Assumptions regarding my place in the world were born with me the moment I was declared a baby girl and set according to my assigned gender. My belonging to community was relational to men and their privileges, and the perception of my body’s purpose and functions. I knew differently, my true nature was not bound by my flesh.
Growing up in the Blue Mountains I was surrounded by what I reflect on was a heavily cultivated idea of roaming masculinity. This was reinforced by my schooling and local folklores past down that emphasised European ‘early explorers’. The landscape was often described as a metaphor for the dreams, hopes, fears and aspirations of ‘brave’ white men who journeyed across it. First Nation’s history conveniently omitted.
The Blue Mountains are steeped in an industrial history, the land pierced with coal mines, quarries and railways. The interests of working-class men were inextricably linked to the characteristics of the local male culture. Camping, fishing, hiking and long road trips were plentiful alongside the notion that men had an innate need to wander, discover, be alone, and come and go as they pleased.
Whilst globally, the 80s followed eras of feminist wins, I may as well have been in another universe. My family’s immediate community was affiliated with a conservative church. Boys and girls recreational activities were often segregated, further entrenching the wider norms.
Boys were pushed towards outdoor adventure, regardless of their appetite for it. Like many young girls, I agitated for my ‘boys own’ exploits, but many around me had other views. Girls were ‘meant’ to play netball or tennis or develop their craft, dance and piano skills. My longer path was already laid out, stay busy until it’s time to marry and have children. I wanted something else.
I’d read books and catch glimpses of women who did things on their terms. I became fascinated with bushwalker and conservationist Marie Byles, American writer and marine biologist Rachel Carson, and others like Jean Robertson and Kathleen Howell who were the first women to drive across Australia.
I watched on enviously, as men laden with back packs, dangling billies, cups, mats and sleeping bags would clamber onto trains, or hitch hike along the Great Western Highway. I would picture their destination, conjuring the most isolated, faraway place my imagination would allow. My favourite dreams had no destination at all, just an endless road bursting with unknown possibilities. My invented stories about their adventures were decorated with all the mythologies I had been taught by adults. However, I pushed their limits simply by being a girl with these desires.
Whilst I could relate to other girls and young women around me, our experience of gender roles diverged dramatically in adulthood. After traversing a range of sexualities during my 20s, I began to explore my gender identity in my 30s. Finally, at age 38, after as much thought a person could put into anything, I transitioned to male.
I did always feel ‘different’. However, this was more to do with people’s response to my resistance to traditional gender roles, rather than my realisation I was a man. My time as a woman taught me questioning gender roles is not limited to transgender people. In fact, it was the diversity of women’s interests and ways to express womanhood which had me thinking the hardest about whether I was transgender.
Today as a different sort of man I feel even closer to the stories of women who challenge these norms. I notice them everywhere, defying societal expectations. I gravitate towards them, often forming close friendships. They may be straight, bisexual, lesbian or queer, their gender expression not always tied to their sexuality.
I encounter women who embody this spirit on my travels. Women seeking remote wilderness, wandering Australia alone, working in industries usually reserved for men. I wondered if these women grew up as I, watching on as boys and men were encouraged to hit the road and were supported in pursuits we were forbidden to do, forced to envy, or discouraged to crave.
My experiences as a woman and a man were markedly different. After transition I pursued my fascination with Australian road trips and remote camping. Prior to transition I was asked more questions. Did I have a husband at home? Or family obligations? Where was my boyfriend? Did I fear travelling alone? As a male traveller I am told that us men have a biological need to explore wide open spaces. As a girl I had those same needs.
I remember a recent trip heading to Cape York. Driving up the Mulligan Highway, window wound down as the humid air kissed my face. In that split second as the crest of the road rose past the Trevathan Range I felt totally alive. The moment I had always imagined as a child was playing out. I began to cry. Clutching the steering wheel, I was acutely aware that only I knew where I was headed. An eagle cut circles in the sky above a spectacular landscape filling my heart.
I was embraced by my past, present and future. For all that existed right then I was a man to the outside world, and I was living the dream. However, I could not escape the irony of this experience. I don’t care for what ‘makes’ a man and struggle with how narrow definitions exclude others. Because of this I knew that had I died in that moment; I would die as the spirit I was born. I was meant to roam. My critics silenced once and for all.
As a child I was moulded into the woman I became through consciously resisting what was expected of girls. As a middle-aged white man, I live in the shadow of the mythologies of roaming masculinity I was proffered. I have a beard, wear flannel shirts, I pitch tents and shave in the bush. I wear an Acubra more often than not and love walking the dusty Mallee deserts.
I don’t discuss my gender transition on my travels, although I wonder how some might react. My guess is those who would fear me might do so because I hide well within the myths they perpetuate. Including, the myth of gender’s nature. What I do share are the stories of the women who inspired me to follow adventure. After all it was the tenacity of those women who taught this guy how to roam.