by Rebecca Cleaver
The saddest day of Katherine Cummings’ life was the day she decided not to kill herself.
At the time, she was 51 and happily married with three young daughters. She was rising to the top of her field as Head Librarian at the Sydney College of the Arts. And she had a close-knit circle of lively, well-connected friends.
There was just one problem. Katherine wasn’t living as Katherine: she was living as a man named John.
For as long as she can remember, Katherine has known she was a woman. As a young boy, John would take every opportunity to sneak into his sister’s room and dress up in her clothes. This was in the 1930s, before the phrase “sex change” was widely known. Yet Katherine was never in any doubt that she did not want to be a man.
“People say to me, how did you know you were a woman inside? Well, it was simply that I felt this is what I should be doing. And I had felt it as long as my memories went back.”
But things weren’t that simple. Coming of age as a transgender in the 1950s necessitated a kind of double life. Perhaps that’s why, even now, Katherine is so full of contradictions.
On the one hand, John was the epitome of a traditional family man, and Katherine still holds many of those values dear. She wears three rings on her ring finger: her own wedding band from when she married, her mother’s engagement ring, and her father’s wedding band.
“Promises mean something to me,” she says, gesturing to her wedding ring. “When I put this on, I said I won’t take it off in life.”
A picture of Katherine’s former wife Diana takes pride of place in Katherine’s living room. It’s in good company. On an opposite wall is a painting by the famous art critic Robert Hughes, who was a good friend of Katherine’s when they studied at the University of Sydney together in 1955.
A few years into their marriage, Katherine told Diana she liked to dress up in women’s clothes, and Diana went along with it.
“She thought it through and said that whatever it was that made me do it was part of the person she was in love with. I thought we were alright as long as I lived within the rules.”
However, when Katherine started taking the female hormone estrogen, she kept it a secret. And even though some people commented on John’s budding breasts, Diana never did.
“She never said it bothered her and I never asked,” Katherine says. But surely Diana would have noticed? “Gynecomastia is not unusual in a middle-aged man.”
Katherine insists she was always faithful to Diana, but when John cross-dressed as Katherine she would enjoy wild weekends with a group of alternative Sydneysiders known as the Creative Crazies. On many of these weekends, she would experiment with bondage.
“One time I finished up handcuffed on Clark Island and had to be rescued by the water police,” she recalls with a hint of pride. She still has the pictures from that night when she was dressed in the provocative style of a 1940s cigarette girl.
Katherine stumbled on the Creative Crazies after responding to a classified ad seeking a partner for “sex games”. Still, she is adamant there was nothing sexual about her cross-dressing.
“I think bondage was an excuse,” she says. “A kind of mental double-think – you know I’m helpless therefore I’m not responsible.”
Katherine would try to prolong the exhilaration of being a woman by taking photos herself on these raunchy weekends. She doesn’t do it anymore (“I have no need to,” she says) but she still has all the photos in boxes in her garage. She guesses there are 1000 of them.
“I sometimes talk of cross-dressing as being my maintenance drug, like insulin for a diabetic. As long as I could get it from time to time, I could survive,” she says.
Still, at Diana’s request Katherine quit cold turkey. As it turns out, Diana wasn’t happy with the arrangement and didn’t say anything for a long time. Eventually, though, things came to a head.
“I suspect it all meant a lot more to her than I ever knew because it was many years later that she told me I had to give up cross-dressing or give up the marriage.”
But by then Katherine had reached a point where, if she was going to go on living, it would have to be as a woman.
That was the day Katherine decided not to commit suicide. And having decided to live, she was miserable. The thing she dreaded most was hurting her family. Even so, she never imagined she would lose them altogether.
“I really thought that after I had got myself sorted, after we had all met as a family a few times, they could see what the new person was like and that we would all get back together again and live as a family. Shows how badly I judged things,” she says, with a sad laugh.
Katherine rented a flat in Balmain while she was transitioning. One day she went back to the family home to collect something and the locks had been changed. Some time later, she got a letter saying Diana was seeking to have the marriage annulled. She hasn’t seen Diana since.
Katherine’s voice softens when she talks about Diana and their children. Her devotion to them is obvious, and a little heartbreaking. Her walls are covered with photos of the family.
Even so, Katherine says she’s lived a good life – as Katherine and as John. “I regret the years I didn’t have as Katherine but I can’t regret having the children I fathered. I can’t wish them out of existence.
As to whether or not she’s happy, Katherine says, “Happiness comes and goes but contentment is there. Before I was seldom content, there was always that urge deep down to feel that something was wrong, something needed fixing.
“But the essence of the person I am is still the person I was. I often say to my friends there was a lot of Katherine in John, you just weren’t looking for her. And there will always be a lot of John in Katherine.”