by Katherine Cummings



I was born twelve years ago, when I was fifty-two years old. Not born again; not
reborn ...just born. A long gestation period, and a difficult one, full of pain
and joy, achievement and failure. I jumped because I was pushed but if I hadn't
been pushed I think I would eventually have jumped anyway.

No wonder I adopted the butterfly as my symbol. I emerged from the confining
chrysalis of masculinity to be the female person I had always known myself to
be, despite years of avoidance, denial and sublimation.

Sometimes my friends tell me the butterfly is inappropriate as a symbol for me,
as it is too fragile and delicate (and beautiful?). I always reply that my butterfly
has teeth and claws and the will to use them. I thought this was an original conceit
of my own until someone sent me a newspaper clipping about a carnivorous
South American butterfly that preys on ants. Nature always has the last laugh.

But it isn't easy being a woman without a childhood or teenage years. There is
always a sense of something missing, and the mind tries to compensate in strange

Sometimes, with no intent to deceive, I hear myself saying "When I was a little
girl, I ..." and I pull myself up and examine this false memory that has been
created from my knowledge of other women's childhoods, or from childhoods
absorbed from my sister's story books and from my longing from earliest infancy
to be female. There is a deep underlying desire in me for a complete life but a
complete life is something I will never have. In a way I am lucky that so much
of my childhood was spent in other countries as we followed my seafaring father
around the world. Later the time came when I set out on my own explorations and
divagations. Lacunae are inevitable in any account of my life and there are
discrete groups of friends around the world who knew me at different periods of
my life and those friends will never know each other. To visit now is to step
through windows into chunks and slices of a lifetime which bear no relationship
to other chunks and slices. My school friends, my university chums, my Naval
comrades, my professional colleagues, my internet contacts... Maybe I will
string them all together one day, like a sequence of amber beads through which I
can cloudily view the trapped insects, fern leaves and raindrops of my life.

Perhaps the teenage years are hardest to be without. These should have been my
apprenticeship years. Years for exploring sexuality and hairstyle; fashion and
feminism; music and mankind; a meld of yearning for the security of being
younger and impatience for the adventure of being older.... Years for comparing
notes with one's peers, experimenting with life, whispering in corners,
conspiring behind books. Years for listening to the tribal elders and appearing
to scoff and disregard but really storing up their wisdom for the future.

This lack of a teenage may account for the fact that my first few months of life
as a woman were overlaid with a desperate attempt to catch up on all the things
I had never known and all the experiences I had missed. "Teenager in
fast-forward" is sometimes used to describe this phase in transgendered people,
and it seems appropriate. I crammed into a few months all the hair, makeup,
fashion, sexual politics and social dynamics that other women absorb as
teenagers without even realising they are doing it.

Of course I made mistakes. I was past fifty but I desperately wanted to savour
the learning years I had never known. My fast-forward efforts resulted in
clothing and makeup styles inappropriate to my age and position. My heels were
too high, my skirts too narrow, my necklines too low.

I should have known better. If I could blush I would blush.

Can't I blush? Well, I don't blush. It may be due to those years of self-control
which trained me to live two lives intermittently and not make inappropriate
gestures or respond to the 'wrong' name if I heard it in public. Those years
when I lived between genders, sublimating my need to be a woman by playing at it
with accommodating friends from time to time.

But I can certainly cry.

For forty years I never cried, but now I break down and sob to racking,
hiccuping excess over personal distress; or a friend's unhappiness; or a
sentimental passage of music. It must be the hormones. Every transgendered
person asked to account for a behavioural quirk says "It's the hormones...".
For two years I lived as a probationary woman, learning to walk, talk, move and
gesture all over again ... like the victim of a terrible accident who must learn
again how to cope with life; or an amnesia victim painstakingly relearning all
the facts she once knew so well, working through the Britannica and able to
answer any question as long as it starts with the letters A-D. Next week she
will know things starting with A-H...

Learning to live in a gender role is like learning a language. If you do it from
infancy it is simple, if you start when you are an adult there is a great deal
to unlearn as well as a thousand new things to absorb.

In a way I was the victim of a terrible accident. I was born with XY chromosomes
but some unpredictable hormonal wash during pregnancy (the latest theory to
account for transgenderism) created a need to be female in the deepest recesses
of my psyche.

During my transition time between starting my new life and submitting my body to
the surgeon's knife, I was treated with great compassion and understanding by my
suburban community, by my profession and by society at large. Only my family
failed me, and they were simply demonstrating that problems obey the laws of
perspective - up close they look bigger. They had most to lose and probably felt
most betrayed by this strange quirk which was in me from birth and which I had
suppressed and sublimated for the sake of others for two thirds of my predicted
life span. The loss of my wife and two of my three daughters was a tragic
experience, but the alternative was suicide and I could not see that as a
desirable solution on any terms, mine or theirs. Mind you, I didn't take a vote...

Gradually I became more practised. I dressed more appropriately and stopped
buying from charity shops and I learned that a five-minute makeup job is often
more suitable for everyday life than a two-hour makeover. Unless I had a reason
to 'dress up' I wore jeans and shirts and flat-heeled shoes like other women I
knew and I felt myself blending into society in a way which was not only more
appropriate but also more comfortable - for me and for society.

And gradually, too, I became more womanly in a physical sense. My hormone
replacement therapy changed me. My skin became softer and curves appeared where
bones and angles had been before. Some transgendered people have problems with
HRT, and complain of side effects ... headaches, nausea, cramps. I never had any
side effects. There were,however, noticeable front effects...

And after two years the day came when I entered St David's Private Hospital for
what the authorities call, on the form which lets me have a passport with an 'F'
in the gender box, "irreversible gender reassignment surgery".
Did the operation make me a woman?
No. I have always been a woman. But we all live inside our own heads and I will
never know if my XY chromosome self-perception of womanhood is the same as that
of XX chromosome women, or for that matter XXY chromosome women (Klinefelter's
syndrome) or XXXY chromosome women (Caroline Cossey). But at least the operation
made me look more like a woman. I could go to the beach without making painful
arrangements to conceal unwanted bits of my anatomy, and I could join other
women in the change rooms of gymnasia and aerobics classes without a moment's
hesitation or unease on their part or mine.

What is a woman? That is much more difficult to answer, because there are
social, legal, grammatical and personal definitions and they tend to change from
day to day. Nobody owns a word and sometimes the same word can be used in twenty different ways by twenty different people.

Justice Lockhart of the Federal Court stated in a recent judgement,
"In my opinion, a person who has gender reassignment surgery from male to female
is female and a woman, and a person who has had gender reassignment surgery from
female to male is male and a man."

Hooray for Justice Lockhart! His statement is not law but it is obiter dicta and
could be referred to in any future case where the gender of a post-operative
transsexual is to be determined. And it flies in the face of Ormrod J's Corbett
v. Corbett ruling, of which more anon.

I was, as I say, well treated by my various communities but were there any
noticeable changes in the way I was seen by friends and colleagues? Did I find
people treating me differently in my female persona? Were my opinions overridden
by men in conversation? Was I patronised by strangers? Was it assumed I was
weaker than I had been, that my skill at driving a car was suddenly in question,
that my reading tastes had changed?

In some cases this is exactly what happened, although my butterfly would often
show its teeth and claws on these occasions. I was upset, however, by the
realisation that I had not observed these social handicaps more clearly from the
other side of the gender barrier. I had prided myself on treating men and women
equally before my transition, yet I found that even my eyes had been clouded by
testosterone, and some of my attitudes had bordered on the paternalistic. I try
now to make amends by joining in the struggle for recognition of a woman's place
as an equal; not a servant, an ornament or a toy.

Oddly enough, some of those who might be assumed to have an interest in
elevating women are those who seem to wish to preserve the status quo.
I went to a speech therapist because I was tired of being called "Sir" on the
telephone and she explained that it was not simply a matter of pitch and timbre
and vocabulary but also of cadence. "A woman," she explained,"finishes her
sentences with a terminal rise."

I could hardly believe my ears. Not only was the terminal rise of fairly recent
origin (it did not generally exist when I went away to the United States in 1968
but was firmly entrenched in the schools when I returned in 1973) but it was a
speech characteristic I had fought to stamp out in my daughters. The terminal
rise seemed to me to be a constant request for affirmation and approval ... a
tentative mode of address which virtually sought permission to express an
opinion. "Stop asking me questions," I would say to my daughters when their
voices rose at the end of each sentence.. "Make statements!"

Accordingly I told the speech therapist that the kind of woman I intended to be
was not one who constantly sought permission for her opinions. I would be a
woman who made statements and would not adopt the terminal rise as a standard
feature of my discourse. Nor, I should add, is it a feature in the intonation of
the women I admire, women of strength and achievement. So the therapist and I
compromised on raising my voice pitch from 90Hz (in the male range) to 150Hz (in
the grey area between male and female) and working on timbre ("Talk from behind
the facial mask," I was told) and making minor changes in vocabulary. Men and
women really do talk slightly different languages. I even compromised on
intonation, recognising the truth of the statement that there is more 'light and
shade' in women's conversation than in the monotone of men.

I found my memories and attitudes of masculinity gradually being submerged by
new perceptions, feelings and attitudes so that second nature became first
nature and my former existence became a vagueness which had to be focused on
with great concentration before it became a reality ... rather like the formless
dreams we try so hard to see clearly before we wake, and which always move
beyond the periphery of vision. I knew there had been a person in my former
existence, who still loved and wanted his ex-wife and missed his children
desperately, yet the perceptions, emotions and experiences of my female persona
were starting to overlay the blurring memories of my male self and to achieve
the colours and sharp edges of immediacy.

My female self was becoming real life, my male self was becoming a memory.


A quick and stupid assumption holds that a man who becomes a woman does so in
order to make love to men. There are all kinds of foolish theories which label
transgendered people as homosexuals unable to admit the fact and evading what
they see as a stigma by the simple (!) solution of gender reassignment! Since
many, even most, transgenders are aware of their gender dysphoria in infancy
this seems like a far-fetched notion. That a four year old can be aware enough
of sexuality and the differences between genders to settle monomaniacally on a
course which will allow him or her to grow up and make love to her/his own
gender by way of surgical intervention is rather too foolish to countenance.

Unfortunately one of the foolish people who held this view of transgenderism was
Justice Ormrod, who presided over Corbett v. Corbett (1969) in which April
Ashley's husband Arthur Corbett sought an annulment of their marriage on the
grounds that April Ashley was born male. This was the first test in a British
court of the right of a transsexual to marry. Ormrod ruled that April Ashley was
male despite her reassignment and Corbett v. Corbett has laid its dead hand on
British and Australian law affecting transsexuals ever since. Correspondence from
Ormrod to an Australian jurist currently carrying out a study on the place of
transsexuals in society has demonstrated Ormrod's total lack of understanding of
gender dysphoria as he maunders on about how satisfactory anal sex is and wonders
that anyone would want a vagina in order to have sex.

I became quite choleric when I read this correspondence and wrote a sharp series
of comments to my jurist friend. Very few of us seek gender reassignment in
order to go to bed with men. We seek reassignment for our own peace of mind, and
the thought of anal sex would be repugnant to many. The thought of going through
life with male genitals would be totally insupportable to virtually all. How
could we bear to look at ourselves every day, half and half parodies of
humanity, female above, male below?

So then, what of my own sexuality? I am what I call a 'second wave' transsexual
... one who fought to suppress my gender dysphoria and tried to live as others
wanted me to be. For a third of my life I lived to please my parents. Then I
married (thinking this might redeem me from my mad desire to be female), raised
three lovely daughters and finally gave way (after some negative familial
coercion) to my need to be a woman, finally and forever. 'First wave'
transsexuals, like April Ashley and Caroline Cossey, move across the gender
border much earlier in their lives and live virtually their whole adult lives in
the female role (I hope female-to-male transsexuals who read this account will
forgive my concentration on my own situation and not theirs. It becomes
insupportably complex to frame every sentence to cover both sides of the
mirror-image). It is 'first-wave' transsexuals who are most likely to want sex
with men. Those of us who follow later in life more often than not retain our
original sexual orientation. I sometimes say that my surgeon turned me into a

My surgical reassignment did not affect my love for my family. I would have
returned to my wife on almost any terms ... as lover, as best friend, as
roommate... But her repugnance for my condition was such that she first divorced
me, then sought annulment of our marriage.

The annulment is a story in itself. I had assumed the Catholic Church might have
moved into the Twentieth Century in terms of understanding of the human psyche,
but in fact the Catholic Tribunal which controlled our annulment was as cruel,
dishonest and secretive as the Spanish Inquisition. Evidence was called but
never shown to the parties to the annulment, so that nothing could be
challenged, and I was never allowed to hear any of the deliberations, although I
requested this right. All evidence was written up in the judgement without
attribution so that it was effectively anonymous. I was allowed to see the
judgement only after the Tribunal had ruled in favour of annulment and my appeal
against that ruling had been dismissed. The judgement was full of lies and
irrelevancies, including the evidence from some unidentified person that when I
cross-dressed it was in order to be attractive to men. A blatant lie which should have
been challenged forcibly by my so-called Defender of the Bond.

It was suggested that I owned 135 pairs of shoes, making me the Imelda Marcos of
Balmain. Another lie, but even if true, what possible relevance did it have to
the moment of marriage, the only moment which is relevant in an annulment
proceeding? The grounds given for annulment were that I had shown Gross Lack of
Discretion in marrying. If this means anything in the English language it means
that I should have realised when I took my marriage vows that twenty-three years
later I would be forced by circumstance into leaving the marriage and seeking
gender reassignment. How foolish of me not have known that!

My attempts to have Civil Liberties lawyers take on the Catholic Church in defence
of my rights have failed miserably. Letters have not been answered, telephone calls
not returned. They couldn't be running scared just because I want them to sue the
Pope, surely? Even my butterfly has sharper teeth than they.

I have said in another place that gender dysphoria is a medical condition (if it
is not, why is it treated by the medical profession ... psychiatrists and
surgeons?). Yet we are treated as if we make a wilful choice to endure all the
pain and expense; as if transsexualism were a whim, or a hobby, or a sexual

I was left in a limbo of loving. Still wanting my wife, still missing my
children. One of my daughters stood by me. The other two didn't want to know me.
For five years I stood aloof from the world of sex, hoping against hope that my
wife would wake up one morning to a new realisation of my worth, and return to
me. I admit my hopes were eroded by her marriage to the Catholic who had been
the instigator of the annulment...

Incidentally, although I had certainly not sought gender reassignment in the
hope of having sex with a man, or men, I never denied that this was a possibility.

I had no real idea how much difference might be wrought on my
libido by my regimen of hormones, nor did I know what social and psychological
changes might occur in my life. So I did not rule out the possibility that Mr
Right would come along and sweep me off my feet like the recycled virgin I was.

The closest I ever came to this was when a Telecom technician young enough to be
my son accosted me in a bookshop and asked me what I was doing next. I was
rather fetchingly dressed in a peasant blouse, straight skirt and high heels
(during my fast-forward period) but I stammered something about going back to
work and scuttled away as fast as I could, skirt and heels notwithstanding.
Then one day I took a closer look at my empty emotional life and admitted that
my wife would never come back to me, even if her despicable husband were somehow removed from the scene, and I should stop moping and think about the rest of my
life. I should no longer reject the idea of finding a new partner.

No sooner had I made this decision than someone came into my life, almost
miraculously, following a series of coincidences which would be laughed off the
stage as the most blatant use of. I found myself in the company
of an intelligent, witty, warm and wonderful woman who shared many of my
literary enthusiasms and enjoyed my company. Within a few weeks I had declared
my love for her, and, although she was startled at my boldness, she had the
grace to take me seriously (she was not a lesbian before I knew her) and we
commenced a close and loving relationship which endured for a year. It might
well have endured longer had she not remembered one day that she is heterosexual
and we parted tearfully, but lovingly, and are still close friends.

I was still not convinced I was a lesbian, and was prepared to seek out a
partner first and find out his or her sex later. I have never been sex mad. I
would rather have fine food than sex and good conversation than either.
I had a brief fling with a pre-operative transsexual during a trip I took
through the United States. This turned out to be a one-way relationship and
foundered when we parted, although I had never intended it to be a one-week
stand. "Aha!", I hear The Christian Crusader crying triumphantly, "so she is a
homosexual by her own admission! Oops! I mean his own admission!"

Sorry, but no! As far as I am concerned, my partner in the States is a woman, just
as I was a woman long, long before surgery, so the most I will confess to is
that we were lesbians... But I'm sure that will do. Damnation is
damnation, after all. If you believe in that sort of thing...

And when I came back to Australia, having been rejected by my American playmate,
I found myself drifting into a closer and closer relationship with a woman who shares
many of my interests, including that of writing. She is the published author of many books,
and an independent spirit of great courage and physical beauty. There is an age
discrepancy between us but there has been an almost identical discrepancy in all three
of my post-marital relationships, and since I intend to live for ever this hardly matters.
And so my life proceeds. I have written one full-length autobiography (which I
am proud to say won the Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction in 1992) and yet so
much has happened since then that I feel I should add a lengthy epilogue before
it appears again.

I closed off my book in the belief that I could never love
again. How wrong I was! And I have also discovered the internet and am in
contact with some hundreds of intelligent, articulate transsexuals and
transgendered people in several different countries. From them I have learned a
great deal I never knew, for I found my way down the difficult path of
transsexualism virtually alone, forming my own opinions and accepting the
strictures of the medical profession as if they really knew something. I have
modified many of my opinions since I wrote my autobiography and will probably
continue to do so. What has emerged most clearly is the primitive stage
Australia occupies in recognition of the legal and human rights of transsexuals.

We cringingly follow Corbett v. Corbett, ignoring the many attacks made by
sensible members of the legal profession on the narrow-minded bigotry of Ormrod
J. and we fail to understand that the major question is not "Why should
transsexuals be accorded the same rights as anyone else?" but rather "Why should
transsexuals not be accorded the same rights as everyone else?" Who would be
harmed if we were permitted to marry in our gender of choice? Who would suffer
if we could have our documentation altered to conform to our new personae? The
dead hand of religion imposes laws dreamed up by timorous Middle Eastern nomads
afraid of thunderstorms and earthquakes three thousand years ago and we do not
have the moral courage to discard superstitions which should no longer have
anything to do with modern societal rules.

I do what I can, as an XY woman. I write to politicians. I speak at gender
conferences. I write for publication. I stand up to be counted. I do not expect
to make much difference in my lifetime, but we have to start somewhere. Gender
reassignment surgery is just over forty years old (Christine Jorgensen's
operation in 1952 was the first successful one to be publicised). In that time
remarkable progress has been made in recognising legal and human rights of
transsexuals particularly in Holland, some of the Scandinavian countries and
parts of the United States and Canada. Why is Australia so backward? I realise
the Liberals blame the National Party, but that can't be the whole story,
surely. Why should wide hats and narrow minds disadvantage a whole innocent
sub-group of society who want nothing more than to get on with their reordered

Of course there are good people (like my jurist friend) working for more humane
treatment of transsexuals in Australia. With luck this account of the brief life
and unexpected loves of an XY woman may inform a few more lay people, as my
earlier autobiography did.

It has been a remarkable eight years for me, since first I wrote to my
colleagues at the college where I worked, telling them what I intended to do
with my life, or what was left of it.

It has been such an adventure that I sometimes tell my friends I have a mind to go
back the other way, just for the interest and the challenge. Ah, well. Maybe not.
Once may be enough.
Katherine Cummings