By MIE SORENSEN
Police were called to monitor a women's rights lecture being given at University of Melbourne, after it sparked outrage from transgender students who said its content put their safety at risk.
The lecture was delivered by the Victorian Women’s Guild, which is opposed to a proposed law that would grant people the right to choose what gender is listed on their own birth certificates.
Under the Andrews Government's proposed changes, Victorians would be permitted to change the gender listed on their birth certificate, skipping the current requirement to have undergone gender affirmation surgery.
But during the lecture, held Thursday night, concerns were raised that the Births, Deaths and Marriages Amendments Bill 2019 could undermine rights to women-only spaces and services.
Victorian Women’s Guild member Holly Lawford-Smith said the changes would affect sex-based protections and women’s rights.
Dr Lawford-Smith, who is also a University of Melbourne political philosophy lecturer, said the bill would impact the ability to legally exclude men from certain spaces such as women’s sports, change rooms and domestic violence shelters.
“If you change the legal classification of who is female and male, you by default change who can access those services,” Dr Lawford-Smith said.
“Say you notice that there are very few women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and you want to have special scholarships or prizes to encourage more female participation.
“When you've changed the law around what counts as female, people who declare they identify as this can access the same provisions.”
Dr Lawford-Smith said women had not been consulted about the bill and she wanted them to be reassured by a sign that the person is serious about their transition.
“Retain some kind of signal of commitment given that women are raised and socialised to be protecting themselves around male people,” she said.
“It's a bit confusing why Victoria's jumping from sex reassignment surgery all the way to self-declaration.”
Equality Australia started a petition, signed by more than 1500 people, calling for the university to refuse to host the controversial lecture, concerned it promoted transphobic discussions and attitudes.
University of Melbourne PhD student Sophie Hindes joined the protest after Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell acknowledged the event may be offensive to some, but maintained the debate fell within university guidelines.
"Trans and gender non-conforming students have reported that this event makes them feel unsafe on campus, so that is directly in contradiction to their freedom of speech policy, but the university has not responded to that,” Ms Hindes said.
Several other protesters were approached for comment, but declined.
The University of Melbourne introduced a freedom of speech policy in June this year, which stated the advancement of knowledge and learning required “a commitment to orthodoxies being challenged and ideas subject to debate and criticism”.
However, the policy states the university does not support free speech when it “jeopardises the physical safety of individuals".
Ms Hindes said there was nothing academic about the event and it could not be framed as "scholarly debate".
“This (Births, Deaths and Marriages Amendment) bill has been really hard-fought for and it’s really upsetting that people who call themselves feminists are trying to oppose a bill that’s been a long time coming,” she said.
Equality Minister Martin Foley stated in a media release that the bill “is about giving trans or gender diverse Victorians a basic right – a birth certificate which reflects who they truly are”.
Guild member and chairperson of the event, Nina Vallins, said it was important to acknowledge their concerns were not coming from a position of hatred for the transgender community, but from wanting to protect women's rights.
“There are areas where women's rights and the current articulated interests of the transgender community come into conflict,” Ms Vallins said.
“But the guild believes that all people - men, women and people of all genders - should be able to live a life free from violence which promotes their well-being with dignity.”
The Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill 2019 will be debated in parliament this week.