Should women be required to disguise their true feelings in order to make men feel comfortable?

Should women be required to disguise their true feelings in order to make men feel comfortable?

Grace Tame’s refusal to smile in her recent public appearance with Scott Morrison has many in Australia debating the question of whether women should be obliged to hide the way they feel by smiling, simply to make the men around them feel comfortable. In her blog, Caitlin Holloway summarises the case for the negative:

“Grace’s ability to capture an audience and start discussions about difficult topics is one of the many reasons she made a great Australian of the year. So why should she change the way she acts in order to be seen as polite, or in order to make Scott Morrison feel more comfortable around her? Isn’t she just doing exactly what made her Australian of the year in the first place?”

This week, Tame has herself embraced this interpretation of her behaviour as an example of high moral principle, tweeting that it would have been hypocritical of her to be friendly after repeatedly criticising Scott Morrison over his response to women's safety issues. She wrote:  

“The survival of abuse culture is dependent on submissive smiles and self-defeating surrenders. It is dependent on hypocrisy.”

Should women be required to disguise their true feelings in order to secure the comfort of men?

In the first place, it should be noted that civility is an important part of public and professional life and generally expected of both men and women alike. As Parnell Palme McGuinness writes in her column for the Sydney Morning Herald, “There was nothing civil about Grace Tame’s performance as Australian of the Year”, arguing that Tame’s “childish” and “rude” “political sniping” detracted from her important message about sexual abuse, whereas a little more civility would have elevated it.

But let’s assume that women should not be required to dissemble – that such a requirement in fact contributes to “the survival of abuse culture”. Then surely we should take the complaints of sports women seriously when they explain their discomfort at having biological males in their changerooms.

Last week, it was reported that there had been complaints from various female members of the University of Pennsylvania women’s swim team who are currently obliged to share a locker room with Lia Thomas, who is biologically male. These women describe the situation as:

“‘definitely awkward because Lia still has male body parts and is still attracted to women’ … [A]lthough Thomas’ male genitalia are often covered by a towel, there have been a number of times Thomas’ nudity has been revealed, exposing the genitalia for the women on the team to glimpse and making them feel uncomfortable.”

Despite the fact that “multiple swimmers” have raised the issue “multiple times” with their coach, the response has been unsympathetic:

“We were basically told that we could not ostracize Lia by not having her in the locker room and that there's nothing we can do about it, that we basically have to roll over and accept it, or we cannot use our own locker room.

“It's really upsetting because Lia doesn't seem to care how it makes anyone else feel,” the swimmer continued. “The 35 of us are just supposed to accept being uncomfortable in our own space and locker room for, like, the feelings of one.”

In 2019, the Australian women's handball team was faced with the same issue when Hannah Mouncey (again, biologically male) joined the team. In this case, the coach listened to the women’s complaints and Mouncey was asked to use a separate facility. Mouncey rejected this proposal as inherently unreasonable:

“From my perspective, if I’m on the team, I’m on the team and I’m not going to be treated any differently.”

In a later interview, Mouncey explains that consistent agitation to “resolve the changeroom issue” (which, presumably, means resolving it in Mouncey’s favour by disregarding the feelings of the female players) resulted in no change to the single-sex changeroom policy; Handball Australia maintained its support for the privacy of its female players.  Eventually, feeling “strung along”, Mouncey told the manager to “go f**k himself”, explaining later:

“Honestly, that was the best thing I did and I wish I did it six or twelve months before. Because I was standing up for myself, y’know, what was right and what was wrong.”

Sustaining the view that this is a clear-cut moral issue, and that Mouncey is in “the right”, requires a determined blindness to the feelings and wishes of the female members of the team. Were Handball Australia to grant Mouncey’s request, the women on the team would be obliged to smile and dissemble, pretending they were comfortable with a male presence in their changeroom, when in fact the reverse is true. According to Tame’s logic, such a requirement would turn these women into “hypocrites”; it would contribute to the “survival of abuse culture” – a culture in which the violation of women’s boundaries is regarded as normal or, at least, unobjectionable.

What then do we say to the multiple public policies that now require Australian women and girls to accept biological males in their private spaces and punish them for objecting? While everyone is wagging fingers at our federal politicians for deficiencies in the workplace culture of Parliament House, the bureaucracy has been given a free pass, even as it champions policies that dismantle protections for women in workplaces all over the country.  

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), for example, has been energetic in its advocacy for “gender inclusivity” when it comes to bathrooms. The AHRC intervened on Mouncey’s behalf, mediating the dispute with Handball Australia, with the result that Handball Australia published a formal apology, in which they acknowledged that requesting Mouncey to use a separate changeroom had been “inappropriate”.

The AHRC subsequently invited Mouncey to contribute to their 2019 Guidelines for the inclusion of transgender and gender diverse people in sport. Unsurprisingly, these guidelines advise all Australian sporting clubs to ensure access to changerooms of the basis of gender identity, not biological sex. The Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender, implemented from 2016 onwards, also require “Australian Government departments and agencies”, to prioritise “gender identity” over “biological sex”. The AIDS Council of NSW (ACON) − which receives government money from the NSW Department of Health − advertises a long list of “members” from both private and public sectors that have signed up to its “Pride Inclusion Programs”, meaning these organisations have committed to champion “inclusive” policies, such as access to bathrooms on the basis of gender identity. Nevermind how the women feel about that. 

Occasionally, government policies even acknowledge they are silencing the complaints of the women and girls concerned. For example, a NSW Department of Education Directive, Legal Issues Bulletin 55, requires schools to allow access to student bathrooms on the basis of gender identity and explains that:

“If other students indicate discomfort with sharing single-sex facilities (toilets or change rooms for example) with a student who identifies as transgender, this should be addressed through the school learning and support team.”

In other words, girls who fail to smile and dissemble so that biological males feel welcome in their private spaces, need to be re-educated.

The Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet (PM&C) is just one of many government departments to feature on ACON’s membership list. Remember the furore when Scott Morrison ordered the removal of gender inclusive toilet signs in the PM&C offices? How ironic that the man who acted then to curb the operation of “gender inclusive” guidelines which compromised women’s privacy is now remembered only as the primary focus of Tame’s criticism for his failure to respond to women's safety issues.

If Tame is right and the survival of abuse culture is dependent on women’s submissive smiles and self-defeating surrenders, then surely the reversal of harmful “gender inclusive” policies is a no-brainer. Such policies require us to ignore the legitimate concerns of women when biological males transgress boundaries that have been placed there to protect the safety and dignity of women and girls. They require women and girls in schools, sports and in their workplaces to smile sweetly and pretend they don’t mind. If we are serious about ending abuse culture, then we cannot ignore policies that enshrine it in women’s daily lives.

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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