‘This is a bad faith debate’ – trans Australians ask for a fair election campaign
By Megan Clement (follow me on Twitter here)
It’s election week in Australia and in the first campaign since the pandemic – which saw the country’s borders closed for years – and amid global concerns about the cost of living, an inordinate amount of time has been spent discussing the place of trans people in society.
Research shows that Australians have an overwhelmingly positive approach to trans equality, and a recent attempt to allow religious schools to discriminate against trans students and staff was withdrawn from the country’s parliament after widespread public outcry. But the emergence of an election candidate for the ruling conservative party who opposes trans women’s participation in sport has placed the community under the spotlight at a time when a global backlash against trans rights is taking hold.
In the US, right-wing Christian politicians and lobby groups are trying to pass a flurry of legislation to prevent children from receiving gender-affirming care and ban books about LGBTQI+ people. In the UK meanwhile, the feminist movement has been riven by a toxic debate over trans women’s rights to access essential services.
Jackie Turner is a trans campaigner at Equality Australia, an organisation that campaigns for the rights of LGBTIQ+ people. She spoke with Impact about how trans rights became such a major issue in the Australian election campaign, and how activists there are working to protect the community from the backlash that is taking place in other anglophone countries.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Megan Clement How have issues regarding trans rights and trans equality come up in the Australian election campaign, and why has it been an issue?
Jackie Turner When Australia voted on marriage equality in 2017, part of that campaign was an attack on a programme called Safe Schools, an anti-bullying programme that helps support trans kids. It was attacked viciously by politicians at the time, who tried to use it as a wedge against the marriage equality campaign. Since then, we’ve seen attacks on trans kids in particular pop up over the years. Most recently, it was during the religious discrimination bill, a fight to protect students and teachers at religious schools from facing expulsion or losing their jobs over whether they were gay or trans.
In the election, it began when the Prime Minister selected Katherine Deves, who co-founded an organisation called Save Women’s Sport Australasia, to run in an inner-city Sydney seat. This is an organisation that exclusively campaigns on banning trans women from sport. It came to light that Katherine had deleted all of her social media accounts, but people had archived them. Within the first week of the campaign, her old tweets got released and they were horrible – transphobia was basically plastered across every headline in the country. That fight has now been going on for the last four weeks with people calling for Katherine Deves to apologise for the things she’s said. She initially apologised then withdrew her apology.
Megan Clement Having debates like this during an election campaign must create quite a hostile environment for Australia’s trans community.
Jackie Turner Yes, and we know this is a bad faith debate. The Sex Discrimination Act in Australia already allows for trans people to be excluded from sport where strength, stamina or physique of competitors is relevant. And the sports community is going in the total opposite direction: they want to be more inclusive, not less inclusive. So what we’re seeing is women’s sport being used as a weapon against the trans community. There was also some polling done recently that the most vehement supporters of excluding trans women from sport are actually men. The majority of cis women who participate in sport are in support of trans athletes competing and participating. That’s because over the past couple of years, sporting bodies have been doing lots of work to bring in policies that make sure that people can participate and that everyone has a fair game.
But the effect that this debate is having on the community is horrific. I know that I’ve been really struggling with it and interacting with the media around it. Part of the reason why opponents have chosen sport is because, as we’ve seen in the UK and in the US, the debates around it are particularly horrific and vile, because of the things people feel like they can say about our bodies and our lives. For some reason, sports just bring this out. So we’re seeing increased demand for health services, we’re seeing massive spikes in people accessing helplines. They are receiving reports of people deciding to basically go back into the closet for the period of the election campaign because the vitriol and hatred that’s being broadcast at the moment is so intense, and it’s making them feel unsafe.
Megan Clement In an election, there are so many things to talk about beyond a bad faith debate around sport, and there are major barriers to equality for trans people in Australia. What are the real issues that the trans community faces in terms of achieving equality?
Jackie Turner The barriers come under a few categories. One is around legal affirmation. In many states in Australia, you still need to have gender affirmation surgery of some kind to be able to legally change your gender marker on your birth certificate. What this means is that on your passport on your government ID, you can have the wrong gender marker which means that you’ll get treated differently in services and creates complications if you travel overseas. There’s no reason for people to request that you have really expensive surgery just to get a little marker changed that helps you live your life.
Some of the other issues are material. Trans people really struggle with housing and employment, and they’re more likely to experience family violence, so basically all of the markers that make it really hard to build a good life and a stable life. In all those areas, trans people are really struggling.
The other part of this is accessing health care. There are many places in Australia where it’s really hard to actually find a gender-affirming doctor. For many, it’s only accessible by going to a big city. So finding a doctor who actually understands what it means to be trans and who also has the tools to help you can be a really difficult journey.
Megan Clement Are these the kinds of issues that we should be talking about, rather than the transphobic things we are hearing about instead?
Jackie Turner 100% – the real issues facing the trans community are core fundamental issues of having a life you can live with dignity, to be treated with respect and ensure that you’ll actually be safe in your home, workplaces and schools.
Megan Clement Equality Australia’s research shows that Australia is overwhelmingly pro-trans rights, so we are seeing a false balance involving a loud minority. I know that there are many challenges for the trans community, but is there some hope in the fact that 78% of Australians agree that trans people should have the same rights as everyone else?
Jackie Turner We know that the people who are really passionate about this are a small group of anti-equality lobbyists. We also know that people who know someone well who is trans, perhaps a trans sibling or a co-worker or friend, are overwhelmingly supportive of trans equality. And so I think that’s really instructive that part of what is driving the campaign at the moment is that people just have very little familiarity with trans people and what it means to be trans. And that actually, if they had a conversation with us and got to know a trans person, I think they would find that many of their preconceptions were wrong.
Megan Clement How do you carry your work campaigning for equality for trans people in Australia? What are the techniques that you find to be effective?
Jackie Turner A lot of what my work is focused on is building the capacity and the networks of trans people in Australia to be able to advocate for ourselves and our rights. I have been doing a lot of research into the campaigns in the US and the UK into how the pro-trans sides have defended against the attacks there. And I’m also looking at the way that the attacks from the UK and the US have been imported to Australia. That’s a big interest of mine because the fight for trans rights is actually a global fight. It’s not just isolated to each country.
Megan Clement We have seen a backlash against trans rights in the US, just a tsunami of legislation that is designed to make life very difficult for trans people and particularly trans children. You’ve written that these coordinated attacks in the US have international consequences. What is the danger of the kinds of attacks that we’re seeing in the US being exported internationally?
Jackie Turner The US wasn’t in such a dire situation five or so years ago. It’s changed really quickly. And what we’ve seen is that transphobia is a gateway drug to a whole bunch of other kinds of discrimination. It started with conversations about bathroom bans and trans athletes in women’s sports, but now we’re seeing these bills that are sweeping across US states, aiming to block access to gender-affirming care for young people.
We’re also seeing it seep out into other areas. The fight around Roe v Wade has been enabled by transphobic campaigns that are really at their core about whether people should be able to make decisions about their own bodies and lives. And now with the Don’t Say Gay laws, we are seeing it extending out into traditional old homophobia. So it has huge implications for attacks on not just the LGBTQI+ community but for women as well.
We know that these kinds of organisations are now starting up in Australia, and have links to the US and the UK, either by literally having the same name or by being connected as an organisation.
Megan Clement In the UK, the feminist movement has been split between those who are inclusive of trans rights and those who are not. But it’s different, because I think a lot of the people who are being split on this issue say they are on the left. It’s not the kind of Christian fundamentalist backlash that we’re seeing in the US. Nonetheless, it’s the same talking points that are dehumanising to trans people. Is there a danger of this split specifically in the feminist movement also coming to Australia?
Jackie Turner I hope not. We’ve seen lots of promising work from the feminist movement in Australia to take a firm stance in support of trans equality. An organisation called Fair Agenda has released an open letter of over 70 gender equality organisations standing together against the attacks on trans people in the election, so that’s really positive.
We are facing so many issues in Australia around women’s rights right now, and trans people are the natural allies of these fights over issues of safety, respect and inclusion, and also sexual assault. I would like to continue to see a feminist movement that refuses to budge on trans equality.
Megan Clement In the face of this kind of global backlash from all sides that we’re seeing against trans rights, how can people, and cis feminists in particular, be trans allies?
Jackie Turner One of the best things you can do is to put in place material changes where you are. So if you’re at a local sports club, bring up a discussion about an inclusion policy. If your workplace doesn’t have a gender affirmation plan, start talking with people about how to bring one about, that includes gender affirmation leave. The more we can lock in these kinds of material changes now, the better. We know that there’s a fight ahead of us, and the more we can be on the front foot with really good policies that allow people the freedom to be themselves, the better.
This issue of Impact was prepared by Megan Clement and Steph Williamson.
Impact is financed by the New Venture Fund.
We are a production of Gloria Media – subscribe to our other newsletters:
Glorieuses / Economics / Les Petites Glo
Support independent feminist media. Join The Club.