OUTcast S3, Ep 3 • 8 April 2023 • 27:30
Rosie 00:00:07 Welcome to OUTcast, the podcast where we hear coming out stories from famous faces and brilliant LGBTQ+ people working hard behind the scenes from all backgrounds and from all corners of the globe. On this podcast, we discover life stories, and in doing so, we dissect some of the most pressing issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community. Today we hope we can support and inspire you, our listeners, whether you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community out or not, or an ally listening to learn more. I’m Rosie Pentreath, your host, and I’ve shared my coming out story in writing and on various panels, and I know firsthand the value of talking through my experiences. Now, I’m giving people from all corners of life and from all backgrounds the same opportunity. You may have listened to other episodes before, and if you have, thank you for coming back, or you may be here for the first time because of our guest welcome. You can follow us on social media at @OUTcastLGBT, and you can find us online at outcastpod.com. Thank you for listening,
Rosie 00:01:28 Today, we’re welcoming Monica Mulholland to the show. Monica was elected president of the Rotary Club of Queenstown in 2016, only months after she had come out as trans. She was the second trans person in the world to ever serve as a president of a rotary club. Raised in Ireland in the 1960s, Monica lived all over the world before living in New Zealand. She was in her fifties when she came out, unable to hide her true self any longer.
At one point, Monica describes exploring her identity through dressing up in women’s clothes as a hobby; a hobby for nearly 50 years until she and her wife were ready to set a date to come out. She also said she would’ve been taken to receive an exorcism from a local priest had she come out as trans, her Irish Catholic parents in the 1960s. She says these things casually in the flow of her story, but when you take them in isolation and think about them, they’re so profoundly dark and so profoundly sad. No member of her family has spoken to her since she came out as trans seven years ago. Listening to Monica’s story was a unique insight into what it’s like being transgender in a completely different generation and a completely different society from today. The story shows a positivity and a resilience that’s inspiring for all trans people, all queer people, and all people all over the world.
Rosie 00:02:52 Hi, Monica over in New Zealand, welcome to the podcast! It’s so fantastic to have you on to share your story.
Monica 00:02:59 Thank you, Rosie. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Rosie 00:03:02 First of all, could you introduce yourself?
Monica 00:03:04 My name is Monica P. Mulholland. It’s not always been my name. That’s what it is now. I was born in a small town in Ireland called Fermoy, and I grew up in a very Catholic conservative family and town. When I was born, they looked between my legs and said, it’s a boy, and they were wrong. And so it took me over 50 years to actually come out and, you know, become myself. One of the really important things about my life is that when I was 19, I met my wife. I jokingly called her my former mistress, my ex mistress, when I introduce her. That always gets some good laughs! When she was 17, I was 19, we started going out together. And early on in the relationship, I don’t know what actually prompted me to do this other than I felt it would be wrong if she were to continue in the relationship with me.
Monica 00:04:21 I told her, you know, that I was transgender or, not that we had the words back then because, you know, being good old Catholic Ireland, you know, 50 years ago, you know, the words, the concepts, weren’t there. So I tried to explain as much as I could to her and that was, I suppose that was a bit of a risk for me. But I knew I trusted her because, you know, we come from the same town. Our parents know each other. My best friend is her first cousin. She knows all my sisters and you know, her sisters and my sisters were in the same class in school. And so if it got out, you know, at that stage, you know, my life would’ve been shit, it really would’ve been.
Rosie 00:05:01 There’s so much to talk about there, just in that introduction, but I want to roll back a little bit. You mentioned coming out properly when you were in your fifties, which I really want to talk about a bit later on, but let’s rewind a bit. Do you remember the sort of moment or perhaps moments and sort of the time in your life where it was dawning on you, this sort of secret that you told your girlfriend? Then
Monica 00:05:23 I knew about five or six that I was wrong, that there was something wrong with me and I was really probably in the, in the wrong body. I’m the oldest and there’s six girls straight after me, so I wonder how that might have affected my life. I remember at school, I don’t remember the incidents, but I remember the nuns telling my mother that when people would gang up on me or when hit me in the school yard, I would not retaliate. I just had no concept of, you know, fighting back and this kind of thing. And later on when I was about seven or eight, they sent me, well, maybe nine I suppose, they sent me to boxing to make a man of me, you know, and that was a disaster. I went, you know, two or three times to the boxing gym and in some sparring competition, some guy hit me in the nose and I ended up crying and I ran home and I never went back. So.
Rosie 00:06:21 Hmm, it sounds really difficult. It sounds like your childhood was, you know, impossibly difficult. Were there any moments of joy, any kind of lightness coming through during that time?
Monica 00:06:31 You know, it didn’t, it didn’t dwell on me. This was pre-puberty, so, you know, I didn’t really know what was happening anyway. I do know because my mother told me that she caught me, you know, dressing in her clothes and things like that. She did catch me once, I don’t remember when she caught me, but she never caught me again and I was doing it forever. So those were moments of joy. I really enjoyed that.
Rosie 00:06:59 Yeah.
Monica 00:07:00 If I’d come out then to my parents, well, firstly, I would’ve been taken to the priest to be exorcised, probably, and then I would’ve been put in some kind of a home for bewildered children or something, because, you know, back in the 1960s in Ireland, Catholic, Ireland, you know, that just wasn’t a feature. We didn’t have… we didn’t have divorce, we didn’t have abortion, you know, put none of those things, so.
Rosie 00:07:28 Mmm. You wrote in Mindfood that people sometimes ask when you decided to become a woman, and of course your repliers. No, I was always a woman…
Monica 00:07:37 I was always a woman!
Rosie 00:07:39 Can you explain for our listeners who are allies or who are other LGBTQ+ listeners who might not be as familiar with the trans experience, what that means?
Monica 00:07:49 Oh. There are a number of aspects to that question actually, because there is the guilt aspect and the burden that you carry of this Goddamn secret, which, you know, wears you down because you know, you can’t be true. You can’t be your real self for so many reasons: societal ones and shame ones and all that kind of thing. But it’s like, I suppose it’s like having a twin or something like that. You know, you, you have somebody else who’s almost inside of you, you’re, you’re sharing, you know, you’re sharing your life with two people and they’re both you and you know, you’ve got to be careful and guard one and make sure you know that she doesn’t get exposed or that she doesn’t, nobody finds out about her. But it’s, it’s really important, I think it’s to have somebody you trust and can tell that secret to. And I couldn’t do that until I met my, my, my ex mistress, you know, she was very supportive of me, even though, you know, it was a burden for her as well. Well, she helped me, you know, dress and get clothes from me and buy clothes from me and that kinda thing, so.
Rosie 00:09:01 I really like how you put it that you were like a twin for two reasons. The first, it sounds like you were sort of having an out of body experience from the woman you were in a sense, which is interesting to me. And then the closeness to that person. I’m actually a twin myself, an identical twin. So I can see the porousness of the two identities, the two individuals that are kind of the same. Yes, essentially. Yeah. Let’s talk about your wife, your wife now – your former mistress! You met at 19, her name is Joan. Tell me a bit more, I mean, you’ve already articulated so beautifully the trust you guys had and she was accepting, but how did she approach, you know, your identity and you being a trans woman?
Monica 00:09:47 Well, she didn’t, and I don’t think we ever talked at that stage. It was more of a hobby I suppose, at that stage, you know, and it would happen at home. And there was no, there was definitely no expectation from her that I would ever go outside.
And while I would, you know, I suppose try and put pressure on to go outside, you know, I knew, I thought, while I thought it wasn’t realistic, I suppose I could have probably gone to clubs in, in London and I did think about that, but she was against it and I didn’t want to do anything which would put pressure on her, you know, carrying the burden that, of having your partners, you know, trans anyways bad enough. But, you know, unless she was happy and, and when it came to actually trans transitioning, I wasn’t prepared to do it unless she was happy.
Monica 00:10:39 But the pressure was very much on me internally. I think as testosterone ran down, my natural testosterone ran down, the pressure became really, really hard. And then one of our very good friends, who was the same age as me, also from Ireland, and also called Joan, she got oesophagus cancer and very nearly died. And that was… that must have been about 10 years ago. And, you know, that really made me think that, you know, time is running out and I really want to go as who I am rather than who I’ve been pretending to be.
She could see that. And that it was getting to the stage where honestly I, the pressure, the internal pressure was just too much. I couldn’t do it, you know, was that going to be that or something drastic.
And then the whole ethos, or was the whole zeitgeist changed because we had Caitlin Jenner coming out and we had Laverne Cox, you know, on the front of Time and Caitlin Jenner on the front of Vanity Fair. And just around that time it was starting to become acceptable in some ways. And so we set the date a couple of times and either a she’d chicken out or I’d chicken out, or something. And then finally… actually it’ll be, it’ll be seven years tomorrow.
Rosie 00:12:08 It’s such a huge journey for you both, for you of course, but also for Joan. And to have someone like that at your side is pretty powerful.
Monica 00:12:19 I think people tend to focus on the transgender people and forget that, you know, there are wives and mothers up there who, you know, who are the support in the background that they tend to get, you know, forgotten about it. But it’s traditional or has been traditional that when you come out you lose half your friends and half your family. And certainly none of my family have chosen to meet me as Monica. And so, and seven years have not seen any of my family. I probably lost maybe one or two friends, but nothing serious.
Rosie 00:12:58 I’m so sorry. As the representation that you talk about, the kind of acceptance that you talk about, around that 2014 time with Laverne Cox and, you know, with such a broadening of representation, things like this will become less and less common. But sadly, sadly, it’s still such the case.
Rosie 00:13:30 What was it like coming out in your fifties and, and having that gender confirmation surgery and coming out in your fifties compared to what you perhaps see for trans people who are younger?
Monica 00:13:40 Well, it really felt like you were, you know, pushing the boundaries. And fortunately because the zeitgeist had changed, there was no real pushback against me. I just managed accidentally to surf the wave and it really was an easy wave. So, but I think you still kind of are aware of the fact that, you know, you’re pushing the boundary and that you have to push the boundary. And I was determined when I came out that I would push the boundary and if anybody asked me to do a talk on being transgender, I always did it. And I, and I always, you know, I would never hid the fact that I’m transgender.
I think once you do, once you get into the role and you played a role and you look the part, I think people just kind of forget. It’s, it’s a bit like, you know, knowing that, oh well, you know, yeah. You know, Joe had his hip replaced 10 years ago, whatever. Yeah. You know, these things, but you kind of forget about them, you are not reminded them anywhere. You accept people as they are, which I wasn’t expecting. But yeah, that’s the way it has been.
Rosie 00:14:50 That’s a really positive experience that you’ve described. So you are currently district chair of Rotary Club Inner Wheel and you were the first trans person in that role. Before that you were president of Queenstown Rotary Club in New Zealand. Can we start with Rotary Club 101, for any listeners who aren’t familiar, what is a Rotary Club?
Monica 00:15:11 Traditionally, or how it started was businessmen in the community – and it was men all back then, it’s about a hundred, or over a hundred years old – would come together to use their skills to solve what they saw as local problems. That tradition has carried on. So now, you know, we will raise money for things like Shelter Box, which, which is a disaster relief organisation. Or we will, you know, raise money for the, for the Women’s refuge or we will raise money for child cancer, or we will raise money for, you know, the floods in, in New Zealand, which we’ve had in the North Islands. And we will use the skills that we have either in fundraising or in management or whatever finance or managing people to do various things within the community to help the community.
Rosie 00:16:06 Yeah. What and what drew you and Joan to Rotary Clubs in the first place?
Monica 00:16:11 Well, when we came to Queenstown, we didn’t know anybody, so we thought the most sensible thing to do. We actually did two things. We joined the Rotary Club and then we also joined the Wakatipu Walkers which is a walking organisation. And which went out every week.
We went to Rotary every weekend quite quickly, built up a coterie of friends and and acquaintances. They get to know you, you get to know them. And I think one of the original ideas about Rotary was, is that by doing projects or doing work together, you get to know the people and you know, then who you can rely on, who you can’t rely on, then take it on who you might do businesses, who you might not do businesses because you know, you, you get a feel for, for the various people within the community.
Rosie 00:17:04 So I was aware of them in kind of a vague way before we spoke and it’s fantastic to kind of learn more about how they’re community focused and things, but I see them as kind of fairly conservative and old fashioned from the outside. You mentioned them not allowing women for, for a long time, them being a men’s club. What would you say to me who’s got an outdated view of Rotary Clubs about that? Are they conservative or are they getting progressive?
Monica 00:17:28 Well, I think, you know, I’m proof of the pudding, you know, within a year of transitioning, I was the president of the Rotary Club. I was the second ever transgender president of a Rotary Club in the world. And when I was the president I held a rotary LGBTQ+ Community Information Exchange. So I gathered around the people from the LGBT community in Queenstown and brought them to the Rotary meeting and we all, you know, talked to each other. The idea being that, you know, it’s hard to hate somebody when you under when you hear their story, when you know their story. And so, like any kind of mistrust of, on both sides, because I mean the LGBT people would think, what a punch of boring old fart. Because they’re, you know, they’re conservative, you know, and you know, it’s only by sharing experiences and sharing information and sharing stories that you learn.
Monica 00:18:16 Well, we’re all kind of the same, you know, we’re all got our, our own issues and we’re all trying to just get on with things. And I think that worked very well. And I got letters of commendation from the district governor and from the Rotary international president for doing that, thinks the first time’s ever been done in Rotary. And, and now of course we have a rotary LGBT Fellowship of which I’m on the board of as well. So it’s kind of boring being LGBT now, like, you know, we’re going to move on to something else.
Rosie 00:19:00 There are some trans controversies around at the moment. The media is kind of, I would argue, politicising, and governments are sort of politicising, the trans experience some might say. And I think broadly that’s very true. You know, the author JK Rowling’s position and repeated comments sort of doubling down [on] anti-trans rhetoric. Back in the northern hemisphere in Scotland, we’ve got the fallout from the government’s historic Gender Recognition bill, which allows people to legally change their gender, which is obviously lifesaving for so many people who are assigned the wrong gender at birth. Things like that are happening. But then media coverage is creating a sort of backlash. What does media amplification of these issues and the stories attached to them mean for the global trans community?
Monica 00:19:47 It’s just part and parcel of the development. They’re getting used to an exploration of the whole thing. And you know, in five or 10 years time, it’s kind of one of those growth cycles you’ve got to go through, you know, and and, and come out the other end. And you know, it’s like looking back and saying, well, we couldn’t possibly have women in the workplace. I mean, all they’d be doing is gossiping all the time and putting under makeup. I mean seriously, these are kind of natural cycles which people have to get through, have to get used to. And like nobody, you’d never hear anybody say anything like that. No, when I was, when I was growing up in Ireland, you know, as soon as you got married as a woman, you had to give up your profession. You can’t even imagine that a woman didn’t, even a woman didn’t even have her own credit card. She couldn’t Yeah. Or her own bank account. That’s bonkers, that’s crazy. But like then it just seemed quite natural.
Rosie 00:20:38 Yeah, it’s reassuring in a sense then that history has these cycles and that these cycles get passed through. And even though they’re painful at the time – and they are unconscionably painful – that they do go in cycles. What would you say to somebody who’s listening, who’s trans out or not, who’s feeling vulnerable and need support?
Monica 00:20:59 I’m very conscious of the fact that we have in the transgender community, TDOR – Transgender Day of Remembrance – and I’m very conscious of the fact that, in some parts of the world, violence against trans women is actually an epidemic.
A trans woman is murdered somewhere in the world every day. Last year, I think there were 460 transgender women murdered. It depends on the situation you are in, obviously it would be not in your best self-interest to come out if you are in one of those environments because, you know, it’s, super macho environments tend to be very hard for transgender women. And most of the deaths and murders of transgender women tend to be in South America where you do get quite macho environments. Your personal safety’s always got to come first. And I’m very conscious of my personal… well I have been, I mean, I’ve never had any pushback and when I go abroad, I’m still, you know, I watch. And even here I… Joan’s much better than this cause she, she, she will introduce me as her wife and she’ll hold my hand.
Monica 00:22:17 I feel slightly uncomfortable holding hands in public because it’s drawing attention to us. And you know, there are nutters out there and nutters could, you know, take umbrage to you. But having said that, recently, about three years ago, we, we went to Texas and Texas is where the most transgender women in the US are murdered. And I was very apprehensive going there, I must say a bit apprehensive going there. But we had nothing. I mean, it was nothing whatsoever. It was perfectly fine, you know, it’s only if you’re in the bar late at night, something like that. And if you’re, if you’re already had, you know, a, a bottle of wine and there’s some idiot in there who wants to take you on or, or I don’t know, but I mean it’s never happened to me here. Not even remotely.
Rosie 00:23:04 Like you say, like you alluded to earlier, it’s not all doom and gloom in around 2014 there’s this war shed moment of more TV shows than ever with Yeah, crucially not just trans representation, but positive, inspiring women. You know, shows like Orange is the New Black, Transparent more and more shows like Euphoria, L Word Generation Q. Why is positive media representation like this so important?
Monica 00:23:31 One of my things in a real is the best gift you can give the world is empower women, because in empowered women will change the world. And they will. And I think that’s same for transgender. I mean, just look at what has happened in Iran and probably will happen. They will change, the women of Iran will change Iran because they’re not prepared to, to be put down.
And I think it’s having positive images of transgender people or LGBT people, you know, helps empower them and helps empower them, gives you confidence. And if you have confidence, you know, people will be reluctant to take you on or to, you know, to mess with you. So I think it’s one of these positive spirals, you know.
It’s a self-reinforcing positive spiral. The more confident you are, the more empowered you are, the more empowered you’re, the more confident you are, etc. Yeah.
To some extent we’re all still pretty tribal. We’re tribal people and anybody outside your tribe is always, is always suspicious. You’re always suspicious of them or you’re always wary of them because they’re not like us. And breaking down the not like us barrier has really got to be good for everybody.
Rosie 00:24:43 Definitely, definitely. I want to end on a hopeful note. What gives you personally hope, for now or for the future?
Monica 00:24:53 I think because of the internet and the explosion of information that has given. I mean when I was in my twenties and thirties, there was no internet. And I’ve got a friend in Australia who’s gay, she came from north of Sydney and when she was growing up she knew she had these weird, in normal terms, she had these weird, you know, desires for women. But she couldn’t understand and there was no way she could find it. The local library didn’t have anything on lesbians! The fact that there’s information out there that you can actually find out about yourself and that are other people like you, I think that is really helps people an awful lot is the lack of information and lack of being able to understand yourself or people slightly different or dissimilar from you, which is no information on. So I think it’s the flow of information and the access to information helps people.
Rosie 00:25:58 Yeah, definitely. Definitely. It’s a very lucky time that I feel we are in and I know further and further as time progresses, people feel even more lucky as they think about this kind of thing.
Monica 00:26:09 My friend, Joan who almost died of cancer, she says, if you’re going to be born a woman, the last 50 years is the best time ever to be born a woman. And it’s so true. You know, and if you’re going to be born LGBT, probably, you know, the last 20 years is probably the best time to be born at LGBT because otherwise you’d be burnt at the stake or you know, God knows what would’ve happened to you.
Rosie 00:26:32 Yeah, so true, so true. Well thanks so much for sharing your story and for sharing your thoughts on the trans experience, the LGBTQ+ experience and yeah, your generosity with telling us so honestly about what you’ve been through and about what Joan has been through as well.
Monica 00:26:49 You’re very welcome. Thank you so much.
Rosie 00:26:53 Thank you for listening to OUTcast, a podcast with interviews and coming out stories from inspiring LGBTQ+ people. You can follow us on social media at @OUTcastLGBT and you can find us online at outcastpod.com. Thank you for listening.
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