Essay

The sad stats

The trauma of community law

IN 2018 I was hired to work as Victoria’s first dedicated LGBTIQ outreach lawyer, to be based at a queer health service. I had just started transitioning, and the opportunity to leave the large city law firm where I worked at the time was appealing. I was exhausted by the prospect of some all-team email going out about my pronouns, and my recent battle to change my gender record on the payroll system was hardly encouraging.

The new role was set up as a ‘health justice partnership’, a model of providing legal assistance based on the premise that it’s better to place lawyers at health services than at separate community legal centres. Disenfranchised people tend to tell their health workers about their legal troubles much more often than they approach the free legal services available in their area.

As predicted, many clients of this health service did indeed have legal troubles. After their appointment, their psychologist or drug and alcohol worker would bring me in to meet them. I’d walk in wearing a shirt, jeans and rainbow lanyard, making every effort to appear unthreatening as I asked them how I could help. They’d present me with a crumpled eviction notice or a summons to attend court, and I’d read over the documents at the photocopier, genuinely enthused by the challenge of keeping them housed or out of jail.

In those first few months, I learnt so much about the way people’s gender expression and sexual orientation affect their experience of the law. I met people who were seeking asylum in Australia due to fears of facing punishment for being homosexual or transgender if they returned to their country of origin. I saw the psychological toll that the immigration system’s extensive delays and the denial of work rights had on them while they awaited the outcome of their asylum application.

I was also made aware of the huge bureaucratic hurdles that are put in front of people with disabilities: intentional barriers installed by the government in apparently benign pieces of legislation to prevent as many people as possible from accessing the National Disability Insurance Scheme or the Disability Support Pension.

Word soon got out in the Victorian community legal sector that there was a new LGBTIQ law clinic, and I received a steady flow of referrals for assistance, particularly for clients living in further flung parts of the state such as Sale, Warrnambool and Mildura. I wasn’t meant to accept these cases, but after hearing tales of mothers driving eight hours to find gender-affirming healthcare for their children while also dealing with hostile family court proceedings initiated by violent ex-partners, I felt compelled to take them on. There were very few other people who could help these clients. My caseload grew quickly.

When I accepted these referrals from lawyers who were too constrained by stringent funding guidelines to assist, those lawyers would thank me profusely. Some would then gush about how wonderful it would be for me to run an LGBTIQ-inclusive practice training session at our upcoming national community legal centres’ conference. Although running training wasn’t in my job description, it seemed like a good idea. After all, if I could help other lawyers understand why many parts of our community were still deeply disadvantaged and should therefore be prioritised for services, it could ultimately help lighten my load.

So I signed up to run a session, blocked out my calendar and, trying to ignore the steady stream of emails pinging as they hit my inbox, spent half a day making a PowerPoint presentation for my colleagues. The main point I hoped to address was why so many queer and trans people were reticent to access mainstream services to address their legal issues: all-too-frequent past bad experiences with the police, doctors and other authority figures, ongoing community stigma and the cumulative impact of trauma.

I peppered my presentation with de-identified client case studies to highlight the ongoing violence and distress experienced by LGBTIQ people in detention centres, psychiatric wards and prisons. I was able draw on my own work in court to highlight the effects of rigid court etiquette on trans people: I could describe the visible embarrassment of magistrates who were unsure whether to use Mr or Ms Elkin to refer to me during the early stages of my medical transition, and the endless discomfort of not being able to access a safe toilet.

I felt pleased with my presentation, but anxious to receive positive feedback from my manager, having poured a lot of my personal pain into it. My manager, who was distracted by the usual combination of toxic internal organisational politics and the ongoing precariousness of legal service funding, took a couple of days to get back to me. When she did, she thanked me for my work and suggested that I change my introduction slightly to highlight the higher rates of poor mental health, wellbeing and suicidality in the queer and trans community ‘to help drive the business case for why this is all so important’. I was a bit stung, having assumed that the need for community legal centres to provide a respectful service to LGBTIQ people was a given. But, eager to please, I set about finding some statistics.

 

THE SIZE AND relative social position of Australia’s LGBTIQ community is a debatable topic, primarily because the federal government has repeatedly nixed efforts to include questions about gender identity and sexual orientation in the national census. I personally received $200 in a crisp Australian Bureau of Statistics envelope for giving the draft questions a test run in the small interview room of a federal government building in Melbourne’s Docklands precinct one rainy afternoon. Despite positive community feedback throughout the sessions, the questions were dumped. Accordingly, there are officially more Jedi in Australia than trans people.

Police and state government corrections departments also do not collect data on the sexual orientation or trans status of victims or alleged perpetrators of crimes committed in Victoria, so it’s hard to say conclusively whether we are an especially violent, vulnerable or over-policed community. We – the so-called ‘trans rights lobby’, actually just a small assortment of unpaid or underpaid community advocates dotted across Australia – have plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that LGBTIQ people receive poor treatment from the police. We know that queer people are often sidelined when they seek help with family violence matters that don’t fit the standard narrative of gendered violence by men against women. In 2020, police officers leaked photographs of a prominent Victorian ex-footballer in order to ‘out’ her as transgender. We believe that trans and gender diverse people are treated appallingly in the corrections system. But there’s currently no way of knowing how many of the thousands of police complaints lodged every year are about these problems. Perhaps of most concern, to me at least, is the fact that there’s no publicly available data on how many transgender women are currently incarcerated in men’s prisons, and of those, how many have experienced sexual assault while under the apparent protection of the state.

Without clear data to illustrate which LGBTIQ people might benefit most from targeted legal services and law reform efforts, we must instead rely on more general evidence of social disadvantage to make our case for funding. The most easily accessible pieces of evidence are the reports written by sexual and mental health researchers in universities and community organisations, who generally run their own projects on a shoestring.

La Trobe University’s 2012 Private Lives 2 report on the health and wellbeing of LGBTIQ Australians found that one in four trans respondents were experiencing significant psychological distress at the time of being surveyed. UNSW Sydney’s 2018 Australian Trans and Gender Diverse Sexual Health Survey revealed that over half of survey respondents reported having been sexually assaulted, while only half said that they’d ever experienced respectful sexual healthcare. Most shocking were the statistics from my home town of Perth: the Telethon Kids Institute’s Trans Pathways report found that four out of five trans young people in Australia had engaged in self-harm, and almost half had attempted suicide.

Depressed but glad to have found the evidence I required, I copied these stats and dropped them, in a large font, into my PowerPoint presentation.

 

A FEW DAYS later, I arrived at the poorly maintained headquarters of our peak body to deliver my presentation. I was buoyed to see so many chairs lined up ready to be occupied by my well-meaning colleagues. Community lawyers are generally a good bunch who do tireless hard work for about half the pay they’d receive in the private sector. As they filed in, each adorned with a small ‘she/her’ or ‘he/him’ handwritten pronoun sticker hastily repurposed from the stationery cupboard, they smiled at me encouragingly as I nervously fiddled with the unfamiliar laptop.

After moving through the acknowledgement of country, I began, ‘Why does inclusive practice matter? Well, because as you can see from these statistics, queer and trans people are unfortunately more likely to experience poor mental health and attempt suicide, not because there is inherently something wrong with us, but because of stigma, prejudice, discrimination and abuse.’ I looked out at my audience, wondering if they believed me. No matter how kind-hearted they were, I still had a significant amount of societal baggage to work against. 

One of the first official medical terms used for trans people was ‘psychopathia transexualis’, coined in 1949 by the US sexologist David Cauldwell. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recognised ‘gender identity disorder’ as a mental illness until 2013. At the time of my presentation, the World Health Organization still listed ‘transsexualism’ as a mental illness in its comprehensive International Classification of Diseases.

I didn’t expect my audience to know any of this, of course, but they had likely been exposed to memorable cultural manifestations of these societal beliefs, regardless of whether they had knowingly clocked them. There is the fictional Norman Bates, who dresses up in his mother’s clothes to murder attractive young women in Psycho (1960). Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs (1991) is a psychotic transgender serial killer who butchers and skins larger bodied women to create a ‘woman suit’. Boys Don’t Cry (1999), the first major Hollywood movie to feature a transgender male character, is based on the true story of Brandon Teena, who was murdered by his girlfriend’s friends after they found out that he was trans. Brandon is portrayed sympathetically, but with a huge helping of gratuitous sexual violence. The film’s message is loud and clear: trans men are sad freaks to be pitied, for their lives will be cruel and short.

As I stood there with my PowerPoint, facing an audience who was undoubtedly already well acquainted with the more difficult aspects of trans people’s lives, I wondered whether trotting out these statistics was doing more harm than good. Was it only reinforcing the link between gender and sexual diversity and mental illness?

I moved on to talking about my clients’ stories to illustrate the flaws of our legal system. I felt torn between the need to perform a sufficiently righteous level of anger about injustice and my compulsion to demonstrate that I, as a fellow lawyer, could dispassionately stomach unpalatable facts when required. More than anything, I felt a need to disassociate myself as an individual from those stats. With my impromptu jokes and easy smile, I wanted to show my audience that while my clients and my community might be suffering, I certainly wasn’t.

When I finished my presentation, my colleagues thanked me and told me how much they had got out of it. I smiled and asked them to complete an online survey so that I could report this success to my government funders.

I was surprised by the significant emotional toll this training had on me, and found that I was unable to return to work that day. This was time off I could ill afford – I had a lot of hearings coming up, and my groaning workload had impelled me to commit to writing new grant applications. As I lay down on my bed, I tried to reassure myself that everyone felt depleted after big present­ations, and it definitely wasn’t a sign that I was struggling to cope.

When I went back to work the next day I addressed the most pressing of my client matters, and then cut and pasted the sad stats from my slides into a new funding application. I hoped that we might get enough money to hire a second lawyer to help me with all the work that was coming in as more people became aware of our service. I did an interview about the service on community radio that evening, where I again regurgitated the stats. I did so yet again at the countless network events and government briefings I attended over the next year. As soon as a new LGBTIQ mental health report was released, I’d immediately download it and gobble it up, making a note of all the new percentages that conveyed the poor state of our collective mental health.

 

AS WINTER CAME along, I started to leave work later and later, and was less inclined to get up to go for a walk during my lunch break. I’d stopped talking to the deeply empathetic counsellors and social workers at the queer health service because I felt too busy, and I suppose I didn’t want them to see how unhappy I’d become. I put my headphones on all day and listened to background jazz songs to drown out the sounds of my colleagues.

In August, my manager booked us all in for our community legal centre’s annual training session about vicarious trauma. This was being held at a large city law firm in acknowledgement of the well-established fact that lawyers are more susceptible to depression and anxiety than other members of the community. The issue was being rehashed in the media that year after a local magistrate had tragically taken his life. It was said that this had been due in part to the stress of a crippling workload. He had died just one week after attending workplace wellbeing training just like the sort I was at, which made that year’s session feel pointless and grim.

It was quite clear to me before, during and after this training session that I was on a one-way trip to burnout. I’d spoken to a counsellor about it, and I regularly made bleak jokes to friends about my state of mind. By that point I felt that there was little I could do, however, since I had opened so many client files and agreed to do so many things for so many people. I didn’t have the emotional reserves to deal with the stress of telling my clients I couldn’t help them in the next stage of their case and they’d have to go it alone from here. I knew it would be much harder to convince similarly time-poor lawyers at other centres to help me out by taking on a case or two than it would be to just knuckle down and do all the work. I also felt that my personal reputation was on the line, since I’d done so much media to promote the program. I wanted to show my community and others that trans people could excel at anything they chose, and that we were just as employable as anyone else. I was loathe to be seen as unreliable.

At the end of the session, the trainer told us to write three things on a postcard that we were going to do to look after ourselves. I dutifully wrote down ‘go to the gym, drink less and start reading novels again’. She then took our postcards back and told us that she’d mail them out a month later. Mine never arrived.

 

ONE DAY I told someone that I was unable to help them because their problem was not a legal issue. A few hours later, they sent graphic self-harm images to my mobile phone to demonstrate how upset they were at me for not helping them. Receiving these images shocked and frightened me, and I felt a flash of anger at this person for trying to harm me as well as themselves. I did my best to push down my ugly feelings and followed our workplace protocol by calling the crisis assessment and triage team. While I listened to the hold music, I felt sick about having to press the mobile phone that held those disturbing images to my ear.

After a few minutes, the muzak abruptly ended and a friendly man with a northern British accent introduced himself and started asking me questions in a genial, routine manner. He’d clearly done this many times before. ‘How deep did the cuts look?’ he began.

‘Um, I’m not sure, I only looked at them for a second and then called you,’ I replied.

‘Fair enough, fair enough. Well, if you wouldn’t mind having a wee look for me again, just to check?’ he said.

I put my phone on speaker and checked the messages. ‘Not that deep. Sorry, I got scared because of all of the blood.’

‘That’s fair! Well, I don’t think we’ll need to send someone over immediately then, but do you mind if I call them?’ he asked.

‘Not at all,’ I said, immensely relieved that he was now taking over responsibility for the situation. He called me back twenty minutes later to let me know that he’d spoken to the person and a friend of theirs, who’d just arrived, and they were feeling safe and supported.

I hung up and took myself out for lunch. Halfway through my bagel I received a call from the person’s friend, who yelled at me for getting the state involved and for not understanding the difference between a genuine suicide attempt and a standard cry for help.

I’d like to tell you that I quit at this point, but I didn’t. Instead, after being informed that one of my grant applications had been successful and we’d be receiving further funding, I was promoted to the role of service co-ordinator. I was overjoyed at the thought of having a colleague, right up until we started holding job interviews for the role. After interviewing a group of fresh-faced young lawyers, desperate to ‘give back to the community’ and to ‘make a real difference’, I felt guilty about the thought of picking any of them to do the job. It would be like luring a lamb to slaughter. But we had the funding now, so it had to be done.

My new colleague started. I begged her to not make the same mistakes I did – to feel free to say no to anything and to maintain appropriate boundaries. She smiled and said she’d do her best, but of course it made no difference because there was simply too much work to do and not enough support to do it.

I kept turning up to work, and at night I would drink too much and then wake up at 3 am in a sweat after dreaming about running to catch a plane in order to retake my high school exams. I knew I needed to leave, but I was desperate to get to the end of my two-year contract just to prove that I was dependable, to prove those sad stats wrong.

In the last month of my employment, the long-anticipated Private Lives 3 report came out. It painted a grim picture. I saw that far from getting better, the overall plight of LGBTIQ Australians had only got worse since Private Lives 2 came out in 2012. It made me wonder whether new services such as mine were actually making any difference at all, or whether they were just a drop in the ocean against a wave of huge, systemic problems.

This was the mood I was in when I finally sat down to write my project acquittal – the bureaucratic report for the funders about what had been achieved with the money they had given us. On paper, our project was a resounding success. We’d won awards, written persuasive law reform submissions and taken lots of cute photos of ourselves marching in the annual Pride parade. But the whole thing sickened me. While I’d unquestionably helped quite a few people through some tricky situations, most of the problems I had addressed were those made by the same government that was funding the service. I couldn’t write any of this, of course – after pouring so much of my life into the project, I didn’t want to torpedo its chances of getting funded again. Even if I couldn’t hack it, I hoped that my legacy would be a free and permanent LGBTIQ legal service. So I crunched the numbers and turned them into quotable statistics and produced a report full of our service’s sad stats about the plight of the LGBTIQ community – stats that others would undoubtedly use in future for their own reports and grant applications.

And with that, I hung up my rainbow lanyard. When I told my friends I had finally quit my dream job, they didn’t think I was crazy – far from it. They’d been wondering how crazy I must have been to stay there for so long.

 

References

Strauss, P., Cook, A., Winter, S., Watson, V., Wright Toussaint, D., Lin, A. (2017). Trans Pathways: the mental health experiences and care pathways of trans young people. Summary of results. Telethon Kids Institute, Perth, Australia.

Callander D, Wiggins J, Rosenberg S, Cornelisse VJ, Duck-Chong E, Holt M, Pony M, Vlahakis E, MacGibbon J, Cook T. 2019. The 2018 Australian Trans and Gender Diverse Sexual Health Survey: Report of Findings. Sydney, NSW: The Kirby Institute, UNSW Sydney.

William Leonard, Marian Pitts, Anne Mitchell, Anthony Lyons, Anthony Smith, Sunil Patel, Murray Couch and Anna Barrett (2012) Private Lives 2: The second national survey of the health and wellbeing of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) Australians. Monograph Series Number 86. Melbourne: The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University.

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