Transgender in Australia

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #103, Fall 2003.

Part 1 of 2: Melbourne Photographs by Mariette Pathy Allen Text by Katharine Coleman

Mariette was invited
to speak at the
Fifth International Congress on Sex and Gender, which was held at the University of Western Australia in Perth, October 24-27, 2002?but one doesn?t spend twentysome hours flying just to visit the most remote city in Australia. Such an investment of time justified stopovers in Melbourne and Sydney?all of which Mariette would have done solo had her command of Australian been up to par. But it wasn?t, and since I spoke the language and had a bad case of wanderlust, she let me go along.

Once word got out that Mariette was coming to Australia, she was asked to also speak in Melbourne and Sydney. These occasions, along with the conference in Perth, provided wonderful opportunities to witness different aspects of the transgender communities in Australia. Our experience in each of these cities was different, so we decided to generate two articles?this one on Melbourne, and another on the conference in Perth and the Gay Games in Sydney.
Dee Mclaughen?s Documentary ?The Uninvited Dilemma?

We arrived in Australia in late October, at the beginning of the Australian spring. We were met at the Melbourne airport by Patricia Church, Karren Murry, and film director Dee Mclaughen. It was good fortune and great fun to have one or more of the three shepherding us around during our stay.
Dee was originally from South Africa, where she met her wife, an Australian. Dee?s directorial debut was a 1977 documentary set in Patagonia. Thereafter, she and her wife collaborated as a team. In 1995, they moved their production company to Los Angeles, and in 1999 they moved to Australia to be nearer to family.
During pre-production of a film, Dee met Patricia Church, who had just begun her transition. After a few coffeehouse discussions, during which Patricia described her last 30 years of trauma, she proposed a documentary about male-to-female transsexuals. She hoped it could save other transsexuals some of the pain she?d gone through. Equally as important, Patricia wrote a check for the production costs.

The idea resonated with Dee,
as she saw the one thing lacking in the transgender community was a feeling of self-worth. Rather than the usual fare showing the transgendered as victims, the documentary would be about people who had found respect for themselves. In the stories of people who learned to value themselves and their struggles, she felt, the transgendered could draw strength and self-respect.
Set in Victoria, Canberra, and Queensland, the 52-minute final version is a series of inspiring and sometimes educational interviews with distinguished researchers, authors, ministers, and, of course, male-to-female transsexuals. Mariette and I were privileged to watch a preliminary edit of Dee?s original film and can testify that the equal of any documentary you?ll see. Dee?s production company is attempting to make a deal for U.S. distribution, hopefully with one of the educational channels. There are plans to release a DVD.

Victoria?s Progressive Gender Identity Laws

Australia is a country in which just 18 million people inhabit a continent two-thirds the size of
the United States. Melbourne, the capital of the state of Victoria, has a population of 3.5 million. The city has a delightful cosmopolitan feel to it. There are a number of universities, and streetcars are everywhere. The city boasts of having 147 ethnic cultures, none of which appeared to us to represent the beer drinking, croc wrestling stereotype of the Australian outback. And if there were any Priscilla Queens of the Desert there, we missed them.

Melbourne is wonderfully tolerant and protective, and Victoria has a progressive law
on the books regarding gender identity. Victoria?s 1995 Equal Opportunity Act made it unlawful to treat someone unfairly or harass him or her because of actual or assumed gender identity. And what do they mean by gender identity? Well, it means one?s self-identification. That?s right; it?s how you identify yourself. One doesn?t need surgery, hormones, a court order, or a psychiatrist?s diagnosis to be protected, just a genuine belief that oneself is oneself.

The Act protects against a
wide array of unfair treatments. Consequently, it?s illegal to discriminate in the areas of living accommodations, club membership (if the club lies on state land or is assisted by the government), sale of land, education (a boy can wear a dress to school), employment, delivery of goods and services, and sporting activities. It?s even illegal to out someone if you discover his or her previous gender.
Furthermore, a person is protected against both direct and indirect unlawful discrimination. Direct discrimination means treating a person of a certain gender identity less favorably than a person without such an identity. Indirect discrimination occurs if, appearances aside, there is in fact discrimination against people who identify as a certain gender.

The Act requires the injured party to first take up his or her complaint with the offender. If that fails, the aggrieved person
proceeds to the Equal Opportunity Commission for guidance and, if necessary, lodges a complaint. The Commission attempts reconciliation, but if that fails, it may impose a range of remedies including an apology, job reinstatement, policy changes, or compensation.
We understand that New South Wales, the capital of which is Sydney, has a similar law. We also heard that the northern and rather rural state of Queensland had adopted a similar law. Lastly, on the Federal level, the Labor Government has introduced sweeping reform legislation to overturn state laws that discriminate against same-sex couples and transgendered individuals.

Melbourne?s Transgender Society, Crossdressers and Transvestites

Two of our three guides in Melbourne were Patricia Church and Karren Murry. At the time, both of these lovely women were pre-op. We were grateful for their willingness to share their experiences. Having come to their decision in middle age, while living in working-class communities, their stories resonated with the struggles of so many Americans. In distinction, however, they were able to benefit from some of the supportive benefits provided by Victorian law.

The transgender community in Melbourne appears to be much like that of any large American city. In spite of the anti-discrimination law in Victoria, there?s still a tendency for the transgendered to stay hidden, visiting mostly ?safe? shops, restaurants, and bars. While Melbourne society is exceptionally non-violent, one can detect a certain social stigma in those who are different. And as in the U.S., there?s a tendency for the transgender community to align itself with the gay and lesbian community in its fight for political rights.

All that said, Melbourne as a whole is probably safer and more hospitable to the transgendered than any American city. One delightful example of this is the radio station JOY at 94.9 FM, (online at, with its Tuesday evening talk show ?Transmission Time.? Jay, Lauren, and Sally are the hostesses for this show, which deals with transgender issues. I listened to them interview Mariette about her work and sojourn to Australia.

Melbourne?s transgender community shares some prejudices with the United States. Displays of sexuality are frowned upon, as they are felt to undermine the validity of transgendered peoples. Curiously, the term crossdresser is favored for straight and ?serious? non-transsexuals. People who exhibit sexual or fantasy elements in their dressing are referred to as transvestites, in a somewhat derogatory manner. The two don?t mix socially. The Seahorse Club of Victoria is for the crossdressers and is much like Tri-Ess in the
U.S. The Chameleon Society of Victoria is reputed to be for the transvestites. Members of both clubs were in attendance at a
gathering of about 70 people who came to hear Mariette speak. I couldn?t tell the difference between Seahorse members and Chameleon members.


Two groups serve Melbourne?s transsexuals: TransGender Victoria and Transgender Liberation & Care. TGV is reported to be exclusive to post-op transsexuals, while TLC advertises that it is also open to members of the transgender community. In either case, there appears to be an impression that transsexuals are somewhat elitist. Such peer ranking isn?t unknown in the U.S., either.

Currently, Dr. Ceber in Melbourne and Dr. Hearsch in Sydney perform most of the surgeries in Australia. Dr. Ceber takes his patients from the Monash Gender Clinic, which is attached to Monash University in Melbourne. His fee is around $4000 U.S. and there is another $4500 in hospital costs but private insurance and the National Health Scheme cover these fees. Dr. Hearsch takes referrals from private psychiatrists and charges more than Dr. Ceber.

The Monash Gender Clinic has an 18-month program for qualification for MTF surgery. We have no details on FTM surgery. The clinic provides a number of services for those accepted into its program, including voice therapy, hormones, and psychiatric consultation. We were told a candidate has to see a clinic psychiatrist for just an hour every four months. There?s no requirement to see a psychotherapist, nor does the National Health Scheme pay for therapy. With such limited ?face time,? one would think that gaming the system would be common, but the clinic doctors are said to claim a 99% accuracy rate.

The clinic uses the HBIGDA Standards of Care as a guideline, but their psychiatrists are said to place emphasis on a candidate?s commitment to appearance, manner, voice, and maintaining employment. One transsexual told us any expression of a desire to have sex with a man would be taboo.
Given Victoria?s progressive social climate, it seemed inconsistent that neither the clinic nor the National Health Scheme appear to recognize the substantial emotional support transsexuals need during transition. This could reflect a cultural bias, as we got the impression from the transsexual community that people thought it a weakness or admission of mental illness to seek psychological help. That prejudice, if you will, can even be found in the government?s provision of a disability pension and a New Start Allowance to transsexuals if a doctor certifies they have a debilitating chronic illness. Hopefully, the Victorian government will someday provide psychological support with the same dignity they provide legal protection.

Mariette and I were exhausted by the end of our seven-day stay in Melbourne. Every day had been filled with memorable experiences. We were also envious of Victoria?s laws and social climate. Granted, there?s room for progress down under, but at the airport we expressed to Dee, Patricia, and Karren our embarrassment and disappointment that no city or state in the U.S. has progressed to Victoria?s level. That having been said, we waved goodbye and boarded the plane for the four-hour flight to Perth and the Fifth International Congress on Sex and Gender.

Part II will appear in
Transgender Tapestry #104.