Trans Stories – 40 Years will be held at Carriageworks on February 24 as part of the Mardi Gras Festival.
Stephen A. Russell

22 Feb 2018 - 11:15 AM  UPDATED 22 Feb 2018 - 11:15 AM

Successful skin specialist Peta Friend is a woman who gets things done. When, two and half years ago, she perceived a lack of connection between Sydney’s trans and gender non-conforming community, she took on the challenge.

“Rather than sitting back and bemoaning that, I thought, ‘you know what, I’m going to do something about this’,” she tells SBS Sexuality.

Sitting down with a group of fellow trans women in September 2015, social group Trans Sydney Pride (TSP) was born by the end of lunch, with a goal of reaching 100 members. Now they have 800, plus a 2000-strong support group, TSP Family, Friends and Allies.

“An education started for me that very day,” Friend says. “I’ve been a trans woman for, some might say, all my life, but living as such for over 20 years, and I thought I knew a lot about the trans experience, but it turns out I knew nothing.

“I’d never come into contact with people who were gender fluid or non-conforming or non-binary, so it’s really opened my eyes to the diversity that exists in our community as these members started to join and share their stories.”

TSP will mark four decades of Mardi Gras with Trans Stories – 40 years at Carriageworks. Co-presented by Queer Thinking, it will be an empowering night of storytelling.

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Speakers include Friend, gender-transcendent diva Mama Alto, Kings Cross legends Karen Chant and Colleen Windsor, scientist and young trans man Kaya Wilson, and couple Lisa Freshwater and AJ Brown, a theatre director and landscape designer-slash-artist respectively.

Chant, 86, transitioned in the 60s and, after a stint as a milliner, has performed ever since, including headlining iconic venues Le Girls and Capriccio’s, as well as running her own club Karen’s Kastle. “The history of this brave trans woman is incredible,” Friend says. “As is the fact that she’s still doing shows and wants to get up and share her stories.”

Windsor migrated from England in the early ‘70s and immersed herself in Kings Cross, working as a Les Girls showgirl when there were about 500 trans women living in the area at that time. “She really brings a sense of the community and camaraderie that existed,” Friend says.

For Friend’s part, she says she struggled with her identity for a long time. “I wanted to transition when I was 20 and I didn’t even know what transgender was,” she shares. “We didn’t have the internet back then, but we’d go to see the showgirls and I would dream of being a part of that world. I felt a strong connection to the woman inside me, who was always there, but I was frightened of becoming her.”

When, 18 years later, Friend transitioned, she says it imbued her with incredible positivity. “Flash forward to here I am at the age of 56 and I’m seeing this level of awareness and acceptance, and I never ever thought I would live to see the day.”

Though visibility is vastly improved, and progress has been made on trans rights, Friend says there is still a lot to fight for, and that’s why support groups like TPS are vitally important. The recent marriage equality postal survey was a trying time for the trans community in particular.

“I wasn’t prepared for this survey be as transphobic as it turned to be,” Friend acknowledges. “I was putting myself up there on a pedestal thinking I was going to be one of the strong ones, but it affected me so deeply. I can’t imagine how it affected the more vulnerable ones who are perhaps at the beginning of their transition. To go for them the way the No campaign did, I think that that damage and sense of mistrust will take a long time to heal.”

Ahead of speaking at a massive marriage equality rally, Friend says she was lucky enough to meet and seek advice from US author, presenter and activist Janet Mock, following the visiting star’s appearance at the Sydney Opera House’s Antidote Festival.  

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“She is an incredibly strong voice for our community who also speaks for herself, which I think is very important,” Friend says. “She said to me, ‘tell them that after we gain equality, don’t forget about us, because our struggles are still real and our fight for equality is still a long way off’.”

Marriage ‘equality’ in Australia is a prime example, Friend notes. “If you are a trans person in a cis relationship, married to your wife and transitioning to female, you are still required to divorce that person in order to change your gender marker… Trans folk do not have equality yet, because we have still to overcome that hurdle and nobody is talking about that. What message does that send, that you are not worthy of marriage, of being in a relationship with the one you still love?”

TSP will also march in the Mardi Gras parade under the banner “This is Me”, celebrating pride and power and sending a message of solidarity to trans people in the military, a reaction to Trump’s attempt to ban the community from serving in America’s armed forces.

“This was happening during the survey as well, and I know trans people here in Australia who served in the military,” Friend says. “The message was one of negativity and once again it is branding trans people as a mental illness. Unfit to serve their country, unfit to be married, unfit to be apart of society.”

Trans Stories - 40 Years will push back against such negativity and celebrate hard-won victories, paying credit to pioneers and also hearing from young voices while looking to the future.

“We need to rise up and tell our stories,” Friend asserts. “I’m really proud of every member of TSP for stepping up and being a part of this change. We do have a long road ahead of us, but as individuals we are strong, and as a community we are even stronger.”

Trans Stories – 40 Years will be held at Carriageworks on February 24 as part of the Mardi Gras Festival. Book tickets here.

The 40th Annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras will air on Sunday, March 4 at 8:30pm on SBS.