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.
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.
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.