City of Sydney Council evicts legal service for vulnerable women and girls

City of Sydney Council evicts legal service for vulnerable women and girls

You would think a city council trying to axe a feminist legal service for its politics would be one of the biggest stories in the country, but 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 (FLC), a pro bono legal service whose clients come from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds in the city.

The FLC has been the recipient of an accommodation grant from the Council since it started in 2017, allowing it free but modest shared office space in Glebe to support its valuable work with vulnerable and marginalised women and girls. Most of the clinic’s other operating expenses are personally covered by its Principal Solicitor, Anna Kerr.

The campaign against FLC

Over the past year, the Council has progressively downgraded FLC’s rating based on concerns that material published on its website and elsewhere is discriminatory towards transgender people. Having now received a “C” rating, FLC’s accommodation grant has been revoked.

In a letter on 24 July 2020, the Council wrote that FLC’s “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 in doing so, breach section 38S of the Anti-Discrimination Act. As a result, it directed FLC to remove ill-defined 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 so-called offensive material on FLC’s website included articles that express concerns about the tension that exists between the rights of transgender people and the rights of women and girls, the effect of puberty blockers and hormonal treatments on children, and allowing men into women’s only spaces.

Not only are these concerns entirely legitimate, but as FLC explained to the Council,

“…material that is critical of aggressive trans activism, should not be considered as casting aspersions on transgender people generally…[T]here are increasing numbers of transgender people who share our concerns about the negative impact of trans activism on women’s sex-based rights and the welfare of children. At no point does Feminist Legal Clinic Inc. make negative generalisations about all transgender people. Our service is supportive of gender nonconforming behaviour and strongly opposes disrespectful and cruel treatment of others.”

FLC further asserted that the material does not breach anti-discrimination legislation as, in keeping with the Act, it was posted “reasonably and in good faith” for “purposes in the public interest, including discussion or debate about…any act or matter” – in this case, about the impact of trans activism on the human rights of women and children.

Nevertheless, in its subsequent correspondence, the Council was unyielding in its imposition of unreasonable censorship restrictions on FLC, which were justified neither by the terms of the accommodation grant nor any laws. Addressing the Council’s approach, FLC stated:

“While you claim to be supportive of the community legal work we undertake, you must realise that these threats [to terminate our tenancy] constitute harassment and take time and energy away from our core work. Clearly, the loss of our office will impede our ability to provide our service to vulnerable and distressed women, but if we give in to such unfair demands we will lose all credibility as a legal service capable of defending women’s human rights.”

Support for FLC

In addition to FLC’s correspondence, the Council received numerous letters of support for the clinic from politicians, academics, lawyers, doctors and activists, including one with over 700 signatures. The letters rebuked the Council’s censorship of genuinely held concerns about the clash between trans’ rights and women’s rights and the harmful effects of transgender treatments on children.

Queensland Senator Claire Chandler wrote that the Council’s demands “represent an egregious attempt at censorship and curtailing of free speech” that are “Orwellian and authoritarian”. She noted that while the Council claims to oppose discrimination, its own threat to withdraw funding from FLC undermines the human rights of those involved in the clinic, particularly the rights to freedom of opinion and expression.  

Bronwyn Williams, part of FLC’s Management Committee and spokeswoman for Women Speak Tasmania, submitted:

“Recognising that female people belong to an oppressed class does not invalidate or erase transgender people or their oppression. Theirs is a different experience and it helps no-one to entirely reject common sense and force universal compliance with the notion that a person born male is exactly the same as a person born female, if they say they are.

“Freedom of speech has apparently become a relative concept, available only to those whose words follow accepted orthodoxies, in this case that ‘transwomen are women’ – that they are not male people who assume a female identity, but true females.

“I would like to think the Council of the City of Sydney was attentive to the needs of a group – female people – that has been disadvantaged for centuries.  Not a government body that uncritically and ‘unconsciously’ supports the loudest minorities and punishes those who hold a differing view.”

Professor Patrick Parkinson, then Dean of Law at The University of Queensland, also articulated his concerns regarding the “profoundly troubling” censorship around transgender issues, particularly the disturbing trends in the medical transitioning of children. Professor Parkinson noted the troubling influence that friends, social media and celebrities are having on the increased number of young people presenting at gender clinics.

“To give you a sense of the size of the problem: there has been an increase in some places of around 1000% in the number of young people seeking to transition over the past ten years. Disproportionately, they are teenage girls. In the past, 3-5 times as many males as females identified as transsexual. So there has been an inversion in terms of the natal sex of those experiencing gender dysphoria.

A great many of these teenage girls are very troubled. Research indicates that they are as much as ten times as likely to be on the autism spectrum. They are also much more likely to have histories of sexual abuse, and to suffer from various mental health issues unrelated to gender dysphoria. Disproportionately, they come from dysfunctional families.  

There is huge concern amongst medical practitioners and allied health professionals about the risks of putting these troubled children and young people on a medical pathway to transition, which they may deeply regret a few years from now. Increasing numbers do indeed regret it, but they have made irreversible changes to their bodies and in many cases have lost their fertility by that time.” 

Echoing Professor Parkinson’s concerns about the harmful effects of transgender treatments, political activist Wendy Francis, a financial member of FLC, wrote:

“The Feminist Legal Clinic’s championing of biological women's rights cannot be viewed, in any sense, to be discriminatory. Neither can their questioning of the harmful effects of medical treatments, including sterilization, on children, be seen as being discriminatory. Globally and nationally, they are in very good and esteemed company in questioning these practices, including by many who identify as transgender. The practice of children being put on puberty blockers, and even undergoing surgery to remove healthy body parts, is madness. I am convinced that most Australians, if they were made aware, would share the Clinic’s belief that the use of puberty blockers and early hormone treatment may in fact constitute a form of child abuse and that promoting these measures to children is anything but safe.”

Sue Leigh, a retiree who worked in sexual assault services in both Darwin and Melbourne, wrote that her experience had informed her of the importance of specialist legal services like FLC who are sympathetic to women’s issues, and raised concerns about the “gross overreach of council powers”.

“There are very real concerns expressed by many feminists about the numbers of young girls with gender dysphoria being given treatments that might endanger their health. All women, not just feminists appreciate the need for women only spaces in women’s prisons, refuges and toilets. To voice these concerns does not discriminate against the trans community but are valid topics that need discussion not censorship. When terms such as equality are used to suppress the right of women to question policy it would appear that trans rights are prioritised over the rights of women to raise issues of importance to them.  By the same token criticising the behaviour of some transactivists in their, often violent, behaviour towards women does not equate to hatred of the whole transgender community, but is a legitimate concern for women’s safety when faced with a minority of troublemakers with loud voices.”

Freyja Vanir, a supporter of FLC from the US, voiced similar sentiments:

“There is no such thing as living as a woman. We are women. And it is our female biology which makes us women. It is our sex. And biological sex is observable in every single cell in our bodies: it is a physical, material and biological fact. And our sex is what makes us a class. Our sex which makes us uniquely vulnerable to male violence. Our sex which means we bear the entire burden of reproductive labour. The structural oppression which women face as a class is because of their sex. It is simply not ethical to categorize males as females based on their subjective feelings. To do so means the female sex no longer has legal protections or legal meaning and is instead reduced to destructive, regressive gender stereotyping. It is NOT discriminatory to recognize this.”

Renowned feminists, Dr Renate Klein and Dr Susan Hawthorne, specifically addressed the Council’s requirement that FLC sever its ties to the Women’s Human Rights Campaign’s (WHRC) Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights:

“We are completely perplexed by this action of the City of Sydney. The Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights is simply a confirmation that 52% of people in the world who are women – many of whom live in Sydney – are a sex-based class that has a right to exist and live our lives free from violence and attacks on our existence. The Declaration asks nothing more than to re-affirm women’s autonomy, including protection single-sex spaces for female victims of male violence in shelters and prisons.”

The Declaration was also addressed by Eileen Haley on behalf of WHRC Australia & New Zealand, who maintained that the Declaration and the associated work of WHRC,

“in no way generates discrimination and negative attitudes towards transgender people [but rather] defends women against discrimination and lays the basis for a distinction between the legitimate rights of transgender people and the excessive demands of a powerful lobby group which neither represents all transgender people nor fosters their best interests…The Women’s Human Rights Campaign is not alone in its concerns for the erosion of women’s rights by the concept of ‘gender identity’ [and] the impairment of women’s rights to safety, dignity and equality.”

The open letter from WHRC – that has since attracted over 900 signatures – highlighted the kinds of marginalised women and girls the Council would be failing:

“The Feminist Legal Clinic runs a well-respected and much-needed operation on a very limited budget, providing critical legal services for women, many of whom are victims of sexual assault and/or domestic violence, poor, disabled, Indigenous, lesbian, Muslim and from other marginalised groups, and who require a woman-centred service that is sympathetic to their needs.”

All the letters expressed great support for Ms Kerr and her work and the women and girls she helps. An anonymous volunteer of FLC wrote:

“I have enormous admiration for Anna. She earns almost nothing (from Legal Aid which pays very poorly) and her partner supports her and their children financially. She believes very strongly in what she is doing. She is an eccentric and strong-willed person and I suspect will not agree to your strictures. Because of this you probably will not give her the working space at Benledi House. Therefore you will be directly hurting socially disadvantaged women.”

This is just a small sample of perspectives from the many letters in support of FLC. But despite the flood of support for the clinic – which the Council did not even acknowledge – at a meeting on 28 June 2021, the Council unanimously voted to terminate FLC’s tenancy.

Cancelling FLC

Before formally voting to downgrade FLC’s rating and terminate its tenancy, a Council meeting on 21 June 2021 endorsed a staff report that recommended this course of action.

During this meeting, advocates for FLC (including Ms Kerr), implored the council to consider the voices and needs of women at a time where domestic violence is at the forefront of the national agenda, to address issues of procedural unfairness regarding the council’s ill-defined concerns, and to restore the clinic’s previous ‘A’ rating. They also outlined how termination of the clinic’s tenancy would hinder its valuable work for women and girls and emphasised the importance of allowing differing views to be expressed and discussed.

In her statement at the meeting, Ms Kerr concluded:

“Around the globe people are being sacked, disciplined, defunded and prosecuted for speaking out about the infringements of women and children’s human rights caused by extreme gender ideology. It would be tragic to see an otherwise progressive local council like Sydney stifling the voices of left-wing women, including many lesbian voices. We ask instead that you pay heed to overseas developments like the recent UK cases of Keira Bell and Maya Forstater, which recognise the need to listen to all voices and balance competing human rights. We seek your support in renewing our lease so that we can get on with our work providing much needed legal support to women and girls.”

The Council’s subsequent “explanation” for why it recommended terminating FLC’s tenancy was nothing less than embarrassing.

Several council staff bumbled around attempting to demonstrate they had followed due process by sending correspondence and holding meetings with FLC over the past year, while admitting to being “non-specific” in their concerns regarding the material on FLC’s website. How can FLC reasonably be expected to address concerns that are vague and ill-defined?

Council staff also repeated vague claims about FLC being assessed as not meeting their grant criteria. When asked by Lord Mayor Clover Moore what FLC would need to do to meet the criteria, council staff made more vague statements about the need to meet licence conditions and comply with the Council’s ethics frameworks and for FLC to make significant (unspecified) changes to their website and to events and activities that it promotes.

Assumedly realising how unconvincing the Council’s position was sounding, Deputy Lord Mayor Jess Scully threw an entirely new and unrelated concern into the mix about FLC hosting WHRC as a subtenant in breach of its licence agreement with the Council. Ms Kerr explained that there is no breach, as WHRC doesn’t exist as a separate legal entity from FLC. She clarified that FLC are merely the Australian country contact for the international WHRC, a role that is part of their work advancing women’s human rights.

Following the weak presentations by council staff, the Lord Mayor and Deputy Lord Mayor perhaps summed up the whole affair best (emphasis added):

“I personally…have been a very strong supporter of the trans community for a very long time…Trans people are very welcome and supported and a part of our community and that’s part of our values and so that’s really the beginning and the end of it for us.” – Lord Mayor Clover Moore 

“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.” – Deputy Lord Mayor Jess Scully

In other words, regardless of the fact that 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 FLC’s robust defence (which are apparent to anyone who views the recording of the meeting), raises serious questions as to whether the Council’s decision was both predetermined and ideologically driven.

After the Council endorsed the report recommending the termination of FLC’s lease, Ms Kerr reiterated that FLC shares the Council’s non-discriminatory attitudes and very much supports gender non-conforming behaviour, but that because it believes there is such a thing as biological sex, there is a misunderstanding that it is somehow at odds with people who are questioning gender roles. She also raised concerns that the Council’s approach is excluding gender critical feminists, detransitioners and anyone who questions trans orthodoxies, who unlike trans people, have access to no other community services where their rights are being promoted and protected.

These concerns were ironically followed by the Deputy Lord Mayor’s attempt to “summarise the challenges” by quoting James Baldwin: “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

What about the oppression of women and girls and the denial of their humanity and right to exist by extreme gender ideology that seeks to silence their voices and erase their very existence?

Responding to claims by both the Lord Mayor and Deputy Lord Mayor that content on FLC’s website is highly critical of trans people and conflicts with the Council’s values, Ms Kerr objected:

“That’s not true…There’s a debate taking place globally but the Australian media is not covering it. I think it’s a problem to conflate trans people with a certain type of activism because there’s a lot of trans people who don’t agree with some of this. It concerns me that they’re being treated as one and the same thing. Because we are criticising a certain activism, that’s being interpreted as criticism of all trans people, but that’s not what’s taking place.”

On 6 July 2021, FLC received a letter from the Council formally terminating its tenancy effective 19 August 2021.

Justice for FLC

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, when it comes to transgender treatments, women-only spaces, and women being attacked and silenced and their concerns ignored.

This travesty has not received any media coverage, except one story by Sky News. However, the injustice done to the Feminist Legal Clinic by the City of Sydney Council 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 sake of justice – or at the very least, we should do so spurred on by the chilling reality that we could be next.

Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

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