If you’ve read anything about trans people, published over the last couple of years in the mainstream media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that being trans is a new fad. The truth, though, is that the trans experience (which describes the phenomenon of knowing your gender – female, male, non-binary – is different to that presumed at birth) has been part of humanity since time immemorial.
The media scrutiny seems squarely focused on trans young people right now, re-emerging in recent years with the marriage equality fight over and the visibility of trans people starting to reach that tipping point promised by Time in 2014.1 We find ourselves in a protracted culture war that not only denies the validity and importance of the trans experience, but calls into question the very existence of trans people, and the support offered by our families, friends, communities and health professionals.
We must be doing something right for all this attention to erupt but of course this is also not new; trans people have been treated like a spectacle since the advent of the silver screen, positioned as deceivers and abusers, disrupters of social harmony by daring to exist.
But indeed, we’ve always existed: we see gender diversity manifested across every First Nations clan group on earth, including in Australia – home to the longest living continuous culture. Perhaps it could be said that rigid gender norms and the gender binary, catapulted into the cultures of colonised countries, are the new fad.
Trans advocacy in Australia is also not new; we have been fighting for basic human rights for a long time here. In 1979, a Sydney woman called Noelena Tame was kicked out of her lawn bowls club for being trans; soon afterwards, she founded a support group for trans women – the Australian Transsexuals Association (ATA). Enter the-now-legendary advocate Roberta Perkins and by 1982, the ATA was hosting Australia’s first trans rights rally in Manly.
Perkins wrote that the trans woman “…experiences difficulties in finding housing and employment, suffers public ridicule and hostility and sees the police taking over the role of punitor from parents and teachers”.2
We’re still fighting to address these disparities today.
Trans adults have been visible and active in communities for thousands of years, so too have trans kids, in those heady years of the first internet spaces, they sought forums and bulletin boards for connection and information about gender affirmation. Social media has meant more opportunities for trans people to converge, to find new language, to orient our advocacy at the global scale. We find each other because we are trans, not because we seek new recruits. The trans experience isn’t catching, we are simply reaching for each other in a world that seems determined to see us as a problem, rather than a gift.
The political hand-wringing, ‘concerned’ clinicians, and judicial processes keep coming, and tend to shroud trans health and rights in controversy.
Across the Global North, I have read and watched deep untruths about the trans experience proliferate as fact, often underpinned by fundamentally flawed research methodology, ideological opposition, or just plain ignorance. We are debated without being allowed in the room, and treated like we’re sick, a threat or worse. I’ve seen Australian politicians create petitions, table motions and use their political platforms to demonise trans people, particularly my trans sisters and trans kids, although nonbinary people haven’t escaped the gaze of those keen on deleting us from public life. Men who are trans are apparent deserters of feminism, or just confused girls crushed by the patriarchy, if we even exist at all.
The burden of this weighs heavily on trans communities, and it’s sometimes hard to know who our allies are. The hate can spew from all angles: conservatives and faith communities, so-called feminists, debunked psychiatrists and even members of our own rainbow community. A community which is much more of a human rights movement than an identity club. We are in this fight together because the same systems oppress us.
Historically, trans people and cis people of diverse sexualities (gay, bi+, lesbian etc) faced similar structural challenges and discrimination. Our communities, who’ve gathered for centuries, worked together to gain and protect shared rights and freedom. Yet in 2021, pronouns, gender neutral language, and bathrooms seem to dominate the media landscape and political discourse.
National media polls listeners on where we should be allowed to pee, sports stars spout bigotry with limited consequence, and public figures reveal their gender to death threats. The Pope believes nerds like me are more harmful than a nuclear bomb.3
Peer-reviewed research tells a very different story though. The health of trans communities in Australia is at a crisis point; we are experiencing extreme distress, suicidality, substance use and homelessness, disconnection from family, services, culture and faith. Many trans people, particularly my trans sisters, face significant violence every day; we deal with fear and discrimination at work, in healthcare, in education, in public and at home. The domestic and sexual violence rates for trans people of all genders is alarmingly high, and yet we feel the least supported by police, even though a minority tend to report to them. All the above has of course been compounded by COVID-19.
The structural problems and human rights issues we face should be the front-page story, but instead we see debunked theories and heart-felt opinions by people who have never treated or cared for a trans person. We see vulnerable parents, desperate for support, being exploited, rejected and demonised simply for allowing their little one to express themselves with a new haircut. The lifesaving medical treatment needed by some trans adolescents, first and safely offered in the 1990s, is positioned as experimental, harmful, permanent.
The actual side effects of gender-affirming medical care, for those who can access it, include a significantly improved quality of life, significantly better health and wellbeing outcomes, a dramatic decrease in distress, depression and anxiety and a substantial increase of gender euphoria and trans joy.4 The protective factors that keep trans people safe from harm are simple – access to affirmation, community connectedness and living free and equal in society.
We are not at risk of harm by affirming our gender, but rather due to cisgenderism, a cultural and social ideology that suggests there are only two genders, that gender is fixed, can be presumed based on genitals at birth and is always the same as that recorded on someone’s first birth certificate.
Cisgenderism delegitimises people’s own understandings of and relationship with their bodies and genders, it pathologises the trans experience as being disordered and rejects the validity of non-binary genders. Cisgenderism creates barriers to healthcare and marginalises trans people from society.
Simply because of how we are treated, trans people are one of the most minoritised and at-risk groups in this country. It is unequivocal that Sistergirls – Aboriginal trans women – are the most resilient and yet most vulnerable women on this planet.
Recently in NSW, One Nation’s Hon. Mark Latham tabled the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, that would erase and ban trans kids from educational settings, and punish their teachers for providing support, all in the name of parental rights. Not the rights of parents with trans kids mind you, and certainly not with respect to the rights of the child.
For two days in April, the Upper House Education Portfolio Committee heard testimony from 42 expert witnesses, most of whom had made submissions in support of the Bill. Some submissions though, such as AusPATH’s, sought to reject the Bill in its entirety.
As an expert on trans health and rights issues, I was one of the 42. I was disappointed but not surprised to find that I was the only trans person giving evidence. It’s something I’m used to; in fact, it’s so common I’m surprised and overjoyed when I find myself in a room or video grid with another trans health professional. I feel a tremendous responsibility for, and duty to my community. I try to use every ounce of my privilege to elevate, support and make way for those who face much more minoritisation than I ever will.
Some politicians want to talk about the trans experience as an ideology and call it ‘gender fluid’, while actual genderfluid people have always existed and deserve to be known. The reality is that the trans experience has got nothing to do with what a person looks like, nothing to do with the bathroom we use, the hormones or surgery we might have, or the marker listed on our birth certificate - you can’t tell who is trans by sight. The trans experience isn’t an ideology, it’s a person you know.
The lives of trans people depend on our allies; with that in mind, consider this a call to action.
Go home and talk to your families and friends – tell them you want to learn and talk more about trans issues, ask them to help you. Wander through TransHub, ACON’s leading resource for all trans people, our loved ones and health professionals. It was written by trans people, for trans people but is for everyone. Spend some time with the 101 and language sections; you won’t regret it.
It is in the best interest of all societies to protect and defend the human rights of our most vulnerable, and while trans people are the most resilient people I know, they are also vulnerable, and deserve our love and support. In 2021, surely, we can do better than this.
- Steinmetz, K., 2014. The Transgender Tipping Point. [online] Time. Available at: [Accessed 4 June 2021].
- Perkins, R., 1983. Transsexuals and Police Persecution. Alternative Criminology Journal, [online] (6), pp.6-7. Available at: [Accessed 15 May 2021].
- Tornielli, A., 2015. This Economy Kills. Liturgical Press.
- Riggs, D., Ansara, G. and Treharne, G., 2015. An Evidence‐Based Model for Understanding the Mental Health Experiences of Transgender Australians. Australian Psychologist, 50(1), pp.32-39; Andrzejewski, J., Dunville, R., Johns, M., Michaels, S. and Reisner, S., 2021. Medical Gender Affirmation and HIV and Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention in Transgender Youth: Results from the Survey of Today’s Adolescent Relationships and Transitions, 2018. LGBT Health, 8(3), pp.181-189.