Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Interview with Brenda Appleton

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Brenda Appleton, an Australian transgender activist and strong advocate for improved rights for trans and gender diverse people. Hello Brenda!
Brenda: Thanks Monika for the opportunity to discuss the trans community and how and where I fit into the community in Melbourne.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Brenda: I am now 65 and have been retired for 7 years. I was born in NZ but have lived in Australia, mostly Melbourne, for more than 20 years. I transitioned more than 14 years ago when I was working for a multinational organization and have not had a moment of hesitation that it was the right decision for me.
I now volunteer for many different organizations and sometimes think I am busier than when I was working. I am interested in sustainability, building resilient and supportive communities, fresh local food as well as LGBTI and TGD (trans and gender diverse) issues and concerns. The various groups I volunteer with are involved in these areas and it is great to have the energy to contribute in such important areas I am so passionate about. 
Monika: You hit the headlines in 2011 when the Australian media wrote about your coming out story. Were you satisfied with the way the media covered your transition?
Brenda: The article in the Sydney Morning Herald is related to an exhibition by my partner, Janice. The exhibition was initially in two different galleries in Melbourne and then was shown in Brisbane. We were comfortable with the article and to be able to highlight that couples can work through these challenging issues and stay living together. We celebrate 44 years of marriage in a few months and have one of the few legal same sex marriages in Australia, where we do not yet have marriage equality.
We think it is important for success stories to be raised and perhaps provide inspiration for others at the start of their journey or considering their options. We do not pretend it was easy and we often had to be there for each other through the hard times, but although life now is very different, we are both at a comfortable stage of life.
Monika: What has happened in your life since then?
Brenda: My transition at work was successful and I worked there until my retirement. When I retired I returned to university and did a master's degree in sustainability, which is another area of passion and interest. I then had to decide if I would spend most of my retirement efforts working on sustainability issues or raising the profile for trans and gender diverse issues and concerns. I try to do both, but most of the efforts are now in the LGBTI and TGD areas. 

Monika: What is the present situation of trans and gender diverse people in Australian society?
Brenda: I think there have been significant improvements in the last few years, but we do not yet have full equality and equity. Our laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity, but acceptance and behavior within society do not yet fully mirror the laws.
The World Aids Conference was held in Melbourne in 2014 and it was great for us to meet TGD people from more than 35 other countries and realize that whilst we have a shopping list of demands and expectations for further change, we are in a much better position than many TGD communities in many other countries around the world.
Areas of particular concern in Australia at present include the need to be able to change birth certificates (without forced divorce and surgery and more options than M and F), to have a better trained and aware medical profession (especially outside our capital cities), core funding for our TGD volunteer community support groups, making access to medical treatment more available and affordable (especially surgery), addressing the mental health issues for TGD through targeted and better-funded programs and the provision of Govt funds for more TGD training and education to employers, service providers and across society.
Monika: At what age did you transition to be yourself? Was it a difficult process?
Brenda: I transitioned at 50, and at the time of making that decision, I decided I wanted to live more than I wanted to end the pain I was experiencing through suicide. I had more than 4 years of counseling and was still suicidal – the decision is such a big one and at the time of making that decision, you really do not know if you will lose your partner, lose contact with your children, parent, and friends, lose your job and career and everything you have worked to accomplish.
Having made the decision to transition, life suddenly got easier – no longer acting as was expected but starting to live and be the real me. My partner and I both decided that we would take the opportunity to be open about our situation and try to educate others and making it easier for those following behind.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Brenda: I read a lot of biographies of trans people and I gained the courage and confidence that I could make it work for me. I did not have a particular role model but recognize that we do need to promote success stories and provide a range of role models for those working through gender identity issues and trying to decide what will be best for them.

Monika: Are there are any transwomen that you admire and respect now?
Brenda: I think there are many successful transwomen around the world and in Australia. I include Lynn Conway, Lana Wachowski, Jenny Boylan, and in Australia Cate McGregor, Rowena Allen, and Sally Goldner.
I have many transmen friends in Australia and particularly admire and respect Aram Hosie and Peter Hyndal who have made a huge contribution to improving rights and equality for TGD people, regardless of identity.
I am delighted by the great number of inspiring and eloquent young TGD people who will make up our future leaders. It is great to see such confidence and capability to keep the battle for true equality and equity going.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Brenda: Telling my partner and family. So much was at risk and I had no idea of how it would work out. My gender identity had been an issue for me since I was young, but one I had worked hard to keep to myself. Discussing such a fundamental part of me came out of the blue for my family and I was very fortunate that they all took the time and effort to better understand what I had been and was still going through at that time.
I was fortunate that we could afford to get the professional help we needed to work through the challenges my transition created for all of us in different ways. I think it was important to recognize that I was not the only one transitioning, we all had journeys to work through and did so at different times and paces.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the trans and gender diverse transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Brenda: I think this has been a very difficult question over many years. For most of my time as an activist, the ‘T’ has really struggled for funds and to be heard. Only in the last few years have we been able to stand up for ourselves and have a more appropriate share in media and the ear of the Government.
In Victoria, we have TGD people as the first Gender and Sexuality Commissioner (Rowena Allen), the first co-chair of a Victorian whole of Government taskforce (me), and the first winner of the GLOBE GLBTI person of the Year award (Sally). We would love to see more TGD people in private and public sector roles and providing role models to others within society and in the community.
Monika: What do you think in general about TGD transgender news stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Brenda: I think there has been a dramatic change in the portrayal of TGD people in the media and in films etc last 10 years. From always the murderer, the prostitute, or trouble-maker and a very negative positioning to most stories today being constructive and positive.
In Australia, we have had a lot of documentaries, which have really helped convey the issues faced by TGD people in a helpful way. There has been quite a shift in most reporting agencies as they have become better informed and less sensational in their reporting.
The coming out of Caitlyn Jenner last year has been a mixed blessing. I think it helped raise the profile for trans people in the general community but did little for those in the TGD community. Caitlyn’s position of power and wealth and apparent lack of true understanding of the issues most of us face provided a reality gap for the TGD community.

Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think TGD people can make a difference in politics?
Brenda: I have been involved with Transgender Victoria (the key lobby group in Victoria) for more than 13 years and am currently the Chair. I have been extensively involved in lobbying for the last 6-7 years and was a member of the previous Government’s LGBTI health and well-being ministerial advisory committee. I am now co-chair of the whole of Government LGBTI Taskforce in Victoria and also a member of the Victorian Mental Health Expert Taskforce. I spend much of my time lobbying Government and Government departments across a wide range of LGBTI but particularly TGD issues.
I believe strongly that the progress that the TGD community has made in the last 5 years, has been the result of growing efforts over the last 25+ years. We must use our lived experience to lobby for change, it does not happen by itself. We expect Victoria to introduce new birth certificate laws this year, and this has been in the pipeline for more than 10 years and near the top of my agenda for the last 6 years. We need to work strategically for these changes and not expect them overnight. Legal reforms are a long slow process but vital for us to achieve true equity in the long term.
There is a vital role for TGD in the fight for equality and equity. If we want to influence and shape change, we must step up and be involved. We need to fight for change to be done with us and not to us. There is nothing like the lived experience to inform and educate and be leveraged to help make a change.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
When working I had a largely classic business wardrobe. I do not want my message distracted by my clothes, so dress as best as I can in an age-appropriate way.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants? Some activists criticize their values, pointing out that they lead to the obsession with youth and beauty.
Brenda: I have never been a great fan of beauty pageants, regardless of those involved.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Brenda: I have been very lucky with the person I married nearly 44 years ago. We have been and still are each other’s best friends, we are there emotionally for each other. Our relationship has changed and we sleep in separate bedrooms, but that does not stop us from loving each other and doing as much as we can for each other.
Janice is an artist and we have many similar and different interests. We are comfortable doing some things together (travel, attending orchestra and ballet, our dreams to help build a successful cohousing community) and some things separately. We have common and separate friends. We have a lovely partnership.
Monika: Many TGD people transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Brenda: Yes and no. I have been open about my life and have probably said most of the things I want to say. At the moment, I am too busy being an activist – it is a great time to be advocating for change and I really enjoy that aspect.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Brenda: My main activity at the moment is to capitalize on working with the current Government in Victoria (where Melbourne is the largest city) because they are so supportive and genuine in trying to achieve equality and equity for all LGBTI. The appointment of TGD people to the role of Gender and Sexuality Commissioner and co-chairing the LGBTI Taskforce is indicative of particular support for TGD.
I have recently been appointed to another Government task force (Mental health) and look to work with colleagues and the Government to see a more appropriate allocation of funds to address mental health issues across LGBTI but particularly TGD.
Monika: What would you recommend to all TGD people transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Brenda: Try to find the right emotional and psychological support and your tribe. We all need help to work through the challenges of gender dysphoria and it is a whole lot safer and easier if you can find the right sort of support. In Victoria, we have a growing number of support groups and there is a strong Facebook group presence.
There is a growing number of experienced professional providers and it is a matter of finding one which suits where you are at. Try and find the most appropriate assistance as you work through the impact of your gender dysphoria on your life and what will be life-changing decisions.
My biggest message to TGD people is to try and slow down the transition process if you want to stay in touch with family and friends. Transition is something most of us have thought about for a lot of our lives, but something those around us have had little exposure to, and for most, it takes time to absorb and accept.
Many will genuinely attempt to understand, but please give them time and space if they are important to you. It is almost impossible to accurately guess how family and friends will react, and often it is the opposite of what you expected. Treat family and friends with dignity respect and there is an increased likelihood that they will treat you with dignity and respect.
Monika: Brenda, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Brenda Appleton.
© 2016 - Monika Kowalska

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