Brenda Appleton

Trans Day of Visibility

Trans Day of Visibility is an annual international celebration of transgender pride and awareness, recognising trans and gender diverse experiences, histories, stories and achievements.

This year as we celebrate Trans Day of Visibility, we invited Brenda Appleton OAM to share her journey, talk about what Trans Day of Visibility means to her and impart some wisdom and advice for the next generation of trans activists and allies in Australia. Brenda is a leader, change-maker, and a pioneer in advocating for trans rights in Australia, she is also heavily involved volunteering with a wide range of community groups, including the LGBTIQ+ communities in Melbourne (for more than 20 years).

Brenda is the Non-Executive Director and Chair Audit and Risk Committee at The Pinnacle Foundation, Chair of Transgender Victoria, a member of the Victoria Mental Health Ministerial Advisory Committee, the Senior Victorians Advisory Group, the Victorian LGBTI Taskforce Health and Human Services Working Group, the NWMPHN Suicide Prevention Taskforce and the Victorian Elder Abuse Roundtable. Brenda is passionate about using her lived experience to improve the health and wellbeing of trans and gender diverse people across Victoria. The following interview outlines just some of Brenda’s multi-faceted and inspiring story:

Tell us about your journey and how you became involved with The Pinnacle Foundation.

I transitioned more than 20 years ago and have been involved with trans and gender diverse (TGD) and more widely with LGBTIQ+ activism for 25 years in Melbourne. I am really fortunate to be living in Melbourne, from an LGBTIQ+ rights point of view, we have been fortunate to have working with Labor Governments for the majority of those 25 years and we have seen some very significant improvements in our rights from a very supportive Government. About six years ago, I was delighted to be the first trans person to be appointed to co-chair a task force in Australia. I have been fortunate to have been able to fly the flag for the community. I have been involved with Transgender Victoria since 2001 and whilst we are not a peak body, we are a very well-established trans and gender diverse support group and we do a lot of work around lobbying, as well as training and education. We are working with the Victorian Government on a TGD peer-support program and supported 45 peer-support groups during a time when it is very important to have that support in our community.

I was aware of The Pinnacle Foundation prior to becoming involved and was delighted to be invited to be considered for a role on the board. What Pinnacle does is brilliant. Trying to assist people who have experienced disadvantage and those who are vulnerable, to try and optimize their opportunities in life is a massive thing to do. I have spoken to a lot of past and current scholars and I have seen the difference Pinnacle makes. I know the confidence it gives people when they have more financial security, but I also understand from talking with so many scholars and alumni that the value of being linked with a mentor is often even greater than the security that the financial support provides. We have an amazing array of people on the Pinnacle board, it is great to be able to showcase a working board consisting mostly of LGBTIQ+ people who are wanting to give back, who are wanting to demonstrate what can be achieved and to be an out and proud voice.

I am an out and proud trans woman. I am proud to be part of the trans community. I am proud to be linked to The Pinnacle Foundation because I think the work that we are doing is just so important. The work that Pinnacle does to provide support for so many students, over 50 this year, is just fantastic. I hope that we can continue to grow the numbers that we are supporting in future. What Pinnacle has done as a substantially volunteer organisation is unbelievable. A lot of people have contributed a lot of hours over the years and it is a good demonstration of what can be done when there is a central purpose that we all believe in.

In my life, when I reflect back, I got married nearly 49 years ago. My partner and I have stayed together during my transition and since and we will be celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary next year – we are very proud of that. We have two children in their early 40s that we see on a regular basis. One of the things I do like to highlight is that it is possible for family units to work through the challenges of somebody who is affirming their gender. It is not easy, it takes time, and it takes goodwill, but it is possible.

A lot of the activism I do is talking about the negativity around our mental health, our housing, access to safe and inclusive health services etc. (all aimed at achieving true equity and equality) and I think it is so important to sometimes stop and reflect on where we are at and the progress we have made and celebrate that we can be ourselves, we can contribute to society and we can make it easier for those coming behind.

One of the reasons I am so focused on mental health is because I am so aware of the mental health challenges faced by so many in our communities and the severe consequences that often plays out with those mental health struggles. The systemic discrimination, isolation, family rejection, difficulty in safely navigating school and finding safe employment, accessing health services where you are treated with respect and dignity – there are just so many areas where there is inequality and there should not be, but there is. Our legislation says there should not be this type of discrimination, but the reality is that many face these struggles.

I have enjoyed what I have done. I am now 70, so I am ready to pass the baton on to others. I am delighted that there are so many articulate advocates coming through ready to take on that mantel. It is not easy work and I know that I am outing myself on a daily basis because of what I am doing, but that is an important part of what I am doing. I am trying to ‘normalise’ and put a face to what it means to be transgender. All too often people have a fear of the unknown and if we can, as a community, put our best foot forward and demonstrate what it is like to be a trans person, that is very helpful for others to learn about us and for us to demonstrate that we do exist, and you can be safe to be yourself as well.

What advice do you have for young trans people in Australia as they go forward in overcoming the challenges faced by the community?

Everybody’s journey is different, and everybody’s situation is different, so it is difficult to provide advice without knowing each person’s situation. What I would do is urge people to be brave and to find support and if they have not got support from family to try and find it amongst their peer group. Find ways to be strong, to be themselves and to demonstrate to others what it is like to be trans and to be proud of who they are.  At the end of the day, it is vital to be true to yourself and not act the role you think is expected of you.

Many of us go through a journey of uncertainty. Many of us go through a journey of where our gender identities can change or evolve. It is a matter of letting it work itself through, be present in the moment and be true to yourself. For me, on my journey, I had to get to the stage where I wanted to live more than I wanted to end the pain. I am now comfortable in my own skin and proud of who I am, this does not mean that life is easy, and it is a matter of finding a way to love yourself again. You must find a way to believe in yourself, to trust yourself and to be yourself. It is very difficult to love others if you do not love yourself, somehow you have to get to a position of understanding your own needs and your situation and building on that so that you can get to be proud of who you are. Sometimes that involves moving away from family, sometimes it means changing jobs, but I would urge people to dig deep and work through their challenges and be true to themselves and enjoy life.

If you are wanting to stay in touch with your family, give your family a chance to catch up with what you have been working through for so long. One advice that I do give people is to try and slow down a transition, give family more chance to do their own research if they are prepared to do so. If you want to bring people with you, you have to give them time to catch up and stay with you. A lot of us become quite obsessed with our gender identity journey and that can make it difficult for us to contribute to other parts of our lives at that point in time. It is a matter of finding a happy balance between what we need to do for our own selves versus what we want to do for those around us, be it family of origin or family of choice.

It is very difficult pretending, I spent nearly 50 years trying to be what others thought I should be without being myself and that takes a toll as well. I urge others to cope with the struggles, work through the struggles, and importantly find a support network. Many of us need to rely on a family of choice rather than a family of origin and if that is the situation, then find the right friends and the right support network. It is very hard coping by yourself and I would encourage people to reach out and build a network of people where you can be yourself and who can provide you with the support that you need and be there when you need them. Even for people like myself, who have been out and proud for so long, there are still things that trigger me, there are things that challenge me, and I am fortunate to be able to go to a range of different people to talk about those issues if I need to and at times I go to a psychologist and I receive mental health support. Reach out and get the help you need when you need it rather than delay and be too proud to ask for help.

As you look ahead towards the future, what do you see as the greatest opportunities for the next generation of activists as they work towards a more inclusive and equitable future?

For the trans and gender diverse community, the last 5 to 10 years have led to a huge increase in those who have been openly revealing their gender identity and being true to themselves. 25 years ago, when I started being an activist, there were very few of us on the ground. There were very few trans and gender diverse people that I was able to connect with who were comfortable seeking employment, working with family and being engaged with the community. There are more people in our community who are visible than ever and therefore, there is a big base to be building on so I recommend you reach out and connect with others, you are not alone, and you can make a difference. Everybody has a role to play and I would encourage people to get involved and to be proud of their journey. I would recommend not to be defined by being trans, for most of us it is just part of our identity and our identities are much more complex and much more multi-faceted than just being trans and gender diverse. Know that there is much more acceptance in the community today than there has ever been before. It still is not easy, and it takes a lot of effort and focus, but in my case, it certainly has been worth that effort.

I would encourage the young articulate trans and gender diverse activists to understand the trans and gender diverse history and journey and understand what the remaining issues are and start to organise campaigns around making it better for everyone so that nobody in our community is left behind, think of the bigger picture, and help as many others as you can. A few years ago, when we were working on the birth certificate reform in Victoria, we failed to get the legislation passed in 2016. I was leading the charge from a community point of view and I came into a lot of criticism because I did not compromise on the legislation we wanted to get introduced. If we had compromised, we would have left some behind and I know from previous campaigns, what you do not get the first time you often do not get later. It is important not to leave people behind, we must act as a whole community. I am keen for us to be working more diligently to support those whose identity is non-binary and gender diverse because I think it is much more difficult for them still in society. As a community, we could do more to be inclusive of all the intersections for trans and gender diverse people, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people of colour, people with a disability, people in rural and regional areas, people who are immigrants and refugees. I think there is a lot that we can be doing to widen our net to be more inclusive. 

For Trans Day of Visibility, and in our day-to-day lives, it is a time to be out and proud. It is a time to reflect on what has been achieved and to celebrate what is being done to improve our lives. In Victoria, and I know it does not apply right across Australia, we have been able to get birth certificate reform which enables those who identify outside the male: female binary to have another descriptor on their birth certificate. Just in the last couple of weeks Births, Deaths and Marriages here in Victoria have approved another couple of descriptors that people have nominated. Transgender Victoria and others are trying to provide support in Queensland and New South Wales to encourage those jurisdictions and communities there to achieve similar birth certificate reform so that the people in those states can have the same choices that we have got in Victoria and the other parts of Australia. I want my message to be one of hope and encouragement for how far we have come and what we have achieved so far. Let us all be out and proud, making it easier for those coming behind us.

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