Clare Headland


The joy and bliss of being your real self: raising awareness of transgender health

Palliative Care Unit PSA Clare Headland is filled with "the joy and the happiness and the bliss of being my real self. I feel like I'm 28 again!" It's something that she exudes and spreads to others, especially patients.

"Patients love me because I'm kind and gentle and loving. I work with a beautiful bunch of nurses, but they haven't got time to do things like sing to a patient. It's just heaven!," Clare says of her job.

It hasn't always been like this for Clare. For 64 years she lived with depression and anxiety and battled thoughts of suicide.

For those 64 years she was living as Tony, trying to convince herself as much as the rest of the world that she was male.

"I thought I was a fake male, and I was pretending all the time. The fear of being found out as a weakling was horrific," she says.

Standing out in society as a transgender woman isn't easy though either. Clare has been severely bashed twice on train stations, once at Ivanhoe station for asking a man to stop frightening some mums with young babies in prams, and once at Flinders Street station - for no reason at all, other than for how she looks.

If you have lived all your life as cisgender - that is, if your gender identity aligns with your biological sex - than it is difficult to understand what it must be like to be transgender.

It is telling to the pain that many transgender people carry when Clare says, "if I were given the choice to dress like this and be beaten once a week, or to go back to dressing like a man, I'd continue to dress like this. The bliss is unbelievable."

"Transgender people in public are aware that if we express ourselves as we need to, we're very visible. I travel on public transport and I'm aware that people are angry at me. It feels like I'm walking around with a giant target on the front of me and the back of me."

It is Transgender Awareness Week, which ends on Tuesday 20 November with the Transgender Day of Remembrance - a day to remember people murdered because of transphobia, and to draw attention to the continued violence experienced by transgender people.

Clare says that she is happy to be the go-to person for transgender awareness and education at Austin Health. She says that staff have been like a family to her, offering incredible support, friendship and kindness through the time when she was transitioning from male to female - and ever since.

"I was working as a PSA in Theatres and ICU at the time, and I asked my supervisor if it would be okay to come to the staff Christmas party dressed as a woman. He said, ‘dress however you want'," Clare says.

"The kindness that I've been shown here has been just extraordinary. My team now on 8 South are like my close family, and everyone at Austin Health is like extended family," she says. "Somehow I've made 8,000 friends."

Clare now participates in education sessions for clinical staff about what it's like to be transgender on top of her usual role.

She makes a point when she says that "one per cent of Australians are transgender, which is roughly the same number as have red hair. Every time I'm out and I see a red head, I think: there must be someone who's transgender here too."

Another way to think about it is that if Austin Health has nearly 9000 staff, then roughly 90 are transgender.
Similarly, of the 114,940 inpatient admissions last financial year, statistics would suggest that 1149 were transgender. And around 876 of the 87,556 attendances to our Emergency Departments would have been from people who were transgender.

People who are transgender have worse health than those who are cisgender. For a start, there's the impact on people's mental health.

"The suicide rate for transgender people four times higher than the average," says Clare. "The shame is killing people."

She also says that "a huge number of transgender people avoid medical people and hospitals because they're so afraid of being mistreated."

That leads to transgender people being diagnosed later, and receiving less treatment than other people when they are sick.

So how should we treat patients who are transgender?


Clare's advice:
  • Accept that being transgender is not a depravity or a sexual thing - transgender people are those whose body doesn't match their internal sense of self
  • Use people's preferred names and preferred pronouns (i.e. he, she or they). If you're not sure what these are, ask.
  • Offer transgender people the same discretion and courtesy you would anybody else.
  • Be sensitive to whether or not a transgender person is willing to talk about it. "Just ask: Are there any special things you would like us to do or address, and what would you like to be called?," Clare says.