IN Jen Yates’ home office in Canberra, a frame proudly displays the leaving card she received when she departed her role as a psychologist at A Gender Agenda (AGA), a pioneering support group in the ACT for the sex and gender diverse community.
Like most leaving cards, it’s full of fulsome thank yous and sentimental send offs, but there is one particular line that stands out: “Jennie Yates is awarded lifetime membership of AGA in gratitude for practicing a kindness with the power to unlock the hearts of those who do not yet know what they have to give.”
[showads ad=MREC]“I think that does sum it up,” she says.
“It wasn’t about me doing things to people, it was about enabling them to believe in themselves.
“I’ve worked with Indigenous communities, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual abuse but the trans* community is the most marginalised and isolated community I have ever worked with.”
It’s not just the many trans* people that Yates has counselled who have completed inspiring journeys. Her own journey would bring her closer to the LGBTI community than she could ever have imagined.
Yates was born in Tasmania and arrived in Canberra in 1975, a week after the dismissal of the Whitlam government.
“Being a child of the 50s, I did the right thing and got married and had four babies and they’ve all grown up to be very responsible adults,” she says.
Her career began as a schoolteacher, working with students at the fringes, the “naughty boys” as she calls them.
After her own children were born, in between nappy changes and school runs, she found time to set up family refuges and work with the Canberra rape crisis centre and victims of childhood and ritual abuse.
“When people are suffering, whether it’s because of particular traits or experiences they have, any of us could be in their shoes and I just wanted to do useful things and be supportive,” Yates says.
“I have a particular set of skills that makes it useful to engage with people who are in hard places [and] I’d rather being do that with my time than buying clothes and handbags.”
Around 2009, her second-eldest daughter Heidi — a solicitor working with AGA — suggested her mum’s experience, who had for some time been moving from teaching to counselling and psychology, might be of benefit to the organisation’s clients.
Yates recalls that within 20 minutes of meeting AGA’s founder Peter Hyndal, she knew they could make a difference together.
Before long, she was face-to-face at the coalface of anguish. No two experiences were entirely the same.
“For many people, every breathing moment outside of the house was full of terror,” she says.
“A young trans* women came to one of our discussion groups said, I’m scared all the time, every time I step outside my front door I’m scared, every time I have to walk into the shop and buy bread I’m scared.
“Because I never know at what moment someone is going to work out that I’m actually a woman who wasn’t born a women and my life could end.”
Other people simply didn’t know how to cope with having a trans* family member.
“One 70-year-old man had me in tears when he said his daughter transitioned to be male 25 years ago and he was so embarrassed they stopped having social contact and became isolated because there was no way to talk about it,” Yates says.
“I’ve lost track of the number of people I had to make suicide contracts with,” she adds, referring to a commitment made by clients to keep themselves safe or call for assistance in any given 24-hour period.
However, Yates insists that she is not one to “ride in there and [say] look at me, I’m saving lives”.
She says one has to be aware of their limitations, it was a team effort and without the expertise around her and the community resources available, she could never have done her role effectively. She adds that the key to her job was treating clients and their families with respect, always acting with their permission and never raising false hopes.
“There were cases where I was able to make contact with an estranged family and talk about the ways they could manage their lives having a trans* daughter or son and that reconnected people,” she says.
In 2014, with a heavy heart, Yates stepped down from AGA to concentrate on her own family and a growing gaggle of grandchildren.
Some time previously, in the early 2000s, Yates had made another life-changing decision: coming out as lesbian. This year, she and her partner Judith will celebrate her 16 years together.
Her daughter Heidi is also a mum and in a same-sex relationship.
Yates has not left community advocacy behind her entirely, now serving alongside Heidi and Hyndal on the ACT Government’s LGBTI ministerial advisory council, specialising on issues facing the trans* and lesbian communities.
Nonetheless, fond memories of AGA remain with Yates.
“It really was the very best piece of work I did,” she says.
“Every time you see someone you know has been at the bottom of the pit, when you see that person running a workshop or mentoring a younger trans* person there’s so much joy in that.
“You can focus on how horrible the stories are, but if you do you miss out on the courage and the wonder of people who make decisions that change their lives.”
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**This article was first published in the October 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.