Friends, Jagged Little Pill and Transphobia in the NSW Legislative Council

In 1996, Australians were watching Friends and listening to Alanis Morissette while the NSW Upper House was the site of a toxic debate about trans law reform.

In 2021, Australians are watching the Friends Reunion, can book tickets to Jagged Little Pill: The Musical and the NSW Legislative Council is once again hosting hostile discussion about the rights of its trans citizens.

It is perhaps disappointing to realise how little progress has been made in terms of pop culture and representations of transgender people – with the Friends Reunion refusing to address the recurring transphobic jokes made at the expense of Chandler’s parent, and Jagged Little Pill: The Musical erasing the gender identity of a fictional nonbinary character on its journey to Broadway.

But it is downright depressing comparing the circumstances surrounding the Transgender (Anti-Discrimination and Other Acts) Act 1996 – which received royal assent 25 years ago this Saturday (19 June 1996) – and the current Parliamentary inquiry into the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020.

For a start, much of the language in the two debates, a quarter of a century apart, is disturbingly similar, with both deliberate misgendering,[i] and scaremongering about trans women in sports, playing starring roles in each.

With more than a hint of hyperbole, Liberal MLC Marlene Goldsmith declared in 1996 ‘This legislation will mean the end of women’s sports as a concept, an entitlement and a right.’

In 2021, Katherine Deves, speaking on behalf of something called ‘Save Women’s Sport Australasia’, complained that ‘gender identity’ requires women and girls ‘to forego their right to compete on a level playing field in sport because fair competition is destroyed, athletic opportunities are lost and players’ safety is completely disregarded.’

Meanwhile, any small advances – multiple references to ‘tranys’ in the 1996 Hansard[ii] thankfully haven’t been repeated more recently – don’t begin to overcome larger retreats elsewhere.

In the intervening 25 years, opponents of legal equality for trans people have pivoted from expressing pity about their plight, while dismissing trans issues as unimportant,[iii] to portraying trans people as potential predators, and a fundamental threat to ‘Western civilisation’.

This dramatic escalation in rhetoric comes not just from the mover of the latter Bill (One Nation’s Mark Latham, who described trans-inclusive education as ‘part of the post-modernist attack on the nuclear family’ in his Second Reading Speech), but also from multiple witnesses who appeared at April’s hearings into his horrific law.

For example, Mark Sneddon of the Institute for Civil Society said (rather uncivilly, and somewhat ominously) in supporting the Bill: ‘What we are trying to do – or what I understand this Bill is trying to do – is to reduce the social contagion influence of putting more people onto the conveyor belt of gender transition.’

Even fear campaigns about women’s bathrooms have worsened, rather than improved, over the past quarter century.

The only reference to toilets I could find in the 1996 Legislative Council debate came from Fred Nile (yes, the same one still sitting in that chamber), who said: ‘Because I am obviously not a woman, I do not know [how] a woman would feel to have a transsexual who was born a male sitting beside her in a woman’s washroom or powder room in a factory, office or club.’

In 2021, this argument has been weaponised, much more explicitly utilising the language of ‘threat’, with Terri Kelleher of the Australian Family Association giving evidence that ‘Is it not discrimination against natal girls if natal male students who identify as female are allowed to use their toilets, change rooms and showers and share overnight school camp accommodation? What about their right to feel safe and to their privacy in spaces where they may be in a state of undress or asleep?’ and later ‘Now, that is not saying that all males or all boys who identify as girls are going to be a threat, but it sets up a situation where that can occur. That is very serious in the light of the child-on-child sexual abuse in schools.’

And, although most participants in the 1996 debate seemed to at least accept that transgender people are who they say they are, by 2021 a number of extremists appearing before Latham’s Committee were regularly making points about high rates of ‘de-transitioning’ and distinguishing between ‘genuine’ and ‘non-genuine’ trans people, before citing ‘social contagion’ and ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’ (despite all four arguments being completely unsupported by any evidence whatsoever).

However, the toxic atmosphere surrounding Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, and the fact contemporary discussion seems to be even worse than it was two and a half decades ago, is merely one small part of much larger frustrations about the situation we find ourselves in today.

At the very least, the 1996 debate was about legislation that would ultimately deliver multiple steps forward for trans rights in this state. Not only did the Transgender (Anti-Discrimination and Other Acts) Act insert transgender as a protected attribute in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, it also saw NSW become the first jurisdiction in Australia to legally prohibit transphobic vilification (something that still hasn’t happened under Commonwealth law, nor in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory).

The same Act also amended the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 to allow transgender people who had undergone gender affirmation surgery to access identity documentation reflecting their gender identity.

These were genuinely historic reforms.

In contrast, the deceptively-named Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 seeks to completely erase real-life trans and nonbinary students from classrooms and schoolyards across NSW, censoring the curriculum and denying them affirmation and support from teachers, principals and even school counsellors.

As I have written elsewhere, this legislation is the worst legislative attack on LGBTI rights in Australia this century.

Some people might be tempted to dismiss this threat given it is merely the product of fringe extremists in the NSW Upper House (one of the chamber’s perennial features). Except the positions of the major parties on this Bill are, so far, worse than when a generation of young people were mislearning the definition of ironic (myself included).

Back then, the Carr Labor Government relentlessly pursued their reforms to anti-discrimination and birth certificate laws. And, while the Collins Liberal/National Opposition ultimately voted against them (because of baseless concerns about the impact of birth certificate changes to women’s sport, including nonsensical statements about the Sydney Olympics), they at least expressed in-principle support for trans anti-discrimination protections.[iv]

In contrast, in the 10 months since Latham introduced his legislative assault on trans kids, neither the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government nor the McKay, and now Minns, Labor Opposition have publicly condemned it.

Indeed, they both voted in the Legislative Council for the Bill to be considered in more detail by a Committee chaired by Latham himself, while the Liberal Parliamentary Secretary for Education Kevin Conolly has expressed his personal support for it.

In failing to reject Latham’s transphobia, could the major parties be any more pathetic?

But the most frustrating part of all is that we need to expend significant time and energy working to defend existing rights, instead of campaigning for improvements to those same reforms passed in 1996.

Because those changes were far from perfect, even when they were first passed.

For example, the amendments to the Anti-Discrimination Act inserted a definition of ‘recognised transgender person’, applying to people who have undergone gender affirmation surgery and had that recognised under the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act, even though it is irrelevant to determining whether anti-trans discrimination was prohibited under Part 3A (poor drafting which is still causing confusion in 2021, as demonstrated by transphobic discrimination by McIver’s Ladies Baths in Coogee earlier this year).

Unfortunately, neither the definition of ‘recognised transgender person’ nor Part 3A introduced protections against discrimination for trans and gender diverse people whose gender identity was nonbinary (instead only covering people who ‘identify as a member of the opposite sex’).[v]

The 1996 Anti-Discrimination Act reforms also permitted discrimination against trans students and teachers in publicly-funded ‘private educational authorities’, including (but not limited to) religious schools.[vi] Something that was difficult to justify 25 years ago, and is impossible to defend now.[vii]

Finally, in limiting access to updated birth certificates to people who have undergone gender affirmation surgery,[viii] the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act changes excluded the majority of trans and gender diverse people who are either unable to access such procedures (including for financial reasons) or who do not wish to. After all, trans people should be in control of their gender identity, not the(ir) doctor.

This weakness is not brand new information, either. The serious limitations of the birth certificate changes were raised by both Democrat[ix] and Greens MLCs[x] at the time.

Indeed, over the last decade, South Australia, the ACT, Northern Territory, Tasmania and Victoria have all removed any requirement for transgender people to have physically invasive medical treatment in order to obtain new identity documentation.

While the re-elected McGowan Labor Government in WA is under pressure to implement the recommendations of a 2018 WA Law Reform Commission Report which supported the same, and the Palaszczuk Labor Government has committed to introduce its own changes later this year.

Which means it is likely that at some point this term NSW will become the only jurisdiction in Australia which still requires trans people to undergo surgery to access a new birth certificate. Just in time to be subjected to (well-deserved) global scorn as Sydney hosts World Pride in February and March 2023.

Nevertheless, just as the Liberal, National and Labor Parties have refused to publicly reject Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, none are currently promising to fix the problems in the Anti-Discrimination Act first introduced back in 1996, nor have any committed to finally bring the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act into the 21st century by allowing people to update their birth certificates without surgery or other physically invasive medical treatments.

This ongoing silence, on the fundamental human rights of the trans community, is simply not good enough. We really oughta know where the major parties stand on Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, anti-discrimination reform and birth certificate requirements by now.

We must use whatever influence we have to demand more on these issues from our elected representatives. And by ‘we’ here I’m not talking about trans and gender diverse people, who are already fighting just for the ability to live their lives without discrimination, and to learn without erasure.

It’s time for cisgender members of the LGBT community, as well as our cis-het allies, to step up, and put pressure on Gladys Berejiklian and her Cabinet, and Chris Minns and his Shadow Ministers, to prioritise the dignity and equality of NSW’s trans and nonbinary citizens.

We must do so urgently, too. Because right now, trans and gender diverse people have very few friends in the NSW Legislative Council, and NSW Parliament more broadly.

While there remains a real chance their legal rights will go backwards, rather than forwards, in the near future. Which would be a very jagged little pill to swallow.

*****

Take Action

Following correspondence I sent in February calling on NSW MPs to reject the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, today I sent the below short email to the Premier, Opposition Leader, and the Education Minister and Attorney General, plus their shadows. I encourage you to do the same (their contact details are included underneath the text):

Dear Premier

I am writing to urge you to publicly oppose the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, legislation which would erase trans and nonbinary students from classrooms and schoolyards across NSW, as well as censor the curriculum and deny them access to affirmation and support from teachers, principals and even school counsellors.

This Bill is the worst legislative attack on LGBTI rights anywhere in Australia this century. It is simply not good enough that, more than 10 months after it was introduced, the people of NSW still don’t know whether you and your Party condemn or condone the harm it will inevitably cause.

Nor is it good enough that trans and gender diverse people in NSW are forced to live with second-rate anti-discrimination and identity documentation laws.

Therefore, I also urge you to publicly commit to amend the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 to:

  • Remove the unnecessary and confusing definition of ‘recognised transgender person’,
  • Replace the protected attribute of ‘transgender’ with an attribute of ‘gender identity’ and a definition which ensures nonbinary people are protected against discrimination, and
  • Remove the special privileges which allow publicly-funded ‘private educational authorities’, including religious schools, to discriminate against trans and gender diverse students and teachers simply because of who they are.

Finally, I urge you to amend the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 to allow trans and gender diverse people to self-determine their gender identity without the need for physically invasive medical treatment, such as surgery, as well as to recognise a wider range of gender identities, including nonbinary.

If the NSW Parliament fails to amend these laws, it is highly likely we will soon be the only jurisdiction in Australia which places this unfair and unnecessary barrier in front of its trans and gender diverse citizens. These hurdles must be removed as a matter of priority.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

*****

Premier Gladys Berejiklian webform: https://www.nsw.gov.au/premier-of-nsw/contact-premier

Education Minister Sarah Mitchell webform: https://www.nsw.gov.au/nsw-government/ministers/minister-for-education-and-early-childhood-learning

Attorney General Mark Speakman webform: https://www.nsw.gov.au/nsw-government/contact-a-minister/attorney-general-and-minister-for-prevention-of-domestic-and-sexual-violence

Opposition Leader Chris Minns email: kogarah@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Deputy Opposition Leader and Shadow Minister for Education Prue Car email: londonderry@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Shadow Attorney General Michael Daley email: maroubra@parliament.nsw.gov.au

If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus

Footnotes:


[i] In the 1996 debate, trans women were erroneously described by opponents as ‘transsexual males’, while in the 2021 hearings trans girls were commonly called ‘biological males’ or ‘natal males’. Mark Latham also deliberately used the deadname of a prominent transgender Australian on 20 April.

[ii] The term ‘tranys’ was used by both supporters and opponents of the 1996 legislation, perhaps indicating that this language did not carry the same pejorative connotations it does today. Either way, it was confronting seeing the frequency with which the term was used back then.

[iii] National Party MLC Duncan Gay opposed the 1996 reforms, stating: ‘I am going to be brief in my opposition to this bill. I am amazed about the amount of time spent by honourable members on what I believe is the most stupid and most unnecessary bill to ever come before this Parliament.’

[iv] With Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, John Hannaford, stating: ‘I accept the need to deal with discrimination against members of the transgender community. I acknowledge that violence is committed against such members of the community and also that those members suffer discrimination. It is necessary to address such elements of violence and discrimination.’

[v] Unfortunately, this problem – only protecting trans people with binary gender identities – is shared by the anti-discrimination laws of Queensland, Western Australian and the Northern Territory. For more, see: A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.  

[vi] One of many reasons why the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act is the worst LGBTI anti-discrimination law in Australia. For more, see: What’s Wrong with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?

[vii] Disturbingly, these represent only the most prominent of the problems with trans protections in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act. One of the provisions inserted in 1996 provided an exception allowing discrimination by superannuation funds:

‘Section 38Q: A person does not discriminate against a transgender person (whether or not a recognised transgender person) on transgender grounds if, in the administration of a superannuation or provident fund or scheme, the other person treats the transgender person as being of the opposite sex to the sex with which the transgender person identifies.’

Interestingly, the then Attorney General, Jeff Shaw, made the following comment about this provision in his Second Reading Speech:

‘Granting legal recognition also has implications for the superannuation sector in terms of differential contributions and benefits. These implications have not yet been fully determined. The legislation therefore provides for an exemption to legal recognition in this area. Nevertheless, I wish to advise the House that the Government is currently examining this matter with a view to possible further amendments at a later date.’

Except, as you’ve probably guessed by now, those changes never happened – and this exception remains, with the exact same wording, today.

[viii] Interestingly, the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 provisions were amended in 2008, to replace the original terminology of ‘sexual reassignment surgery’ with ‘sexual affirmation procedure’, but the requirement for surgery was not altered.

[ix] Democrat MLC Elisabeth Kirby stated: ‘Although I support the Government’s amendments to the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages Act, I request that the Government give serious future consideration to an expansion of the criteria under which a new birth certificate can be obtained’ before highlighting that only a minority of transgender people undergo surgery.

[x] Greens MLC Ian Cohen also expressed his ‘reservations’ about ‘the certificate provisions not including transgender members of our community who, for whatever reasons, decline surgical intervention’ and later that ‘By using medical interventions as the benchmark for altering documents of identity, the legislation leaves out in the cold 80 per cent of the transgender members of our community who do not avail themselves of medical interventions.’ Perhaps with misplaced confidence he subsequently noted that ‘I am certain that with the passage of time this flaw will be recognised and rectified.’ Well, we’re now at 25 years and counting…

3 thoughts on “Friends, Jagged Little Pill and Transphobia in the NSW Legislative Council

  1. Was there in 96 seems like a hundred years ago now. Spoke about what it was like to live as a Transexual Woman in NSW in a climate of fear and hate. A lot of changes happened in that era for my fellow Transgender Community and I. Sadly it is now 2021 and I sincerely wonder if all the work that we done back then was worth it as it seems like we’re doing it all over again. I am 51 this year and I was 26ish at the lat one of these. So yes 25 years later. I hope it gets sorted this time and we’re not back here when I get to 76/7 years old. In the year 2043/4. I wonder, anyhow I don’t think that they are or have invited any Trans People to speak on their own behalf as we were asked to last time. I would not be able to survive if they were to go back to how thing’s were back then. I would probably have a long walk off a short…. as they say. I am fearing that there’s a few people from my era who are feeling the same way. Lived it once and don’t want to go through it again thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks very much for sharing your experiences back then, and your entirely understandable anxiety about the situation in 2021. The 1996 reforms were absolutely vital, but so are many improvements to both anti-discrimination and birth certificate laws. Which is why the current Latham anti-trans kids Bill and debate is so frustrating. And you’re right, there was only 1 trans person who gave evidence to the Committee in April, out of a total of 42 witnesses. A truly deplorable situation when the people whose rights are being debated aren’t even allowed in the room, let alone listened to.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: #TransAwarenessWeek 2021 – Papers and Letters

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