Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Case Study No. 1849: Katherine Cummings

The Life And Loves Of A Transgender Lesbian Librarian
Award-winning transgender author Katherine Cummings talks about her journey from man to woman and her new book.
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From: Central Coast Express Advocate
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[scene opens with a transgender librarian (long white hair, glasses, blue dress) shelving books]
INTERVIEWER: [in voice over] John Cummings was a married man with three children, when he decided at fifty two to become Katherine.
[cut to the librarian sitting on a couch holding a copy of her book]
ANNOUNCER: [in voice over] Now, over thirty years on, the award winning author is sharing her experiences and shedding light on her transgender journey with the launch of her second book.
[cut to the librarian speaking directly to the camera]
INTERVIEWER: If you're as old as I am, then you grew up in a time when people just had no concept of transgender, and they confused it ... and people still confuse it with, um, homosexuality.
[cut to another shot of the librarian speaking directly to the camera]
KATHERINE: A lotta people say, "Well, what would've happened if you wanted to be a dog? Or wanted to be a seagull?" Something like that ...
[the interviewer laughs from off camera]
KATHERINE: Well, y'know, tough luck. We haven't reached that stage yet, but ... actually changing from my gender role to another is becoming more and more possible.
[cut to another shot of the librarian speaking directly to the camera]
KATHERINE: Gender reassignment isn't what makes a person, uh, a woman or a man as the case may be ... but it makes it easier to live in the gender role.
[cut to another shot of the librarian speaking directly to the camera]
KATHERINE: Um, as for how difficult it was to tell my family, it's probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do.
INTERVIEWER: [from off camera] Yeah?
KATHERINE: I think most transgender people think about suicide ... Sometimes the pressures become so great that all you wanna do is to get away from it all.
INTERVIEWER: [from off camera] Mmm.
KATHERINE: Just to rest, just to have it all over with.
INTERVIEWER: [from off camera] Mm hmm.
KATHERINE: And so yes, I thought about it. More than once.
[cut to another shot of the librarian speaking directly to the camera]
KATHERINE: Many people ask me about my change, and I don't mind that because one of the things I accepted when I transitioned ...
[she pauses]
KATHERINE: I had the option, I could disappear. I could go and be a checkout chick at Woolies or something, and uh, just disappear ... but I had responsibilities, I had a mortgage to keep up for my family, and I had other responsibilities.
[she pauses]
KATHERINE: Professional, and I would have had to give up all my qualifications. So it just didn't seem to be fair, and since I wasn't going to go stealth as we say, it was a good idea for me to use my position and my knowledge and my ... the fact that I'm articulate. Uh, and literate, to try and help other people.
INTERVIEWER: [from off camera] Mmm.
[cut to a painting and photograph of the librarian]
INTERVIEWER: [in voice over] Katherine Cummings will be launching her new book, "The Life And Loves Of A Transgender Lesbian Librarian," at the Red Lime Coffee Shop in Woy Woy on Thursday, August the Twenty First.



Katherine Cummings is not your typical librarian.

The Tascott booklover and sailor is an award-winning author who also spent than half her life as a man.

Ms Cummings, formerly John Cummings, was a father of three daughters before becoming a woman at the age of 52.

Since then she has been an activist for transgender people and written two books on the subject.

She is launching her latest tome, The Life and Loves of a Transgendered Lesbian Librarian, at Woy Woy's Red Lime Cafe this month.

"The book is a collection of poems, lyrics for songs, short stories and essays. While they are not all based on my own personal experiences, they deal with gender problems," said Ms Cummings, who won the Australian Human Rights Award for Nonfiction in 1992 for her first book Katherine's Diary.

Katherine's Diary is an autobiography that grew out of a series of talks Ms Cummings gave for ABC Radio National's Health Report, based on her experiences leading up to her gender reassignment.

"Telling my family was probably the most difficult thing I've ever had to do," recalls Ms Cummings, who said she identified with being a women "from first memory".

"I lived with my wife and family in Greenwich. My wife had known for a long time and basically we had reached a compromise where I dressed up from time to time and she didn't object. But then a time came when it was too much for her," she said.

It was at this point that Ms Cummings considered suicide, but she said it was the thought of her children that made her carry on, and live as a woman.

"I always have regrets, everyone has regrets. But equally I recognise the fact that if I had transitioned when I was a 20 year old I would never have brought into the world my three wonderful daughters and I can't wish them out of existence," she said.

Now Ms Cummings works at Sydney's Gender Centre – an organisation set up in 1983 to help people with gender issues – and edits the centre's quarterly magazine.

"Many people ask me about my change and I don't mind that because it was one of the things that I accepted when I transitioned. It seems only fair I should use my energy to help other people when I know what it was like for me," said Ms Cummings said, who has also authored a report on violence against transgenders.

"Gender reassignment isn't what makes a person a woman or a man, but it makes it easier for that person to live in the gender role. Obviously if you don't have bits of your anatomy intruding on your life then you are much freer to go places and do what you want to do without having to worry about what's going to happen in the changing room."

She hopes her work will help other transgender people.



The Life and Loves of a Transgendered Lesbian Librarian
by Katherine Cummings
Published by Beaujon Press (2014).
I.S.B.N.-13 978 098036535X

When I was invited to review Katherine Cummings' newest collection I was chuffed and anticipated scholarship mixed with well-versed humour and wisdom and I was not disappointed. Katherine is an inspiring author and communicator who gained international prominence with the publication of her autobiography Katherine's Diary, the story of a transsexual which won, in 1992, the Australian Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction.

At that time little was understood of the pressures that routinely challenged transsexual existence and even less of the forces that drove many towards risky surgical procedures. Katherine's Diary and other authentic accounts raised general awareness of what it means, in fact, to exist in the wrong body and, in turn, increased public activism dealing with issues of sexual identity, human justice and similar concerns.

In 21st century Australia much has improved. There now exist well established grassroots organisations that educate and campaign for the rights of all gender-diverse individuals.

The publication of this collection is a timely reminder that there is still a lot to learn about gender identity, its causes, aetiology and expression. To redress common misconceptions, prejudices, and targeted violence, ethically focussed education is critical.

Of overriding importance is the acknowledgment of the truth of all 'real-life' experiences and within this framework Katherine's lifetime experience, retold through cleverly assembled vignettes (essays, book reviews, verses and poems), is central. The book's content is varied and provides the reader with decisive personal viewpoints centred on the paramount issue of gender identity.

A diversity of perspectives of the medical, legal and social treatment of transgendered people and their need for progressive understanding and social amendment is clearly presented.

The book's other strength is that the essays, reviews, verses and poems are written with candour, wit and calculating intelligence. This allows the reader to choose between superficial learning or deeper levels of involvement concerning the broader issues of social justice and fair governance.

Issues of social justice for the transgendered should also be considered in the reality of biological diversity. As a biologist I will indulge myself here by going back to biological basics.

During embryonic and fetal development, males and females take distinctly different paths in forming their typical (and sometimes not so typical) sexual characteristics.

At the most basic level, a transgendered person is one whose gender identity is at conflict with his or her genetic sex and physical appearance. However, ongoing studies on chromosomes, hormones and brain structure/function relationships have not, to date, provided definitive insights into how a person's gender identity is moulded.

What is certain is that human sexual differentiation is a multi-step, sequentially interrelated, process in which genetic information is first translated into the phenotype (the observable characteristics) of a person with subsequent brain-sex determination and establishment of gender identity.

Generally, individual gender identity must be studied in the context of evolutionary history. This is because natural selection has incorporated an adaptive and flexible strategy which relies on cerebral control rather than strictly hormonal commands resulting, in biological terms, in a continuum of alternative phenotypes.

Consequently, it's painfully absurd to classify transsexualism as an abnormality in need of correction. With the aid of new technologies. neuroscientists are replacing 'pathology' with direct observation of brain-sex plasticity which reinforces the natural continuum of physiological overlapping phenotypes and must replace the popular but overly simplified dimorphism (male or female).

Revolutionary thinking such as that gently portrayed in this book may, predictably, create considerable unrest — even violence, as well as understanding. However, with contributions by activists such as Katherine Cummings and others like her, justice will eventually prevail to the betterment of society as a whole.

Piece-by-piece reform is happening thanks to a more educated and concerned public andN.G.O.s, such as the N.S.W. Gender Centre, contribute to much needed social change. The Life and Loves of a Transgendered Lesbian Librarian will spearhead further rectification of the numerous deprivations of basic human rights heaped on transgender and other individuals who happen to be different from the mainstream. I highly recommend Katherine's latest collection of essays, book reviews, poems and short stories.


Katherine Cummings is a writer and transgender activist, currently working at the N.S.W. Gender Centre as Librarian and Information Worker. Her autobiography, Katherine's Diary, based on a two-year series of radio talks she gave on Radio National's "Health Report", won the Australian Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction in 1992. It has since been expanded and updated and was re-issued at the end of 2007.

Katherine edits Polare, the quarterly magazine of the Gender Centre and writes for it. She is currently putting together a collection of her essays, short stories, poems and book reviews to be published in mid-2013 under the title The Life and Loves of a Transgender Woman.

Katherine transitioned in 1986 at the age of fifty-one.

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