Photographer – Tractor Driver – World Class Sommelier
Gender Affirmation Role Model
More than a decade ago I met and became friends with Cat, at the time a fellow photographer.
This is the story of a beautiful woman who battled decades of humiliation, bullying, scrutiny, self loathing and inhumane treatment, because she did not conform to society’s perception of gender.
Cat was a vulnerable, emotionally exhausted woman on the brink of suicide, who was saved by her courageous decision to recognise and embrace her true persona, Scott ! – the tough, brave, typical Aussie bloke.
This is the story of how Scott saved Cat’s life.
Q: We took these pictures after your first surgery, how did it feel?
It was terrifying. Sinden (the makeup artist) was amazing; he made me feel like the sexiest bloke in Sydney, which was exactly what I needed. I’ve never felt comfortable in my skin let alone attractive. The previous day I walked down Bondi in my shorts; the first time I’d ever got my shirt off. The whole time I expected someone to come and tell me to cover up, instead I posed for photos with Asian tourists!
Q: How would you describe yourself? Tell me about yourself.
I’m a 32 year old professional. I’m a man; a brother, a son. I’ve taken an interesting path in life. I’ve worked in the Australian wine industry for the last 10 years, so that’s been a significant part of my life.
Q: I have always thought of your look as androgynous, in that unique beauty kind of way, but did others draw conclusions about your appearance through the years?
For better or worse, yes. A great number of people made judgements on me based on my appearance. Most people thought I was a lesbian.
That part never really struck me until I came out to my sister as transgender. Unbeknownst to me, she had spent her entire life from about the age of 13 defending me from all sorts of accusations about my character and sexuality. I never really understood how difficult it was for her; she is fiercely protective of me. In her eyes, she’s always had an older brother. Once I came out, the questions ended. There was no ambiguity anymore; it was just a case of people saying: “Oh of course – that makes perfect sense.”
The androgyny is something I struggled with; I spent 30+ years having my gender questioned, my right to use certain spaces questioned and on a number of occasions my right to even exist.
Q: Was there an age where you started to feel you were different or felt uncomfortable within your own skin?
Difference is something that other people tend to instil in you. From a very young age, my family, teachers and other friends always bandied around the same phrase “She’s just a tomboy, she’ll grow out of it.’ By the time I was 4 it had become a mantra of sorts for them.
For me, the first time I felt truly uncomfortable would have been when I was maybe 7 years old after a swimming lesson. I was leaving the pool complex with some other boys and we were all wearing shorts, no t-shirts. I vividly remember my mother running at me with a towel trying to cover my chest; she was horrified. I remember being extremely upset, I couldn’t reconcile why I couldn’t be like the other boys. Initially I was hurt and extremely confused, but once I saw how upset my mother was, I complied.
The people around you make you feel ‘different.’ I’ve been extremely fortunate in the sense that my family have never tried to feminise me or force me to be anyone I’m not; they’ve always accepted me for who I am. That said, my parents are honest, working class people. I was a lot more than they ever anticipated having to deal with.
Q: What kind of ways did the people who drew conclusions and made assumptions treat you? What kind of situations were you confronted with?
Bathrooms were always the worst. From the age of 5 I’ve had issues with them. When I was in primary school, I tried not to use the school toilets at all; even when I was Head Girl, the younger students kept reporting me to teachers for being in the wrong toilets. School uniforms were also awful; my parents were prepared to fork out the money for me to attend a private school, I point blank refused on the grounds that I would have had to have worn a skirt, something they failed to understand. That was tough.
As an adult, the assumption that I was gay always made very little sense to me and impacted significantly on my ability to form relationships. Potential male suitors didn’t want to take me out on a date, I found myself in a lot of toxic relationships on account of the fact that I was so desperate to be accepted by someone.
Shopping for clothes used to terrify me, any situation involving gender-specific clothing was awful. I hated wearing women’s clothes. The number of times I was asked if I was ‘buying clothes for my boyfriend’ or if I was lost while trying to find clothes for work I lost count of.
Just prior to starting my transition, I very briefly took a job with a large hotel. In spite of me explaining my situation, they attempted to kit me out in a blouse and women’s trousers. The anxiety, anger and unabated fear that caused… I don’t have the words to describe it.
As a woman, I was thrown out of the Zegna store in Sydney a few years back in spite of wearing Zegna suits to work for years. When I tried to reason with the manager, she told me, “We don’t have anything here for people like you. Perhaps if you looked at the labels on your clothing more closely you wouldn’t be confused.” I have never bought or worn Zegna since.
Q: How did this make you feel?
I have always felt like a terrible disappointment. No amount of personal or professional success has ever assuaged that. I have always felt like an embarrassment to my family; that drove me to succeed in a number of fields.
If anything I was guilty of over-committing to everything I did to compensate. I know now that I was torturing myself. But when you fail to see any value in yourself, it’s impossible to understand that anyone else could see something. Having people force you (even without malice) to do something that makes you fundamentally uncomfortable is very hard to deal with, particularly when you factor in being concerned about keeping your job.
In a commercial sense, I’ve been declined promotions on account of the fact ‘I didn’t fit the corporate image’ on numerous occasions. Having worked in customer facing roles for some time in the wine industry, the arrogance that comes with denying someone the ability to spend money on your brand confounds me.
Q: How long have you thought about embarking on gender-affirming procedures?
My parents used to joke about it when I was a kid. When I came out, they brought that fact up immediately and were terribly apologetic. But back then, transgender people tended to only ever show up in the press as the source of sensationalist ’60 Minutes’ stories along the lines of ‘SEX-CHANGE NIGHTMARE’ exposés.
I don’t blame my parents at all; there were no positive role models in the transgender community at all up until recently. The thing that stopped me was the thought that I’d become a bigger freak, a bigger embarrassment. The first time I looked into it was when I was in my early 20’s. I constantly talked myself out of it for the above mentioned reasons. I was always terrified that no one would love me if I went through with it. I had to reach a point in life where I knew that things would never be worse.
Q: What finally made you commit to this journey?
In late 2014 I took a job interstate in one of those ‘make or break’ life decisions. For me, it was a break. I never really wanted to go, but I knew I was looking for something more than what I had, I felt trapped. It was a little like lighting a cigarette at the petrol station to see whether it actually will go up in flames. When I came home, I didn’t leave the house for 3 months. I was a mess, I couldn’t see any future at all. I was living a lie and felt there was nothing left for me anywhere.
I took a significant payout, I drank most of it away. For me, it was the end. My best mate dragged me out for lunch after 3 months and gave me a job consulting for him; without his intervention we wouldn’t be having this conversation. From that point I began to reassess my life. Having considered transitioning for the last 10+ years, it was do this or check out. Every day I felt like I was undertaking a bad piece of performance art, I didn’t have the energy to pretend anymore. For me, there was no option except to drop the pretension.
Q: What were your initial fears?
Initially, the most pressing one was losing everything. But as I said, I had lost it all, so in that sense the argument was redundant. For me, this was the first time in my life that I felt like I was actually taking charge of things.
Q: What was the response from family, friends and work colleagues to your decision to seek gender-affirming procedures?
By and large, everyone was outstanding.
My family were exceptional. They’ve only ever wanted me to be happy, and I never was. They lost their miserable, volatile daughter/sister and gained an outgoing, stable, successful son and brother. Initially my mother was very caught up in “what the neighbours would think,” but all of the traits and behaviours that made me a difficult woman made me a good man.
She’s never been prouder of me and our relationship has never been better. My father also struggled to relate to me, now it’s as if we can all exhale and just be. I don’t require any explanation now. My sister has been my rock. She’s supported me through everything.
I think the fact that I was finally taking responsibility for my life and happiness was the biggest positive for them. I’ve always been the tortured genius and my own worst critic. One of my biggest flaws previously was taking the people who care about me for granted. Not only did this process strip whatever ego I had, it showed me the value of the people who love me.
My employers were outstanding, I work for a family run-company, they have supported me unconditionally.
Some of my friends struggled a little initially. For the vast majority it was a very easy transition. My closest friend took it fairly hard, but he was honest. He told me at the beginning that he respected me and understood, but needed time to learn to accept it. Beyond pleasantries, I didn’t speak to him for almost 9 months. Between the hormones and self-absorption, I didn’t notice it initially, but once I did it was utterly devastating. I felt like I’d lost him. I appreciate him so much more now, and I value every second I get to spend with him, our relationship is stronger than ever.
Q: Looking back one year in, do you think your life changed immediately, were there changes in the way you lived immediately?
My attitude changed immediately. That was the most powerful thing.
Q: When you were contemplating committing to this process, was there a difference between how you thought your life would be altered and what actually was different?
Absolutely. Initially I swung violently away from everything I used to be. I’ve moved back now to find a happy medium. I became hyper-masculine initially and very dismissive of women and feminine things; there was almost a sense of resentment there. Now I’ve learned to accept who I used to be. That’s taken a long time. For me, the biggest change has been my mental stability has improved. My confidence is better, I’m more productive. I don’t feel compelled to assert myself or play the class clown anymore.
Q: Are there any terms or attitudes you have disliked during your own experience so far?
There’s a sense of entitlement in the transgender community I don’t appreciate, as a successful man with a good job I constantly get asked for money by other (often younger) transgender guys. I don’t appreciate that at all. Also, there’s a lot of resentment within the community, I get singled out for a special kind of abuse on account of the fact I ‘pass’ perfectly. No one believes I am anything other than biologically male. As a result, I stay well away from the LGBTQI scene.
Q: Were there any changes in your lifestyle directly relating to each stage?
There’s a massive social difference between men and women. I was asked to leave a local pub because a bartender didn’t like the way I was behaving toward the lady I was there with. I’ve known her for 15 years, we both ended up leaving. The staff for whatever reason flagged me as being a sex-pest because I touched her.
The social nuances of being male or female are massive. White male privilege is easily the most powerful factor. That said, I also have to be extremely wary of approaching or addressing children now as there is the most terrifying distrust of men. It is all pros and cons, I guess. I’m physically much stronger than I used to be as well, my metabolism is different, and I don’t put on weight the way I used to.
Q: Did you face anything unexpected?
The increase in libido was a little hard to manage initially! Socially, the realisation that it really is a ‘man’s world’ was stunning. White male privilege is a very real thing. Also, people touching my chest was very odd initially. That took a lot of getting used to.
Q: Did anyone shock you with their response?
I work for a family owned and operated hospitality group. The owners are conservative, religious and extremely respectful. When I discussed my transition with my immediate managers, they told me in no uncertain terms that I was never to discuss it with the owners of the company on the grounds that they would find it too confronting and most likely fire me on the spot. I took heed of that and said nothing.
6 months after I legally changed my name and gender marker, the owner of the company was still referring to me by my former name. The tipping point was him introducing me to a group of his friends one evening as female. I spoke privately to his wife and explained my situation; her words. “Are we the last people in our own company to know this?” “Yes.” “Why didn’t you say anything?” “The bosses told me I had no right.” He pulled me aside moments later. I was terrified of being fired for embarrassing him or ruining his evening. He said the following:
“Listen. I may go to Notre Dame every Sunday, but the one thing my religion has taught me is to respect everyone’s journey. You are the best at what you do, as a professional I have the utmost respect for you. As a human, I love you. This is a family company, you are my family. Now you are my son. I’m proud of you, never feel ashamed to talk to me. I understand why you didn’t, but you should have told me. I always have time for you.”
That blew me away.
Q: Did seeing the experience of celebrities go through their own personal gender affirmation journey impact you? How so?
It did. For better or worse, Caitlyn Jenner put a very real face to what a lot of people go through. Albeit with the best treatment money can buy. Again, an atypical experience, but it served to normalise transgender people and bring us into the discussion. We do exist; we’re all just normal people though at the end of the day.
Q: Do you think so much media attention made the general public more aware and thus more open to your own experience?
I think so. It gives people a reference point and a vocabulary. For most of my friends, I was the first transgender person they’d ever met. I didn’t meet another trans person until a long-time friend of mine came out and transitioned from Male to Female. She’s been an amazing support to me.
Q: Are you happy with the results of the process so far?
Absolutely. To be completely fair, I’m an atypical example. My friends, family, employer and colleagues have been unconditionally supportive and accepting. The hormone-induced physical changes happened fast for me, my voice is extremely low. My surgeon who fixed my chest is brilliant; due to his skill-set and my stature I have no scars at all. The entire process has actually been surprisingly uneventful and easy. That said it has been expensive. I don’t have private health cover; even if I did Australian insurers refuse to cover these procedures on the grounds that they’re not necessary in their view.
Q: Is this reflected in your life and lifestyle?
Absolutely. As vain as it sounds, I’ve never invested more time in my appearance! I exercise daily, take care to eat well and live a healthy lifestyle. Seeing the man you want to see in the mirror is a huge motivating factor. As a woman I was always slightly wild and unkempt, I didn’t present particularly well.
Q: Does the person you now see in the mirror reflect who you feel you really are on the inside?
Every day I get a little bit closer. I’ve got a dodgy sort of beard now and about 4 chest hairs. But one of the biggest lessons I have gleaned from this process is that the things I aspire to be can’t be seen in a mirror. For better or worse, we raise boys and girls differently. We have wildly different aspirations and expectations for our children based on gender.
Iain Riggs stepped in as my defacto father figure early in my transition; he flew over to Perth and gave me a solid attitude realignment. He was hard, but fair and extremely kind. His observation, “We raise boys and girls differently, and your father never had the opportunity to teach you to be a good man. I want you to look at all of the men you admire and ask yourself if they behave the way you do. You want to be a good man, you start today, you stop making excuses.”
Very few people are given the opportunity to have a second chance in life. You don’t subject yourself to this process to be average. I aspire to be a great man; a man my family, friends and colleagues are proud of. That’s something you can’t see in the mirror.
Q: Did the changes so far affect your dating life?
To be fair, it was basically non-existent to begin with! One of the most profound effects of testosterone is that it accelerates your libido. I was essentially asexual as a woman; thus it was a considerable adjustment having to adapt to a more sexually-charged level of being. Thankfully I’ve got nothing in my pants that I can pitch a tent with, but my sexual response now is immediate and unrelenting. Initially, that took time not only to accept and adjust to, but also to control. Think of the 14 year old boy who gets a boner talking to a pretty girl… not a great look in your 30s…
Also, the social shift is stunning. I’ve tried online dating a few times. As a woman, I could genuinely post a photo of a cactus and get 50 messages a day. As a man, I compose considerate, respectful messages for potential female suitors, I get no response. I understand, my female cactus got more hits that I could be bothered addressing. I get more enquiries from ‘straight’ men who are curious.
I’m actually quite old-fashioned. There is nothing I love more than being able to take a lady out for dinner and indulge her. I am honest about my status, to this point all I’ve gotten is an overwhelming number of last minute cancellations, and a few ladies who refused to touch me below the waist. “You’re so perfect, but I can’t touch you because I’m not gay.”
Q: What are your dreams?
I want to be happy. My life goal is to have my own vineyard. More realistically, I’d like to be a father one day, something I never thought possible up until now – even though any child most likely would have none of my genetic material. The whole ‘white picket fence’ ideal used to terrify me. I know now that this is because I never wanted to be a mother.
Q: What are you passionate about?
I love my cars and my dog. I play golf. I like to stay fit.
Q: What are you most looking forward to this year and in life for that matter?
This year – progressing in my job. I’ve never been this stable before. That’s translated into opportunities, respect and satisfaction. I also look forward to playing sport again – golf in particular. I had to give sport away for a while as I transitioned. Now I’m a man I can start competing again.
In life, I’m just excited about the future! I’d love to meet a nice lady and settle down. Even if I don’t get the opportunity to be a father, I’d like to think I would be a good husband. I would love someone by my side.
Q: If you could sit down for a face to face chat with the younger you from 5 years ago, what would you say?
Shut up, learn to listen. It’s not all about you. So many people love you, don’t keep fighting them. Be wary of people’s motives; infatuation isn’t love. Don’t give everything away in the first 5 minutes. Look after yourself – no one else will. Learn what is important; guard it with your life. Always keep something in reserve for yourself. Never put anything ahead of the people you love.
Q: What would you say to someone else going through what you were going through?
Don’t disappear up your own arse, don’t let this define you. A transition is a means to an end. It will be the most difficult thing you ever do, but don’t let it consume you. This isn’t the most interesting thing about you. Don’t start a YouTube channel and don’t demand that other people pay for your medical expenses. You want to be a good man, then start today. Earn it.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you feel you have to overcome in life?
I think overcoming myself.
Photographers Notes –
My name is Nicole McCluskey and I am a beauty photographer.
This interview is the first of my ongoing series “Behind the FACE” – the stories behind the people in front of my lens.
Team Credits –
Photographed and written by Nicole McCluskey
Grooming Sinden Dean
Retouching Alyssia Tedeschi www.alyssiatedeschi.com
Edited by Paris Doran