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The extraordinary joy of being considered ordinary

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Two Adelaide scientists – both from very different backgrounds – share a bond and a desire to speak out about who they are and how they got there. They tell their story to Simon Royal.

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Jason Hunter grew up alone in a large family: a brother, three sisters, his mother and father, as well as a ripple of other relatives spread out across the small New South Wales town where they lived.

All of these people, related by blood, and yet none of them could tell Jason who he was. So he turned to Google for answers.

“I think Google was invented when I was about nine years old,” Jason said. “When I started on it a few years later, I found a surgeon in America who did transgender surgeries. I realised I was transgender as soon as I found out what transgender was. I was about 11 or 12 at the time, but I knew then what I was and what I’d work towards.”

Like all of us, the who and what Jason worked towards is an unfinished project. But getting to where he is now – a 30-year-old transgender man living and studying in Adelaide – has been a trip of contradictions. Far more work than he expected, while at the same time, much easier than the kid surfing the internet ever imagined.

To be fair though, Jason Hunter’s life story has a few elements that would test most imaginations – gay, straight, and everything else. Some parts of it still surprise Jason’s 22-year-old friend and colleague, Lewis McFarlane.

The pair met a few years ago when Lewis won a scholarship through the Pinnacle Foundation, a charitable organisation that supports young LGBTQ people in their studies. Along with the cash comes a mentor, someone who shares a similar personal and professional background to the scholar. Jason is Lewis’s mentor.

Lewis McFarlane and Jason Hunter. Photo: Simon Royal

Lewis, too, is a transgender man. Together, Jason Hunter and Lewis McFarlane sat down with InDaily to talk about their lives. They chose a science lab at the University of Adelaide as the setting because, like their gender identity, it helps reveal who they are.

Jason’s family is part of Hillsong Church in New South Wales. Their involvement with the organisation wasn’t just a neat 90 minutes on Sunday mornings. The family’s lives are tightly interwoven with the place. His parents met through the church.

“If you listen to my aunts, my father’s sisters that is, they reckon my parents had an arranged marriage,” Jason said, shrugging his shoulders as though uncertain of its truth. Maybe the anecdote is untrue, maybe it’s not. But its very plausibility underscores the outlier nature of Jason’s early life. His mother insisted on homeschooling Jason and the rest of his siblings, further ensuring his sense of isolation from the world.

There was, however, a saving grace: books, swathes of them stacked in an uncurated jumble on wooden shelves in the family home. “Next to the books on Creationism and other religious texts, there were science books, books on physics,” Jason said.

“My mother had a Master’s degree, so she liked books. I don’t know whether my parents gave much thought as to whether the existence of black holes is compatible with theology as they see it, but anyway, I was grateful the books were there,” he said, smiling at the irony.

Those books were not only Jason’s first refuge, they awakened an abiding interest in science. Still, while Jason’s reading offered some escape, it lacked the strength to block out what he was hearing.

“We had this sermon once that homosexuals were taking over society and were coming after our kids… that was a good indicator,” he said. “Then one day at home, I remember we were watching a reality TV show – Better Homes and Gardens, or something like that – there was a transgender woman on it. My father just instantly switched the channel. He ranted for half an hour. I won’t repeat what he said, but it showed me that I couldn’t tell people … be who I was, where I was.”

It’s no great surprise that Jason Hunter’s home life ended with a crisis. At that time, when things finally blew up, the NSW authorities intervened and he was placed in a youth refuge.

“It was the most intelligent thing that had happened to me, at that point,” Jason recalls. “I was running away from home so often. I know in Australia that the child welfare system is underfunded, and yes, there are a lot of gaps – but it was just incredible getting all these people who just supported you, who didn’t care if you were a bit masculine for a girl, who did care if you went to uni or not, who just wanted you to stay out of trouble and succeed.”

As Jason talked about his childhood, Lewis sat, listening. At times he’d gently shake his head in disbelief, other times nodding in agreement. Then it was Lewis’s turn to talk about his family. Was it anything like Jason’s, perhaps? The question had Lewis throwing his head back, bursting out in laughter.

“Umm, no … not at all, really”, he said, with a large serve of understatement.

“Both of my parents are queer. My dad is gay, my mum is a lesbian. They had a mutual friend who knew that they both wanted to have a kid, so they met and they spent about two years getting to know each other, working out if they could parent together … and now I’m here!”

Lewis’s parents never lived together, so he grew up between two households. At primary school, he was sometimes asked the question: “If your parents are gay, does that mean you will be gay?”

In high school, Lewis says the makeup of his family didn’t register as an issue, for either students or staff.

“I’ve never felt that I missed out on anything,” Lewis said. “I think I was luckier than most kids. I have never had to doubt that I was wanted or loved, because my parents had to go through so much to have me. And there’s also that it takes a whole community to raise a child. I definitely had that with their friends and partners.”

Love and understanding – Lewis had them in abundance. He was, naturally, nervous about coming out to his parents as transgender. It is a big deal no matter what the circumstances, but Lewis reasoned his family, surely, was founded on an acceptance of difference. The announcement didn’t quite go as anticipated, at least to start with.

“I’d say mum was blindsided a little – she wasn’t expecting it,” Lewis said. “She definitely had the initial, ‘have we done something that’s caused this’, sort of reaction. At first, dad was worried that it [being trans] would mean I wouldn’t be successful in life. I think he felt that maybe I was saying this to simply fit into the family, and he wanted me to go through counselling to be sure that this is what I wanted at each step of the way.”

There’s an odd comfort in knowing a gay man and a lesbian woman needed some time to come to terms with having a transgender child. As Lewis explains, regardless of sexuality, everyone harbours dreams for their children, which, sometimes, crash up against the rocks of reality.

“It’s an understandable fear about the rest of the world and how they might treat your child. They had just wanted to wrap me up and protect me from that,” he said.

“I think for them, like anyone else, it was a learning experience. I think people are more educated and accepting of different sexualities now, but I think gender is still something that is less known about, and people have this initial fear that this person is going to change, they are going to be different. But then they realise you are exactly the same person, just happier and more comfortable in yourself.”

Photo: Simon Royal

Which is exactly the same spot Lewis says his parents find themselves in these days – comfortable, happy, and supportive. Their early concerns for their child’s welfare, though, were well founded.

Australia is unquestionably a more accepting place of LGBTQ people than it was in the past . But it’s not always a safe place because, for some, acceptance comes with conditions.

For trans people who don’t pass, especially trans women, the world is still such a dangerous and scary place

Transgender people remain targets of high levels of discrimination and outright violence. At the same time, both Lewis and Jason feel often the only story told about trans people is an exercise in misery porn – a widespread belief that their lives are an unrelenting tale of despair and heartache. Against that backdrop, Lewis McFarlane’s high school days must qualify as tales of the unexpected.

“Despite the assumption that the world will be hard for a trans person, I actually haven’t encountered any transphobia,” Lewis said. “I transitioned in a Catholic all girls school, and even then I had no issues. I had an amazingly supportive principal, and amazing teachers, and none of the students seem to have cared.”

Like Lewis’s schooling, Jason’s life post-Hillsong hasn’t conformed to script, either.

“When I left home I discovered the world was incredibly welcoming and beautiful and kind. What we think the world is is based on our reference from how we grew up – it doesn’t have to be like that.”

Sitting in the laboratory where Lewis is doing research for his PhD, the pair blend seamlessly into what is still largely a male-dominated field. Underneath the standard white lab coats, there’s not the slightest hint of anything startling. They favour sensible clothes and sneakers: more workhorse than show pony. If nerdy plastic pocket protectors were still a thing, Jason and Lewis would probably use them. In short, they are everyone’s standard template of what a couple of scientists should look like.

Photo: Simon Royal

Appearances matter deeply. They’ve been key to the positive reactions the pair have experienced from others. But the notion of ‘passing’ – that is looking how a man, or woman, or scientist for that matter, is generally thought to look  – is contentious for some trans people.

“We pass, and 100 per cent, no doubt, that makes our lives easier,” Jason said.

Neither has a problem acknowledging the fact, or talking about the difference it’s made to them. For Lewis, the first inkling new acquaintances might get of him being a transgender man often follows that quintessential Adelaide question: “And where did you go to school?”

“I watch them get very confused, everyone knows it’s an all-girls school,” Lewis said.  “You can see the gears kind of turning as I tell them and then it’s like… aaaah!”

“You do get a passing privilege that is very weird and uncomfortable a lot of the time, because it is not something that you necessarily ask for, but in a real way it is also something that keeps you safe. For trans people who don’t pass, especially trans women, the world is still such a dangerous and scary place.”

For a while, after Jason left home, his science books were set aside. The rent wouldn’t pay itself. Jason had to pour a lot of coffee and flip a heap of burgers to make a living. But the books, with all their beautiful precision and clarity, were never forgotten. When he could afford it, Jason went back to uni. Now he’s just a few months away from completing his PhD in hydrology, the study of the distribution and management of water.

“I do computer models of how much water is in our rivers and how that informs our decisions about water allocations, weather reports, and so on,” he said.

Photo: Simon Royal

Lewis is at the other end of his doctorate, just six months into a years-long slog. He’s researching snake venom, with the aim of better understanding its various components. Lewis hopes it will lead to better antivenoms, along with other potential pharmacological uses. It is, he concedes, an unusual choice for someone who’s not a fan of snakes.

“Thank God I don’t have to handle them, they terrify me! ”Lewis said. “Fortunately there’s a supplier who just sends us the venom, without me having to deal with any actual snake.”

Having earned the respect of their university peers and supervisors, it would be easy for Jason and Lewis to just keep on passing quietly. But, they argue, both science, and other transgender people, would be poorer for it.

“I would just hope that us speaking out would give kids in high school, or at the start of uni, a sense that they can find a place in this field even if they can’t see themselves in it yet. They certainly won’t be able to see themselves in it until some of us step out and show them,” Lewis said.

“The other point is that as a community of researchers we need to be accepting all kinds of people into our fields. The more diversity of life experience you have, the more diversity of ideas you get. Given our work is based on ideas, it can only be beneficial.”

Jason smiled in agreement, and then added his variation on the theme.

“I hope people read about our lives and say, ‘well, they are kind of ordinary, aren’t they?’ You have no idea how nice it is, as a trans man, to think of yourself, and be thought of by others, as ordinary.”

Simon Royal is an Adelaide journalist and volunteer with the Pinnacle Foundation.

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