Transgender Bendigo residents share fears for safety, experiences of gender violence

DIVERSE CONCERNS: University student Ashlyn McDonald, who came out as transgender last year, fears her identity could put her at risk of experiencing physical violence. Picture: MARK KEARNEY
DIVERSE CONCERNS: University student Ashlyn McDonald, who came out as transgender last year, fears her identity could put her at risk of experiencing physical violence. Picture: MARK KEARNEY

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Ashlyn McDonald not only fears physical violence, she expects it.

The Bendigo university student believes it is only a matter of time until she is attacked on the street, simply because she identifies as transgender.

She has even imagined how it will happen.

“I'll be walking alone, and someone will be like, 'Trans person - punch, punch, punch',” Ms McDonald said on the eve of Transgender Day of Visibility.

“At any given moment someone might decide, 'Okay, I don't like you, I don't like people like you, I'm going to punch the s--t out of you'.

“There's not much I can do about that.”

It is a startling, almost nihilistic, admission from the 19-year-old. But for someone who has already been the recipient of verbal abuse from passers-by, it is not a long bow to draw.

According to a 2012 La Trobe University study of 4000 same-sex attracted and gender diverse people, seven per cent of transgender females – almost 2.5 times the average of all those surveyed – were sexually assaulted in the previous 12 months.

Ten per cent of transgender participants were physically assaulted and nearly one in five experienced verbal abuse.

At any given moment someone might decide, 'Okay, I don't like you, I don't like people like you, I'm going to punch the s--t out of you'.

Ashlyn McDonald

The Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission received 36 complaints of discrimination on the basis of gender identity in the past three years.

When Bendigo occupational therapist Canon O’Saurus reported being the target of a transphobic hate crime in Footscray last year, it marked the first time in 13 years of being ‘out’ that he was the victim of violence.

He and two gender-diverse friends were assaulted outside a restaurant at which they’d been dining, forcing them to seek sanctuary inside a supermarket.

Three weeks later, he was assaulted again, this time near his former workplace in the Macedon Ranges.

While two men are charged with the Melbourne assault, police are yet to press charges in latter case.

The incidents forced him out of work while he recovered from the trauma, and led to a temporary bout of hypervigilance during which he feared repeat attacks.

He put the timing of the violent run-ins down to campaigns waged against marriage equality and the Safe Schools Coalition.

One of four gay and lesbian liaison officers at Bendigo police station, First Constable Chris Thomson said he was not aware of attacks against transgender people inside the city since he arrived last August.

That did not mean it wasn’t happening, he said, explaining some people could be afraid to come forward for fear they would not be believed. Others may not have requested a specially-trained GLLO officer be assigned to their case.

But he implored LGBTI people who experienced abuse or assault to report the incident to police and said even if it was not an offence for which charges could be laid, his service could direct the victim to places that provide support.

Despite her experiences of discrimination, Ms McDonald said finding out she was transgender was "one of the best things that ever happened" to her.

Growing up in Deniliquin, which has a population less than 8000, Ms McDonald did not have access to information about gender diversity, nor did she know anyone else who felt the same way.

“A disconnect between what's going on up here (her head), and what's going on outside,” she said when asked to describe how she felt growing up.

“I thought, ‘Okay, this isn't a thing for anyone else, so I'll just shut up’.”

It was only when she last year attended a meeting of youth group The House of Awesome, run by Macedon Ranges service Cobaw Community Health, she finally met another person who identified as transgender.

Ms McDonald found what she called “her people”.

While her parents have been slow to embrace her new identity, Ms McDonald’s sister and friends were more welcoming.

When she 'came out' in October last year, friends presented her with a handbag, a symbolic gift of acceptance. 

She is a member of the Rainbow Eagles, La Trobe Bendigo’s LGBTI club, and attends a youth diversity group at headspace in Bendigo. 

The youth mental health service has also begun a support group for parents of gender diverse young people.

Headspace clinician Millee Rice said transgender people and families who used the services were surprised by how many people in their hometown were going through the same experience. 

As many as 14 LGBTI young people attend weekly diversity group catch-ups, and the first meeting of the parent group this year saw nine families seek information about supporting their loved one’s gender journey.

But there was still a “long, long, long way to go” before her community achieved the equality it craved, Ms McDonald said. 

“The way to know we're getting there, that big steps are happening, is when I see a news story about another trans person being abused, assaulted or murdered, and my reaction is one of shock instead of exasperation. 

“One of my biggest fears is I'll die before I see it.”

Official reports of discrimination and human rights violations were “just the tip of the iceberg”, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton said, explaining other victims might not know help was at hand.

"Many trans people face discrimination every day in businesses, on public transport and through the media," she said. 

The commissioner accused some journalists of running fear campaigns that painted gender diverse people as a “scary ‘other’”. 

“Instead we must continue to raise the profile of trans people and the different roles they play in our communities: doctors, actors, business people and members of our defence forces.” 

Mr O’Saurus was similarly upbeat about the prospects for his future and the transgender community.

He said there was momentum to give transgender people the right to change the sex listed on their birth certificate, and to improve access to hormones that develop physical characteristics of someone’s affirmed sex. 

“Despite the challenges, what I’ve done has been right for me, and I feel really authentic in a way like never before,” he said.