09 October 2019

Meet Maddison Harrington one of Australias first openly trans lawyers

Published on 09 October 2019
Maddison Harrington is nothing short of extraordinary. In a profession constantly competing to come first, Maddison set herself apart - because in truth, she had no choice. Maddison works as a graduate legal officer for Griffith University, and was recently named as a winner of an Out of Australia 30 Under 30 LGBTIQ Role Model award. Insights spoke to Maddison about her experiences as one of Australia’s first openly transgender lawyers.

‘You can’t be what you can’t see’
“I try to provide a guiding light to those who are younger than me, who either know they are transgender, or are still questioning,” said Maddison. “When I came out, I was absolutely petrified. I knew of some lawyers in Australia, and a few more internationally who happened to be transgender (trans), but I knew no one who was open or out here in Queensland.” 

“I adopted the mantra that “you can’t be what you can’t see”, so that other young (or even older) lawyers or law students could find the courage to come out as trans, to be their true selves, and know that it won’t be the end of the world (as I was often told).” 

Such a bold move was driven simply by the fact the sheer absence of trans visibility in the law.

“I wish there were more trans people in the law to show me that it would be okay, and show me that it’s possible to have a successful legal career and be trans, not one or the other.

“Let’s face it. For better or worse, most people are not trailblazers,” observed Maddison. “That doesn't mean that they have no potential. But it does mean that they need role models.” 

Maddison, a self-described ‘accidental role-model’, initially intended to transition ‘under the radar.’ 

“I would of course be out to friends and family, but not to the general public. That didn’t go to plan!” declared Maddison. “I’m now out, and I’m proud of who I am. I decided to take a huge gamble, to stand up and speak out; to speak my truth and try to dispel as best I can the misconceptions, half-truths and outright lies that are far too often told about trans people by media organisations and some politicians without facts or evidence to support them.”

Supporting trans visibility in the workplace
For Maddison, writing her ‘coming out’ email to future employer Griffith University was nerve-wracking.

“I had been interviewed, and hired as my former self, and decided after much thought and discussion with friends and family, that I would start my Graduate position at Griffith as Maddy,” she explained. “I had no idea how to go about this. I remember sitting in my car one afternoon in December (after work at my previous job), and drafting an email to HR. I had no idea what to say, let alone how it would be taken. I knew I had “rights” and protections under law, but, what if there was some obscure clause in my employment contract that I’d missed? Or some legal precedent I didn’t know about that would allow them to rescind my job offer!”

Several days later, she received a phone call from HR.

“The HR Manager reassured me that nothing bad would happen, and that I’d be well cared for and given as much support as I needed to affect my transition at Griffith,” said Maddison. “He was right. I have to date, received nothing but complete acceptance and support from not only my immediate team, but also the wider University community. I’m incredibly lucky.”

Not everyone is so fortunate. Support like this has made it possible for Maddison to focus on her work as a lawyer.

“I enjoy working on litigation and discrimination cases due to the many complexities and feelings often involved,’ Maddison said. As an in-house lawyer, she relishes the sheer diversity of her work.

Challenging misconceptions, fostering understanding 

A large part of Maddison’s experience has been to challenge misconceptions and misunderstandings around trans people. It’s crucial for people to respond with kindness and open-mindedness.

“Trans people are still human beings,” said Maddison. “We’re just as capable as anyone else, and like anyone, we still have flaws. That doesn’t mean you need to treat us any differently. Quite simply we’re like every other lawyer or person in society.”

She stressed the differences between ‘coming out’ as lesbian, gay or bisexual, and ‘coming out’ as transgender. Being sensitive to whether someone wants to come out is essential.

“A trans person's gender history is personal information and it is up to them to share it with others,” said Maddison. “Do not casually share this information, speculate, or gossip about a person you know or think is trans. Challenge anti-transgender remarks or jokes in public spaces, especially at work. You may hear anti-transgender comments or jokes from your friends or colleagues at work, even clients! It's important to challenge these remarks or jokes whenever they are said and no matter who says them, because as a non-transgender person, you’re in a position where you can speak up without putting yourself in danger.”

Her advocacy is two-fold.
“Firstly, I use my privilege as a (soon to be) lawyer to leverage the respect that many other trans people who may come from less well regarded backgrounds aren’t afforded, to increase visibility of our community in the corporate and legal sectors,” explained Maddison. “These sectors traditionally haven’t been known for being diverse, though this is slowly changing, which is great to see.”

“Secondly, I speak out to challenge the many misconceptions held by society that are pushed by certain media outlets and journalists,” Maddison said. “Increasingly we are seeing newspapers and TV talk shows who regularly seek to demonise trans people for being who they are. The thing is, there is nothing new about being transgender, there hasn’t been a “surge in cases” as is alleged by many “experts”, including certain members of the legal profession.

“At the end of the day, trans people are human beings too. We were simply born in the wrong body. We’re your doctors, your accountants, your shop attendants. I just want us to not have to fear coming out, and risk losing our jobs, or friends or family, simply for being who we have always been.”