Transgender rights move into their recognition era

Trevor Treharne

Internet-fuelled knowledge exchange has dramatically improved the awareness of transgender rights, says a leading advocate.

Discrimination, harassment and even violence towards transgender people has proven to be an ugly element of many societies, Australia included.

7 News spoke with Andrea James, a transgender advocate, writer, film producer and director based in Los Angeles, on the issue.

James will be in Australia next month for a debate on the topic and to highlight that strong progress on transgender rights has already been made.

“Hands down the most important development for transgender rights in my lifetime has been the development of the internet,” James told 7 News.

“It allowed us to move our collected wisdom from what was largely an oral tradition to online repositories of advice and support.

“It has allowed us to join together around the world to support each other.”

Despite such progress, James says the biggest challenge for transgender rights for the foreseeable future will be gender non-conforming minors – children who have a gender identity different from their sex assigned at birth.

“People are coming out as transgender or gender non-conforming much earlier now, and that raises interesting legal and ethical questions about how we support these young people,” James says.

In the past, the progress of transgender rights has been hindered by disgust or discomfort by certain ‘transphobic’ elements in society.

However, James stresses that ‘transphobia’ is not just the process of disagreeing on the topic.

“I believe transphobia has a dimension of intent,” she says.

“If someone says, does, or believes something involving trans people that some find problematic, but it’s unintentional or due to a lack of understanding, that’s better understood as a form of bias.

“If someone says, does, or believes something that is deliberately offensive, harmful, or injurious to trans people, that is typically driven by hatred or fear of trans people and would be considered transphobic.

“Someone who respectfully disagrees is not necessarily transphobic, but someone who disrespectfully disagrees is almost certainly transphobic,” she says.

James says many transphobic voices have been amplified far beyond their actual numbers.

“Demagogues and outrage merchants have learned how to manipulate the media coverage of complex topics for personal gain, usually at the expense of a vulnerable minority,” she says.

“Extremists often get over-represented in the media because they generate headlines and get sought out disproportionately to provide ‘balance’.”

Despite this, James says the silencing of controversial and offensive ideas is “antithetical to the principles of free speech, academic freedom, and open inquiry”.

“I believe that suppression of words and ideas we find offensive gives them power, and those sentiments then manifest themselves in more insidious ways,” James adds.

The Ethics Centre is hosting an IQ2 Debate on the proposition ‘Society Must Recognise Trans People’s Gender Identities’ in Sydney on Thursday 3 March. Tickets are available for purchase here.