Melbourne recruiting sector’s first gender affirmation adviser

Role focused on supporting staff and handling complaints, but critics express concern about potential threats to academic freedom

November 24, 2021
People walk past walls adorned with graffiti in Hosier Lane, one of Melbourne's iconic laneways to illustrate Staff at an Australian university who refer to colleagues using unfavoured pronouns could find themselves facing disciplinary proceedings
Source: Getty

An Australian university is recruiting what is thought to be higher education’s first dedicated gender affirmation officer.

The newly created role at the University of Melbourne, senior adviser (gender affirmation), will support transgender staff and students and liaise with psychological, medical and other services inside and outside the institution.

It will also oversee complaints about discrimination and bullying that, under Melbourne’s newly approved gender affirmation policy, could include “deliberately and/or persistently using incorrect names or pronouns after [they] have been made clear”.

Nicole Vincent, a philosopher at the University of Technology Sydney who transitioned in 1989, commended Melbourne “for the seriousness with which they’ve taken up this delicate and important topic. It clearly shows their care and goodwill. Despite three decades since my transition, it’s still no walk in the park.”

But Dr Vincent felt that Melbourne’s “typically bureaucratic, piecemeal response” left a professional staff member handling a complex societal issue which warranted input from the community and other universities. “The wide range of stakeholders, and the potential to spawn even more damaging unintended effects, requires a discussion as rigorous as those that influence how research ethics and scholarly integrity are handled,” she said.

Gender identity tended to be framed as a “transgender issue”, with “increasingly radicalised factions” engaging in “shouting matches instead of fostering an environment to learn from each other. I suspect that if people were in the same room talking, something very different would emerge,” Dr Vincent continued.

“This is not a transgender issue…It’s everyone’s issue. The fact that this is framed as a transgender issue, and therefore we need a gender affirmation adviser, is simply the manifestation of a particular way in which we’re not handling nuance well.”

Jeremy Waite, president of the University of Melbourne Graduate Student Association, said a survey had revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the university’s efforts to meet the needs of postgraduate students with diverse sexualities and gender identities.

“The university’s policies and processes should support students and staff to have their gender and gender expressions accommodated in a safe environment,” he said.

But Melbourne has been forced to deny that the consultation on the gender affirmation policy was timed to appease opponents of philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith, whose “gender-critical” research has prompted demands that the university ban her from teaching.

Critics described the policy as a “sop” to Dr Lawford-Smith’s adversaries and said it could be used to target her.

James Cook University sociologist Nick Osbaldiston said institutions were “trying to do the right thing” by creating “comfortable and safe” classroom environments, but this was dovetailing with a push for ideological conformity.

“Holly Lawford-Smith is not doing anything wrong in the classroom,” said Dr Osbaldiston. “She’s testing the boundaries of feminism. But the reaction [suggests that her critics believe] her mere presence is doing them harm.”

RMIT University lecturer Caroline Norma said that the existence of middle-aged female academics “holding a different view” was being interpreted as a threat to students’ safety and well-being. “This job announcement is a reinforcement of that claim. It puts a lot of our jobs in danger.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Melbourne seeks new gender tsar

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