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Four Canberrans on what it's like being gender and sexually diverse

Gender and sexuality are no longer binary and rigid concepts like they once were.

Meet these four Canberrans, who bravely tell their stories about coming out.

MEET JOEL

Joel Wilson is a trans man.

Joel Wilson. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Joel Wilson is 23. He was dux of his high school, a youth leader of his church, and he's studying a bachelor of science with a double major in mathematics and statistics.

He's also an out and proud trans man.

Joel was 19 when he transitioned from the sex he was born - a girl - to what he identifies with. He had moved to Canberra from Adelaide, where he'd grown up living with his mum after his parents' divorce when he was young.

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"I was generally a really happy kid," Joel says.

"I'm asked whether I always knew I was trans. I didn't."

Joel described his younger self as a tomboy. His mum would take him out shopping once every season to pick a "girly outfit" for special occasions, but otherwise he was allowed to wear what he pleased.

"I remember the feeling of wearing girls clothes. I felt like everyone was looking at me.

"I felt really uncomfortable and out of place, but I knew socially I had to wear certain things at certain times."

In primary school, most of Joel's friends were boys.

"I had two friends in my year level, we were best friends. They used to fight over who was going to marry me when we were older. Safe to say neither of them have married me, although legally they could."

It was the transition to middle school where Joel first noticed how being a girl held him back. He was no longer allowed to play footy with the boys.

"I had to start making friends with girls. The beginning of year six was when I started to realise, socially, that if I wanted to have friends and not be a total social outcast I had to become feminine."

Joel says his parents were always proud of him, and he was constantly told that girls could do anything boys could do.

"Dad was always proud of me because I was his little girl that beat the boys at sport."

He was in year 12 when he found out that trans "was a thing". He'd started coming out as lesbian, and it was in a support group for same sex attracted people that he met a trans man.

"As a little kid, I definitely wanted to be a boy, but that was like a fairytale, and then I found out you actually can."

But it's not as simple as making that decision. When he was coming out as a lesbian, members of the church Joel was attending found out, and tried to convince him to "make the right decision".

"I could have been one of those statistics.

"I was really fortunate that I had my parents, who had absolutely no problem with me coming out as lesbian. I had friends and they didn't have a problem with me being lesbian. But I have no doubt that many people have committed suicide because of youth pastors bullying them, or parents rejecting them."

It was when Joel moved to Canberra in 2013 that he transitioned from female to male. Initially, he bound his double-d sized breasts before getting a double mastectomy, which cost $10,000.

Transitioning is "the scariest thing I've ever done", Joel says.

"I'm now at the point where I look in the mirror and I don't feel uncomfortable, I don't feel out of place."

Joel says one of the most concerning aspects of transitioning was knowing how he would come out the other side.

"A lot of our community is really broken because of the discrimination, the exclusion.

"Looking at that and thinking, 'I really want to transition', but I didn't want to end up a broken person with mental health issues because I'd made this decision."

Joel says he's happy to say he's come out the other side, but it wasn't without turmoil or rough times.

"It's a big decision. It's irreversible. But there is no part of me that would ever want to reverse it."

MEET JENNI

Jenni Atkinson is 55 years old. She is a trans woman.

Jenni Atkinson. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Asking about someone's genitals is generally an off-limits topic for most people in most conversations. For the purposes of education, Jenni Atkinson, 55, doesn't mind being open to the discussion.

"I had a neo vagina and a clitoris created. The clitoris was 500 quid extra, I kid you not."

At the age of 32, Jenni had the surgery which cost 6000 pounds, equivalent of about $10,000 today. It was one of the final steps in the affirmation of her gender. She had been presenting as female for the three years prior.

For the first 29 years of her life, Jenni presented as a man. Born in England, she was one of three children.

She left school at 17, and her parents expected her to go to Oxford, or Cambridge. Instead, she joined a punk band.

"We thought we were going to be the next Sex Pistols. There was only one problem, we were shit."

It was a wake up call when her parents then asked her to pay rent.

"I thought that was incredibly unfair. It was outrageous."

So, she moved out.

Jenni got a job working as a computer operator, and at age 20 she became a programmer. Within two years, she was employed as a contractor and her salary "quadrupled overnight".

Jenni was earning more than her father had ever earned in his life. She bought her sister, a struggling nurse, a car.

In the background of all this, Jenni had been cross dressing in secret. At the time, it was a shameful thing to do. When she came out to her mum, years later, her mum asked why Jenni hadn't told her earlier.

"I said, 'you would have got me to see a psychiatrist and they would have given me aversion therapy or electric shock treatment.' They used to do that sort of thing."

Jenni also believed at the time that if anyone found out, she would have no other option but to end her life.

"The shame would be too much. For me, for my family."

Jenni moved to Australia in 1988 and loved it.

After years of questioning, she started reading about transsexuals. The more she read about them, the more horrified she became.

"Everything I was reading about them, apart from the incredibly glamorous lifestyles, was all the feelings they'd had, were me. And I was petrified."

It was at this point, at age 29, she tried to kill herself. She woke up in the morning feeling great. "I couldn't even do that right," she remembers thinking.

But it was the shock she needed to call Lifeline and be put in touch with a trans woman, Robyn, who became Jenni's mentor. Sadly, Robyn died of hormone abuse a few years later. But it was through Robyn's guidance that Jenni affirmed her gender. She retrained her voice, and took to oestrogen "like a duck to water".

When telling her religious parents, Jenni was amazed with their reaction.

"They said, 'we don't care, we want you to be happy'. It was fantastic, because a lot of people lose family."

At 55, Jenni is an IT contractor for the public service. She has two pet cats, and is an activist for the queer community in Canberra and more widely. She is known for her words of wisdom.

"This is your life. It is not a dress rehearsal. I'm always about #authenticliving. It is never too late."

MEET CODY

Cody Smith was born intersex. They identify as non binary.

Cody Smith. Photo: Jamila Toderas

"I don't consider myself a man or a woman. I'm an out and proud intersex person, and I'm agendered."

At the tender age of 17, Cody Smith found out they were born intersex. They had the female gender assigned to them at birth through surgery.

"It's hard to talk about specifics here without saying this is what was in my pants.

"I tell people that there are only two people who need to worry about what's in my pants, and that's my doctor and my lover."

Cody was born in the old Canberra Hospital 28 years ago. They grew up with a younger brother and parents who were "always able to provide".

"I had a very good childhood. I was a bit of a bookworm."

Cody went to an all-girls school, purely because it was seen as a more disciplined environment for Cody who was a naughty kid.

They recall yearly trips to the doctor and growing up with surgical scars, but never thought to ask what surgery they'd had. They knew they were on hormone replacement therapy, and that puberty was artificially induced, but the conversations with doctors were very coded.

Cody says it's common to the intersex experience that doctors don't sit you down and tell you about yourself.

"You end up in the situation that doctors are there to help you, and if they tell you to get a test done, you get a test done. If they tell you to take a pill, you take a pill."

Cody says one of the best things their parents did was kept plenty of resources they'd been given over the years by medical professionals.

"When I found out that I was intersex, that did my head in because suddenly I had this thing where I was born both male and female, and they made me female but I'm attracted to women.

"It presents a crisis of identity where you start to question the decisions that were made for you."

But Cody never held the decision to assign them the female gender at birth against their parents.

"I understand my parents made the best possible decision for me. There wasn't an alternative that was presented to them, and based on all the best information they had, and all the recommendations of doctors, that was the only decision they could have made."

It's part of the reason why they'd like to see legislation to protect bodily autonomy for babies born intersex. But that isn't everyone's experience.

Cody says there are plenty of intersex people out there who fight for the right for a cis-gendered identify, meaning being definitively male or female.

"For me, [non-binary] was a way of embracing something that was true about myself, this was a way of figuring out how to be happy. The less feminine I forced myself to be, the happier I was."

Cody says their parents are their biggest champions.

"They could not be prouder of me, and I could not be prouder of them," Cody says.

"There were times where there was a lot of shame, a lot of taboo and a lot of stuff not being said between us. It was the reality of the situation.

"They've become my best champions and I think a lot of that has to with me getting past my own shame, and figuring out how to be confident in who I am."

MEET MEGAN

Megan Munro identifies as gender fluid, polyamorous and pansexual.

Megan Munro. Photo: Jamila Toderas

There are so many words to define people who identify as gender diverse, but Megan Munro, 49, prefers not to be labelled.

If they had to, they would tell you they're genderfluid, polyamorous and pansexual. Gender fluid because they don't want to be defined as either a man or a woman, polyamorous because they're in a relationship with two woman, and pansexual because they're attracted to the person, not their sex.

Their preferred pronouns are they and them, and they prefer the honorific Mx, which, while not commonly used, doesn't indicate gender.

Megan's parents have been married 50 years. They had two children, a little girl and a little boy, both born and raised in Canberra.

While plenty of Megan's friends left for bigger, more exciting cities, Megan stayed to study at arts school, now part of the ANU. They went on to study teaching.

At that point, they identified as a heterosexual woman - a woman who was sexually attracted to men. At 26, Megan met the man who they would later marry. They were in a relationship for seven years before Megan finally accepted his proposal. One sunrise atop Mt Ainslie, they were married.

"I remember finding the whole experience really strange," Megan says.

"I wanted to blend in, but when you're the bride, you don't blend in very easily."

Megan says they were married for about a year before they started to have feelings for a woman.

Megan had always felt different, "wacky", but never acknowledged it was because of their gender or sexuality.

"It was like I was removed from it. It's funny how you don't necessarily think about these things."

Megan had the chance to be an artist-in-residence away from Canberra for a month, and it was that trip that changed everything.

"It was the first time I'd had any head space of my own for a very long time.

"I acknowledged I didn't know what it as, but I was attracted to some women."

The coming out happened in stages. At first, Megan told a close friend who encouraged them to explore these feeling and tell their husband.

"I did tell him, and basically the more people I told, the more I realised I was into women. It was like looking at the world from one angle and then suddenly realising I needed to take a step to the side and look at it from a different view.

"It's not like I was hiding it. I didn't know this part of me was there."

Megan's parents were the last people to be told.

"That was really hard," Megan says.

"They were fine. They were a little bit worried about my future, but they were great. Dad didn't say much. He said he didn't mind who I am. My mum asked a few questions because she wanted to understand things. After that my mum continued to try and learn things."

Megan said their mum continues to be involved as a volunteer with action groups in the LGBTIQ community.

That was just the first coming out.

Megan came out as polyamorous a few years later. They have been with one partner for 10 years, and another for six.

After that, Megan came out as non-binary and gender fluid. They perform as a drag king - "I crave it because it's actually the ultimate expression of me being male" - and also as a burlesque dancer.

"I don't like to fit into being male or female. I see gender and sexuality as being on a spectrum."

Megan tries not to get too caught up in labels.

"What I've done for a long time, I just try to be really honest.

"I can't be bothered hiding. I'd rather live authentically."