The presence of neo-Nazis at a transphobic rally in Melbourne last weekend is evidence of how fringe groups operate to find common purpose, focusing on the most vulnerable. By Sam Elkin.
TERF wars and neo-Nazis
Last Saturday, March 18, 2023, opposing rallies met outside Parliament House in Melbourne. They were ragtag bunches of loosely aligned people, the groups split into two by dozens of police officers.
On one side stood about 30 women, dressed as if they had come down from Noosa for the day. Peppered among them were a dozen or so men holding red ensigns and upside-down Australian flags. Most striking, however, were the scores of neo-Nazis, faces wrapped in shirts and balaclavas, marching and performing the Sieg Heil salute.
On the other side were the trans and gender-diverse community and their supporters, holding pink and blue trans flags, wearing N95 masks and homemade signs painted with rainbow slogans, leather-clad Dykes on Bikes standing staunchly among them.
The unlikely drawcard – the reason for the rally – was a white, curly-haired blonde woman in a yellow jumpsuit and white sunglasses. British-based far-right activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, also known as Posie Parker, was there on one of the stops of her Australia-wide “Let Women Speak” tour, supported by the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) network, known for, among other things, campaigning against the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
In the face of such obvious extremism, many are eager to separate out the groups, focusing on the neo-Nazis as the threat that requires addressing. Nazis are so obviously evil that some people may be tempted to see the #LetWomenSpeak brigade as comparatively benign. Keen-Minshull and her small band of supporters, however, spout a hateful ideology that poses a very significant risk of harm, despite her more colourful and less obviously alarming image. To put it simply: far-right extremists and anti-trans campaigners who spew hate under the guise of protecting women are not mutually exclusive.
It is telling that at no point did Keen-Minshull or anyone from her contingent denounce the actions of the neo-Nazis in attendance or ask them to leave. Indeed, in one of the most seemingly incongruous scenes of the day, a middle-aged woman with dyed pink hair, who would’ve looked at home selling runes at a Nimbin farmers’ market, posed smiling for a photo behind a line of black-clad, balaclava-wearing members of Australia’s largest Nazi organisation.
Keen-Minshull is well known in Britain. While quite open to posting deeply Islamophobic, anti-immigrant tweets on occasion, her focus is on the trans community, who she has called for to be sterilised and accused of stealing “women’s spaces” and mutilating children. Keen-Minshull is also a part of the Hands Across the Aisle Coalition, which aims to connect transgender-exclusionary radical feminists, known as TERFs, with conservative Christian anti-LGBTQIA+ groups. This, of course, was her mission in Australia.
For the uninitiated, this may need some unpacking. The so-called feminist anti-transgender movement has come to global prominence drawing on the views of children’s author J. K. Rowling – whose wildly successful Harry Potter series will be well known to all – Australian-born academic Germaine Greer, retired University of Melbourne academic Sheila Jeffreys and British journalists Suzanne Moore and Julie Bindel, whose extreme transphobia is published extensively by The Guardian. The TERFs recent “wins” have included shutting down the British charity Mermaids, which runs a helpline for trans and gender-questioning young people and their families, and nixing the Scottish trans rights law that would have allowed for self-identification on birth certificates. TERFs have also managed to create a moral panic about trans women entering women’s toilets, causing taller or short-haired cisgender women to have been bullied out of women’s toilets across Britain. They also speak of their concern that a generation of young women are being indoctrinated into “mutilating their bodies” by seeking gender-affirming healthcare.
We have a few of our own prominent TERFs in Melbourne. In 2019, University of Melbourne political philosophy lecturer Holly Lawford-Smith ran a campaign as part of the Victorian Women’s Guild against proposed amendments to the Victorian birth certificate laws to allow trans people to change their gender marker on their birth certificate without undergoing genital surgery. While these reforms eventually passed, during Smith’s lectures at the University of Melbourne, transphobic stickers by persons unknown were plastered throughout women’s toilets across the campus, likening trans women to sexual predators. These actions cause real harm to an already disadvantaged community that suffers from higher rates of poverty, housing insecurity and suicidal ideation due to stigma and discrimination.
As for influential conservative Christian anti-LGBTQIA+ ideologues, Western Metropolitan Region member of parliament Moira Deeming certainly springs to mind. Deeming was given the top place in preselection by the Victorian Liberals during the 2022 state election, replacing Bernie Finn, who was himself expelled from the Liberal Party due to his extreme anti-abortion views. Deeming, instead of addressing any of the plethora of housing, healthcare, environmental or infrastructure issues in the western suburbs, used her precious time in the Victorian parliament this month to promote the “Let Women Speak” tour. After the rally, she featured on a post-event livestream drinking champagne with Keen-Minshull and Angie Jones, host of the podcast TERF Talk.
Keen-Minshull and her backers are focused on uniting these fringe groups in opposition to trans people. But why? Why are they so focused on trans people like me, a small, poor and disadvantaged minority group? Are they truly worried about the bogeyman of trans women in public toilets, or are they using a debate about our lives to animate a far-right conservative movement looking for a new common cause following the end of the Covid-19 lockdowns and conspiracy theories about vaccinations?
Many people, including the openly gay Queensland Greens MP Stephen Bates, had campaigned for the federal government to deny Keen-Minshull a visa to Australia on the grounds that her public tour would create a significant risk to transgender and gender diverse people. These concerns fell on deaf ears, however, and her speaking tour kicked off in Sydney on March 11.
This does not mean Keen-Minshull’s tour has been a success. After leaving Melbourne, she has had tiny crowds come to hear her speak in Hobart and Canberra. Her small group of enthusiasts have been largely overshadowed by crowds of trans rights supporters.
As yet, dogmatic anti-trans ideology is a fringe view in Australia. It is notable that the Victorian government responded to the Keen-Minshull rally by flying the trans flag outside parliament. In addition to the news that the Victorian government will ban the Sieg Heil, there are renewed calls for it to make good on a commitment to expand anti-vilification protections to the LGBTQIA+ community.
The Victorian Liberals, led by John Pesutto, have responded swiftly to these events by moving to expel Moira Deeming for her role in the ugly scenes – although her transphobia was well known when she was preselected.
We must be vigilant in the face of deliberate efforts to import anti-trans sentiment, which is well-established in other parts of the world, such as Britain and the United States.
The events on March 18 were not isolated. On September 30, 2022, fascists crashed a council youth event at Queens Park in Moonee Ponds, shouting homophobic and transphobic slogans at the small crowd. On December 8, 2022, the City of Stonnington Glitter Nova celebration for LGBTQIA+ young people at the Victoria Pride Centre was cancelled at the last minute due to threats of Nazi attendance. Their presence was eclipsed by a noisy, colourful rally to support LGBTQIA+ rights, leading the black-clad goons to literally cower in the bushes on Fitzroy Street.
Most recently, on Tuesday this past week, both LGBTQIA+ protesters and police were physically attacked by so-called Christian Lives Matter campaigners outside an event featuring One Nation MP Mark Latham in Belfield in Sydney’s west.
The longstanding debate about the role of police at street parades such as Sydney Mardi Gras and Midsumma will no doubt continue afresh after what many in the trans community felt was biased policing last Saturday. As LGBTQIA+ and disability inclusion educator Ruby Susan Mountford put it, “It’s incredibly confronting and off-putting to spend a day being jeered at and insulted by people who are preaching about the extermination of my community and my friends, and then be treated as if we were the danger.”
Following the events, a member of the Victorian Pride Lobby wrote that “for the first time in my life, I’ve genuinely felt terrified to live in a city that I’ve called home for the last 15 years. I shouldn’t need to convince people that nobody should ever stand alongside fascists who are calling for mass-murder. The organisers of this anti-trans rally had every opportunity to condemn the fascists when they turned up to support the rally. They chose not to.”
If there’s one good thing to come out of this horrible day, it’s that the anti-trans lobby has been revealed as the hatemongers they really are, who felt zero obligation to condemn open displays of Nazism on the streets of Melbourne. This should cause anyone who has tacitly or explicitly supported the burgeoning anti-trans rights movement in Australia to do their own soul searching.
Meanwhile, the trans and gender diverse community in Melbourne continues to support its own with the few resources it has. Just hours after the confronting scenes at Parliament House, Transgender Victoria and Trans Sisters United ran a film screening at the Docklands library, platforming the stories of trans elders, countering bigotry and hatred with care and connection. We’ll need plenty more of this wisdom to guide us from the collective trauma of this moment as we continue our struggle to live safe, hopeful and meaningful lives, free from stigma and discrimination.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 25, 2023 as "TERF war".
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