Should women and girls have to share change rooms and toilets with people with male genitals? Is it okay for biological males to win women’s sporting events? Should a male sex offender be housed in a women’s prison because they identify as a woman?
If you answered no to those questions, I’m sure that you’re in agreement with the vast majority of Australians. On the other hand, there is a loud and aggressive minority who think you’re a ‘transphobe’ expressing hate speech if you subscribe to such common sense ideas. The celebrated author JK Rowling is just the latest high-profile person to be targeted with abuse and threats simply for stating that sex is a reality – a reality on which many of our rights and freedoms are based.
Last month I gave a speech to the Senate questioning why Sports Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission had published a set of guidelines indicating to sports clubs and competitions that they should prioritise competitors’ ‘gender identity’ over a person’s sex when it comes to participation in sport. Earlier in the year, I’d questioned these agencies about these guidelines and what they meant for women in sport, and was staggered at the unwillingness of both agencies to engage on the obvious fact that such a recommendation has major implications for women’s sport. This exchange culminated in Sport Australia answering a question on notice about how it defines the term ‘woman’ for the purposes of promoting women’s sport with a terse, single line: “Sport Australia has not defined the term ‘woman”.
It’s fair to say that my speech in the Senate attracted much more attention and feedback than any other issue I’ve spoken about since my election last year. In hundreds of pieces of correspondence I’ve received, women (and men) from all over Australia and the world have thanked me for raising the issue and encouraged me to keep speaking out. A handful of comments and messages suggesting my speech was some kind of right-wing diatribe could not have been further out of touch with the overwhelming majority of feedback from people on both sides of the political divide. Many noted that they traditionally consider themselves on the ‘left’ of the ideological spectrum, yet have been totally abandoned on the issue of women’s rights by left-of-centre politicians and parties.
There are two aspects of this discussion which particularly disturb me and the many people who’ve contacted me about it. First and foremost, the question of men being allowed into women’s sports, women’s facilities and women’s services is undoubtedly important in its own right. Women-only sports and change rooms obviously were not invented for the purpose of being discriminatory, as the trans-rights activist argument seems to assert. They exist for perfectly valid reasons of fairness, safety, privacy and dignity – all of which are protected by single-sex services and facilities. I suspect only those already dedicated to the ‘trans women are women’ mantra can fail to see the genuine issues presented by a trans weightlifter competing against women, or by a boy in high school being allowed to use the girls change rooms while they change for PE class.
Just as importantly though, the adoption of a gender activist approach by Sport Australia and the AHRC has raised serious concerns from those who have watched institutions side with activists on this debate in other jurisdictions, and the chilling effects this is already having on freedom of expression and factual debate. In the UK and US, it’s becoming increasingly common for academics to be de-platformed for disagreeing with the trans-ideology about the binary nature of sex. In the UK, police have harassed citizens over jokes on social media and a 13-year old schoolgirl had to take a local Council to court to have it withdraw advice that schoolchildren could use whichever change rooms and toilets they chose. With regard to the latter case, it’s worth noting that the UK’s Equality Act contains explicit protections for single-sex facilities which Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act (at least according to the AHRC), does not.
The current state of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 is partly to blame for the institutional creep towards replacing sex with gender identity in public policy. When the former Labor Government deleted the sex-based definitions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ from the Act in 2013, it created an unsustainable position where it can now be claimed that single-sex services for either men or women are discriminatory, or else that these references, clearly intended to mean people of the male or female sex, now have nothing to do with sex but refer instead to gender identity.
Regardless of any flaws with existing legislation, agencies and institutions should not feel they have permission to write their own rules undermining sex-based rights. The connotation throughout Sport Australia’s Guidelines that clubs and leagues had better lawyer up if they’re thinking of insisting that only women play women’s sport is an example of ‘official’ advice which, at best, is misleading regarding the broad protections in the Act for single-sex competitive sport.
It should go without saying that supporting the integrity and fairness of women’s sport, or the privacy and safety offered by women’s change rooms, is not an attack against a minority but a defence of the rights of 50 per cent of the community. Indeed, the entire population should be entitled to single-sex facilities and services.
Unfortunately, we know in this day and age that relying on facts and the common sense of the quiet majority isn’t always enough to hold back the tide of aggressive activism. Businesses, universities and even government agencies around the world have consistently taken the easy road of pandering to those who can organise a Twitter pile-on but are completely unrepresentative of the broader community.
It’s critical that those of us who aren’t prepared to trade away sex-based rights, or indeed the very meaning of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, speak up now and ensure that agencies and institutions don’t do so on our behalf. Australians from every background and every part of the political spectrum expect better from our democracy than the trampling of free speech that has occurred in other nations.
Claire Chandler is a Liberal Senator for Tasmania.
Illustration: South Park Studios/Comedy Partners.
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