In July 2007, Stefanie Imbruglia, a 42-year-old transsexual woman, and cousin of singer Natalie Imbruglia, applied to the Australian Passport Office to get a female passport so she could travel to Thailand for Sex Re-alignment Surgery. While she was registered as male at birth she had been living as a female for two years. She was told by the passport officer at the counter that she would only be allowed to travel on a male passport even though she had letters from medical specialists confirming she had been undergoing treatment for sex and gender dysphoria. The officer insisted on calling her ‘sir’ despite the fact that she was wearing a skirt and jacket and presented as female.
Over the past 20 years the Australian government had issued a one-year limited passport for people registered male at birth but living as transsexual females, who were going abroad for gender re-assignment surgery. In 2007, under the Howard government, the Minster of Trade and Foreign Affairs rescinded that right secretly without any consultation with any specialists in the field, service providers or any members of the sex and gender diverse community. The change placed transsexual women in grave danger, meaning they would have to travel abroad on male passports, leaving them vulnerable to searches, intimidation, arrest, violence and embarrassment.
“They picked on the wrong girl,” says Imbruglia with a smile. “For my friends in the past, getting their female passport had been like a rite of passage for them, and I was being denied this. I thought ‘this has to be fixed’.” Stefanie was forced to travel to Thailand on a male passport, but when she returned to Australia, after surgery, she got in touch with Tracie O’Keefe from Sex And Gender Education to mount a case to have the law changed.
Imbruglia was eventually given a complete unreserved written apology for the way she was treated. DFAT also restored the right for people going abroad for sex realignment surgery to be given a passport in their appropriate sex. Because of Imbruglia’s case, DFAT now recognise that some gender diverse people may not be in a position to have surgery, but they should be able to live life as their preferred sex - upon presentation of a letter from a medical professional these individuals can get a permanent passport in their needed sex and/gender. Training materials for DFAT’s staff have also been updated so that they are in a better position to understand the needs of sex and gender diverse people.
Imbruglia feels positive about the future. “I feel that life is what you make it. You set your goals and go for it and if you do it the right way, good things can happen. Things are really improving for transgender people both here, and I would suggest worldwide. People are becoming more accepting and understanding that this is not a choice. You don’t do what I’ve done unless you really are the sex that you say you are.
After a long period of denial, Imbruglia says that September 11 put a lot of things into perspective for her, and it gave her the courage to begin her transition from male to female. “By being the genuine me, I am happier than I have ever been. Prior, I couldn't make a friend for trying. Now, as Stefanie, I have so many, many friends. I feel mostly that is because my happiness now radiates out. I feel so grateful that I have been ‘allowed’ to be myself. Society is opening up, and awards like this give others ‘permission to be themselves’ too. I really hope that my story inspires other people to do just that.”
As for Stefanie's sexuality, she describes it as 'complicated'. "Transsexuality has to do with one's physical sex and one's gender - a person's sexuality is separate to this," she says. "I'm looking to be in a loving relationship with a straight man, yet I adore being with other women as well. Thus, I'm bi-sexual - I first came out as bi, then afterwards, I came out as the woman I have always been inside."
The Same Same 25 is an annual celebration of the 25 Most Influential Gay and Lesbian Australians. They are publicly nominated, and chosen by a panel of community leaders.
For the past two years, the announcement of the 25 Most Influential Gay and Lesbian Australians has attracted widespread national media attention and focused on the achievements and influence of a varied and inspirational group of people.