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Cate McGregor - The Secret I Kept For 50 Years


By Caroline Overington

The Australian Women's Weekly, January 2015



THERE IS an old saying, often attributed to Dr Seuss, about how you should give up pretending and just be who you are because

Those who mind don’t matter

And those who matter won’t mind.

Easier said than done, of course, especially when you’re keeping a secret as significant as the one that Lieutenant Colonel Cate McGregor AM – formerly Lieutenant Colonel Malcolm McGregor AM – kept for nigh on 50 years.

Cate was born a boy, but she always felt like a girl. She tried to hide it, at first by getting drunk and later by flexing the masculine side of her personality as a soldier in our armed forces, but, she says, “it got to the point, in my mid-50s, where I could not stand it anymore. “The sense that I should be living as a woman was overwhelming. I could
not get a moment’s peace from that idea. I started having panic attacks. It was either face up to it or suicide.”

And so, a little over two years ago, Cate began having what she describes as the toughest conversations of her life. Her parents had already died, but Cate – or Malcolm, as she was then – was married, so her wife had to be told, as did her boss, who is the hyper-masculine, khaki-clad Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison AO.

Then there was the fact that one of Cate’s closest friends – a man she’d played rugby with – is the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.

“I knew I’d have to tell him,” she says, “because our friendship is one of the oldest, most continuous friendships of my life.”

And what did Mr Abbott say?

“I got the most loving response,” says Cate, delighted. “He said, ‘Look, it changes nothing.’ Then he said, ‘What’s your preferred name now?’ And ever since, he’s called me Cate.”




IT MUST BE wonderful to go through life, always being sure and never being fearful, but it’s not really human, is it?

It’s much more human to fret and worry, and these Cate has done.  

As hard as it is to believe now, Cate was born Malcolm McGregor in Toowoomba, Queensland in 1956, and she had misgivings about her gender from the earliest age, but could not find a way to express the idea.

“I was fascinated with women’s clothes, but I’d tried on Mum’s dresses and I’d gotten into awful trouble, so I never did it again,” she says. Cate’s father died when she was eight and a fear of abandonment as well as confusion about her gender settled into her bones.

“There’s no way I can explain it. I simply felt uncomfortable – terribly, horribly uncomfortable – being me,” she says.

Cate’s sister, Mary Saunders, who is 16 years older, says her memory of Cate as a little boy is that, “she was very shy and quite timid. But I never suspected her troubles with gender. And I have been thinking, maybe Cate being so brilliant and successful at everything masked her inner turmoil.”
Cate was smart-as-a-whip at school and probably could have done anything, but because her father had fought at Kokoda and her grandfather at Fromelles, she joined the Army at the earliest possible opportunity, in 1974. “It was a way of connecting with my father,” she says, “and I had an idea about the military being the ultimate expression of masculinity. But I wasn’t thinking, this will make me a man. It wasn’t as conscious as that.”

The current Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison AO, remembers meeting the young Malcolm McGregor in 1980, when they served together in an infantry battalion in Brisbane.

“I was the new boy, recently graduated from the Officer Cadet School, Portsea, and Mal was a Duntroon graduate of two years before,” he says. “The relationship was strong, but brief. Mal was promoted to captain and, in that contrarian way that has surfaced from time to time in his life, promptly left the Army.”

Looking back now, Cate says she did so “in a fit of pique and as an alcoholic”. She was quite certain that she could 

make her mark in the Army – perhaps become a general – but she had “a restless disposition. I was very ambitious, but there was no war on and promotion was slow. I was drinking a lot and I was arrogant, and I thought, I can do better than this and I’m out of here.”

Cate’s appetite for self-destruction – especially her heavy drinking – led her to a counsellor and, in 1985, she was

diagnosed as “transgender” (somebody who feels they’ve been assigned the wrong gender at birth).

“The idea of living as a woman was enthralling, but the fear of losing relationships – and my career – was too great,” she says. “I had no experience of transgender women, except as showgirls on the fringes of the sex trade. I didn’t know anyone who was a lawyer or an Army officer.”

The only option, she thought, was to white-knuckle through the diagnosis. Cate quit drinking in 1990, joined a law firm and from there went into politics, working for (and falling out with) both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party (working for former NSW Premier Bob Carr and as a consultant to the former Liberal leader, John Hewson). 

When politics finally spat her out, the then editor of the Financial Review, Greg Hywood, picked Malcolm up as a political correspondent.

“I was doing everything I could to hold things together,” says Cate, “but in reality, I was in a state of endless anxiety. From about 1989 onwards, I was trying so hard to answer the question: who am I?”

In 2000, she reversed her decision to quit the Army, re-joining in time to lend a hand in Timor.

“There was a tranche of officers who joined between the late 1970s and the early 1980s, who never went to war,” she says, “and some of us felt that we weren’t proper soldiers because we did not have ribbons on our shirts.”

Her service in Timor – still as Malcolm – “resolved something for me. But the deep disquiet, the questions I had about myself, did not go away.”

In 1995, Cate met the woman who became her wife (she has asked The Weekly not to reveal her name or refer at all to her experience of their relationship) and says, “From that day on, I was deeply in love. I had met my soul mate, the person I was meant to be with and I adored her to bits.” (The two are still working through their hurt, but remain friends. Indeed, they still get together in the Canberra home they once shared, to sit on the couch, eat takeaway and binge-watch their favourite TV programs.)

“But by 2011, I was in very bad shape,” Cate says. “I was boiling over with the idea that I was living the wrong gender. ➤

“I simply felt uncomfortable – terribly, horribly uncomfortable – being me.”

I can’t convey, I don’t have the language to explain what it was like to live in that turmoil, but it was a nightmare. I could barely sleep. I was dramatically losing weight. The monomaniacal thought that I was meant to be a woman, that persistent conviction, never left me. I did not get a second of rest from that idea and it feels like you’re going to explode.”

She went back to the psychiatrist who said, “It’s a no-brainer. You are transgender.”

“I was waiting for somebody to say, here, take this pill and it will all be fine,” says Cate, “and he said, it won’t be fine, can’t you see that? I said, but I’m an infantry officer, I’m married, it’s too late, I’m 50-something years old, it’s
not an option. He said, I’m puzzled you’ve got this far.

“But I was still so scared. I thought, my fate is to be a tragic figure, socially ostracised. And that was frightening, but the greatest loss would be my marriage. I knew I would lose my wife and I was completely in love with her, and it broke my heart.”

Cate’s wife was, of course, the first person she told and details of that conversation remain private. Her sister, Mary, was “absolutely stunned, but decided that, no matter what, Cate is still my flesh and blood, the same beautiful human being, and I wanted to be there as a strong support.’

Then came Cate’s immediate boss – the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Morrison, who, in case you’re wondering, is not very smiley and wears combat fatigues. “I was really taken aback, as I had no inkling that this was the

over-riding issue in [Malcolm’s] life,” says Lieutenant General Morrison. “I thought about it, but only briefly, before I concluded that this was the time to step forward and provide support. She is my mate. I don’t care what the person I used to know as Mal looks like now. I do care and deeply about her wellbeing.”

Next came selected friends. Besides being a soldier, Malcolm McGregor was a brilliant young cricketer and, more recently, has written about cricket for newspapers and magazines. Some cricket friends were told directly, others received the final pages of Malcolm’s recent book, An Indian Summer of Cricket, in which she revealed that while Malcolm had written the book, Cate would be attending the launch.

The response from all was pretty much the same: surprise, followed by immediate acceptance and even from one colleague, “Well, thank God, because from the way you looked, I thought you were going to tell me it was something serious, like cancer.’

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, had Cate over for dinner, and says, “She’s one of the most courageous women I know. My family felt privileged to meet her. I am thankful to Cate for personalising her experience and explaining it in terms the kids could understand, broadening their horizons and reinforcing just how important it is to accept people for who they are.”

Prime Minister Abbott was likewise filled with admiration. “We first met when we were in our early 20s and we’ve known each other quite well for more than 30 years and very well over the past decade,” Mr Abbott tells The Weekly.

“Of course, Cate’s been through a very difficult transition in which a lot of friendships have been tested. For my part, I really admire her honesty, her strength and the fact that she’s been prepared to embark on what must have been an utterly daunting journey. I regard myself as blessed to have such a friend.”

And so, in June 2012, Malcolm took leave from the Army and began taking a testosterone blocker and an oestrogen supplement. She stopped cutting her hair, changed her name to Cate and, in September of the same year, returned to work with a khaki skirt and red manicure.

Cate is not the only serving member of the military who is transgendered – there are 15 just like her – but she is the highest ranked and, as Lieutenant General Morrison’s chief speechwriter, she has the highest profile, not least because she wrote the stirring address that Morrison gave in the wake of this year’s Army sex scandal. Those who haven’t seen the speech should go and look it up on YouTube. Speaking directly to camera, a bluntly spoken Lieutenant General Morrison says that those who feel the need to humiliate female soldiers should get out of the armed forces, adding, “You may find another employer where your attitude and behaviour is acceptable. But I doubt it.”

The speech has been viewed more than 1.3 million times, which makes it sound like Cate has had a dream run, but of course, that’s not true. She has endured a vicious campaign of online abuse and she has occasionally bitten back and had to be disciplined. “I can now see that the abuse was designed to drive me from the Army,” Cate says, “and I refused to let them win.”

Of course, there are still people who say, whatever floats your boat, but Cate isn’t a woman because she doesn’t have a vulva. She has male chromosomes. She has no ovaries, no uterus and she will never menstruate.

To be clear, Cate agrees – she isn’t saying that she is a woman, either, only that she lives as one. “My experience of what it’s like to be a woman is obviously different to that of a born-woman,” she says, “but I express my gender as female.”

She holds a passport and driver’s licence on which she is identified as female. She has not changed her birth certificate and says she may not because, “in a funny way, I feel my mum and dad thought they had a little boy and they called him Malcolm, and at this stage, I don’t feel the need to unscramble that.”

Before starting on oestrogen, Cate feared she’d never become what she calls “passable, as a woman”, but the hormone has worked its magic. She has become slimmer and her shape is more feminine – there is a curve to her hip and she does need a bra. She arrived at The Weekly’s shoot in heels and red lipstick. She was a little anxious about her arms – they’re well-muscled – but joked about it, saying, “Here’s a tip – if you’re going to transition to a woman, don’t do it after spending 45 years in the gym”.

“This is an important day for me,” Cate says. “It’s of such symbolic acceptance, to be embraced as a woman by The Australian Women’s Weekly – I’m tickled pink.

“I used to fear that nobody would take me seriously and to go to the shop, to pick up the newspaper and
to have somebody say, ‘Ma’am’, it’s bliss. The first time, it’s like a bolt of electricity goes through you. Now it happens routinely and, to me, it means that people are taking my claim to femaleness seriously.”

Tony Abbott certainly does. They met up recently and instead of shaking her hand, he kissed her cheek.

There is an operation – gender re-assignment – that involves the removal of the penis and testes, and may also involve breast implants and facial surgery to soften the jaw. Cate hasn’t had any of it, but says she will, “or, at least, I’m pretty sure that I will. Let’s say, I’m 80-20 leaning towards it. Not the breast implants and I have a reasonably soft mandible [jawline] anyway, but it’s funny how discordant it feels to have male genitals when everything else is different. It’s about being congruent in your identity. I would like to feel whole.”

There’s quite a bit of maintenance involved (transgender women generally have to use a stent or dilator three or four times a day after surgery to keep their new vaginal cavity open, plus the new vagina won’t self-lubricate.) There would be obvious benefits. Cate would be able to sit down to pee and wear a swimsuit without getting strange looks (she loves to swim), and, in theory, she should be able to have penetrative intercourse with a man and probably reach orgasm.

On the other hand – and given Cate’s euphoria at her transition, it feels mutinous to even bring this up – there is a phenomenon known as “sex change regret” in which people who have the operation desperately wish they hadn’t.

The most famous Australian case of regret is probably that of the “Boy, Interrupted”, Alan Finch, a coalminer’s son, who had sex change surgery at age 21 to become Helen, but bitterly regretted it. Alan featured in an episode of the ABC’s Australian Story in 2003, with his psychiatrist, the Melbourne-based Dr Byron Rigby, saying that he’d never been transgendered, merely confused about having grown-up without a father figure. He went back to living as a man, but without a penis (The Weekly tried to find Alan, but could not.)  

There’s Mike Penner, a well- known sports writer for the Los Angeles Times, who took time
off work in 2007 and returned as Christine Daniels, saying that her transition to female had brought her “more joy and fulfilment than you ever imagined possible”. Christine gave speeches to transgender groups, was profiled in Sports Illustrated and wrote a blog for the Times called A Woman in Progress, but after two years, she again
took time off and returned to the sports pages as Mike. The change was never explained and the story doesn’t end well – Mike committed suicide in 2009 with the exhaust from his car.

Cate is an avid reader and she has an open, curious mind. She understand that “sex change regret” is a real phenomenon and she agrees that some people, “can make a mistake. And if there are cases where people have gone back, per se, they made a mistake.'

“But I am not in any doubt that I am living the right gender now. I didn’t go to a doctor and say, I think I’m a giraffe, or I want to be a whoopee cushion. I said, I think I’m a woman and I’ve felt that since I was very young. And now that I live as a woman, I’m euphoric.”

She would, however, exercise caution with regard to transgender children. The Family Court of Australia routinely allows parents to delay puberty in their children, provided those children have been diagnosed with a gender identity disorder, but it does not allow them to be castrated (two such cases went through the courts in August and both children were approved for treatment).

Reputable surgeons generally won’t operate on patients who haven’t lived as a woman for at least 12 months. Cate’s in that zone, but says she’s in no hurry and, anyway, her metamorphosis extends beyond the physical. 

“Christmas shopping used to be a mad rush on Christmas Eve and now I can linger, and enjoy the process,” she says.

And it’s the same with lipstick and pretty clothes, and heeled shoes, all of which now appeal to her.

“Transgender women are a challenge to feminists. They think we are all silly and ditzy about make-up and hair, but when you’ve repressed your gender for so long, there is a tendency to adopt the very stereotypical female behaviour,” Cate says.

“My sisters are glamorous and well- groomed, and I aspire to that. I would love to present as well as Quentin Bryce when I’m in my 70s.” 

To that end, Cate has recently flagged her intention to quit the military in July next year.

“I have worked in a masculine environment for a very long time,” she says, “and now I am 57 years old and I want to live as female, to the fullest extent possible, for however long I have left. I have a yearning to retrain as a Qantas flight attendant. That is a feminine occupation. Making cups of tea for people on an aeroplane, serving people and being kind
to them, is more appealing to me now than sitting down, planning our next war.’

She’s still going to write about cricket and enjoys the practice nets. “My batting has actually improved,” she says, “maybe because I’m comfortable in my body”, and she was last month appointed selector for the Prime Minister’s XI annual cricket match, which thrills her to bits.

As to Cate’s sexuality, well, it’s delicate. “I was always attracted to women and I remain attracted to women,” she says, “but I’m celibate.”

So, she was never a homosexual man? “No.”

And would she now be a lesbian woman? “Well, yes, technically, but I’m in a seismic change of life and my libido is low. I’m not drawn sexually to men, but I’m not active sexually, either.”

More important is the way Cate feels about herself. She is perched on a stool in front of The Weekly’s make-up mirror, with a killer heel dangling from her foot and the makings of a furious blister on her heel, but she is grinning like a cat that got the cream.

“The feeling of harmony is enormous,” Cate says. “And I hope this isn’t too morbid, but I’ve also lost my fear of death. I used to fear that I might die without the people I love ever having known me. But now I have shown

who I really am and if I go tomorrow, at least I go complete.” ■ 

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