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As the backlash against the inclusion of trans and non-binary Australians continues, medical experts fear media rhetoric may hurt the wellbeing of gender-questioning youth. By Joan Westenberg.

New birth certificate laws spark anti-trans campaign

It’s been almost two years since the result of Australia’s same-sex marriage postal survey was announced and the marriage legislation passed through parliament. There was relief, and the feeling of a victory hard-won. But for many in the queer community, exhausted by the long-fought “Yes” campaign, it marked just the beginning of a new series of battles.

This month has been particularly tumultuous for Australia’s trans community, with breakthroughs in Victoria and at peak sporting body Cricket Australia generating a fierce backlash against trans and non-binary inclusion, which has attracted both interest and condemnation from media in Australia and abroad.

This week, the Victorian government will move towards recognising and advancing transgender rights with the introduction of legislation to make it easier for trans and non-binary identifying people to change the gender listed on their birth certificate. The bill requires people to have lived in Victoria for at least 12 months before they are able to make an application to amend their birth certificate.

When the bill was first introduced in 2016, the state’s attorney-general, Martin Pakula, hailed the changes as a major step for equality.

“Nobody should be forced to undergo major surgery or choose between maintaining a legal relationship with their spouse just to get a birth certificate that reflects who they are,” he said. “We are delivering on our election promise to ensure equality for all Victorians.”

The bill was blocked by the Coalition three years ago, but is likely to pass the upper house this time.

Meanwhile, Cricket Australia has come under both political and community pressure after the release of the organisation’s transgender inclusion policy. The policy sets out clear requirements and regulations for trans athletes to compete in the sport in the gender category that reflects their identity. The guidelines are in step with those set for trans athletes by the International Olympic Committee.

Sean Carroll, Cricket Australia’s head of integrity, says the policy reflects a broader principle and vision of inclusion held by the organisation.

“We started from the point of inclusion: every person in Australia has a fundamental human right to participate in cricket, free from discrimination and harassment,” Carroll told The Saturday Paper.

“With this principle at heart and taking the lead from the Australian Human Rights Commission and working in conjunction with them and Sport Australia, we believe we have developed a robust, inclusive and fair policy that will continue to evolve as the inclusion of transgender and gender-diverse people in our community moves forward.

“Already, sports from across the country have been approaching cricket for guidance as to how they might navigate this sometimes-complex area of policy. I’m proud of that.”

“I benefited so much from sport in elite teams,” Australian women’s cricket captain, Alex Blackwell, told the ABC. “I don’t think trans and gender-diverse people should be excluded from that.”

Both are notable wins for a community that faces significant discrimination from the law and the public. Yet reaction in the Australian media has been swift.

In an editorial decision that has been criticised by LGBTQIA+ groups internationally, including Britain’s PinkNews, The Australian’s writer-at-large Bernard Lane last week announced the online edition of the paper had launched a section dedicated to tracking “gender issues”. Lane introduced the section as “Trans nation: the gender debate”. It now features articles covering the “medicalisation of gender”, alleged transition regrets and a range of other topics. The coverage has faced criticism for presenting information solely through an anti-trans rights lens, including the headline “They’re castrating children”.

One piece published last Friday reported a call for an inquiry into the rising numbers of young people receiving hormone therapy, based on a submission to Health Minister Greg Hunt by Geoff Holloway, a health sociologist. The paper noted the submission was supported by Dr John Whitehall, a paediatrics professor and former deputy president of Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party; Dianna Kenny, a developmental psychologist; and Dr Suzanne Packer, the 2019 Senior Australian of the Year. Packer has since apologised for the distress caused by her endorsement of the submission.

“I deeply regret that I did not foresee just how devastating it would be for families already dealing with these complex situations,” said Dr Packer on Wednesday. “I apologise unreservedly for the distress I have caused … Through this experience I have come to understand just how hurtful and damaging negative media can be for vulnerable children and their families. I call for the media to consider the wellbeing and vulnerabilities of the children and families when reporting on this issue.”

The commentary on trans children in particular has been rejected by trans healthcare providers and the medical community more broadly. Dr Fiona Bisshop, a specialist in transgender healthcare and vice-president of the Sexual Health Society of Queensland, called it factually incorrect and irresponsible.

“The arguments regarding treatment of children are designed to be highly emotive and fearmongering and are not based on factual information,” said Bisshop, who is a board member of the Australian Professional Association for Trans Health (AusPATH). “In fact, we know that it is the very absence of supportive, affirming care for trans children which is associated with the greatest morbidity in terms of mental health and suicidality, and even basic things like the ability to attend school.”

Some research suggests that up to 80 per cent of transgender and gender-fluid young people have self-harmed, and 48 per cent have attempted suicide.

AusPATH, Australia’s peak body for professionals involved in the health, rights and wellbeing of trans, gender-diverse and non-binary (TGD) people, has also released a statement about The Australian’s recent reporting on trans issues. It took particular issue with the paper’s reporting on the mental health of young trans people.

“Our organisation is concerned that the recent reporting in The Australian newspaper regarding health care provided to TGD children and adolescents is biased, emotive and is not based on fact,” the statement read. “The reporting ignores available scientific evidence which strongly endorses supporting transgender children through social and medical transition to improve their mental health outcomes.

“It is well recognised that these poor mental health outcomes are not inherent to being transgender but are due to TGD individuals experiencing high levels of stigma, discrimination, social exclusion, family rejection, bullying, harassment and assaults.”

The Australian’s “trans nation” coverage mirrors many of the arguments that have been made in the United States as part of a pushback against queer rights that has played out in the media and in politics on both the state and federal level.

In the wake of the 2015 Supreme Court case that legalised same-sex marriage across the US, conservative groups began pushing an anti-transgender narrative almost immediately, through public campaigns and the courts.

In the shift in conservative activism from gay rights to transgender rights, a pattern of coverage and political rhetoric emerged – canvassing fearmongering about children, disinformation about medical options and classifications of mental illness.

Across the US, “bathroom access” bills have been introduced in state after state, perhaps most notably in North Carolina, where the laws prompted statewide boycotts from Bruce Springsteen, Netflix, PayPal and other entertainers, businesses and organisations. Under the Trump administration, arguments that stoke fear about medicalisation have been used to strip transgender people of basic rights and the ability to serve in the military.

Transgender inclusion is still a polarising topic for many. It garners less traction with mainstream Australians than same-sex marriage. It is often difficult for the trans community, lacking that public momentum, to defend against political and social movements that seek to encroach on their rights and safety.

In Australia, the playbook laid out by US conservative activists was already in use during the campaign leading up to the same-sex marriage vote. The Coalition for Marriage ran a series of advertisements, authorised by Marriage Alliance, that claimed same-sex marriage would lead to a forced adoption of gender fluidity in children and vulnerable teens.

One such advertisement invoked fears about the Safe Schools program, claiming that in countries where same-sex marriage had been achieved, these programs had become “widespread and compulsory”. “Kids in year 7 are being asked to roleplay being in a same-sex relationship,” one woman claimed in the ad, positioned as a concerned mother.

The director of the Coalition for Marriage, Lyle Shelton, claimed in many interviews that gender is at the centre of his particular anti-queer activism. As he told a Sky News interviewer in 2017: “This is about changing the established order, forever changing our understanding of free speech. It is about forever changing our understanding of gender, which we are seeing in the Safe Schools program … This has nothing to do with marriage … it is about forever changing the way children are understanding what it means to be a boy and a girl.”

Since same-sex marriage was legalised in Australia, Marriage Alliance, a relatively fringe group that enjoyed a high profile as part of the “No” campaign, announced it was rebranding as Binary Australia, with the goal to “carry on the fight for traditional values that celebrate the inherent differences between boys and girls, men and women”.

“Like you, I’m very concerned about the gender wars, what our kids are being taught in school and the way political correctness is infecting our society,” the group wrote in an email announcing Binary’s launch to its supporters. “Binary will take over where Marriage Alliance left off.”

During Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership, the Liberal Party claimed same-sex marriage as its great achievement, but some in its leadership have recently made statements that echo the US anti-trans rights campaign. Scott Morrison found time to comment on Cricket Australia’s policy directly, ridiculing the decision during an interview with Sydney’s 2GB Radio. The prime minister likened the inclusion policy to a “sledgehammer” and labelled it “mystifying”.

“This is a very heavy-handed approach they’re taking with local sport, and I think there are far more practical ways to handle these issues than these sort of heavy mandatory ways of doing it,” he said.

Morrison claimed that his focus was on “bigger issues”. However, over the past 12 months, transgender inclusion has repeatedly been in the prime minister’s focus, including tweets calling out trans rights matters such as his concerns about “‘gender whisperers’ in our schools” and birth certificate changes.

Dr Bisshop says the transphobic political and media sentiments would be directly harmful to trans and non-binary teens.

“The disgusting transphobic discourse in some mainstream media publications, and the apparent dismissal of transgender people by our prime minister, is extremely damaging to trans and gender-questioning children. The use of emotive phrases such as ‘castrating children’ is likely to create unwarranted concern and fear amongst the general public who have no personal experience of trans people and will influence their attitudes and perception of trans issues in a very negative way.

“Using transgender children as a conservative rallying call to arms against progressive changes in society will undoubtedly lead to an increase in stigma, discrimination, social exclusion, family rejection, bullying, harassment and assaults, and ultimately may also lead to increased rates of self-harm and suicide in this vulnerable population.”

For the trans community itself, every step forward is accompanied by a taxing and violent response that can be devastatingly harmful in its own right. To Salem, a non-binary person coming to terms with life in their early 20s, The Australian’s anti-trans agenda has already had an impact.

“I know that the media turns out negative messages about us over and over again, but to have it as a dedicated site indicates to me that we’ve definitely seen a change, in the last couple of years, towards more visibility,” says Salem.

“But that visibility is a double-edged sword. It has meant that we can have more conversations about what it means to be non-binary and trans, but it’s also meant we’re more of a target.

“I think the idea that trans queer people just need to accept themselves and come out and be who they are and be true to themselves and everything will be okay is a total lie. It’s a myth.”

Salem voices a concern that the most vulnerable people in the community – transgender and non-binary teenagers – will suffer the most.

“When you are accepted, you are far less likely to try and attempt suicide or commit suicide or have severe mental health issues. We know this from the plebiscite and what happened with mental health there because, again, our identities were up for debate.

“This will absolutely increase the likelihood of self-harm and maybe suicide attempts. I think it just contributes to an anti-trans culture.

“They know that this is going to hurt people. The cruelty is the point.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 17, 2019 as "New birth certificate laws spark anti-trans campaign". Subscribe here.

Joan Westenberg
is a Sydney-based writer and a proud transgender woman who has been published in more than 40 publications.