Dissent is a precious thing. It is a fundamental right that many braver than me have fought and even died for, and a value held dear in most radical social movements. It can also be a very difficult thing, on a personal level, to speak against the prevailing consensus. I’m conscious of this tonight as I browse facebook and see, among the posts of my friends and peers, ads for the ISGD rally planned in Canberra in May.
I’m not going to the rally. It’s on a Wednesday morning, and I am expected at my workplace on Wednesday mornings. But even if it was scheduled for a Saturday, I wouldn’t go. See, I don’t support the rally. I don’t think it’s a good idea.
Please don’t get me wrong: I agree with many of the views that proponents of the rally express. I want equal rights for trans and intersex people too. There is currently no federal anti-discrimination legislation to protect trans and intersex people in Australia, and I think that’s a problem. I’m not convinced that it’s the biggest and most urgent problem facing trans and intersex people in this country, but it’s nonetheless a real problem that requires resolution, and a legitimate priority for trans and intersex communities and organisations. I just don’t think that this is the way to go about finding a solution. Further, I’m concerned that it could even, possibly, be counter-productive.
And here’s why. Firstly there is the political context. The Gillard government is extremely vulnerable. It is behind in the opinion polls and most observers expect Labor to lose the next federal election; the most likely outcome is that it will be replaced with a socially conservative and overtly racist Abbott Liberal government. Nonetheless, Labor, with the support of the Greens, is pushing ahead with a broadly progressive social and environmental agenda. It is, for example, finally, belatedly, beginning consultations about the Sex Files report of the Human Rights Commission. It’s unlikely that this process will lead to legal reform in the current term of government: there is no evidence that rights for trans and intersex people are a priority for this government, and an attempt at such reform would create a media opportunity for the kind of vicious bigotry that we saw on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra last week. I do not believe that Labor has the will, or appetite, for such a course.
This is not to say that there aren’t many in the Labor and Green parties – and indeed some in the Liberal Party – who are broadly supportive of equal rights for trans and intersex people. I think there are. I think that has been proved, in fact, by the passage of some form of anti-discrimination legislation in every other jurisdiction in Australia. But that’s not the point. The point is that while they might be sympathetic, they are not going to take a risk on our account: as they see it, the risks at present are too high and there are too many other more important issues at stake. You can think what you like about this state of affairs, but that’s how it is.
Further, they will actively distance themselves from any perceived risks. Now, a busload of trannies from Sydney waving placards on the lawns of Parliament House is not a big risk, but it could be a small risk. It’s not something that Julia Gillard wants to be responding to in question time. It’s not something she wants to be briefed about. It’s not something that she, or her advisors, want to see in the media, with all of the resulting sensationalism and freakshow reporting that it is likely to attract, if indeed it does attract any media attention at all.
Now, many people may not care what Julia Gillard and co think or feel about these issues or whether they think trans and intersex people are bad publicity or not. They may not like her or her politics, and think that Labor is part of the problem, and they would be right in many respects. It’s not my job to defend the Labor Party, but I would remind them of the alternative: Tony Abbott and the Liberals. Enough said.
I will put this simply: trannies are bad publicity. That’s a horrible, offensive and objectionable reality, but it is nonetheless a reality at present. Trans and intersex people need to work in that reality, and manoeuvre around it, if we are ever going to change it or indeed, change anything.
What is the most effective way to do that? In the Youtube video advertising the rally, one supporter said that, ‘the only way that rights are going to be won for ISGD people is if we are on the streets fighting for them’. I don’t agree with that view. This is not Egypt. It’s not China. Australia is a liberal democracy with a federal political system. There are multiple opportunities to advocate for, and achieve, political change. Through voting, through lobbying, through participating in consultations and inquiries, through influencing the media. None of this is very fun. It’s work and it involves lots of planning and research and talking to people and it often takes years. Years of contributing to forums that don’t seem to achieve anything and being nice to people you don’t like and nurturing allies and building alliances.
I am not saying that I think there is no place for demonstrating in the streets. I do – I’ve been to plenty of demonstrations. I do think that they can be an effective part of a political strategy. But I have yet to see much evidence that this demonstration is likely to be effective. I am open to the possibility that I may be wrong in this regard: god knows my own political judgement has often been imperfect. Further, if it means achieving positive change for trans and intersex communities, I hope I am wrong. I’m also aware that I havenot been involved in the organisation of this rally and don’t have all the available information. For these reasons, I ask the following questions:
- What other organisations or groups were consulted in the planning of the rally? Were organisations like the National LGBT Health Alliance and ACON and the Gender Centre consulted? What is their view? Are they going to offer assistance or to undertake other activities in support of the rally?
- Were any politicians consulted? What is their view? Are they planning to attend, or offer support in other ways?
- Who is speaking at the rally? What are they going to say?
- Were the gender groups in the ACT consulted? They have been quite successful in lobbying the ACT government for law reform and gaining funding for services for the trans community there - how do they feel about having a rally in their back yard?
- What other actions are planned to co-incide with the rally? What kind of media/lobbying activities are planned to co-incide with the rally and follow up on it?
- How is the rally intended to co-incide with the Human Rights consultations? How is the rally likely to affect that process? What other strategies are planned to influence that process?