Portrait

A visit to the home of author, actor and founder of transgender support network Transcend, Rebekah Robertson. By Romy Ash.

Trans rights activist Rebekah Robertson

Rebekah Robertson’s cat taps at the screen door. Robertson lets her in. When she sits back down her cat jumps up and curls like a sweet prawn beside her. The cat purrs loudly as Robertson absentmindedly pats its head. Robertson tells me a story about when she was a little girl. She grew up in Hobart in a large, rambling Victorian house. A house that came with cats – four mousers, outside cats. The four cats turned into 28 in the way cats left to their own yowling devices can. All those kittens. She loved them all. It was her job to feed them and every morning she’d put on jeans or overalls, something with thick fabric, and walk out into the grounds. The cats would see her coming and run to her, climbing up her pants and up over her shoulders, until she was covered in purring cats and kittens. At their large metal dish, she’d feed them and they’d drop off her, to eat. With both of her hands, Robertson motions a whole exodus of past cats from her body. What a powerful image, I tell her: a girl just crawling with cats.

She seems powerful still, to me. When she speaks about her girl, Georgie, and their fight to get trans children timely access to appropriate treatment, I can see the force and fury that drove her for the six years the Family Court played an active role in her family’s life. When Robertson speaks about it, she sits forward, cup of tea clasped in her hands.

Her daughter, Georgie Stone, was assigned male at birth, but from a very young age asserted her true identity, that of a girl. In About a Girl, Robertson writes about her journey as a mother who was thrown into the unknown. A situation that required her to fight fiercely for the rights of her child. At the time, in Australia there were only two doctors working in the field, says Robertson – a psychologist and an endocrinologist. The Royal Children’s Hospital’s gender clinic didn’t yet exist. Georgie, at seven years old, was the youngest and only the third child to present to them. Access to life-saving treatment – stage 1, puberty blockers; and stage 2, cross-sex hormones – required approval by the Family Court. Australia was the only place in the world that required families to prove their eligibility for treatment in a court of law. It was only in 2017 the law was amended. In 2013, it was Re: Jamie, Georgie Stone’s case, that began the long road to justice for trans kids, in her family’s landmark appeal, before the full bench of the Family Court of Australia.

“It was a growing realisation, as Georgie approached puberty, that this was something we were going to have to stare down. From the very beginning of our journey, when we started at the RCH in 2007, we were assured that by the time it got to Georgie, the law would be revised, but as the time approached, we realised it wasn’t going to happen. We needed pro bono lawyers because we certainly couldn’t have afforded the $25,000 to $30,000 it was going to take to get this treatment, to go through the court process. Georgie went into this very advanced stage of puberty so quickly, and it was terrifying. The human body operates at a much more rapid pace than the Family Court of Australia and this once-in-a-lifetime chance, for Georgie to be able to live her life comfortably, was dependent on a court list.

“I’ve tried to describe it in the book – that sense of needing to go over and over and over and over our family story – for Georgie to continue to explain herself again and again and again. To strangers, to different psychs. The amount of oversight in our lives was extreme. So, I think when I hear people fanning the flames of doubt and fear about the amount of scrutiny that families like ours go through in order to access treatment for our young people, they seriously don’t know what they’re talking about. We had two psychiatrists, we had an endocrinologist, we had a court writer, we had years of therapy before that moment. All the evidence pointed to this being in Georgie’s best interests, but instead the court was full of people who had never met her, were never going to meet her and who were the ones who were making a decision about her body on her behalf. And the anger that I felt about that was visceral. It was visceral. And it didn’t leave me for years.”

Robertson describes writing the section of her memoir that deals with this part of their story. She wrote it in bed, surrounded by towering boxes of court documents. She describes writing and weeping and showing her two kids the manuscript and them all weeping together.

“It seemed to me incredibly Dickensian, this experience we were having, because it seemed to be the very essence of a seat of power saying that they were there to protect the child, but everything that they did, did the opposite. Everything that happened was the opposite of that.”

Robertson said she couldn’t rest until the law was changed. That when she found out it had, when the decision in Re: Kelvin was delivered, it felt like the air was sucked out of her lungs, the weight lifted off her shoulders. “It was gargantuan,” she says. “I’m just glad that it’s not a factor in families’ lives anymore and I do know there are families turning up to the hospital now who never knew it was an issue.”

Robertson smiles, resting back into the couch. She doesn’t look tired, though she says she is – she looks strong, able to carry any weight, even if it crawls and claws at her. “I get nice messages sometimes, from parents saying, ‘Thanks, it was really easy today.’ ” Unlike the Robertson family who had to fight for treatment, now families can access the treatment they need, when they need it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 21, 2019 as "Gender mercies". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.