A woman who knows who she is: Kathy Mansfield

There are those who are blessed to know at age 6 that they are different; they are clear and they act on it. Then there are those like me that started to have experiences that sit outside what is considered to be ‘traditional’ gender binary norms. Like I’ve always been fascinated with ballerinas and mermaids. I didn’t understand my gender.

I was stressed in my early years because I was from an upper lower class family – I was too frightened to talk to someone or get a book from the library to explore my gender. I asked a psychiatrist what was wrong with me and how it could be cured. He said: it can’t be changed. This is who you are.

In my sixties I didn’t think I was genuine enough to transition. I doubted my credentials. As I aged I began to believe that it was part of who I am. I began to feel like I could live with myself. I had to come out to myself first before telling my family

As I have experienced more beautiful people it affirms who I am as a gender diverse person. Over time I have become more comfortable with who I am and what I want. Initially I sought the company of other trans and gender diverse people to feel comfortable with myself and have my gender affirmed. My connection to them was deeply rooted. Then I started to feel more comfortable interacting with the broader world. I feel I have more confidence to do that now. It’s still wonderful to get together with My People – they were a village for me.

The older I get, maturity in a female body. Natal women have history as a woman – experimentations as a woman and I’ve gone through experimentation that teenagers do to try and find a place for myself as a woman. I searched for my truth. Trying to be a genuine woman – I have only been able to do that through trial and error and with the passage of time. I am getting closer to being a woman who knows who she is and what she wants.

Sally Conning: I found out who I am

Being myself has been easier as I’ve aged. I’m ageing disgracefully. I don’t let age constrain who I am. Getting older is nothing to worry about

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come out of my shell more. I’ve done so much advocacy work and that has helped me. I’ve told my story so much that its helped me to know who I am. Five years ago I was just staring hormones and I started public speaking and sharing my story. Quite often I will start tell my story in the third person. I start by saying “I’d like to tell you a story about a young bloke I know.” It lets them know I’ve had a difficult start – and good things have come. I want to tell them hormones are not some magical switch. I’ve had to work at it.

Public speaking has helped me to acknowledge me. I stand up there as a trans person and I talk. I’m saying to them I know I am trans. I am acknowledging my story to you. I’ve got to the point now where I speak from the heart; it doesn’t matter who I am speaking to. When I’m telling my story I point to the door we all entered in and I say to them: before I came in that door I was just Sally. While I’m in here I’m Sally the trans girl. When I leave I’ll be Sally again – I’ll go back to just being me.

I’m proud of my advocacy work. It has helped me to connect to LGBTI communities and to my local community.

I have no fear of transphobia now. I’ve not experienced transphobia. I don’t try to be anything other than myself. I have no airs and graces. I’m not trying to be a Vogue cover girl. I’m just being me. I walk down the street in my stupid crazy coloured leggings and I don’t give a rat’s arse. I proud of myself – and people pick up on that. I’ve learned that I have to be comfortable with who I am and no certificate or surgical procedure will change that. I found out who I am. I am where I am. I am the girl I want to be. I’m living who I am now. I’m now ready to be myself, to be who I am all the time.

I pickled beetroot because it’s one thing that I’ve loved all my life. I mightn’t have always loved myself but I’ve always loved beetroot. I realise now I don’t try to be anything other than myself. I proud of myself. I found out who I am. I am the girl I want to be.

Toni Paynter: I feel free

I suffered a very severe emotional neglect as a child. In adulthood, I coped by being a workaholic – until the wheels came off the Toni machine. I was depressed, fatigued, anxious and had a relationship breakup. I was broke and I was homeless. I went to live at the Catholic Parish in Collingwood and started volunteering at the Fire Museum. I was the curator. Part of my role was to help pull stories together about firefighting.

The I joined a self-help group called GROW. Part of their process is to share your story. The work at the Fire Museum and GROW helped me to realise I had a story to tell and that other people found it interesting.

I started sharing my story publically. Telling my story built my sense of self. And then hearing other people’s stories made me realise I could get through this. I needed to understand what I needed to change – and then make the changes. The big change I needed to make was to transition. I just needed to be me instead of trying to be what everyone else expected me to be.

As I’ve got older I’ve started getting in touch with my feelings and learnt to stop worrying about what other people want me to be. I’m learning I don’t have to be hypervigilant about what is going on around me. The more counselling I’ve got, the stronger I’ve got. I’m learning about emotions and brain development. I’m learning to ask for help.

Since I retired have been doing about 40 hours’ volunteer work a week. I’m volunteering in areas I’m emotionally passionate about. I’m not working to meet someone else’s dreams. I feel very satisfied and very rewarded that I am working to improve other people’s lives through my volunteer work.

As I age I don’t worry about other people’s expectations too much. I don’t have a lot of money but I’m quite satisfied with what I’ve got and who I am. I’m not ashamed of who I am any more. I get some wry amusement about not justifying myself to other people. I’m just Toni. There is more colour in my life now. I am using colour. I’m not wearing someone else’s ‘uniform’ or colours. I feel free.

Strawberries are my favorite fruit – and the red reminds me of my work at the Fire Museum, where I first started to realise I had a story to tell. I don’t worry about other people’s expectations too much anymore. I’m not ashamed of who I am any more. I feel free.

Michelle Brooker: What took me so long?

I’m a 64 year old transgender woman who only came out 4 years ago. The pressing question I ask myself is what took me so long?

My first memory of being female was when I was around 6 and dressed up in my mother’s dress and her shoes, wearing some lipstick and powder. It felt right inside but I knew it was very transgressive but I didn’t really understand why. The word transgender only appeared in my late teens. Back then (in the 1950s) transvestite was the politest term for what I was and it was only marginally less derogatory than the term tranny.

I most likely first heard these terms later after we got television in the mid-1960s and it would have been in a very negative context such as the Benny Hill show which in my memory typically had transvestites as objects of derision in the name of “fun”. I must say being a female in my mind I always found sexist humour cringe worthy and the abject derision of transvestites personally affronting. But I kept my views to myself, not wanting to be “outed”. It was this background that kept me dressing in my mother’s clothes in secret for my childhood up until the age of about 12.

My early school years were spent at a co-educational Catholic school run by nuns. Apart from the huge class sizes (60 or more) it was OK. I had plenty of opportunities to take up feminine art and craft projects such as sewing a rag doll, knitting scarves etc and mingling with girls. This all came to an abrupt end at age 9 when I was sent to an all-boys school. It was a rude shock but more shocks were to follow.

The only activity apart from school work I really enjoyed was singing choir. There my beautiful soprano voice and ability to read music lead to me being placed in the front row of the choir. Sadly this was not to last as within a year my voice broke and I was unceremoniously dumped from the choir. This event was exceptionally traumatic as it not only removed a joyful activity from my life but was the beginning of the end of ambitions to live one day as a female. I promptly started all the trauma of going through puberty in the wrong gender. The acquisition within 2 years of a large male body, male facial features and hair and a deep voice was distressing to someone who really was female. The one plus of having such an early puberty was that by the time I was 11 I was 6 feet tall and able to defend myself against the bullies who had quickly labelled me as a sissy, faggot and a target.

My adolescence was marked by an extreme suppression of my female nature and a period of learning to develop a male mask. I made a conscious decision to never reveal my transgender nature to anyone and to wholeheartedly take my solace from this in sex and drugs and rock’n roll. In my university years the whole David Bowie, Lou Reed lead androgyny rock scene lead to a real popularisation of cross dressing parties amongst my friends. I approached these with a longing but a real apprehension, as I was worried that I would out myself in my enthusiasm to embrace my female side. Being mostly female attracted, marriage followed university. Having a wonderful partner and having 2 fantastic children lead to me totally forgetting about my transgender tendencies apart from the occasional cross-dressing in deep secret.

At the ripe old age of 60, one day I found myself in a shop ostensibly buying a male t shirt. However I found myself looking at a dress, thinking to myself “I like that”. I tried it on, it fitted perfectly and I bought it. Within a month I had brought a wig online, found someone to help me with make-up and I was out on the streets. I looked OK if I do say so myself but I was definitely a caricature transgender woman in high heels and too short skirts.

Four years on and I feel like I have been through a second adolescence, adulthood and now I am proceeding into middle and old age. It has been a dizzying journey. One thing that has surprised me about coming out is that being transgender has such a high degree of acceptance, not only in inner Melbourne but also on visits to Brisbane, Hobart and Adelaide. Sure people selling things are really happy to take your money, but the friendships I have made in the last four years have almost exceeded the number and intensity of the friendships made in the last forty years. I guess this is a testament to my own comfort in my own skin. I am much less guarded as a woman and more open and vivacious. My fervent hope is that the level of transgender acceptance continues to improve and that more transgender people are happy to be open about being transgender. Transgender visibility is truly a radical and activist position. It is the fastest way to increase the general public’s acceptance of transgender people and further increase the number of transgender people out of the closet. It is a terrible thing to live for 60 years hiding and denying your identity

So to answer my initial question, “what took me so long?”, fear, a transphobic climate fuelled by media and prejudice and a lack of visible role models. The fear which goes deep and pervades my very soul is the feeling which is still with me today that at my heart I am unloved and unloveable. Sadly I don’t think I will ever be able to erase this. It is my fervent hope that those young transgender children growing up today never have that feeling. I hope that they have loving parents and families. That they see transgender role models and with courage and support grow up to be fully contributing members of our society without needing to deny their identity for a single moment.

Brenda Appleton: Life really does begin at 50!

Like many trans and gender diverse people, I struggled to accept my gender identity being different to the sex assigned to me at birth. I was assigned male but from a young age, I knew I was different but was unable to discuss gender identity confusion in my somewhat macho home (my father had been a boxer, footballer and soldier).  Like many I thought if I got a good job, married and had children, my gender issues would disappear, but alas no. I kept things at bay for many years but at 50 I decided I wanted to live more than I wanted to end the pain I was in.

At the time of that decision, I did not know if my marriage would end, if I would lose contact with my children and lose my job. I had had nearly 5 years of counselling and 3 suicide incidents. I would prefer not to be trans and had struggled to accept that reality. I have never regretted aligning my body with my gender and am very comfortable living and presenting as female.

My partner and I are still together (we have been married for 45 years in one of the few legal same-sex marriages in Australia). I see my children regularly and worked for another 8 years in the same company before I retired 9 years ago. On retiring, after 35 years working in the corporate world, I returned to University and completed a masters in sustainable practice. Earlier this year I was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women. Life really does begin at 50!

Since retirement, I have been heavily involved with trans and gender diverse and LGBTI rights. I was co-chair of the Victorian LGBTI Taskforce (term expired in June 2017) and was a member of the previous Government’s LGBTI Health Ministerial Advisory Committee. I understand I was the first trans co-chair of a Government Taskforce in Australia. I am a member of the Victorian Mental Health Expert Taskforce and have been involved in countless working and reference groups. It is great being involved in areas which you are passionate about. I have really enjoyed being an activist and advocate in Victoria over the last few years, working with such a supportive Government which is committed to equality and equity.

There has been an explosion of those now exploring what gender identity means for them and I like to use my lived experience to make it easier for those following behind. The last 17 years of my life have been fantastic and so much better than I could have imagined. It has been so much easier being me and not acting the role I thought was expected of me.

I preserved nectarines because the sweet juicy fruit brings back some happy memories from my childhood and preserving them reminds me of an important pastime of my grandfather. I like to focus forward but it is nice to occasionally reflect on the past, my journey and just how far I have come.