Ethics Centre Changes ‘Trans Woman Can Never Be Female’ Debate Title After Outcry


The event, quickly labelled transphobic, has been updated by the Centre but will still go ahead. Max Chalmers reports.

The Ethics Centre has once again been forced to alter an event because of public outcry after the title of a planned debate on gender issues was labelled “insulting” and “ludicrous”, and slammed on social media.

The Centre had originally titled the talk ‘Debate: A Trans Wo/man Can Never Be Fe/male’, but immediately sparked a backlash which spilled over from the event’s Facebook page into the world of transgender advocacy and activism.

Sally Goldner, Executive Director of Transgender Victoria and a winner at last year’s Human Rights Awards, joined critics of the debate which she said was not necessary in 2015. Facebook users from around the world inundated the event page with negative feedback, concerned it would further marginalise transgender people and fuel violence against them by delegitimising identities.

The Ethics Centre initially acknowledged this feedback with a statement on the event page but has now created a new event with the final title yet to be announced.

In a new statement the Centre said its events were intended to provoke respectful conversation, and were not about who won or lost the actual debates.

“We know that a number of our topics have been felt, by one group or another, to be inappropriate – and even offensive. And so it is in this case,” the statement said. “Our intention was never to question the experience, validity or existence of trans people. We’re sorry if this is the impression that’s been given. As in other circumstances, we have taken great care in the curation of this topic by consulting with those who have a vital interest in the issues we invite the community to explore.”

The changes to the event, and accompanying explanation, were not enough to win over many of those who questioned the original title.

“So you’re changing the bag but keeping the poop that’s inside of it? I’m confused,” one commenter said. Others encouraged people to join a campaign against the event.

Formerly known as the St James Ethics Centre, The Ethics Centre regularly hosts public debates and co-curates the annual Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Its events have inspired a number of controversies, with provocative titles leading to furious public debate over the appropriateness of the subject matter being discussed.

A Festival of Dangerous Ideas debate in 2014 titled ‘Honour Killings Are Morally Justified’ was cancelled after sparking widespread anger response, and being denounced as ‘inflammatory’.

Concerns about the Centre’s links to companies and individuals involved in the offshore detention of refugees and Operation Sovereign Borders have long been raised, and led to the Festival of Dangerous Idea’s own speakers authoring a joint criticism of the Centre in September this year.

The Centre said it was continuing to consult with “trans people, feminist counselling and other groups to form a panel of speakers”.

“We are committed to creating an event that will give voice to those wishing to explore, in good faith, the vexing and deeply personal questions around sex, gender and identity. We will continue to update you with developments as we do further work on how best to frame the questions we plan to address.”

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.