Correcting the debate on gender identity
Two weeks in, I find myself punch-drunk and utterly perplexed.
As a transgender advocate who has spent more than 25 years working to expand the legal and cultural recognition of universal human rights and to demystify gender diversity more generally, I’m doubtless more battle hardened than most. Nonetheless, I’m increasingly weary of seeing my personal sense of identity used as cannon fodder in this cruel and dehumanising culture war, which impassioned ideologues of all political stripes casually pass off as “robust debate”.
Given polling has shown 60 to 70 per cent of Australians support equal marriage laws and that a clear majority of politicians would vote for marriage equality if permitted a free vote, the prime minister’s rationale for putting us through an outrageously expensive, completely unnecessary, non-binding poll allegedly required to take the national temperature on marriage equality seems tenuous at best.
Devoid of any sensible arguments against equal and inclusive civil marriage laws – aside from their own certitude that tradition always trumps the principles of equality – the “No” campaign subjects us daily to a carefully crafted sideshow of straw man conjecture, smoke and mirrors.
In an obvious attempt to distract us from the simple question at hand, the “No” case constantly throws up “political correctness”, the end to “religious freedom” or “free speech”, and the frightening prospect of Marxist revolutionaries surreptitiously introducing “radical sex education” into our schools. The key, though, has become gender. This is what the “No” campaign believes is most scary to the ordinary voter. The tenuous argument, the one made most forcefully, is that marriage equality is about the obliteration of gender. In their world, the sky is always falling. Here is how Tony Abbott put it a few weeks ago: “How, for instance, can we legitimately say no to gender-fluidity programs like so-called Safe Schools if we’ve de-gendered marriage? If we’ve officially sanctioned de-gendering marriage, it’s very hard not to see de-gendering come in in so many other areas as well.”
No longer able to sustain the argument that non-heteronormative sexuality is a “sinful choice” or that you can or should simply “pray the gay away”, religious conservatives instead now rely on a highly contrived “slippery slope”.
What the Abbott argument deliberately overlooks is that none of this is about proselytising. The vast majority of trans and non-binary people do not wish to obliterate gender, nor do we not want to “recruit” others, whatever that means. We simply want wider society to recognise that gender is a complex spectrum rather than a fixed binary dichotomy, and to embrace us as equal rather than treating us as subhuman. There is nothing scary or nefarious in this.
Doubtless some of the new language and terminology, which has evolved out of university gender studies departments hoping to better describe this multifaceted spectrum of sex and gender diversity, still feels alien to many. But look beyond academia’s well-intended fixation with linguistics and inclusivity and you’ll find a huge body of historical and empirical evidence that clearly demonstrates gender variance, non-binary gender identity and gender expression have been an intrinsic part of natural human diversity for millennia.
To anyone familiar with the history of India’s “third sex” hijra community, which flourished on Asia’s subcontinent long before the coming of Christ, the “No” campaign’s constant suggestion that gender variance is a “new and dangerous phenomenon” sounds patently absurd. Like the muxes of Mexico, Samoa’s fa’afafine culture and the two-spirits of North America’s indigenous people, the hijra were widely accepted and revered in their own Hindi society as bearers of luck and fertility for more than 4000 years prior to Asia being colonised by various Western Christian imperial powers.
We’ve always been part of the human story – every human language has a name for us.
Ironically, even in my own LGBTQI community there are radicalised, ignorant and/or simply fearful voices who remain unaware of the history of gender variance as a perfectly natural expression of human diversity. During an Intelligence Squared debate on gender identity last year, which I helped produce, leading lesbian feminist academic Bronwyn Winter teamed up with a senior adviser to the Pope to argue against the proposition that Society Must Recognise Trans People’s Gender Identities. During this debate, Professor Winter asserted that she was “firmly convinced that the pharmaco industrial machine had invented the transgender child” and that she “did not buy the gender dysphoria argument”. This was despite the huge body of evidence to the contrary.
These “new fad” conspiracy theories are easily debunked by the writings of Greek historians and physicians such as Herodotus and Hippocrates, the latter widely considered the father of Western medicine, who were writing about the enarees more than 500 years before Christ. The enarees were male-to-female Scythian shamans who castrated themselves to take on female roles in homage to Aphrodite.
The same writings reference Bronze Age Assyrian horsemen ingesting the urine of brood mares as an early form of oestrogen treatment in order to feminise themselves. In Greece’s own founding allegorical mythology, the goddess Hera transforms the blind prophet Tiresias into a woman in order to provide him with greater insight into the human condition. In the Hindu tradition, Lord Shiva has long been depicted as transcending gender completely.
Although much maligned and consistently demonised within our deeply patriarchal Western Judaeo-Christian tradition, throughout human history myriad trans and gender-diverse cultures such as the Bugis people of Indonesia, who to this day recognise five different genders, have flourished.
Given this historical context, it’s striking that conservative spin doctors from various churches, groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby, and some other slick and tricky demagogues still invest such time and energy demonising equality and dehumanising gender-variant Australians. At the same time, they remain relatively silent on the frightening levels of child sex abuse uncovered within their own faith-based institutions.
Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart recently said marriage equality “could weaken us” and threatened to fire teachers or other church employees who expounded a view different to his on the issue. Because the Catholic Church clearly believes its own theocratic canon law should overrule secular democratic civil law – and has the exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation to act on this.
No longer able to sustain the argument that non-heteronormative sexuality is a “sinful choice” or that you can or should simply “pray the gay away”, religious conservatives instead now rely on a highly contrived “slippery slope” – an incendiary metaphor that panders to the myth that greater numbers of trans and other gender-non-conforming youth who now feel comfortable coming out during or just prior to adolescence is a function of some wicked Marxist plot to up-end Western civilisation.
In his recent Quarterly Essay, titled Moral Panic 101, queer author Benjamin Law wrote: “To read every article that The Australian has published on Safe Schools is to induce nausea.” Law goes on to point out Murdoch’s flagship published nearly 200 articles attacking Safe Schools, amounting “to over 90,000 words”– the equivalent of publishing one story attacking Safe Schools every few days for almost two years. In all this, not one trans youth was interviewed. They are not regarded as important, because this debate is not about them – it’s simply about using them.
Implicit in virtually all the “No” campaign’s arguments is a point-blank refusal to accept the existence or legitimacy of LGBTQI orientation as a normal function of natural human diversity.
Yet despite this apocalyptic “gender panic” splashed across the media in response to the increasing numbers of gender-questioning youth now seeking support or early social transition, every peer-reviewed study into the outcomes of supportive, affirming treatment I’ve seen draws similar positive conclusions to one published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in March last year. It concluded:
“Socially transitioned transgender children who are supported in their gender identity have developmentally normative levels of depression and only minimal elevations in anxiety, suggesting that psychopathology is not inevitable within this group. Especially striking is the comparison with reports of children with [gender dysphoria]; socially transitioned transgender children have notably lower rates of internalizing psychopathology than previously reported among children with [gender dysphoria] living as their natal sex.”
Compare these relatively positive outcomes with my own generation’s deeply troubling mental-health statistics and unacceptably high rates of self-harm and the myriad benefits of this new, more supportive and affirming approach seem crystal clear. Most clinicians who work closely with trans and gender-diverse people now believe many of these mental-health problems were directly caused by the trauma we experienced growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, often feeling like aliens in our own bodies, living with the constant fear of becoming pariahs in our own communities should our peers and those we loved ever become aware of our inner turmoil.
Reflecting on my own personal experience, I remain convinced that long before I was ever subjected to the relentless bullying and multiple episodes of serious violence that caused me to spend weeks in hospital during my teens, my self-esteem and confidence had already been eviscerated simply trying to survive in a world where I was daily bombarded with messages and ideas that told me everything I felt about my true identity made me something less than human.
I believe that doing whatever we can to alleviate this burden of internalised oppression remains our primary challenge in empowering future generations of trans and gender-diverse people to lead ever more productive and happier lives.
I remain hopeful that most Australians will vote “Yes” to marriage equality, even though I fully concede that some angry voices in my own community may have done serious damage to our cause. Because despite all this unnecessary heat and hurt, I still believe most Australians have enough empathy and kindness in their hearts to see us as human and to embrace us as equals.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 23, 2017 as "Correcting the debate on gender identity". Subscribe here.