Saturday, 25 April 2015

Trans advocacy in Victoria and Australia - 1st in a 3 part series

I recently wrote an article on my historical perceptions of TGD advocacy in Victoria & Australia.

I though that as the TGD community continues to emerge and evolve it might be helpful to look back and see what we could learn to ensure we continue to move ahead effectively.
The background is written to ensure understanding from a perspective beyond Australia.

All opinions are my own.

Part 1 - Background & Victoria to 2001
Part 2 - Victoria 2001 to 2014
Part 3 - National Co-operation

On with the show!


Australia is a country covering a large geographical area with a small population. Our current population of 23.5 million is 10% more than New York state’s population - in an area slightly less than that of the United States.  As well, our country has a 3-level system of government being the federal (dealing with matters such as defence and foreign affairs), 6 states and 3 territories (the difference between states and territories not being of relevance for this paper) and local government.

Further, the evolution from 6 colonies in the 1890’s to a federation in 1901 is of relevance. Australia’s constitution, rather than largely enshrining freedoms or human rights has on occasions been described as a power-sharing arrangement between the colonies which were to become states and the federation-to-be. As a result, similar legislation e.g. anti-discrimination protection (often called equal opportunity law in Australia) needs to be achieved 9 times - in each state or territory and at the national level. Further, different jurisdictions have different wording for their laws e.g. definitions around gender identity, birth certificates. With tongue wedged firmly in cheek, getting nine groups of politicians to agree to standardise matters can be a challenge. Finally, Australia’s constitution provides that in the event of an inconsistency between a state and a federal law, federal law overrides state.

Local government, similar to counties in the United Kingdom or the USA, has the role of service provision. However, it has little relevance to legislation and advocacy. Work done at this level is becoming more relevant as policy and law reforms are achieved at state/territory and federal levels.

The result of this has been that until at least 2005, most trans movements were focussed on state/territory reform and there was little communication and co-operation around the country. The shift in the last 5-10 years has in part due been due to the advances of internet, email, social media and expanding technology e.g. Skype and decreasing telecommunications costs. While the full benefits of face-to-face communication will remain as long as the human race exists, technology has been critical for Australian trans people.

It is also worth introducing the political background in Australia. Similar to the UK and USA, Australia is largely a 2-party system with party lines enforced relatively rigidly. The Australian Labour Party (ALP) is roughly a centre-left social democrat party (approximately the equivalent of the US Democrats or British Labour Party), although critics would argue in recent times it has struggled to stick to a cohesive philosophy. The Liberal/National Coalition (LNP) represents the right of centre (similar to the UK conservatives and USA republicans). The National Party was until 1974 named the Country Party in line with its rural origins. The Liberal Party, despite its name, has become more conservative since the late 1980’s and the “small-l liberal” wing has declined in influence. The Liberal and Nationals are very similar in philosophy and therefore mostly work together in coalition, whether in government or not.

Until around 2004, the third largest party was the Australian Democrats, a largely centrist party founded by a small-l liberal and former Liberal government minister (Don Chipp) who was concerned about increasing conservatism. The Greens have since assumed the third-party mantle after rising to prominence in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Both these parties have been key supporters of LGBTI rights.

Further, compared to the USA and Europe the philanthropic sector is relatively small and our tax system also tends to limit funding available to advocacy. The voluntary nature of most advocacy work remains a major challenge

Finally: a note on definitions. Through most of this paper transgender and trans are used as umbrella terms for those people whose sense of gender identity or expression differs from broader societal expectations given their body at birth. This expands to trans and gender diverse towards the end of the paper to note the rapid expansion in numbers of those more comfortable identifying in non-binary ways. These terms are used for consistency rather than because they are “more correct” than others and acknowledgement is given to the right of people to use labels (or none at all) that authentically represent their own life experience.

In light of this background, I have chosen to focus on the history of the trans movement in the state of Victoria and expand this to a national perspective from around 2010.

The story of Transgender Victoria (TGV)

The story of TGV begins around 1996 with the demise of a Victorian group called GLAD (Gays and Lesbians Against Discrimination). This group had played some part in achieving the inclusion of the attribute “lawful sexual activity” in Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act in 1995. (This development emerged following the 1994 Tasty nightclub raid, which was a case of systemic harassment by Victoria Police similar to the events at Stonewall in 1969). While this gave, albeit with very poor wording, some protection for people in the area of sexual orientation, it did nothing for trans people. This was despite the great efforts of Victorian advocacy pioneer Julie Peters, a trans woman who had also run many times for state and federal parliament for the Australian Democrats.

In the latter part of 1997, community members held 3 public meetings to form a new advocacy organisation. According to Julie and others, there was much debate about for whom the new body should advocate. Some said it should cover trans people rather than simply avoid us; the other argument was trans issues would be subsumed and progress delayed because gay and lesbian issues would receive priority. (It was unclear where bisexuality came into this scenario, if it all).

A better alternative arose from the excellent leadership from the two people who became the founding co-convenors of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, Braith Bamkin and Janet Jukes. They promised to help the trans community set up their own organisation and to offer mentoring and community development until the new organisation was able to stand on its own feet. As a result, TGV was eventually formed in 1999. The vision and foresight of that kindness resulted in a great foundation for trans people Victoria and a close partnership that lasts until this day. Trans people were able to have an organisation that focussed on specialised issues while working with gays and lesbians to combat common issues e.g. harassment and violence. This outcome paid dividends very quickly.

In late 1999, the LNP state government, which had won huge majorities in 1992 and 1996, experienced a huge drop in popularity. As a result, the ALP won 43 of 88 seats in the Legislative Assembly (the lower and governing house of the state parliament) and with the help of three independents, two of whom being very conservative, was able to form government.

The ALP had promised at community meetings and during the election campaign to introduce two new attributes to the Equal Opportunity Act, namely sexual orientation and gender identity. It moved very quickly to fulfil this promise, with progressive Attorney-General Rob Hulls introducing the bill to Parliament in March 2000.

The bill was delayed for eight weeks by one of the two conservative independents. It was understood this member was heavily influenced by religious fundamentalist thinking. Two days before the end of the (southern hemisphere) autumn session of Parliament he proposed amendments that would have watered down the proposed laws e.g. exempting trans people who worked in contact with the public from protection, proposals re toilets that are unmentionable. Over the winter, parliamentary secretary to Mr Hulls, Richard Wynne, spent 2 days negotiating with him (the independent refused to meet with trans people, claiming he didn’t meet with “paid lobbyists”). To Mr Wynne’s immense credit, using a combination of fact, logic and social justice arguments most of the proposed amendments were withdrawn. Any subsequent adjustments had little effect on the effectiveness of the law and when Parliament resumed, it comfortably passed both houses in early September 2000.

The effects of having this law were hugely positive. Trans people had a seat at state ministerial advisory committees on law reform and health. A police GLBTI liaison unit was established as well as a GLBTI police reference group. TGV was either directly represented on these groups or had people who were able to report back to TGV and the community. Further, individuals facing alleged discrimination had access to the processes for conciliation offered by Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission rather than outing themselves in a court process. The tide had started to turn.

Next week - part 2 - Victoria 2001-2014


  1. I am proud to have been there at the beginning of TGV and for the passing of the legislation. I now have an amended birth certificate and am married.

  2. Michael it was a great committee and given that times were much tougher 15 years ago, that wisdom, including yours, is fondly remembered.
    And happy that after you made that contribution, you have the much deserved personal happiness in your life.