Last week La Trobe Uni quietly launched the second national survey of the health and wellbeing of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Australians. Private Lives 2 provides us with some of the most comprehensive data yet about these population groups, putting flesh on the skeleton of existing research — which is very scant.
PL2 is very welcome and much needed, but it was no surprise to read that transgender Australians consistently report the lowest levels of general and mental health. This is very much in accordance with other available data. It was also no shock to read that discrimination continues to have a tangible impact on the lives of trans people, paving the way to high rates of drug and alcohol use, heightened exposure to violence and harassment (including sexual violence) and social and economic marginalisation.
The needs of trans folk continue to be overlooked or poorly understood by policy-makers and service deliverers; little population data is available that could help to inform decision-makers about this group, given that more brawny data-collection mechanisms like the ABS or the National Health Survey do not collect information about transgender status.
Essentially, PL2 confirms that trans people are in real, urgent need of support and have very little access to it. So where can they turn to?
Probably not to the women’s sector. Unfortunately, the second-wave feminist ethos — "by women, for women" — that still informs the women’s sector doesn’t mix well with concepts of gender diversity.
After my involvement in Canberra’s Reclaim the Night event last year, for example, a transgender woman confided in me that she didn’t attend because she had understood that "people like her" wouldn’t be welcome to march. And I continue to hear stories about female only organisations that manage their transgender clients with clumsy, restrictive policies or exclude them altogether — domestic violence refuges that only allow "post-op" trans women to seek shelter, for example, and which flatly discount trans men as legitimate clients.
Lorene Hannelore Gottschalk of the University of Ballarat has argued that including transgender people in women’s spaces "compromises the rights of women to seek support in a context where they are with … people with whom they have shared experiences": "The inclusion of … MTFs [male-to-female transgender people] results in the elimination of women-only space and re-assimilation into male dominated institutions," she writes.
Of course, it’s well recognised that there are both pragmatic and political reasons to provide women’s-only services. The women’s sector is necessary to meet the particular needs of women. It is also a feminist project that is about correcting a long-standing power imbalance, and creating a space for something that has previously been pushed to the margins. This makes sense.
What continues to unsettle me is the fact that the women’s sector, a sector that prides itself on having special insight into the social mechanics of gender, has struggled to cope with scenarios that challenge traditional ways of thinking about gender. It’s one thing to talk about empowering this group of people we have defined as women, but third wave feminism and queer theory have long been more interested in tracing the cracks and inconsistencies in the actual framework we use to describe gender (that organises people into the categories man/woman, male/female, masculine/feminine), with the idea that it is actually this kind of binary thinking that creates the power inequalities that underlie sexism.
This level of critical reflexivity, I would argue, has yet to reach the women’s sector. We have failed to be reflective about the way we use binary gender frameworks in defining the population group we speak for — and we have for the most part failed to recognise the inadequacy of this system to represent the everyday lived experience of sex and gender for many, many people.
Peter Hyndal, founding member of Canberra’s gender rights organisation A Gender Agenda, notes that feminist responses to trans inclusion have "historically been based on a range of assumptions" about the legitimacy of trans people’s experiences of gender. But bound up in that are all kinds of assumptions about women more generally — "what a woman is, how she is defined and by whom".
"On one level, I really don’t understand why women’s services have struggled so much with the issue of trans inclusion," Hyndal told New Matilda.
"Feminism has consistently argued that women should not be reduced to their biology, that there is no ‘right way’ for a woman to be — that gendered social norms are oppressive and that women should question and challenge those stereotypes and assumptions that seek to constrain them… Trans people are, by their existence, questioning and challenging the gendered stereotypes that constrain us all. As trans people, we live this experience every day of our lives. It seems to me that this is a real point of commonality."
Like Hyndal, I believe that the women’s sector should be in the business of dealing with gender diversity. Because some trans people are approaching women’s services and are in real need of support; because I have yet to hear a convincing argument in favour of excluding trans women (or, at least in some cases, trans men) from accessing women’s services; because as advocates we claim to represent women in all their diversity, and this should extend to the diverse experiences and expressions of the gender.
But most importantly of all, because it’s becoming clear that we in the women’s sector need to find a way to reconcile the need to provide specialist services to women with the need to maintain a critical approach to the way we think about gender — an approach that leads us beyond a gender framework that only leaves room for "real women" and "real men". An approach that can cope with the beauty, subtlety and diversity of people’s real, private lives. Without having the conversation about gender diversity, the women’s sector risks becoming irrelevant.