It was easy to be optimistic, walking into an IQ2 debate about trans identities just days before Mardi Gras. This was not the regular crowd. Rather than white, middle class retirees, the room was buzzing with vibrant members of the queer community. Sadly, what should have been a nuanced, respectful discussion about social inclusion descended into nasty irrelevance.
Perhaps this should have been unsurprising. Following public outcry, the St James Ethics Centre was forced to change the debate from “trans wo/men can never be fe/male” to “society must recognise trans identities”. The original topic appeared to have been deliberately divisive and hurtful to members of the transgender community. But, while the wording changed, the debate’s sentiment did not.
Pre-debate, just 4 per cent of polled audience members opposed the motion with 76 per cent in favour, and 20 per cent undecided.
The debate started with a moving speech from Peter Hyndal, an advocate for trans recognition in government legislation. Cleverly, he began by speaking about trans identities in the third person, linguistically implying that he was cis. He influenced those few in the audience who assumed his identity, and finishing his speech about trans experiences in the first person.
American activist Andrea James followed, subverting language that assumed a worldly order that transgender fit outside of, whether it be religious, legal or natural order. She also critiqued the Ethics Centre’s premise, by acknowledging that acceptance comes from community not society: “nature loves diversity, society hates it.”
The negative team was carried by University of Sydney lecturer Bronwyn Winters and the thoroughly unremarkable academic John Haldane. Winters focused on protecting women-born-women and lesbians, from perceived bullying and misogyny by “male to female transgenders” [sic], who, she claimed, use “a narrative of victimhood” to dominate discourse and claim political capital.
Questions from the floor were aplenty, but noticeably dominated by older feminists supporting Winter’s perspective. As we progressed, pro-trans narratives became prominent, mostly drawn from personal experiences.
Poignantly, in response to Winter’s heartless remarks that “adolescence is traumatic for everyone”, a trans student from Newtown High School commented on their school struggles, which could be changed swiftly: inclusion, recognition and kindness. The audience replied with thunderous applause.
For a topic with a reasonably broad scope, the entire discussion repeatedly boiled down to trans women and “gender critical” feminists. Labels such as TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) were shamed by Winters as “extremely damaging”, but at the end of the debate still felt fitting. Disappointingly, 20 per cent of people were swayed to vote for the negative in the exit poll, up from 4 per cent. We still have work to do.
It was disappointing the St James Ethics Centre chose to use this platform to give a voice to a small, exclusionary minority.
Debates like this are only truly valuable when they approach complex topics with a wealth of respectful opinions. Otherwise, they risk alienating the vulnerable, and do nothing but create controversy from suffering.