“I DIDN’T have another day of maleness in me or I would have committed suicide. It’s that simple,” Royal Australan Air Force (RAAF) Group Captain Catherine McGregor said.
“There’s no great courage in my case and in fact you could say that I lacked the courage to do what many had done before me.”
Becoming what many would consider a role model for the trans* community, or at least someone providing hope for others, has come with apprehension, disbelief and unease.
“I’ve never gone out saying I was brave or a role model,” said McGregor, who until recently was an Australian Army Lieutenant Colonel.
“That appears to have been allocated to me by some sectors and it’s very flattering, but I’ve never sought that out.”
McGregor found herself in a life that revolved around being masculine and keeping any issues she had with her gender at bay.
“I had an incredibly masculine life: I excelled at Duntroon, I topped my class three years out of four, I was pretty good at sport and I loved cricket,” she recalled.
“No one in my class I suspect would have thought I was effeminate or a ‘sissy’ in anyway.”
McGregor still grappled with her gender identity during her army years when she was known as Malcolm. She hit rock bottom after a negative experience with a “belligerent” Sydney psychiatrist she was sent to about her gender issues and potential hormonal therapy.
“He basically told me I wasn’t ‘girly’ enough and go and man the fuck up, basically,” McGregor recalled.
“And I did. I plummeted into really serious alcohol and drug abuse after that. For the next five years I nearly died from it.”
Her decision to undergo gender transition finally came after reading a story about trans* Australian pro surfer Westerly Windina.
“In my next session with my therapist I just broke down in tears. I had finally worked out something really, really obvious after going back into a denial of sorts up until then: that I was trans,” McGregor said.
“The final tipping point was when I turned 56 in 2012 and I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to have another birthday’. I just knew that I could not go on. I couldn’t have another birthday as Malcolm McGregor.
“I also thought to myself in the lead up to transitioning that ‘you’re going to look scary, be a laughing stock and lose everything’. That thankfully turned out to be wrong and it went better than I expected.”
McGregor lost a lot when she was transitioning, including her house and wife of many years. Despite this, the two are still a very close friends and McGregor describes her as a “soul mate”.
Describing the acceptance of her colleagues and workplace as “incredibly heartening”, McGregor’s move to RAAF in June 2014 has yielded even greater opportunities.
“I’ve received so much support from the air force, even more so than the army: something I didn’t think was possible,” she said.
“I don’t mean to compare the army unfavourably, but the air force is a fantastic environment for women and certainly for me. Again, not to denigrate the fantastic women that are in the army, it was just a very different experience for me.”
McGregor credited trans* military pioneers like Bridget Clinch for leading the charge in updating the Australian Army’s policy — which once relied on an outdated medical approach that treated trans* as a mental disorder — so that she could have been as successful as she has been.
“Many people are under the misapprehension that I’m somehow some path breaker in the army, but thanks to Bridget the policy that supported me was already in place,” McGregor said.
Nonetheless, overwhelming messages of positivity have given her heart to continue sharing her story, despite a reluctance to become a public figure.
“I’m not engaging in hyperbole for one moment when I tell you that I thought my life would be a smoking ruin after the transition. So to even survive… was a complete shock to me,” McGregor said.
“I’ve never craved the attention. I still don’t get what all the attention is about, I really don’t. I don’t know why me and not someone else.
“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.”
One thing that has been responsible for generating some negativity towards McGregor is her long-term friendship with Prime Minister Tony Abbott — a relationship she doesn’t believe she has to reconcile with her trans* identity and her standing in the LGBTI community.
“I completely understand the negative feelings the wider LGBTI community has towards Tony Abbott, but he’s been a longstanding friend to me and I can’t just forsake that to appease the community,” McGregor said.
“Just because we’re friends doesn’t mean I share his ideologies and positions, but when confronted with my coming out as transgender he never asked what was in it for him, he was primarily focused on how I was and my wellbeing.”
Abbott introduced McGregor’s Australian Story episode last year after being approached by the ABC without McGregor’s knowledge. He requested the opportunity to provide closing remarks for the episode as well, an act that gave heart to McGregor.
“Not only did he embrace me and made it really clear that he was there for me, he did so publicly which was particularly heartening,” she said.
“If the community can’t understand that having a serving Prime Minister of Australia regardless of their ideological stripes introduce a program about a trans* woman is an incredible and substantial step forward for all of us, then I can’t force them.”
However, she conceded that the support she received from Abbott did surprise her.
“I had put off telling him for a long time. I had misjudged him and how he’d react,” she said.
“He said that he’d wished I felt that I could have told him sooner and I told him that I knew it would clearly be confronting to anyone with strong religious convictions, and despite him not being at the lunatic fringe end of that, it would be too much for him to get his head around.
“He said: ‘No, everyone of us is handed the life we get handed and you know [my sister’s] story; for the people that are in our lives who are important to us, you just get over it’.”
Nonetheless, after her initial resistance McGregor said she was now beginning to accept her role as a public trans* figure.
“The evidence is clear enough — and that obviously sounds grandiose — through the correspondence that I get every week… it just shocks you,” she said.
“I’m aware of my foibles, too, and I get very nervous when people hold me up as a kind of icon. I’m just not sure if I merit that.
“I’m getting to be more at peace with it, though.”
**This article was first published in the May edition of the Star Observer, which is available to read in digital flip-book format. To obtain a physical copy, click here to find out where you can grab one in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.