Liberal Senator Claire Chandler
Liberal Senator Claire Chandler giving her maiden speech, 2019 (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Last night, the government’s youngest MP appeared at an online event alongside an international anti-transgender activist who has called gender reassignment surgery a “modern-day frontal lobotomy”.

Tasmanian Liberal Senator Claire Chandler was one of the headline guests of conservative Christian group FamilyVoice Australia’s “Gender Politics: Transgenderism” event on Monday night.

The other speaker was Walt Heyer, an American who de-transitioned from a woman and has since made a career out of promoting the idea that many people who transition regret the move. (Research shows that a minuscule amount of trans people express regret.)

What makes Chandler’s appearance alongside a staunch activist popular with anti-LGBT groups remarkable is that the young senator had, until just over a year ago, never indicated any interest in trans people. But since then Chandler has pivoted to make trans women in sports her political raison d’être.

Trans women in sport is a rather niche issue that affects few people directly and has been around for decades. Many major national and international sporting organisations, including Sport Australia, have established guidelines to support the inclusion of trans athletes and ensure a level playing field.

It has, however, recently become a popular political issue wielded by the right, particularly in the US, pitting trans women as threats to women’s sport. 

During Chandler’s stint as federal president of the Young Liberals, her campaign for Parliament and her first year of serving, she showed little interest in sport other than posting on Facebook about attending an AFLW game and event. Her maiden speech doesn’t mention sport, trans people, women or even gender.

In March 2020, that suddenly changed. Chandler gave two interviews with Ben Fordham and Tasmania’s commercial radio station and grilled Sport Australia in Senate estimates about the topic. 

Subsequently, Chandler has campaigned hard on the subject. She’s repeatedly used estimates to press government agencies about how they define women, given multiple speeches in Parliament about trans women in sport, and championed a successful motion at this year’s federal council calling on the government to support sports, facilities and services for “single-sex sports”, a definition that excludes trans women.

This same passion has carried over to her social media. Since March 2020, Chandler has posted 55 times on Facebook about trans women in sport, according to social media tool CrowdTangle, and many more times about trans issues — including defending JK Rowling’s free speech after the author made what many felt were transphobic comments. Chandler’s pinned post is a petition calling on Sport Australia to exclude trans women from women’s sport.

This issue seems to be resonating with her followers. CrowdTangle analysis shows that nine out of ten of her top Facebook posts by number of engagements are about trans women. 

Chandler was even the subject of a discrimination complaint for her comments on trans women. The matter was dropped after a conciliation meeting and the complainant said they did not have the “legal, financial or other resources” to continue. In a move of political jujitsu, Chandler was able to use this to her advantage, claiming there was a “chilling effect on free speech” — a key message of the right. 

A key to understanding why this has become a fixation for the 31-year-old senator was shared in a preamble to a survey circulated by her office earlier this year.

“Too often in Australia, the voices who claim to speak on behalf of women really only speak up for a certain kind of woman,” it says. “But there are women who want to fight for you on issues that matter to real women. Join the movement of mainstream women speaking up for Australian values and what matters to you.”

Trans issues are viewed by conservatives as a weak spot on the left. Earlier this year, Australian Christian Lobby director Martyn Iles — whose group is gearing up for political action — described “the transgender thing” as “where the lie is most fragile”. 

Campaigning to deny trans women the same right as other women is an evocative political wedge that’s been a proven culture war winner overseas.

For an early career politician hoping to make a name for herself in a party that’s struggled with women, Chandler has cleverly positioned herself as the future of women in the Liberal Party — a party that has no place for trans women.