Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Interview with Katherine Cummings


Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Katherine Cummings, an icon of the Australian transgender movement, librarian, sailor, activist for transgender people, award-winning author; she works at Sydney’s Gender Centre – an organisation set up in 1983 to help people with gender issues – and is the information worker and edits the Centre’s quarterly magazine Polare. Hello Katherine!
Katherine: Hello Monika. I am honoured (and flattered) by your introduction. You could just have said, as Deirdre McCloskey did in her book, Crossing, that I am a gender saint (please don’t guffaw too loudly).
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Katherine: If there is such a thing I’d say I am a fairly typical transgender. My wish to be female goes back as far as memories go but I only found out that my impossible dream could be a possible dream when I was seventeen, in my first year at university, when Christine Jorgensen was outed. Up to that point I had known about gay people, female impersonators and intersex (although we didn’t call them intersex in 1952) and knew I was none of those things.
Monika: You are the champion of a myriad of causes that touch on transgender rights in Australia. Could you name some of the most successful initiatives that you took part in? 
Katherine: I have been a transactivist since I transitioned in 1986 (maybe earlier if you count my refusing to make fun of Christine Jorgensen in a revue skit I had been casting in in 1953) and my activities have been enhanced since 2001 when I joined the staff of the NSW Gender Centre. Before then I had been mainly involved in lone endeavours, writing letters to politicians etc.
I achieved two things during my period of working alone. I created a precedent for people who wanted to change their names on their naturalization papers to do so (otherwise I would have had to out myself every time I applied for a job that required proof of citizenship) and I set a precedent for electrolysis to be used as a tax deduction as a therapeutic measure. I fought the tax office for five years on this, with the ATO claiming electrolysis was cosmetic and me claiming that for transgenders it was therapeutic. After five years they buckled and backpaid me for the previous five years.
“Katherine’s Diary” (1992) via Amazon.
Monika: Your well-known autobiography book “Katherine’s Diary” (1992) grew out of a series of talks you gave for ABC Radio National’s Health Report. Why did you decide to publish it?
Katherine: The book grew out of a series of radio talks I wrote and delivered on the national broadcaster’s “Health Report”, which came about because I was lunching with a friend who worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and said my story would be of interest. I contacted them and they asked for some sample scripts which I wrote and they liked. I then broadcast my talks on what was happening to me as I transitioned and how I felt about it for just over two years.
When I had my affirmation surgery I thought that would be a sensible time to stop, so I did, and sat down to write the book. Recently the “Health Report” asked if I would do an interview with them on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original series, which I did.
Monika: Your second book “The Life and Loves of a Transgendered Lesbian Librarian” (2014) is a collection of poems, short stories and essays that are not based on your own personal experiences…
Katherine: It’s a compilation of many writings. Many, but not all, have a gender theme and some are indeed based on my personal experiences. There are, however, a variety of essays, short stories, poems, song lyrics and book reviews. A second compilation is on its way.
Monika: Why did you highlight “lesbian” in the title of that book?
Katherine: The original title of the essay was “The Life and Loves of an XY Woman”, but since then the terms ‘X Generation’ and ‘Y Generation’ have become commonplace and I didn’t want to have the XY of the male chromosome confused with them so I changed the title. The term ‘lesbian’ was thrown in slightly tongue-in-cheek, as I think the terms ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘hetero’ etc are very confusing for the lay reader and to tell the truth I don’t think I fit any of the boxes.
All my relationships have been with women, before and after transition, but I base my relationships on people’s minds and characters, not on their gender, and I have been lucky to find a series of women who fitted my concept of a constant companion. For a long time I thought if the right man came along I could be hetero, but he never did. Two came close but they are both dead now and at eighty the concept of sex as a pursuit or goal has lost its charm. I am too busy using up my remaining time on more important matters, like writing.
Monika: As a librarian, you must have access to many autobiographies and other books written by Australian transgender women. Could you elaborate a little more on some of them?
Katherine: I do not know of many. The first M2F we know of in Australia is Carlotta, and she has put out two or three books, but they are written in collaboration with professional writers, which I consider dilutes the honesty of the text, and Carlotta’s experiences stem from the world of show business where she was an outstandingly successful female impersonator and showgirl. I have always been confused by transgenders who continue to perform in female impersonator shows. How can you impersonate what you are?
Then there is Kathy Anne’s book, which contained a lot of useful information but would have been much more readable if it had been professionally edited. If you have my new book you will find my review of “Two Lives” in it. I should reveal my special interest here in that I am an accredited editor as well as a professional librarian and freelance writer. 
Kathy herself was a delight and an incredibly dedicated worker for our causes. We were close friends.
I have recently acquired a self-published F2M book by an Australian but haven’t had time to open it yet.
There are probably other books around but I find it hard to find time to read these days as I am usually working for the Gender Centre publications or writing my own books (I am working on two at the moment) or film scripts (also working on two). Of the four works in progress only one is transgender-based.


Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the Australian society?
Katherine: Much better than it was in 1986 when I started to encounter it first hand, but there are still areas of legal, social and medical issues that need to be addressed. There are only two surgeons in Australia regularly concerned with transgender and there are no public (i.e. free) hospitals providing this service. An M2F seeking surgery in Australia needs around $14,000 if they have medical insurance and around $20,000 if they don’t. They can go overseas (Thailand is the popular choice) but Thai surgeons set their prices in American dollars so that an Australian needs to add about 30% to the price because our exchange rate has fallen drastically. In 2014 when I spent a month in NYC the Australian dollar was virtually at parity with the US dollar, so the fluctuations can be sudden and serious.
Socially there is much more awareness of transgender in Australia today and there is attention being given by the courts to children who are transgendered, and by the politicians to transgenders who are aged. Of course this awareness can be localized so that some places are much more accepting and compassionate than others. There are still serious problems for young transgenders who may not be able to obtain a good education, accommodation and employment. Those of us who transition late tend to be better off, as we have usually attained a level of education and a circle of mature friends, and may have had time to build a reputation in our chosen professions.
All the States have now included transgender in their anti-discrimination laws and the Federal government seems to be on the brink of doing so, having recently appointed a Human Rights Commissioner who is sympathetic.
Various States also have laws awaiting enactment that will remove inimical clauses such as the need to have irreversible genital surgery before documentation can be amended and the need for couples to divorce if one of them transitions and wants amended documentation.
As a library colleague of mine remarked more than once “Constant stoning wears away the drips!”
Monika: Recently the American media have set their spotlight on Caitlyn Jenner. Since her coming out she has been the focus of many articles and attacks. What do you think about her and other transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers and other media so far? 
Katherine: From time to time a person who is a ‘celebrity’ transitions and the media goes into a frenzy as if the celebrity had invented the concept of transgender. At such times the media sometimes contact me and I tell them their standards are upside down. It is not the rich and famous person who transitions and is immediately feted (like Caitlyn with her Vanity Fair cover, buttressed by professional photographers and makeup experts) that deserve respect and wonder, it is the baker’s boy or the bus driver who has nothing, is uneducated, has no support organization, often not even their own families, and yet find the courage (or desperation) to proclaim the fact that they do not belong to the gender to which they have been assigned, but the other. These are the people the media should be praising and supporting. I have nothing against Caitlyn. She, too, has needed courage (or desperation) to do as she has done, but the risks for her have been social and emotional, not financial and possibly fatal (in addition to the social and emotional).
Katherine on the cover of The Life and
Loves of a Transgender Lesbian Librarian (2014).
via www.gendercentre.org.au
When I transitioned, or rather when my book was first published, I was sought after by the media, not because I was a celebrity but because I was, in those days (1992) a rarity in Australia. So I went through the round of TV interviews and newspaper and radio stories, but it was all rather of the ‘gee whiz’ variety rather than any real attempt to explore the phenomenon. I was perhaps different because I wasn’t a gorgeous young showbiz person covered in sequins and bling but a a 57-year-old university librarian who had written a book.
Monika: You decided to transition into a woman at the age of 52. Was it a difficult process?
Katherine: Difficult because it jeopardized my family life. I loved my wife and children very deeply and hoped, rather unrealistically, that we could all stay together, but I felt my life was slipping away and I had never had the chance to live as my true self. I could think of little else and my thoughts often strayed into suicidal areas. I think however, I had little choice. I could kill myself or I could transition.
I came to the conclusion that transitioning was more rational as I would at least be around to help my family if they needed me. I should add, however, that I didn’t take a vote. My wife has remarried and two of my three children do not want to know me. The third is my best friend but lives in the USA, which makes it a long-distance relationship. My mother and sister accepted me but my mother is now dead. My sister and I are as close as ever and talk often.
Monika: I remember well your photo from Lynn Conway’s Transsexual Women’s Successes subpage. At that time, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Katherine: No, not really. I had read the books of Jan Morris, Renee Richards, Carlotta, Coccinelle, Roberta Cowell and of course historical figures like the Chevalier d’Eon and the Abbe de Choisy but I had no role model. I was once asked this question (very early in my transition) by a journalist and I think I replied, sarcastically, “Joan Collins, of course.” She took me seriously and quoted me so that I am only glad I didn’t say Minnie Mouse, Lucrezia Borgia or, indeed, Lizzie Borden.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now? 
Katherine: A great many, but they are the thinkers and the workers, not the social butterflies. Susan Stryker, Deirdre McCloskey, Lynn Conway, and many of my own close friends whose names would mean nothing to you. I share my house with a transgender woman who has had a much harder time than I have, losing her family, her home and her employment as a result of her being transgender. I admire her fortitude and determination.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out? I read in one of your previous interviews that you considered suicide…
Katherine: Yes, I think I have dealt with this above. The risk of losing my family was a terrible stress and I did indeed consider suicide. I had worked out how I would do it in a way that would leave no messy body to be identified and no chance that I would survive as a vegetable, but in the final analysis I decided that, in the words of Dorothy Parker, “you might as well live”.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Katherine: I constantly try to separate T from L, G and B. I feel we have more in common with I, but, in this country at least, the intersex people tend to want to divorce themselves from any association with T. I do not mind, in fact I advocate, that the transgender movement supports L, G and B when we have causes in common (equal marriage, for instance) or where a clear injustice is being visited on them because they are an oppressed minority, but I advocate the same kind of support for –any- oppressed group, including single parents, asylum seekers and the homeless.
The other side of the coin is that although I do not demand it, I welcome support from other groups when matters peculiar to transgender are being debated (such as the right for adults to control their own bodies, without need for gatekeepers, and the right to have free medical care for a condition that is constantly being proven to be life-threatening.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Katherine: I participate in lobby movements as one of the mob (a spear carrier rather than a diva in the Opera of Life) and I do believe that transgenders can make a difference. Sometimes it is the last straw that makes the difference between status quo and tipping point.
I stood for Federal Parliament in 1998, for the Australian Democrats. I was standing in the safest Labor seat in Australia so there was no chance I would unseat the sitting member, but I had a public platform to use for transgender causes, and we doubled the Democrat vote in the seat (from 5% to 10%, not too impressive). It was a valuable and rewarding experience and my branch worked tirelessly on my behalf and that of the Democrats. Incidentally there were three declared transwomen standing in that election, two in New South Wales and one in Victoria, all three for the Australian Democrats. 
Sadly, after the election, the Australian Democrats who were already in Federal Parliament went against the wishes of what was supposed to be a grassroots party and allowed the establishment of a GST (goods and services tax). My whole branch (including me) resigned from the Democrats at that point.


Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Katherine: If you mean sex, none at all. I haven’t time, I’m too old and I go along with Lord Chesterfield who said “the pleasure is momentary, the position is ridiculous and the expense is damnable”. I have many more important things to do, not the least of which is getting the stories out of my head and onto paper.
On the other hand, if by love you mean deep affection, there are many people for whom I have deep affection and they encompass men, women and children. I mentioned that I spent the month of April in NYC last year. I was helping Harvey Fierstein with his play about transvestites (he had been sending me drafts of his play “Casa Valentina” for about three years) and the cast and crew made me feel so welcome it was like coming home to a family, not being a hanger-on at a Broadway production. I do not hesitate to say that I love all of them. The love of my life no longer loves me but that is understandable. My daughter in America, who stood by me from Day One, is the person I love most in this world.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Katherine: I assume you mean with reference to transgender. Nothing particularly new. The old projects that are unfinished are keeping me going. I don’t know if you know I had open heart surgery in June (the second time, the first was ten years ago) so that slowed me down for a few weeks, and also gave me a warning call. This time it was my aortal valve they were replacing so that now I have a piece of cow in me. There is probably a song in there somewhere … “We are in love with you, my cow and I…” . Perhaps not.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Katherine: Find out as much as you can about your condition and the possible remedies. Read other people’s lives. Talk to as many transgenders as you can. Go to support group meetings if they are available. Then make up your own mind. I assume you are an adult so understand this is an adult decision and it is your decision.
An important point to remember is that transgenders have responsibilities as well as rights. Think about the people around you who will be affected by your decisions. You may still decide to go ahead but you can try to make your transition as harmless as possible to those who love you, or depend on you, or for whom you have familial, financial and social responsibilities.
Don’t blame others if you are not happy with the results. That’s all part of life. We make the best decisions we can and then we accept responsibility for them. Good luck. I might even say “vaya con Dios” if I were not a copper-bottomed atheist.
Monika: Katherine, thank you for the interview!
Katherine: My pleasure. Any time.

All the photos: courtesy of Katherine Cummings.

Done on 13 October 2015
© 2015 - Monika 

1 comment:

  1. Dears,

    What a wonderful interview with a wonderful lady! What comes through is Kate's humor and common sense, a comfort to us all.

    Deirdre McCloskey

    ReplyDelete

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