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Challenging Five Years of Transphobia

The real-world impact of the ‘transgender debate’ is unrelenting on Australia’s trans community, however, small but visible acts of allyship can go a long way.


By Sav Zwickl and Associate Professor Ada Cheung, University of Melbourne. Originally posted here.



If you have picked up any newspaper or glanced at any news website in Australia over the last five years, especially so during this Australian election campaign – it’s evident that transgender people (commonly just trans) have been used as political footballs in an unrelentingly divisive debate.


First, it was criticism of the Safe Schools anti-bullying program.


Then there’s the Religious Discrimination Bill which prioritises religious freedom over gender identity. And we’ve seen the incitement of fear regarding trans women in sport and deplorably, attacks on the treatment of trans children.


Most of this debate is shrouded in misinformation and the promotion of long-standing myths that frame transgender people as deviant and deeply troubled to incite fear and division in the community.


Disappointingly, most misinformation seems to have been driven by members of the incumbent Coalition government and amplified by some media outlets.


Transphobia – or negative attitudes, feelings, or actions towards transgender people – is clearly still prevalent.


That is why days such as today are so important.


Since 1990, May 17 each year has marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia & Transphobia (IDAHOBIT). It’s a day to celebrate LGBTQIA+ people globally and raise awareness to combat discrimination and enable all people to be their true selves.




Daily Discrimination


Trans people often experience discrimination at every turn – from family rejection to bullying in school, and street harassment and violence – all against the backdrop of the political footballing of their lives in the media.


Our pre-pandemic research shows that one in three trans people in Australia has experienced discrimination in employment, resulting in an unemployment rate of 19 per cent – more than three times the national figure.


Additionally, one in four report discrimination in accessing healthcare, ranging from misgendering to outright refusal of care. Three in five have experienced verbal abuse and one in five has been physically assaulted for being trans.


Unsurprisingly, this constant and unrelenting stigma and discrimination has a detrimental impact on mental health; nearly half of transgender Australians have attempted suicide and a majority live with depression and anxiety.




Trans in the Pandemic


We recently launched the Trans in the Pandemic report, demonstrating that the trans community has struggled significantly with job loss and financial strain, disruptions to their healthcare, and social isolation from their support networks since the onset of the pandemic.


Most staggeringly, 61 per cent experienced clinically significant symptoms of depression, and 49 per cent reported thoughts of self-harm or suicide in the two weeks prior to the survey.


Access to trans-affirming mental healthcare is vital to trans people.


In the early months of the pandemic, more than one in three trans people had sought support from a mental health professional. They were also almost twice as likely to have accessed an LGBTIQA+ organization like QLife (19 per cent) than a mainstream mental health service such as Lifeline (11 per cent).


This trend has been reported elsewhere too.


Many trans people are simply unwilling to access mainstream services, even in a moment of crisis, due to previous negative experiences or anticipated discrimination.


However, the LGBTIQA+ specific organisations that they heavily rely on are often severely underfunded and cannot meet demand.




Resilience and Community Connection


Despite many trans people experiencing adversity, the trans community has shown tremendous resilience and innovation.


For decades trans people have found ways to connect with one another, share information and engage in self-exploration – from the small meet up groups in the 1970s to the buzzing internet forums of the 2000s.


These trans-affirming spaces and peer support networks provide trans people with respite from a world in which they often feel misunderstood and unsafe.


This connection with the wider trans community is associated with improved mental health for trans people.




Trans and Thriving


When trans people are supported, they thrive, and like others are afforded the opportunity to live life to their full potential.


Supportive family, friends and healthcare professionals can provide a protective buffer against the detrimental impact of broader social discrimination.


Affirmation for trans children and adolescents involves small and largely reversible steps. However, these small steps – from a haircut to supporting the use of different pronouns – can have a tremendously positive impact on the mental health of those young people.


For trans adults over 18 years, access to gender-affirming hormone therapy and surgeries for those who desire it is associated with reduced mental health distress and better quality of life.


Regret and ‘detransition’ (when people go back to living as their assigned sex/gender) are extremely rare, while for the vast majority, social and/or medical transition allow for a new-found comfort and confidence in their body and social role.




Active, Visible Allyship is Important


All people seek to live authentically and have a sense of belonging in their communities, which is crucial to life satisfaction, mental and physical health.


A moment of misgendering, discrimination or outright abuse of a trans person is traumatic and at such a point of vulnerability, it’s often impossible to advocate for oneself.


This is why small but visible acts of allyship are critically important.


Being ‘upstanders’ and not just standing by when we witness an injustice or act of discrimination gives voice to those who don’t have one.


Placing your pronouns in your email signature, wearing a pronoun badge, gently correcting a colleague or calling out discrimination when it occurs are all small but significant acts that may save someone’s life, contribute to creating a cultural shift and advance equity toward a society free of transphobia.


The time for change is now.



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