Nevo Zisin
Rewriting society’s binary code

When I came out as transgender at the age of 17, I wasn’t aware of any public debates against my rights. I didn’t know what percentage of the country would vote against my right to marry, and there weren’t mainstream newspapers accusing people like me of coercing others into irreversible sex-change surgeries. But I also had no positive role models, no vision for what my life could look like in the future and absolutely no guidance. I came out in year 12, in 2013, not a very long time ago, but after everything that has happened in this country in regard to LGBTQIA rights, it may as well have been a lifetime. Hyper-visibility is bringing new-found challenges, as well as advantages, when compared with previous invisibility.

The sociopolitical climate of being transgender in this country is a mess. It feels like no matter what transgender activists, advocates and allies do, we are taking one step forward as a nation and then turning and sprinting in the opposite direction. Every single day, I have to convince myself that it is worth getting out of bed and fighting to simply live my life.

Editorials on transgender issues are quick to invalidate our identities and accuse us of denying science and coercing the masses into our radical gender politics. We are living in a time when people are more upset about being called transphobic than they are about actual transphobia. And so much of the transphobia in the Australian media still stems from a place of believing, on some fundamental level, that this is a choice – and that we can simply just “go back” to being the gender we were assigned at birth.

I made the choice to be a non-binary transgender person as much as every man made the choice to be a man, every woman to be a woman and every child to be born. Sure, there are choices I have made to ease the dysphoria I feel as a result of the way people read me – taking hormones has helped me express myself and my gender in a way that feels more truthful for me. But I am not a fad, a myth, or a predator in disguise.

Gender fluidity and various expressions of gender have existed since the dawn of time. As a result of colonisation, coercive religious projects and other queerphobic violence, much of the history of gender diversity has been lost or destroyed or suppressed. But it lives on in our blood, and in many cultures that maintain gender expressions outside a strictly male-and-female binary. Definitions such as “womanhood” and “manhood” are up for debate now, as they always have been. Restrictive definitions are easy to put in place when you ignore all the outliers who don’t affirm those definitions.

It gets to a certain point where I can’t keep justifying my existence. I am so very tired of trying to get people to care about anyone other than themselves.

Recently, I was running a workshop about transgender identity and a participant said to me, “Well, this is just common sense.”

“Correct,” I told her. And yet it is so very uncommon.

Conservatives in Australia are quick to change their goalposts in order to demonise transgender people. Arguments for women’s rights, religious freedom and protection against sexual assault all come up in transgender debates, despite the very same conservatives supporting anti-abortion laws, Islamophobic sentiments and the defence of assault allegations. If these are truly the reasons for keeping transgender people out of certain spaces, then why are these rules not applied to the rest of the population?

I keep coming back to a quote from the writer and poet Maggie Nelson: “There’s something truly strange about living in a historical moment in which the conservative anxiety and despair about queers bringing down civilization and its institutions (marriage, most notably) is met by the anxiety and despair so many queers feel about the failure or incapacity of queerness to bring down civilization and its institutions.”

There is so much anxiety around what could happen if a “transgender push” is affirmed. If our society threatens to crumble at the sight of evolution, perhaps it was built on shoddy foundations in the
first place.

When it comes to birth certificate law reform, there are huge contradictions coming from conservatives. Currently, in Victoria, there are already documents that can be changed with a letter from one’s doctor, such as passports. But in order to change a birth certificate, an individual must undergo gender reassignment surgery – for which there can be many expensive and invasive operations.

For myself as a trans person who was assigned female at birth, aside from the fact I have never actually wanted gender reassignment surgery, the cost of it would be completely unrealistic for me. There are very few surgeons in Australia who perform lower operations on those assigned female at birth. If you were to travel overseas, Dr Riki Lane from the Monash Health Gender Clinic in Melbourne estimates it could cost anywhere between $50,000 and $70,000. When you consider the huge unemployment rates among trans people around the world, this figure feels impossible.

Apart from the money involved, to expect someone to undergo serious and invasive surgery to validate their gender in documents is archaic. Changing the law in Victoria will allow the state to join Tasmania, the ACT, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia – with very minimal impact on anyone aside from those of us who have to lie on documents in order to protect our safety, or run the risk of outing ourselves and losing jobs, loved ones or housing.

Somehow, giving people more options is seen as coercion. One cannot make the argument that a trans person’s identity is less valid until they have surgeries, and then also argue that young people may have these surgeries and grow up to regret them. Offering young people more options, allowing them to validate their own identities, may mean that they will not have to make irreversible choices just to have their documents reflect who they truly are. May I also add, changes to young people’s birth certificates will still require support from parents and a doctor or psychologist – it is not some free-for-all as it’s being painted to be.

Transgender young people face very real struggles – 48.1 per cent of trans young people have attempted suicide, a rate 20 times higher than adolescents in the general Australian population. Trans people also experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, homelessness, unemployment and discrimination. To pretend these can just be laughed off, ignored or argued with shows a grotesque lack of understanding or empathy. These conversations are not just about politics, they are about our livelihoods. I do not want to keep surviving. I want to thrive.

Any time any trans person does or says anything, it is assumed to be reflective of every other transgender person in existence. I can imagine that for the most part, trans and gender-diverse people would like to be treated as individuals with unique needs and experiences. I have a co-worker who often says, “If you’ve heard one trans story, well… you’ve heard one trans story.”

What is this united trans body of political push? Anyone who has been in a trans space or even in conversation with more than one trans person knows we are not some monolith and come from immensely diverse backgrounds, lived experiences and political perspectives. There is no one united trans collective with a clear vision for what trans people everywhere need. There is no shadowy, powerful trans lobby. There will always be debate, dissent and discussion even within our communities.

I experience reminders every single day that the world I live in was not built for people like me. I keep getting up and pushing back but I hold with me the 40 per cent increase in mental health services accessed by trans young people during the dark months of the postal survey. I hold with me the names of trans women of colour who have been murdered around the world. I stand on the shoulders of giants who have paved the way for people like me to keep fighting back. I will not stand down, I will not give up and I can promise that history will remember those who made it difficult.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 3, 2019 as "Rewriting society’s binary code".

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Nevo Zisin is a Jewish, queer, non-binary writer, activist and public speaker based in Naarm/Birraranga/Melbourne.

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