only after the matter had been elevated to the Court of Appeal.

The first judge, it was shown, had been influenced in his conduct of the hearing by a procedural manual, “The Equal Treatment Benchbook”, which instructs judges to ensure gender identity is fully recognised in the court room. Such a policy tilts what should be a level playing field in favour of trans activists, requiring the court to use language that affirms the veracity of “gender identity” and eclipses the significance of biological sex. Such a policy obviously interferes with the ability of the court to examine matters of actual fact where biological sex might be relevant (e.g. in cases where a woman is divorcing a male who now identifies as a woman, or in cases of rape involving males who identify as women).

Just as the requirements of the Equal Treatment Benchbook had the effect of prejudicing how the law is administered, so too “inclusive” hospital policies have changed the way Britain’s hospitals are run. Baroness Nicholson recently demanded the retraction of Annex B of the NHS’s 2019 Guidance on “Delivering same-sex accommodation” for this reason, pointing out that privileging gender identity over biological sex was causing real-world problems. She gave the example of a woman who was raped by a transwoman in an NHS hospital and then disbelieved in her report to the police because the hospital staff, when asked if a man had been present at the time of the alleged rape, answered “no” in accordance with the policy laid out in Annex B of the NHS Guidelines.

Activists in Australia are using this same strategy to force “social change” by changing policy, rather than law. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2019 publication of “Guidelines for Inclusion of transgender and gender diverse people in sport” is a good example of such activist-drafted policy. Where the SDA clearly allows single-sex sports as an exception to anti-discrimination law, the “Guidelines for inclusion” ignore the rights of women and girls completely and instead convey the strong impression that sporting bodies who fail to maximise “inclusion” for trans and non-binary players, leave themselves open to prosecution under anti-discrimination law. The effect is the creation of “soft law”; sporting codes are likely to rely on the Guidelines’ interpretation of the law, rather than risk expensive litigation.

As these examples demonstrate, by leaving the law alone and simply focusing on rewriting policy, activists have been able to comprehensively change the way the law is administered, the way hospitals are run, the way sport is conducted, and to set new standards for workplace “best practice” everywhere. Lobbying to change the law would allow for democratic debate, wide community consultation, and public transparency of the entire process. Bypassing this process, activists have instead simply drafted policies that correspond with the wishlist of a very narrow segment of the population and presented these as “best practice”.

ACON’s suite of “Pride Inclusion Programs” are an effective method of embedding this activist version of “best practice” throughout sport, health and mental health care, education, government, and across the private sector. The advantage of participation for employers is an off-the-shelf product that ticks the “diversity and inclusivity” box on a workplace health and safety checklist. Meanwhile, the grave implications of this activism for the sex-based rights of women and girls, as males identify into their spaces, services, sports and language, cannot be underestimated.

The influence of ACON and Stonewall confounds the regular operation of democratic institutions

Because ACON’s and Stonewall’s programs have infiltrated almost every corner of our social, cultural and political institutions, the entire system of checks and balances on which a functioning democracy relies must now operate through the prism of queer theory. Stephen Nolan’s recently-released investigation of Stonewall highlights both the breadth and the profundity of the change Stonewall’s program proposes. Quite apart from the question of what these organisations are advocating, Nolan raises significant questions about whether it is right for any lobby group to be able to direct policy in this way:

“Is it right that in a democracy a lobby group can have so much influence within the government, on government policy? And if Stonewall can have it, who else can have it? … Forget about whether you agree with them or not. How worrying is it that there is an unaccountable lobby group, partly funded by you, the public, which has unparalleled access to your government; your employer, the police force, the BBC… If a religious cult arose and did the same thing, shouldn’t there be some way to stop them?”

Nolan points out, for example, that even the decision to support his investigation now required courage on the part of his BBC employers; the consequences for their Workplace Equality Index ranking must now be included in the mix of factors to be weighed in the balance. After all, a critique of Stonewall’s activity would require Nolan to commit all sorts of thought crimes: giving air-time to gender critical views; pointing out that Stonewall’s claim to be the arbiter of what is best for LGBTIQ individuals is contested by local LBG groups; asking awkward questions about whether BBC queer content was produced with an eye to climbing in the Index rankings, and whether the decision to create the new position of “diversity officer” within the BBC had been taken to please Stonewall; exclaiming over the fact that the style guide – the very language used by the national, publicly-funded broadcaster to communicate with the nation – now had to be de-gendered, vetted and approved by a third-party activist organisation; highlighting the futility of appealing to the regulator because, at that point, Ofcom was also signed up to Stonewall’s Diversity Champions program.

In short, Nolan revealed that the journalistic integrity and independence of the BBC – the very aspects of its work that have attracted public esteem and trust over decades – are now compromised to an unknown degree by the invisible hand of Stonewall operating in the background.

The problems that arise from Stonewall’s influence on the BBC are all mirrored in ACON’s influence on the ABC. ACON’s AWEI requires that all corporate communications both internal and external must be “audited” to ensure “correct language”, which means the removal of sex-specific terms, such as “man and woman” from the ABC’s content. A Pride Committee advises the ABC “to ensure that LGBTIQ+ inclusion is achieved within our workforce but also within our content”. So, ACON is now deciding what our national broadcaster can and cannot say, which probably explains why “ABC Kids” is so enthusiastic about pushing the rainbow agenda on children. ABCQueer (i.e. a whole content stream dedicated to the coverage of LGBTIQ+ issues over TV, radio and social media); documentaries, movies and drama series exploring LGBTIQ+ interests, experiences and identities; the decision to broadcast the Sydney Mardi Gras and World Pride events – all these contribute to the ABC’s AWEI score. Other aspects of ACON’s influence, of course, are invisible to the public; we will never know what content was pulled because it critiques any of the subjects that queer theory demands we celebrate.

ACON’s influence pervades a great many of Australia’s government institutions just as Stonewall’s does in the UK and the member list of organisations now pledged to implement ACON’s diversity and inclusivity agenda makes for eye-popping reading (see here, here and here). It includes bureaucracies at federal and state levels as well as several local councils, health and mental health providers, major hospitals, universities and TAFEs, sporting codes, etc. The NSW Department of Health is effectively funding a lobby group to roll out a nation-wide program for “social change” favoured by a handful of prominent advocates drawn from “queer communities”.

If ACON’s reach is permitted to continue and grow, very soon anyone who isn’t signed up to the rainbow agenda will find themselves excluded from the corporate economy because participants in the program are also required to audit their third-party service providers. So, the insurance broker, the pension provider, the cleaning contractor, everyone in an organisation’s supply chain, also needs to align their policies and procedures with ACON’s diktats if they don’t want to lose business. In this way, the extent of ACON’s influence is potentially far larger than even its extensive client list might suggest. As one UK commentator noted:

“You should be able to work for a water company or a bank and have your own beliefs about these political issues without that affecting whether you are considered a good employee.”

ACON’s influence works to ensure this is no longer the case for Australians.

What begins as reasonable accommodations clearly has the potential to metastasize into a means of compelling compliance with a program of social change decided by an unelected, unaccountable, third-party lobby group which, by infiltrating public institutions and re-writing policy, has been allowed to exercise ubiquitous but largely invisible influence on the everyday lives of entire populations. As Forstater points out, now that gender ideology is so thoroughly embedded not only in the workplace but in the institutions that are responsible for resolving workplace disputes and administering justice, the task of re-establishing rules that are hospitable to democratic pluralism is not a simple one:

“It is not enough just to win the principle in court. We have to change this in employers’ minds, in schools, in government and regulators. We need to get Stonewall out of these organisations”.

For all the same reasons, Australia needs to stop funding ACON and ensure that the mechanism which has enabled this ideological capture of our institutions cannot be used again in the future.


Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

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