The body of transgender activist Nadine Stransen was discovered in her home days after her death. Friends and family wonder whether the official account of what killed her might reflect the discrimination she spent her life fighting. By Tanya Levin.

Fighting for Nadine

Nadine Stransen.
Nadine Stransen.
Credit: Cathie Brooker

At the beginning of last year, Nadine Stransen was found dead.

It is likely we will never know why she died. The coroner’s finding, handed down this month, was that there was no need for an inquest. The cause was deemed by the autopsy to be “unascertained”, and, based on the balance of probabilities, and the meagre evidence before them, the coroner ruled there was no foul play involved. The final finding was death by “chronic alcoholism”.

Some family and community members believe it was murder, however, even if it was not committed by a singular person. Several days before she died, someone unknown published her former name online, along with her address and a map of where she lived. Some suspect she may have been killed by a man she knew, who, according to a statement he made to police, saw Stransen a week before her death, and then with another man discovered her body in her home. He described her lying on the bathroom floor, with her head in a bucket. An elder in the close-knit homeless community said some believed this man had murdered Stransen, and he was shunned by them for months before his own death.

Or maybe it was a different kind of murder: the slow but brutal erosion of life caused by the very discrimination she had worked so hard to end. A deep-seated fear, those closest to her say, was that she would be killed because of her transgender status.

The life and death of this extraordinary and gifted activist and artist has gone almost unreported, and the reasons, more than 20 years after Stransen ensured that anti-discrimination legislation for transgender people was enshrined in New South Wales law, are the same as they were then: those on the margins don’t matter, and they are still too frightened for their voices to be heard.

Born a boy on Sydney’s North Shore, Stransen’s genius stood out from the start. Her intellect and wit outshone anyone in any room. She left others in awe and in fear but laughing at the same time, if she saw fit to warm the room with humour. She could cut you in places you didn’t know you had, and leave you thanking her for cheering you up. I know this because she was my friend. She was brilliant, frustrating, cruel, clever, vicious, loving, selfish and kind. And there will never be anyone on this planet like her again.

Before 1994, there was no legal notion of people who were neither male nor female in NSW. It was with advice from the Transgender Liberation Coalition, formed in 1991 by Aidy Griffin, Norrie, Jill Hooley and Stransen, that NSW politician Clover Moore attempted to pass a private member’s bill correcting this. When asked about Stransen for this article, Moore described her as a “brave and resilient” community campaigner.

“Nadine played a vital role in this campaign, alongside the deputy premier at the time, Andrew Refshauge,” Moore said. “It was shocking to hear of Nadine’s death and a sad indictment of the reality facing many transgender people.”

The bill was picked up in 1996 by Jeff Shaw at the Attorney-General’s Department. Stransen took on the role of ensuring the bill was passed, and without regressive compromise. She had to anticipate, and then counter, every objection put forth by opposition, negotiating with and advising politicians to maintain the integrity of the legal protection her community needed.

Her handiwork is all over the legislation. At that time, the laws covering discrimination against people based on age and race were limited. The anti-vilification and anti-discrimination bill that was passed in 1996 was intricate and thorough. It protected people who were and who were perceived to be transgender, and their friends and families. Stransen is also responsible for transgender people’s option to nominate the prison of their choice, rather than being assigned by the system that was seeing them raped, exploited and murdered.

When Christian Democratic Party leader Fred Nile insisted the definition of transgender be restricted to persons who were postoperative, it was Stransen who raised the support to counter that. 

Foundational to the understanding of gender fluidity was the way in which Stransen laboured intensively to prevent gender having an attachment of irreversibility, as Nile insisted. Rather than biology determining gender, she insisted it was about the ways in which people live.

During the second reading of the legislation, MP Ian Cohen thanked TLC members for their effort for the trans community: “I give special thanks to Nadine Stransen and Aidy Griffin for their support and significant efforts on behalf of their community. Their efforts to set right the human rights and social justice of this country have been significant and are not to be understated.”

Once the bill was passed, Stransen retired from politics.

“The days of institutionalised bigotry and punishing those who do not adhere to so-called gender norms are over,” she told the press. “This has taken five hard years of lobbying, so we are feeling ebullient.”

Her work done, Stransen turned her attention to her next great passion. For the remainder of her life, through her 40s, she spent her time sketching, painting and gushing over art supplies. Most of the people who met her in the Woolloomooloo community where she lived in a Department of Housing flat knew her as an artist or friend, and little of her as a razor-sharp force of change.

But as genius is sometimes wont to do, it scattered the confetti of madness through her later life. Many times when her friends presumed she was socialising elsewhere, she may have been hiding with a bipolar diagnosis she found difficult to address. Isolating herself prompted her interstate family to send police to check on her, and friends to drop by. But she would always present in high spirits and become furious if it were suggested she were otherwise.

That her mental health deteriorated is without question. She opened her home in her last years to what she called “the universe”. Homeless people drank with her and trashed her apartment. Worried friends would throw them out, knowing they would soon return.

And then, last February, she was found dead in her home. Within two hours, the death was deemed non-suspicious. The attending police officers’ statements, most written nine months after her death, all conclude with the view that Stransen died from “chronic alcoholism”.

Her autopsy report begins:

“On 4 February 2016 this 52-year-old man was found in a moderately advanced state of decomposition, lying on the floor; a cabinet had fallen over inside the toilet. According to the deceased’s neighbours, he suffered from chronic alcoholism and AIDS, and took Rohypnol as a sedative.”

The coroner found three weeks ago, on the basis of the autopsy report, which was premised on what the neighbours said, and, stemming from what police had relayed, that she died of “chronic alcoholism”.

The autopsy report states that “chronic alcoholism could not be entirely excluded” and also that: “There was no obvious evidence of other pathological condition that may explain the sudden death; there was no obvious evidence of recent trauma that may explain the sudden death.”

The police met with the Department of Housing and promised Stransen’s family her personal effects and her precious paintings. By then, nearly everything she owned had disappeared. About seven paintings were returned to her relatives.

On the night her body was discovered, the officer who interviewed the man ostracised by the homeless had formed the opinion that he was a “sincere” person, if intoxicated, “with a poor grasp of English”. Rather than accessing an interpreter, the police fulfilled his request for new shoes and clothes and released him.

It is inconceivable that no one knew of her death until a week later. Members of the homeless community report being initially turned away by police when they attempted to make statements. They won’t be talking again any time soon. Living on the fringes, why would they?

Sections of the transgender community hold serious concerns regarding what happened to someone they call their Emmeline Pankhurst. They, too, will stay silent for fear of their personal and physical safety. I was given several accounts of ongoing police harassment, being held in cells without charge, being stripped and searched and mocked when in custody. A life of disadvantage teaches individuals and communities early what happens to those who blow whistles.

Perhaps if the institutionalised bigotry she fought so hard against had altered, she would still be alive: if her intellect had been welcomed, rather than left facing an often insurmountable unemployment rate; if her mental health needs were treated by a health system that understood her because of the laws she helped create; if she weren’t afraid of doctors’ opinions on her gender, rather than of her health; if she’d been able to get the protection from the law, rather than face the repeated dismissal of her fears.

As it stands, family and friends of Nadine Stransen wonder if they face the very discrimination and transphobia, now, in her death, that she encountered every day. Despite doing everything in her power to make it illegal to treat her, or anyone living outside gender norms, and those they cared about, the way she had been treated, it simply wasn’t enough.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2017 as "Fighting for Nadine".

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