|Jennifer Josef, ILGA-ASIA|
|Jennifer Josef, ILGA-ASIA|
A COMPARATIVELY straightforward way into this story about the experience of transgender people in Australia would be to tell you just how many there are. But unfortunately, this data remains unavailable. The potentially thousands of people who fall into this category, including the unknown proportion who undergo gender reassignment surgery (GDR), simply identify as either male or female.
As 65-year-old transsexual Josie Emery put it: "I'm not interested in being transgender, I'm interested in being a woman."
This seems an obvious thing to those of us who will never know how it feels to be completely not at home in our bodies. Or the sheer amount of energy, commitment, and determination it takes to face up to yourself.
But according to Emery, there comes a time when being honest with yourself is less overwhelming than continuing to deny your real gender and self.
Emery is a reliable source. After 50 years of living as man, she decided to undergo gender reconstruction surgery to transform her from a man into a woman. It was a decision that physically cemented what she'd known about herself since she was four years old.
"It was the early 1950s and I was living on a farm in the outback. It wasn't what you'd call a supportive environment. I remember sitting in my room and I just saw into myself, and the person I saw was a girl," she said.
It's been a long journey from that room. Josie was a married man for 20 years and fathered two children. It wasn't until 2007, when she was divorced and in the midst of a new 10-year relationship that she made her final decision.
Emery said the trigger was the death of her 95-year-old father, a man she described as her role model: "When he died I suddenly asked myself why I felt a rug had been pulled out from under my feet. I no longer knew why I was hiding."
Then began a two-year process that Emery sadly faced alone: "My partner did not want to know me after I told her about my decision," she said.
Changing genders is a complicated process. Emery had to be assessed by two different doctors to confirm that her decision to undergo gender transition was an authentic need, not a symptom of a personality disorder or sexual fetish.
With that confirmed Emery had to then commit to two years living as a woman without undergoing surgery. It was at this point that she started to take estrogen, the female hormone.
"That felt wonderful. For the first time in my life my body and mind were in sync. I felt how I should be feeling," she said.
The female hormonal effect came on quickly and within six months of taking it, the effects are irreversible.
Along with the mood swings, and new found willingness to start crying in movies, Emery said the biggest difference when going from a man to a woman was friendships.
"Women are a collective group, while men are isolated. Women draw each other in, while men defend their own territory," she said.
At the end of the two-year period, Emery felt ready to press ahead with the surgical procedure. "It just felt important to me," she said.
Surgery is a step that many other transgender people will never reach.
Cost is the first barrier. According to the Sydney Gender Centre, the average gender reconstruction surgery sets you back $30,000. But there's also extensive cosmetic surgery, facial reconstruction and electrolysis costs to consider.
Pre-existing medical conditions are also problematic. GDR is not considered cosmetic surgery; so any condition that places a person at risk of death on the operating table completely rules you out.
Emery said the entire process set her back $100,000 and required her to take six weeks off work. But said the biggest challenges were electrolysis and going back to work.
Emery was fortunate enough to remain with her same employer following her surgery. But according to the Gender Centre, many other transsexual people returning to the workforce are reluctant to "out" themselves to potential employers. A step that renders their work history completely redundant.
While Emery did not face those problems she said the high profile nature of her position working for a national arts funding body brought its own unique challenges:
"My boss completely freaked out and some of the people I worked with found it hard to deal with. It is a huge shock to others and you have to recognise that," she said.
Aside from that, life post surgery has given Emery a lot of happiness. Now living in a small rural community where she feels accepted and free to live her life.
Emery has also reconciled relationships with her sister and son and said the friendships that stood by her throughout the process have also strengthened.
When asked what her message would be to other transgender Australians considering, Emery's message is passionate and simple:
"I'd say just do it. The pain, the fear and the anxiety of not doing it was intolerable to me. My life and my confidence has surged ahead."