On the last night of a three-week vacation to Australia, my friend of several years and the reason I made the trip, Steph, and her mates came together for a barbie. For my American friends, there were no shrimp involved. That’s not a thing there. In fact, they call them prawns, not shrimp. The Aussies in attendance were an excellent representation of everyone I had met in Queensland — congenial, funny, interested, interesting, intelligent, and accepting people.
Before I left America for Australia, a moment of fear struck me. What would happen if someone complained about me using a women’s restroom there? It’s something I deal with every day. Every time I use the restroom at work or in public, I’m nervous about being confronted.
I quickly Googled “Australia transgender anti-discrimination” and learned that the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1991 protected me. “Wow,” I thought! “1991? What were the protections for transgender individuals here in America in 1991?” There weren’t any that I knew of, and still aren’t with the exception of some larger metropolitan places, like New York City and San Francisco. If you’ve watched the news lately, you’ve seen the slew of so-called “bathroom bills” being filed in several states recently, and you probably know why I was initially worried.
There are so many differences between the cultures of America and Australia! The people I found there react differently than most Americans to anything that could be considered alternative or out of the norm, and they told me that it was the nature of Australians to be accepting and non-judgmental. During my entire three weeks in Australia, I encountered ZERO discrimination. I was not misgendered, even once. I was seen as a woman and treated as a woman.
Since I began my transition, I’ve felt that my being transgender is an elephant in the room, when meeting new people. I know they can tell there’s something not completely feminine about me, especially when they hear my deep baritone voice that I try to hide. I know whomever I’ve just met must have questions, but they’re likely afraid of asking the wrong question or offending me, so I always bring up the subject to break the ice. In Australia, I discovered I didn’t really need to bring it up. It was more comfortable for me to bring it up most times, but it wasn’t necessary. People there weren’t hung-up on it. Once, after referring to my trans status, someone said, “Oh, that’s interesting. But tell me more about working at CNN!” I was genuinely shocked, several times, at how little it mattered to our conversation, or to them, that I was trans.
One woman asked me if I was “changing,” during our second conversation. I acknowledged that I was transitioning. She told me that at first, she had no clue I wasn’t just another woman, but that she had noticed my voice and realized I was transgender. She had worked for a plastic surgeon who catered to transgender patients, so she had some experience interacting with trans individuals. She told me that I shouldn’t consider facial feminization surgery. I was a little puzzled, because it’s something that I constantly fret about, having the facial bone structure of a man who had experienced the effects of testosterone for many years. When boys go through puberty, they develop slightly more prominent eyebrow bones, different cheekbones, longer and wider jaw lines, wider noses and more space between their nose and upper lip.
This lovely woman told me that I was a perfectly attractive female as I was, and that I didn’t need surgery to correct anything. Hearing this made me very emotional, to the point that tears welled in my eyes. Here was a woman who had been exposed to many transgender people in the past, and hadn’t noticed, at least right away, that I wasn’t a cisgender woman! Cisgender simply means that your gender identity matches the gender you were assigned at birth.
There were other conversations in which my transgender status did not come up, but it did during my last night in Australia, at the barbie. I typically look for a humorous or lighthearted opening to breach the subject, to signal to the other people in the room that they’re safe in talking with me about being trans, or in asking me questions they might have.
At the barbie, a plastic bag sat on the table at which we were all gathered. Kyle, my host and chef for the evening, was ready to set the table with plates and food. He asked, “Who’s bag is that?” I quickly asked him, “Why are you being so nosey? Those are my tampons, okay?” Everyone laughed, and I said, “See? I can joke about it.” It broke the ice.
One of my new friends, Henry, told me about a person at his work who had recently begun to transition, but she had filed a complaint because people were misgendering her. He explained that she was inconsistent in her presentation, that one day she would present as a woman, and the next as masculine, so some people were legitimately confused. He wanted to know how he could help that situation. I explained that she was probably trying to find her comfort zone, with regards to feminine clothing. I told him that I was still rapidly changing, and that the first time I had ever worn a dress was in Australia.
She may also have had some unrealistic expectations about how other people would react to her transition. At first, it’s very difficult for people who have known you as a male to simply switch pronouns and not make a mistake. I knew this ahead of my transition, and told my coworkers that they would make mistakes, but that as long as they were trying, I wouldn’t be offended by a simple slip-up.
The discussion at the table turned to the bathroom bills that had begun popping up in American state legislatures. My new friends were genuinely appalled at the notion that someone would care which bathroom I used. The subject had come up with other people I met in Oz. One Aussie asked why a politician cared about what was in my underwear, suggesting that anyone who did care, must be a dirty old man.
At some point, I offered to let Henry and another new friend, Caitlyn, read the draft of a piece I’d written about my transition. Henry took several breaks from reading, looking up to say “Wow” or “Oh man.” This big, burly, manly man was getting emotional about my story. He really is the sweetest, most tender man I’ve ever met!
My new friends had not only accepted me on the surface for who I am, but had shown me an unconditional acceptance. It was the same acceptance and love that I had felt during my entire time in Australia.
As I sat on the plane, returning to the states, I silently reflected upon my time in Oz. I was very sad to leave my friend Steph, who is like a little sister to me, but sad to leave my new friends, the beautiful country and the culture of Australia.
I returned to America, knowing I would face discrimination. I knew I would encounter people who genuinely feel as if I’m doing something wrong, or that I’m in need of psychiatric help. I know what’s needed is education. In a Harris Poll released by the LGBT advocacy group GLAAD in September 2015, only 16% of Americans report knowing or working with someone who is transgender. The nearly 85% of Americans who have never knowingly met a transgender person, are left to assume what we’re like based on a gross misrepresentation in media.
To make matters worse, we’re often confused with flamboyant cross dressers and drag queens. The most well-known transgender person on TV is Caitlyn Jenner. Her reality is far removed from that of “normal,” everyday transgender individuals. Often in media, we see transgender people, especially women of color, who are forced into dangerous situations to survive because they face employers who either don’t understand what it means to be transgender, or because of an unfair bias.
The transgender people I know are just like me. I’m a normal person who has normal hobbies, and am gainfully employed with a flourishing career. I have normal friends, coworkers, and family members who love and accept me. Unfortunately, I am not what most people picture when they hear the word transgender.
Because of the amazing people I met in Australia, I left with a new sense of self-worth, and a new understanding of what it is that makes me female and beautiful. I left Australia empowered. They say that you always leave a piece of you, wherever you go. This time, rather than leaving a piece of me, I believe I took a piece of Australia with me — a gift of love and acceptance for myself, for who I really am.