Thursday, 7 May 2015

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

The trilogy wraps up with a look at national developments in the last 5 years.
National co-operation

While state issues were the main focus during the decade 2000-9, there was little hope for trans (or GLBTI issues overall) nationally until 2007. The socially conservative LNP government of John Howard, elected in 1996, showed no interest in reform and was most noted for amending the Marriage Act (a law, not part of the Constitution) to specifically state “man and woman.” From a trans-specific perspective, in 2006, the limited but valuable flexibility on passports for trans people travelling overseas for surgery was removed without consultation or warning, meaning passports were based totally on birth certificates, resulting in inconvenience and probably risk for trans people.

The Howard government lost office in 2007 and was replaced by the ALP, led by Prime Minster Kevin Rudd. In its first term it focussed on removing discrimination at a national level against same-sex couples, amending around 100 laws in the process (although not making any attempt at marriage equality). There was better news on passports, with moves back towards flexibility that countered the 2006 reversal and went a little further.

 In mid 2010, Kevin Rudd was replaced by Julia Gillard as ALP leader and Prime Minister, and after the August 2010 election the ALP formed a minority government with the support of independents. This was incredibly timely as in April 2010 came the beginnings of combined efforts at national trans advocacy.

This took place at the national Health in Difference conference in Sydney. WA trans man Aram Hosie organised the session “Moving Beyond Talking” (which received a participants choice award). The foundations established at this session created the basis of national co-operation and progress and these have been built on since then.

The first policy breakthrough took place in September 2011. The government announced passports would be based totally on affirmed identity for trans and gender diverse people, gave an X option and also announced reforms for intersex people. Draft guidelines were presented to representatives of TGV, A Gender Agenda (an organisation in the Australian Capital Territory), Western Australia Gender Project and Organisation Intersex Internationale Australia. These guidelines needed only minor modification before being released (after public consultation with the trans community).

This was the biggest policy or legal change in Australian history up to that point in time to base documentation on affirmed identity. With hindsight, it was also a clever strategic “testing of the waters” that laid the ground for the 3 areas of federal reform that occurred in 2013. Public backlash was virtually nil, even on conservative talk-back radio stations. One caller, after a TGD person was interviewed on Melbourne radio, even asked why it hadn’t happened earlier. Trans was no longer a shock value issue; people had a basic understanding and were able to accept policy reforms were needed. The trans advocacy movement had reached a major milestone. It was also worth noting a unanimous High Court decision (AH and AB’s case, AH and AB being 2 trans men in Western Australia) was handed down in the same month as this policy changed. This also reinforced the principle that surgery was not a vital part of recognising all trans people for being who we are.

Another major development, which assisted trans advocacy, was the receipt of ongoing funding for two paid roles in the LGBTI Health Alliance. The organisation prioritised 2 areas: one being intersex, trans and gender diverse people (the other being LGBTI seniors). This resulted in the formation of what ultimately became known as the Intersex, Trans and Gender Diverse working group to work with the paid employee. The impact of having someone paid to assist largely voluntary efforts has been large and the support of a large organisation with resources and networks will continue to make a positive impact.

In June 2012, history was made with a 2-day roundtable in Sydney of 18 intersex, trans and gender diverse people from all states and territories and also a range of backgrounds e.g. indigenous/sistagirl, sex workers. The roundtable prioritised 5 key priority areas for progress after brainstorming every possible issue. The result was the Diversity in Health document which was launched in November 2012. This was effectively a 3-5 year strategic plan for intersex, trans and gender diverse people. Importantly, it was launched at a function for the Parliamentary friends of GLBTI in Canberra. To have the focus of a cross-section of all federal politicians on trans and gender diverse, and to some extent intersex, was a major breakthrough. Many were not aware of the grave social difficulties still facing trans and gender diverse people and as such, by hearing stories and meeting with us, many had a major paradigm shift.

There was a significant side note to the Sydney meeting. At the end of the second day, those from beyond Sydney caught cabs together to the airport and were having a quiet (non-alcoholic) drink together before catching flights home. All noted that while intersex, trans and gender diverse were making progress, bisexual issues were probably further behind in understanding and support than intersex, trans and gender diverse. It is significant that a group of people still striving for major reform had the leadership quality of empathy to consider others and it was a small yet powerful indicator of the increasing strength in the national trans and gender diverse movement.

Meanwhile the federal government was pressing ahead with an overhaul of federal discrimination protections which also aimed to add sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status at national level. A draft national bill was presented in November 2012 while at the same time the state of Tasmania was moving to insert a better definition of gender identity into its existing state laws. The Tasmanian definition was simpler and gave more coverage to the trans and gender diverse kaleidoscope, in particular to those identifying in non-binary ways. The federal attorney general readily accepted the Tasmanian definition was better and supported its inclusion. The positive contrast when compared to the difficulties in Victoria in 2000 showed advocacy and the trans movement had clearly been effective in getting the basics across. Trans issues were simply not controversial any more. The resulting legislation, while not the original major overhaul, gave federal protection after at least 17 years of previous effort. Further, no state law was weakened, and many were strengthened due to the previously mentioned provision in the federal constitution. There was no controversy in adding these attributes with at least 95% of the Parliament being supportive and a formal vote was not required. Most of all, the co-operation between advocates across GLBTI was perfect and was a factor that helped put the world first intersex protections into law as well.

At the same time, the federal government announced two further policy changes. The principles of the 2011 passport reforms were extended to sex and gender guidelines with all national departments and agencies been given 3 years to comply. Also, changes were announced to the government health insurance system Medicare to make some processes gender-neutral. The health care provisions can help to pave the way for eventual public funding of trans surgeries and the documentation guidelines are easily applicable to states and territories.


While it is understandable that the need for change is pressing for trans and gender diverse people, the lessons learned from all of the above simply reinforce basic human principles such as trust and patience. By building trust, people have worked together. By taking the time to communicate and build a true picture of trans and gender diverse lives, advocacy is then made easier in the long run.

It has also been fantastic to see the greater visibility of indigenous, sistagirl and brothaboy culture. While many people such as Crystal Johnston have worked intensely in this area for many years, the leadership of sistagirl Starlady Nungari and brothaboy Kai Clancy have taken this to higher levels.

As noted, non-binary issues, while moving rapidly forward, still face many challenges. As an example, a supposedly safe conference on BGILT in schools recently began with the words “welcome...ladies and gentlemen,” thereby making non-binary people invisible. Again, education and communication will be needed. This is a critical point given 33% of young trans and gender diverse people identified as non-binary in the research piece “from Blues to Rainbows” released in September 2014.

It is fantastic to see the emergence of trans and gender diverse young people and their involvement in advocacy. The Victorian-based group Ygender has grown exponentially in the last 3 years. Coverage of trans and gender diverse issues for young people has improved from the pathologising attitudes of 10 years ago to listening to those willing to speak publicly. And overall, media coverage has increased in balance and is more respectful.

The future is not without challenges. Different states and territories are at different levels of progress both within the community regarding both levels of lateral violence within the trans and gender diverse community and re acceptance in the wider community. It is important to ensure that existing work is built upon rather than having these regions re-invent the wheel, particularly given the largely voluntary nature of those involved.

Overall, the future is bright for trans and gender diverse advocacy in Australia. So long so communication and co-operation continues and grows, it is firmly believed that the trans movement in Australia can keep moving – and definitely move in the right direction.

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