By Isaac Haman (she/her)
Content warning: this article contains a discussion of transphobic and transmisogynistic rhetoric, and mentions of homophobia and transmisogynistic violence.
We’re now several weeks into the postal survey on marriage equality, and the supposedly “respectful debate” has proved every bit as terrible as we expected. What is particularly worrying is that transgender and gender diverse (TGD) children have once again been placed in the firing line by the “No” campaign. All queer people have been subjected to a range of deeply hurtful rhetoric with little actual relevance to the question of marriage equality. But the specific targeting of TGD children – especially trans girls – should concern all of us.
The “No” campaign’s main strategy has been attempting to confuse the discussion of marriage equality with a range of other issues. The Coalition for Marriage, for example, asserts on their website that “the plebiscite is a referendum on “Safe Schools”, freedom of speech and freedom of religion”. Another major conservative organisation, the Australian Family Association, has started a campaign website called “Transgender Marriage Vote”. While the claims about freedom of speech and religion have received a lot of coverage, the link to gender diversity and the attacks on TGD children have largely gone unchallenged in mainstream media.
A good deal of the campaign material produced by the “No” side has focused on schools and the alleged effects of marriage equality on the classroom environment. The Coalition for Marriage lists “Impact On Schools” as the first consequence of marriage equality in its general flyers, and they have another flyer specifically devoted to “3 Ways Gay Marriage Will Change The Classroom”. Similarly, the Australian Family Association’s “Talking Points” flyer focuses exclusively on school policy regarding gender diversity. This aims to link the push for marriage equality to the inclusion and acceptance of TGD kids in schools, assuming that voters are less prepared to accept gender diversity than marriage equality.
Some of this material takes aim at curricular content relating to transness, such as elements of the Safe Schools program. A television ad produced by the Coalition for Marriage attacks “radical sex and gender programs” in schools, equating a “No” vote on the postal survey to a rejection of Safe Schools. In it, Helen McIvor states that “School programs have no place teaching my son radical gender ideas; that he might not be who he was born as”. Clearly, the spectre of “radical gender ideas” refers to the simple fact that transgender people exist, that a person’s birth assignment does not in fact determine their gender.
Other campaign material shifts the focus from TGD identity in the abstract to the specific treatment of TGD students under school policy. The Coalition for Marriage’s aforementioned “Classroom” flyer claims that parents rights’ are violated by some schools’ support for TGD children, and that amending the Marriage Act will inevitably promote “easy gender transition”.
As with the conservative attacks on Safe Schools last year, trans girls are the primary targets, usually misgendered as “boys who identify as girls”. The “Talking Points” flyer produced by the Australian Family Association is a particularly nasty example of this kind of transmisogyny, attempting to provoke fears of “allowing boys who identify as girls to use girls’ showers, change rooms, toilets”. This taps into a broader trend of casting trans women as predators in order to justify a whole range of transmisogynistic practices, from discriminatory “bathroom bills” to overt harassment and physical violence, and directly endangers trans girls and women in and out of schools.
This transphobic and transmisogynistic rhetoric coming from the “No” campaign clearly does harm far beyond its immediate impact on the postal survey. These claims need to be publicly answered and rebuffed, but so far they’ve received very little media attention. When mainstream media has touched on them, it’s taken the form of simple dismissals of their relevance to the question of marriage equality, which fails to actually challenge the transphobic premises of these arguments. We need to reject transphobia because it’s harmful, not to just bracket it off to the side without addressing it. Trans and gender diverse kids deserve better.