Hundreds of protesters rallied in Perth on Saturday to express outrage at transphobic comments made by the recently elected lord mayor, Basil Zempilas. Less than ten days into his term, Zempilas denied the existence of trans people on talkback radio station 6PR, saying: “If you’ve got a penis, mate, you’re a bloke. If you’ve got a vagina, you’re a woman. Game over”. He continued to ridicule trans people, offering $100 vouchers to any who called in to share their thoughts.
Prior to becoming mayor, Zempilas made a name for himself as a television presenter and radio shock jock. In a bigoted, pro-business election campaign he promised to remove homeless people from the CBD, by force if necessary.
Speakers at the protest denounced the undemocratic nature of the mayoral election, in which business owners have twice the voting weight of individuals. Zempilas won with 1,855 votes (29 percent), which is approximately a fifth of the number of people who have now signed a petition calling for him to resign. The rally called for his immediate resignation and for his salary to be donated to TransFolk of WA, a support service for trans people.
Speakers from the front criticised the figures such as Zempilas for using their positions to normalise transphobia and encourage the far right. They addressed the structural discrimination facing LGBTI people and the way this leads to greater violence against them, as well as higher rates of self-harm and suicide. The ALP state government was also criticised for its lack of attention to LGBTI. It has failed to abolish the WA Gender Reassignment Board as it promised to do prior to its election, and has also scrapped funding for Inclusive Education WA, a professional development initiative to educate teachers about LGBTI issues in schools.
Rally organiser Jacqueline Blackburn pointed out that Zempilas’ comments are “part of a right-wing campaign against transgender people and LGBTI people more broadly that is actively attacking and chipping away at people’s civil rights across the world”.
The federal Liberal government has been trying to pass a religious discrimination bill that will allow businesses and institutions to deny crucial services to LGBTI people and women. It makes LGBTI people vulnerable in their workplaces and schools. Most recently, One Nation’s Mark Latham has been pushing an education bill in New South Wales that would ban all school staff from teaching students about gender fluidity.
But across Australia, people have been fighting back against these attacks and organising opposition at every turn. As Blackburn told the crowd: “From Stonewall and Mardi Gras and the 78ers to Equal Marriage to today, we have only advanced the struggle for liberation by coming out into the streets like this and taking a stand in our numbers against dickheads like Basil Zempilas”.
The rally rejected Zempilas’ PR stunt apology, in which he merely claimed that “for a brief moment” he “forgot” he was the Perth mayor. One protester said that Zempilas’ comments were “very degrading to people and especially with suicide rates high within the transgender community, he should be doing a lot more than a fake apology in the news”.
Another expressed concern about the precedent these comments would set if they went unopposed: “Where does it stop? If he is able to get away with being blatantly transphobic and awful comments on the radio, what else can he get away with? Ableist comments? Comments about Indigenous peoples?”
As protesters marched to Council House, they chalked messages demanding trans rights and Basil’s resignation on the pavement. Later, the city council fountain was flooded with soap.
The next protest for LGBTI rights in Perth will be on 28 November.