The Birth of TransFamily
Activism led by transgender people has meant there is a growing awareness around the issues they face in the broader community, but what about their families? Stephen A Russell talks to a mother about her journey with her trans daughter.
When Lyn McDonald took a phone call from her then married with kids son back in 1997, she was unprepared for a dramatic change to family life as she knew it.
“She rang me and said, mum, I want to be a woman; in fact, I am a woman,” McDonald says. “I had absolutely no idea that there were any gender issues for her, it was out of left field. I was absolutely shattered. I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t know how to cope with it.”
McDonald describes her upbringing in “way, way outer suburbia,” as a “typical okka family.” She didn’t have the framework to begin grappling with the concept of a transgender daughter.
“The one thing I did know was that I would be there for her,” she says. “I loved her, and I just wanted her to get through it.”
The transition wasn’t smooth for her daughter, who experienced self-harm and ended up in hospital before deciding to leave her wife and move to Melbourne to live with her parents. Self-reported suicide attempts amongst the transgendered community are worryingly high, at around 41 per cent.
Once settled in the city, McDonald’s daughter found a strong support network of fellow transgender people, but her mother wasn’t so lucky. The only peer support group for families of transgender people McDonald could track down was based in Sydney, not much use in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.
“As a family, we didn’t really have any support,” she says. “We just muddled through as best we could.”
A psychologist she sought advice from wasn’t trained to address transgender issues. “Things have come a long way in 16 years; there’s so much more information, knowledge and education out there,” McDonald says. “People aren’t as blown away or shocked as they once were, but there’s still a long way to go.”
While her daughter was ecstatic to finally be living her life as she had always felt she should, McDonald, who had always seen her ‘son’ as a “pretty average bloke,” experienced periods of depression.
“It was a huge shock for us,” she says. “It can be a distressing time that begins when parents suddenly discovers their loved child isn’t who they thought they were, and there’s a period of loss that can be there for a long time. I grieved a lot for my son, but now I can look back fondly and think of that life without being distressed.”
Things changed dramatically for the better when McDonald attended Opening Doors, a leadership program based in the inner east that encourages grass-roots projects that engage community members at risk of social isolation. It was here that she met vocal LGBTI campaigner, bisexual and transgender woman, Sally Goldner, and the pair struck up a firm partnership. They have gone on to set up TransFamily, a Melbourne-based peer support group for transgender people, their friends and families, that will meet for the first time in January next year.
Goldner says TransFamily will benefit from the experience of both herself as a trans person and McDonald as the mother of a trans person.
“We have the advantage of covering both angles. We’re settled enough in our particular journeys, and we want to offer something better than what we went through.”
Affirming her identity around the same time as McDonald’s daughter, Goldner had a different experience. “My parents were born in the ‘30s. They had very firm ideas about the need for work, and they were worried about my ability to get a job.”
Thankfully that didn’t trouble Goldner, an accountant by trade, though she prefers the work she does as an activist. McDonald’s daughter had more trouble, and was bullied out of a job at an aged care facility.
Goldner says employment difficulties are just some of the complex issues faced by trans people. “Some come from strict religious families, and that can be problematic, others from culturally diverse backgrounds, some of which can be very masculine, and that can cause problems for trans women in particular.”
She hopes TransFamily will create a safe space where everyone can share their experience, both positive and negative, together. “We’re available for the whole trans kaleidoscope, whether they’re going through surgery or not, whether they identify as male, female, neither or both.”
McDonald says you cannot beat face-to-face contact. “You can go onto an internet site, but you can’t see a tear rolling down a person’s cheek, or you can’t give them a hug. I know the value of just being there, in a room with other human beings, saying what you want to in confidence, knowing it won’t go any further.”
The author of the book He’s My Daughter – A Mother’s Journey To Acceptance. McDonald now says that title isn’t quite right. “Acceptance isn’t the right word. It was a few years back, but I can celebrate her life now.”
(Pic - Lyn McDonald and her daughter at Pride March)