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Australia Is Making Progress but Trans People Are Still Being Attacked

According to members of the trans community, as well as the police, cultural acceptance hasn't translated into less violence.

Stephanie McCarthy after being bashed. Image supplied.

In June last year a Sydney musician named Stephanie McCarthy was viciously bashed just before she was set to play at Newtown's Town Hall Hotel. She was by the stage, waiting for her slot, when two young men started abusing her. She says this went on for about an hour before one of them pulled on her ponytail. As she turned she was coward punched in the back of the head, before being hit in the face. Later she recalled being told by a doctor that, "If I hadn't been wearing a beanie I'd have brain damage or be dead."


McCarthy's attackers fled the hotel while bar staff did nothing to restrain them. When the main attacker, 22-year-old Alexis Ozanne, later appeared in court he was sentenced to just 150 hours of community service with an 18-month good behaviour bond. Worse still McCarthy says that she wasn't even asked to testify in court. "I wasn't informed that the court date was on," she explained. "The police didn't tell me. My victim's impact statement would've put him in jail."

In recent years, Australian model Andreja Pejić has asserted her transgender identity on the international catwalk. Cate McGregor, the world's highest ranking trans military officer, was recently named 2016 Queensland Australian of the Year. And no matter what you think of her politics, Caitlyn Jenner has definitely drawn attention to transgender issues internationally. However, prejudice continues.

A major hurdle in with dealing with transphobic violence is that there are no reliable statistics. Superintendent Tony Crandell, NSW police corporate spokesperson for sexuality and gender diversity, told VICE that police records don't show a significant trend towards attacks on transgender people. However, he admits this doesn't reflect real rates of violence "because of serious under-reporting within a seriously marginalised community."

For Katherine Cummings, information worker at the Gender Centre in Sydney, it's hardly surprising that a few high profile transgender personalities are "not a sufficient counterweight to wipe out years of prejudice." She points out that physical violence is not the only issue, as many more transgender people suffer from institutionalised violence. "People lose their jobs," Cummings explained. "They lose their accommodation because they're transgender."


As mentioned Cummings works at the Gender Centre, which since 1983 has provided services and assistance to transgender, gender diverse, and intersex people. In 2011, the centre initiated the Transgender Anti-Violence Project, which provides assistance to individuals who've been assaulted. Another key motivation for the project is to persuade survivors of such incidents to report them to police. "We hope to build up a reliable set of statistics for the number of people who are attacked," Cummings said.

Violence towards trans women is particularly problematic in Sydney, McCarthy said. She's been punched by strangers six separate times in the past three years, and that's not a rare experience. "Eight of my trans friends have all moved to Melbourne in the last fourteen months," she stressed. "And they're all really glad they did."

Trans people might be better off in Victoria but there are problems there too. According to Sally Goldner, executive director of Transgender Victoria, increased awareness of transgender issues over the last three years has been "phenomenal" but it's yet to make an impact on violence levels, which have remained steady. "If we keep that momentum going and even take it higher it's got to make a difference in the end," she said.

Sally Goldner. Image supplied.

Like Stephanie McCarthy, Goldner was assaulted. In 2006, she was sitting in her car at an intersection in South Melbourne when a man and a woman came out of nowhere and started beating on her bonnet. They were yelling abuse and although it was muffled, it was clearly transphobic. Shaken, she drove to the other side of the road and pulled over. "The next thing I knew, the male-identified person came over and put his fist through the driver's side window, shattering it," she said. "He hit me in the head and face six times and just walked off."

Like in McCarthy's case, Goldner says the police seemed disinterested. By the time she was asked to give a description of her attackers for the computerised sketch, "It was about two or three weeks afterwards," she said. "And I've never heard anything since."

Richard Watkins is the acting commander of Victoria police Priority Communities Division. Like their counterparts in NSW, he says that Victoria Police find the "reporting of prejudice motivated crimes and incidents against transgender people is low." He pointed out that they have "an LGBTI Portfolio Reference Group of community leaders, which includes representatives from the transgender community." The group meets quarterly, he says, working with police to implement measures that will "reduce prejudice motivated crime."

The way forward, according to Sally Goldner, is education. She pointed to beyondblue's No to Homophobia/Transphobia and Left handed campaigns, as programs that have really made a difference in changing attitudes over recent years. But funding is needed to keep programs like this running on a continuous basis. "This is just being done voluntarily. It needs to be done repeatedly and systemically," Goldner explained. "Then I think we'll see a shift in this. And as well, the change of attitudes and a drop in the verbal abuse."

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