Staff, students and members of the NTEU union are organising against a transphobic website published at the University of Melbourne.
More than 1000 have signed an open letter to the university condemning a transphobic website published by Holly Lawford-Smith, an Associate Professor in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies.
The website calls for cis gender women to share stories about any time they have felt threated by transgender women in “women’s only spaces” and states that it is responding to legislative reforms in Australia and elsewhere which “replaces sex with gender identity”.
The website, which is “moderated” by the same staff member, rehearses blatantly transphobic ideas that frame transgender women as predatory and violent, posing a threat to cis gender women’s safety.
The same staff member was involved in an anti-trans event hosted at the University of Melbourne in 2019, which opposed the Victorian Government’s birth certificate reforms, which allow transgender people to change the gender markers recorded on their birth certificates without being forced to undergo medical or surgical intervention.
The event involved two University of Melbourne staff members, with the support of the Victorian Women’s Guild, and faced strong opposition from staff, students, NTEU members and the public through an open letter and demonstration near the event. The Guild was quoted and profiled favourably in The Australian as part of the paper and the Victorian Liberals’ campaign against the gender recognition laws.
Trans is a broad umbrella term for people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth: some trans people some identify as women, men, with both genders or neither. There is nothing natural about the rigid gender binary imposed on us under capitalism today. Across the world, many Indigenous cultures long recognised the diversity of gender and sexuality, identities that were repressed as part of the process of Western colonisation.
The ideas rehearsed on Lawford-Smith’s website (No Conflict They Said) come straight out of the song book of anti-trans feminism. Although anti-trans feminists and academics self-profess to be “gender-critical”, they typically assert that trans women pose a threat of violence in “women-only spaces” (such as bathrooms and in domestic violence shelters), deny trans women’s identities and argue that trans inclusive legal reforms undermine cis-gendered women’s rights. In turn, they support a form of biological essentialism.
The ideas promoted by the website are dangerous and deliberately misleading: there is no evidence that such legislative reforms have led to an increased risk of sexual or gender-based violence in any jurisdiction they have been introduced. Such arguments are fuelled by transphobic ideas and ignores the reality that transgender and gender diverse people are disproportionally victims of violence.
Living in a transphobic and discriminatory society is also extremely deadly: the Trans Pathways survey conducted by the Telethon Kids Institute found that 48 per cent of Australian trans young people (aged 14-25 years) had attempted suicide.
The backlash against trans recognition from some feminists has fallen into step with the conservative right’s agenda.
In October 2019, The Australian published an article a day on average attacking trans youth. During the marriage equality postal survey, the No campaign rested on the moral panics of “anti-gender” ideology, based on fears of increased gender fluidity.
The Liberals’ religious discrimination bill threatens to push back against the results of the marriage equality survey, while existing anti-discrimination laws allow non-government schools to discriminate against staff and students on the basis of sexuality or gender identity.
For anti-trans feminists, this is not about the right to academic freedom, debate or principles of free speech—these are unabashed, well-rehearsed transphobic ideas and scaremongering, which encourages vilification and the denial of trans identity and hard fought for LGBTQAI+ rights.
A number of university casuals and rank-and-file networks have passed motions of support for trans staff and students.
You can sign the open letter to the Vice-Chancellor and the Dean of Arts at the University of Melbourne here.
By Pan Karanikolas
Read Pan’s review of an important new book on fighting for trans liberation.