Through advocacy and support, the Gender Centre is giving our transgender community a stronger voice
First published on 7 Apr 2011.
In 1987, Katherine Cummings was refused the opportunity to interview for a job with a university library in Sydney. It was no coincidence that Kate had transitioned from male to female just a year earlier. "When I saw the calibre of applicants who were given an interview I lodged a protest because my qualifications and experience were way above theirs," Cumming says. "After some time the pro-Vice Chancellor who was looking after my formal complaint stated he was satisfied that there had been no bias exhibited in the case, to which I replied ‘you don't have to be satisfied, I have to be satisfied.'"
It's hard to imagine but when Cumming took her plight to the Anti-Discrimination Board she was told she had no defence. Since that time the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act has been changed to protect some of the rights of transgender people, and the Gender Centre in Petersham has been there to support the individuals whom these issues affect.
With a 28-year history the centre, which was pioneered by the then coordinator of the Prostitutes' Collective, Roberta Perkins, and supported by a grant of $85,000 by the Attorney General's Office, has worn many hats. Operating out of a quaint terrace house in Petersham, it's administered by an elected committee, largely funded through the Health Department, and offers housing, social support, counselling, information and outreach programmes to anyone with gender issues.
While many laws have been designed to protect the rights of transgender people, Cumming is quick to point out that bureaucracy and short-sightedness have created a range of discrimination concerns, one of which is the flipside of the current same-sex marriage debate.
"The same-sex marriage issue runs in reverse for a couple who are already married and where one spouse transitions to his or her target gender. They are already legally married, they want to stay married but they aren't allowed to. The person who transitions is not allowed to have their birth certificate altered until they are single so they often have to lie to the authorities and say their marriage has irretrievably broken down before they can move forward."
As Cummings will tell you, transitioning from one gender to another is anything but a smooth process. The medical professional code of practice requires a person to see a psychiatrist for 12 to 24 months before having affirmation surgery. This is called the Real Life Test or RLT and helps to ease people into living in their target gender. If satisfied with their progress the psychiatrist will sign documentation allowing the person to progress to the next stage, which requires assessment by a second psychiatrist for further confirmation. Without these papers a surgeon will not perform the affirmation surgery.
Thailand has increasingly become the preferred destination for gender affirmation surgery thanks to its high hospital standards and relative affordability. It's also an ideal place to recover post-surgery: just ask any of the 200 Australians who underwent affirmation surgery there last year.
This month the Gender Centre will launch the Transgender Anti-Violence project that looks at various forms of violence transgender people face. "There will always be bigoted people who believe that transgenders are the same as gay people, and gay people are all pedophiles - but I do believe that things are getting better."
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