This month, we’re celebrating amazing women. In our new column, “The Leap,” we’re exploring that little transition time between one part of your life and the next. That moment of time when a person evolves into a whole entity … and exactly how it happened.
It’s hard to think of a leap more profound than transitioning from male to female. It takes a lot of self-awareness to realise you’re trapped in the wrong body and even more courage to actually do something about it. This is exactly what Melissa Griffiths, a social entrepreneur, LGBTQI advocate and transgender female has done. Here, she shares her powerful, inspiring and, at times, heartbreaking story about being true to yourself.
On her childhood
I was brought up in Glen Eden, which is in the western suburbs of Auckland. I was an only child and my childhood was at times very lonely outside school and I did not make friends easily. As I grew from a child to a teenager and then to young adult, I always felt not quite right and that I didn’t fit in.
On realising she was different
I first realised I was different from other boys at school around the age of 10. I was always the awkward, shy one at school who never quite fit in. I was also bullied for being slim. I started feeling like a woman around the age of 15. Around the same time, I started wearing women’s clothing. At first, it was something I did privately. I would put my mother’s clothes on when she was out, then put them back. I did this for a while then tried to suppress the urge, thinking it was just a phase I was going through. So, I threw myself in to playing sport like rugby league and for a while, the female clothes were buried away.
On moving to Melbourne
I never wore female clothes out in public in Auckland, but in 1999 I moved to Melbourne. Not long after I relocated, I started going out as a woman. Looking back, some of my female clothing choices were not exactly ideal — like wearing a short tartan mini skirt with red top, fishnets, black boots and red wig. Probably not the best look! However, at the time it was both exciting and nerve-racking going out in public as a female.
On coming out as transgender
I decided in 2014 to openly come out and to begin living fully as a woman in the following year. The turning point for me was seeing both my father and cousin in hospital at the same time. They both had terminal cancer. It made me realise that life is very short and very precious. I also realised that I hadn’t been true to myself by only living part of my life as a woman outside work and not all of the time. I recognised that to be fully functional in life and society one cannot hide one’s true self from others.
On the reaction to coming out
When I came out, the reaction of people around me was varied and interesting. Some of my friends were supportive. However, some weren’t and I haven’t seen some of them in a while. Whilst a lot of my peers were surprised the overall reaction was good. I did get asked a lot of questions from some of my peers, some of which were rather surprising. In terms of my family the reactions were mixed. They ranged from acceptance and support from most of my family to others that were either indifferent or not wanting to understand. A few say they accept me, but my interactions with them would suggest otherwise! I understand that people who are transgender is something new for everyone,including my family and friends.
In terms of my physical transition, I still have not had surgery for either breast implants or gender reassignment surgery to create a vagina. I have been on hormones for nearly two years now and have had a little breast growth. However, it does vary from each transgender person who takes hormones. I have also considered facial feminisation surgery, to make my face more feminine looking and voice surgery to help with the pitch of my voice. The cost of these medical procedures in Australia for transgender people are quite prohibitive and hence it will be awhile before I am able to undergo any surgery.
On the biggest challenges
The most difficult thing about transitioning from male to female has been accepting that the majority of society will reject you and see you as some kind of freak. Also, dealing with family or friends who reject you or don’t accept your decision to transition was a difficult thing for me to deal with. Having to go through a lot of the transition without a lot of support was tough, however it has made me stronger.
On dealing with prejudice
I have found that some people treat me differently as a transgender woman than as a male or a cis-gender woman. Some people aren’t willing to engage me in conversation as easily as in the past when I was living as a male. Also, some men and women are unable to understand or handle anything that is outside society’s so called ‘norms’. Whilst I had a lot of support from some people I have also encountered a lot of prejudice from people. People can be quite cruel however I acknowledge that everyone has different upbringings and belief systems which contribute towards prejudice towards me.
I remember one time, I went to a fast food outlet to order some fries and even though I was first in line, the guy after was served first. At the time I was a bit taken aback, but I realised that maybe he has never encountered a transgender person, so I let it go. The first time I went to the beach in a bikini, I was a called a bitch. It was quite confronting. I didn’t react to either of these incidents at the time, but I would come home and cry many tears. Now, I have developed a sense of humour about it. So, when somebody called me a ‘tripper’ when I was out in Bondi recently I was able to just laugh it off and not take it on board as much as I would have in the past.
On what she’s learned
Throughout this whole journey, the most important thing I’ve learned is that you have to be strong to deal with what life and people throw at you. By finding my inner strength, I’ve been able to deal with the discrimination I have faced and keep believing in my myself. The experiences you have in your life help define who you are. I now have a stronger sense of who I am and my purpose of life. By discovering who I am and taking the time to do so I have learned how to use my inner strength to get through the tough times. We all have times in lives when we are challenged.
On becoming a social entrepreneur
As part of my self-discovery journey, I realised that I had to to follow my passion — rather than doing what most people do by getting a job and just being content with that. I realised that I had a vision that could help future generations. If I did nothing and didn’t stand up as LGBTQI advocate, then what would change? I realised that by becoming an influencer in society, rather than just an employee or bystander, I could have a far bigger influence and more quickly break down any barriers that exist in society and the workplace towards transgender people. Only by making a difference can we change society and if I only ever changed one person’s life for the better and that person changed someone else’s life for the better and so on then I have created a ripple effect that will change many lives.
On the advice she would give someone thinking of coming out as trans
My advice would be to seek good advice and support from their doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist before they come out. I would also suggest that they have a good counsellor they can talk to. It is important to have this support network in place before they come out to help them deal with the challenges they will face living as a transgender person whether transgender male or transgender woman.
Another piece of advice I would give is to as mentally prepared as they can be for any discrimination or untoward behaviour they may encounter. If they can also get support from other transgender people in their local area from a transgender support group this helps a lot. Alternatively, if this is not possible then seek support online from other transgender groups or people. It is a sign of strength not weakness to ask for support from others. I know from my experience that if I had more support then it would have been a far easier journey.
You can keep up with Melissa’s journey here.