Transgender protections in the spotlight: What it means for your organisation

The recent Federal Court case of Roxanne Tickle v Giggle for Girls provides a unique opportunity to obtain greater clarity on the scope of anti-discrimination protections for transgender people in Australia.

Background of Roxanne Tickle v Giggle for Girls

Roxanne Tickle lodged a discrimination claim in the Federal Court against Giggle for Girls on the basis of her gender identity, and is seeking damages of $200,000. Giggle for Girls is a social networking app developed exclusively for women to share experiences and speak freely in a “safe space”. Roxanne Tickle was assigned male at birth, but now identifies as female and has a birth certificate designating her sex as female. Ms Tickle downloaded the app and was required to upload a selfie as part of the registration process. Artificial intelligence assessed her photo as being of a woman and she was able to access the app. However, Ms Tickle was later removed from the app by Giggle for Girls’ CEO, on the basis that she was male and her onboarding selfie appeared to be of a man.

Ms Tickle claims that Giggle for Girls has discriminated against her under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (Sex Discrimination Act) on the basis of her gender identity by treating her less favourably in the course of providing goods and services. Ms Tickle argued that she was treated less favourably than cisgender women (being women whose gender identity corresponds with their sex assigned at birth), because of her gender identity of being a transgender woman.

Giggle for Girls are defending the case on the basis their refusal to allow Tickle to use the app constituted lawful sex discrimination as a special measure. A special measure is an action taken to advance equality of a particular group that would otherwise experience disadvantage, in this case females. Because Giggle for Girls perceives Ms Tickle as male, they consider it is lawful to discriminate against her on the basis that it is part of a special measure.

Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner also made submissions in this case, noting that ‘for a person to be of the female “sex”, it is sufficient if that sex is recorded on the person’s birth certificate and/or they have undergone gender affirming surgery to affirm their status as female’.

Notwithstanding this, the evidence provided to date suggests Ms Tickle, as a trans woman, was treated differently to how the respondents treated people with a different gender identity, namely cisgender women.

Judgment has been reserved and we are awaiting the decision in this case.

Why is this case significant?

This case has provided the Court with the ability to determine the extent to which the Sex Discrimination Act protects transgender people from discrimination on the basis of their gender identity. The Sex Discrimination Act was reformed more than a decade ago to add protections for transgender and gender diverse people, however, this is the first time these laws are being tested in court.

This case also highlights the distinction between sex discrimination and gender identity discrimination, and the challenging overlap when special measures to rectify one form of disadvantage, in this case on the basis of sex, intersect with other areas of discrimination.

Sex is not defined in the Sex Discrimination Act, however, generally refers to the sex assigned at birth as male, female or intersex, which is based on physical features such as chromosomes, hormones and organs. Gender identity is defined as the gender-related identity, appearance or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of a person (whether by way of medical intervention or not), with or without regard to the person’s designated sex at birth. As such, this case serves as a prime opportunity to clarify this distinction as it relates to instances of discrimination.  

In addition, the need for greater protections for transgender people are now at the forefront of public discourse.

The Trans Justice Project and Victorian Pride Lobby’s collaborative report into anti-trans hate in Australia published in August 2023 was the largest ever investigation into anti-trans hate in Australia. Their study found that 49.2% of transgender participants directly experienced online anti-trans abuse, harassment or vilification in the 12 months prior to the report, and 1 in 6 transgender participants experienced anti-trans violence in the previous 12 months.

This issue is also pertinent to schools, with Equality Australia’s report ‘Dismissed, Denied and Demeaned: A national report on LGBTQ+ discrimination in faith-based schools and organisations’ finding that many independent schools had enrolment policies that required enrolment based on a student’s assigned sex at birth, and provided teachings that openly condemned homosexuality and transgender people and encouraged their school communities to hold similar beliefs.

The Australian Law Reform Commission’s recent report, Maximising the Realisation of Human Rights: Religious Educational Institutions and Anti-Discrimination Laws1, has recommended changes to narrow the circumstances in which religious educational institutions can discriminate against students and workers. While the ALRC report recognises that institutions should be allowed to preference staff in line with their beliefs so long as it is proportionate and ‘reasonably necessary’ to maintaining a community of faith and does not breach existing discrimination laws, it recommends amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act and Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) to ensure students and staff do not face discrimination on the basis of their gender identity among other attributes.

Potential impact on your organisation

Many organisations grapple with the delicate balance of upholding the rights and dignity of transgender people in their communities, whilst respecting and addressing the responses they receive from others in their community when supporting transgender people. In religious organisations, the balance can be even harder to achieve.

Steps taken to support and accommodate transgender people may range from navigating access to bathrooms, participation in sport, use of pronouns and the extent to which organisations provide education and/or public support on issues involving the transgender community. However, it is important to recognise that these issues feed into a range of legal obligations held by organisations, whether it be the duty of care that schools owe to all students, the obligation to address bullying and harassment on the basis of gender identity, privacy obligations relating to unauthorised disclosure of medical information pertaining to transgender and gender diverse individuals, or discrimination in the course of various areas of public life.

This case provides a timely reminder of the need to ensure your organisation proactively considers the implications of actions aimed at improving gender representation and inclusion, to ensure they are not unintentionally exclusionary of transgender people.

Further, while the initial use of artificial intelligence in this case reached a finding that aligned with Ms Tickle’s gender identity, it is also crucial for organisations to be conscious of how they use artificial intelligence and the potential risks of discrimination with these models. For schools, you can read more about the tips and traps for managing the risks associated with  artificial intelligence in our recent article.

How we can help

Rather than wait for an issue to arise, we recommend that organisations:

  • obtain legal advice about the steps that they are required to take to prevent discrimination and harassment, and whether exceptions apply, before engaging in potentially discriminatory conduct.
  • review their policies to ensure they have robust strategies to proactively create inclusive environments, and minimise the risk of potential discrimination claims.

Our Safeguarding team can assist with drafting or amending policies and guidelines tailored to your organisation’s needs, and delivering training to ensure you understand your obligations and opportunities to implement best practice.

Contact us

Please contact us for more detailed and tailored help.

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Disclaimer: This article provides general information only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. You should seek legal advice regarding the application of the law to you or your organisation.

1ALRC, Summary Report – Maximising the Realisation of Human Rights: Religious Educational Institutions and Anti-Discrimination Laws, Report 142, December 2023.