Colleen Young lived a clandestine life for 82 years, constantly fearful that what she called her “problem” would be exposed.
Shoes were her “safe place” and where she could be herself, even as a little boy growing up in New Zealand.
Her father would clip her on the ear when she tried to speak to him about wanting to be a girl. It would send her up into a tree in the front yard where she would put on the girls’ shoes she had crafted from a pair of rubber wellies.
Sadly, she never had the chance to fulfil her dream of becoming what she called a “real woman”.
Colleen died in Coffs Harbour in June 2018, aged 86, without having had an opportunity to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Discovery and non-judgemental acceptance
Before she died, Colleen shared her story with filmmaker Ian Thomson. The resulting documentary, Becoming Colleen, is a poignant glimpse at the challenges she faced over her lifetime trying to keep her secret.
In it, we learn that her secret desire to live as a woman was revealed 20 years into her marriage, when Heather Young found her husband trying on her shoes and clothes.
But rather than that signalling the end of their marriage, Heather helped Colleen to fulfil her wish and together, the couple maintained Colleen’s masculine facade, keeping their shared secret from their two sons and friends.
They were living in a small New Zealand town and as dusk fell, they would pull the blinds shut and dress up.
Sometimes they would wander the darkened streets, a pair of women friends out for a walk. Occasionally they would take a cruise, leaving town as man and woman, and spending the time at sea in dresses, skirts and heels.
Thomson says the Youngs’ love story is not one based on traditional gender roles but instead, is a love between two human beings who simply cared for and supported one another.
“Colleen’s story is really one of a love that transcends gender,” Thomson says.
“Why can’t people be who they chose to be, and we love and accept them like that rather than through the simple lens of binary definition?”
Colleen’s son John was supportive of her wish to live as a woman, but is adamant he will always think of her as “Dad” and says people who try to correct him make him angry.
He says he and Colleen talked about this before her death and had come to an agreement.
“I don’t refer to my father as ‘she’ as he is, and always will be, my father,” John says.
Early life in her own world
Colleen was born Colin Young in Hastings, New Zealand in 1932, the second youngest of four boys.
She confided in her mother that she wanted to be a girl but after her mum died when Colleen was almost six, she no longer had anyone to talk to about it.
It was up in that tree in the front yard of the family home that Colleen would hide with her cut-down wellies, her first pair of “girls’ shoes”.
“Quite often I’d climb down the tree and go for a walk with my little boots on. I used to think it was marvellous.”
Making a happier family life
Colleen, who played bagpipes, met Heather, a highland dancer, when they were both quite young and soon they were married and the parents of two boys.
John recalls a happy childhood growing up with his brother Stuart around Hastings, on New Zealand’s north island.
Colleen worked as a cinema projectionist and then as a police officer and on weekends, would take the family fishing at the beach.
John remembers family outings picking pine cones in the winter and sitting before the fireplace, eating fish and chips and watching Disney cartoons or wildlife shows on Sunday evenings.
“He liked to make family movies, and he built two of our homes, so he was handy with building, he loved mechanical work and repowered one of our family cars. And he likes to have parties for families and friends,” John says.
At about nine or 10, John became aware of “something out of the norm” when Colleen would appear wearing stockings or ladies’ boots, saying they were to help her varicose veins.
On one occasion, she donned white court shoes with a stack heel to stamp down the dirt when putting in a pool.
Seeking acceptance and answers
It was not until Heather died that Colleen, then 82 and desperately lonely, depressed and introverted, was referred by her GP to Coffs Harbour social worker and psychotherapist Rowena Bianchino.
She says having a word for how she was feeling helped Colleen for a time, lifting her mood and enabling her to start planning for her life as a woman.
Colleen told Ms Bianchino that she’d spent many years of her life confused and conflicted, visiting doctors about “her problem” and being patted on the head and sent away.
At one point she was admitted to a mental health facility and underwent electric shock therapy.
“When I first met her, Colleen was going to a women’s group where she lived but would go as Colin, not Colleen,” Ms Bianchino says.
“She loved fancy dress, but she could only do it under the guise of ‘This is fun, this is dressing up’.
Sadly, those living in the conservative Coffs Harbour retirement community where Colleen lived were shocked to learn she was transgender.
By the time Colleen became aware of gender reassignment surgery she was already quite frail with several health issues, making the likelihood of it remote.
Starting a conversation about diversity in aged care
Colleen’s health deteriorated, and it became necessary for her to move into a care home — another potentially frightening experience for her as a transgender woman.
“She was incredibly strong [and] the devastating thing for her was that her home was her safe world and she did not want to go into care,” Ms Bianchino says.
There Colleen began yet another journey towards acceptance because the staff had no experience of caring for a transgender resident. She was not officially known as Colleen at the care home, so they settled on Col.
In addition, her fellow residents were suspicious and uncertain, despite the care home’s nursing manager Pippa doing her best to raise awareness of Colleen’s need to feel safe and welcome.
Colleen’s experience raises the need for more discussion about diversity in aged care.
“Colleen was humble and loving and accepting of everyone, which is ironic given so many were not accepting of her.”
By Jennifer King