Trans people still face countless barriers in Australia. Retired academic and activist Dr Jess Hooley details her own struggles, from the early years to transitioning twice, to life in the trans community now.
Transgender people suffer enormous pressure to explain ourselves to others – to family, friends, work colleagues, various medical professionals, researchers, and journalists. I do not seek to defend myself but to create understanding about my transgender struggles. We are not the problem.
Although a male-assigned child, I repeatedly asked mum for girls’ clothing. She reluctantly made some on her old SINGER sewing machine and warned me that if I continued cross-dressing, I was “going to become a sissy”. More lessons about conforming to the male/female gender hierarchy followed her awful, sudden death. Three weeks later, my father, a distant, decent man incapable of understanding my situation, sent me to an all-boys boarding school, to “make a man of you’’. I was eight years old.
I deeply desired as well as dreaded transitioning.
In daily life, I projected a masculine persona that felt inauthentic. Massive emotional crises followed my teenage discovery of information about transsexuality and an attraction to boys. I deeply desired as well as dreaded transitioning. Holding on to male privilege meant security and safety. In my thirties, after great deliberation, I decided to transition.
I came out as a transsexual helped by Roberta Perkins, Australia’s first transwoman activist. I took the medical route prescribed by psychiatry, and was advised to leave teaching, a job that I loved. I transitioned, worked as a cleaner, completed a social work degree with first class honours and the Sydney University Medal, but failed to secure employment. I became an activist with the Transgender Liberation Coalition, did social research with transgender people, and helped get the Transgender Anti-Discrimination Bill of 1996 through parliament. I have never done anything more important in my life.
I also completed a PhD concerning transsexual identity. It revealed key changes within Sydney’s trans community in the 1990s. There was less talk about identity and medical concerns and the focus shifted to trans rights. But social, legal and material justice for trans people still fell short.
A 2021 study of 800 trans people shows that unemployment and poverty, loss of friends and family, and non-acceptance in society remain common.
Although I enjoyed academic work and teaching, and had begun to publish, I was assaulted in a public place. Fearing for my safety and burnt out from work in the trans community, I returned to the closet, for years. I began painting, and recovered slowly. A great therapist helped me with childhood and other traumas and I felt safer – at times, euphoric, to live as a woman again.
Have things improved? A 2021 study of 800 trans people shows that unemployment and poverty, loss of friends and family, and non-acceptance in society remain common. Only one third have full-time work, but this study also shows we are proportionately better educated than the general population. Government programs must be developed to properly include our small, diverse, valuable group in Australian society.
Pictured: Jess just after her first transition.