Roberta Perkins Law Project

The Roberta Perkins Law Project is a free legal service for trans and gender diverse people in Victoria. We are a social innovation pilot project funded by the City of Melbourne and our services are delivered by St Kilda Legal Service in partnership with Transgender Victoria.

We aim to help people with their everyday legal problems and address the specific legal needs of trans and gender diverse people living in Victoria.

For legal help or to find out more about the project please email [email protected] or contact us online via www.lgbtiqlegal.org.au/contact-us/.

We thank all who were involved from the community who attended our visioning day in 2019 to plan and design the service. By popular vote, the service was named the ‘Roberta Perkins Law Project’ to honour the great legacy of Roberta Perkins. We thank Roberta’s family and next-of-kin for allowing us to use her name for the purposes of this project.

 

About Roberta Perkins

By Geraldine Felda

Roberta Perkins led an extraordinary life as an activist, advocate and academic. She was a pioneer in the fight for trans rights and the rights of sex-workers in Australia.

Born into a working-class, Catholic family in 1940, Roberta struggled with her gender identity throughout her childhood. Her earliest memory was of ‘turning to god’ and asking him ‘in my silent prayers to make me a girl’. Of her adolescence and early adulthood she recalled:

‘On a motorbike or a football field I lived up to everyone’s expectations, but in the passages of my mind I lived separate identities. These were my two realities: the physical and the mental. They had nothing in common except they shared the same body.’[1]

Roberta married for the first time in her late twenties. She and her first wife had two children before the marriage ‘tore apart at the seams’. Roberta married two more times before she suffered a severe mental health crisis, attempted suicide and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It was following this that, in her words, ‘Roberta emerged’ and she began her transition.[2] Roberta wrote profoundly moving passages when describing this moment in her life, the sense of relief and release that she experienced:

‘The pain and agony is now well and truly over for me, and even the memory of it has gone, almost, for many of the dreadful feelings of inadequacy and dysfunction I once experienced seem to have belonged to another being’.[3]

Roberta saw the value of education, and one particular area of interest was Native American cultures. What she found especially intriguing were the long traditions of gender diversity (nowadays called Two-Spirit) in many Native American nations. In the late 1970s she also became more actively attuned to the challenges facing transgender women in Sydney, and especially the transgender sex workers around Kings Cross and Darlinghurst.

In the early 1980s Roberta became a key member of the Australian Transsexual Association (ATA). The organisation originally operated as a support group for trans women, but under Roberta’s leadership the ATA also turned to political activism. Roberta formed of a special lobbying committee within the association to fight for transsexual rights, including birth certificate reform, rights to redress under the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act and reform to support trans prisoners.[4] In October 1982 Roberta led Australia’s first known trans rights protest, organised by the ATA in Manly:

Roberta’s consistent lobbying saw the ATA become the first transgender organisation in the world to be fully government funded, and in 1983, the groundbreaking service Tiresias House was opened by Frank Walker, then NSW Minister for Youth and Community Services, Aboriginal Affairs and Housing.

Tiresias House (now called the Gender Centre) offered overnight emergency accommodation for trans people, longer stays to support people through their transition, as well as a number of support services including courses in survival skills, finding employment and group peer support meetings.[5]

Roberta had a keen scholarly mind and her activism was always closely intertwined with her academic work. In 1981 she completed her Honours thesis at Macquarie University where she immersed herself in student life and was involved in the successful campaign that led to the establishment of a women’s room on campus. In 1983 she published her first book The Drag Queen Scene, which influenced Walker’s support to fund Tiresias House. This was also the year that she helped found the Australian Prostitutes Collective (APC).

In the APC Roberta worked closely with Julie Bates, now a well known advocate for sex workers’ rights and the rights of injecting drug users. Together, they played a crucial role in responding to the HIV and AIDS crisis as it emerged through the 1980s and threatened the lives and livelihoods of sex workers, drug users and the queer community. They also agitated for the decriminalisation of sex work in New South Wales. Eurydice Aroney, senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, notes that ‘Perhaps the collective’s most outstanding and unacknowledged contribution was the ground-breaking research it produced for the New South Wales Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly on Prostitution 1983-86.’[6] This was research led by Roberta, who guided a team of Sydney University students in an ambitious project to interview more than 100 Sydney based sex workers. In 1995 Sex Work was decriminalised in the state of New South Wales, in many ways a legacy of Roberta’s scholarship and activism.

Roberta’s research skills also drove the first Commonwealth-funded report into transgender people’s health and well-being. With approximately $150,000 from the Department of Human Services and Health, Roberta coordinated data collection through surveys and interviews with 146 transgender people from across Australia. The report was meant to investigate HIV/AIDS risks and effects among transgender Australians. However, Roberta was savvy and collected data addressing not only sexual health, but also violence, employment, housing and other areas of discrimination confronting transgender Australians. The final report ‘Transgender Lifestyles and HIV/AIDS Risks’, published in 1994, was the first comprehensive report on transgender Australians and for years was being quoted by advocates for transgender rights. Indeed, activists from the Transgender Liberation Coalition credit the report as having a huge influence on politicians who supported 1996 amendments to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act, which finally protected transgender people and allowed post-operative people to change their birth certificates.

Roberta never fully gave up on activism and writing, but from the 1990s onwards she mostly avoided the politics of trans activism and instead became like an elder statesperson. Roberta died in 2018, and in a tribute to Roberta’s life Cheyne Anderson notes: ‘When activism turned digital, Roberta didn’t transition with it. Her legacy feels muted.’[7] Roberta’s legacy may not be well known to the general public, but it is extraordinary. She left behind a wealth of writing and scholarship and transformed the lives of countless trans and gender diverse people. She is a true trailblazer in the struggle LGBTIQ rights and the rights of sex workers in Australia, and she deserves to be remembered as such.

Check out the socially distant launch of the Roberta Perkins Law Project over Zoom

Photo 1: credit to Paul van Reyk, provided by ALGA. In October 1982 Roberta led Australia’s first known trans rights protest, organised by the ATA in Manly.

[1] Roberta Perkins, Transsexualism an overview: Understanding the transsexual Roberta Perkins, assisted by Nikki Searant and Linda Tyne (Petersham, NSW: The Collective of Australian Transsexuals and The Australian Transsexual Association, 1983) in the papers of Roberta Perkins, Folder 3, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Circular letter from Roberta Perkins (Secretary, ATA) regarding the establishment of a Committee within the ATA for legislative change and advocacy, n.d. in the papers of Roberta Perkins, Folder 4, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

[5] Roberta Perkins, Transsexualism an overview: Understanding the transsexual Roberta Perkins, assisted by Nikki Searant and Linda Tyne (Petersham, NSW : The Collective of Australian Transsexuals and The Australian Transsexual Association, 1983) in the papers of Roberta Perkins, Folder 3, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

[6] https://theconversation.com/the-right-to-bare-arms-the-history-of-australian-sex-worker-activism-81559

[7] https://overland.org.au/2018/11/remembering-roberta-perkins/