‘Balmain Boy Becomes Beauty,’ read the headline. It was the first she had heard of her son Richard’s sex change.
The 1960s and ’70s were dangerous times for transgender Australians. A man in a feather boa on stage was wonderfully flamboyant and risque, but on the streets? It was scandalous.
Performing as a showgirl in the iconic Les Girls show, Carol ‘Carlotta’ Spencer was arrested for ‘offensive behaviour’ when she walked home from work through Sydney’s Kings Cross one night, face still painted. A man in women’s clothing.
Now in her seventies, Carlotta’s fight is not over and nor are the issues facing the trans community. And now she’s detailed her incredible battle for acceptance in the podcast, Fighting For Fair:
The ‘Queen of the Cross’ always felt more like a woman in a man’s skin. It wasn’t enough to perform it, she wanted to live it.
So the Sydney showgirl began hormone therapy. Her skin was softening and her breasts were growing. But she didn’t like the idea that she was a woman up top, and a man down below. That’s when she found out about the sex change surgeries being performed in Sydney hospitals. But she says it was a procedure that was degrading, humiliating, and offensive.
“You had to sign up for all these tests,” she said.
“They used to put wires on my head in some of the tests, make me look at obscene photos of people having sex, animals having sex, to see what my reaction was. To see if I get aroused I suppose.”
Carlotta found the ordeal so degrading that she ended up pulling the wires off her head. This wasn't the way. A few weeks later, she tried again. This time in front of a panel of doctors, psychiatrists, a clergy man and a priest, who thought they should have a say in the Sydney showgirl's identity.
But in this room the test was different. Carlotta was instructed to step into a pair of towering red heels and cross the room. Prove her womanhood.
"I thought, what has this got to do with me wanting to have a sex change?" she said.
"I just got so mad, I pulled the high heels off and I threw them at the table."
Then a couple of weeks later, she got the letter.
After her surgery, Carlotta awoke to flashing cameras and the realisation that she'd been sold out to the press and was about to become Australia's most famous transgender woman. Everything changed for Carlotta in that hospital bed.
"I was really happy in myself," she could finally say.
But now in her seventies, Carlotta's fight is not over and nor are the issues facing the trans community.
Transgender males and females experience significantly higher rates of depression, abuse and discrimination than non-LGBTQI identifying Australians. They're also 20 times more likely to commit suicide.
"All through my life I've had this battle of being totally accepted for just being me," the former drag queen said.
"I've never put a male or female title on myself, I'm Carlotta."
To hear the rest of Carlotta's incredible story, listen to the full episode of Fighting For Fair above. If you want to subscribe to the podcast, go to apple.co/mamamia, where you will find all of Mamamia’s podcasts, as well as any book we ever talk about on any of our shows in one place.
To demonstrate the importance of fighting not just for our own rights, but for the rights of all Australians, Mamamia in partnership with Maurice Blackburn Lawyers brings you Fighting for Fair. True stories of social justice from around Australia.