If you had asked me a month ago about Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull — who also goes by the name of Posie Parker — I would have had to quickly Google her to avoid embarrassment.
But after more than a week of the British anti-trans rights campaigner’s activities being splashed across the front pages of Australian newspapers, that’s changed — such is the nature of a style of politics which at its core is about provoking outrage and division and inciting hostility.
Keen-Minshull organised a “Let Women Speak” tour of Australia and New Zealand, holding rallies in several cities to claim the push for transgender rights is “silencing”, endangering and discriminating against women.
In doing so she has inserted herself into Australian domestic politics and unleashed a torrent of anger and division that will have far reaching consequences inside the Liberal Party and beyond, turbocharging a debate about what the party should stand for.
There has been a lot said about Keen-Minshull and whether she is a warrior for women’s rights or an extremist with views that are harmful to the transgender community. This week I examined many of her interviews recorded for various podcasts to get to the heart of what she is campaigning for and whether there may be some nuance in all of this.
It turns out the rhetoric she uses is much more extreme than I had anticipated. Perhaps her most staggering claim is the suggestion that trans women are sexual predators who pose a safety threat to girls in female bathrooms. She describes being a transgender woman as a “fetish” — a position not supported by health experts who work with people transitioning.
Let’s talk about the facts
Let’s be clear: This activist isn’t having a fact-based debate about the participation of trans women in elite sport — those debates are ongoing and necessary. This week, for instance, World Athletics voted to ban transgender women from elite female competitions if they have undergone male puberty, in a decision the governing body said had been taken to “protect the future of the female category”.
There will be different views about the significance of that decision and its impacts but that’s not what Keen-Minshull and her allies are concerned with. Rather, they are challenging the very existence of trans people.
Liberal MP Bridget Archer told me this week that rally organisers had “almost stopped pretending that it’s about women’s rights and they are openly saying that it is an anti-transgender protest”.
“If they want to talk about women’s safety, I don’t think that the issue of … same-sex bathrooms is where the issue of women’s safety is at,” she said. “The most unsafe place for women to be is in their own homes.”
Archer added: “In terms of safety, the transgender community have much higher rates of violence perpetrated against them than even women do, so I think it’s just nonsense.”
Transphobia-fuelled violence, discrimination and harassment can have a heavy toll. The Private Lives 3 report published by La Trobe University in 2020 is the most comprehensive and diverse study to date on the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTI+ people living in Australia. Disturbingly, it found nearly half of all transgender people had attempted suicide.
And the Health and Well-Being of Transgender Australians: A National Community Survey in 2021 found 73 per cent of its 928 participants had been diagnosed with depression and 67 per cent with anxiety. A further 63 per cent reported previous self-harm and 43 per cent had attempted suicide.
What voters think
The statistics are stark. But one big question is whether this issue is resonating with voters, especially given the involvement of Liberal politicians with Keen-Minshull’s campaign.
For instance, Victorian MP Moira Deeming is fighting to keep her spot in the party after Liberal leader John Pesutto said he would expel her for “organising, promoting and attending” Keen-Minshull’s rally in Melbourne last weekend, which was gate-crashed by far-right extremists who performed Nazi salutes.
Tony Barry, a former senior Liberal staffer who is now a director at the social research and polling firm RedBridge, says voters are not motivated or engaged by it.
“So far this year the RedBridge Group has conducted over 70 focus groups, talking to over 600 soft voters for over 100 hours and trans issues has not been raised once. The Liberal Party in Victoria will never be competitive whilst some of its MPs focus on these fringe issues or positions itself on the extremities of debates,” Barry said.
“Whilst some Liberal MPs have been obsessing about trans issues and freedom of association, Daniel Andrews has spent this week launching cheaper public transport fares for regional Victorians and opened another level crossing removal. I know which one is the winning strategy.”
Kos Samaras, another director at RedBridge Group Australia and former Labor strategist, says voters never raise this issue unprompted.
“When prompted their reaction is a mixture of anger and empathy,” Samaras said. “Anger at politicians using this as a political football and empathy towards trans Australians who have now become the latest targets of politicians that should instead be focusing on cost of living and the housing attainment crisis.”
A Liberal Party identity crisis?
It follows revelations this week that federal Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson has been personally lobbying John Pesutto not to expel Moira Deeming.
The ABC understands Henderson personally sent Pesutto messages urging him not to take action against Deeming. The ABC has not seen the messages but has been briefed by sources who have been told by Pesutto about Henderson’s intervention.
Deeming has vowed to fight Pesutto’s move to oust her from the party, saying she has done nothing wrong: “My intention is to fight and to remain a member of the team. I hope that my colleagues draw the line and say enough, and that I am able to fight alongside them,” she said in a statement.
She also defended her participation in last Saturday’s rally and accused “extreme left counter protesters” of infiltrating the event and assaulting speakers, police and horses. She condemned the actions of masked men in attendance who she said were “later identified as neo-Nazis, who gatecrashed the Let Women Speak (LWS) event”.
“Most of the LWS supporters did not realise who they were until they were being escorted out by Victoria Police, when they did the despicable Nazi salute,” Deeming said.
Pesutto has said he’s “confident” the party will back him in a vote. But even if he wins — and insiders say he will — the deeper issues this has raised will continue as the Liberal Party grapples with its identity in a fast-changing world.