Eddie Ayres interview



Eddie Ayres, 2018 Guest Author at the Varuna Sydney Writers' Festival

Di Jenkins

Di Jenkins

Introduction and interview by Features Editor Diana Jenkins

Fresh off the back of a standing ovation at Adelaide Writers' Week, Eddie Ayres found time to talk to your Features Editor as he waited to board a plane home to Brisbane. Ayres was in Adelaide to discuss his second book, Danger Music, his memoir of teaching music in Afghanistan.

You might think decamping to a war zone is radical enough for someone leaving a cushy radio job at the ABC behind, but Ayres's time in Kabul wasn't simply about teaching children to play the cello and viola. It was there that Ayres – still known at the time as Emma Ayres, the much loved, long-time host of ABC Classic FM's Breakfast show – first decided to act. After 15 years, he accepted he was transgender, and decided he didn't want to run from his own truth anymore.

Varuna is absolutely delighted that Ayres – dulcet tones intact – is part of the superb Varuna/Sydney Writers' Festival line-up this year. He's appearing at the Carrington Hotel with writer-musician Kate Fagan in a session entitled Music, Gender and Transformation (bookings essential: please book here) in what promises to be a memorable conversation about identity, love and courage. It's with great pleasure I share our own chat now.

DJ: Eddie, please tell me a little bit about that complicated irony of finally commencing your transgender journey in a place where women are genuinely regarded as second-class citizens?

EA: Well, yes, it's true. I'd realised I was transgender many years ago – back in 2000, actually –and thought it was all too hard. How on earth was I going to deal with it? So I suppressed it for many years and shared it with very few people: my elder sister, Elizabeth, and a very few close friends. But unfortunately, a couple of partners over those years were very...not exactly unsupportive, but did say very clearly that if I did transition, they wouldn't want to go out with me, so I decided not to go through with it. It was also [about trying] to find some space to still be female-bodied, for the sake of feminism.

I tried very, very hard, but unfortunately when you do try and suppress something like that, it just makes you sick in the end, and in 2014 I got really, really depressed, so I decided to try to alleviate my depression: I would go teach in Afghanistan at the music school there.

DJ: And what impact did that extreme change of environment have on you?

EA: What happened is it made it even clearer that I was on the wrong side of the gender binary, because Afghanistan is so binary gendered. It just made my gender dysphoria so much worse, having to present as fully female; I think in Australia it's possible to kind of weave a path through the middle. I eventually decided that I would need to do something about it. And just to be very clear about that: it's not a decision to be transgender or not, it's a decision about whether you then go on and do something about it.

I eventually said, 'I'm never going to escape this, I have to confront it and accept it,' and so I called a very good friend in Brisbane. I was still in Kabul, and she was wonderful – Carol – and she set me up with a gender doctor in Brisbane, Dr. Gale Bearman. The first thing [Dr. Bearman] said when I walked into her surgery was, "So being androgynous isn't enough for you anymore?" – which is a good way of putting it, I think.

I started to transition at the beginning of 2016. I first of all had chest surgery and went back to Afghanistan for a bit, lots of awful stuff happened, and I decided I needed to come back to Australia in July 2016. That was when I started taking testosterone.

DJ: Eddie, you've talked about it already, but I was surprised to read – and this is from an outsider's point of view – that your lesbian partners failed to really embrace you when you said you were transgender. As a straight person, it seems to me that gay people still have to go through so much to exercise their right to be who they are, that I somehow thought they would have been your first supporters. You're still you, after all.

EA: I think it's absolutely not the case for all lesbians, but I guess you do identify as a certain sexuality, and you want to stay within that sexuality. By me transitioning, it would mean that they – in their relationship – were somehow...it's complicated.

DJ: It is complicated – I can't even imagine how complicated it must be. So, during the darkest times that you experienced prior to transitioning, how much was music not only a creative outlet for you, but also another language: a point of articulation for you at a time when you didn't have the words – or were perhaps resisting the vocabulary – for what was happening to you inside?

EA: Certainly music was a great shelter for me while I was working in Afghanistan. I can't imagine my life ever without it, but it became particularly important in Afghanistan. I was living under so many stresses in so many different ways. Just being out and about every day was stressful. Working at the school was highly stressful. All the kids were stressed by all the stuff they had to deal with in their lives, there was a certain amount of disorganisation, and then to have to deal with all that as well as this huge thing that was going on inside me, you know... I would turn to listening to music, or I would sit in my room after school and play. It became a great relief for me, absolutely.

DJ: And therapy has been a help to you as well, I understand, so how much was writing the memoir a therapeutic act?

EA: Yes, very, very therapeutic. When I first became depressed, I went to see a wonderful therapist in Sydney called Dr Adrienne Margarian – she was amazing. She kind of guided me back to being a musician, which is something I let slip in the years I'd been working on the radio. We talked loosely about gender initially back in 2014, but in 2015 I started having some more sessions with her on Skype from Kabul. And again, she was incredibly supportive and positive, and allowed me – as every good therapist should – to find my own true path.

DJ: As a teacher yourself and someone who formerly had a public profile thanks to your respected radio career, to what extent do you feel now that you have a responsibility to younger trans people, to educate society, to have that visibility and acceptance become part of your way of life?

EA: Yeah, absolutely, I think it's really, really important. Just as I think public figures who are gay, who don't come out – I think that's a great shame, because that's just telling the rest of the world this is something to hide, this is something shameful, so I'm quite open about being trans.

I was just in Haigh's Chocolates in Adelaide, buying chocolates for my partner – they're just the best, they're awesome chocolates – and [the shop assistant] asked why I was there. I told her about my book. Initially I just said it was about teaching music in Afghanistan, and she said, 'Oh, should I give it to my son? He's a musician and he's 14.'

I said, 'Well, I'm transgender and it's also about that, so it's completely up to you as a parent what you think is appropriate for him.' And she didn't bat an eyelid – like, nothing. I might as well have said, 'My name is Ed.' She was just completely cool about it. So, absolutely: I think that it's really important that we're open about who we are. I just see it as a medical condition. It's not a mental illness – not to say that having a mental illness is something shameful either, I hasten to add – but it's just a thing. It happens to a few of us, and the more we talk about it, the more people will just go, 'Okay, that's a little bit odd, but that must be hard for you, and let's just get on with life.'

To show myself as much as I can as someone who has dealt with and is continuing to deal with being transgender – to be open about it and to be functioning as well – I think that's really important: that young trans people see that you can transition, you can work in society, that people will still love you, they'll accept you, you can still get a job. And the more there are people like that in society, the quicker we're going to understand it and just deal with it.

DJ: And I think there has been a sort of watershed around all this in the past few years. I saw some footage of you saying you're trying not to regret not doing this sooner, but I think in some ways the timing was perfect, because I think some of those kinds of conversations, and that ease – that societal ease, that actually this is permitted, [and greeted with] tolerance and welcoming – that's probably really only been around the past few years – so life and transition would have potentially both been much, much harder.

EA: Yes, it would. I have so much admiration for people who when they did realise they were trans many years ago – and look, even in 2000 it was going to be hard enough – I have huge admiration and I'm just really grateful, because it's those people who started the ball rolling. At the time, I wasn't brave enough, and they were. They [went to the frontier] and I'm sort of in the vanguard, I'm just following along. So I think that so many people have done so much for me, it's now my duty to carry on that work.

DJ: On that tension between activism and privacy, your privacy now – and to some extent you've chosen this – is enormously compromised, and yet surely committing to transition is one of the most private decisions any human being can make. How do you manage those push-me-pull-you elements of how your life has changed?

EA: Yeah, I think that there are some things I choose not to talk about. You know, very private things I have with my partner, I choose not to talk about them. But the stuff that I think is useful for other people, I'm happy to talk about. I think it's important not to encroach on the privacy of my family and my partner, but apart from that, I think it's okay.

DJ: Let's talk about sleep for a moment. I'm quite interested in insomnia, and I know from war correspondent friends that it's very common for people living in places like Kabul to have very poor sleep, for children as well, and the same for people suffering from depression. Given you were depressed while you were in Kabul, I'm quite interested to know how you were sleeping while you were there and how you're sleeping now.

EA: In the months leading up to Kabul, when I was really struggling in my work and really in the depths of my depression, my sleep was indeed very, very bad. I'd wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning and wouldn't be able to get back to sleep for a couple of hours. It was terrible. But actually when I was in Kabul, because I was so busy – we were working six days a week, long days of easily 12 hours a day – I slept incredibly well for 8 or 9 hours a night, a lot because I was just so exhausted. But then as the gender dysphoria stuff came up, that started to be compromised a bit. Since then, fortunately my sleep's been really, really good – apart from being a bit over-heated in the Brisbane summer.

DJ: In preparation for speaking to you, I've read a number of articles that have run since your book came out last year. I must admit I cried reading the Good Weekend story when I got to the part about your mum and sister. How crucial has Liz and your mum's acceptance been?

EA: Oh, absolutely – it's been fundamental. Their acceptance, but also the acceptance and love from Carol – or Charlie, as I know her – my partner, because she was the original friend who put me in touch with doctors in Brisbane, and who looked after me after my chest surgery, and after that we became partners, and it's just this incredibly powerful love. It's a love that's unconditional – and there are so many trans people who don't have that, who when they say to their family, 'I'm transgender,' even if it's not all the family, some of the family – the mum, the dad, the sister – will give them so, so much hassle – and it's the same for gay people as well. So I'm just so grateful that my family have actually been really incredibly supportive.

And Carol, who indeed originally identified as lesbian herself, she's stayed with me and loves me for who I am, and delights in my transition. Every morning we wake up and she says, 'Oh, Ed, you've got more hair on your face,' or, 'You're looking really masculine,' and you would think in a way that someone who's had lesbian relationships for most of her life, that this would not necessarily be a positive thing, but because she knows how important this is for me, she just delights in my own rebirth, and that's an amazing thing.

DJ: Speaking of delighting in that rebirth, has the depression gone? You've owned who you are, you've taken control of your identity, you're in a loving relationship – has that addressed most of the issues that were driving your depression?

EA: I would say it has, actually, and thank god, because it's such a terrible place to be. I haven't gone back into that real pit, which just seems like something you're never, ever going to get out of. There are some days when I feel a bit flat, but I think that's just the regular rollercoaster of life. So yes, I would say now my depression has completely gone.

DJ: That's so fantastic. In one interview you did, the journalist asked you about living with duality. I think most of us have multiple selves, you present different personas depending on the role you're conducting – I'm me, but I'm also a mother, a friend, all these other ways of being – so because you were born in a female body, and were locked into femaleness for the first half of your life, is there a greater sense of that? Is there a demarcation for you, where you think, I'm more me?

EA: I definitely feel more me, but the thing with duality, it's a bit of a vexed question, because I'm not two people. I've always been this person, but my body's changed and my name's changed. But I'm still the person with the same experiences. I still have the same morals; I still have the same approaches to life. But what I would say is that I can be freer, that I am not living with this feeling of trying to ride with a flat tyre, or trying to do something with one hand tied behind my back. I feel much more capable and in my skin.

DJ: And what about cycling? Are you still cycling as much as you did?

EA: No, I'm not, unfortunately. It's just a matter of time, really. I cycle to work sometimes, and Charlie and I have a tandem now, which is a lot of fun, but we have to get up early in the morning because it's been such a hot summer in Brisbane.

I still do yoga, and that's a never-ending quest to try and get further into a yoga pose. I'm devoting more time to that. One of the things I do in life is race around a bit too much, and I like the discipline of yoga and having to stay on the mat and go within. I think a lot of life has been about running away: you know, going overseas and doing dramatic things, and obviously that's all been a lot of fun, but now I'm much happier staying inside myself and living a simple life. Being at home with Charlie and just trying to be a really good partner to her and good friend to my friends.

DJ: So all that peripatetic stuff, all those years of travelling and some pretty intense experiences on your bike, that could all be put down to wanderlust and just being a natural born travel bug, but to what extent do you think that really was driven by that sense of needing to run from yourself, which of course you can never do?

EA: Yes, that's right. I think it was searching for some sort of answers when I knew there was something I wasn't finding. Somehow I thought that travel might help me. And in fact it did. It was when I was on that big bike ride from London to Hong Kong that I realised I was transgender. It was in Afghanistan that I finally accepted it and decided to do something about it. So travel is incredibly helpful.

Now it's really a feeling that I don't feel that absolute, irresistible desire to travel. If someone handed me a ticket next week to Italy, obviously I'd say, 'Yeah, I'd love to go to Italy,' but I don't have this powerful desire to go. I don't have to go to Italy, I'm happy to go back to Brisbane, happy to see my students and just kind of chill out.

DJ: One of the things that really moved me in the Good Weekend story was your sister Liz railing against the idea of your voice changing. The idea that she would know your voice anywhere on Earth – it still puts a lump in my throat. Now with hormonal changes, and the deepening of your voice – and you're known and had a profile in Australia as a radio presenter, so your voice was your livelihood for a long time – how much are those kinds of changes wrenching for you and your loved ones?

EA: Yes, I also cried when I read that quote from Liz. Because it's true: obviously there have been some losses, for people close to me in that kind of way. I'd like to think on a shallow level that I've still got a nice voice, but I guess the most important thing is that it's my voice, it's my proper voice, and that's worth more than anything.

DJ: Is that how it sounds to you? That must be quite a euphoric moment, to just think, 'Yes! This is how I'm supposed to sound! Here I am.'

EA: Yeah, yeah, it really is. Yes, that's right, and it's been a really funny journey with my voice as well, because I spent so long speaking at a certain pitch. When I first started taking T [testosterone], after about a month, [my voice] started to go low, then it started to get a bit squeaky, just like a teenage boy. I just didn't know how to use my voice, which bit of my throat to speak from, and that's something I feel is still developing. My voice still sometimes goes up and down.

DJ: Has anything else changed? Obviously physical changes, but any tastes as well? The soundtrack to your time is a big part of your book, the Afghani music, classical music and a bit of ABBA as well, but because it's such a reawakening or rebirth, do you think it's opened you up in other areas?

EA: I don't feel like my taste in music has particularly changed, but I think my approach to my instruments has changed a little bit. I've just started learning the piano, and I have this wonderful piano teacher, Helen Devane. She is hilarious because she knows my history and she says, 'Ed, you've got to lighten up.'

I get to the piano and I'm playing my little Grade One pieces, and she says, 'Yeah, that's great, but hello, it's soft there, and it's really soft there...' – so I do kind of go up to the piano and I just go thump, thump, thump, and she says, 'Look, you've got a weight behind you these days, so you've got to find a way of making it a little more delicate.' And she laughs, and I laugh, and it's just become this very funny thing.

DJ: And beyond the book tour, and your writing, what's next for you?

EA: I'm back working at the ABC, I'm doing a visual arts program on RN, which I'm very happy doing. I do that that a couple of days a week. It's great to go into this new discipline of visual arts, which I'm clearly not trained in, so it's wonderful to discover more about that.

DJ: Half your luck – that's a great job.

EA: It is a great job. It's really cool, actually. And I'm teaching a couple of days a week, and then kind of letting things settle a little bit. Whenever anyone asks me, I'm happy to go and talk about transgender stuff, but [I'm] just leading a simple life, meditation and yoga.

DJ: A full but simple life?

EA: Yes, that's right.

DJ: Well, you'll get a very warm welcome at Varuna. What are you looking forward to about your time at the festival?

EA: It's always just so lovely to meet people who used to listen to me on the radio, or people who've read my book, and just to be able to have a chat with them. It's always just a complete delight.

DJ: Congratulations again, Eddie - it's been lovely to talk to you.

Eddie's Varuna/SWF Session details:

Music, Gender and Transformation: The Carrington Hotel, Katoomba. Monday 30 April, 4:00 – 5:00pm, $17.50/$20.00. Bookings essential.

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Clive Jones