The debate over changes to Victoria’s birth certificate legislation has led to claims that it is “post-modern mumbo jumbo” from conservative MPs, but for trans men and women, the changes will significantly reduce the hurdles involved in basic life events like enrolling in school or applying for a job.
Under current Victorian law, people must be single, have gender reassignment surgery and obtain a medical certificate in order to change their birth certificates. This means married people must divorce, and surgery — which not every trans person wants — can cost more than $20,000.
But last month, the Victorian government announced plans to change the Births, Deaths, and Marriages Act to simplify the whole process. Among the changes proposed in the legislation, trans and gender-diverse people over 18 will simply need to produce a statutory declaration and a supporting statement from someone who has known them for 12 months. For people under 18, there needs to be consent from the parents or guardian, and a supporting statement from a doctor or psychologist that the child has the capacity to consent and it is in the best interests of the child.
Brenda Appleton, spokesperson for Transgender Victoria, said the existing process was often more onerous than many trans people could bear, or afford. “It’s a major barrier for many people to be able to comply with the current laws. It’s not the right outcome. It shouldn’t be a forced situation. Many people are not comfortable to go through that process, and we shouldn’t be forcing it on people when it isn’t what they actually want for themselves.”
“It’s very invasive. And you would think not a lot to do with having correct documentation. Gender is your own feeling or innate internal feeling of how you feel and how you think of yourself. You don’t really need a medical practitioner to confirm it’s an appropriate feeling to have.”
She says the rule requiring trans people to be single before having their birth certificates changed also needs to go. “Up to half of couples want to stay together, and to have a forced divorce in a situation where the couple otherwise wouldn’t go down that track seems very sad, when we should be encouraging people to stay together and be together in a loving relationship.”
Appleton says children are often required by their school to produce a birth certificate confirming they have gone through the change if they want the transition to be recognised by the school. This generally leads to children changing schools, Appleton says. When they reach employment age, they can be asked to provide identification, meaning trans people are often outed if they haven’t been able to change their birth certificates.
Under the changes, people will be able to change their birth certificates to male, female, or a specific gender-diverse or non-binary descriptor. The registrar has the power to refuse descriptors deemed to be offensive, obscene, or not already reasonably established as a descriptor.
When the bill hit the Parliament earlier this month, several Liberal and National MPs were opposed to it, with the more constrained claiming that the changes were being rushed without proper consultation. Those who were less constrained claimed that the changes were “misguided” and “post-modernist mumbo jumbo”.
Box Hill MP Robert Clark said the proposal had “dangerous consequences for people’s understanding of themselves and others and how they relate to other people”. Ripon MP Louise Staley pointed to disagreement in the LGBTI community over identity for trans women, claimed her feminist tendencies prevented her from supporting the legislation:
“I ask the house to reflect on what we’re doing when we let a man who has male chromosomes and who naturally has the right to enjoy privileges we as a society still give to men … be recognised by the state as a woman because he feels like a sex he biologically is not and cannot ever experience.
“I cannot help feel that such men are engaging in a radical form of mansplaining, telling women what really makes one a woman.”
The Australian Christian Lobby claimed in a press release that the proposal would endanger women’s safety, claiming that men would change their birth certificates to get into women’s shelters and change rooms. Appleton says that view was absurd, and not backed up by evidence elsewhere.
“I don’t know how many thousand trans women — if women are the problem — there are in Melbourne and across Victoria, but there’s going to be a lot. Those people are behaving appropriately from day to day, contributing to society and not causing any of the issues that are being talked about.
“You don’t need a birth certificate to go into a bathroom. It’s not as though this is a big incentive for people to do things that they can’t at the moment, and it’s just not happening at the moment.”
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Appleton sat through the parliamentary debate, and she says she was appalled by the comments made. She says people like herself don’t choose to be trans, and they are making the best of their lives.
“To have burdens and hurdles put in our way is absolutely horrendous. I’m in my 60s. I have been trans all my life. My life has been very difficult, I would choose not to be trans if I had that choice. Life would be a lot easier. I am trans, I’m out and I’m proud, and I’m very happy to be an advocate for the trans community.”
There was some concern expressed in the parliamentary debate about how this change could impact the federal Marriage Act, which currently defines marriage between one man and one woman, but Appleton said that because the law is specific to the ceremony, and it doesn’t talk about what happens after.