A national LGBTQI+ storytelling project curated by Maeve Marsden
featuring a book, event series and an award-winning podcast

A national LGBTQI+ storytelling project curated by Maeve Marsden
featuring a book, event series and award-winning podcast

340 Dr Jesse Hooley – Transgender Activism: Past and Present

Jesse reflects on the way her activism has shifted over the years, and the people who were fundamental to her work and life.

Dr Jesse Hooley is a 78er and was part of the Transgender Liberation Coalition in the 90s – a story she’ll be sharing with you tonight. Jesse went on to an academic career, teaching sociology, and having retired recently, she has devoted her energies once more to trans activism, as well as watercolour painting.


Maeve: Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories. This week Dr Jesse Hooley is a 78er and was part of the Transgender Liberation Coalition in the 90s – a story she’ll be sharing with you tonight. Jesse went on to an academic career, teaching sociology, and having retired recently, she has devoted her energies once more to trans activism, as well as watercolour painting.

Dr Jesse Hooley: Back in 1983, Roberta Perkins published a wonderful ethnography about transsexuals in Kings Cross, it is still a prized possession. I was in my thirties after I read her study in which twelve transsexuals revealed their lives to readers as I’m doing here. Roberta’s book spurred me to meet her at the prostitutes collective where she worked. She was very courageous and made a massive contribution to decriminalization of sex work in NSW. She was an inspiration when existing as transsexual was dangerous, still can be and we were under attacked by everyone. Roberta helped me to transition. 

After transitioning, I resigned from teaching – advised by a psychiatrist that my life would be hell if I continued. I lost years of superannuation, eventually had to sell my house, and buy a small unit. I worked as a cleaner, then I retrained as a social worker, I graduated from USYD with the university medal but discrimination prevented my employment. So, I joined the Transgender Liberation Coalition, the TLC; Tender, Loving, Care in 1992 and I became an activist

The anthropologist Margaret Mead said ‘Don’t believe that a small group of people can’t change the world; it’s the only thing that ever has’. Indeed it was a very tiny movement. A ‘Gang of Four’ formed the core of the TLC; Aidy Griffin – effectively the leader, Norrie, me, and Nadine Stransen who joined in 1994;  Differences over tactics and strategy were few until we later had a falling out.

Aidy and I clicked because we had both read Judith Butler’s queer feminist book Gender Trouble and incorporated her performative theory of gender into our respective writing and activist projects; hers for a column the Star Observer and mine for a PhD I began after multiple job rejections. It’s called Queering Gender Identity.  Later, I recognised problems with Butler’s appropriation of transgender women for her own purposes.

Aidy Griffin was Irish and witty. I recall her reply to Phillip Adams question during his Latenight Live radio show, he introduced her with his gravely voice saying “Tell me about your gender journey”. “Well…” Aidy said “I came here by cab.” We also used wit and irony to turn the tables on psychiatrists. I asked Aidy to join me at the annual Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Psychiatry Conferences held in Sydney 1995 to 1998 – no transsexuals included then for no one had ever represented us there. 

We delighted in presenting papers attacking psychiatry’s constructions of transwomen as pathological, and disordered: we challenged & confounded psychiatrists who endorsed the psychiatric disorder model and I hope we educated psychiatrists about feminist theories of gender. 

The TLC under lady Aidy’s leadership decided to include all trans people under anti-discrimination law irrespective of any medical intervention, and enable everyone to obtain new birth certificates. The latter aim failed due to discourses of biological determinism or essentialism. We must finish the job that Aid and Norrie began so courageously and provide birth certificates to all who self-identify as trans. 

Nadine and I used research that I had done to persuade upper house NSW politicians to support the Anti-discrimination Bill. We argued that transgender people had existed in some form across a range of worldwide cultures for thousands of years.

We approached Alan Corbett of the Christian Better Future for our Children Party to gain his support. He was known for his opposition to corporal punishment of children. I had known him fleetingly at school. He was a tough negotiator but he was a kind man. He sat gazing at both of us and said, ‘Now tell me; why do think Christians should support legislation outlawing discrimination against you?’ We sat frozen in silence. Nadine, who lacked a Christian upbringing, looked at me with alarm. 

However, I drew from my Protestant education and a book by the liberal Archbishop John Spong who claimed that much persecution of homosexuals arose from self-rejecting, fearful closeted homosexuals within the church. Crucially for Spong, it is ‘character’ not sexuality or gender that matters. I had prepared to reply to Alan using Spong’s arguments refuting passages condemning homosexuality in Leviticus as outdated prejudice, and assumptions that homosexuality is a moral choice, that Jesus associated with social outcasts and so on.

Spong, you see, refutes all biblical claims condemning queers. He also claims that Jesus opposes the physical abuse of children – very important to Alan and to us too. We told him about sexual assault rates of 60%, and assault rate too  of trans women and ongoing violence, high levels of unemployment which left few options but sex-work. 

Alan, unlike Fred Nile and others, supported the transgender Bill knowing it could only enhance our lives. And on a piece of paper, I’ve found this quote that I’ve written from years ago. Spong had written this ‘love expands human compassion as it transgresses categories’.  We left Alan’s office and Nadine expressed relief. Now comes the bad part.  

We of the TLC – Norrie especially, were publicly subverting gender norms, shaking up transsexual normativity, by refusing to pass as women in public.  Sometimes called ‘gender fuck’. Looking ambiguous one evening, I was bashed near my neighbourhood. Fearful, deeply traumatized by that – and by also dreadful prior conflict within the trans community, and hurt by multiple sexual rejections, I went into the closet of denial and wore a mask of normalcy. I did stick by my gay friends. I hid though behind university work & disappeared into my artwork – I became solitary.  

Years passed, then while caring for a bereaved friend who underwent a terrible tragedy, and hearing another friends nasty comment about a post operative trans women friend of mine having “mutilated herself” this distressed me deeply. There were a series of things I can’t elaborate, but I had a psychic breakdown. I stopped painting. Painting had been the one safe place, a sublimation. In trauma you evacuate your body, I was frozen, stuck, numb. I was nobody, and bereft of sexual desire. My body and sense of self were estranged, my memory impaired. Suicidal, unmasked, undone by the unconscious, I woke upset from a vivid dream, a bolt from the blue; I was in denial of my transsexual subjectivity. As I dealt with earlier traumas including from an all-boys boarding school, a wonderful therapist and friends, some of whom are here tonight, supported me. 

And then suddenly I made a momentous decision. I saw that my happiness depended on me being recognised as a woman – not expressing playful ‘gender identity’. It wasn’t subversion of gender norms that I wanted or needed and the momentum was unstoppable. I reclaimed the womanly self whom I lost amid the hysteria of the earlier trauma. I re-imagined, reinvented & reembodied myself – by doing yoga, writing a narrative of my existential crisis, and lots of exercise.

My body had remembered,  a rejuvenated, stable, relaxed, womanly self eventually re-emerged. I felt quite comfortable and reassured to be a better version of myself again. Full of joy, I transformed my wardrobe. I read copiously, Freud you name it, I volunteered in the trans community again and spoke at conferences. And I was re-sexualised; I sought boyfriends and enjoyed myself.

At a party, I met Natalie, a friend with whom I taught briefly in sociology at Sydney University a few years back. ‘Hi Natalie I said, how are you?’ We spoke of our work together for half an hour, but she didn’t recognise me – and then she mused about ‘how good and helpful’ Jesse Hooley was, as an academic colleague. ‘But Natalie’, I said, ‘I’m Jesse Hooley!’ 

So, and then I started painting  again, and I’m still doing it. But along the path, three comrades were lost; the stress of living amid prejudice can kill you. Nadine Stransen – vale Nadine. A talented, smiling, witty wonderful advocate who died in 2016, aged only 53. She lived life to the full. Vale too Aidy Griffin, a  canny leader and a strategist who died at only 67 in 2021, whose ideas for NSW law reform were revolutionary. And vale Roberta Perkins who passed away in 2018, whom I owe so much, who looked after me after I was bashed. 

I’ve lived through a historical period that produced a shifting perspective for trans people; our focus is moving from medical to social concerns, from identity to rights issues, limited legal and social reforms are insufficient to achieve material and legal justice.

Systemic inequalities persist; levels of full-time employment for trans people are 30%, only 16 or a survey of 800 report never having experienced discrimination. Public sector provision on Medicare for gender affirming surgeries for those who choose it is absent. And self-identification via statutory declaration needs legislating soon. 

Until Roberta’s towering presence and the TLC emerged in 1991 transexuals or trans people, how we call ourselves now, were generally reluctant to politicise what most saw as a very personal and private issue. Today, I’ve been inspired by the young women advocates, such as Sophie Cotton, Charlie Murphy, Eloise Brook, Jackie Turner, Jamie Bridge, Tilly, Maeve Larkins, April Holkom and others; courageous, intelligent advocates of change and change for bodily autonomy. You are fabulous; the future is yours to make.

Thank you. 

Maeve: Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to check out Queerstories on Patreon where you can support the project for as little as $1 per month. Follow Queerstories on Facebook for news and event updates.

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Queerstories is produced by Maeve Marsden and recorded by wonderful technicians at events around the country. Editors and support crew have included Beth McMullen, Bryce Halliday, Ali Graham and Nikki Stevens.