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It's time for the transgender talk, Australia

Identity LGBTI

The backlash against tweets directed at Catherine McGregor on Q&A last week should spark a conversation about transgender people in Australia. We must improve attitudes, writes Tim Wilson.

We all need to learn something new for the first time, so let's use the opportunity presented by last week's episode of Q&A to educate Australians about treating transgender people with respect.

Following last Monday night's episode of Q&A there was a backlash against producers who let two tweets go to air that seemed dismissive or derogatory towards Group Captain Catherine McGregor.

In support of McGregor @GeoffGCooper tweeted "Wow she/he is a hero". In response some argued that referring to "she/he" was disrespectful. And they are right. But there is no point beating anyone up over it when they are trying to express something positive.

In a letter to the editor published late last week, Cooper argued he "recently tweeted to Q&A praising the courage of Group Captain Catherine McGregor for coming out as transgender ... (but) I was besieged online, seemingly for using both pronouns in the tweet, an act I had no idea was politically unacceptable."

Cooper argued "the heartfelt message I intended was lost amid a flurry of retweets and comments, including threats."

Cooper's tweet might have been unfortunate, but his praiseworthy intention is clear. In response we should be seeking to educate, not bully. The reality is many Australians have had limited contact with transgender people and simply don't know what to respectfully say, or tweet.

The simple answer is to treat people as you find them. Catherine McGregor presents as a woman, acknowledge her as such. The pronoun "she" is appropriate. If you are unsure, asking politely is also an option.

Familiarity breeds understanding about how to address people with respect, not beating people over the head when they mean well. It's precisely why discussion needs to be free and open. No one becomes more familiar through censorship.

There's other etiquette for addressing transgender people, particularly when they are going through the process of affirming their gender. This is a helpful guide.

The most important thing to do is treat and respect transgender people like everyone else.

I hope she won't mind me saying so, but McGregor is one of the most impressive Australians I have ever met. As demonstrated by her appearance on last Monday's Q&A she is deeply thoughtful, whip smart and incredibly personable. Her achievements are even more impressive when you consider the public and internal battles she has wrestled with.

But McGregor is not alone. In our society discussion about transgender people has been relatively rare. We are now becoming a lot more open. Anecdotally there appear to be a lot more Catherine McGregors out there who are transitioning later in life after a lifetime of internal struggle.

It is also becoming more common for young people to be open about their experience, and more importantly for parents to be open and accept this reality.

We shouldn't be afraid of admitting that many of us struggle with why someone would seek to change their gender. Many straight people don't really understand what it is to be gay, but they do understand it is who people are. The same basic principle applies to transgender people.

Being transgender is different from being a cross dresser, who is someone who enjoys wearing interchangeable clothes associated with one gender, or another.

In simple terms, transgender people are biologically born one way, but psychologically another. All many transgender Australians want is for the two to align. Most seek to rectify the alignment and then just get on with life as their freest and fullest selves.

The importance of respect is a lesson some people clearly need to learn. A more derisory message from last Monday was from @SecAdvisers tweeted that "God sets our gender, we shouldn't interfere".

It's a tight message, but not one that reflects reality. In fact most uninformed stereotypes don't reflect reality. Many people's stereotypes of transgender people are of old blokes wearing ill-fitting dresses and unsecure wigs. For the most part that simply isn't reality, and it is becoming less so.

There are an increasing number of children who are open about the fact that their psychological gender doesn't match their outward appearance. As society is becoming more open about this reality more children are going through the process of affirming their gender earlier in life. When they do they often pass into adulthood without anyone knowing their past.

A good video explaining how beneficial it can be for young people to go through a process of affirming their correct gender in puberty for their physical and mental health can be found here. It's worth a watch, especially if you are new to the subject.

But despite a new era of openness in the medical world, there is still a long road that needs to be walked for mainstream acceptance.

The simple reality is that too many transgender Australians face utterly unacceptable bullying and harassment, other forms of social stigma and discrimination.

The Australian Human Rights Commission is currently completing a national consultation to look at the full breadth of legal and non-legislative challenges faced by Australians on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The problems are enormous and span every level of government, as well as access to basic services that most of us take for granted. Too often these issues fall through the cracks of government policy.

But there's no room for despondency. There are promising signals of national leadership from political leaders. The introduction of McGregor's Australian Story by the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was welcome and sent a powerful message that transgender people need not feel outside of the mainstream.

Throughout these consultations some of the most inspirational figures have been local transgender champions that are changing attitudes in their community, and often against incredible odds.

It's important work. But changing societal attitudes isn't achieved by knocking people who are trying to be supportive.

Improving attitudes towards transgender people is to take Australians on a journey to the importance of treating transgender people with respect, and, more importantly, how to do so.

Published in The Drum