Be True to Yourself: A Trans Woman Veterinarian’s Journey

Kate Toyer, BVSc, MANZCVS (Surgery): A veterinarian shares her story of being a transgender woman in a southern Australia town.

When I was a child, I wanted to be two things when I grew up. I wanted to be a veterinarian. And I wanted to be a girl.

by Kate Toyer, BVSc, MANZCVS (Surgery)

Editor’s note: This article is part of a short series called “Journeys,” about the experiences of individuals from diverse backgrounds in the veterinary world.

My name is Kate. Kate Toyer. I am a veterinarian, practice owner, wife, father, feminist, equality advocate, trans woman. I live—and, along with my wife, own a veterinary practice—on Walbunga land in Yuin nation, Australia, in a town that Western society calls Batemans Bay on the south coast of New South Wales (NSW).

When Did You First Know You Were Trans?

This is often one of the first questions I get asked when people find out I am trans. The answer isn’t exactly obvious. It would be like me asking a cis person, “So when did you first know you are cisgender?”

When I was a child, I wanted to be two things when I grew up. I wanted to be a veterinarian. And I wanted to be a girl. This was more than 40 years ago. There was no internet, no Instagram, no Facebook support groups. The only depictions that most people saw of trans people, particularly trans women, were through sensationalized stories in gossip magazines, on television, or in movies. If you have not seen the documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, then head over to Netflix and watch it to get some idea of how most people used to see trans people.

At best, trans people were the butt of jokes, the punchline reveal. At worst, we were deviates, murderers, or sexual predators that were a menace to society. So, it is hardly surprising that when my mother almost caught me in lingerie and a dress when I was a teenager and I decided to tell her I felt comfortable being a girl, she panicked. She confided in my Anglican minister uncle, who took me aside and reinforced all those fears that I was afraid of. That this was a “bad” or “evil” thing, that people would not respect or even love me if I continued doing this. Faced with this rejection and with nowhere else to turn, I did what many older trans people did at that time—I buried it and hid my feelings. I hid them for a very long time.

Were You Unhappy?

No.

I had a happy life. My mother loved me, I had a stable home, and whilst not wealthy, we were certainly comfortable. I got into veterinary school at the University of Sydney and I fell in love with a girl, Tara, whom I still adore and am still married to. We graduated from veterinary school and started working, eventually buying a share of a practice on the south coast of NSW. We had a child, I had major surgery to remove my entire large intestine because of bowel cancer, we had another two children, and we both continued working and studying, gaining further qualifications in veterinary surgery and veterinary dentistry. The practice we owned a share of continued to grow, and we set about buying land and building a house. For all intents and purposes, I had the dream life: I had a beautiful wife; three gorgeous, smart, and talented children; and a successful business and career. To say that none of this made me happy would be a lie.

But . . .

It was like I could only see the world through a veil. Every interaction I had, every conversation, every movement, would be processed through a filter of what I was “expected” to say, to feel, to see, to do because I was seen as male. Every minute of every hour of every day.

What Changed?

There is only so long that you can cope with the incongruity between who you are and who others expect you to be, especially when the gap between those two is so large. Connections to others on (at that time) closed and secretive message boards and support groups on the internet brought the chance to learn, to help me shed some of my internalized prejudices and phobias. I had started to truly understand myself, to really know Who I Am.

By 2011, there was no doubt in my mind that I had to first tell my wife, and then the world. But that was scary. The famous Time Magazine cover “The Transgender Tipping Point” with Laverne Cox was still three years away. Marriage equality for same-sex couples—let alone trans people—did not exist yet even in the United States, let alone Australia. (Gay marriage became legal in every US state on June 26, 2015, and in Australia on December 7, 2017.)

Gender identity disorder was still classified as a psychiatric illness by the American Psychology Association and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Stories abounded within the trans community of trans people who had lost everything. They lost their jobs or careers, were rejected by family and colleagues, and became unable to access social security or loans because of discrimination. They had their lives destroyed by a society not ready or interested in trying to understand them. It is little wonder that more than 40% of trans people have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, according to some reports.

If I told my wife, I stood to lose everything. But I had to tell her. Because otherwise I would be living a lie, lying to myself, and more importantly, lying to her.

So I told her. Truthfully, it wasn’t easy. I had literally taken her entire world, everything she thought we had built—our marriage, our family, our business, even my name—and brought it all crashing down. I had destroyed every assumption, every prejudice, every expectation of who we were and what our life together looked like. But there was one thing we had left that was still true and unchanged.

What we had left was love. An unabating and complete love for each other—that was the rock that couldn’t be destroyed and the rock we could rebuild on.

Glossary

Transgender/Trans

Someone whose gender is different from that assigned to them at birth. When used as a suffix such as trans woman or transgender woman, the gender is how the individual identifies, not their gender assigned at birth.

Cisgender/Cis

Someone whose gender is the same as that assigned to them at birth.

Nonbinary

Someone who does not identify as only male or only female gender.

How Did You Tell Your Staff, Your Clients? How Did They Respond?

Even large company HR departments are only just now coming to grips with how to help an employee transition. Doing it in a small business, as a small business owner in what is literally the least diverse profession in the industrialized world? There was no guidebook, no advice, no leadership course on how to do this. So we basically made it up.

One thing we were very clear on: This was our life, our story; we would own it and control it. We would tell our story in our time with our voice.

The first thing was to set the groundwork. Transition doesn’t happen overnight. I needed to change my name and gender with government authorities and on identity documents like passports, bank accounts, loan agreements, land titles, business registers, and so on. On a personal level, I had to get appointments with psychologists to get authority to access gender-affirming treatments like hormones or surgery. Laser and electrolysis treatments for hair removal take time (and a lot of money), and I also started to grow my hair out. From the time I first told Tara to when we were ready to tell everyone else was a little over four years.

Once we were ready, our first step was to tell those people who would be interacting most with our family. Family, staff at our clinic, and our children’s schoolteachers and principals. These would be our core group of allies, our advocates who would be able to help disseminate our story the way we wanted it told and at the same time buffer us so we didn’t get exhausted dealing with silly rumors and gossip. We told them the truth—I am trans and I would be transitioning. It wasn’t up for debate as to whether it would happen. It is what it is. All our staff were advised that if they chose to, they were welcome to part ways with us. No criticism, no acrimony. Caring about someone who is trans, being a part of their life, that isn’t easy, and we acknowledged that. We would not force that on anyone else unless they chose it.

Our staff and our children’s schools were amazingly supportive. With them, we developed a plan for how we would tell our clients and the rest of the community.

The plan was that we would do a “soft” reveal. We produced a letter, kind of like an FAQ sheet, that we would hand out to clients as they came in. We would spend time and answer their questions, essentially turning them into allies. We would do this for six months whilst we sorted out a few behind-the-scenes details like changing names with suppliers and ordering new signage. Then we would make a blanket announcement to all clients and the local community on our return from Christmas break.

The approach worked well. Clients were understanding and supportive, and some were even excited! Things were going to plan for about three months before some of the rumors started coming back to us. I had married “Adam” and joined the practice, “Adam” had sold his share of the practice to another veterinarian who just happened to have the same surname, and (my personal favorite) I was “Adam’s sister,” who coincidentally also happened to be a veterinarian and Tara had left him and was now living in a lesbian relationship with me.

Tara and I had agreed early on this was our life, our story—no one else got to tell it. So when the rumors started, we took back control. We brought forward the timetable for making a blanket announcement. From that point, every communication had my true name, Kate, on it.

Staff would advise clients who rang asking for “Adam” of my name change right there on the phone. Again, our clients were amazing and 90% of the time immediately used my name. Pronouns were more challenging for clients, but they got there eventually. Our staff were brutal with anyone who was in any way abusive or unsupportive, advising them if they did not like what was happening, they were welcome to take their pets to another veterinary practice where they might feel more comfortable.

The support from our clients and community was amazing. We had sent out a blanket email to more than 800 clients. We received two replies from people who expressed—shall we say—“unsupportive” views, to whom we advised that we would happily forward their animals’ records to another vet of their choosing. We received more than 80 replies of support, well wishes, and congratulations. What probably surprised us even more was the number of clients who told us of friends, relatives, or loved ones who were also trans. For many, we were the first people they had ever told this to.

Today, almost five years later, the fact that I am trans is not a part of our day-to-day conversations with clients. That is not to say that it never comes up or that I hide my trans identity. At certain times of the year, such as around Pride festivals, Transgender Day of Visibility, and Transgender Day of Remembrance, we do talk about it with things like social media posts, but for the most part, to our clients, I am just Kate. I look after and care about their pets.

Where to from Here?

That all sounds great, doesn’t it? Transition successful, tick, done—let’s just get on with being a vet.

If only it were that easy.

A trans woman who steps outside her door in the US is almost 10 times more likely to get killed than a US soldier in an active war zone. If she needs to go to the toilet, then she risks being sexually assaulted if she uses a men’s bathroom or arrested if she uses a women’s bathroom. Almost 50% of trans people have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. If a trans person is sexually assaulted, then there is an increased probability that they will be denied assistance or support by either law enforcement or sexual assault victim services. These are the risks a trans person takes just getting out the front door to go to their job, the grocery store, or even out for a jog.

That’s the public, though. We in the veterinary field are a profession of highly educated people—surely we are better than that? Unfortunately, not always. Unconscious bias and even discrimination based on race, cultural background, gender, sexuality, and physical diversity are still widespread in our profession. Even when we talk about equality in our profession, we unconsciously exclude LGBTQIA+ people.

We talk about gender equality as cis men versus cis women, totally ignoring the experiences and challenges of trans and gender-diverse people. We talk about maternity leave pay and entitlements as if women are the only gender who actually look after babies and children, ignoring the fact that many straight cisgender men are primary caregivers of children, not to mention gay dads and trans and gender-diverse parents. We need to stop talking about what we think people of diverse backgrounds want and start giving them the microphone so they can tell us what they actually need.

We need to stop thinking about diversity as a problem that we have to find a solution for and start seeing the richness, power, and beauty that people from diverse backgrounds bring to our lives. Our profession is an incredible one and one that I am genuinely proud to belong to. But we can be so much better and do so much more. I think that is a goal worth striving for. 

Resources

PFLAG

Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays is a far more inclusive group now than it once was and includes a lot of trans and nonbinary resources and links.

Human Rights Campaign

HRC has a lot of good, easy-to-read resources on a wide range of inclusion topics. They have a whole area devoted to trans resources.

GLAAD

GLAAD strives to accelerate acceptance for LGBTQIA+ people in the media and entertainment outlets. They have an excellent page of links to organizations and resources.

Trevor Project

The Trevor Project provides mental health and suicide prevention support for LGBTQIA+ youth.

PrideVMC

PrideVMC is dedicated to creating a better world for the LGBTQIA+ veterinary community.

Kate Toyer
Kate Toyer, BVSc, MANZCVS (Surgery), and her wife own Eurocoast Veterinary Centre in New South Wales, Australia.

 

Photo credits: Photos courtesy of Kate Toyer

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