Family and human rights lawyers are considering grounds to halt what they see as a pair of targeted attacks on the LGBTI community from the Queensland government.

A proposal to repeal civil union legislation, which arguably extends some family rights and obligations to same-s-x couples, hasn’t even made it to cabinet yet but already lawyers that specialise in gay families are looking to protect those already “unionised”.

While the tearing up of the gay men’s s-xual health program contract to the state’s only LGBT health organisation had only a minor chance of a legal recourse, the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities is also looking at its options before the state loses its only HIV education specialists.

Small rallies against the government’s moves took place in Brisbane last night, but many of the community’s advocates instead attended meetings of the LGBTI Legal Service. Aside from the immediate problem of finding itself without a place to operate — the volunteer lawyers run their free service out of QAHC’s offices — some want to pull out all stops to prevent the state “going back to the previous century on gay rights”.

The situation could mirror the repeal of gay marriage in California, where the state’s Supreme Court allowed those already married to keep their certificates and legal recognition. Almost 500 couples have registered a civil union in Queensland, although it is untested whether they grant any specific rights not already available to recognised de facto couples.

Julie Howes, from the LGBTI Legal Service, says the government’s moves look like an attack to destabilise the gay community.

“What this says is they are not worth funding, they don’t have any human rights that need to be addressed, and in time this will mean more anti-gay violence, more discrimination, more health issues,” she told Crikey.

For the past 30 years, Australia’s AIDS councils, including QAHC, have steered the nation’s HIV rates well below the countries that left community groups out of their HIV strategy, such as the United States. Bill Bowtell, former Keating government adviser and one of the architects of the successful partnership strategy, described as “exceptionally foolish” the decision to inject another layer of bureaucracy in the form of politically appointed ministerial advisory committees.

“The health of young Queenslanders at risk of HIV infection, whether they are gay or straight, will be best protected by educating and informing them about using condoms and clean needles and other behavioural changes that reduce HIV infection risks,” he told Crikey. “Politically directed ministerial committees have a disastrous record in creating such campaigns.”

Bowtell said the decision threatens, rather than strengthens, the health of young Queenslanders in the highest risk groups and challenged the health minister, Lawrence Springborg, to release all the public health advice and fact and figures on which the decision was made.

“The reasons claimed by Mr Springborg to establish a new structure, without consultation or apparent detailed consideration, seem more based on politics than rational consideration of the evidence of what works best to keep new HIV infection rates low,” he said.

“Education directed at young gay men especially remains the best and most cost-effective way of containing the HIV pandemic in Australia. This is best done through community-based organisations that represent and reach out to young gay men, and understand their needs and requirements.”

Robert Mitchell, president of the National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS, worried about the “serious missing level of understanding about incidence and infection rates” noting that the undiagnosed and recently diagnosed are the main drivers of the epidemic in Australia.

“Success in campaigns that raise awareness and promote safe s-x in the communities most at risk of HIV will also have the effect of higher testing rates and therefore more diagnoses but ultimately less people with undiagnosed HIV, which ultimately will result in fewer new infections. In the short term, however, this can be seen as increasing diagnosis, this is a level of complexity that is not considered in using these statistics on face value to measure success or otherwise,” he said.

“This comes at a time when we know more about how to achieve lower infection rates is just beyond understanding and shows what a political move this is.”

Peter Fray

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