How the ABC (still) fails transgender people

Conservatives across the Western world are trying to create a more hostile environment for transgender people. Healthcare rights for transgender children are under attack in several US states, prominent figures in the UK are promoting anti-trans ideology, and this election has seen both Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese espouse transphobic rhetoric.

Nonetheless, support for transgender rights remains high. This year, a poll by Savanta ComRes showed that a large majority of Scots support protections for transgender people. It also indicated that the more awareness someone has of our lives, the more likely they are to support our rights. This would be no surprise to anyone who is familiar with how hate groups operate and sell their ideology, and demonstrates once again that representation and own-voices media are key.

Despite its spiritual father, the BBC, promoting anti-trans ideology, the ABC has a reputation for being trailblazer on queer representation. Our national broadcaster has been pivotal for launching the careers of queer comedians such as Josh Thomas and Hannah Gadsby. Following the recent launch of ABCQueer, one could be hopeful that this would extend to trans voices.

In March of 2020, Four Corners featured Not a Boy, Not a Girl, a documentary ostensibly showcasing the lives of non-binary people. All four non-binary people featured were twenty-two years old or younger, and all were trans masculine—promoting the false notion that non-binary identities are a ‘woman-lite fad’ that people assigned female at birth use to ‘escape womanhood’. Non-binary journalist and writer Maddison Stoff commented to me on this, saying that, as a transfeminine person, this made her ‘very annoyed’:

it’s not just the fact that it’s infantilising … it also plays into this common misconception that only AFAB people can be non-binary, that trans feminine people can’t do it, or don’t do it, or that we all only transition in a single way. All of that is untrue. It would have been trivial for them to talk to someone older who was AMAB. They chose not to.

Riley McLean, the oldest person featured in the documentary, also spoke to me about their experience with the ABC. They stated that during filming, the ABC refused to allow Riley to use words such as ‘cisgender’ that are crucial for accurately describing a transgender experience:

As soon as I was asked not to use the word ‘cisgender’ it was clear to me that they had a very clear narrative and that they didn’t care all that much about what we felt needed to be added to it. Explaining basic terminology would’ve been easy and incredibly informative to the documentary and instead we were asked to amend our vocabulary to avoid ‘confusing’ the viewers.

This isn’t the only time this has happened at the ABC. On 2nd February, they published an article featuring trans carpenter Jimmy Rizk that similarly omitted inclusive language. It referred to Rizk as ‘just as masculine as his male colleagues,’ reinforcing the cissexist assumption that Jimmy’s masculinity is automatically less genuine.

In addition, the documentary spent a lot of time focusing on the cisgender people surrounding the non-binary people, including Jane, the mother of eleven-year-old non-binary child Olivia. In her interview, Jane states that given the choice, ‘maybe it would be easier not to have a child that’s non-binary or gender diverse … it’s not something I asked for, it’s not something I wanted.’ The idea that parenting a transgender child is more difficult than a cisgender child is not only transphobic and false but also damaging to transgender children who are already at much greater risk of low self-esteem, and should have been presented critically. As Riley states:

I do find it uncomfortable and although the vulnerability and honesty is important, think it is harmful to project that negative experience without also showing opposing experiences. With a wider variety of focus subjects they could’ve avoided harmful stereotypes.

The ABC’s practice of using ostensibly transgender representation to promote transphobic ideas is also present in their fictional content. In 2020, the broadcaster began airing First Day, a children’s drama centred around a transgender high school student, Hannah Baxter (played by trans actress Evie Macdonald). The show attempts to showcase the struggles of transgender youth, but is not own-voices content: it is written by cisgender writer Julie Kalceff, who said that she intended the show to increase visibility and empower transgender children.

As a trans female writer of young-adult literature myself, not only is this programme an inaccurate portrayal of the life of a young trans girl lacking in inclusive language—it actively apologises for parental abuse of transgender children. In the first episode, Hannah’s mother abandons her at a primary school where she is forced to present male and bullied by her peers despite the desperate pleas from Hannah for protection. Later in the series, she also refuses to answer her phone to Hannah when one of Hannah’s transphobic bullies appears at her high school, a practice known as stonewalling. Despite this, Hannah’s mother is presented as sources force of strength for Hannah, and echoes of her voice play in the background when Hannah gains the courage to confront her bully.

Hannah’s mother also refuses to allow Hannah to sleep over with her friends unless Hannah personally discloses her transness. This is written in the show as though Hannah’s mother is simply concerned for Hannah’s safety, but in reality is a case of transmisogyny.

‘Transmisogyny’ is a term coined by Julia Serano to describe the intersection between transphobia and misogyny directed against transgender women, often taking the form of victim blaming. In the case of this example, rather than supporting her daughter’s wishes to sleep over at her friends’, she separates her daughter from the rest of the girls and puts the onus on her to circumvent transphobia rather than offering her actual protection. The mother considers transphobia to be a natural part of society, rather than an obstacle preventing her daughter from having unproblematic relationships.

First Day is more interested in appealing to the latent transphobia of cisgender parents than in presenting the viewpoint of a transgender girl, let alone empowering her. Kalceff is on record saying that she was aware that ‘this wasn’t [her] story to tell’ but this only raises the question of why she chose to tell it anyway instead of simply supporting someone much more capable.

If the ABC is truly interested in accurately representing our lives, then it must let us talk without cisgender interference. For us to be able to achieve equality, there must be no aspect of our existence deemed too unpalatable for a cisgender audience. There is no shortage of writers in Australia qualified for this task. We could mention Yves Rees, Vivien Blaxwell, Rae White or Maddison Stoff. Non-binary writer Alison Evans won the People’s Choice Award for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in 2018, while Lee Lai has been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize. We are no strangers to the writing community, and there are no excuses for leaving us out of conversations that are severely damaging our lives.

Transgender writers are are working hard not just for our jobs, but for our lives. The ABC needs to decide whether it wants to include us, or wants to quell our voices and continue to let us down.

Natalie Feliks

Natalie Feliks is a writer, activist and critic from Melbourne. Follow her on Twitter at @nataliesqrl.

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  1. Yes, what’s happened to the ABC, it’s not interested in accurately representing a left (as far as it goes) electoral positioning, so there’s little hope in it accurately representing transgender politics, because too far off its own right of Idi Amin radar span.

  2. In this report you quote me: In her interview, Jane states that given the choice, ‘maybe it would be easier not to have a child that’s non-binary or gender diverse … it’s not something I asked for, it’s not something I wanted.’ The idea that parenting a transgender child is more difficult than a cisgender child is not only transphobic and false but also damaging to transgender children who are already at much greater risk of low self-esteem, and should have been presented critically. This is and not the case any child that had struggles with mental health means parenting g is hard I take offence to the reporters judgement of me as a cis parent. I am part of my child’s journey and never have spoken for them and only advocated for more awareness. Every journey is unquiet and different.

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