The cover of the latest issue of The Australian Women's Weekly shows Michelle Obama and Meryl Streep embracing behind a coverline that reads, "Why we're friends". The image is catnip to a gay leftie like myself: two of the world's most beloved no-last-names-needed women – Michelle! Meryl! – together at last, sharing a sly joke, just as they do monthly in my dreams.
But it is not the most striking image in the issue. That honour must be divided among a collection of images shot by Nick Cubbin for journalist Sue Williams' feature, "Being True To Myself", which looks at transgender Australians whose stories – they are cops, miners and barristers – veer from what might be the expected arc.
There's Senior Constable Bernice Canty, Victoria's first openly transgender police officer, standing stoically by a cop car. And Queensland officer Mairead Devlin, his hair cropped short and his face touched by a light grin. And Adelaide barrister Heather Stokes, armed for battle in full court-ready regalia. And then there's Jasmin Taylor-Scott, who once worked in the mining industry and now fills a full page of The Australian Women's Weekly looking glamorous in a chic black dress.
She's eyeing herself in a mirror and smiling at what she sees.
Jasmin Taylor-Scott said male colleagues at the mine where she worked came to accept her as she transitioned. Photo: Nick Cubbin/The Australian Women's WeeklyThere was a time when one of the most popular, mainstream and CWA-approved magazines in the country dedicating five full pages to the trans community would have been news. It would have set off talkback hotlines. That this piece entered the world this month without much kerfuffle at all, and according to AWWeditor-in-chief Kim Doherty without a single negative response to date, shows Australians have come some way in their understanding and embrace of the transgender community.
Glossy magazine stories – among them the Weekly's own reporting on trans Australians, including former RAAF captain and army Lieutenant Colonel Catherine McGregor – have likely played a small part in that. As have the appearances of transgender Australians on breakfast and daytime network talk shows, and on programs like The Project. These shows and publications tend to be a mirror of the country, for better or worse, reflecting who and where we are. But they can show where we want to be and help us get there: for many readers who've never met a transgender person, the Weekly just made the introduction.
AdvertisementJasmin Taylor-Scott, who says seeing her glamour shot in AWWwas "surreal", talks openly in the magazine about hormone treatment, struggling to find employment after leaving the mines, and her family turning their backs on her. Hers is a relatable tale, and one she's now comfortable telling.
"It's a cliche, but if I can touch one person who feels like they don't associate with their assigned gender at birth, then that's a good thing," she told me recently. "Growing up, I would push my feelings aside thinking that me wanting to be a girl was impossible, as not a lot of information was out there. I am trying to change that by putting myself out there."
The stories are ultimately inspiring ones – adversity followed by acceptance and success. The blokes at the mines, for instance, came to accept Taylor-Scott as she transitioned, and she is now studying in preparation for an exciting career change.
The aim of the piece, says editor-in-chief Doherty, who writes about a transgender friend in her editor's letter, "was to show trans people, in different parts of Australia, going about their normal life, just like everyone else. We wanted to portray them in a strong, positive light that celebrated their bravery to be themselves."
But as the mixed reaction to last year's Vanity Fair cover story on Caitlyn Jenner showed, using one – or five – people to represent a community, even if that's not the intention, can get complicated. Telling a story of transgender Australians as everyday folks is particularly complicated, as the thousands of transgender people living in Australia are, statistically, not "just like everyone else". They deal disproportionately with workplace discrimination, violence and face higher suicide rates; many have little of the money and emotional support that would carry their story to a happy ending.
For the Gender Centre's Katherine Cummings, who edits the organisation's Polare magazine, more engagement with this reality of many transgender people's lives would have strengthened The Women's Weekly piece.
"It seems to me to be another homage to celebrity, dancing around the margins of the real problems and noticing only the butterflies and rainbows," she said.
I get that, but there is power in rainbows. Here is a big glossy feature that looks and reads like a story you expect from a glossy magazine – there's depth, for sure, and some of the darker realities are canvassed, but it is framed and packaged in a narrative of inspiration and hope. It's a story about transgender Australians done as any other story about brave and successful Australians might be done. And it's a starting point.
If other readers are anything like me, they will be inspired to seek out more inspiring transgender Australians. On Cummings' suggestion, I started with academic Roberta Perkins, who founded the Gender Centre in 1983. She's an awesome woman – look her up. I hope to read stories of people just like her, and of Indigenous transgender Australians and others who sit on the margins, in glossy magazines soon.
Joel Meares is an Australian journalist in New York.