Colleen’s granddaughter Tracy Chambers reflects on when her grandfather, affectionately known as NooNoo, came out to her.
My NooNoo, my grandfather was in her early 80’s when she came out to me as transgender. We had been speaking on the phone nearly every weekend since my Nana passed away, and this one particular weekend NooNoo said to me, “I have something that I really want to tell you, but I will tell you next time we talk”. All week, I wondered what it could be. I was nervous when I rang that weekend, I had all sorts of things running through my mind that she could be going to say. It wasn’t long in to our conversation, that NooNoo brought it up. She said that she was going to tell me something, but that she was really scared to do so.
I remember “Has she killed somebody?” running through my mind, when she said, “I’m transgender”. I breathed the biggest sigh of relief before telling her that she needn’t have worried – I was so happy and felt so privileged that she felt she could tell me. We talked for hours that night, with her telling me all sorts of stories about her younger years and the things that she had to go through.
I remember being so saddened when she told me that she had been given electric shock therapy when she was younger as an attempt to “fix” her. She also told me the most wonderful stories about my Nana, and the love that the two of them had shared. She told me stories of the two of them dressing up together and going for walks as two women, and about being wolf whistled at – a story she came to tell me many more times before she passed.
I was one of the very first people that she came out to, and her coming out only strengthened the really special relationship that we already had. I had nothing but love and respect for her, and I so admired the courage that she displayed, in finally admitting to the world who she really was. As an 80 something year-old, coming out as transgender must have been extremely difficult. She said that the younger generation had been much more accepting of her than her own generation, and that she had lost many friends her age in the community that she lived in.
One weekend during one of our talks, she told me that someone had approached her about making a film about her life, and her journey of coming out. She couldn’t quite believe that someone was interested in her story enough, to want to capture and document it in this way, but she was so excited to be able to finally tell her story.
This film became the topic of conversation between the two of us, but sadly, as the weeks and months went on, her health began to deteriorate and her ability to hold a conversation became less and less. She started to repeat things that she had already said, or would be unable to talk for very long before she would say that she needed to go. She was suffering from dementia. The cruelness of the fact that she was finally free to be who she had always wanted to be, but was now suffering from this disease, and unable to enjoy this time properly was a hard pill to swallow.
Being in a separate country and unable to afford to fly to see her at the time, I hated not being able to visit, to provide companionship in person; and as her health began to decline, I feared that I would never get the chance to properly meet Colleen, face to face. My NooNoo had an amazing friend Denise, who had known my Nana and NooNoo for a very long time. I was so, so lucky as she would go to visit my NooNoo constantly, and would either phone, or email to let me know how she was. I will forever be so grateful to her.
The last time I spoke to my NooNoo, she was very difficult to understand, and she wasn’t able to speak for long. I remember telling her that I loved her, and I hoped to be able to visit her soon. It was the early hours of the morning, when I got the call. It was my uncle but I was too slow to answer and missed the call. I sent a quick message saying “Is NooNoo ok?” and he replied with “No, she died 5 minutes ago”. That feeling of loss still brings me to tears even now. Knowing that I would never get to meet her, never get to properly see what she looked like, to hug her and tell her face to face how much she, and her bravery meant to me.
Then finally, the maker of the film contacted me, with a link to the finished film. I was both nervous and excited to see it, and to finally see her. My husband and I sat and watched it together and I was totally blown away. My NooNoo was beautiful. There were parts to her story that I still hadn’t learnt and I laughed at some of the stories and cried in others. There was a beautiful short clip of my late father and I as a little girl, that I had never seen, and an interview with Denise, which was beautiful. I was finally able to put a face to the name.
They did such a beautiful job of making the film, and my heart still breaks a little at the fact that NooNoo never got to see it. That she didn’t get to see how many people it has affected and how many people support her story. It is something that I am going to treasure forever, as while I never got to meet Colleen in person, I am able to watch this documentary, and time I want to see her face, or hear her voice.
Her story and her courage to finally live her life as she truly was, has inspired not only others, but also myself personally. I am bisexual, but had only ever told my twin brother and my now husband, back when we were teenagers. Since then, I had hidden the fact from everyone else, but drew strength from my NooNoo’s coming out, and began to slowly tell some of those people that were closest to me.
Over the last year, I have become more and more comfortable with not keeping the fact hidden, and just wish that my NooNoo, could have felt comfortable to be who she truly was, from an earlier age. It seems so bitter sweet, that she finally got to live her life as she really was, but only for such a short time. I really, really hope that her story is going to continue to comfort people, to inspire them to also accept who they are and encourage them to be open with the ones they love.
Two weekends ago, we finally lay NooNoo to rest, sprinkling her ashes along with my Nana’s at Takapuna beach in Auckland, New Zealand. The same beach that I stood on with them, 17 years ago, when we scattered my Dad (their son’s) ashes. I can so clearly remember standing there that night, and my Nana and NooNoo telling me that one day, when they died, they would want us to scatter their ashes there also. How surreal it felt, to now be doing that for them.
Thank you for allowing me to share my story, and I send my love out to all the people who are struggling, or have struggled with issues around being who they truly are. Kia Kaha.
By Tracy Chambers