Surprise!* Mark Latham’s Inquiry is just as unbalanced and transphobic as his Bill

[*Not surprising in the slightest]

In August 2020, NSW One Nation MLC Mark Latham introduced the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020. As I wrote at the time, this Bill is the worst legislative attack on LGBTI rights in Australia this century. 

In particular, Latham’s Bill seeks to erase trans and gender diverse students from classrooms and schoolyards across NSW. It would also establish a UK ‘section 28’-style prohibition on positive references to anything at all to do with LGBT people, as well as introducing an offensive and stigmatising definition of intersex variations of sex characteristics.

This Bill should have been immediately rejected by the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government and (at the time McKay) Labor Opposition. Instead, Coalition and Labor Members of the Legislative Council voted to refer the Bill for inquiry by the Portfolio Committee No. 3 – Education, which just so happens to be chaired by Mark Latham himself, thus creating a serious and ongoing conflict of interest.

Even if there might be circumstances in which an MLC should be given authority to lead an inquiry into their own legislation (and, readers, I can’t think of any right now), a chair in this situation should be acutely aware of the responsibilities of their position and their obligation to act impartially and respectfully.

Unfortunately, as demonstrated in the 11 months since then, Mark Latham is not such a chair. Indeed, Mark Latham’s Inquiry into Mark Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill has been as unbalanced and transphobic as his legislation is, as evidenced in the following five areas:

  1. Lack of trans witnesses

Latham’s inquiry conducted hearings on April 20 and 21, 2021. Across those two days, 42 witnesses were scheduled to give evidence. Do you know how many were trans or nonbinary children – that is, the people who stand to lose the most if this legislation passes?

Zero.

In fact, there was only one identified trans witness out of 42 (the amazing Teddy Cook, from ACON), plus one parent of a trans child. As far as I am aware, that means 40 witnesses out of the 42 scheduled to appear (or 95% of witnesses) were neither trans themselves nor the parent of a trans child.

This imbalance alone is enough to dismiss the validity of the entire inquiry.

It’s not like there weren’t other trans individuals and organisations ready and willing to give evidence either. As I understand it, the Gender Centre – described in its submission as ‘NSW’s leading trans led organisation, providing 95% of all trans specific services in the state’ that ‘support over 500 NSW transgender and gender diverse families generally’ – were not invited to appear.

The selection of non-trans witnesses was biased, too. Of the religious organisations invited to give evidence, only faith groups that expressed support for the Bill were given a guernsey. 

As noted by Greens MLC David Shoebridge during the hearings: ‘Unfortunately, the Coalition and the Chair determined not to allow any witnesses to appear from the parts of the Christian faith who oppose the bill.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 8).

This meant religious organisations that expressed their opposition to the Bill through their submissions – including the Pitt St Uniting Church, and Uniting Church LGBTIQ Network – did not receive an invitation to appear.

In my view, the lack of trans witnesses, and biased selection of others, rendered this inquiry process illegitimate from the outset.

2. Disrespectful treatment of submitters and witnesses

It wasn’t just the selection of witnesses that was unbalanced, but also how organisations that made submissions, or appeared as witnesses, were (mis)treated – especially by the chair.

Take, for example, the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, who made a submission to the inquiry in which they expressed their opposition to Latham’s Bill.

For this ‘sin’, not only were they not invited, but they were attacked in their absence.

When Shoebridge noted that ‘The Chair and the Coalition would not allow them to come. They voted on majority to prevent them coming’, Latham ultimately responded with ‘Well, there has to be a degree of sanity here.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 36).

Imagine, as the Chair of an inquiry, thinking it appropriate to imply an organisation that made a submission to that inquiry ‘lacked sanity’.

The attack worsened from there, with Latham asking the witness from Catholic Schools NSW (who did oppose the Bill and were not coincidentally offered an invitation) to provide data about enrolment and academic performance of schools in the Parramatta Diocese specifically:

My understanding is that a number of the Parramatta parents are none too happy about this position and that the Parramatta diocese enrolment share and academic results have collapsed in recent times because of the so-called progressive approach to education. Do you have some data on that that you can furnish to the Committee?’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 36).

In my opinion, there can be no justification for asking questions which suggest a vendetta against religious bodies which have the temerity to take a different policy view to yours.

Nor was this the only example of Latham’s disrespect to submitters or witnesses. Later that day he made a series of what can only be described as unprofessional remarks in response to the evidence of Georgia Burke, representing the LGBTI Subcommittee of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights.

Burke: ‘… The best interests of the children are entirely disregarded with the primacy of parents put to the forefront.’

Latham: ‘Jesus, seriously.’

Burke: ‘It is interesting to reflect on the comments of the special rapporteur to which we refer in our submission.’

Latham: ‘The best interests of the children are disregarded when the parents are put to the forefront?’

Shoebridge: ‘Carry on.’

[Labor MLC Anthony] D’Adam: ‘Carry on, they are just being rude.’

Latham: ‘That is unbelievable.’

Burke: ‘His report of 2010 – and I do have a copy with me if it assists the Committee for me to table that report.’

Latham: ‘Jesus Christ.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 63).

[As an aside, it might be interesting to know what the religious fundamentalists who support Latham’s similarly-extreme ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill think about his blasphemy?]

As chair, Latham also accused witnesses of either ‘fabrication’ (saying to Ghassan Kassisieh of Equality Australia: ‘That is not what the Bill says. That is just a fabrication, I am sorry.’ Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 63), or ‘making something up’ (to Jared Wilk of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties: ‘You see, that is the problem. You are making something up about the bill that is not actually true.’ Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 65).

This is not the behaviour of somebody who should be in charge of anything, let alone an inquiry into legislation which carries the very real potential to undermine the human rights of some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

3. Allowing irrelevant evidence

The potential impact of Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill is incredibly broad – applying not just to classroom teaching, but also to ‘instruction, counselling and advice’ provided to students by principals, school counsellors, non-teaching staff, contractors, advisors and consultants, non-school based staff, contractors, advisors and consultants, and even volunteers (proposed new section 17C of the Education Act 1990).

However, one thing it doesn’t actually apply to is school sport. Despite this, Latham’s inquiry invited Katherine Deves from ‘Save Women’s Sport Australasia’ to address the Committee, where they were given free rein to make comments like:

It requires them [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. On 1 December last year a senior bureaucrat in the NSW Sports Minister’s office told me that a woman would have to be killed before gender inclusion sports policies would be withdrawn.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 24).

And

‘We believe that the female sports category should be for female-born females only. We need to start asking boys and men to be more accommodating of non-gender-conforming boys and accommodate them in their sports instead of expecting the girls and the women, to their own detriment, to accept them into their sports. We are getting stories now of boys competing in girls’ sports and winning and taking sports on the podium and taking sports on the team and girls being harmed.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 27).[i]

Leaving to one side the lack of evidence to substantiate these claims, this testimony had nothing whatsoever to do with the Bill – a point which Shoebridge raised: ‘Point of order: There is not a single part of the terms of reference of this inquiry that relates to sport and I cannot see how either the opening submission or this question relates to the terms of reference.’

About which Latham eventually ruled: ‘I do not think censorship here is appropriate. The witness can answer the question.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 27).

Except ensuring witnesses at least vaguely stick to the terms of reference of the inquiry is not censorship, but one of the core responsibilities of a Committee Chair, something Latham spectacularly failed to fulfil here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, women’s sport was not the only unrelated matter that was allowed to be raised – Latham also provided ample space for witnesses to talk about access to bathrooms, something that is also unaffected by his legislation.

For example, Terri Kelleher of the Australian Family Association was given the opportunity to make the following comments:

‘Why would you want to set up – because part of the instructions or guidelines for schools as a result or a flow-on from teaching gender fluidity, you know, that people are the gender they feel and it may not be their natal sex, is to allow natal males into girls’ toilets. 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. This is very serious in the light of the child-on-child sexual abuse in schools.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, pages 40-41).

And then allowed to elaborate:

‘One of the risks … is the staff is to monitor the length of time in a change room. So staff are to monitor the length of time. It puts teachers in a difficult situation. Are they to be rostered outside toilets? Does there always have to be someone supervising wherever the toilets may be used, which would be throughout the day?’ (page 41).

Which led to the following exchange between MLCs sitting on the Committee:

D’Adam: ‘Point of order: We are taking evidence on a bill that has nothing to do with unisex toilets.’

Shoebridge: ‘Or teachers sitting outside toilets timing.’

D’Adam: ‘It has nothing to do with it. It is outside the terms of reference of this inquiry and I would ask the Chair to bring the witness back to-‘

[Nationals MLC Wes] Fang: ‘I have been waiting for this one. ‘Any other matter’ – it has been called on me so many times.’

Latham: ‘Yes. Related matters. I think the use of – I raised earlier on the problem of boys declaring themselves to be girls to get into the girls’ change room. That was in order and I think this is in order as well.’ (page 41)

In effect, the Chair of the inquiry ruled that ‘bathroom panic’-style testimony was in order because he himself had raised the issue of change room access, from the Chair, earlier in the day. This is the opposite of an impartial investigation.

4. Providing a platform for transphobia

As we have already seen, by allowing witnesses to talk about unrelated matters like trans participation in sport and ‘bathroom panic’ (including rhetorically linking trans access to toilets to child sexual abuse), Latham ensured his inquiry provided a platform for transphobia. Nor were these the only examples of extreme prejudice against trans and gender diverse young people over those two days.

This includes multiple witnesses suggesting that the gender identities of the majority of trans and nonbinary kids were not real but instead the product of mental illness:

‘When parents are kept in the dark about gender ideology and about what children are exposed to related to gender fluidity, they face an increased risk of harm. School officials and others do not know of, or may disregard, a child’s personal history – perhaps trauma or abuse or other diagnosed conditions, whether autism or mental health issues. They may play a role in a child’s identity concerns.’ (Mary Hasson, Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 3).

Dianna Kenny of something called the ‘Society for Evidence-based Gender Medicine’ was permitted to make the following extraordinary – and extraordinarily offensive – claim:

‘There is a very minute number of people who are what we try to call genuinely trans, and suddenly we have seen a 4,000 per cent increase in the number of young people identifying as trans. Only a tiny fraction of that 4,000 per cent increase are going to be what we call genuinely trans. The rest of them are in the thrall of the trans lobby, and they have serious mental health issues and other things that need to be addressed.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 33).

When asked by Labor MLC Anthony D’Adam about those people who Kenny claimed were not ‘genuinely transgender’ (‘Those who are not in that category – the others – you are saying that there is something wrong with them, that they are sick.’), Kenny replied:

‘It is a manifestation of serious mental health issues, yes. I work clinically with those people. I see them at close quarters. I work intensively with the families and with the young people themselves. The evidence is increasing exponentially that those young people have serious health issues that need to be addressed…’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, pages 33-34).[ii]

From my perspective, this does not read like a reasonable debate of issues related to the Bill but instead seems to be a free kick for witnesses to make derogatory comments about the mental health and wellbeing of trans and nonbinary kids.

Of course, being a parliamentary hearing about trans rights in 2021, a range of other transphobic tropes – from ‘desisters’[iii]/’de-transitioners’[iv] to ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’[v] and ‘social contagion’[vi] – made predictable appearances (and, just as predictably, none were based on high-quality, independently-verified research, because, well, it doesn’t exist).

Mark Sneddon of the Institute of Civil Society even gravely warned that: ‘What we are trying to do – or what I understand this bill is trying to do – is to reduce the social contagion influence putting more people onto the conveyor belt of gender transition.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 42).

A quote which, perhaps unintentionally, goes to the core of the whole debate. Through their evidence, these witnesses all appear to be implying that being trans or nonbinary is itself a negative thing, and should be avoided wherever possible, including through legislation which prevents students from even hearing that gender diversity exists.

Whereas the rest of us understand that a) trans and nonbinary people are a part of the natural spectrum of human gender identity (and indeed always have been), b) trans and nonbinary kids are awesome, and c) there are really two conveyor belts – one which lets trans and nonbinary kids be themselves and delivers them to health and happiness, and one which tells trans and nonbinary kids that they are wrong and should not exist, and abandons them to darkness and depression.

That is really what Latham’s Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 is all about – keeping trans and nonbinary students in the dark. About who they are. And that who they are is okay. More than okay. Beautiful.

Latham’s legislation is deeply transphobic. Which means it is no surprise that so was the evidence of many of the witnesses appearing at his inquiry. And that includes Latham himself, who even deliberately deadnamed and misgendered a prominent transgender Australian. (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 48).

5. Giving evidence from the chair

The fifth and final way Latham’s inquiry was unbalanced is not directly linked to trans and gender diverse children, but nevertheless goes to how ‘un-parliamentary’ his behaviour was – and that was his frequent attempts to give evidence from the chair.

For example, after raising the (unverified) story of a student whose school counsellor supported their social transition against the wishes of their parents, he was asked by Shoebridge ‘Is that in evidence?’ and by D’Adam: ‘Point of order: Is the chair giving evidence?’ To which Latham replied:

‘That is in evidence – and did not tell the family. So, Jack has asked me a question. I have given you a brief summary and will be presenting more of that evidence as the inquiry unfolds…’ (emphasis added, Hearing Transcript, 20 April, pages 24-25).[vii]

Perhaps the most extreme example came when Latham attempted to ask Ghassan Kassisieh of Equality Australia about a range of non-LGBTI issues, before making unsubstantiated claims about climate change, leading not just the Greens’ David Shoebridge but even the Nationals’ Wes Fang to suggest Latham should not be doing so as chair:

Latham: ‘Climate change – that while there is evidence of warming, it is not at some of the alarmist levels that have been projected. Sea levels are not rising and Tim Flannery was wrong about his predictions that our dams in western Sydney would never fill again.’

Shoebridge: ‘Point of order: Simply making these unfounded, biased assertions from the chair on matters unrelated to the terms of reference of this inquiry is not of assistance and, in fact, it does not fit with any of the terms of reference of this inquiry.’

Fang: ‘To the point of order-‘

Latham: ‘It fits in the submission. It is the witness’s submission – wanting to know the other side of the story. I am seeking a response about the other side of the story.’

Shoebridge: ‘Call me old-fashioned but I was looking at the terms of reference of the inquiry.’

Fang: ‘To the point of order: I actually support Mr Shoebridge here. Chair, you should not be doing it and, like Mr Shoebridge, if you are going to make these unsubstantiated comments you should do it just as a participating member, like Mr Shoebridge does often through this Committee.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 59).

Fang nails the problem here – Mark Latham should never have been permitted to prosecute the case for his own legislation as chair of the same Committee inquiring into it.

It was an inevitable conflict of interest, and just as inevitably led to serious shortcomings of the inquiry generally, and the hearings on April 20 and 21 in particular.

From a lack of trans witnesses, and only inviting faith bodies that supported the Bill to appear while ignoring those religious organisations that opposed it.

To criticising trans-supportive faith groups in their absence, implying they ‘lacked sanity’, and acting disrespectfully and unprofessionally to other witnesses.

Allowing completely irrelevant testimony, about trans inclusion in girl’s and women’s sports, and ‘bathroom panic’, which had exactly nothing to do with the legislation being considered.

And giving voice to transphobia, including providing a platform to witnesses who dismissed the gender identity of the majority of trans and nonbinary kids as not being real while simultaneously describing them as suffering ‘serious mental health issues’.

Before using the position of chair to give his own evidence, rather than impartially examining the evidence of witnesses.

If you were being charitable, you could describe these hearings, and the overall inquiry they were a part of, as a farce.

But, after reading through all of the testimony given over those two days, including the derogatory comments about some of the most vulnerable members of our community, I am not feeling especially charitable. So I will call it as it is:

This inquiry, and the fact Mark Latham has been allowed to serve as its chair, is a sick joke. And, if you can’t tell by now, I am not amused.

The other thing that is definitely not humorous? The fact the Coalition Government, and Labor Opposition, have allowed this embarrassing debasement of NSW Parliament to drag on for almost a full year.

This legislation seeks to erase trans and nonbinary kids in schools across NSW. It will cause harm to them, and to all LGBTI children and young people.

These things have been known since it was first introduced in August 2020 – and yet neither Gladys Berejiklian, nor Jodi McKay and now Chris Minns, have done the bare minimum: to speak out against it, and declare they will not support legislation that attacks kids.

What the fuck are they waiting for?

It’s beyond time for the major parties to finally reject Mark Latham’s Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, and Latham’s equally unbalanced and transphobic inquiry into it.

NSW Parliament can be, should be, better than this. Trans and nonbinary kids need it to be.

For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/

Or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

Footnotes:


[i] Nor was Deves the only witness allowed to raise the irrelevant issue of trans inclusion in girl’s and women’s sports, with Terri Kelleher of the Australian Family Association making the following comments:

‘What right do they [girls in schools] have to fair sporting competitions? There is a worldwide movement at the moment speaking out for women’s and girl’s rights to their own sporting competitions on the ground that natal males have serious advantages over females.’ (Hearing Transcript, April 20, page 40).

[ii] Strangely enough, despite Kenny arguing that ‘genuinely transgender’ people are extremely rare, they are also capable of ‘destroying the fabric of the nuclear family’ (‘But to withdraw parental guidance and authority in the way that the transgender lobby has implemented with children declaring themselves to be transgender is really destroying the fabric of the nuclear family.’ Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 28), which indicates trans people must have super-powers.

[iii] John Steenhof of the Human Rights Law Alliance (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 36) and Mark Sneddon of the Institute for Civil Society (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 42).

[iv] Patrick Byrne of the National Civic Council, who suggested that transition – and not transphobia – was the cause of high rates of depression and suicide amongst transgender people: ‘Are you going to teach that there is a growing movement of de-transitioners and the risk if you go all the way down the road to full sex change surgery, a highly intrusive medical surgery, and then the longer-term risks from that. The best study on that was in Sweden, I think it was, the long-term effects of … transitioning, which had a suicide rate of 19 or 20 times the rest of the population.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 44), and Kirralie Smith of Binary Australia (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 9).

[v] Dianna Kenny of the Society for Evidence-based Gender Medicine (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 29 and page 31).

[vi] Mary Hasson (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 3), and a favourite phrase of Dianna Kenny, who used it multiple times, including in this truly non-sensical quote revealing she apparently does not understand the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation:

‘Basically, what is happening is that children are being taught erroneous information and based on erroneous information these children are becoming extremely confused and as through a process of social contagion we are seeing very large increases in the number of children declaring themselves either non-binary, transgender, genderqueer, asexual, pansexual, omni-sexual, demi-boys and demi-girls.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 25).

[vii] Another example occurred after a witness attempted to cite Latham’s Second Reading Speech for the Bill as ‘evidence’:

D’Adam: ‘Just to further elaborate, obviously we have all heard the second reading speech.’

Shoebridge: ‘It is not evidence.’

D’Adam: ‘That is not necessarily evidence of what is occurring. It is an assertion from a Member of Parliament.’

Latham: ‘Order! There is a professional development course. I will show you the course. We have got it on tape.

Shoebridge: ‘There is no order. It is not evidence.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 37).

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…

Identity, not Surgery

This post is part of a series looking at the unfinished business of LGBTI equality in Australia. You can see the rest of the posts here

 

Last year, I wrote about the push to end forced trans divorce, which helped to (finally) deliver marriage equality to trans and gender diverse Australians.

 

However, ending forced trans divorce was only one small part of the wider battle to ensure trans and gender diverse people can access identity documentation, including birth certificates, that reflects who they are.

 

A bigger – and arguably more important – challenge is ensuring that people can update their identification without the need for surgery, and without doctors or other medical professionals acting as ‘gate-keepers’ (that is, the inappropriate medicalisation of gender identity).

 

In practice, I would argue that there are (at least) three principles that should be reflected in the law in this area:

 

  1. Access to amended identity documentation must not depend on surgery or other medical treatments
  2. Access to amended identity documentation must not depend on approval by doctors or other medical professionals, and
  3. Access to amended identity documentation should be granted on the basis of self-identification, through a statutory declaration.

 

Unfortunately, as we shall see below, the laws of most states and territories fail to adopt these principles – in most cases, falling short on all three.

 

NSW

 

In New South Wales, the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 provides that, in order to apply to alter the register to record change of sex, a person must first have ‘undergone a sex affirmation procedure’ (section 32B), which is defined in section 32A as:

 

‘means a surgical procedure involving the alteration of a person’s reproductive organs carried out:

a) for the purpose of assisting a person to be considered to be a member of the opposite sex, or

b) to correct or eliminate ambiguities relating to the sex of the person.’

 

Section 32C then requires any application to ‘be accompanied by… statutory declarations by 2 doctors, or by 2 medical practitioners registered under the law of any other state, verifying that the person the subject of the application has undergone a sex affirmation procedure.’

 

In short, NSW law reflects worst practice in this area, and is in urgent need of reform.

 

Such reform was being considered three years ago by Independent Member for Sydney Alex Greenwich as part of his discussion paper looking at removing the surgical requirements for changes to birth certificates (see my submission to that consultation process here).

 

There were also hopeful comments of possible movement in this area during parliamentary debate on the bill that abolished forced trans divorce in NSW, however trans and gender divorce people need more than just indications of possible future co-operation, they need practical action now.

 

Victoria

 

In August 2019, Victoria moved from having ‘worst practice’ laws in this area, to now having the second-best laws in the country (behind Tasmania, see below). This is because of passage by the Andrews Labor Government, supported by most of the upper house cross-bench, of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Act 2019 (which was the same Bill that had been rejected by the Liberal and National Parties in the Legislative Council in 2016).

 

This legislation achieves two-and-a-half of the three objectives identified above:

  • It removes the requirement for surgery
  • It removes the requirement for other medical approval (at least for adults – it still requires a doctor, health professional or a member of a prescribed class of persons to support an application with respect to a child), and
  • It is primarily based on the self-declaration of the applicant.

 

However, section 30A also requires that, for adults, they must submit a ‘supporting statement’ made by a person who is aged 18 years or over and who has known the applicant for at least 12 months and state that the person making the supporting statement:

  • believes that the applicant makes the application to alter the record of the sex of the applicant in good faith; and
  • supports the application.

 

This second requirement in particular (that another person ‘supports the application’) is unnecessary, and was not included in the best practice Tasmanian laws passed earlier this year. In my personal view, it should be removed in the future (while other states and territories should be aware of this difference as they pursue their own reforms).

 

Nevertheless, the Bill enjoyed strong support from Victoria’s trans and gender diverse community, and its passage will undoubtedly make a huge difference to their lives.

 

Queensland

 

Queensland is another jurisdiction that falls short on all three criteria, although there is more cause for optimism that these laws will be changed in the future.

 

Currently, section 22 of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 2003 provides that ‘the reassignment of a person’s sex after sexual reassignment surgery may be noted in the person’s entry in the register of births’.

 

Section 23 then includes the ‘the application must be… accompanied by… statutory declarations, by 2 doctors, verifying that the person the subject of the application has undergone sexual reassignment surgery…’

 

However, when the Queensland Government ended forced trans divorce in early 2018, they indicated they were also actively considering further reforms to identity documentation for trans and gender diverse people. And they supported those statements by undertaking a public consultation process looking at ‘Registering Life Events’ (see my submission to that discussion paper here), which included discussion of removing surgical pre-requisites.

 

Hopefully they follow through on their commitments in this area, although it is concerning that there doesn’t appear to be any action more than 18 months later. If the Palaszczuk Government doesn’t act, it’s up to the community to put pressure on them to do so, especially before the next election due in October 2020.

 

Western Australia

 

Western Australia’s legislation, the Gender Reassignment Act 2000, is also in need of reform, although in this case the High Court has at least helped to clarify that surgery is not a pre-requisite for access to amended identity documentation.

 

First, to the text of the legislation itself. Section 14 provides that applications for recognition certificates may be made by a person that ‘has undergone a reassignment procedure’.

 

Under section 15(b), the Gender Reassignment Board may then issue a certificate if it “is satisfied that the person-

i) believes that his or her true gender is the gender to which the person has been reassigned; and

ii) has adopted the lifestyle and has the gender characteristics of a person of the gender to which the person has been reassigned; and

iii) has received proper counselling in relation to his or her gender identity.”

 

Importantly, section 3 defines ‘reassignment procedure’ as “a medical or surgical procedure (or a combination of such procedures) to alter the genitals and other gender characteristics of a person, identified by a birth certificate as male or female, so that the person will be identified as a person of the opposite sex and includes, in relation to a child, any such procedure (or combination of procedures) to correct or eliminate ambiguities in the child’s gender characteristics.”

 

In practice, however, the Gender Reassignment Board declined to issue gender reassignment certificates to two trans-men who were undertaking testosterone therapy and had undergone bilateral mastectomies on the basis that they had not also had surgery on their genitals.

 

These two men successfully challenged this decision in the High Court, which in AB v Western Australia; AH v Western Australia [2011] HCA 42 6 October 2011, clarified that “a surgical procedure to alter the genitals or other gender characteristics is not required of an applicant for a recognition certificate. The definition of ‘reassignment procedure’ refers to a ‘medical or surgical procedure’” [emphasis in original].

 

Nevertheless, while this decision was welcome, enabling these two men to access updated identity documentation, this decision still does not mean that future access is based on self-identification. As noted by the Court:

 

“The construction placed upon s 15(1)(b)(ii) and the identification which is its concern, does not mean that a recognition certificate is to be provided based only upon a person’s external appearance, and that person’s belief about his or her gender. Section 14 must be satisfied before a person can apply for a certificate.”

 

Therefore, there is still a need for the Western Australian Parliament to amend these laws, to remove all requirements for medical or surgical procedures, and to finally allow trans and gender diverse people to determine their own identities.

 

Positively, many of these best practice principles were reflected in the final report of the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia which was examining the issue of recognition of a person’s sex, change of sex or intersex status (see my submission to that inquiry, here and the final WALRC report here). It will be interesting to see whether the WA Government implements its recommendations.

 

South Australia

 

South Australia’s Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1996 is one of the few relevant laws that doesn’t fail on all three criteria – although it still involves unnecessary medicalisation of trans and gender diverse people’s identities.

 

Section 29L of the Act provides that if ‘the Registrar is satisfied that the applicant has undertaken a sufficient amount of appropriate clinical treatment in relation to their sex or gender identity, the Registrar may make an entry about the change of the person’s sex or gender identity in the Register…’

 

Section 29H clarifies that ‘clinical treatment need not involve invasive medical treatment (and may include or be constituted by counselling).’

 

Although the Act still requires that ‘clinical treatment constituted by counselling only cannot be regarded as a sufficient amount of appropriate clinical treatment unless the period of the counselling is equal to or greater than the prescribed period.’

 

Regulation 7C of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Regulations 2011 states that ‘the prescribed period may be comprised of:

a) at least 3 separate counselling sessions aggregating 135 minutes; or

b) counselling sessions occurring over a period of at least 6 months.’

 

And section 29K provides that an application to change sex or gender ‘must be accompanied by… a statement by a medical practitioner or psychologist certifying that the person has undertaken a sufficient amount of appropriate clinical treatment in relation to the person’s sex or gender identity (including in the case of a person whose sex or gender identity has now become determinate)…’

 

So, even though South Australia has abolished the requirement for surgery in order to have a change of sex recorded, it still places undue emphasis on clinical treatment, and elevates doctors and/or psychologists to the place of ‘gate-keepers’ for trans and gender diverse people accessing identity documents. It should be replaced by a self-identification scheme, based on statutory declarations – nothing more and nothing less.

 

Tasmania

 

Tasmania has – at least in the past two decades – led the way on LGBT law reform within Australia. And, following the passage of the Justice Related Legislation (Marriage Amendment) Act 2019, it now does so again on access to birth certificates and other identity documentation for trans and gender diverse Tasmanians.

 

As a result, the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1999 now allows trans and gender diverse people, including people 16 years and over, to self-determine their own gender identity, without the need for surgery, without the need for medical approval and based solely on self declaration (there is also a process for children younger than 16 to have their gender identity recognised, with support from parents or guardians).

 

This legislation, which took effect on 5 September 2019, is now the standard that other jurisdictions need to adopt.

 

ACT

 

The Australian Capital Territory adopts a similar approach to South Australia on this issue.

 

Section 24 of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1997 provides that a person applying to have the register amended to reflect a change of sex must have ‘received appropriate clinical treatment for alteration of the person’s sex.’ This term does not appear to be defined, meaning it does not explicitly require surgical intervention.

 

However, just like South Australia, the role of doctors and medical professionals as ‘gate-keepers’ is confirmed by section 25, which requires that any application ‘must be accompanied by a statement by a doctor, or a psychologist, certifying that the person has received appropriate clinical treatment for alteration of the person’s sex…’

 

Therefore, while the ACT has the equal-third best current regime of any state or territory, it must still be amended to remove the requirement for ‘appropriate clinical treatment’ – as interpreted and approved by a medical professional – and allow trans and gender diverse people to determine their own gender identity.

 

NT

 

The Northern Territory has also recently amendment their Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act to make some improvements in that jurisdiction, although it still falls short of best practice.

 

On the positive side, it has abolished the requirement to have surgery in order to access accurate identity documentation.

 

However, the new section 28B of the Act still requires trans and gender diverse people to show that they have ‘received appropriate clinical treatment in relation to the adult’s sex or gender’ (although, positively, there is no such requirement for intersex people).

 

Section 28C then clarifies that an application for updated identity documentation must be accompanied by ‘a statement by a medical practitioner or a psychologist certifying that the adult has received appropriate clinical treatment in relation to the adult’s sex or gender’ (similar processes apply for children).

 

In effect, doctors or psychologists remain gate-keepers, standing in the way of trans and gender diverse people obtaining accurate identity documentation, including birth certificates. So, will the recent changes are a step forward, there is still a long way to go for trans law reform in the Northern Territory.

 

[NB For a quick summary of birth certificate legislation, including relevant fees and charges and whether X marker options are available, see Liz Duck-Chong’s website.]

 

**********

 

Trans and gender diverse Australians are exactly that: diverse. Not all will seek medical treatment as part of transition, and only some will undertake surgical interventions (while some others may wish to, but are currently prevented due to the exorbitant costs involved and a lack of Commonwealth Government financial support).

 

But their gender identities should be recognised irrespective of whether they had surgery, and irrespective of the type of other medical interventions they have received (if any). The law should be changed to reflect identity, not surgery. And trans and gender diverse Australians must be in control of that identity, not doctors or other medical professionals.

 

28256

 

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