Traditional gender roles are rapidly changing across the globe, and we no longer have clear-cut labels for ‘boy’ and ‘girl’. Is gender a spectrum? What does it mean to be free? These are amongst the many questions explored by award-winning actor and presenter Morgan Freeman in the National Geographic documentary series The Story of Us.
Ahead of its Australian premiere tonight on National Geographic, we spoke to just two of many young transgenders and gender non-conforming people living in Australia today.
Thea Raveneau, 20, Toowoomba
Thea wants to become an actor and is planning to pursue a BA degree in Creative Arts (majoring in Theatre) at the University of Southern Queensland. She is an Aboriginal woman of the Gungarri tribe, and at the age of 19 she figured out that she is not actually gay—she’s transgender.
How did you realise you were trans?
Growing up I always wanted to hang out with the girls, I admired them when they were doing their hair and makeup, and I wanted to do that too. Sometimes I would, just for fun. I kind of wanted to be a girl when I was growing up. I wasn't educated much about the LGBTQI+ community, when I got older all I knew was ‘straight’, ‘lesbian’, and ‘homosexual’. So I thought 'hang on, I want to be a girl and I'm into guys, so I must be homosexual' (even though I was only attracted to straight males). That was in Grade 11.
But then halfway through 2015 was when I learnt more about the LGBTQI+ community, and what ‘transgender’ and ‘queer’ meant, and started to feel like I fit more into the transgender area. And then the whole Caitlyn Jenner thing happened, I was watching that, the way she spoke about it, and though 'I feel like that, that's exactly how I feel.'
I talked to my GP about it who referred me to a psychologist. I still hadn't made a decision on who I was, but my psychologist told me that I need to take a first step forward, to not worry about whether it's me or not, but just to see what happens. So I started doing things that anyone can do, but are labelled as what girls can do—like hair and makeup. That's when I realised I just felt so good about myself when doing all this. I got to the point where my psychologist said I was probably ready to acknowledge whether this is me or not. And unconsciously I had already acknowledged that I am indeed a pre-operative trans woman.
After those first steps I just kept walking—I changed my pronouns, chose my name. I did it with family and my closest friends, and also at work where my team was so supportive of me. I feel so amazing now! It's been such a huge relief off my shoulders. I didn't actually realise I had a burden on my shoulders until I did all this; I've always been such an optimistic person I thought of myself as ‘happy’, but now I'm just extremely happy with where I'm at.
It sounds like you had a really good support network.
When I came out as homosexual I had my girlfriends who were supportive, and I had my family who have always been supportive of me. When I came out as trans, I was more hesitant to tell people because there wasn't as much awareness around it as with homosexuality. I was a little scared of telling everyone, but I had my family who were a 100% okay with it, in fact they were not surprised at all.
Is your heritage another label you identify yourself by?
Growing up I didn't learn a lot about my Aboriginal heritage, so it was hard for me to try and connect with all of that. But at the same time, being Aboriginal means I am another minority here in Australia, so I'm a double-minority [laughs]. I love that because it means I can raise awareness about both being trans and being Aboriginal. I'm such a lovely person when people meet me, it means I get to defy negative stereotypes people have.
In terms of society, was it easier to be accepted as a gay man?
Probably not, I would say. I was bullied a lot when I came out as a homosexual male, but I was at school then, which was much more harsh than the 'real world'. Coming out as a trans woman was easier in that regard. It's tricky, there's not much awareness but, even though I might get rude comments from people, it's not as much as I did when I was a homosexual male.
What are your day-to-day difficulties, do you ever feel unsafe?
Unsafe, no. My mum thinks it's unsafe sometimes, having grown up in the 70s and 80s when it was much worse. I will go out by myself and meet friends downtown, and she'll tell me 'make sure you watch yourself, don't go off alone'. I've only had rude comments, I've never had anyone threaten me or make me scared, which is good.
"If I knew more people like me, I would love to hang out with them"
Are you part of any transgender activist groups?
Not really, just because I live in Toowoomba, which is a big community, but I don't know many people who identify that way. There are rude people anywhere, so I think even though there may be more people who identify as transgender, they may be too scared to come out. We have an ally network at the university, but I haven't heard much about other groups.
I do know it helps to be with people who are labelled the same as you, because they have their own experiences and you have your own, and you connect with each other when you need it. It all comes down to whether you know people who are open to talking about it. If I knew more people like me, I would love to hang out with them. It would be so great to go to a safe environment where you can be yourself 110% without being worried that someone is judging you.
Are there any things you would really like cisgender people to understand?
One thing I'd like them to know is that if they do make a mistake, such as calling me by the wrong pronoun or calling me by my birth name, it's not as big a deal as they think it is. They don't have to say 'sorry' a hundred times, it's fine to just correct yourself, apologise and move on. I know that they're trying.
"Labels are for clothes, not for people"
Do you get misgendered a lot?
Sometimes, but most of the time no. It's weird, a lot of people will just not say anything, and other times they ask. When people do ask me, I thank them for that and I explain [that I'm trans]. Other times I might go into a shop and be asked 'hey man what would you like' and I'll roll with it rather than explain. Maybe they mean that in a generic way, like 'hey dude'. A lot of the time when I go out I'm wearing a full face of makeup and do my hair, so people just assume I'm a woman.
I'm not going to rip someone's head off for naming me the wrong thing, especially if I've just met them. But no-one can assume what anyone is. Sometimes people will apologise a lot before asking me about my gender, but I prefer them to ask and know than to say the wrong thing and then feel bad. I think other people feel more offended and hurt than I do.
What's your takeaway message for anyone reading this?
Labels are for clothes, not for people. When it comes down to it, people may refer to me as ‘pre-op trans’ and I think, why can't you just identify me as a woman? It gets to a point when I think, after I have surgery, I'd just like to be referred to as female, not as a post-op trans woman. People should be able to leave behind what they were born as and just live as male or female.
So yes—don't be afraid to ask questions, assumptions are dangerous, and labels are for clothes, not people.
Sam Lilit, 19, Melbourne
Sam is a philosophy and sociology student, a passionate LGBTQI+ advocate, and a gender non-binary person—someone who doesn’t identify as exclusively male or female. They run Ygender, a Melbourne-based volunteer organisation for trans and gender-diverse young people that organises social activities, runs workshops and talks, and provides educational resources online. We spoke about activism and lessons that Sam would like for others to keep in mind.
How did you get into activism?
I've always been interested in activism and been passionate about social justice. Part of that comes from my own experiences, as a trans person, a bisexual person, as a disabled person, a Jewish person. It's very much part of my experience day-to-day.
Would you say that's a lot of labels?
I think the conversation about labels is really interesting. It comes down to a lot of what we view as the ‘default person’. Someone who is a straight, cisgender, white, non-disabled man has as many labels as I do, but he's viewed as the default.
"It's definitely not appropriate to ask someone what they were assigned at birth"
Obviously not everyone makes assumptions, but for the most part that's the kind of person many imagine when thinking about people. So, I don't think it's necessarily a lot of labels, it's just that the labels that apply to me aren't what are thought of as default.
You seem quite comfortable where you are right now with your gender identity. What was the journey like?
Yeah, I'm pretty confident and comfortable being a non-binary person now.
For me the biggest obstacle [growing up] was the complete absence of non-binary representation in any format. Thinking back to my experiences as quite a young kid, there were some spaces leading towards exploring more of that gender identity and try to express that, but there was nothing anywhere to indicate that non-binary people could exist.
So I stopped thinking about it and moved on, and then when I was 16 I found a Wikipedia article that mentioned genderqueer, and I realised 'oh yeah, that's me, here we go'. And I came out quite soon after finding that.
Has it been easier since then?
Yeah, I think having that name was very useful and powerful. It's how I've been able to explain my identity to other people, convince people to use they/them pronouns, to use my new name when I chose my name. It's given me a platform to connect with other trans and non-binary people, to connect with my community.
Even when people try to talk in a respective way, there's still often mention of being assigned 'male at birth' or 'female at birth'. Is that helpful or is that something you'd like people to not ask about?
It's definitely not appropriate to ask someone what they were assigned at birth. Some trans people might decide to share that as a small part of sharing their story and talking about their experiences, but there's a huge difference between sharing that on our terms because we feel that it's relevant to the conversation or because it's affected our experiences a lot, and having someone else ask that. Especially when that's one of the first things they ask about, it's often just a slightly subtle way of asking 'but what are you really'?
Do you have those experiences a lot?
Yes. I think it's something that especially affects non-binary people because there are still a lot of people who don't believe it's at all possible to be non-binary. So they're really looking for a category they can sort you into.
"A lot of things people say are binary, such as 'ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls'"
I think for most people who are resistant to the idea of non-binary gender identity, a lack of representation and visibility is a huge part of it. But if I’ve explained to a person what non-binary means and they’re still resisting, that’s when it gets more malicious and overtly transphobic. It's the difference between having not heard of something and remaining willfully ignorant.
Are there things that you would really want cisgender people to understand?
How much time do you have? [Laughs] I have issues with pronouns a lot. I use they/them pronouns, so I'll get people who say that's grammatically incorrect, or it's too hard, or they'll never get used to it.
Look, if people make mistakes with pronouns I use but are trying, that's fine, I understand that. But you have people arguing that no-one can use these pronouns. I've had people introduce me as 'this is Sam, she prefers they/them pronouns'.
It's that kind of thing, not thinking about it. Issues with language pervade everything. A lot of things people say are binary, such as 'ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls'. That kind of binary language is small in a way, but it's such a pervasive thing, it's everywhere. People ask 'do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend', when 'do you have a partner' would work just as well.
"Trans people are just as diverse as their cisgender counterparts"
There's also the issue of not including a trans voice, but speaking over trans people. You'll have people who are trying to be allies and trying to understand the issues of the trans community, but they're still cisgender, so they need to recognise that they don't know as well what we need the way we do. It's really important to respect that.
Also, it’s important to acknowledge that trans people don't just face issues as trans living in a cis-normative society. There are also barriers within trans communities, which are not always as accessible or open. It can be especially hard for non-binary people, trans women, disabled trans people, and trans people of colour, because there's still a lot of sexism, binary-sexism, ableism, and racism to deal with.
What are some of the things affecting you as an Australian?
In terms of Australian-specific things, one of the huge barriers we're up against, especially for trans people under 18, is that to get hormone replacement therapy you have to go through Family Court. You have to have them declare that you are allowed to do that, even if your parents/carers/guardians and your doctor, and most importantly the trans young person themselves consent, which is a huge barrier in terms of time, finance and ability to navigate the bureaucratic system.
What would be your one takeaway message to anyone reading this?
There's no one way to be trans and no single story can ever encompass all the experiences of all of the people in this community. Trans people are just as diverse as their cisgender counterparts. This could be a good starting point for someone to learn about what it's like to be transgender, but it's important to actively seek out the voices of lots and lots of diverse people.
The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Watch The Story of Us on National Geographic tonight at 8.30pm AEST and read more about many of the issues surrounding gender on our website.