Talking with transgendered Australians

20 November 2010

Written by: Sarah Green

In some respects it’s always going to be difficult to accurately ‘represent’ trans* communities. Private Lives: a report on the health of GLBTI Australians found many variations trans* people differed widely  in their gender identities, sexual identities and sexual preferences. To this extent, finding a single spokesperson for the trans* community is nigh on impossible. It is, however, possible to talk to individuals. Kathleen Hyde is the secretary of the WA Gender Project and a trans* woman. Lex identifies as genderqueer – a term which also fits under the trans* umbrella. Here’s what they had to say about life as a trans* person in Australia and what the Transgender Day of Remembrance means to them.

When did you first realize you might be trans*?

KATHLEEN: I think I realised I was trans* somewhere around the age of 8–10, although I suppose it was more an awareness of being different at that point. You see, for me, being trans* has always been more about sex (being male or female) than gender (being masculine or feminine). So it was really later on, when I hit puberty and my body started changing in ways that felt wrong, that I realised what I was. I had no idea what to do about it though and tried to push it away for many years.

LEX: I first realised that I might be trans*, or that I was at least genderqueer when I was about 20 – I had previously come out as a lesbian woman. At that stage of my life, it was really my exploration of queer politics that sparked me to examine my gender identify.

Even though I was having conversations with some friends about gender, I was still very secretive and ashamed, I guess, about the idea that I might not fit the ‘female’ mould. It wasn’t until nearly ten years later that I got to a stage where I needed to be open and honest about my gender.

What information was available to you?

KATHLEEN: When I transitioned [the process of a person changing their body and personal presentation to reflect their sex and gender], the Internet was still fairly young, but there was an emerging trans* community online. I learnt about the process of transition, but more importantly, I met other young people online who had transitioned successfully. I guess that was the key thing for me — not just information, but meeting other people who were going through the same thing.

Before that, my perceptions of what it meant to be trans* were shaped by the media and by and large media depictions of trans* people weren’t (and in many cases still aren’t) positive. I suppose I thought that all trans* people were freaks, doomed to live an unhappy life excluded from society.

LEX: I have been fortunate enough to have a very supportive partner, supportive friends, family and work colleagues. I know it is not as easy for others. As someone who has been involved in the local queer community for a long time, I knew of the agencies and publications – and other trans* people – that I could go to for information and assistance. I have also found some really useful blogs and websites, but you do need to be able to weed out the dodgy ones!

I do know that my situation is comparatively lucky, and many other trans* or gender diverse people feel a lot more isolated and can really feel like they are the only one with no support or resources to turn to.

What does the Transgender Day of Remembrance mean to you?

KATHLEEN: I’m not really sure what the Transgender Day of Remembrance means to me. Although it was started as a way for the trans community to remember those of us who have died, I feel it would be more useful if it were focussed at non-trans people. It’s not like I need to be reminded that trans people are dying. I know too many trans people who have attempted suicide.

LEX: Transgender Day of Remembrance, for me, is about remembering those who have lost their lives because of violence towards trans* people. But more than that, it points directly at the lack of human rights, and the serious prejudice that exists in the world for trans* people. Even though a very small percentage of trans* deaths recorded happen in Australia, I do know that transphobia exists here.

Despite some laws to protect us against discrimination, there are still attitudes and misunderstandings that lead to prejudice and in some cases violence.

Have you or someone you know ever experienced violence or the threat of physical violence because you/they are trans?

KATHLEEN: Thankfully, I don’t personally know anyone who has been on the receiving end of violence, but I know of people who have. It happens in Australia too, not just overseas.

Most people don’t realise I’m trans unless I choose to tell them and I usually don’t. For that reason, I’m not a target for trans-related violence. But always in the back of my mind there’s that fear: what if it’s discovered I’m trans? What if I get targeted for something else and then my attackers realise I’m trans? I’m extra vigilant when I’m out alone.

LEX: Personally, I have never experienced violence or threats of violence and I am hard pressed to think of a friend who has either. Having said that, I have experienced words, looks, and behaviour that demonstrates unwarranted hatred – as have many of my trans* friends. The statistics also show that a very significant majority of violence towards trans* people is aimed at trans* women – or those that could be read as such (cross-dressing men, drag queens included).

What, to you, are the most pressing issues facing trans people in Australia today?

KATHLEEN: I would say the most pressing issues for trans people in Australia today are: (i) legal recognition of sex; (ii) protection from discrimination, particularly in employment; and (iii) access to health services.

WAGP is aware of several trans people who have lost their job after telling their employer they plan to transition. Presently, there is no federal legislation that covers trans* people and trans* people living in WA are only protected after they have undergone surgery.

LEX: I think attitudes and discrimination is the biggest thing. But there are a few specific cases where systemic discrimination really effects trans* people. Recently two local trans men went through a series of law suits to have their new gender recognised by obtaining a Gender Reassignment Certificate – currently the only recognisable way in WA to lodge a complaint on the grounds of Gender History with the Equal Opportunity Commission. They were granted this, until Attorney General Christian Porter appealed this decision, and insisted that sex reassignment surgery (in the form of hysterectomy) must be proved before their male gender will be affirmed by the State. This is blatant State-endorsed transphobia as far as I am concerned. How can we expect Australian society to accept difference, if we have powerful people actively making laws more discriminatory?!

It’s heartening to hear Lex and Kathleen have not experienced physical violence. Indeed, both appear optimistic about the future for trans* people, particularly in terms of the increasing amount of information made available by the internet. It’s clear, however, that many problems do still exist for trans* people in Australian society, particularly in relation to employment security. Events such as the Transgender Day of Remembrance don’t target these issues but they do generate wider discussions about transphobia and what it means to be a trans* person. If we’re going to put an end to discrimination against trans* people, talking about these issues seems a good start.

Read more about the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Sarah Green is a Masters of Global Communications student and a member of the upstart editorial team.