“Other people might go to counselling, but I launched into a PhD to work out who I was”.
The personal and professional have always been closely aligned for Sav who, for many years, worked as a sexual health educator in the queer community, and after a brief stint as a jewellery designer, embarked on a PhD on non-binary gender identities and experiences.
Since 2019, Sav has been working with Trans Health Research Group, who aim to build an inclusive and equitable health workforce for the trans community. There’s a culture of trans people not trusting the healthcare system, and there’s good reasons for that. But because of that, trans people may delay care and may not feel comfortable making appointments in the first place. Sav credits the support of Associate Professor Ada Cheung in advocating for trans-inclusive health care and major policy changes in trans health care in Victoria. Perhaps one of the most significant impacts of the team’s research is the Victorian government’s funding of a state-wide trans-health training package to GPs, and the establishment of two multidisciplinary gender clinics, including one in Ballarat. “That influx of funding has made such a difference to so many people, particularly those in regional Victoria – it has been transformative”, Sav says.
Today, Sav leads the TRANSform study which is a trans-led longitudinal study of transgender Australians focussing on the social, environmental, and psychological drivers of health and wellbeing. Trans researchers work alongside clinician researchers and an advisory board to identify and monitor the health and wellbeing needs of the trans community. It’s about the community having control over the research process and major decision-making to ensure that the knowledge produced has relevance for both healthcare and policy practitioners, and tangible impacts for the trans, gender diverse and non-binary communities.
In addition to bringing their expertise to the community, Sav also brings their personal experiences to their research;
“Things are constantly evolving in the LGBTIQA+ community and being deeply engaged as community members gives us as trans researchers insights that an outsider to the community might not have. We have a strong understanding of the priority issues and given the trans-affirming environment in the Trans Health Research team, we have the space to share them. I’m so deeply passionate because what I’m researching is my lived experience and that helps guide and strengthen the research”, Sav adds.
One of the issues exacerbated during the pandemic, was the mental health disparity in the trans and gender diverse population. The TRANSform study reported that COVID-19 precautions reduced access to social supports and health care services and over 60% of the survey respondents had clinically significant symptoms of depression; half had thoughts of self-harm or suicidal ideation, during the early months of the pandemic. The research report Trans in the Pandemic: Stories of struggle and resilience in the Australian trans community' will be launched this month with a seminar led by Sav discussing the findings and next steps.
Media coverage of transgender issues plays a pivotal role in shaping public perceptions of the transgender community, Sav says. The anti-trans sentiment has reached fever pitch in Australia–initially around trans identification in the education system and most recently by politicians on the issue of trans inclusion in sport. These debates are often peppered with misinformation and assumptions that, when compounded by a negative bias in the press, support a climate of prejudice. It is well known that stigma and discrimination impact the health and wellbeing of any community particularly when it is sustained and continuous over time. Accordingly, the representation of trans issues in these debates suggests there’s a very narrow and superficial idea of what a trans person is in Australia. The trans community is richly diverse and intersectional, including Indigenous people, people of colour, and people with disabilities, but are not often represented as such. Sav says;
“The reality is trans and gender diverse people are teachers and nurses and plumbers living everyday normal and fulfilling lives. We just don’t hear or see their stories. Growing up I didn’t see non-binary people telling us how they made sense of themselves or how they navigated the world, and because of that it took me so long to work out who I was because those stories were not out there”.
While stories are central to our understanding of each other, Sav believes that we really need to address the issue of social discrimination. If real acceptance and inclusion is to occur, “public attitudes need to change on a cultural level”. Discrimination is so pervasive in the community that it undermines the wellbeing and health of trans gender individuals. For example, the community is highly educated yet they are 3 times more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population. They experience significant levels of poverty and family rejection and have ongoing concerns around public safety.
In an institutional context, the University’s Gender Affirmation Policy is an important cultural shift that goes some way to address discriminatory attitudes. Sav suggests some additional ways that the university can support people to feel safe to be themselves, including:
- Teaching our medical and health sciences students about what it means to be transgender
- Posters in classrooms/labs about treating trans people with respect
- Encouraging teaching staff to wear pronoun pins to signal that they’re safe to approach
In the Faculty, we are training the future health-care and medical workforce so it's critical that we:
- Respectfully integrate trans perspectives in ally training materials and curriculum design to to ensure appropriate inclusion
- Collaborate with people with lived experience of disability, indigeneity, gender and cultural diversity for a more nuanced perspective on everyday challenges
These seemingly small things are actually big things which over time add up to make somebody’s experience on campus a little better. Tailoring strategies that are focused on understanding can shift the way we think about and experience the world.
Sav is hopeful that the next generation will be more respectful of trans identities due to the intentional effort and work being done today to improve the everyday lives of the trans and gender diverse community in Australia.
For more information about the TRANSform study and Trans Health more broadly:
Trans in the Pandemic Research Report, May 2022