In the most recent in a string of gaffes for the University, UWA will serve as the Perth venue for a nationwide tour by a prominent anti-gay US physician. This event isn’t UWA or Guild affiliated, but has been booked by UWA Venues. The event in question is to be held on the 17th of August by the Australian Family Association; a cursory search of which yields a worrisome ethos, expounding a plethora of misogynistic and homophobic policy positions.
Unlike more prominent groups of the religious right such as the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), whose head was the public face of the postal survey No campaign, the Australian Family Association (AFA) shirks the limelight, operating more subversively. Specifically, facilitating the tour of Dr Quentin Van Meter, and Mr Patrick J Byrne, who will grace the lectern of the Social Sciences Lecture this Friday. As mentioned previously, the AFA does not typically garner headlines, so it’s unlikely that many will be familiar with the dangers posed by this organisation and its speakers.
The AFA website is initially vague stating that they’re “…a political organisation which has been formed to provide a forum and a vehicle for those individuals and organisations in the community concerned with the strengthening and support of the family.” However, further navigation to more inaccessible pages provides a horrifying clarification of this innocuous statement. A family must consist of a mother and a father, for the purpose of procreating, with said institution being the financial responsibility of the father; a fact that might prove troublesome for UWA’s own female Vice-Chancellor. The issue of homosexual relationships is also addressed, with the AFA flatly stating that such a union is not equal to heterosexual marriage. In one page, this organisation has sought to diminish the legitimacy of non-traditional couples and families in favour of an outmoded concept that is the antithesis of the diverse and modern demographics of the University.
Despite the already uneasy moral footing of this event, the issue at heart is not the AFA but instead the two men who will be presenting, and worryingly their subject matter for the evening- “The Transgender Movement”. Transgender people are arguably the new favourite punching bag of conservatives and the religious right- one need only look at the pushback against the Safe Schools program to see the vitriol targeted at this particular minority group. Unfortunately this transphobia is not isolated and has very real consequences, with the Trans Pathways survey showing that 80% of transgender youths have self-harmed, compared with 11% of adolescents in the general Australian population. More troublesome is the statistic that almost half of trans youths (48%) have attempted suicide, compared to 2.4% of the general youth population. This is an at risk group, making the decision by the University to host this event all the more cruel. Let’s investigate what these speakers have to contribute to the discourse surrounding transgender rights.
Beginning with Dr Van Meter, President of the American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds), an organisation not to be confused with the prestigious American Academy of Pediatrics, which Dr Van Meter left in protest for its support for LGBT adoption rights. ACPeds has a track record for dubious medical claims since its formation in 2002; with Dr Van Meter at the helm it has sought to make the link between the use of oral contraceptives and teen suicide, that increases in the rate of breast cancer are a consequence of abortions, and that corporal punishment can be effective an disciplinary technique with children. The truly vile application of pseudo-science is saved for issues of sexuality and gender identity, a scary and unknown topic for many parents and teens, making reliable evidence-based medical advice potentially life-saving. Dr Van Meter makes the case for resisting inappropriate urges by young trans people, advocating treatment with reversion therapies to “cure the illness”; a weak argument is made on the basis of the absence of a known “gay gene”, thus all gay and gender queer behaviour must be psychosomatic. The likely multigenic cause of sexuality and gender identification, coupled with possible epigenetic elements, makes such a simplistic diagnosis grossly malfeasant. These lies have the real potential to harm vulnerable people, the University as a venue will only bolster the supposed provenance of Dr Van Meter’s claims.
Not to be outdone is Mr Patrick J Byrnes, Vice-President of the National Civic Council, and the other speaker of the evening. An economist and author, often contributing for the ACL, he is spruiking his latest book Transgender: One Shade of Grey. This manifesto outlines Mr Byrnes concerns, with familiar scare tactics like radical gender theory, and bathroom politics rife throughout; he seeks to end the influence of the “GLBT lobby” and return society to its Judeo-Christian roots. This is further supported by a piece written for News Weekly in 2013, in which he bemoans the normalisation of sexualities, and the parental rights of same-sex couples.
With the bigotry now evident the University of Western Australia must cancel the event and deny groups like the AFA access to University resources. To allow this to continue is an insult to the many LGBT+ staff and students that constitute one of UWA’s greatest assets, its people. A sentiment shared by 4,036 other people according to a circulating petition, the link to which is attached at the bottom. Transphobia and homophobia are about creating fear and division, neither of which contribute to the pursuit of knowledge, or facilitate academic discourse.
It is worth noting at this point that the Vice-Chancellor was afforded an opportunity to comment, and at time of publication no comment has been received. The UWA Student Guild has released a statement condemning the event, with Guild President Megan Lee stating that the Guild doesn’t endorse the message that the Australian Family Association or Dr Quentin Van Meter promote. ‘The UWA Student Guild strongly believes that campus should be a safe and inclusive environment for everyone’, writes Lee, ‘We firmly support our trans students and stand against the decision to allow the Australian Family Association to host Dr Quentin Van Meter on campus, whose message stands in direct opposition to the values of tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion that the Guild espouses.’ But yet, no official action has been taken to prevent the event from occurring, with the only movement being led by students and members of Perth’s queer community.
Critics will now cry freedom of speech- a valid point and one that needs to be addressed. Universities should foster an environment where ideas can freely be exchanged; however, this is not the case with the event in question. These are not ideas that one can ponder either way. Instead it argues as to the legitimacy of groups of people, primarily whether trans people should exist equally within society. If any other group were to face similar scrutiny there would be justifiable public outrage; it is an unfortunate reality that transgender and gender fluid people are the new front for this conflict, facing transphobia within the LGBT+ community and vitriol outside.
It is hard to rationalise the ideas of these men and their respective organisations with the public stance of the University, be it the Charter of Student Rights, or the pride flag flying prominently in front of Winthrop Hall. Compounding this is the absence of any reference to the event on the UWA Events page, suggesting that the University is very happy to have its cake and eat it. To allow this event to continue would be to give tacit consent to bigotry, a slap in the face for any female and or queer student or staff member, ultimately diminishing the reputation of the institution as a whole and the many good things that it has achieved over the years.
If you would like to have your thoughts heard sign the ‘UWA, don’t host anti-LGBT hate on campus!’ petition here.
Alexander Philip reports