Annabelle is an incredible activist who is heavily focused on improving accessibility and inclusivity in safe spaces through her lived experiences as a trans, disabled woman. Annabelle shared her insightful opinions with us on the pressures of passing, accessibility, and what advice she has for her younger self.
James: Annabelle is a beautiful name, what drew you to it?
Annabelle: My dead name meant a lot to my family and I wanted to keep the essence of what that name meant and also make life easier on myself by keeping the same initials for signatures and stuff. I really like the long elaborate names of historical figures. So, I really gravitated towards long name like ‘Brianna’ or ‘Annabelle’, and I settled on Annabelle by trying a few names out. It was a process. Not many people realise what a process names can be. You can try something out and it doesn’t fit and then you find something that fits better or works better for shortening or for the industry you’re in. I think that process is a good thing.
James: How old were you when you realised you were trans?
Annabelle: I was 19 when I first realised, however I transitioned when I was 23 so I could get my degrees first. I have my degree in Psychological Sciences and a Graduate Certificate in Suicide Prevention. When I was 21, I worked with Glen Wallwork at QSPACE. Whilst I was there, I took the opportunity to experiment with my gender identity, as it was something I’d been wondering about for a long time. So, that was when I really knew. It was a hard decision but a good decision. Especially in the psychology industry, it’s very much about playing respectability and putting on a good face for academia. I thought once I had my degrees I could transition and establish myself.
James: What are your thoughts about “passing” as an endpoint for trans people?
Annabelle: I find that in a lot of stories, especially trans women stories, we always encourage “passing” as this kind of goal point. Once you’ve passed you’ve made it. It doesn’t always work like that. Both because passing is a vague term which can change depending on a bunch of factors like the outfit you’re wearing and conventions of beauty where you are. More importantly though, community isn’t about getting you to an end point. You need ongoing support to be able to cope with the stress of engaging with a potentially transphobic society.
You play a dangerous game once you start linking certain body types to acceptability. Regardless of why we started doing it, and we did start doing it for survival to be sure, it creates this impossible standard. My main driving force behind becoming a therapist was treating body image issues, so let’s work from there. If you take any marginalised group, in this case the trans community, where they are often exposed to malicious and chaotic experiences, the last thing we should be doing is saying that the way to make things better is to look right or good. The logic of “passing” being success and “the end” creates isolated people, playing a losing game against people’s perceptions and forcing them into the most straight forward box available.
James: How do you think Brisbane is doing as being an accepting community?
Annabelle: It depends where you are. A lot of people on the ground don’t care, but a lot of upper-class white-collar workers (like medical professionals or people who control employment opportunities), have in-built, largely unknown prejudices that we as people haven’t really addressed yet. I think it’s because the idea of transitioning, gender fluidity, and being transgender has only now just hit the mainstream as something we can talk about. You know, it existed before, but realistically for the average person it only started 20 years ago. We haven’t had the time to have the conversation about in-built biases and how, for example, we can we make going to the airport easy on trans people. We need to start encouraging those people in those positions of power to start incorporating trans awareness into their existing knowledge base, which can be hard.
James: How do you think we can better shine a light on trans people?
Annabelle: I feel like the term ‘shining a light’ implies a lot more pressure than I would want on the community. Like, to put it into perspective, as a wheelchair bound trans woman who is articulate and educated, there is a lot of burden placed on me privately and professionally to sort of carry the weight of educating the public on how to do things. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing it, but when we say ‘shine a light’ on trans people I think it’s more important to highlight the values of the community. Doing this alleviates the pressure on any singular trans or non-binary person.
James: What was the process of coming out like for you?
Annabelle: Coming out for me was a weird experience as I had to balance the two identifies that I have. Disability theorists describe it as the private and public sphere. When you’re at home and in private, you can do what you like within the perimeter of the law. When you’re disabled or need a high level of care, there is always a third party that exists such as parents, carers, or medical professionals. So, it’s about navigating that third party, which a lot of my transition was. A lot of that was sitting down and not only navigating my own journey, but also how to have that journey with these third parties and mediate it through care agencies. A lot of queer friendly agencies just weren’t aware of what could be done. It was difficult for my family to wrap their heads around because my private life and theirs was so intertwined at that point. It was hard for them to separate the roles of carer, parents, and individuals. So, it was difficult, but in a very unique way. I think it’s a very important point that I try to hit home in the work I do the importance of individualism of the disabled in the queer community.
James: Do you feel there is prevalent ableism in the Queer community?
Annabelle: Yes, but when I say ableism it feels ‘loaded’. The ableism that we have isn’t the ableism of people who don’t like disabled people. On a surface level we probably do experience ableism. But, when you look at Queer history, we just haven’t had the space to navigate complex medical issues without a layer of anxiety. So, a lot of the queer culture that we have stems from events that were held in relatively excluded safe spaces. The issue that you find as a disabled trans women is that a lot of those places were never designed with wheelchairs in mind because nobody had the scope when they were constructing events to consider that disabled people could manage those two identities, as historically there were systems in place preventing disabled people from having those identities.
James: Do you think big organisations have a responsibility to make accessibility a focal part of their events?
Annabelle: Full accessibility is a really difficult goal to attain. Culturally we see an inability to achieve accessibility as a negative action, rather than an obstacle. People don’t want to admit that accessibility is difficult to attain. Large organisations could help deal with accessibility issues by designing their events to be disabled accessible or providing the funds to others. When you look at the scope of what accessibility means, we need to be able to admit that it doesn’t just require manpower and pure will. It’s about resources. The community needs to commit to building those resources, and large organisations should take an active role in this process.
James: What advice do you have for young people who are LGTBQI+ and have a disability?
Annabelle: I think a lot of it is about reaching out the right places. The most recent statistic says that 36% of queer people will have a disability in their lifetime. My advice would be about not letting your disability define you, but rather give it room to breathe so you as a person can function and thrive. It took me a long time to learn this as well. As a disabled person, under the idea of the independence movement, you’re encouraged to break every barrier. Which you should to a certain point. But I think you also need to be able to accept and love those parts of yourself that restrict things. Be that the way you pass or the way you interact with things. You need to find places that help you do that and also adapt your environment to give you the best quality of queer life possible. Be that socially, individually or in any way that matters to you.
I also would remind people that the act of being disabled isn’t inherently tragic. It is the culmination of an event. That event usually has no bearing on the person who is experiencing it. So, decoupling disability from tragedy is key to beginning the path of true accessibility. You can’t be equal with someone whilst pitying them.
James: What are your hopes for the future?
Annabelle: I think that in the future we’ve got to start re-shaping the way that we interact as a community. And that’s a broad thing. But the main take away is secluded, singular or single-purpose spaces are very difficult to maintain and they’re very difficult to access both in a disability and general sense. We need to embrace more computer mediated communication to allow for more dynamic and progressive points of contact, so that we can create experiences that aren’t just focused on a singular idea, the idea of queerness or transness, but that allow for action, growth and community building through shared activity. In suicidology, one of things they teach you is that one of the best protective factors for mental health is about creating a community web that has the active knowledge that allows you to have that sense of place. In the queer community there’s a lot of monoculture, such as bi-solidarity or trans-solidarity. There are very little ways for people to move forward beyond a certain point. WE need to create the avenues to create active participation in the community. Especially in places that are seen as less cultural, like Brisbane.
James: How do we bring this knowledge to schools and encourage active participation?
Annabelle: It’s about the idea of having Elders without necessarily having our culture in constant stasis and allowing people to absorb ideas and form fluid concepts. Ignoring all the political aspects that goes on around queer education in school, we need Elders that are present who have knowledge of different aspects of the trans identity that are not aggressive or sexual in their meaning. This will allow people to explore this without it being a taboo topic. Having those experiences and stories documented and available, as well as the relevant medical science and contact points, will allow people to access and use them more. It will allow people to have an experience that isn’t really guided by accessibility or some inherent adult or negative meaning.
James: Who inspires you?
Annabelle: Robin Eames from the University of Sydney is a popular gender-fluid Sydney based activist. They do a lot of their work around how the disability movement interacted with the world. It’s really inspired a lot of the work that I do now.
James: Annabelle, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Annabelle: I would probably tell myself that it would be OK to come to terms with who you are sooner. A lot of my fear was that the idea of passing - would Anabelle the woman work in a passing sense? I think that’s a lot of the fear that trans women have. Very often those fears pass with time and self-acceptance. I would encourage my younger self to give myself the space to both care and believe in myself enough to have that body positive confidence that you need and want to transition.