The fight for gender affirmation leave

The history of gender affirmation leave and unionism.

In 1973, the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) staged the world’s first ‘Pink Ban’ against Robert Menzies College and Macquarie University. The strike, a recognition of solidarity between queer and straight students and workers, was at the time justified by BLF leader Bob Pringle in saying “it’s the principle of the thing. They shouldn’t pick on a bloke because of his sexuality”. Structural homophobia has always permeated Australian universities, and since the BLF’s pink ban, unions have oft been tasked with fighting back. Boldly displayed on the original Homo Soit’s ninth page is “many disputes – one struggle”. It appears that gender affirmation leave and trans rights is the newest dispute in a long struggle for the queer community.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and University of Sydney management are currently in negotiations about the former’s demands for paid gender affirmation leave. University management has offered a one-off lump sum allocation of 30 days gender affirmation leave, an allowance that is more generous than most employers across Australia. The NTEU is demanding management give 30 days per annum, a proposal which would give staff valuable time off to better negotiate the essential yet difficult process of gender affirmation. Staff, students, and other supporters, have recognised the importance of this through an ongoing petitioning effort, and Pride in Protest (PiP) has been organising in support of the NTEU’s demands. In denying trans and gender diverse staff the time required to have control over their transition, management fails to meet their commitment to “opportunity for all”. This failure  is unfortunately unsurprising considering ongoing corporatisation that is also failing to  adequately support other marginalised staff members.

 The NTEU’s proposal is part of a nationwide campaign for gender affirmation leave at tertiary education institutions. A gender diverse NTEU member speaking to Honi on condition of anonymity explains that “there has been a reckoning in the NTEU over the last couple of years” in relation to queer issues. In this time, the group Queer Unionists in Tertiary Education (QUTE) has been established within the NTEU in what was described by a gender diverse former USyd employee and current NTEU member, Hannah, as a “positive commitment…towards support queer unionists”. A trans member, Amy Sargeant, has recently become convenor of this group, a change that has facilitated greater prominence of gender diverse voices within the union. As such, the NTEU has reformed its stance on anti-trans hate speech and ‘academic freedom’, a move crucial in the wake of campus “becoming an outpost for transphobia” according to a gender diverse member of the NTEU. The move serves as a timely reminder that the global trend of transphobic speech being cloaked in academic language has inhibited the ability of trans and gender diverse staff to feel safe at work. The promulgation of trans exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) views, and consequent backlash, at Melbourne University in 2019 and earlier this year has shown that the NTEU has a significant role in this issue. These reforms, particularly the commitment to gender affirmation leave are cause for hope for some gender diverse members of the union, being described as “fantastic” by one member. Hopefully, a toughened stance on academic hate speech and the promotion of gender diverse members to leadership positions is indicative that the union will increasingly foreground queer issues.

Listening to trans and gender diverse voices ought not be merely an aspiration for unions such as the NTEU. As Tilde Joy, a Retail and Fast-Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) organiser speaking to PiP highlights, “unionism and trans people are inseparable”.  Widespread discrimination faced by trans and gender diverse within society is amplified for trans people at work. Discriminatory employers cause trans people to struggle to find work or, if they do, find work with poor conditions. The difficulty of coming out means that they experience a perpetual state of discomfort, being misgendered or being forced to hide their gender identity. Many feel that they have to leave their jobs to undergo gender affirmation safely. To the extent that trans people face significant barriers in the workplace, it is imperative that unions use their unique power to advocate for the needs of trans and gender diverse people and include them in organising.

Fortunately, unions have been important actors in a broader trend of employers offering gender affirmation leave. The NTEU has been successful in securing gender affirmation leave at UTAS, UNSW and Deakin University. Similar changes have also been evident in the retail sector with workers at the Woolworths Group being offered leave, and in the civil service, with the Northern Territory government also approving gender affirmation leave for its civil servants. While unionist contributions have been a promising take-away from these changes, the nature of leave is nevertheless unsatisfactory. In the above cases, leave offered ranges in length, and in some cases is a composite of paid and unpaid leave allowances.

In the University’s present case, gender diverse staff are being offered a lump sum of 30 days (six weeks) leave that can only be used once during their employment. This offer is what those within the NTEU consider a starting estimate; despite being more than what is presently offered, and more than other employers offer, it is still rather insufficient. The idea that an employee undergoing complex life-changing inpatient surgery can be fine to work after six weeks was described as being “just laughable”. The physical, mental, and logistical demands of surgery are significant and vary hugely depending on the person undergoing surgery. A member of the NTEU working group on gender affirmation leave, Hannah, said that based on some internal research, 30 days per annum was the “best approximation we have to work with”, considering best practice from other workplaces and the time it would take to recover from surgeries relating to gender affirmation. 

While already demonstrating a need for the University to implement the NTEU’s demands for a yearly allowance to care for gender diverse employees, management’s offer of a one-off payment is still insufficient for gender diverse staff who don’t choose to have gender affirmation surgery. For gender diverse people, the process of affirmation is a difficult and ongoing process. Overcoming administrative hurdles such as changing one’s gender as stated in University and government paperwork and attending medical appointments is far from seamless. Hannah, a former employee of the University cited the need to obtain a letter from a psychologist to change their gender in the University database, something which is an unnecessary barrier to affirmation. Societal disregard for trans people makes this process unnecessarily difficult and time consuming, and management could well make altering one’s gender on internal documents an easier process. Trans and gender diverse staff further engage in a process of coming out, in personal relationships and with colleagues, and are often required to educate people at work about trans issues, both combatting transphobia and educating people who don’t fully understand trans issues. It is worth keeping in mind that trans and gender diverse people engage with this process in a “difficult frame of mind where you might not be predisposed to be maximally kind”, as it was put to Honi.  All of these requirements take time, and crucially, the support of employers. Offering gender affirmation leave, at the very least, sends a message to people that their workplace supports them in their affirmation, which can be important in this process. Being able to take time off to improve your mental wellbeing and ability to undertake simultaneous demands of transitioning, and educating, is thus incredibly important.

Gender affirmation leave is therefore a question of genuine equity. The rationale behind giving a one-off allowance of 30 days is that staff can use this leave to supplement existing options such as sick leave. University of Sydney academic Salvatore Babones claims that gender affirmation is just “one of life’s many challenges”. One of many challenges but only for trans and gender diverse people clearly. A lack of equity is compounded by the fact that for many gender diverse people, the time required for transition cannot only be taken from paid leave allowances. In a survey conducted by RAFFWU, not a single trans person who responded said that they had enough allocated leave to transition.  That trans and gender diversity not only have their experience of gender affirmation tarnished, but also fall behind cisgendered people who do not experience this process unacceptably fails the university’s role to create an equitable workplace.

It is important to note that this request would not cover trans and gender diverse casual staff at the University. For casuals, unstable working conditions, and underpayment already make life difficult. Taking time off work for gender affirmation increases these burdens and taking too much time off work would likely put future work at risk. It is yet to be seen if gender affirmation leave allowances will be offered to casual workers, but this issue is yet another reminder of the need to fight casualisation in the education sector, and indeed the gig economy at large.

The University, in turning down the NTEU’s request, cites the financial cost of offering more leave. In reality, it would be a small cost for the University to pay. The amount of people who would require this leave, more specifically, the amount who would use the entirety of the allowance, really isn’t enough to trouble an institution that held a 106 million dollar operating surplus in COVID-19 affected 2020.  Even if it would accrue a large cost, the comparatively massive benefit it would give to gender diverse staff makes this an easy trade-off to make.

More troubling than predictable penny-pinching is the fact that rejecting the NTEU’s demands is indicative of a fundamental lack of understanding of what it means to transition. Perhaps this explains the concerning flippancy of Australian Higher Education Industrial Association executive director Stuart Andrews saying that gender affirmation leave was “way beyond community norms”, and was a cause of  “great frustration” for universities. Offering a one-off allowance suggests that management understands transition as a one-off short-term event. Rather, transition is an ongoing process that significantly varies from person to person and does not require surgery or any other arbitrary requirement to be important. With this in mind, Honi was anonymously told by an NTEU member that “the university should not have a role in determining for the employee what is the right way to transition”. This is an apt sentiment that appreciates the need to put trans and gender diverse staff in control of their own process of gender affirmation.

The University’s approach to queer issues is telling. While the university is active in making public-facing moves to demonstrate a commitment to the queer community, it must do more to tangibly meet our needs. Despite management and Australian Higher Education Industrial Association executive director Stuart Andrews’ flippancy, queer issues desperately deserve more attention. Gender diverse staff told Honi that they rarely had access to gender neutral bathrooms on campus. Some of the newer buildings had these facilities but they are still lacking in older buildings. Given that accessible bathrooms are intended for those who need them, it is rather inappropriate to conflate the needs of those with disabilities and gender diverse people by suggesting that gender diverse staff use these bathrooms. Other changes the University could make would be increasing their promotion of staff undertaking training on trans and gender diverse issues, led by trans and gender diverse people where possible. Given that these programs weren’t compulsory, or led by trans or gender diverse people during Hannah’s employment from 2018-2020, there is a large amount of room to improve on this.

For staff and the community more generally, self-educating about trans and gender issues can be incredibly valuable. Attending community events, consuming media that engages with this issue and undergoing training when offered are all ways of doing this. Each gender diverse person who Honi spoke with cited the burden of emotional and intellectual labour in taking time to educate co-workers about these issues. For gender diverse students and staff, the experience of being misgendered is also unfortunately common. Educating oneself can significantly lift the difficulty of gender affirmation for gender diverse coworkers and students. Writing in 1976’s Homo Soit, students lamented the conservative attitude of the university to queer issues. The forces of queerphobia have long aligned with the internal workings of universities. Instead of platitudes, putting trans people in the driving seat and implementing their demands would be the best way to fulfil management’s promise of an inclusive workplace. Gender affirmation leave is a small step that will markedly improve gender diverse people’s experience at work and beyond. Management ought to deliver it.

A petition in support of the NTEU’s fight for gender affirmation leave is available at