You would think a city council trying to axe a women’s legal service for its politics would be one of the biggest stories in the country. Yet the fate of an organisation helping women and girls affected by domestic and sexual violence in Sydney has barely touched mainstream media.
After a year-long campaign, the City of Sydney Council has disgracefully voted to terminate the tenancy of the Feminist Legal Clinic. The pro bono legal service provides critical help to some of the city’s most disadvantaged women, many of whom are victims of abuse, poor, disabled, Indigenous, lesbian, Muslim and from other marginalised groups, who require woman-centred support.
FLC has received an accommodation grant from the Council since it started in 2017, allowing it free but modest shared office space in Glebe for its valuable work with vulnerable women and girls. Most of the clinic’s other operating expenses are personally covered by its Principal Solicitor, Anna Kerr.
Last July, the Council wrote to FLC stating that its “affiliation with the Women’s Sex Based Rights movement” and “certain published material and events” have “the potential for generating discrimination and negative attitudes towards the transgender members of our community” and therefore breach anti-discrimination laws. It directed FLC to remove non-specified material from its website and to “immediately cease hosting or promoting events, publishing social media posts, or distributing newsletters and other publications” that the Council considers discriminatory.
The offending material included links to articles that express concerns about the tension between the rights of transgender people and the rights of women and girls, the harmful effect of puberty blockers and hormonal treatments on children, and allowing biological men into women-only spaces.
Trans people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, but so do women and girls. Many women are greatly troubled by biological males accessing single-sex female spaces (such as shelters, prisons, bathrooms), the unfair and unsafe participation of trans athletes in women’s sport, the medical transitioning of children (who are disproportionately teenage girls), and the silencing and harassment of women who speak out about these things.
Moreover, as FLC explained to the Council – the published material is critical of aggressive trans activism, not trans people generally, an increasing number of whom share its concerns; FLC is supportive of gender nonconforming behaviour and strongly opposes disrespectful and cruel treatment of others; and the material does not breach anti-discrimination legislation, as it was posted “reasonably and in good faith” for “purposes in the public interest”.
Nevertheless, the Council was unyielding in imposing unreasonable censorship restrictions on FLC, which were justified neither by the terms of the accommodation grant nor any laws.
The Council received numerous letters of support for the clinic (including one with over 700 signatures) rebuking the Council’s censorship of genuinely held concerns about the impact of harmful gender policies and practices on women’s sex-based rights and the welfare of children. But despite this flood of support –- which was not even acknowledged –- on 28 June 2021, the Council unanimously voted to revoke FLC’s grant and terminate its tenancy.
During the Committee meeting at which the decision was made, FLC implored the Council not to ignore the voices and needs of women at a time where domestic violence is at the forefront of the national agenda, and to address the procedural unfairness regarding its ill-defined concerns. It outlined how the decision would hinder its work for vulnerable women and girls and emphasised the importance of allowing women’s differing views to be expressed and discussed.
Following weak presentations by council staff that failed to either justify the revocation of FLC’s grant or to adequately deal with concerns around due process, the Deputy Lord Mayor perhaps summed up the whole affair best: “When we talk about an inclusive approach in the City’s ethics framework and in our values, we come from the perspective that ‘transwomen are women’ and I think that’s where the fundamental disagreement lies.”
In other words, FLC did not discriminate, it merely disagreed. While no actual evidence of discrimination was presented, the Council made it clear that it would not tolerate any criticism of anything transgender related or allow any disagreement with the view that ‘transwomen are women’. This unreasonable and entrenched position, coupled with the Council’s weak arguments and issues around procedural fairness, raises serious questions as to whether its decision was both predetermined and ideologically driven.
On 6 July, FLC received a letter from the Council formally terminating its tenancy and giving it six weeks to vacate the premises.
It is devastating to see a much-needed women’s legal service cancelled by so-called progressive politicians, for no reason other than it dares to defend women’s sex-based rights and question the harmful impact of extreme gender ideology on women and children.
The Council’s punishing of those it disagrees with should not be tolerated nor simply allowed to slip under the radar. We must speak up for FLC, for women and girls, and for the fundamental right of each one of us to freely express our (differing) ideas and opinions -– while we are still allowed to do so.
Rachael Wong is the CEO of Women’s Forum Australia.
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