Melissa Griffiths’ life as a male yearning to be a female was punctuated by cruel bullying and social isolation. Her recent gender transition journey was emotionally challenging and financially destroying – she found little in the way of clear guidance, and she had to navigate a medical profession she feels was ill equipped to deal with her requirements. However, this #LeadingLady is determined not to let the tough times go in vain.
“Not everyone is as thick skinned as I am. If I can make a difference I will,” she says.
Now Melissa is an advocate for transgender rights, with a particular focus on educating employers about gender identity. She is determined to make Australian workplaces safer and more inclusive for transgender people through developing gender policies and providing training.
Her advocacy work has seen her be nominated as a finalist in the 2017 GLOBE Community Awards Victorian LGBTI Person of the Year, with the winners to be announced on October 28th.
“It is really great to be acknowledged for the all work I do to raise awareness on gender identity, and making the workplace more inclusive for transgender people,” she says.
Melissa recently wrote a piece for Agency Iceberg about how workplaces can step up their gender acceptance and inclusion policies. I caught up with Melissa to find out where businesses are at, how she is reflecting on some of the challenging experiences that she has endured, and why she’s on a mission to ensure transgender people are respected.
Why is it so important to educate workplaces about gender identity?
People don’t understand what we go through. Even in our own families. I saw a relative recently and she called me Aaron – my old name – not Melissa.
What is the general level of awareness in organisations?
Management don’t get it. There’s not a lot around gender equality. But there’s a lot of what I like to call ‘spin bullshit’ or ‘spin diversity’. People [in workplaces] can seem lifeless – if you talk to them they focus on the footy, but when you talk to them about something like transgender acceptance, it is all too hard. I need to raise more awareness, that is the main thing. We are slowly making some progress.
You’ve said navigating the medical profession for your transition journey was not up to standard. What’s going wrong?
I didn’t know where to look, there isn’t a lot out there about where to go and how to get help. I had some terrible experiences with medical professionals – it was through luck I found the right counsellor and psychologists. I went to a major Melbourne hospital to get information, and the medical professional said they had to look up the US guidelines to help, and the internet wasn’t working. There was a poor attitude. It made me realise there is so much work to be done.
What have some of the other tough experiences been for you?
You can lose friends [in the transition journey], you can feel isolated and have acceptance issues. Being bullied as a child – in boys’ brigade I was dipped under water and hung from a hook.
That’s a horrific experience for a young person, or anyone.
Help is hard to get. You’re constantly having to stand up for yourself and I think that drains you.
On the outside you seem so brave, especially putting yourself in the public eye.
It feels good to be helping. There are the things you don’t see. I can be vulnerable and crying. I am choking up now! I just want transgender people to be treated as normal.
Do you face discrimination in all sorts of situations?
It’s across all generations, even young people. I was at a racing event in a dress and a member said ‘It shouldn’t be allowed’. So I worked with the VRC on a gender policy that prevented discrimination. It’s protecting me – and making it better for future patrons.
Our community isn’t supporting each other really well. There’s hateful comments online, but sometimes others come to my defence. I have to think ‘do I engage in the haters?’ I don’t go out with girlfriends like other women do. Finding a partner is hard. I dream of getting married and doing all those things – but you can meet people and all they want is casual sex.
It must be hard almost ‘starting again’ as another gender.
I’m focusing on my mental attitude, and healing me, in all areas of my life. I say positive affirmations everyday, I say that I am loved, that’s the main thing. You have to learn to let some things to go. You have to surround yourself with good people. I’ve learned that I can’t be stressing – I recently spent the day in bed, learning to just do some ‘blobbing out’!
So what’s your opinion on all the challenges around marriage equality and the postal vote?
It is out of hand – the arguments of the Australian Christian Lobby, and the current hate attacks to my community. There are people talking about ‘ending the line of families’.
What are your next goals?
I’m focusing on building the Melissa Griffiths Foundation. I want to normalise life for transgender people. I’m on Facebook and LinkedIn and spreading the word. I’m building my community. I post a lot of positive affirmations. Like, laugh loudly, stand tall and be proud, follow your heart, be true to yourself. I try to be genuine and down to earth in sharing my story.
These are no small plans!
There’s more I want to achieve. I have about 13 life and work mentors! I want to do more TV work and normalise it [transgender people being on everyday TV shows], for example to be on a panel on The Project or Studio 10. At one point I was networking every night for two weeks. It’s exhausting – but I’ve met a lot of inspiring people through the process, like Tracey Spicer and Tara Moss. I want to do more public speaking. I’m starting to write my memoirs – though I’m so busy I haven’t got very far. That is my future.
Get in touch with Melissa on LinkedIn here.
For more #LeadingLadies interviews and updates, head here.
Photography by Breeana Dunbar.