I love a good story and this is a great one. It’s about a kid who never felt quite right in their skin and who never really fitted in anywhere. It’s about spending an entire adolescence in a place that couldn’t be more wrong, and surviving. It’s about making a difference and effecting change when the odds are stacked against you. It’s about being including in The Age’s list of Top 100 Creative and Influential People and a whole lot besides. Plus, if a story teaches you something along the way, I like it even more; I learnt a lot from this one. Thank you, Sally Goldner.
Jac: I’d like to start by talking about your background and when you started to…hmm…what’s the question here? Feel different? Notice you were different from other kids?
Sally: I often start my life story in the middle which defies the fairy tale rule but it works for me. In April, 1995 when I was 29 I awoke for the first time in my life feeling calm and at peace; it was as if my soul had begun to awaken, but let me back up.
When I was six years old a friend of my mum’s said: With eyebrows like that you should have been a girl and I’ve always remembered that. By the age of nine every image in my head was about becoming female, dressing like a woman and turning into a woman, but that was 1974 and trans wasn’t on anyone’s radar. I had no information, no role models, and I went through life knowing something, but not knowing. I spent thirteen years at Brighton Grammar, a private all-boys school which is a pretty masculine and very conservative school. I was saved by being reasonably academic which gave me some sense of self-esteem, but it was a massive case of a fish out of water.
It wasn’t until I was 29 that I first told someone about the images of being a woman I had in my head; that was the crater blowing off the volcano, if you like.
My GP referred me to a psychiatrist who was…let’s just say ‘not helpful’ and who tried conversation therapy on me. A friend who was supportive helped me – along with some dumb luck – connect with a psychologist who listened to my 29 years in about 20 minutes and then said: So has anyone ever explained this to you? Some people are born male, but are more feminine than masculine and some are born male, but need to live as female and vice versa. And that’s called ‘transgender’.
Jac: That was the first time you heard that word?
Sally: Yes. And all of a sudden a humongous environmentally friendly light-bulb came on and I said: Tell me more! I remember driving away from that appointment and saying to myself: I’ve gone a long way down by fighting this; I wonder what would happen if I went with it. And that’s when I woke up that April day feeling peaceful because I’d effectively come out to myself.
Jac: So did that moment then make sense of everything that had gone before?
Sally: Absolutely. I wasn’t getting anywhere in life because I was building on the wrong foundations and they were made of sand. All of a sudden the past became clear and I began to get some idea of my future. There was this absolute paradigm shift and it all fell into place.
I’ve reasoned to myself that if I’d tried to come out earlier it would have been very hard given the total lack of knowledge of trans at that time. I’ve spoken to people who survived the St Kilda street scene of the 1970s.You had two choices for work: the parlours or the drag shows and I can tell you I can’t really dance in high heels!
Jac: How did your family respond to your coming out as transgender and to your transition?
Sally: It’s a good question and the transition raises a good point too, because in a way I came out twice. When I came out as a cross dresser that was neither here nor there, but when I realised I needed to transition that was a lot harder and to be honest there was limited contact between us for about ten years.
The ice did begin to break in 2008. We had a family friend who could see both sides and who was able to communicate and say: Hey Sally’s doing all right and she’s much happier. That was really, really helpful. Mum’s 70th birthday was the first time all my family had sat down to dinner together for a very long time.
Then 2010 was mum and dad’s 50th wedding anniversary and mum rang me three weeks before and said: We’ve got lots of friends up here on the Gold Coast who haven’t met you. How do we introduce you? And I said: Sally. And she said: Well okay. That was the breakthrough.
And now we are really, really close and they will ask about some of the things I’m doing. They were ecstatic recently about the first ever Pride Shabbat for Jewish LGBTI people. It was at Temple Beth Israel where as a boy I had my Bah Mitzvah.
Jac: So after your light-bulb moment?
Sally: I joined a trans support group, Seahorse Club of Victoria, and continued with counselling. I started going out more as female, while still not living permanently as female, and over time I began to feel a greater connection to the people in Seahorse who had made a permanent transition.
By the start of 1998 I was really finding my own path. It was about that time that the ‘male facade’ dissolved and I realised I needed to live full time as female. That’s a critical thing for trans people. It’s like there’s a ping pong ball in your head and it’s going: male, female, male, female and I just stopped the ball bouncing and making a tremendous racket. There are only two other options: go nuts or die. So you’ve got to be yourself despite societal pressures and prejudices.
Jac: What did that mean for you?
Sally: It meant starting down the path of hormones and at that point I hadn’t really thought about surgery. Within the trans community at the time there was a lot of emphasis on going ‘all the way to the end’ which implied surgery, but I saw a counsellor who asked whether having an operation would make me happier and healthier, and I thought ‘no’. It just wasn’t going to be my thing. My identity was between my ears, so to speak; it was up top. And really that was the end of the trans journey for me. Once I realised that, I kept taking hormones and I wrote to the Monash Clinic and said I really don’t need to see you anymore. So that was the end of that chapter so to speak.
Jac: How would it be for a young trans person now?
Sally: Now we at least have a skeleton of support. We have sensational groups like YGender for 14-25 year olds. We have a great group called Transcend for adolescents and their parents. And we have the adolescent unit at the Royal Children’s Hospital.
We’ve not got a massive funded office with big trans signs on the roof, but that framework of support is there. I think it’s possible for young people to have a chance and there are lots of supportive parents too which is sensational. Some schools are also supportive and people are able to affirm their identity at school if they need to.
Jac: How have things changed in the last ten years?
Sally: Things are massively different. In 1995 when I started to emerge I didn’t feel I could walk anywhere in Melbourne and feel safe and now at least I think a trans person in the inner suburbs can walk anywhere by and large. And beyond the inner suburbs, at least where I live in the east, I find people totally positive.
I live in Bulleen (that’s public knowledge) and in 2012 I did a story for The Project and they wanted footage of me doing an everyday thing like walking to the shops. I actually needed some fruit and veges so I went to the greengrocers. A few days later I went to the butchers next door and they joking said: Why didn’t you come into us? So the next news story I’ll have to make sure I’ve got some meat shopping to do. And that’s just awesome. These are your proverbial punters in the suburbs, Australians who are just trying to live their lives, down to earth and friendly; if you’re a nice person you’ll get nice back. So whilst there isn’t a lot of visibility of transgender I think the outright prejudice is also going away.
Jac: What would you like people in the broader community to know or understand about being transgender?
Sally: That we are people who, as one facet of any multi-faceted person, happen to experience gender identity issues. We could be any occupation. We could be a hairdresser, an accountant, an astronaut, anyone. We could be politically left wing, ring wing or diagonal. And we can be any sexual orientation. We could be attracted to our own identity, attracted to another, attracted to more than one. Society loves to put people into neat boxes, but there are seven billion unique human beings on the planet and we’re part of that.
Overwhelmingly trans people want to achieve their potential like anyone else. I think of Lana Wachowski who co-made the films like Matrix and Cloud Atlas, and also someone who’s less well known, Lynn Conway, who effectively made a major break though in multi-processing in computers. We wouldn’t have any of the computers on our desk, on our laps, or smart phones, without her. If we can respect trans people, if we give people a chance and affirm them, away we go.
Jac: And while I’ve got you, can you clarify a few terms for us?
Sally: Happy to. Trans or transgender is an umbrella term for those people whose sense of gender identity differs from expectations given their body at birth. Increasingly the term trans and gender diverse is being used to emphasise the fact that some people don’t identify with existing binary definitions, i.e. as male or female.
Transsexual describes people who identify permanently as another gender identity, and who have undergone a process of transition that may involve hormones and/or surgery.
Intersex people are born with physical, hormonal or genetic features that are neither wholly female nor wholly male; or a combination of female and male; or neither female nor male.
It’s important to remember that definitions are a personal matter and that we respect the right of each person to their own definition – or none at all.
Jac: If the world was a little different, a little better for trans people, how would it look?
Sally: If people understood that sex, gender, gender identity were not two dot points M and F, but were an infinite range of possibilities and combinations and they were totally cool about that, that would be the deep start.
Something that would help lots of trans people would be good medical care. As more trans people are coming out and finding some degree of acceptance, they need health professionals for support. This morning I got a message on Facebook that someone was refused service for being transgender and that’s appalling.
It would be very helpful if we had forms and documentation where, if it wasn’t necessary to know about someone’s gender identity or sex, it wasn’t asked. If you have to put something on a form just have a blank space where everyone can write in whatever they want. Or M, F, Other, please specify and a fourth option, Prefer not to specify. And 95% of the population will write M or F without blinking, but for the rest of us, we can write in what we need. Making mailing titles optional would be a wonderful thing.
Jac: You’ve been involved in all sorts of campaigns and projects. Can you give me some highlights?
Sally: We had gender identity and sexual orientation added to the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act in 2000 which was amazing and more recently we had gender identity included in federal law, along with gains in other areas.
Being listed in The Age Top 100 Creative and Influential People in Melbourne in 2011 was a personal moment of great pride, but the fact that there was a trans person listed there said that a lot of the work was bearing fruit.
Making the documentary, Sally’s Story, which premiered in 2011 was fantastic.
And on a personal level, a young trans person with whom I’d connected was having major trouble at home. They were 17 and their parents had threatened to ban their internet access, not let them out of the house unescorted and send them to a ‘Christian friendly’ psychiatrist. So they ran away from home with a few clothes, a guitar and a teddy bear and crashed on my couch for a few days. I was able to help them out and find accommodation.
The young person was able to marry someone of the opposite sex having changed their birth certificate and I went to the wedding. Their mother came up to me and thanked me for looking after their child at that time which was pretty cool.
Jac: And the future? What are you looking forward to?
Sally: I’m hoping to do some more training and Transgender Victoria has just received a huge contract in this area. And I want to keep communicating. I’ll sit in a board room or a squat and talk if people will listen. I think there will be more of that this year on every level and that’s exciting.
And there’s a happy note that after years I am in a relationship. I’d pretty much given up and thought it wasn’t going to happen and then one day this person said: I’d like to be in a relationship with you. And I don’t think I’d ever been asked to be in a relationship before. And it’s turning out to be nice just to have that companionship and support and to give and share.
It’s been a journey through rocky valleys at times, but now I’m beginning to get out and look at the view from the peaks and it’s pretty cool.
Jac: Thank you so much for talking with me and for being so open and honest. It’s been a privilege and an absolute delight. Good luck with everything.
Sally Goldner is the Executive Director of Transgender Victoria: