His comment stayed with me. Gay men and lesbians have become increasingly concerned about what will happen to them as they age, but trans folk have more to be concerned about and fewer people to speak for them. How will they fare in the hospitals, the nursing homes? Indeed, how are they faring now? I resolved to write something about this.
My chance came when a friend put me in touch a woman who was once married to Peter Wherrett. To many young people this name may mean nothing, but when I was a kid Peter Wherrett was one of the biggest names on television. I had read the memoir ‘Desirelines,’ that he wrote with his brother Richard.
‘Desirelines’ traces the brothers’ history of a traumatic childhood at the hands of a violent, alcoholic father, who was also a cross-dresser. Having known some of these things in my own childhood, the book touched me deeply. The Wherrett brothers, though, were highly successful. Richard Wherrett was the founding director of the Sydney Theatre Company, while Peter became a motoring journalist. In the 1970s, Peter Wherrett was a household name. He hosted a show about cars called ‘Torque’: Mitsubishi named a special edition car after him, and one can still see his reviews of the great Kingswoods and Falcons on Youtube.
But Peter Wherrett had another life. Like his father, he was a cross-dresser. Desirelines was his coming out. The Seahorse Society, one of Australia’s largest cross-dressing groups, called him “an icon in the CD/TG community”. I had heard that in his final years he chose to live full-time as a woman. It was, he said, ‘my last great achievement’.
Wherrett died in 2009, at a hospice in Lake Macquarie.
It was these last years that interested me most. What happened at the end? How did the doctors and hospitals deal with this “outspoken and proudly outrageous” cross dresser?
Wherrett’s second wife, Lesley, knew the story. She was with him when he died, and wrote his obituary. A warm, vibrant woman, she welcomed me into her home in Bondi and talked openly about her years with Wherrett.
‘Peter and I got on extremely well,’ Lesley recalled. ‘He had a real...well, it was his female side. He could be very sensitive, loads of empathy. He liked women, liked talking to women. He was interested in the things that women are interested in and let’s face it, most blokes aren’t. Spending time with him was like spending time with one of your girlfriends.’
I noted the male name, the masculine pronoun.
‘You call him Peter?’ I queried.
‘Yes, because that’s how I knew him. And that’s how he died - as Peter.’
I had had a different impression. Perhaps I had been misinformed, I thought.
‘When we first got together he didn’t dress,’ she went on. ‘He didn’t need to. At least, not that I was aware of. I know now that he lied about some things and he may have been dressing, but if he was I wasn’t aware of it. He only started dressing again when he started having problems at work.’
Lesley didn’t hide her feelings about this. ‘He didn’t dress when I was around. He would go out with his friends - he always had a few friends who were into that too. I ignored it – I was very busy running my own business, so it was easy to ignore it. I wasn’t comfortable with it, no. It might have been different if he had looked glamorous and beautiful, but he didn’t. He looked awful. I remember seeing him dressed once and he dressed just like his mother, which I found quite disturbing. I didn’t like it at all.’
How, I wondered aloud, does one negotiate a relationship under those circumstances? ‘He bought a flat just up the road,’ she explained. ‘And he would go there and dress. He had another name and a whole internet persona that was female. He would call me and his voice was different - I knew he was dressing. He did that more and more. Eventually he insisted that he was going to dress at home, and that’s when we parted company. The more he dressed, the less I wanted him. And the more he did it, I think the less he wanted me - the less interested he was in me, so I asked him to leave.’
The couple remained friends. Making a friend of an ex-partner gives credit to anyone and in Lesley I could see that generosity of spirit. ‘We always stayed in touch. He was a great friend,’ she said. ‘Just not great as a husband.’
‘He married again and what he told me was that she didn’t mind his dressing at all, but in the end that marriage didn't work either. Later he moved up to the central coast and he had a whole circle of friends up there who were into cross-dressing. They loved him - when he got sick, they were very good to him. He began living full time as a woman. When he had to go into hospital, he went as Peta Wilson.’
And what was that like, I probed gently. I tried to picture a seventy year old man dying of prostate cancer in a public hospital - in a dress.
Lesley was emphatic. ‘Oh, it was fine. The people at the hospice were excellent. Nurses are terribly practical people, and they just accepted it and got on with things.’
Bugger, I thought. There goes my story of insensitive, transphobic health services. But there was more...
‘The only time we had a problem was when he stopped dressing,’ Lesley recalled wryly. ‘He was discharged for a while, and he stopped during that time. He said, “I’m giving it up!” Then when he had to go back into the hospice again, they said he needed a new referral, which was just ridiculous – a new referral for the same person!’
So he did stop dressing, after sixty years. So much for my story of transgender identity winning out in the end. Why?
‘He was just too ill,’ Lesley said. ‘He couldn’t keep it up, the hair and the make-up and the manicures and whatnot. He didn’t have the energy. He decided that he would die as a man and be buried as a man. In the end, that’s what he was.’
‘Do you think that’s what it was, that he felt he was really a man?’
‘Yes, I think so,’ she said. There was no trace of triumph in her tone. ‘He didn’t always feel that way, of course. Peter was a complex man, with many facets to his personality. There was always an ambivalence about him.’
Ambivalence. Lesley’s word struck home. Ambivalence is something I know. That feeling of never being quite sure. Suddenly I felt closer to this man I never met.
‘But on the balance of things,’ she mused. ‘That’s where he got to in the end. How do you weigh these things up, over a whole life?’
How indeed? That is a scale that all of us encounter. Each weighs his (or her) own options. And each must do their own private accounting.
‘He could have asked to be buried as a woman in all his finery.’ Lesley added. ‘But he didn’t. He wanted to be buried as a man. In fact, he was adamant about it.’
Wherrett’s decision to be buried as a man was certainly clear, but I was less clear about the reason for it. I tried to imagine the pain of seeing one’s strength and vitality slip away and worse, seeing your gender slip away with it. Of looking in the mirror and seeing that hated gender re-assert itself, and not being able to do anything about it.
“Passing,” is the term that trans people use, to describe living successfully in their preferred gender. For some, a lifetime. For others it may be for a few days, even a few minutes, in a specific situation, with a particular person. ‘She passed,’ people say. ‘Peter was so caught up in this...this fantasy,’ Lesley had said. ‘He used to say, “We get dressed up and go out and nobody knows!” But of course, they just looked like a bunch of middle-aged men in drag – everybody knew.’ Peter Wherrett didn’t pass. He failed.
Nobody talks about failing. But what do you do when you know that you have failed? Fight against it, which would mean asking others to fight on your behalf, and having no control over that struggle, and failing anyway? Or do you accept failure, and stop trying? Refuse to allow that one final public failure, in death?
It was left to Lesley to negotiate his funeral. ‘It was difficult,’ she said sadly. ‘His family weren’t comfortable with his other friends - didn’t want them there. This was part of Peter’s fantasy: he thought everyone accepted his dressing, but they didn’t - not really. I had to insist that some of his friends be invited. It was a very small funeral, quite private.’
I left wondering if Peter Wherrett was really lost in his fantasy, or not lost in it at all. Perhaps he just kept his successes and failures to himself. Private.