Why 'acceptability politics' is the wrong approach for transgender advocates

Cate McGregor speaking at Canberra's Spring Out in 2015.

Cate McGregor speaking at Canberra's Spring Out in 2015. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

I have great respect for Cate McGregor in coming out and embracing her identity as a transgender woman. Visibility plays an important role both in building understanding and letting transgender youth know it's okay to be who we are.

In the midst of attacks on the very validity of transgender people coming from columnists with no expertise in the matter, much less any lived experience, it is vital to defend our right to exist.

However throwing the Safe Schools program under the bus to appear more acceptable or appealing to hardline conservatives, as McGregor has done in a column this week for The Daily Telegraph, is just plain wrong.

Margot Fink

Margot Fink Photo: Landon Crompton/Minus18

In her column, McGregor ignores the fact that the Safe Schools program has been developed and rolled out by an entire coalition of organisations, and instead echoes the baseless accusations of hard line radical conservatives like Cory Bernardi and Lyle Shelton, accusing the program of pushing a "Trotskyite" political agenda. (Exactly what supporting LGBT identities has to do with proletarian revolution is anyone's guess).

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Safe Schools is about giving LGBTI students a fair and equal go, no more, no less.

Its singular aim is to create schools in which everyone can feed proud of who they are, and learn and teach in a safe and inclusive environment.

Unfortunately, McGregor's choice to attack the program this way is hardly surprising, given her close links to conservative politicians. It's a common tactic, sometimes referred to as 'acceptability politics', to say "I'm one of the good ones, not like those radicals" in an effort to persuade and find common ground. The problem is this relies on driving a wedge between yourself and the 'less acceptable' group you wish to scapegoat.

By distancing from Safe Schools, McGregor is able to let her conservative peers know "don't worry, I'm on your side".

It's not dissimilar to Caitlyn Jenner's reticence to support marriage equality, or her approval of Donald Trump, both of which highlight that being transgender does not automatically make you a LGBT champion.

While 'acceptability politics' may work for a time, by sacrificing others to get ahead you're still playing into the idea that those further along the spectrum are unacceptable. Sooner or later you'll likely find yourself the next to be condemned.

McGregor plays into the single biggest problem in the debate thus far, an echo chamber of misinformation and obtuse buzzwords like "queer theory" which have obfuscated the reality of a program that is grounded in research.

"Being told to live genderless would have killed me just as certainly as saying the Rosary to feel happily male," she writes. But Safe Schools isn't about teaching young people to be genderless. It's about teaching young people to accept each other regardless of their gender identity.

How is being opposed to young people who might identify as non-binary, or not strictly as male or female, any different to others denying Cate's lived experience as a transgender woman?

There is no doubt that Cate's affirmation of her gender identity while serving in the Australian Defence Force was exceptionally inspiring and brave. However this experience is, as expected, very different to that of a 15 year old still at high school.

For me personally, being closeted at school and trying to deny my gender identity was hell. It caused immense suffering and impacted my mental health significantly. Two decades of fear and shame was two decades too long.

I'm exceptionally grateful for the support Safe Schools provided not just to me, but to my teachers and school community as well; it makes me sick to my stomach to think of where I would be today without it.

Safe Schools started me on the road to self acceptance and made it possible for me to fully come out once I'd finished high school. I only wish it had been part of my school experience right from the beginning.

McGregor's assertion that only "decent teachers and parents" can support transgender youth highlights perhaps the greatest naivety on the topic.

Of course teachers and parents are key in supporting transgender youth, but not everyone is lucky enough to have supportive teachers and parents who understand what they are going through.

What's more, this community doesn't magically become supportive with the click of our fingers. It takes education, training and support to achieve this; and that is the very purpose of Safe Schools.

Margot Fink works at Minus18, Australia's national organisation for LGBTI youth.