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Petitions, Protests and Sex Based Events

24 September 2019

Content warning: transphobia

An event held at the University of Melbourne on August 8 sparked protests from students and staff amid fears that it would promote anti-trans ideas and make the University unsafe for transgender people.

The panel discussion, titled The Future of Sex Based Rights, was organised by the Victorian Women’s Guild—a group created in response to the Victorian Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill (2019). This bill has now been passed, and allows transgender people to change the sex marker on their birth certificate without medical intervention if passed in the senate.

Two Unimelb academics were panelists: political philosopher Dr. Holly Lawford-Smith and sports lawyer Mr. Hayden Opie AM. The other speakers were Virginia Mansel Lees and Bronwyn Winter and Victorian Women’s Guild’s spokesperson Nina Vallins acted as chair.

During the event, each panelist described the ways they believed women’s sex-based rights could be impacted by trans-women being able to change the gender on their birth certificates without first undergoing surgery. The topics discussed included women’s spaces and single-sex sports.

In response, Michelle McNamara, an openly transgender Enterprise Fellow at the University, said, “There is no evidence that women’s rights will be adversely affected by the passage of these amendments. Similar laws have been enacted in other jurisdictions in Australia and internationally without any evidence of adverse impact on women’s rights.”

When asked to comment, a University spokesperson said, “The event is not an official University of Melbourne event. The University respects the right to Academic Freedom of Speech.”

In a separate action taken against the event, Feminists Opposing Reactionary Transphobes circulated a petition on Equality Australia calling for its cancellation. Driving the petition were two PhD students at the University; Sophie, a cis white queer woman, and Priya, a trans person of colour. Sophie said, “It seems to us, and it seems to people in the Faculty of Arts who signed the open letter, that this isn’t an academic event; rather its an event that’s promoting a particular political ideology, which is anti-trans.”

In response to the petition, Vice Chancellor Professor Duncan Maskell said, “A commitment to the rights of LGBTQI people and a commitment to freedom of expression are not automatically in conflict, unless that expression takes the form of bullying, violence, or attempts to suppress the rights of others to speak.”

Lawford-Smith refuted claims that the Victorian Women’s Guild promotes harmful ideas, saying, “having your identity claims denied is not ‘oppression’ and being offended is not the same as being ‘hurt’.”

Priya said Lawford-Smith’s response “seemed to suggest that they don’t understand the threat to [trans] women—there’s a disconnect between the power of discourse to hurt people”.

When asked about the University’s decision to hold the event, McNamara said, “I think that it is appropriate for the University of Melbourne to invoke academic freedom to allow this event to go ahead. However, I would expect that the University preferably at the VC level would put out a statement about the University of Melbourne’s support for transgender rights.”

Two hours before the event, its location was revealed via email to all registered attendees to be the Carrillo Gantner Theatre in the Sidney Myer Asia Centre.

Around 100 people turned up to peacefully protest the event with signs reading “Transphobes go home” and “Melbourne University commit to diversity”.

There were six police officers present, and campus security prevented protestors from entering the building. Attendees were subject to ID and bag checks upon entry.

Lawford-Smith said of the protestors, “I hope they get some respect for women, for freedom of speech, for open democratic discussion of laws that affect people, and for the role of a university in the wider society.”

Imogen McDonald, event attendee and masters student at the University, described the protesters as “intimidating”, but added that they were “completely polite and civil”, and she “fully respect[ed] their right to assemble and protest the event”.

Andie Moore, a rally organiser from the UMSU Queer Political Action Collective, highlighted the importance of visible opposition and said, “If the university claims to want to create an inclusive culture for trans people, this has to include refusing to platform transphobic discussions.”


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