Since beginning her gender transition two and a half years ago, Catherine McGregor has found being a woman in a male-dominated field to be bittersweet
Since beginning her gender transition two and a half years ago, Catherine McGregor has experienced the bittersweet burden of being a woman in modern society, The Guardian reports. From lewd comments shouted from passing cars to the deliberate chivalry of holding doors open, McGregor’s transition to womanhood has made the most senior transgender military officer in the world see social transactions from a new point of view.
“For better or worse, I’m being gendered as female now,” McGregor told Guardian Australia, with a laugh in her voice. McGregor has always occupied spaces traditionally dominated by men. She has been a military strategist for the Australian defence force (ADF), a political adviser, a speechwriter for the chief of army and a cricket enthusiast and commentator. But in 2012 after nearly 40 years in the armed forces, Catherine, then living as Malcolm, decided to commence gender reassignment.
Living as a man had caused her excruciating pain and made her feel like an “out-of-tune orchestra”. She is now at a stage in her transition where it is not obvious that she was born male. “I’m much smaller than I was, and I’m not imposing,” she said. “I wasn’t Scarlett Johansson, but I wasn’t garish looking at any time during my transition.”
Being gendered as female has brought a few surprises with it. McGregor recalls having suggestive comments shouted out to her when she was out running in skins and a crop top. “When you are the focus of that, it is surprising, but it shouldn’t be,” McGregor said, admitting she had lived a life of privilege as a man before transitioning.
Men are opening doors for her and letting her step out of elevators first, making her acutely aware of the “unstated element of power” in those seemingly courteous acts of kindness. “I’m being seen as more frail,” she said, an assumption which must come as a shock to the former soldier and keen athlete. McGregor is bemused by the actions of taxi drivers, who have suddenly started calling her “love” and “sweetie”.
The condescension is “striking”, she said, noting that it is not harmful or offensive but nevertheless surprising. The June 2013 speech has been viewed more than 1.5m times, and its pointed message – that sexism and inappropriate behaviour would not be tolerated in the armed forces – launched Morrison into international headlines. “Every one of us is responsible for the culture and reputation of our army and the environment in which we work,” Morrison said. “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”
But it was a message that McGregor herself took a while to grasp. Worried that her decision to live as a woman would affect her work, McGregor offered Morrison – a long time friend and confidant – her resignation. It was refused.
“The ADF has been extraordinary,” McGregor said. “I’ve been very, very fortunate … they value me.” She praises her peers for “carrying her” when the pain of her suppressed gender identity was at its worst, saying that “the quality of human relations are better at the ADF than anywhere else I’ve worked.” Now working in the air force, McGregor paid specific tribute to the women of the defence forces, who embraced her and formed deep, secure relationships.
She has noticed that the way men relate to each other is different to the way women build relationships. Men, she said, are “emotionally malnourished”. Women, particularly those she met in the air force, are there for each other and have lasting bonds. She acknowledges that the ADF has “some pockets of behaviour that [are] unacceptable to women and trans-women”, but said these attitudes can be found in any male-dominated organisation.
McGregor’s remarkable story, and her courage in telling it in public, have made her a spokeswoman for gender issues, an honour she said is “humbling”. It has also led to an invitation to speak to firefighters and first responders about workplace bullying and equality. McGregor says the ADF has come a long way, and thinks the next step in gender equality is the appointment of female fighter pilots.
Those women who have so far started the demanding fast-jet training have pulled out, worried about the impacts it would have on family and work-life balance. “The air force does see this as a deficiency,” she said. “I’ve got no doubt that it will change.”