This year I am celebrating 27 years of being ‘out’ as a transgender person, and I am genuinely delighted to see how far transgender visibility and recognition have come in recent years. Certainly, transgender people are still routinely vilified and physically and emotionally attacked, but there is growing mainstream recognition of us as a marginalised minority deserving of protection.
My experience of being trans dates back 62 years, to the time when I was five years old, living on an Air Force base in New Zealand. It was the Cold War. Military aircraft from Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom were regular visitors. Life on base was protected and, in many ways, idyllic. We were all ‘Air Force brats’ together, free to roam and enjoy the adventures and facilities that living on a base provided.
But for me that was also the year I first attempted to ‘come out’. Quite innocently, one day I dressed in my mother’s wedding dress and paraded into the kitchen to show her how pretty I looked. My memory is that I was told to get out of the dress. I remember little else of the episode and years later when I discussed it with my mother, she claimed no memory of it at all. What it did, however, was teach me that I should not ever ‘dress up’ again.
This experience only served to drive me into the closet. When opportunities presented, I continued to secretly and fearfully dress in my mother’s evening gowns; I particularly remember one that was a beautiful jade green Thai silk.
For a child who is five or six or seven years old this is quite innocent, delightful play, but the years of puberty which lay ahead would bring added confusion and fear of discovery.
It can be hard enough to explain the concepts of sex, sexuality and gender to an adult in the 21st century, but as a child in the mid-1960s dealing with puberty, I had to confront these on my own. My sex appeared to be unequivocally XY male, my gender identity was female, and my sexuality was lesbian! I saw in girls, and later in women, everything that I admired and to which I was attracted.
This experience led me to be shy, easily embarrassed and socially awkward. It was not until 1973, when I met a young woman with whom I could speak easily, that I eventually ‘came out’ for the second time. By ‘come out’ I mean I told her that I was a cross dresser. To have admitted to myself, let alone anyone else, that I was ‘transsexual’ would have been too personally confronting.
With acceptance came love and we married and had three daughters. I always believed, hoped and prayed that this would ‘cure’ me. It did not and despite desperate efforts to be ‘normal’, my gendered self would routinely demand expression.
As time went by, the need to be myself became increasingly urgent and I suffered a series of anxiety panic disorder breakdowns. These culminated in the choice of self-harm or the ultimate frightening step: to come out to myself – and the world – as transgender. I chose the latter.
I came out in 1993, while a student at the University of South Australia, studying for my Graduate Diploma in Library and Information Management. As a result of this act, I was surrounded by a group of wonderfully supportive women. These women and my fellow students gave me a safe space in which to transition, and they became among the first of many to show me love and support over the past twenty-seven years.
To be transgender and to be ‘out’ for me means a life of political activism. I have lectured often since then and believe there is no greater divide in this, or any society, that the human species has created, than gender. No other human construct has so destined some to great power and others to great deprivation than the nexus of sex and gender.
Throughout history, in families, communities, societies and nation states, with few exceptions, ‘sex’ and its apparently inseparable partner ‘gender’ have been the primary deciders of place, privilege and power.
It is my lived experience of this construct that convinced me in 1994 that nothing could change for transgender people without positive visibility; visibility that would prove the lie of those who would vilify and discriminate against us.
Many of the activities I have participated in over the past twenty years had little consciously to do with my being transgender, nor were they actively sought by me. I was honoured to be twice elected to head the Gay and Lesbian Counselling Service (GLCS) in South Australia in the mid-90s, an experience that gave me an excellent and thorough community education.
Then the Australian Democrats asked me to stand as a candidate for the Australian Senate in 2004 and the South Australian Parliament in 2006. I have participated in many community organisations and committees, including the AIDS Council of South Australia, Feast Festival, Gay and Lesbian Health Ministerial Advisory Council, S.A. Police Equal Opportunity Consultative Forum and Council on the Ageing S.A. LGBTI Advisory Group.
In 2017 I was honoured to have my name added to the South Australian Women’s Honour Roll as a “passionate activist for the LGBTIQ community”.
However, community activism was never enough in itself. I always felt that being transgender was just a diagnosis, and I needed to continue to follow my passion for history and photography. In 1997, I secured a position with State Records, South Australia, which in turn led me to qualify as a professional archivist. I worked with archives and photographs at the State Library of South Australia until I retired in 2019.
These professional experiences have, in recent years, convinced me of the importance of moving beyond my transgender experience, to reclaim the forty years that I lived before coming out. Those forty years during which layers of gender experience were placed on me; experiences that are part of who I am and who I choose to celebrate. I choose not to deny them in order to fit some societal definition of who I should be and what I should do.
I occasionally remark to my partner of twenty four years, Anthea, on how I still find value in being a visible activist, supportive of my transgender community. There is still much to be gained by transgender community members being proud of the hurdles we have overcome just to survive, let alone flourish, in a world that too often judges us.
There is immeasurably more to be gained by confronting all forms of discrimination that in the final analysis places a cost and burden on us all that is indefensible and unsustainable.
On my bedside table I keep a short anonymous poem:
I did the thing I feared the most.
Excuse me while I cheer.
Now here I stand a stronger soul,
And all I’ve lost is fear.