Tasmania transgender

Tasmania is expected to become the first state in Australia to make recording gender on birth certificates an optional process, after a narrow vote passed the state’s lower house on Tuesday night.

Nine amendments to the state’s Births Deaths and Marriages Act, designed to offer greater protections to transgender and intersex people, passed despite government opposition. The measures were proposed by Labor and the Greens, and Liberal speaker Sue Hickey dramatically crossed the floor to support them.

The amendments also allow people to change the gender on their birth certificate without undergoing reassignment surgery, while children under 16 may do the same with support of a parent, guardian, or magistrate.

If passed, the amendments would give Tasmania some of the most progressive laws on transgender rights in Australia, signalling a remarkable turnaround for a state once known for its fierce opposition to LGBTIQ rights.

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The usual suspects weigh in

Predictably, the amendments aroused furore in some quarters. Tasmanian government minister Michael Ferguson said Labor and the Greens were “conducting social experiments on children”. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has previously said discussions about sexuality in classrooms make his “skin curl”, and railed against “gender whisperers” in schools, labelled the amendments “ridiculous”.

“Bill Shorten should step up and commit to put [a] motion to ALP Federal Conference to outlaw it,” Morrison said in a tweet.

Over on Sky News, Rowan Dean and Paul Murray both agreed the laws were an “disgrace”. “In 30 years time there will be a royal commission into what this generation has done to children,” Dean said.

Activists meanwhile celebrated the changes, and hit back at the “ill-informed” backlash. “There are a lot of people who are very quick to pass judgment without taking the time to find out what is going on,” said Martine Delaney, a spokeswoman for activist group Transforming Tasmania.

According to Delaney, the reforms have the potential to make an “enormous difference” to the lives of trans and gender diverse people in the state — particularly in regards to the effect on ID laws. Jasper Lees, son of Tasmanian Greens leader Cassy O’Connor, told the ABC, the current laws mean any interaction involving an ID could “out him as a trans man”.

Making it easier for transgender people to change the gender on their birth certificate could mitigate this, and reduce discrimination faced when applying for jobs.

“Bigots’ Island”

Tasmania has a notoriously bleak history when it comes to LGBTIQ issues. In the 1990s, the state was dubbed “Bigots’ Island”, due to its hostility towards queer people. Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised until 1997, making Tasmania the last state in Australia (and one of the last places in the Western world) to do so.

“Twenty years ago, I could not go up the street without getting abused,” former Greens leader Bob Brown told Crikey in 2012. Similar stories of verbal and physical abuse have more recently been told by Tasmanian comedian Hannah Gadsby in her hit show Nanette.

Activist Rodney Croome, who was instrumental in the fight to decriminalise homosexuality in the state, has previously described widespread anti-gay rallies, and public calls for violence towards LGBTIQ people by politicians.

The state’s decriminalisation of homosexuality was hard fought, and followed years of legal battles, involving decisions from the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the High Court. 

But even if Tuesday’s reforms fail to pass the upper house and become enacted, Tasmania’s reputation as a homophobic backwater has been eroded over recent decades, after a series of pioneering laws on LGBTIQ issues:

  • 2003 — Tasmania becomes the first in Australia to abolish the “gay panic” defence, which allowed a murder charge to be downgraded to manslaughter if the accused could prove that the victim made an unwanted homosexual advance against them.
  • 2010 — Tasmania becomes the first state to recognise same-sex marriages registered overseas.
  • 2012 — Tasmania’s lower house becomes the first chamber of any Australian parliament to pass a bill legalising same-sex marriage.

Last year, 64% of Tasmanians voted in favour of marriage equality in the postal survey — a higher percentage than those registered in NSW, Queensland and South Australia.

Despite this progress, many queer Tasmanians report ongoing structural discrimination, particularly regarding access to appropriate and inclusive health services. Nevertheless, the latest reforms are evidence of just how far the state has come, and, as Delaney told the ABC, more evidence that the state is shrugging off its discriminatory past.