Coffs Harbour father and retired policeman Col referred to it as the “problem”. It was only when he was 82, and after his wife died, that he told everyone the truth.
“Dad had problems with varicose veins and every now again he would wear a pair of heeled boots,” said John Young.
“I would say ‘what are you doing with those on Dad? Aren’t they mums?’ and he’d say ‘I’m just wearing that for my varicose veins. But I knew something was happening, even when I was 10.”
Mr Young’s Dad, Col, was a policeman and a dab hand at building homes.
Col Young, from Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales north coast, also had a secret he kept from almost everyone. A secret that he would only reveal in his eighth decade. He called it his “problem”.
“Getting to 82 is a lot of years trying to talk to someone. Most of my life I never had anybody to talk to about the problem,” his Dad said.
“When I was younger I asked my mum if I might be a girl but she died when I was five. I didn’t mention it to my father or I would have got a clip around the head.
“I was scared of anyone finding out about the problem. There’s such a hatred of transgenderism at my age, my vintage.”
Mr Thomson said he first discovered Col, Ms Young, when he was asked to briefly film her by social worker Rowena Bianchino who thought it might be a useful exercise so she could see how she presented to the outside world. Ms Young was 82 years old and she was in the early stages of her gender transition.
“It was such a compelling story that I asked Colleen if she would be interested in sharing and she said yes because I think at this point she was in her eighties and didn’t want to keep secrets anymore.”
Mr Thomson told news.com.au he was drawn to Ms Young because of who she wasn’t.
“There’s lots of transgender people in the media but what we see is Caitlyn Jenner who has a background of wealth and privilege, or people from the LGBTIQ community in (the Sydney neighbourhood of) Darlinghurst,” he said.
“But we see few stories from working class people in regional Australia.”
‘I WAS CAUGHT’
It was clear to Ms Young from a very young age that she wasn’t like the other boys. She was pushed from doctor to doctor, all of whom patted her on the head, said everything was in working order and sent her on her way.
So she did what she deemed to be the proper thing to do. She met a nice young woman called Heather, got married, got a good job and had a couple of kids.
But when Heather was out, Ms Young would “trip around the house” in her wife’s high heels and dresses.
“Once or twice I was caught and there was a look of amazement on her face which I couldn’t blame her for,” she said.
They talked it through and eventually Heather was told by her husband that he had always wanted to be female.
“Even though Colleen only came out as transgender at 82 she told Heather in her early 40s. They would draw the curtains of their suburban bungalow and have this secret life dressing up and going promenading under the cover of darkness,” said Mr Thomson.
“Heather was a true insight into human nature, about how we fall in love with a person not a gender.”
Ms Young was astounded at how her wife readily helped, but it was tinged with guilt.
“I don’t think I was fair to Heather. I think I could have done better. She was an outstanding person and how she could be so accepting makes me wonder,” she said.
A SHOCK SEEING MY DAD AS A WOMAN
Ms Young’s wife passed away a few years ago and with her went to the only person who knew about what was still, at that point, “the problem”.
Finally she went to her GP and then other support services. Ms Young began taking oestrogen and hormone blockers that started to change her body.
She knew that if she didn’t tell her son John then, he would find out soon enough anyway.
“Dad was in tears and he said ‘I need to let you know I’m transgender’,” said Mr Young.
“And I said ‘yes, so?’ There was a bit of silence and I said ‘I’ve known something was there for years.’”
Ms Young said it was hard telling her son, but “he knew a lot more than he was letting on”. “I realised he’d probably seen me in mum’s shoes,” she said.
Mind you, Ms Young’s son still had to get used to a few things.
“Once Dad came out with a short black dress, a bit of a wig on and high-heeled shoes and he said ‘what do you think John?’” Mr Young said.
“And I said ‘oh yer looks good’. It was a bit of a shock seeing my Dad as a woman. But I’ve got no issue with it. It’s just part of nature; that’s how I see it.”
A SENSE OF SADNESS
Mr Young continued to call his father Dad — he’d been Dad for 50 years.
Mr Thomson revealed that one LGBTI focused organisation that had helped fund the documentary questioned why some of the interviewees hadn’t been urged to use female pronouns, to stop saying “Dad” for instance. But he pushed back.
“I don’t think rules are a good thing because you generalise but people are individuals. Col wasn’t offended at her son calling her Dad and that’s what is overlooked — the desire of the person,” he said.
Mr Thomson said it was likely there was some regret from Ms Young that she had waited so long to be herself.
“There’s a sense of sadness and a sense of loss to hide your true self from the world due to a fear of discrimination and ostracisation,” he said.
The filmmaker said the documentary was as much about transitioning gender as it was about ageing and how people’s wishes should be respected.
“Much of the Australian population is Baby Boomers and this story is about what kind of aged care do we all want? About moving from tolerating difference to valuing and celebrating difference,” he said.
“Do we want to ghettoise the aged care community as heterosexual? Why not be in aged care with gay people and lesbians and transgender people — it would be a lot more fun.”
Despite her advanced age, Ms Young’s aim was to biologically transition gender, most likely in Thailand. She said she knew it was risky.
“If I passed away under that surgery, I’d go quite happy because I’d be going the way I want to be. As a total woman.”
Becoming Colleen will show at the QueerScreen Mardi Gras Film Festival in Sydney’s on Sunday 24 February.
Originally published at NEWS.COM.AU
Also published in the NZ Herald