The Advocate: Senthorun Raj
Senthorun Raj is leaving the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby with a robust list of accomplishments benefiting same-sex families, rainbow parents and the broader community. He now embarks on a prestigious Churchill Fellowship, focusing his attention on the plight of LGBTI asylum seekers.
It’s September 2010. The NSW parliament is deciding whether or not to remove the last piece of direct legislative discrimination against same-sex couples. This is the climax of a relentless ten-year campaign by the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby. But there is no guarantee the bill will pass. Premier Kristina Keneally and Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell have allowed a conscience vote. So every vote counts. One undecided MP could mean failure.
But the bill doesn’t fail. It passed through the lower house on an extremely close vote of 45-43. Soon after, it passes through the Legislative Council. Same-sex couples can now legally adopt children.
For Senthorun Raj, watching that victory was the pinnacle of his career as senior policy advisor for the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL).
“It was so thrilling to be a part of the Lobby, to watch the reform get through and really celebrate that victory,” Raj, 23, tells SX.
After almost three years service, the LBGTI and human rights advocate is leaving the GLRL to take up a Churchill Fellowship overseas. During his time at the GLRL, the Sri Lankan-Tamil-Australian has drafted parliamentary submissions, organised community forums, held political meetings and been heavily involved in various campaigns for reforms. He has also been a savvy media player and writer, with works appearing in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Punch, SX, The Vine and New Matilda. It goes without saying that Raj leaves behind an impressive legacy when says farewell to the GLRL at the end of July.
“He has expanded the media presence of the GLRL and ensured that the policy contributions of the GLRL are held in high regard,” GLRL co-convener Justin Koonin tells SX.
Ghassan Kassisieh, Raj’s predecessor at the GLRL, tells SX that such contributions by Raj helped pave new roads to equality.
“[Senthorun’s] advocacy along with others in areas such as adoption equality and surrogacy reform were instrumental in achieving change in laws which only a few years ago seemed set in stone,” Kassisieh says.
But for Raj, the opportunity to meet countless members of the queer community has been just as rewarding as the political victories.
“I’ve been opened to so many different things and have had the privilege of working with a number of amazing activists, community organisations, members of parliament,” Raj says.
Labor MLC Penny Sharpe is just one of the many people Raj has worked with whilst at the GLRL.
“Sen is a principled activist who is always willing to make the arguments that need to be made,” Sharpe says.
But even with political allies, Raj admits the work of an advocate is tiresome at times.
“It’s so easy to get burnt up, particularly when you’ve been working away at an issue for so long and you want to see the change and it’s not happening as quick as you want it to,” he says.
Take, for example, federal anti-discrimination laws, which are still crucially lacking provisions for protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“It was a great victory when the government announced in 2010 that it would introduce it as part of its human rights platform. But two years later we’re still waiting on the delivery of that,” Raj explains.
The delays in equal marriage reform are another sore point for Raj. And the longer the government drags it heels, the less we hear of other matters that are just as pressing.
“It’s really frustrating because I feel like there are so many other important issues that face the LGBTI community that we don’t hear about as much,” Raj says, citing aged care, family recognition and the rights of LGBTI asylum seekers.
“There is a long way to go and marriage reform is only one step in that journey,” he adds.
But Raj remains optimistic. Even though he is leaving the GLRL, he is certainly not leaving the fight for equality.
“I’m leaving behind a fantastic organisation, but at the same time I’m also continuing the work that I started there,” he says.
As part of the Churchill Fellowship, Raj will travel to San Francisco and London to research refugee claims related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Working with NGOs and advocates, Raj will explore how LBGTI refugees are dealt with overseas to help improve the processing system in Australia.
Raj has always had a keen interest in this area of research. Indeed, his 2010 thesis explored queer refugees and the law, which was later awarded the Australian Lesbian & Gay Archives Thesis Prize and the University of Sydney Medal.
Raj was born in London but lived in Nigeria early in his life where his father was working at the time. His family later immigrated to Australia when he was four years old.
“I was certainly exposed to the importance of social justice from a young age,” Raj says.
But Raj’s quest for social justice extends beyond the LGBTI community. Since 2008, Raj has been on the board of the NSW branch of Amnesty International (and its president since 2011). He has also been a board member of LGBT health organisation ACON since 2011.
“Sen is a knowledgeable, articulate, persuasive and tenacious advocate who has been instrumental in advancing and protecting the rights of GLBT people," said ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill.
Raj will continue in his positions at ACON and Amnesty when he returns to Australia.
“I feel like I’m leaving on a high note. I feel like I’m leaving at a time where there is still intense appetite for change,” he says. “Hopefully there will be some new energy with the changeover. I certainly have no regrets with my time at the Lobby and I look forward to seeing how the Lobby grows."
[Pictured] “There is a long way to go” ... Senthorun Raj. Photo: John McRae