I am 78, approaching 79 years old. Ageing is inevitable so there’s no point worrying about it. I’d prefer to be 39, but there it is.
From my earliest memory I wanted to be female. That feeling never left me, no matter the social circumstances around me. I realised I could do something about it when I was seventeen, but I was 52 when I began my transition. I could not hurt people who loved me and depended on me up to that point.
I had a very loving family and a very happy childhood. My father was a sea captain, so travel was an ordinary part of life for me as a child. I went to many schools, and lived in several countries. I consider the world my home. I still enjoy travelling very much.
I have a sister five years older than I, who was very caring of me – it was almost like having two mothers. My father was away a lot, but when he was home he was extremely loving and caring and I admired him greatly. He was an extraordinary man, in that while he was very powerful at sea – people jumped when he said jump – when he came home he did many domestic chores. He taught me to sew, and to cook, and he taught my sister carpentry. He believed in equality. He said to me once, you should be ashamed to ask a woman to do something for you because you can’t do it for yourself. The exception is childbirth. He taught me that men and women were equals so I felt no shame nor embarrassment in wanting to be female.
I had a very happy marriage. I have three children. One has always supported me and been my best friend. The two others don’t want to know me and of course that’s painful when I think about it.
Before I transitioned I was rather stiff, formal and standoffish, a very conventional presentation for a male, but the truth was that I was hiding part of myself. I am told by others that I am much more easy going now, easier to know, easier to like.
But I lost friends over my transition. It was a bit like a divorce – people felt that they had to take sides. But I kept running into these people, and when I did I made a point of talking to them, and they gradually realised I was the same person and came back to me. The few who didn’t were the ones that I could spare. Generally, I make friends easily. I have friends that date back to primary school and friends I made yesterday. I sometimes actively seek out a friend, or I renew a friendship that has been out of currency for thirty or forty years.
I was at Sydney University with many people who have since made world reputations. In the 1950s, there was a concentration of creative people at Sydney University, as it was the only university in Sydney! I love creativity, so I gravitated to others who wanted to produce a play, or a revue, or the student paper. I am a qualified librarian, and have worked at many academic libraries in Australia and overseas. I also worked at the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. I have a public persona, but if I walk out on the street nobody recognises me – I’m not George Clooney and I’m certainly not Julia Roberts!
Writing is the most important thing I’ve done. My autobiography, Katherine’s Diary, which followed two years broadcasts for the ABC’s Radio National Health Report, was published in 1992 and won the Australian Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction. I hope my writing has helped other people.
Ninety nine percent of my life I’m a woman amongst women, even if I am a strange-looking woman. Parents do urge their children to stand up for me on the train, so I must be convincing to that extent. It’s only when I’m working as an activist that I declare myself publicly as a transgender woman.
I began working at the Gender Centre in 2001, originally to produce a report on violence against transgender people. Soon after that I joined them as Information Worker. The advances that have been made in the treatment of transgendered people are quite remarkable. The fact that people who have transitioned can have their birth documentation changed, and can marry, would have seemed far-fetched when I was first thinking about these issues. In fact, when I transitioned in 1986, it was perfectly legal to discriminate against transgender people, particularly in employment. Transgender was not included in the Anti-Discrimination Act until 1996. But we still have a long way to go.
Bentham’s idea of the greatest good for the greatest number is worth following in one’s own life. I’m a social animal. I try to do what is best for society, rather than what is best for me, which is probably why I am poor. Working for the disadvantaged, the poor and the elderly – ironically that means I’m working for my own interests.
If I were Empress of Australia, I would implement 100% income tax on the portion of salaries over one hundred thousand a year! This might help to make education, medical care and legal expenses completely free.
I would like more paid work, because I’m tired of living on the breadline. So I freelance as a writer and editor, which pays well but is unpredictable. It would be nice to have a bit more security. My choices are restrained by my financial situation but in life there is always someone worse off, and always someone better off.
We get ourselves tangled up in problems which are minor, for example about language. For me, the term transsexual is past its use-by date and misleading, since it suggests a form of sexuality, but I don’t carry on about it.
Two things I am proud that I achieved. First getting the Immigration Department to allow the amendment of Naturalisation Certificates to show one’s new name. Before that, I outed myself every time I had to produce my Naturalisation Certificate.
The second achievement was persuading the ATO to recognise electrolysis as a medical treatment for income tax purposes. I had it knocked back for four years as being cosmetic rather than therapeutic, but I kept complaining, and the fifth year they relented and I was backpaid. You can achieve a breakthrough, but it’s also important to keep telling people about it, or the advantage is lost because others won’t know to claim the benefit and the ATO won’t tell them.
The sea has always been part of my life. I like to go and watch the waves, and realise that they connect with a mass of sea water which is joined all round the world. For many years I loved sailing, but I’m not fit enough to sail small boats any more. I’ve had a triple bypass and a couple of stents put in. I take eleven pills every morning and three at night. But I’m pretty casual about looking after myself. I think there are more important things to do than look after my health. I intend to live forever but sometimes I think I’m not going to make it.
I see myself as a lesbian. I don’t know how much is innate, or how much has been socialised into me, but I like women. To be fair, I don’t consider a whole sex as being something I fall in love with. I fall in love with individuals. So far they have all been women. But neither do I think sex is terribly important. Freud has a lot to answer for. Part of the problem for the transgender community is that society thinks genitalia are more important than noses. So you can get your nose remodeled, but you can’t get your genitalia remodeled without going through two years of psychotherapy. It’s my body, I should be able to do what I want with it. And if I don’t like the result, then I should have to live with it. That’s called being an adult and taking responsibility for one’s life. I tend to agree with Lord Chesterfield’s view of sex – the pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable.
What’s next for me? Death I suspect. I’m not afraid of death, but I resent the thought of dying, which can be messy and protracted and undignified. A quick death and a beautiful corpse – that’s the way to go.
Portrait by Nick Stathopoulos
Photography by Kerry Fluhr