Provide a Safe Environment for Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Individuals

Open Letter to The University of Melbourne

Dear Professor Maskell,

We, the undersigned, write to you in regards to the event ‘The Future of Sex-Based Rights’ hosted by the Victorian Women’s Guild. This event is being held at, and includes two speakers from, The University of Melbourne. By providing a venue for this event, The University of Melbourne is putting transgender and gender non-conforming students and staff at risk. The framing of this event suggests that the validity of non-cisgender identities is likely to come under attack. It also inaccurately posits that transgender rights will pose a threat to cisgender women’s safety. This is both arbitrary and irrelevant to the pursuit of both academic inquiry and the genuine safety of cisgender women.

We ask that the University of Melbourne:

  • Refuse to host ‘The Future of Sex-Based Rights’, and any other event that promotes and legitimises transphobic and queerphobic discussions and attitudes.
  • Commit to a long-term strategy that applies the University’s values of respect, diversity and inclusion in policy and practice to meaningfully include the rights and concerns of transgender and gender non-conforming people.

Further Information

The discussion at next week’s event will be based around the Victorian Government’s recent proposed amendment to the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1996, which will allow transgender and gender non-conforming people to change the sex recorded on their birth certificates without undergoing medical or surgical intervention. This amendment will provide transgender and gender non-conforming people with access to legal affirmation of their identities without being required to undergo coercive sterilisation as a requirement to legally change their gender identity. Further, this amendment is important for those who do not have access to gender-affirming procedures, and for those who feel affirmed in their sex and gender identities without them.

The event presents a binary view of gender and sex which is not reflected in either transgender and gender non-conforming people’s experiences or current academic research. Binary views of gender and sex are also inherently Western and colonial and do not fit with many non-Western cultures, including those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Such binary views have long been problematised in feminist scholarship. Valuing gender diversity means recognising the complex relationship between gender and sex when it comes to identity.

One of the University of Melbourne’s ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ goals is to, ‘through our membership of Pride in Diversity, eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation, sexuality or gender’. However, by virtue of hosting this discussion on university grounds, this event lends both legitimacy and a platform to discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming people. Using university facilities to promote the discriminatory ideology of a political group seems contradictory to the University’s ideals of fostering a safe and respectful environment.

There is no reason to expect that the legislation amendments will affect the safety of any particular population demographic. In fact, greater public acceptance and validation of gender diversity can only lead to enhanced safety for those of all sex and gender identities. This is a position that is clearly argued throughout academic literature from a range of disciplines, including gender studies, criminology, and political philosophy.

Policies and legislation certainly have the right to be critiqued, and there have been heated debates around academic freedom in this area. However, the primary concern of universities who are actively working to eliminate discrimination against their LGBTQIA+ staff and students should be the safety and well-being of this group. The University’s policy specifies that it ‘does not support the exercise of freedom of speech when the exercise undermines the capacity of individuals to participate fully in the University, or jeopardises the physical safety of individuals, or unreasonably disrupts activities or operations of the University’. Discussions about the validity of transgender and gender non-conforming people’s identities neither adds to the richness of academic inquiry, nor does it foster a safe and inclusive learning environment.

A similar open letter has been circulated regarding transphobic discourses in UK universities which critique inclusive policies. It received over 3600 signatures from academics in support of the notion that such discourses put transgender and gender non-conforming students and staff at serious risk.

We are concerned about promoting the safety and well-being of all individuals regardless of gender and sex identity. We believe this can best be achieved by working together rather than divisive approaches. By fostering an environment free from discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, the University of Melbourne can cultivate an environment which is safe and welcoming for all.

NB: Names of signatories will not be released publicly, but will be delivered to the Vice Chancellor.

** This letter has been organised by LGBTQ+ University of Melbourne students **

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