IT was a matter of dying as a man or living as a woman for air force Group Captain Catherine McGregor, Australia’s highest-ranking trans* military official, who has revealed her journey become a woman and accepting a position as a role model.

In an exclusive interview in the May edition of Star Observer, out tomorrow, McGregor also went into detail about the moment when she came out as trans* to long time friend Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the unexpected complete support she received from him.

“It was like that line from the Shawshank Redemption: you either get busy dying or get busy living: that’s where I was at in my life after my 56th birthday,” McGregor said.

“I’ve never claimed to be brave. While that term gets used I certainly have never said it.

“I just did what I had to when every other opportunity and option was exhausted.”

Growing up in the Queensland town of Toowoomba and being aware of an issue with her gender at a young age, there was no one a young McGregor could look to.

She said being caught in her mother’s clothes once and disciplined was incredibly damaging to her young psyche, an experience McGregor shared and discussed with trans* icon Carlotta.

“That really drove me into my shell, it was an incredibly confronting experience for me and I’ve had a chance to talk to Carlotta about it, after I found out we shared a few similar experiences,” McGregor said.

“I was scalded the way she was but I went down a road of trying to please my parents and everyone else, while Carlotta made the brave decision to be herself.”

It wasn’t until she got older that McGregor knew her gender variant feelings needed to be finally dealt with.

“I got to the point in summer 2011/12 where the music stopped and I didn’t have a chair,” she recalled.

Leaving her transition until later in life – a process that some older trans* people cannot handle – was a risk well-known to McGregor, who said she felt “very lucky” to have had work out successfully.

“A late transition has a lot of penalties, I’m just very lucky that I was able to be prescribed estrogen in significant doses at this stage and secondly, I was very lucky that it worked as well as it did,” McGregor said.

“There are some people whose bodies at about my age can’t tolerate the hormones and have to find other ways to express their gender.”

McGregor’s career in the military and her involvement in it as a trans* person was well-chronicled in a 2014 episode of the ABC’s Australian Story, along with the fervent support she received from Lieutenant General David Morrison.

“I resigned a couple of times, second one due to a belief that I was under-performing at work. Not only that time did Morrison say no, all my colleagues had my back and urged me to stay,” McGregor recalled.

“I thought I’d be the butt of jokes and that I’d be shunned within the army. It’s incredibly heartening to know that wasn’t the case.”

Moving last year to the Royal Australian Air Force has given McGregor a clean slate of sorts. It was a move to an organisation that did not know her when she was known as Malcolm, and allowed her to expand her career.

“[Chief of the Air Force] Geoff Brown has been absolutely brilliant. He’s very at ease around me and they actually promoted me, though that was completely unrelated to my gender,” McGregor said.

“There was just more of a career opportunity for me in the air force.”

Rising to her position in the community and military has come through certain privileges available to her – a fact McGregor is aware of but is sometimes criticised about by her few detractors.

“I find it a bit tiresome to be the subject of abuse and backlash for apparently appropriating the trans* matter because I have never sought to do that,” she said.

“There are some trans* websites that I’ve just left due to this relentless negativity and attacks by a few. They bob up everywhere with the same script when it comes to criticising me: ‘she thinks she’s so grand… she’s got tickets on herself’.

“I’ve been stunned by the lateral hostility but thankfully it’s only made up a minority of interaction and correspondence I’ve had with the community.”

Her close friendship with Abbott also continues to attract attention, evidenced as recently as her address to the National Press Club earlier this month.

However, McGregor refuses to cast off someone who has been as supportive and welcoming as Abbott has been.

“People expect me to turn around after 35 years and say, ‘thanks for publicly endorsing me at your political risk but thousands of people I’ve never met don’t like you so I’m supposed to shun you’. I think that way of thinking is mind-boggling,” McGregor said.

“Tony’s been a better friend to me than I have been to him over a really long period of time, I can assure you of that. He’s never once misgendered me, which is more than I can say for a number of Labor politicians.”

Recounting a dinner she once had with Abbott and Peta Credlin – one of his staffers at the time – after McGregor had ‘come out’ to him, she said he offered nothing but support.

Credlin told McGregor about how Abbott found out about McGregor’s trans* identity after being sent a chapter of her book where she came out. Aware that something was troubling McGregor for a while, Abbott had reconciled himself to McGregor coming out as a gay man and was not prepared for her to be a trans woman.

“Peta quickly scanned the chapter and said ‘you’ve got to reach out to her’,” McGregor said.

“Tony, to his great credit, said ‘so, it’s her?’

“His willingness to accept me, even asking me from that moment on: ‘what should I call you? What’s your name?’ shows that I really had underestimated Tony.”

In the interview with the Star Observer, McGregor revealed how uneasy she initially was with being a role model and her bemusement at the attention afforded to her — something she is now beginning to embrace.

“I just assumed that in terms of iconic figures, there would be other people post me much more worthy of taking up that mantle or just be seen as vastly more interesting,” she said.

“I just did what I did to live my life and there’s been some kind of curiosity about that and I still find it puzzling that people are interested in me, because I don’t think that transgenderism is a particularly novel phenomenon anymore.”

Cate McGregor’s full interview can be read in the May issue of the Star Observer, available from Thursday, April 16 in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra. Click here to find your nearest distribution point to collect your free copy. It will also be available online in digital flip-book format.

Cate McGregor graces the front cover of Star Observer's May edition. Available from Thursday, April 16.

Cate McGregor graces the front cover of Star Observer’s May edition. Available from Thursday, April 16.

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