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The case for Australia’s ‘transgender awakening’

Identity LGBTI
Commissioner Tim Wilson & Catherine McGregor from RightsTalk at the Commission

Australians have reversed thousands of years of historical, cultural and social misunderstandings about homosexuality, and are doing  the same about transgender Australians, says Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson.

In a speech delivered in Perth in honour of transgender activist Isabelle Lake, Commissioner Wilson said the task before us all is to ensure the experience of the next generation of transgender Australians is better than those before.

“Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians still don't enjoy formal equality before the law and fair and equal treatment by government,” Commissioner Wilson said.

“LGBTI Australians still face state-sanctioned discrimination at both state and federal levels, let alone issues that emerge from informal equality.

“Lesbian, gay and bisexual people are restricted from marrying their partners. Intersex Australians face forced gender assignment and sterilisation at birth.

“But the lingering and most extensive discrimination is faced by transgender Australians,” the Commissioner said.

Commissioner Wilson, whose responsibilities at the Human Rights Commission includes the Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex (SOGII) portfolio, said he intends to lead a national and coordinated strategy to  encourage Australians from all walks of life to recognise their common bonds and shared humanity.

“To commence this work I announced last year that we would conduct a national consultation to look at the legal and non-legal challenges faced in the SOGII portfolio.

“As part of this process we held a series of public and targeted meetings to collect evidence and garner insights into the lived experience of Australians.

“Throughout our consultations we met ordinary people doing incredible work.

“At the Alice Springs Women’s Refuge we met transgender and intersex women who were working to end domestic and physical violence in Alice and surrounding Aboriginal communities. They were only armed with courage and reason in the hope that they may bridge the divide between ignorance and understanding. 

“In South Australia and Queensland we met with clinical practitioners working to assist trans-Australians navigate the hormonal path from gender assignment to affirmation. 

“Many transgender Australians live lives of success where they achieve their dreams for themselves and their loved ones. But as we know that isn’t true of everyone, and, at least at key stages of their life, it is not easy.”

Commissioner Wilson said legal reform is important but the work involved in building a culture of respect for transgender Australians is “much more vague, organic and harder to achieve.”

He noted that over the past 30 years, Australians have reversed thousands of years of historical, cultural and social understandings around homosexuality, and said the challenge is to now do the same for transgender people.

The Commissioner said social welfare systems, aged care and health systems could be better calibrated to respect trans-Australians, and workplaces could develop better policies and practices to ensure trans-Australians are able to participate fully. 

The Commissioner said a strategy that engaged with schools, teachers and students; improved access to information about transgender issues; and fostered cooperation with sporting and civil society organisations to encourage transgender involvement would help reduce misunderstandings about transgender issues.

The annual Isabelle Lake Memorial Lecture is an initiative of the Equal Opportunity Commission of Western Australia in partnership with the University of Western Australia. The lecture was established to honour the work and achievements of Isabelle Lake, a young transgender rights activist, who was also a former employee of the Equal Opportunity Commission and University of Western Australia student.

Ms Lake transitioned shortly before she died from leukemia. She was a passionate advocate for the rights and freedoms of LGBTI people.

Read the Commissioner’s Isabelle Lake Memorial Lecture, Law and Culture: Australia’s Transgender Awakening.

Photo: Commissioner Wilson with Cate McGregor, at a 2014 RightsTalk on transgender issues.