Keira was born in the 1970s and identified as female from an early age, but was raised as a boy. Her father lived with significant mental illness and left when she was a toddler. The family moved dozens of times to avoid the intervention of welfare services. ‘We lived in squalor, we rarely ever had fresh food in the house. In the latter years there was rarely ever phone connection or electricity.’
The children were not allowed to attend registered schools because it was believed they would be corrupted by this contact, so Keira received little education. Her mother was violent towards all of them, but subjected Keira to more ‘brutal and cruel’ treatment.
‘Because, as a very young child, I told her that I was born in the wrong body. And her being an evangelical Christian did not agree with that. So she tried to correct my behaviour with severe physical abuse ... The abuse consisted of physical beatings with planks of timber, brooms, punches, kicks, jug cords, mutual touching between her and I to acquaint me with the difference between a male and a female body.’
Keira’s father returned to the family after a few years, and ‘was just as cruel’. The home environment was hostile, and the children were set against each other.
The fundamentalist Christian sect her mother belonged to held services in its members’ houses. From the age of six or so Keira was sexually abused by other children in the congregation while attending these services.
‘Being ambushed in the toilets ... Having them stick their fingers in my anal region, or grabbing my genitalia, throwing balls of faeces at me.’ This abuse continued until she was in her early teens, only ending when she violently fought back.
Keira told her parents about the abuse at the time, but they did not believe her. She also tried to raise the issue with the church deacons and parents of the other children, but they disbelieved her, too.
Twice, church officials attempted to ‘exorcise’ Keira, on the presumption that her gender-variant behaviour meant she was homosexual. As part of these rituals she was held down and covered in oil while unclothed.
‘When I was 12, because of my non-gender stereotypical behaviour they stripped me naked, and five deacons and a preacher exorcised me. It happened again when I was 14 ... They believed I was showing signs of homosexuality.’
Trapped in this environment, Keira attempted to modify her behaviour to fit in with what the people around her wanted. ‘Around about the age of 12 or 13, this is when I started to really work to try and conceal my behaviour, to become consciously aware of how other boys acted. It didn’t always work well. But I realised that whatever I was, was not acceptable to the people around me. And that there was no escape, that no-one was coming for me. That no-one cared and that I was stuck in this situation, and I would have to continue to face it.’
As a young adult Keira had relationships with women in an attempt to live a ‘normal’ life as a male, and was the victim of domestic violence. She did not tell her partners she identified as female, but thinks ‘there were suspicions’.
Keira became addicted to cannabis in her late teens, smoking it daily for many years. She also attempted suicide while under the influence of alcohol. ‘This is why I’ll never go back to alcohol or drugs. When I used to get drunk I would attempt to overdose, and I would attempt to kill myself, because all of these feelings would come forth.’
In later years she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and linked with appropriate psychiatric interventions and other supports. She finally started being able to talk about the abuse, too.
‘I’ve been in a state of stasis ... I started to realise that I needed help, and that I had been through a lot of stuff, and I hadn’t gotten any help to face any of it. And it’s like I had switched off to life, it’s like I’d found a place inside myself where I didn’t feel anything anymore. That’s the only way I could survive.’
Keira has recently started to study, which is difficult because of the lack of education in her youth, and the impacts of the abuse on her mental health. ‘I have issues with concentration, I have issues with memory ... I read a study that suggested severe, excessive trauma can damage the hippocampus, which is the component of the brain responsible for memory. But I don’t want to give up. I refuse to quit.’
She has also started formally identifying as female in all aspects of her life, and is now taking hormones to affirm her gender. ‘My relatives now know I’m transgender, that I’m on hormone therapy, and they don’t accept or acknowledge gender dysphoria. And they rarely talk to me, and don’t acknowledge my right to, I suppose, be respected by them.’
Throughout her life, Keira has tried to keep believing that her situation would get better, and to keep moving forward. ‘I think the thing that’s kept me going is that I’ve always had hope that someday I would find where I belong. I always sort of convinced myself, from middle-childhood onward that they weren’t my family – that I belonged somewhere else.
‘I think the thing that even keeps me going today is hope that tomorrow might be different, that something different will come along ... I just don’t like to lose. I don’t like to give up.’