Gender identity is, for most people, not something they often think about – it’s a certainty that you are born with and one that is constantly affirmed by your biology and the world around you. You grow up playing with certain toys of certain colors, and childhood games that mimic the adult world fall into familiar patterns of sex and gender roles; the father, the breadwinner, the mother, the housekeeper. Society is typically divided along a gendered dichotomy, a limited binary that for most people is natural, certain, familiar.
Sally Goldner never found this certainty until she was much older; she was born and raised as a male in a liberal Jewish family in inner city Melbourne. “There was always something wrong…a missing piece of the jigsaw,” she says. Ironically, Goldner attended Brighton Grammar, a prestigious all-boys school where where she first became acutely aware of how she did not conform to gender expectations, and the repercussions thereof.
“When I was in years seven and eight, I was verbally and psychologically bullied by the entire class for being ‘too sensitive’. I thought there must be something wrong with me, not knowing that the femininity they were referring to by ‘too sensitive’ was a large part of who I was.”
I meet Goldner in the meeting room of the Federation of Legal Centers, where she works as an accountant. She has a charismatic air about her and is disarmingly honest when it comes sharing the intricacies of her personal and political life.
At one point in the interview, I ask Goldner how she identifies. She stops mid-sentence, smiles slightly and says very slowly, “I am a person, who is a bisexual, polyamorous, introverted, highly sensitive and a non-operative transwoman…among other things.”
The complexity of this identity makes sense in context; Goldner has had to reconstruct her entire life from marginalized identities after rejecting the role society and biology had dictated for her. She came out as transgender at the age of 29 and began transitioning from male to female.
“Up until 29, when I came out, I had no vision. I was living everyone else’s life… I was trying to be a masculine, male, heterosexual corporate accountant and football fan. I’d never really thought things through for myself. ”
She describes this as a “turning point” in her life, not just in regards to gender identity, but as a complete shift away from the life she had previously lived. “Everything changed,” she says, “I was on autopilot for a long time…there was no soul there.”
Her transition from male to female not only denoted a physical transition for her, but a spiritual and emotional one as well.
“The best way I can describe working from your soul is walking the tightrope between feeling absolutely calm and absolutely energised and I never had that. I can’t think of a time I felt that before 29.”
This “tightrope” between calm and energetic seems to easily characterise Goldner’s manner. She talks slowly and carefully and enunciates every word, but there is a perceptible undercurrent of fervent passion. This is fitting, it seems, of someone who has dedicated their life to fighting discrimination and ignorance – well beyond the mantle of transgenderism.
For the last 15 years, Goldner has been advocating for the basic human rights of transgender people in Victoria in her role as founder and co-convener of TransGender Victoria. This organisation was established as an advocacy group and community advisor in 1998 to address discrimination faced by transgendered and gender-diverse people in Victoria.
According to Goldner, before the introduction by the Victorian Parliament of the Equal Opportunity Reform in 2000, the majority of individuals wishing to affirm their identity in the workplace were “fired on the spot” because there was no legal protection from discrimination.
Indeed, Goldner describes instances where workers who came out as transgender were sexually or violently assaulted within their workplace. There was very little legal recourse for these events because there was no protection under the law; due to the stigma surrounding the issue police were often reluctant to get involved.
TransGender Victoria, and Goldner in her role as co-convener, were instrumental to the 2000 amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act (1995), which added “Gender Identity” and “Sexual orientation” to the criteria for legal protection from discrimination. This was the first piece of legislation that offered protection from discrimination for transgender and other gender diverse individuals when accessing employment, education and other opportunities.
In 2005, TransGender Victoria influenced documentation reform, allowing post-operative individuals to obtain gender recognition certificates. Although this was a significant development in regards to gender recognition for transgender individuals, the necessity of surgery for recognition of identity remains highly problematic and narrow. As Goldner points out, gender reassignment surgery is at best imperfect, while also being expensive and potentially dangerous. And many transgendered people, like Goldner, choose to be non-operative.
“I genuinely believe I’m female, regardless of whether I’ve had surgery or not; I believe it’s logical and appropriate to have a female birth certificate – not have to go and have a surgery that I don’t want, don’t need or can’t afford to have an F on that birth certificate.”
Kayleen White was Goldner’s co-convener of Transgender Victoria at the time the Equal Opportunity (Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation) Act 2000 was introduced. “Sally was better than I [sic] at doing the radio interviews with shock jocks,” she remarks of the period. “After the EO Act reform, I was exhausted and had to retire from activism for several years, but Sally was able to continue and to establish a well-respected position in a number of communities.”
Blair Archibold is Goldner’s co-host on her weekly radio show, Out of the Pan, on 3CR which “focuses on pansexual issues and includes transgender and bisexual issues” (pansexual meaning ‘knowing no boundaries of sex or gender’). Archibold, a self-described “transguy” is studying counseling at university. He first heard of Goldner’s activism work when he was involved in the WA Gender Project and asked to talk on her show about a court case involving gender recognition certificates.
Archibold is now a permanent fixture on the show, and finds it “refreshing to be able to discuss issues that are not often given much, if any, attention in mainstream media.”
Goldner’s CV is an enviable one – as well as her continued work with TransgenderVictoria, she does advocacy and accounting work for the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby and the Bisexual Alliance (Victoria). She is also a Project Support Worker for Southern Health Gender Centre. She is well known for her commitment and endurance; as Archibold puts it, “We never really know just how much our words and actions help others.”
Goldner’s continued battles include gender recognition certificates for “affirmed gender” – so that non-operative transgendered people can be recognized for their gender on their identifying documentation – and working to establish a physical building for the Zoe Belle Gender Centre, which currently only has the capacity to do its vital work supporting the “health and wellbeing of Victoria’s sex and gender diverse population” online.
Goldner is an activist whose political influence extends far outside the professional sphere; her musical and artistic performance interests have seen her act as a stand-up comedian, the first ever male-to-female transgender drag king, as well as a spoken word-artist focusing on her love of wrestling.
I ask her how she deals with potential audience ignorance about transgenderism. “I usually open with a joke,” she says.
“‘Hey, what a huge entrance’ said the gender surgeon to the transsexual.”
Sally Goldner runs a weekly radio show on 3CR called Out of the Pan.