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.

Tina Healy: I am home. I belong. I am safe

I recall sitting in a meeting of a government consumer reference group, listening to a highly paid consultant convey a multi-layered policy document that ticked all the diversity boxes. Following thirty minutes of outcomes-based delivery, he called for questions. After some initial polite observations I felt myself restlessly shifting in my chair. One does not want to be a killjoy at a bureaucratic love fest. Finally it was too much. I raised my hand and he asked me to speak. I looked him in the eye and asked, “in terms of real outcomes at the coalface, can you tell me the story of one transgender person who’s life you have changed with this document.

He couldn’t.

I pointed out at the time that I worked with trans people of all complexions and circumstances. I visited people who lived in old bungalows, rundown overcrowded share-houses. Transwomen who work in brothels and sleep in their car to get away from the drugs. Transwomen who’s marriages are falling apart, families are abandoning them, faith communities are shunning them. Transwomen that are post transition, isolated and lonely. Did anything in the document reach those people in need, and change their lives.

It didn’t.

I suspect that most people enter government service as politicians or public servants intent on making their work mean something. But somewhere in the plethora of issues confronting them, they deal with being overwhelmed by seeing success as completion of a policy process on paper.

But on occasion, something magical happens.

I am a transgender woman. I began my journey of becoming six years ago. (I detest the word transition. It sounds like an industrial process). This exploration of self is so different, so unique, to each trans person. My journey began in a loving space. I thought I was the luckiest trans woman alive. After eighteen months of calm waters, a storm descended on my life that destroyed almost everything that I had held to be constant. Over a six month period, I lost my marriage, home, business, job, friends, birth family and faith community. I returned from botched surgery in Thailand to a bedsit where I knew no-one, and a wound that didn’t stop bleeding for months.

The only consolation was that I took my former business partner through the Human Rights Commission and won. Not financially, but on principle. The things that held me together over this period were the love of my adult children, the laughter of my grandchildren, the friendship of my former partner, a close friend who shared my journey, and the peer support from fellow trans people.

I have written at length of the impact of trauma that accompanies this becoming process of trans people. The broader community is obsessed with the “transformation”. Before and after shots. The guy in the dress thing. This is akin to describing a Monet artwork as some paint on paper, or a Beethoven sonata as a pleasant tune. What we endure is a complete reinvention of the self. The energy that pushes us to change is driven by a crisis of meaning. Our external appearance, way of life, our entire outward context is a daily collision with the way we feel inside. As we get older, we know that if we come out, the ripples of our decision will affect our families, our relationships, our working life, our wealth, our homes – everything. For some, the change is moderate. But for many, that gut feeling is a premonition that unfolds like a gauntlet of pain and loss over which we have no control. It’s like watching a tsunami wash away everything you knew and loved.

For me, I felt traumatised and alone. I fell into a blackness with nothing to hold onto. Sad options presented themselves, but in my heart I had deprived my children of their father once when I came out, and I knew I couldn’t do it to them again. Dad had died a few years ago, and I had lost mum to dementia. The family home of my birth had been sold. I was living in a soulless box, with room for a bed and telly and little else. And if I walked for more than ten minutes that dam wound would bleed again. One day I was watching TV, and the Qantas ad came on. The theme music was “Feels Like Home” by Martha Marlowe. It touched something deep and the tears fell. Crying over a dammed advertisement. But it did reveal a truth. I needed to go home. And I had no home to go to.

Sometime later, after my divorce, I knew I could never afford a place in Melbourne. I read an article about the Grampians shire getting a Rainbow Tick. My father’s family come from Stawell near the Grampians. I began looking at real estate in the town and spotted a beautiful old cottage that needed a lot of work. It was a bit crooked and bent like me. It’s paint was peeling. It’s roof was a bit thin on top. But I knew on some level it had been loved for a long time, and was lonely for company that cared. We clicked straight away. I put a bid in for her that was ridiculously low. It was every cent I had in the world. And eventually they said yes.

As children, we had holidayed two or three times a year in Stawell. Pleasant memories of visiting relatives out in the farms. Musical nights at Aunty Bessy’s place with someone on the fiddle, someone on the piano, and uncle Lawry reciting Lawson’s “The Loaded Dog”. Journeys out to Lake Lonsdale as a family, where I floated on an air bed in the water under the trees, reading a book. Staying at my grandparents old house, with the big black kettle on the wood stove ready with a cuppa on demand. And always in the background the town hall clock would chime the swagman’s folk song “With a swag all on my shoulder, my billy in my hand…….” made famous by the Seekers.

I sat on the front porch of my Crooked Cottage that first day, heard the town hall clock play it’s song, and it was my father and his ancestors singing me home across the years. For the first time I felt that I had finally come home, and tears of happiness danced with those of sadness until there was nothing left but the caress of evening breeze that blew gently off the Grampians Mountains.

My journey of becoming has always been a spiritual thing for me. It lends that sense of wonderment that comes with unexplained coincidence. Not miracles as such. More that gift of kindness by someone unknown that takes flight and lands on the shoulder of someone in need. While I was enjoying that sense of home, I was daunted by the prospect of reaching out to the broader community of Stawell. I had largely disregarded the warnings of some trans friends, that a latent hostility to trans people might await me, but I was still hesitant. Being trans is not something you turn off and on. Once you step out that door, you are a visible advocate all day. Sometimes it’s hard. Other days it’s not.

Change happens on many levels. I am in awe of those people that achieve global change through politics, legislation or media. I have never been good at that. As advocates for the trans community, we change hearts when we talk with others, listen to them, laugh with them, and make obvious our shared humanity. It requires resilience and vulnerability, courage and humility. When Ro Allen and her team came to town, they dared to take a chance. They stepped out of their offices, into a bus. They stepped out of the world of policy and legislation, and opened their hearts and minds to the community they served. They challenged rural community organisations to live out those principle of inclusion and diversity that populated their local policies and procedures.

I had the privilege of joining this team briefly on their journey through western Victoria. I am an observer by nature, a philosopher at heart and a writer in practice.. Over that week, i was gifted with the pleasure of watching a group of people who are driven to make a difference on the ground. Such high energy. I remember in literature there is mention of rainmakers. Bringers of change. I spent five days on a bus, sharing meals and motels, laughter and conversation with a bus load of rainmakers. I felt that keenly when they came to my new hometown of Stawell.

I was concerned that the turnout would be low. I was worried that I would be the only trans or gender diverse person there. I was anxious that I would stand out. I wasn’t sure what a group of locals would think of a transwoman intent on being out and active in her community. I wanted to be accepted, but was terrified of rejection.

I walked into that room and was greeted by about forty locals. Police, student doctors, nurses, teachers, health workers, counsellors, students, and some of the LGBTIQ community. And all of them – all of them – were wanting to know how they can help. There were offers of inclusion in local interest and community groups. New friendships were made that still remain. There was communal affirmation that we are not alone in Stawell – that we are valued.

Later that week, I sat on the old park bench out the front of the Crooked Cottage, sipping a coffee, and tried to make sense of what had happened. A person I had met at the roadshow walked past and said hello, and I called back a hearty gidday as they made their way to the shops. I realised that I had come home to a new community that accepted me as I am. Country people don’t care so much about how you identify. They respect someone that is honest and authentic. They want you to get over yourself and walk the talk. At the roadshow, I discovered that there is a welcoming community that is willing to help, but it’s up to us to show them what we need, and who we are.

The roadshow accelerates change. It removes roadblocks. It empowers young LGBTIQ people. It’s authority lifts the status of rural LGBTIQ communities, and shows it’s ok to be out and proud. It raises expectations, and encourages outcomes. It gives us permission to dream. It changes lives.

It changed mine.

I have a home that is mine. I have new friends. My family comes from here.

I thought of all the different ways I have come home this last six months. And just then the town hall clock chimed its song of the wandering swagman. I closed my eyes and listened as my father and his father sang me home one more time.

I am home. I belong. I am safe.

If I had to ask the Commissioner and her team the same question I had asked that original bureaucrat -“in terms of real outcomes at the coalface, can you tell me the story of one transgender person who’s life you have changed” – then I offer this personal story with a heartfelt thank you.

You made a difference.

Acknowledgement: This post was shared from Facebook with permission from Tina Healy.

Jill Bolen



Adapted from an article Published in LOTL Magazine 1/12/2014 by Anneke Deutsch

Jill Bolen has a dignified, imposing presence. She’s broad-shouldered, square jawed with a helmet of white hair.  She … speaks with a broad, working class accent. Raised in Cairns by a wharfie father, and a homemaker mother, both parents had a strong commitment to social justice and a left wing view of the world. They were pacifists; “Behind every bayonet is a worker,” her father would say. As the youngest child, her father would take her to the union meetings. She came out to her parents in her early days as a lesbian and was always completely accepted by them and her siblings. Later, when she was living with her partner and her mother came to stay, “Mum would always bring us both a cup of tea in bed in the mornings.”

In her 20s, she remembers going to the CAMP club in the Brisbane CBD. “At that time, the police would park opposite the CAMP Club, and when they raided the Club premises, many of us would step out of the windows onto the awning.” Where that club once sat, the Supreme and District Courts now stand. Jill grins when she considers the irony of this.

Jill forged many strong friendships at the time and knew firsthand about the effects of police harassment.

“Many LGBTI folk had experienced much harassment by police, and also, they had been sacked from their jobs when their sexuality became known in the workplace. It was then I realised that life was not as carefree for our Community as for many other sub-groups within society. In Queensland, most of the venues we attended at that time included both lesbians and gays as their patrons. It was a time when, for work purposes, many a lesbian would take a gay man (and vice versa) to special events to avoid being outed. The threat of losing one’s job, because of one’s sexuality, was real.  It was not something just imagined.” She joined the Queensland Police in 1973, and socialised discretely with her lesbian and gay friends, or so she thought.

In the 1970s, women couldn’t get a loan in their own right. They needed their husband or father to be a guarantor. “Despite the hurdles of single females obtaining finance for a house, I had managed to purchase a house in an outer suburb.” By late 1977, she was living in that home with her partner who was also a policewoman. “Life was good, but things were soon to take a turn for the worse.”

“I was at the Brisbane Coroner’s Court waiting to give evidence when my partner came out of the lift looking quite stunned. I asked what was wrong because things were fine when we had breakfast and left for work that morning. She had been called in to the head of the Criminal Investigation Branch and was interviewed about our relationship. The interviewer asked her if she was in a lesbian relationship with me. She admitted she was. Various questions were asked which indicated they knew of our socialisation and activities. She was also asked if her family knew of this situation. She was then told to come to the Court and bring me for interview when I had finished.”

“After giving evidence and, on arrival at the CIB Headquarters, I made calls to some other lesbians in the police. I explained what was happening and recommended they not attend without a lawyer. I was then interviewed, and readily admitted my sexuality, and said that it had nothing to do with my job. I asserted that I was more competent and capable than some of my heterosexual, male counterparts…. At this stage, the Inspector taking notes of the interview asked me how to spell heterosexual. The interviewer walked out of the room; I think he went out to laugh.”

“I went through the same process as my partner. I asked them what the purpose of the investigation was. They gave no indication other than to say that others would be interviewed. Seven of us were interviewed. In the following weeks, my partner was transferred to Longreach in central Queensland, and I was transferred to Mt. Isa…

“Despite my requests not to, my partner ended up resigning from the job; she had been the dux of her squad and was training as a scenes of crime officer.” Jill considers her partner’s resignation as a great loss to the Force. They eventually broke up. This was, of course, the unstated aim of the Lesbian Investigation.

Soon after they’d been informed about their transfers, Jill and her partner were at a family barbeque, talking with her sister and brother-in-law who were very supportive. He joked that he thought the Police hierarchy’s aim to root lesbians out of the force would probably have the reverse effect.

“If they transferred one lesbian to Cairns and one to Coolangatta, the women wouldn’t change their sexuality but merely find another partner if their relationship broke down. If those two found a new partner in the police then… those four women would be transferred elsewhere.” They laughed as they imagined the exponential spread of lesbians throughout country QLD and the Force. “I went to see the Deputy Commissioner shortly after that visit, and explained my brother-in-law’s scenario, having lesbians in every station. Stunned, his reply was, “Jill we didn’t think of that.”

Jill’s rise through the ranks of the Police Force attests to a high degree of resilience. She acknowledges that, “The interpersonal events at work sometimes caused me severe angst. In 1990 I was promoted to Inspector and posted to the South Eastern Regional Office at the Gold Coast. While the two most senior officers in the Region were extremely supportive of me, some of my colleagues weren’t. I had five qualities that they saw as very negative. I was a woman, the most junior in terms of years of service, a lesbian, the youngest in age, and the only commissioned officer with a tertiary education.”

Later, she was promoted to Superintendent and then to Chief Superintendent – again the first woman in Queensland to achieve those ranks.

Highlights of her career include introducing the application of the Domestic Violence legislation to Queensland that better protected battered women. She helped to change the culture within the Police Force that had seen “a domestic” as an assault that was somehow less worthy of prosecution. She educated officers of all ranks, some magistrates, lawyers, domestic violence refuge staff and some health care staff.

After her retirement, Jill had some happy and challenging years working on an AusAID project in Papua New Guinea, assisting their Constabulary in Community Policing ideas and methods. Her partner joined her on her second stint in PNG, but on their return to Australia in 2008 Lorna “was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. We were open with regard to our relationship with all medical staff involved, particularly in the Palliative Care ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital Brisbane – a Catholic hospital.  Jill realised how much attitudes towards lesbians had changed and how there are kind, warm-hearted people everywhere. The nurse on the night shift when my partner was in palliative care, two nights before she died, said to me, “Jill, if it was my partner, I would want to hop into bed and have a cuddle. Come on we’ll tuck you in.”  That happened the last two nights of Lorna’s life; I appreciated their love and concern – for both of us.”

The powerful contrast between this strong, butch, resilient woman who had withstood so much in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland, and seeing her soft side, being tucked into bed next to her beloved, dying partner, brought [us] to tears.


100 Years of Love

LAW_5535Today we launched 100 Years of Love – a project celebrating the lives and loves of three lesbian couples living in Ballarat who have collectively been in relationship for almost 100 years. The first celebration involves Edie Mayhew and Anne Tudor (pictured – photo (c) Lisa White, The Social Photographer) and will take place as part of Victorian Seniors Festival. For more information go to the webpage here

Breast Screening

LAW_7605The Beautiful Women Campaign continues to grow. In June BreastScreen Victoria hosted a screening session for lesbian and bisexual women at the Rose Clinic in Melbourne. All 12 mammogram spaces were booked and 25 women attended. Bree McAulley had her first mammogram at the event and wrote about her experience for the Star Observer. Bree is a creative writer and the article is funny and engaging – you can check it out here.  Thanks also to Lisa White, The Social Photographer for the beautiful photos – I love this one of some of the women who attended with the BreastScreen Victoria Radiographers.