Educator, showgirl and Chair of the OuterSpaces Trust Board, Judy Virago shares her story of being a young trans person looking at the working world and wondering where they will fit in.
In 1994, I convinced my dad to take my brothers and I, to Priscilla Queen of the Desert. I told him it was a “road trip” film. Ping pong balls popped. Drag queens flounced and flourished. Terence Stamp as Bernadette Bassenger sauntered sagaciously in elegant white linen. Eleven year old me was in awe. The magic and mystery of Bernadette’s transness stirred my curiosity.
I always knew I was a girl, I just didn’t yet know how to get other people to see it. And here was a character who had somehow made it happen. I didn’t really think it would be possible for me. As a child, my understanding from Bernadette was that anyone who managed to harness the magic of gender transformation would have to live on the fringes of society, far away from the workspaces I hoped to enter when I grew up. So I kept my intentions to myself.
Five years later, Georgina Beyer was elected to parliament. A transsexual woman who had led a cabaret life like my dear Bernadette showed the world that trans people can be celebrated by the mainstream and are trusted to take up space not only on the stage but in the halls of power. It gave me hope that one day I might actually get to be truly myself, and not be ostracised for it.
But it appeared that Georgina was an anomaly. We hear often of The Great Firsts of transgender achievement – but the second, third and fourth were not so soon to follow back then. The ‘transgender tipping point’ was not to come for another fifteen years. The old trope of trans women surviving solely as sex workers remained the dominant narrative of our working potential. Many of us embraced that narrative. And while sex work saves lives, it really stings when it feels like your only option. I was numb to that sting after a few years, but it was that sting that taught me the audacity to name my worth and demand it.
In my first week of a job where MtF finally stood for Monday to Friday (and 9 to 5 meant am to pm), I came out to a colleague. I wanted to know if she had clocked that I was trans before I told her. Passing was a major concern for me at that time because I was about to be teaching in a boy’s high school and it didn’t feel safe to be seen as trans. That was nearly four years ago. These days I wouldn’t dream of trying to hide who I am, and workplaces are recognising that we shouldn’t have to.
We’ve come a long way since Bernadette sauntered across our screens, but we still have work to do to ensure that workplaces are psychologically, spiritually and physically safe for trans folk. According to the Counting Ourselves Survey (2019), the unemployment rate of the 15–65-year-old survey participants was more than double that of the general population. New Zealand must let go of the stereotypes of gender non-conformity, embrace the full spectrum of gender and make room for all those dazzling colours in every workplace. I am dedicated to making sure young trans folk never feel like they only have one option for work, and that’s an intention I will never keep to myself.