Man! I Feel Like a Woman was a big hit for Canadian pop star Shania Twain. It’s also been a mantra for Queenstowner Monica Mulholland, who’s come out as a transgender woman after spending 59 years as a man. She discusses her gender change with Philip Chandler
It’s March 1, this year, and being a Tuesday, Queenstown Rotarians gather for their weekly meeting.
President Jan Chappell stands up to read a statement from one of the club’s stalwart male members, who’s absent that night, announcing that from the following week, he’ll be attending Rotary as a she.
Fast-forward two-and-a-half months and that transgender woman, Monica Mulholland, 59, makes national news when she’s nominated as the club’s president-elect, taking over in July next year.
She tells media that she’s flattered to have the full backing of a club that might have been seen as a bastion of male conservatism.
“Given what I know now, I would have done it earlier, but do I have regrets? No,” she tells Mountain Scene.
Typical of transgender people, she had an inkling she was born the wrong sex when she was six or seven.
Growing up in County Cork, Ireland, the eldest of nine children, she recalls not hitting back when people hit or fought her - or rather, him.
“It never struck me that you would hit back, and I remember explaining this to my father, and he was aghast that I wouldn’t defend myself.”
The youngster played football, but didn’t tackle other players as he was a goalkeeper.
Despite querying his gender, he still had a crush on women.
“Transgender people can be either attracted to the same sex as their born sex or their projected sex, just like anybody else - me, I’m into women.”
He fell in love with his wife of today, Joan Kiernan, when he was 19 and she was about 17.
“We lived in sin for many years so we were a bit unconventional, even then, and we didn’t actually get married until 2000, before we came [to New Zealand] because it made the immigration thing a bit easier.”
The couple moved to London in 1979, then Hong Kong in ’95 before settling in Queenstown in 2001.
Mulholland says her wife knew of her female nature early in their relationship.
Since arriving here they’ve both been very active in Rotary.
Kiernan was appointed the club’s first female president in 2006, then served as a district governor.
Mulholland’s been active in Rotary’s ShelterBox project, providing emergency shelter and lifesaving supplies to areas struck by natural disasters, and has been national chairman for the past three years.
She says she started planning to come out about 10 years ago, when she bought her first women’s clothes, online.
As a ‘dress rehearsal’, she’s gone each year to the United States since 2009 to women’s development courses, where she’s presented as a woman and qualified as a teacher.
“It just kind of felt more natural to me, the more I’ve done it.”
On one trip, when she was in San Francisco, buying a raincoat at Macy’s, the store assistant asked her for ID when she presented a NZ credit card.
“So I gave her my NZ driver’s licence which was a picture of me as a guy and she said, ‘well, you’re using your husband’s credit card, that’s no problem’.”
Mulholland says her decision to come out was made with her wife - “it seemed like the right time”
A major reason was to be the kind of role model she never had growing up.
She’s also written a Kindle book, ME!: The gift of being Transgender, with proceeds to NZ’s suicide helpline.
“About 41 per cent of transgender people attempt suicide - that’s about 10 times the normal population.
“The great problem, and that’s why I wrote the book, is that transgender people and their friends and family see being transgender as a curse - it’s something you should be ashamed of and embarrassed about - and I thought, ‘this is crazy, can we actually change it so we can see it as a gift?'”
Mulholland says clients – she and Kiernan are wealth management advisers - and neighbours have taken her decision well.
She admits there are issues with her wider family which “will take time”.
So how did she prepare to come out on March 1?
“The day before, I just packed all my guy clothes away in a trunk. As we go through the various milestones - three months, six months, nine months, 12 months - I’ll start getting ridding of them.”
You get the feeling, however, she won’t feel like dressing in men’s clobber again.