High profile trans women such as reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner and Australian military official Cate McGregor have propelled issues around trans rights and wellbeing into the zeitgeist. But look behind the famous faces and you’ll find a complex, diverse, and too-often vulnerable population.
“A lot of trans people try to be invisible for their own safety,” says Associate Professor Sam Winter from the School of Public Health. Sam and his colleague Dr Catriona Davis-McCabe recently set up the Curtin Trans Research and Interest Group (TRIG), the first of its kind in WA.
“They don’t make a noise. So you have a group that is stigmatised, but has kept a low profile.”
Sam and Catriona expected just five or six attendees at TRIG’s inaugural meeting in August. Instead, roughly 40 community, health, government and research representatives crammed into the sunlit boardroom.
TRIG’s enthusiastic turnout is perhaps not surprising. In the last year, trans luminaries like Jenner and actress Laverne Cox have successfully cast a once reticent population into the public eye. In response, communities and policy makers have slowly begun to address the disproportionately high rates of unemployment, homelessness, mental illness and poor physical health among trans people. However, the mainstreaming of trans issues via celebrity means raises its own concerns.
“It can be problematic when people are only hearing those quite glamorous stories about high achievers,” says Sam.
“It makes invisible all those other trans people in the world for whom life is far more difficult.”
Unlike wealthy celebrities, most trans people who wish to change their physical sex (not all do), struggle to afford gender-affirming procedures such as hormone therapy and surgery. A recent Curtin-led study found the lack of access to these procedures is a major contributing factor to anxiety and depression among trans people in Australia.
If a trans person chooses to change their appearance they run the risk of encountering verbal and physical abuse. Between 2008 and 2014, more than 1,700 trans people were murdered worldwide, and that figure only accounts for reported incidents. Self-censorship is a survival mechanism, and a photoshopped Vanity Fair cover is cold comfort when the real world prefers you stay out of sight.
Public Health PhD student Lee Yoresh came out as a trans woman this year. Her thesis is exploring how the outside world deals with different expressions of queer identity. While Lee considers herself lucky to have a supportive family and healthcare team behind her, she hasn’t escaped the ramifications of making small changes to her appearance, such as wearing skirts and touches of makeup.
“I’ve been whistled at, I’ve been yelled at, I’ve been threatened,” Lee says. As a musician, she’s even been booed on stage for wearing female clothing.
“The world restricts how you navigate if you’re too open and visible.”
In spite of the hazards, Lee feels more comfortable expressing her identity than hiding it. She likens being mistaken for the wrong gender to having strangers tell you that your skin is blue.
“In your mind it doesn’t make any sense. When people refer to me as a man, I feel like it doesn’t apply to me at all.”
Lee believes the media could do more to widen society’s perceptions of who trans people are by shifting the emphasis from ‘final products’ to the less-glamorous ‘process’ of gender transition.
“We don’t get to see Caitlyn Jenner with cuts on her face and bandages and a broken nose. We only see the big reveal,” says Lee. “There’s no reason to deprive people of the whole picture.”
Cultural studies honours student Kirsty Herbert believes greater diversity on our screens can help to reduce prejudice against people whose gender clashes with prevailing social ideals.
“The more you’re able to recognise and understand different kinds of people, the more you can empathise with them,” says Kirsty, who identifies as non-binary gendered.
“Reproducing the same old gender stereotypes only further obscures anyone who has a different experience, whether that person is straight, gay, trans or cisgender.”
Fortunately, if the success of initiatives like TRIG is anything to go by, there is a growing desire to finally meet and get to know the trans community, a group that has many voices, and as many faces.
“Nature loves diversity,” says Sam. “It’s just a matter of society becoming more comfortable with difference, and accepting that people’s bodies and identities are their own affair.”
 Cisgender (often abbreviated to ‘cis’) describes those whose sense of gender matches their sex at birth.
What does 'trans' mean?
Trans people identify as having an internal sense of gender that differs from their gender assigned at birth. Trans is an umbrella term that can include people who identify as transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, non-binary gendered, sistergirl, brotherboy, crossdressers and other identities.