When invited to speak at the Pride@CSIRO event, Isobel Hannah-Scott knew what she wanted to talk about: trans joy.
Isobel, who uses she/they pronouns, was in the private sector for much of her career. She switched to public service when she joined us as a Procurement Administration Officer. Just before she applied for the role, she came out, choosing to openly identify as trans.
“When I made the change to CSIRO, I interviewed as myself, I started as myself, and it was accepted,” she said.
Isobel has never regretted her decision to be open with her friends, family and colleagues. Still, she is aware of how narratives around trans lives can be grim and sometimes disempowering.
"We're so often perceived to be people that are in pain – that are suffering, that are struggling, that have high suicide rates, that have poor mental health outcomes, that have difficulties with their families," Isobel said.
"I am in no way trying to diminish the reality of those things, unfortunately they’re all too real. What I am trying to do is to draw attention to trans joy, which I think is not as often talked about."
As she prepared for her talk, she was simultaneously aware of the world outside. At the time, a notoriously anti-trans activist was speaking in Australia. And it was not just their followers who heard the message.
"They drew a lot of media attention. Whenever something like that happens, it's always very difficult for people within the trans community because it highlights how far there still is to go," she said.
Isobel was ready for a more nuanced narrative.
Where does your power come from?
In the days running up to her presentation for Pride@CSIRO, Isobel reached out to her trans network. She had two simple questions: What brings you joy? Where does your power come from?
"People described finding their joy in all sorts of ways and all sorts of places. These ranged from simple things like getting dressed in the morning to more complex things like being able to go to work and be treated as one of the girls. One person said they loved being gendered correctly by customer service staff," Isobel said.
Some joys were more personal, like looking in the mirror and seeing your true self reflected for the first time. One friend eloquently described that experience for Isobel.
"They used to have a blurred image of themselves. It was like having two images overlaid: their notion of themselves and how they actually look in the mirror. They described for me joy of seeing those two images come together and come into focus as their true selves," she said.
Isobel also wanted to emphasise that joy didn’t have to come from how you present, it could be as simple as accepting yourself fully.
"Not everybody can be visible. I wanted to share how there is a lot of joy and a lot of strength to be found in owning your own identity just for yourself," Isobel said.
"There is a joy in just living as yourself, especially for especially for trans folks who have not been able to do that or have struggled in environments where that is not possible."
Almost universally, Isobel also found people talked about finding joy in being part of their community, in whatever form that took.
"Not everybody is active in the community, but knowing the community is there is important to them," she said.
On her own terms
Isobel is 46 years old and has been on this journey for the last seven years. Part of the experience has been understanding the complexities of her own identity.
“I don’t identify as a woman, along that binary of gender. I sit as non-binary transfeminine,” she explained.
"There was never language for that when I was growing up in the 80s. They were not popularly understood options. Instead, the cultural narrative around transgender people was very specific and negative, as people who were the butt of jokes, who were dangerous or who lived condemned lives."
In her 20s, Isobel describes herself as deeply unhappy. It took embracing herself to free her. She described it as “a journey of small steps."
"There’s no rule book, no map," she said. Instead, she took steps which just felt right, even if they were challenging.
This could be as simple as her first time shopping for clothes in the women’s section or as big as starting hormone therapy. These days, she takes more selfies than she used to.
"These feel scary at first, but then it just starts to feel normal. You normalise it within yourself, and that’s key because the problem with transphobia is also that it can be so internalised," she said.
Today, being in public as herself is liberating. Yet, Isobel never forgets there’s an element of physical danger she needs to be aware of.
The other day in a supermarket, another customer started spouting verbal abuse at Isobel. But she wasn’t left to fend for herself.
"A lot of people stood up and told them off," Isobel said.
"It made a huge difference to how I thought about that incident. I accepted it had happened and might happen again in the future, but I felt I could be confident going out in the world. There are people prepared to support me. It was really powerful stuff."
In the end, that’s the advice Isobel has for people who want to offer support.
"It’s about listening to people. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but always check in first. Talk to people like they’re human beings. And also, always, always be prepared to stand up," she said.