Tasmanian women are given permission to speak

A council meeting in Hobart has received some press attention for a motion brought by Councillor Jax Fox. The meeting itself is a perfect study in the way local councils, whose traditional business is rates and rubbish, are being corrupted in the name of social justice activism.

Jax Fox was elected to Hobart City Council with just over 600 votes and initially ran on a Green ticket.  Fox left the Greens just before the election. Councillor Fox tabled a three-part motion in chambers on Monday, first to affirm the existing anti-discrimination legislation, second to review the Council’s policy on bookings of Council venues and thirdly to suspend any bookings the Council currently has on venues when the event “does or is likely to cause offense to a portion of the community.“

The contrast of Fox’s petit tattooed frame nervously texting through the meeting, to that of the other council members, echoed the different style the activist brought to the chamber, especially as the other Council members began to highlight the problematic nature of banning people from public buildings for suspected “offensive” speech.

Seeing the motion was not being received favourably, Fox tried to clarify that “offensive” was not the correct intention, that the correct intention was more like “vilification”. This too was unworkable for the same reason.  The motion was amended to more general wording that proposed excluding people from council venues if they were likely to breach the anti-discrimination act.

Still lacking the support needed, Fox revealed that the entire intention of the motion was to stop one specific event, a forum for the Coalition of Biological Reality (CBR), planned in February 2022 at the Hobart City Hall. Fox is “non-binary” and is “deeply offended and upset” at the message of the group. What is the message of the group? According to Stassja Frei, the group’s founder, the forum, will address women in sport, the medicalisation of gender diverse children, and the problems with criminalising explorative therapy under the gay conversion therapy ban.

The group are what is known broadly “gender critical”. Gender critical people accept the existence of gender identity as a legal fiction to protect transgender-identified people, and as a psychological category, but they reject the philosophical definition as “gender identity” as a type of soul that everyone has. Gender-critical people especially reject that we should teach children that sexed bodies should be medicalised to conform to gender stereotypes. They usually advocate that biological sex should be given priority and protection in law, especially in regard to the protection of women and children.

The root of the conflict here, and playing out internationally, is between the protected categories of gender identity and sex. It is important to note that sex is no longer a legally protected characteristic in Tasmania, while gender identity is. Even though Tasmania has some of the most favorable legislation to transgender people in the world, Fox considers that Tasmania does not have “the mechanisms in place to protect people… from open discrimination”. We need to ask what those mechanisms might be, how they propose to institute them, what “discrimination” means, and who is permitted to discriminate?

Recently a lesbian in Tasmania applied to host a single-sex dating event, and was told by the Anti Discrimination Commissioner, Sarah Bold, that lesbians have no legal right to discriminate against “types of bodies” in Tasmania. 97% of sexual assaults are committed by people with a specific type of body, not a specific type of soul. Discrimination against types of bodies is the basis of all human sexuality, sexual consent and the management of single-sex protections and sex based infrastructure that women have relied on for centuries. In attempting to protect sex based rights and protections, against this kind of legislation “gender critical” women are called hateful and “TERFs.”

Fox, in conjunction with Mayor Anna Reynolds, has a reputation of trying to shut down public debate around gender issues in council. Isla McGregor, a gender-critical activist and supporter of the CBR, claims that Fox has made several attempts to have her removed from chambers and stop her posing questions that are in line with the gender-critical stance.

During Monday’s meeting, you can see Ms. McGregor attempt to pose a question about the medialisation of gender diverse children only to be shut down by Reynolds. Fox momentarily takes a break from furious texting to celebrate the small victory with a rare smile and handshake with another Council member. It’s like watching a child at the teacher’s table. Louise Elliot, who is running for Hobart Council in the next election, claims that Reynolds is moving to “deter and restrict the public’s ability to ask the Council questions” by changing the way that public input is received.

Ultimately when the vote came for the motion, it succeeded on the first two points, but failed on the third point, even with the change of wording. The forum for the CBR will go ahead in February. The vote was a convincing nine to three in favour of free speech.

The forum for CBR will be attended by a range of professionals including doctors, psychologists, and lawyers, the sessions will be posted on YouTube. I don’t know if the speakers are going to offend protected categories of people, but I do know we have a fundamental categorical conflict of rights here, and it’s not obvious to me that trans activists are always the good guys. Women and gays and indigenous people in this country did not get rights by the corruption of democratic processes or restricting the speech of others. They had to make arguments in the town hall to convince the public of their cause.

The council has now committed to a process of developing a policy for the use of council venues. In order to exclude groups like the Coalition for Biological Reality from council buildings, Fox and her allies will have to explicitly frame gender-critical views as “hate”. My tip is the process will be rushed and the consultation will be held late at night when working mothers are home in bed. Council chambers seem to be no place for intelligent debate around the rights of people whose bodies are organised around the production of large gametes, or the people we used to call “women”.