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Trans, Happy and Free

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It’s no small personal transformation to change gender. But for these four Canberrans, it has been the only way to live an authentic life.

We meet them at various stages of their journey, as well as the people who’ve supported them along the way.

Anne-Marie Condé looks back to her second-born’s early years and sees no signs that her daughter did not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth.

But Anne-Marie does recall her child repeatedly asking her what name she would have chosen for a boy.

“Edward” was her response.

And Eddie, as he is now named, is quietly, confidently, most happily a young man—having undergone a gender transition over the past two years.

Anne-Marie is an unflappable public servant who loves her son unconditionally, and gets rather a kick that he chose the name she loved. In fact, she can see him completely settled into his true self.

“It was meant to be.”

“You just want your child to be happy and to reach their full potential. Gender doesn’t really enter into it,” she says.

There are no hard statistics on how many ACT residents are transgender. But Joel Radcliffe, Deputy Director at A Gender Agenda (AGA), estimates the population is likely to be much higher than the number formally accessing support services.

“It’s impossible to know an exact figure as there is no population data collection method that accurately includes trans and gender diverse communities—in the ACT or anywhere else in the country.”

Using a best practice study of young people out of New Zealand, Joel extrapolates the rate is somewhere between two-to-four per cent.

AGA received more than 2000 contacts last year and has grown steadily since its inception in 2005 as a grassroots advocacy group for trans, intersex, and gender-diverse Canberrans and their allies.

It was born of the need to connect trans community members and tackle discriminatory laws and policies which were in place in the ACT at the time. But a landmark Law Reform Advisory Report, Beyond the Binary, in 2012, saw the ACT adopt the nation’s most progressive legislative recognitions of the rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and Intersex (LGBTQI) community.

This included a reform that allows people to change their gender on birth certificates without undertaking potentially sterilising surgeries, providing birth certificates with an ‘x’ as a sex marker where requested and, in 2015, the Commonwealth removed the requirement that people under the age of 18 receive Family Court approval before starting hormone therapy.

ACT Discrimination Commissioner Karen Toohey said that while Tasmania has been the focus in recent months of plaudits for its progressive legislative changes regarding gender diversity, the ACT has led the nation in breaking down barriers for trans and gender diverse people.

The trans community is keen to see the Legislative Assembly pass further changes to allow people under the age of 18 to change or remove the gender marker on their birth certificate without parental permission through the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal—an important step when young trans people are not supported by their parents or carers to legally transition.

The AGA was one of the main consultative partners in the Beyond the Binary report and has grown, in recent years, to offer outreach to the trans and intersex community, their family and friends, and provide education for workplaces and individuals seeking to implement inclusive practice.

For Anne-Marie and 16-year-old Eddie, AGA has been a welcome place of support throughout his transition.

The message they most want other families to understand is that being trans does not have to be a negative experience. And life goes on for mother and son, just as it would have for mother and daughter.

“I actually see our story as really ordinary,” says Anne-Marie.

“There was no real drama or trauma involved and a lot of that has to do with living in Canberra. I am extremely grateful for that and my heart aches for the children in regional or remote communities who cannot access services, or any child who does not get the support they deserve.”

From Eddie’s perspective, he understood the concept behind transitioning in primary school and by Year 6 identified as bisexual. He felt unsettled as puberty struck and, by 13, anxiety had set in.

To this day, Eddie says he finds it difficult to grapple with the words to explain how he felt about growing up as a girl, other than “kind of empty”.

Now he feels a sense of himself. “I’m glad I have more of my life to live to the fullest.”

Having begun hormone therapy at 15, Eddie was delighted to hear his voice deepen over a few months. Less ideal were the skin breakouts and increased body odour, but such is testosterone.

He had chest reconstruction (top surgery) very recently and is delighted with the results. He has no more plans for surgery but wouldn’t completely rule out other procedures further down the track.

Eddie considers himself lucky. He has numerous transgender friends and those who are gay and non-binary. Not everyone has had the same levels of acceptance as he has. When he transitioned at Lyneham High School, Eddie said his teachers did not bat an eyelid. They changed his name on the roll and he was able to use the male toilets. The school even has a gender-neutral loo.

But for Zeke, coming out as a trans boy while he was enrolled at an all-girls’ school proved more testing.

Zeke’s internal sense that he was not a girl kicked in a lot earlier than Eddie’s. Born in China and adopted by his Canberra parents Stewart and Lisa when he was a baby, the now 17-year-old first explained to his parents that he felt like a boy around the age of nine. But Zeke had experienced gender dysphoria from far earlier in childhood.

Lisa and Stewart accepted their child’s feelings and sought advice to support him to understand his identity. Zeke, however, recalls the subsequent visit to a GP saw discussions focused on possible future medical interventions, which frightened and confused him.

“I had no idea why I was feeling the way I was feeling, which lead me to falsely believe that there was something seriously wrong with me in the head—so I avoided the whole thought process until it became unavoidable. Had someone explained what transgender meant, I would have most certainly transitioned earlier,” says Zeke.

Instead, he backed away from transitioning and continued to try and live as a girl. But by 13, he felt like “crap”.

It was only when Zeke broke down one day, coming home in tears, saying “I don’t want to be a girl,” that he suddenly realised his future was clear.

“I look back now and kind of wish I had done it at nine because I would have avoided puberty as a girl altogether.”

His parents were on board, as they had always been, and Zeke started the process of transition. Both he and Eddie relate feeling incredible relief in not having to front the Family Court to plead their case for bodily autonomy but they say one of the hardest parts of transitioning in Canberra is the need to travel interstate for many of the specialist medical and psychological services they’ve required. Currently, both receive ongoing hormone treatments through the Paediatric Endocrinology Unit at the Canberra hospital which opened in 2015 due to the increase in trans people and their families seeking support.

By 15, Zeke was ready to come out at school, and praises his pastoral care teacher for her understanding and compassion. His name was changed on the school roll. Less supportive was the recognition coming from the school’s hierarchy over the strict dress code.

“Having to wear a dress at school was physically and mentally killing me,” he says.

In the end his mother took matters into her own hands and bought Zeke trousers to wear to school “because my mum is a superstar like that”.

Zeke started hormones the same day he got his L-Plates. It was a very good day indeed. While he “passed” for a boy prior to hormone therapy, the testosterone broadened his face and his shoulders and deepened his voice.

“The best part of the transition is I have become who I am. The worst part is society sucks with trans people. They are ignorant and prejudiced and scared of us. It’s hard enough being a teenager, but when I see trans mental health stats it really depresses me.”

This includes statistics which show that three-quarters of all trans people present with a mental health disorder and a staggering 48 per cent of young trans people attempt suicide.

Christopher Cole has been privy to the very darkest and most desperate emotions of trans people who can find the strength to reveal their deepest selves—only to be rejected by the outside world.

A specialist counsellor with Relationships Australia, Christopher helped negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding with AGA in 2015, having worked for many years with current Executive Director of AGA, Sel Cooper. The two highly experienced counsellors understood the need for fact-tracked and expert support for trans people in crisis.

Christopher has worked alongside about 30 trans people since then, saying the MOU meant the service was free, immediate and connected to lived experience.

“Coming to a mainstream service can be taking a great risk for some trans and gender-diverse clients. Many would have experienced various forms of transphobia at some stage in the community—experiences that can leave the person traumatised, fearful, and suspicious.

“If an authentic rapport can be established from the outset, and if the person to senses that you are a true trans ally, then great work can happen in the room, with positive outcomes for the individual and their broader relationships.”

Christopher says there is no single path to transgenderism. Many children have a clear sense of gender from the age of about three. Some identify as trans as young as five. But others may try and mask it through their lifetime, or come out in middle age or later life. Christopher’s youngest client is 14, his oldest, 76. It is a completely individual thing.

So too is the reaction of each trans person’s family and friends.

Most heartbreaking are the cases where a transition means complete rejection by a partner, parents or children. It happens far too often.

Christopher recalls seeing one mother and son where the mother was so unable to come to terms with her son’s true gender identity that she begged Christopher to convince him he wasn’t trans—and that it was all just an act.

But Christopher says no amount of arguing, pleading or convincing can “change” what is fundamentally core to someone’s sense of self. He has never known anyone to change their mind, or to want to detransition.

Moreover, a 2018 survey of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health surgeons found only approximately 0.3 per cent of patients who underwent transition-related surgery later requested detransition-related services.

“I think we need to accept that children have agency and insight into their experience of being a sentient being and ‘knowing’ themselves,” he says.

“I’ve heard criticisms of gender-questioning adolescents that they’re just doing it for attention, or that it’s ‘fashionable’. Who the hell would ‘choose’ an identity that can attract such social and interpersonal ridicule, misunderstanding, fear, and violence? Being trans or gender variant is not a choice.”

“Rampant cultural and societal paternalism infantilises these children and young people in very harmful ways—leading directly, in my opinion, to very poor mental health outcomes with some people. The saying ‘would you rather have a happy daughter or a dead son?’ rings very true.”

The earlier that a child who experiences gender dysphoria is allowed to feel safe and given the space and support to work through it the better, he says.

Not that outcomes can’t be just as joyful for someone coming out in their fifties.

Dr Tuck Meng Soo has been a doctor at the Interchange General Practice for the last 23 years.

Last year she transitioned, and while she is still professionally registered under her male Chinese name, she has chosen the name Clara Soo for her private life.

A few weeks leading to her coming out as female, Dr Soo wrote to all her patients to let them know that she understood it might be confronting for them and she would organise an alternative GP if they needed.

Not one patient left her.

And on her first day in a dress, a very cantankerous 80-year-old Chinese patient bashed on the door with a complaint about his blood tests. As Dr Soo hurried to calm him down, he turned to her with a huge grin and said “By the way, congratulations” as he pulled out a pearl necklace from his bag to present to her.

Born the son of traditional Chinese tiger-parents with a strong streak of social conservatism, Dr Soo knew from a very young age she was female.

“When I was about seven, a group of boys at my primary school pulled me up and told me to walk like a boy. I wondered what I was doing wrong, and what I was meant to be doing?”

By age nine she developed a crush on her male teacher and figured she was gay. By the time she was a teenager she saw The Sound of Music and remembers “floating around on a romantic cloud wishing with every part of me to have a husband like Captain Von Trapp.”

She met her own captain, Paul, in 1993, and they lived harmoniously as a gay couple. Meanwhile, Dr Soo’s practice was going well and earning a reputation as a place which provided professional and non-judgemental care particularly to the LGBTQI community.

Dr Soo treats about 40 transgender patients and says they have been a constant source of support and information in her own transition.

Earlier this year, she and Paul married as husband and wife. Paul’s reaction when he saw his partner in a dress for the first time was “one of surprised delight” and he has always cherished Dr Soo’s feminine traits.

By the time this article goes to print, Dr Soo will have undergone gender-affirming surgery. She is doing this because, while her outer transition satisfies the community’s sense of what a female should look like, the surgical transition will satisfy her own sense of being a woman.

Dr Soo says her parents have found her late-life transition to be challenging. But she felt some sense of acceptance when her mother cleared out her wardrobe of dresses and offered them to her daughter to wear.

And she attributes her decision to transition to ghosts. Yes, ghosts. In 2017, a holiday in Singapore coincided with the Chinese Festival Night of the Hungry Ghost.

“In my teens I had often experienced a nightmare about being chased by a ghost. But it stopped in my late 20s and I feel that was because I had accepted my sexuality and had come out as gay.”

But after Singapore, the nightmares returned and Dr Soo said she had to stop and think about what it was in her subconscious that she was suppressing.

“After thinking about it, I realised, I needed to welcome my gender home.”

The idea that that welcome can come later in life is also the case for Dana Gambrill—who identifies as a business problem solver, a surfer, bad golfer, muso, pizza-lover, father of three, heart-attack survivor, and woman.

Where public transitions are concerned, Dana’s was pretty spectacular. Her workplace, at DXC Technology, was looking to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia in a meaningful way.

The company’s Digital Leader for the Public Sector felt brave enough to speak to a camera about her decision to transition from being David to Dana at the age of 54. The company live-streamed the resulting video to its offices around the world.

Professionally, Dana has not looked back, not only being buoyed by the support of her colleagues and clients in the traditional masculine intersection between IT provision and Government bureaucracies,  but also experiencing some sort of a career turbo-charge.

“My transition has gone so unbelievably well it has unlocked the world for me. I didn’t realise the amount of mental horsepower I was wasting on hiding who I was, and once I stopped worrying what people thought of me all the time, I could focus on moving forward and becoming way more effective.”

Now Dana is hitting goals professionally, while championing inclusion and diversity on the public speaking circuit nationally.

She may have suffered gender dysphoria as a man, but as a woman she is experiencing gender euphoria—the simple act of getting her ears pierced or her nails done, bringing a sense of complete elation. Not that it didn’t take suffering to get to that point.

Dana describes a recent period in her life of intense personal trauma which left her close to a breakdown.

“I was lost. I needed to figure out who I was and rebuild from core values up—and I couldn’t do that as David.

“At that point it came down to a simple matter of survival. People talk about being brave and courageous. But you only see very limited options when you are in the thick of it.”

The big work reveal was “the scariest thing I have ever done, and only came after I had created a circle of trust and knew I had support.”

Dana’s three kids were all pretty cool in their own way and in their own time, and her nine-year-old daughter seems unfazed about “Dad” as she is still happily referred to, wearing a pair of killer heels and sporting perfect makeup.

“I could not have imagined just what my life would become, I almost feel guilty.”

Dana has a new partner who is a woman coming out of a marriage to a man.

“Love is love and it’s a gift,” says Dana.

Meanwhile, her hormone therapy has been a blessing and a curse.

“I mean, what a circus! I have experienced the three emotions of being a man—food, sex and sport—and now I am experiencing the 3000 emotions of being a woman.

“I’ve gone through female puberty and menopause at the same time, had the pain of my boobs growing while simultaneously experiencing night sweats. All while crying. What an awakening!”

Dana relates how she would often catch a glimpse of herself as David in the mirror each morning and have an automatic flinch reaction to see a stranger staring back at her.

Now she sees herself in the mirror and recognises with complete and utter gratitude, the woman she was always meant to be.

Photography Martin Ollman

This article originally appeared in Magazine: Black + White for Spring 2019, available for free while stocks last. Find out more about Magazine here.

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