On a sprawling driveway in Tumut, a tiny town off the Hume highway near Wagga Wagga, Holly Conroy is clocking off work. Her hoop earrings clash perfectly with her high-vis getup.
Holly is a transgender truckie. Her penchant for glitter, however, comes second to grit. Holly points to her crooked nose, broken in an AFL match weeks ago. "It looks alright...about the same," she mutters, climbing into the driver's seat of her delivery truck. "The swelling might've gone down a little, but it's still busted."
Holly is also a trailblazer, throwing the first-ever Pride parade in Wagga Wagga.
On March 9, a riot of glitter and heels brought NSW's largest inland city up to speed with Sydney. Approximately 30 per cent of the town's 54,000 residents took to the streets for Wagga's largest party of all time. "It was a bigger success than I expected it to be," says Holly. "Seeing the number of people lining up on the main street to watch the parade brought a tear to my eye."
Approximately 30 per cent of the town's 54,000 residents took to the streets for Wagga's largest party of all time
Holly is the only trans woman working at Tumut Freight Service. Two years ago, aged 38, she came out as transgender for the second time. Her colleagues were supportive. "I first came out as trans at 27 and went back in the closet," Holly says. "My friends back then were always trying to talk me out of it, continually reminding me that I was never going to be able to hold down a job; that people would laugh at me when I walked down the street.”
Tired of the politics preventing Mardi Gras from happening in her hometown, Holly organised the event independently. She feared, however, that her risk would not pay off. After all, Wagga Wagga – historically the safest seat for the National Party – is part of the Christian capital of Australia.
The region is home to the country's highest concentration of Catholics, with 80.8 per cent of residents identifying as Christian. For local trans folk, finding acceptance can be challenging in Australia’s Bible Belt. In 2017, the Telethon Kids Institute found that 48.1 per cent of trans youth had attempted suicide, compared with 2.4 per cent of adolescents in the general population.
In Wagga Wagga, the Mardi Gras was not just a glamorous street party; for many, it was life-changing. "A young guy came up to me at the after party and said he'd been waiting to run into me all night," recalls Holly. "He wanted to tell me he'd decided right there and then to come out."
As she drives through countryside, Holly reflects on her darkest days. In her 20s, she sped down a dirt road and crashed her car into a paddock. Miraculously, she survived. In the decade following her de-transition, Holly's engrained transphobia manifested as hyper masculinity. She became involved with mixed martial arts, covered herself in tattoos and even got married. But after five years, the relationship unravelled. "They want me to be a guy, I'll show them a f***ing guy," thought Holly.
Her father Graham struggled with gaining a daughter because it meant grieving his son
Ten years later, Holly's second coming out and subsequent surgeries were challenging for family members. Her father Graham struggled with gaining a daughter because it meant grieving his son. Holly’s brother Matthew found it hard to reconcile with the change in her appearance. "He decided I was going to be his 'brister.' Not his brother; not his sister; his brister," says Holly. "Guys in my era were brought up to think: you were talking straight, or you were a pussy and gay. There was no in-between."
Holly parks the truck outside her home where she lives with cousin Laurinda. The cottage is more remote than Holly's previous place. Fortunately, this means she's far away from her former neighbour: a cranky transphobe who threatened to physically harm Holly and her cat.
Holly faced further opposition when the motion for a pride parade became public knowledge in mid-2018. She debated Wagga Wagga Councillor Paul Funnel, a man who believes the Safe Schools program leads to the "sexualisation of our children."
"There's plenty of room for everyone to have their beliefs and accept everyone for who they are," says Holly. "We're not there yet, but I do believe we'll get there eventually."
As she boils the kettle in her kitchen, Holly reflects on being seen as different even within the trans community. Her choice to deadname herself is unorthodox and the decision to document her surgeries in upcoming documentary Country Town Pride has sparked concerns among peers. "The trans community speaks a bit about the fact that surgery has been overly focused on by the straight world and that can be to the detriment of other issues," says Holly. "But I didn't have a problem with cameras filming my surgeries. Like I've been saying since the start, educating people is the best way to have acceptance.
“Not everyone out there can take the leap; can speak up. The documentary, the filming of my surgeries and my stories – it all helps. If one person sees it and it saves their life, then that’s great.”
If this story raises issues for you, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Untold Australia: Country Town Pride airs on Wednesday August 28 at 8:30PM on SBS and on Monday September 2 at 9:30PM on SBS Viceland.