Friday, 1 May 2015

Trans advocacy in Victoria and Australia - part 2 of a 3 part series


Last week, I wrote of the success of achieving state anti-discrimination protection. Sadly, after the success, there was a "blip."

Trigger warning: lateral violence

Part 2: Victoria 2001 to present

Unfortunately, dark days ensued from around 2002 to 2004 when the Victorian trans community was set back, almost permanently,  by a series of “label wars” e.g. transgender vs. transsexual, as part of intense lateral violence. Some people objected strongly to the idea of transgender as an umbrella term and were quite derogatory to those who had not completed surgery while others saw surgery as “mutilation.” While everyone has a right to define/ label themselves and live as is their need, it was forgotten that other people also have that right and there may be differences. People experiencing intersex were also dragged into this situation.

The effects were, to be frank, horrible, noting first and most of all, the toll on trans and intersex people’s health, well-being and morale. Further, on a practical level, the ALP government had been re-elected in 2002, this time with a comfortable majority in both houses of Parliament. They had promised to make the next trans reform in relation to birth certificates, which for trans people were still based on body at birth and without any possibility of change. We had a great chance to get birth certificates based on affirmed identity rather than surgery which would have been the first state or territory in Australia to do so. The in-fighting resulted in key public sector officials and politicians threatening – and reasonably so – “to take the whole thing off the table.” Public sector officials were being bombarded by rude angry emails and were understandably upset.

The result was that the legislation that came into effect in January 2005 could be best described as minimalist in that it was based on surgery, a married trans person had to divorce so as not a “create a same-sex marriage” and minors (those under 18) could not change their birth certificate at all. It was a major opportunity lost. Some close allies among gays and lesbians still remind us of those difficult times nearly ten years on.

The only good thing to come out of this was the trans community learnt its lesson and in Victoria, the community has co-operated professionally and amicably since then and grown to be one of the strongest in Australia. People do their best to sort out issues away from politicians and then present a united voice. Even if that is not possible, people can agree to disagree respectfully. Now, a coalition of 10 Victorian, trans, gender diverse and allied (family member) groups works together to hold workshops and ensure good communication.

There was during this period, one ray of light, proving that trans people can be strong and resilient when we need to be. In July 2003, word leaked of the first known trans applicant to enter the Victorian police academy. The relatively tabloid Murdoch daily newspaper the Herald-Sun ran with the headline “sex swap cop.” Commercial talkback radio only interviewed the head of the police union rather than asking trans people for their views. Discussion focussed on doubts about the applicant’s suitability and pathologising ideas as to whether trans people could handle the stress of police life. TGV had to “cold call” into one program to get any voice. Others monitored radio while at work. And then state Opposition leader Robert Doyle uttered the infamous phrase “In my view, there are some things which would discriminate against people joining the police force, I mean, are you allowed to join the police force if you’ve been found guilty of an indictable crime? The answer is no...” Trans people immediately called radio stations and Doyle withdrew the comments. The prejudice was largely defeated.

This was probably the first time the Victorian trans community had acted primarily on its own initiative and with our gay and lesbian mentors sitting back and letting us take the lead. We had grown up and were now well on our way.

As a postscript, the applicant, since identified as Bernice Canty, graduated easily and also received a medal for bravery for actions in the terrible situation that was the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, proving she could easily handle the pressure. Bravo Senior Constable Canty, you are a pioneer by just being yourself.

In 2010, the state government, still the ALP, aimed to streamline the Equal Opportunity Act. TGV was called on for its opinions by a range of human rights organisations and we were able on occasions to offer ideas to them in return. Trans people were now firmly established as a valuable part of the whole human rights community, a situation that grows stronger to this day.

To finalise this section, the ALP lost office in 2010. The new LNP government seemed to allow ministers to run their departments according to their own philosophical leaning and as such legal reform for trans people stopped due to the conservative nature of the Attorney-General Robert Clark. On a positive note, the ministers for health and mental health have been highly supportive of trans issues and prioritised them after reconvening the health advisory committee in 2013. Credit goes to a young trans person, Sim Kennedy, who at the first meeting of the committee raised trans and gender diverse issues with a combination of fact and passion that was a brilliant piece of advocacy. Progress is likely to resume given the election of the ALP in 2014.

next week - part 3 - national co-operation

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