Ten Months of Transphobia

The ‘star candidate’ of the first week of the election campaign – for all the wrong reasons – has undoubtedly been the Liberal candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves.

Hand-picked by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the head of anti-trans lobby group Save Women’s Sport Australasia has left a long trail of public comments for the media to scrutinise. And, well, the results aren’t pretty.

Already this week, they have reported on posts:

  • Describing trans kids as ‘surgically mutilated and sterilised’, while sharing topless images of a trans teenager who had undergone top surgery.
  • Saying she is ‘triggered’ by the rainbow pride flag (‘I get triggered by it. Whenever I see it on social media I think ‘What now? What are they demanding now?’ And I grew up with gay relatives and siblings and hung out in Surry Hills and X in Sydney in the 1990s. Lots of LGB family and friends, their movement has been destroyed.’)
  • Likening her lobbying against the participation of trans women and girls in sport to standing up against the Holocaust.[i]
  • Alleging ‘half of all males with trans identities are sex offenders’ (her tweet: ‘Half of all males with trans identities are sex offenders, compared with less than 20% for the rest of the male estate. That should tell you something.’), and
  • Belittling the serious mental health harms caused by transphobia (‘We hear from the other side the toll, all the harm, the devastation, we’re all going to commit suicide and blah blah’).

When confronted by the media about the above, Deves has been forced to apologise. It seems inevitable there will be more transphobic comments found, and more apologies, in coming days.

For people who only pay attention to federal politics every three years, Deves’ comments must seem bizarre, and extreme. And they are obviously both.

But, one thing they are *not* is an outlier.

Unfortunately, the Liberal candidate for Warringah’s views must be seen in the context of a rising tide of transphobia in Australian political discourse over the past six or seven years.

This includes the moral panic against the Safe Schools program in 2015 and early 2016, after which then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull first reviewed it, then ‘gutted’ its contents, before finally de-funding it completely.

And the same-sex marriage postal survey in the second half of 2017, which became a platform for groups opposing marriage equality to target trans and nonbinary children (indeed, one of the leading organisations against equality, the Marriage Alliance, has since become anti-trans lobby group Binary Australia).

Following his elevation to the Prime Ministership, Scott Morrison himself has engaged in the anti-trans culture wars on a number of occasions (tweeting against teacher support for trans kids – describing them as ‘gender whisperers’ – in September 2018; criticising a trans-inclusive Cricket Australia participation policy in April 2019; and personally intervening to remove gender identity-inclusive toilet door signs in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in August 2019).

However, from my perspective I would argue that the Coalition’s political campaign against trans and gender diverse Australians has really escalated in the past ten months.

In fact, I would pin-point that escalation to ten months ago yesterday (15 June 2021), when the Senate considered a motion from extremist One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts on the subject of ‘childhood gender dysphoria’, which effectively called for gender-affirming health care to be denied to trans and nonbinary children and young people.

Not only was Roberts’ motion not based on either the evidence of experts in the field, or the lived experience of trans people themselves, but if adopted as public policy would directly lead to serious health and mental health harms for gender diverse kids.[ii]

Despite this, the Morrison Liberal/National Government granted its Senators a conscience vote, and they supported this attack on trans health care by a margin of 21 to 6.

Coalition Senators voting to deprive trans kids of evidence-based support included Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, and Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General Amanda Stoker.

The only Coalition Senators who voted to support trans kids were Simon Birmingham, Andrew Bragg, Richard Colbeck, Jane Hume, Marise Payne and Dean Smith (thank you).

Thankfully, the motion was defeated overall (because Labor, the Greens and Jacquie Lambie opposed it), but from my perspective it marked a turning point in debate, with attacks by the Government only becoming more frequent in the months since.

For example, less than three months later in September last year the Government voted against straight-forward amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), which simply would have ensured trans, nonbinary and intersex workers had exactly the same access to the Fair Work Commission as other employees.

There was absolutely no justification for their opposition. Not only because gender identity and intersex status were already included in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), but also because the then-Tony Abbott-led Liberal/National Opposition had actually supported the inclusion of those protected attributes back in 2013.

The Government’s position on trans (and intersex) rights had effectively gone backwards in the eight years since. It was, as I wrote at the time, both a pathetic position to take, and antipathetic to the rights of some of the most vulnerable members of the community. 

Then of course there was the Religious Discrimination Bill, introduced to Parliament less than three months later again, in November of last year.

As I have written previously, this was damaging and divisive legislation that (among other things): 

  • Overrode existing state and territory anti-discrimination laws to allow demeaning and derogatory comments against women, LGBT people, people with disability and even people of minority faiths, provided they were religiously-motivated
  • Overrode existing state and territory anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT teachers in religious schools against discrimination (especially in Tasmania, the ACT and Queensland, and soon to commence laws in Victoria), and
  • Introduced religious exceptions which may have allowed discrimination against LGBT students in religious schools ‘under the guise of religious views’.

From this list it is clear trans people were one of many groups who stood to lose out under this legislation (so it wasn’t *only* a transphobic Bill).

But it is also undisputed that trans people were squarely in the sights of religious fundamentalists as they contemplated how they might (ab)use their new special privileges to discriminate had the laws passed (including Citipointe Christian College’s enrolment contract which primarily targeted trans kids, and Senate evidence of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria demanding the ability to misgender trans people in the workplace).

The Government then sought to mistreat trans people again when the Religious Discrimination Bill was considered by Parliament in February 2022, with Prime Minister Morrison introducing amendments that only protected lesbian, gay and bisexual students in religious schools against discrimination (and even then only against expulsion).

Trans and nonbinary students were excluded from any and all protection, breaking Scott Morrison’s own promise from October 2018 without any justification whatsoever.

Even worse, after the Religious Discrimination Bill package was amended by the Opposition, cross-bench and five moderate Liberal MPs to protect trans and nonbinary kids, Morrison then chose not to have the Bill considered by the Senate at all (at least partially at the behest of the Australian Christian Lobby and Christian Schools Australia).

That is how much the Liberal/National Government opposes the rights of trans and nonbinary children: they were prepared to abandon another of their core promises entirely just because gender diverse students might have been protected as a by-product.

Then, on the very same day the Religious Discrimination Bill was placed on pause (to the relief of many, myself included), Tasmanian Liberal Senator Claire Chandler introduced a private members Bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act in order to exclude trans women and girls from participating in women’s sport (a law which also would have had a significant detrimental impact on intersex women).

Within two weeks, the ‘Save Women’s Sports’ Bill had been personally endorsed by Prime Minister Morrison himself, while campaigning in Tasmania. Even though it is still not ‘official’ Government policy, this endorsement dramatically increases the risk this law will be passed should the Coalition win in May.

Finally, in the dying days of the Parliamentary term in early April, Liberal Senator Alex Antic misused Senate Estimates hearings by asking a range of witnesses how they would define ‘woman’, which is simply re-heated transphobic culture war nonsense copied directly from the Republican Party handbook in the United States.

A few things become clear when looking back on the events of the past ten months in this systematic way.

First, the Liberal/National Government’s war on the rights of trans Australians is relentless.

Second, their attacks only seem to be becoming more frequent.

Third, far from being an outlier, a candidate like Katherine Deves is likely to feel right at home inside the Coalition.

Indeed, her advocacy efforts, aiming to exclude trans women and girls from participating in women’s sport, seems to be the main reason why she was chosen in the first place.

On the first full day of the campaign (Monday 11 April) Morrison told 2GB radio that:

‘She’s [Deves is] standing up for things that she believes in, and I share her views on those topics. And, and I think it’s important that they’re raised and it’s got nothing to do with, you know, the broad agenda debates. This is just about, you know, common sense and what’s right. And I think Katherine’s right on the money there.’

Before telling another radio station later that day, during a discussion of trans inclusion in (or exclusion from) sport: ‘I welcome Katherine’s selection, pleased to play a role in that. I think she’s raised very important issues. I think Claire Chandler’s also been outspoken and brave on these issues. I share their views’ (emphasis added).

Katherine Deves was not chosen as a candidate in spite of her transphobic views. Deves was hand-picked as a candidate, by Scott Morrison, as a direct result of her anti-trans advocacy.

In fact, it seems to have been her primary ‘contribution’ to public life. The only other time I have come across her previously was listening to her as a witness at hearings into Mark Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, in April 2021.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Deves (wearing her Save Women’s Sport Australasia hat) supported Latham’s Bill to erase trans students from classrooms and schoolyards across NSW – legislation which was so extreme that the NSW Perrottet *Liberal/National* Government ultimately rejected it because it ‘may lead to targeted discrimination against a marginalised community which already experiences poorer mental health and wellbeing outcomes’.

I started this post by highlighting some of the more appalling social media posts and other public comments for which Deves has been forced to apologise this week. But, rather than the (admittedly extreme) ways in which she expresses her position, it is the substance of those views – seeking to exclude trans women and girls from sport, supporting laws to erase trans kids and nonbinary students from classrooms – for which she should apologise.

But we already know that she won’t, because campaigning against trans rights is what Katherine Deves is known for.

I will now end this post by making three final points.

First, none of the above is news to trans and gender diverse Australians, who have been enduring this culture war for the past six or seven years, and are all-too-aware of its escalation over the past ten months. We already know it is having a devastating impact on their mental health and wellbeing, and will continue to do so for as long as it is allowed to go on.

Second, none of this will stop until the rest of us stand up and make it stop. Trans and gender diverse Australians have been fighting this battle on their own for far too long. It’s time for cis allies, including within the LGBTIQ community, but also in the Labor Opposition, Greens, moderate Liberals, and everyday members of the community, to tell the Morrison Liberal/National Coalition that enough is enough.

Trans women are women.

Trans men are men.

Trans rights are human rights.

And trans kids will be protected with all of our collective might.

Third, perhaps the most frustrating part of all is that spending significant time fighting back against attacks on trans rights means there’s less time to advocate for much-needed positive changes to improve the lives of trans Australians, because the project of trans equality is far from complete.

This obviously includes amending the Fair Work Act to explicitly protect trans and nonbinary (and intersex) workers.

And amending the Sex Discrimination Act to remove the ability of religious schools to lawfully discriminate against LGBT students, and teachers and other staff members.

It also includes removing the high out-of-pocket costs for gender-affirming health care which places transition financially out of reach for too many trans Australians (and leaves others under severe financial stress).

And plenty more besides.

These are the things we need to happen. Not another ten months of unrelenting attacks on the trans community. And not the election of candidates like Katherine Deves, or other people with views like hers.

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.

NB This post is written in a personal capacity, and does not reflect the views of employers past or present.

Katherine Deves

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[i]  Full quote: ‘I’ve always loved 20th-century history and I think many people would say to themselves, ‘I’d never been to villages that stayed quiet, while the trains went past or whatever, I would have been part of the French Resistance, the underground, you know, I would be one of those people.’ And when all of this was happening, and no one was speaking out, I thought, this is it. This is the moment in my life, when I’m going to have to stand up and say something against the status quo and against the establishment and say, ‘I don’t think this is right’.’

[ii] Full text:

‘That the Senate-

(a) notes that:

(i) in 100 years of diagnostic history of childhood gender dysphoria (GD) there is an alarming trend that teenage girls, with no history of GD, have become the largest group seeking treatment,

(ii) in the United States of America, girsl requesting gender reassignment surgery in 2016-17 rose 400%,

(iii) in the United Kingdom, girls presenting with GD in the last 10 years rose 4000%, and

(iv) Australia’s Royal Children’s Hospital indicates referrals have grown from 1 every two years to 104 patients in 2014;

(b) further notes that:

(i) Sweden’s leading gender clinic has ended treatment of minors with hormonal drugs due to safety concerns, citing cancer and infertility, and

(ii) suicide mortality rate for transgendered people is 20 times higher than comparable peers;

(c) supports children presenting with GD to be given:

(i) the ‘wait and see’ method as the first choice, since evidence shows between 70-90% of young people’s dysphoria resolves itself by puberty, and

(ii) a comprehensive therapeutic pathway, since a large percentage of these children have pre-existing mental health issues, and not a medical pathway; and

(d) condemns the practice of children receiving:

(i) experimental and unproven medical treatments of irreversible puberty blockers and sex hormone treatments, and

(ii) irreversible transgender surgery.’