Woman as default

Chelsea Morrigan poses with her camera in a black and white photograph.


UQ student Chelsea Morrigan reflects on how transphobia – both from the world around her, and from within herself – shaped her identity on her journey to transition.

I grew up in a world where people like me were only ever portrayed as the butt of cruel jokes, or as a serial killer.

A world where I was always out of place and what was expected of me felt vaguely wrong.

I would tell you what that's like, but the truth is I don't remember most of my childhood.

I do remember that I experienced depressive periods throughout my teenage years, and I remember being a woman in my dreams, identifying with female characters, and finding more comfort in friendships with women than with any man.

I knew something was different, or wrong – but from what I could gather, every teenager felt like they were different, so how was I to know my struggles were different again?

UQ student Chelsea Morrigan.

I was top of my class in my first year at university.

However, that early academic success was soon cut short by an abusive relationship and severe depression, and my memories of that time became locked away like the ones during my childhood. Eventually, I saw a psychiatrist and learned techniques that gave me mental space to work out what had been troubling me all along.

At that time, I didn't even know the word ‘trans-gender’, but I knew I wanted to be a woman.

The psychiatrist told me that shaving my legs and wearing women's clothes didn't make me a woman, and that wanting to be a woman was just a sexual fetish. At the time, in a vulnerable mindset and with everything I had ever experienced up to that point reinforcing his viewpoint, I had no choice but to accept it.

I would tell myself that because I did not experience womanhood as a child and teen, it would not be worth it, that I would make an ugly woman, and that it was nothing more than a fetish.

For the next 10 years, I internalised these thoughts and repressed the desire to be myself – a woman – but it never truly disappeared.

I would always cross-dress at parties, and it never felt like a thrill, but instead something natural, more comfortable. It was the socially acceptable way for me to be myself – as a joke. But I would still remind myself that this didn't make me a woman.

For a time, things worked out. I went to a new university, made new friends, and restarted my life.

But after several personal crises triggered a severe depression, I again underwent therapy, and with that headspace again to consider how I felt, I realised that I no longer wanted to repress the urge to be myself.

I knew, and I feared what I knew.

I feared what it would mean for my relationship of eight years, and for my friends and my family. I knew of many who had been disowned by their parents, lost most of their friends, or lost their partners. I knew I could be left with nothing.

But still, it had become do-or-die – literally – for me.

I took a few days to gather the courage to tell my partner, and I still cried as I did. Her reaction was all I could ever have hoped for; we were honest with each other and, while we didn’t know what it meant for our relationship, she was willing to stay with me and see how things felt for her as I transitioned.

I knew it would challenge her idea of her sexuality. While that would be too much for many, it wasn't for her.

You have to pick your battles when coming out. You decide carefully whether, to whom, and when to come out, and how might that impact your relationships with the people in your life.

Before I had come out to many people, my grandmother ended up in hospital with inoperable ovarian cancer.

I only got to see her once more before she passed. I decided not to tell her about my transition.

While I thought she would at least eventually accept me, I decided that nobody needed that stress placed on them during such a difficult time.

I still don't know whether I did the right thing, but she went to the grave thinking no differently of me. I could not bear the possibility of souring any family relationships while she had so little time left.

Thankfully, I already had support from the person who mattered most.

But one of the most painful battles was within – I still had to fight the lingering doubt that I wasn't really trans, and that I didn't deserve to be a woman, all while bracing myself for possible hostility each time I came out.

Every one of those moments of vulnerability and fear helped me become more myself.

I felt confident enough to go out in public, into the city, dressed in feminine clothing. And although I enjoyed some anonymity in the city, being so vulnerable in public was emotionally taxing and exhausting. But I did it.

Everything went extremely well and eventually I was out, and just ‘Chelsea’ to people.

It was liberating, but at the same time I found the vulnerability humbling.

However, my experience doesn't simply end there. Every time I enter an old space, it’s terrifying until I feel accepted as I am. Even though I feel confident about who I am, I still feel emotionally fragile without the safety of my old shell.

UQ student Chelsea Morrigan poses in a chair.

One interesting change was that I noticed the shift to experiencing sexism when I started presenting as feminine full-time.

Whenever I manage to pass as cis-gender, I am now subject to ‘standard’ sexism.

But when it's obvious that I am trans-gender, the sexism I experience is often different, morphing instead to deny me of my womanhood, make me other-than or less-than a woman.

In these cases, I am cast as either a dangerous predator or sexual fetish; I am not even someone's daughter.

I do not get to be a woman by default, even to those who should know better, like medical professionals.

Listing my medication to doctors outs me as trans, and often, it all of a sudden seems like my genitalia is the only thing that matters.

I also have to run through a big spiel: “Yes, my name is this but my legal name is that, please use these pronouns, please remember that my hormones are in typical cis-female ranges so I have these risk factors and not those,” otherwise they default to thinking of me as a man.

It's exhausting – and a health risk.

The emergency room is even worse. Every new hospital staff member needs me to repeat my spiel – the paramedic, the receptionist, the nurse, the doctor, the other nurse – but anything severe enough to necessitate a trip to the ER doesn’t usually leave you with a lot of spare energy.

I am a woman if I feel that I am a woman, and the only thing I can do to prove that to others is to live as a woman.

But understanding that does not undo the years of programmed self-hatred it took to repress my true self in the first place.

When I first saw myself as a trans-woman, every feature I saw in the mirror was abhorrent: my own insecurities and fears were being reflected back at me.

My voice sounded as pleasant as nails on a chalkboard, and even though I know beauty standards are also harmful to cis-women, as a trans-woman, I am still held up to the same mark, except that I start even further from it.

I was intensely jealous of those who managed to transition before puberty ravaged their body, because they wouldn't be left with a frame wrought by testosterone, but with none left to support it.

And despite celebrations of pride, practical things like finding clothing to fit me are still difficult, and a constant reminder.

However, I have also noticed the struggles that all women have with clothing and their bodies, and all I can do is try my best with what I have been given.

I continue to pay attention to all the little things that bring me such joy – the change in my scent, seeing ‘her’ emerge in the mirror, my partner’s strength, and photographing cute animals and then sharing that joy with UQ Duckspace.

Chelsea Morrigan.

Chelsea Morrigan.

Chelsea Morrigan.

Chelsea Morrigan.

Chelsea Morrigan.

Chelsea Morrigan.

Chelsea Morrigan.

Chelsea Morrigan.

Chelsea Morrigan.

Chelsea Morrigan.

Chelsea Morrigan.

Chelsea Morrigan.

UQ student Chelsea Morrigan poses in a chair.

At present, few trans folk seem to escape childhood and natal puberty unscathed.

I survived it with what I now understand is a dissociative disorder.

Too many, from all walks of life, who grow up in places where they are segregated, outright illegal, or with resentful or unsupportive parents, don’t make it at all.

But I am beginning to hear stories of parents who allow their children to be who they are, and that is very promising. I work every day in the hope they do not have to feel the same pains I endured.

May those children be saved from the scars the rest of us bear.