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Trans Day of Visibility: What it's like coming out as trans in Australia.

Today marks Trans Day of Visibility, an annual international celebration of trans pride and awareness.

But here at Mamamia, we want to see a world where trans stories are commonplace and mainstream - ongoing, and unrestrained to one special day. 

The trans community are one of the most marginalised and vilified groups in Australia - and even more so for trans people of colour or of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. 

Transgender people aged 14-25 are 15 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. Further, a 2018 UNSW Kirby Institute study found 50 per cent of trans respondents said they had been sexually assaulted at least once - more than three times higher than the general population. 

The statistics go on.

But it is the sharing of our stories that we really hear each other and understand. Barriers crumble to commonality. Visibility gives power. 

And so today we launch the first instalment of a three-part series of the reality of the trans experience in Australia, which gives an intimate look at the journeys, reality, challenges and opportunities for progress shared by four trans people: Melbourne jazz singer, cabaret performer and CEO of Transgender Victoria, Mama Alto; Geelong-based fashion stylist, LGBTQI+ activist and co-host of Mamamia podcast, What are You Wearing?, Deni Todorovič; Construction worker from NSW's Central Coast, Jess Peroy, and Year 11 student, Theo Boltman

Read part 2 - 'I've been harassed in the boys' bathroom': What it's like to live as trans in Australia. And part 3 - Safe bathrooms and respecting pronouns: What trans people want to see change in Australia.

Let’s get to know them…

Jess Peroy (He/Him or Them/Theirs), 31.

Jess always felt “different” in his teens. He knew he was attracted to girls, and so he assumed he was a lesbian.

“But I always felt really weird saying it,” Jess tells.

“Like it didn’t quite fit.”

Learn more about Jess and their transition. Article continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.
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So, he changed how he identified: Rather, than call himself a lesbian, Jess decided to tell people he was gay because, “it sounded a bit softer to me.”

But he still wasn’t comfortable, and from there, he spiralled, he says.

“I wasn’t sure what it was, but I just didn’t feel right.”

Jess grew up with gay family members, although he says there was never any conversation about that - “and we never had the language or vocabulary or any information to point me in the right direction.”

“At the time that I grew up, it felt like you were either gay or straight. For those who were bi, it was like, “Oh, they’re just experimenting”. But people didn’t have the information and the words to really express how they feel.”

It took until Jess was 30 years old before he found the words for which he was desperately searching. To understand. 

And that journey began with… Tik Tok.

“I somehow managed to find my way on to transgender Tik Tok account, and then I began googling.”

He punched ‘Top surgery’ and ‘Gender Dysphoria’ - distress or discomfort a person feels when their biological sex does not match their gender identity - into his keyboard.

“And I was like, hang on, I totally resonate with this!”

“I have absolute dysphoria about my body, and I just started feeling completely comfortable, knowing that there are other people feeling the way I feel, and then being able to put that into words, it definitely felt validating.”

Jess describes the freedom he felt in understanding their identity - that in fact, they just might be transgender.

He knew the next conversation had to be with their partner of one year, Kayla. 

Jess with fiancé, Kayla. Image: Supplied. 

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Lovers of camping, they were in a tent on a weekend away on New South Wales’ Central Coast, when Jess couldn’t hold it in any longer. 

“It felt like the biggest deal ever. I felt like I'm gonna make or break this relationship right now. And I was freaking out the whole time. I had no idea what would happen or how it would play out and so I just had a few drinks and said, “Sooo… Let’s talk about stuff!”.”

It was an emotionally charged conversation - “But very rewarding,” he reflects.

“I had built it up in my head really hard… but she was so fine and really supportive and super caring. She had so many questions, and I didn’t know the answers. In my mind, I just wanted to tell her I was trans - I hadn’t thought of anything beyond that!”

Kayla’s response was beyond anything Jess could’ve imagined - and they are now engaged to be married. 

And last September, Jess began Hormone Replacement Therapy. He is now saving for top surgery (breast removal) - launching a GoFundMe campaign in order to raise funds before the wedding - "to be in the right body for my special day". So far, almost $11,000 has been donated towards the $15,000 target.

He reflects, “A caring partner, and support from family and friends - I really hit the trifecta.”

Mama Alto (She/Her), 31.

From the time Mama Alto was a small child, people used to assume she was a little girl - “and I didn’t mind at all,” she shares.

Mama recalls being captivated by a “very beautiful” black fuzzy girls hat in the pharmacy. She tried it on and the shop assistant passed by and said to her mum: “Oh, she looks so lovely in that hat”.

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“I was quite happy… and I just thought I am being seen for who I am.”

Mama Alto. Image: Supplied. 

She came out as queer and gay around the age of 12, partly in an attempt to take some power away from school bullies, who constantly ridiculed and humiliated her for what she wore, what she ate and… basically anything. 

Everything she did was “gay”, they taunted. 

“But there is a kind of power and being able to say, yes, I am [queer]. And why is that funny? And what's so wrong with that? [Owning it] rather than just being the butt of the joke.”

She also credits her supportive and loving family, a “couple of really great, affirming teachers”, and the access she had to positive literature - novels, films and musicals - that had “wonderful LGBTQI+ characters”.

“All of these different stories of queer people showed me that our lives could be more than a tragedy, and that’s a big problem at the moment. You can't be it, if you can't see it."

"Many young, LGBTQI+ people think they’ll only grow up to the tragedies of statistics."

"We have to change that."

As Mama immersed herself into the world of performance and cabaret post-high school, she found a safe place to further explore her identity, a place “where people would be accepting, and even delighted, compared to on the street.”

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“Interestingly, the same people who could come along to a cabaret show and absolutely love a performer for their outrageous full self on stage, might be the same person who on the street would avoid being near us or be even actively hostile to us,” she notes. 

Mama Alto in performance. Image: Supplied/Alexis Desaulniers-Lea. 

Mama remembers a man, perhaps in his 60s, who approached her after a performance of Great American Songbook tunes. He described himself as a very conservative and quiet person - and he was in tears. 

“He said: I never understood why people like you had to be so loud and proud. And then listening to your stories, your singing, I could see from your point of view what life must be like, and what challenges there are. Suddenly I understood why you would have to be proud to survive, and I never understood that until tonight.”

Mama says it was a “big moment” for her. 

“I realised that just by being who I was, up there singing and comfortable in my own skin, he was so moved. He suddenly understood that LGBTQI+ people were people; human beings just like him and not these dangerous freaks, which is what he'd been told all his life.”

It’s the power of stage performance, which Mama says has allowed her “to bring who I was on the inside to the outside”. 

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“It allowed me to connect with other people who were like me, but to also have an impact on the prejudices and preconceived ideas that people in the audience might have.”

“And that has been a really beautiful journey for me, which I think is still ongoing. It’s what really helped me and gave me the confidence to be who I was, which is a trans feminine person; someone who is non-binary, but is feminine and womanly.”

“I want to celebrate that, rather than being humiliated, put down and abused for it.”

Deni Todorovič (They/Them), 33.

Before Deni Todorovič was four years old, they gravitated towards anything feminine; foraging through their mother’s closet, or playing with their aunty’s make up. Even then, they knew they were gay.

But at around 10, Deni’s family converted from Serbian Orthodox to Jehovah’s Witness. They became strong adherents to the faith, attending church three times weekly and knocking on doors in an act of evangelical outreach on the weekend.

“While you have some religions that are progressive in certain parts of their faith, with Jehovah's Witness, there is really no room for progressive anything,” says Deni.

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“I started to feel like coming out was never an option. In my mind, it was just something that I never thought would happen. It was a feeling that was repressed.”

But then at 19, Deni’s world exploded. Within a whirlwind two weeks, they had their first kiss and sexual encounter - with a boy - and realised their sexuality was something they could no longer suppress. 

They came out to their parents. 

“It was tough at first, but very quickly they and my extended family were incredibly supportive. I think it was the ‘wog’ in them that just resorted to love rather than to hate, which, I'm very fortunate for, because not a lot of other ethnic people have that same experience.”

Deni identified as gay for the next 12 years - until they reached their early 30s. They were living in Sydney and working as Fashion Editor at Cosmopolitan magazine when they found themselves moving in spaces that were more queer than traditionally gay.  

And then, visibility. They saw men in skirts, and the first e-mail signature which included the sender’s pronouns, and public personas who embraced their true gender identity. Deni cites Younger actor, Nico Tortorella, singer Sam Smith, celebrity Caitlyn Jenner and Australian drag personality Courtney Act; none of them identified within the binaries of ‘man’ or ‘woman’. 

Deni recalls an interview he witnessed with Sam Smith - and the profound impact of their words.

Deni Todorovič. Image: Supplied. 

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“They spoke to the way they've always felt since they were little, though they had alway felt that they existed beyond both male and female, the way that they even sexually, they could lean into their feminine and their masculine … and I was like, wow. This feels so familiar.”

It was “a lightbulb moment”. Deni then began to dapple in more gender-neutral fashion. They wore kilts, and discovered heels. 

At a house party with 20 or 30 “fabulous gay men”, the costume box was pulled from the cupboard. Out came a pair of “super, super high stripper heels”. Deni’s then-partner encouraged them to try them on. 

“And it was just the most liberating thing ever. The boys made me do a little lip-sync moment, and I performed a Beyonce number. I just felt alive!”

But it would take a little longer before Deni felt able to wear heels out in non-queer spaces - in public. The first time was to a nightclub in their Victorian home city of Geelong. They moved back there just before COVID struck. Deni was surprised by the reaction. 

“For the most part, it’s been really positively received. That first night, a couple came up to me and told me their son is queer. They thanked me for being so visible.”

It was all leading to a crescendo of awakening. But first they needed surrender. And in the grips of lockdown, Deni turned to their spirituality for answers: They suspected they were trans, and prayed to the universe for concrete confirmation. Was this their authentic self? 

Within 12 hours, Deni saw little personal signs pop up everywhere, and they knew this was their path.

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“But while there is a huge liberation that comes with that, the trans experience comes with a lot of mourning - maybe not for everyone, but there was for me,” they tell.

It challenged how Deni would express their evolved identity. Do they need to change their name or pronouns? Does this mean they can’t identify as gay anymore? What did they want to do?

“Changing my pronouns was a huge moment, because that was a real moment of letting go of my own internal transphobia, which a lot of trans people feel because we are a product of our environments.”

“And there were lots of teething moments of making peace with the fact that I can actually choose.”

“My identity is mine - so I can still be gay and be non-binary and I can still lean into my masculine when I want to too.”

Theo Boltman (They/Them), 16.

When Year 11 student Theo Boltman was a young child, they always felt a lot of pressure to play AFL or soccer. But it was necklaces and dresses that stole their attention. 

By Year 4, it became clear to them that they felt more comfortable in the company of girls. "It was always me and the girls!” they tell. 

But then, they also didn’t fully feel like they fitted in there either. With no guy friends by Year 6, school camp was awkward - “who was I meant to be in a cabin with?”

Theo Boltman. Image: Casper Plum. 

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It was around that time, and through a friendship with a trans person that Theo realised they were gay. At 13, after two years of living in the closet, they came out to family and a few close friends - “I hate keeping secrets”.

A couple of years after that, Theo then discovered the term ‘non-binary’ through Instagram, and on some level, it resonated.

“But I never really perceived myself as non-binary because although I wasn't really a man - and I knew I wasn't, in all honesty - I was just such a people pleaser. I thought, I don't want to make everyone have to use different pronouns for me. That's going to be so annoying. It's going to be so difficult.”

After sitting with it for some time, almost one year ago, Theo came out - for a second time. As trans non-binary.

Again, they told friends and then family, and “I was fine for a week, but then I hit a really rough patch with my mental health, and it’s just been a journey from there.”

“For so many people in my life, it was hard for them to accept. I was trying to accept my own identity, and everyone else was going through the transition with me, and that was a real strain on my mental health.”

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Theo shares that it was their parents who had the hardest time in coming to terms with their identity - “they thought it was a phase at first and didn’t really know any trans or non-binary people. So, it’s still kind of a process that they are going through.”

Then there was the process of feeling supported at school. Theo, who attends a progressive Jewish school in Melbourne, says after they refused to use the male bathroom, the school accommodated, and they now have a bathroom for use of their own.

And while Theo has also struggled with gender dysphoria, they have experienced the flipside too: gender euphoria. 

“Trying on my formal dresses was such a beautiful moment, to feel comfortable in my body.”

While in the throes of the school formal and VCE, Theo is also a theatre performer and is passionate about environmental activism.

They love parties too. 

And finally, they can attend them wearing the necklaces and dresses for which they have long lusted over. 

“I’m living a very - I don’t want to say ‘normal’, because I don’t like the word - but I would say, I’m living that coming of age life - that I want to live.”

Read more: 

Keen to read more from Rebecca Davis? You can find her articles here, or follow her on Instagram,  @rebeccadavis___

Feature Image: Supplied/Mamamia.

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