My return to Surry Hills was unexpected. I was here in 1984, and just chance and circumstance in life led me back here. If someone had told me this thirty years ago, I just wouldn’t have believed it.
Surry Hills has changed a lot since I first lived here in 1984, somewhere on Bourke St in a run down share house with a punk girl with spiky coloured hair. From here my life choices took me far from Surry Hills, across the country and for many years overseas. .A university education led to a career as a high school teacher. I followed the expected norms of a young man. I got married and had two sons and brought a house. In those 30 years I evolved and grew as did Surry Hills, far from my mind. Fate and circumstance drew me back in 2013. Everything in Sydney seemed so familiar, yet so much had changed. Gone also was the awkward young man of 30 years past, into this space returned a middle aged transgender woman. Like Surry Hills, within me there exists a constantly evolving core essence, shaping the present from the past and the possibilities of the future.
In the same way Redfern is known for its indigenous influences and Newtown for being hip and alternative, surry Hills has its own unique flavour. Not immediately visible if you’re just driving through along Crown or Cleveland St. But scratch beneath the surface and you will find a rich history; reflected in the buildings, streets, parks and shops. Like the community here, I am a participant observer in an emerging historical narrative that is Surry Hills. This is what Surry Hills means to me.
As a community, I see Surry Hills as a microcosm of cultures, and classes. Gentrification and public housing make for odd bedfellows they coexist for now in the layered history of Surry Hills. The working class is squeezed out now. Like Foveaux’s farm or the creeks and streams now buried in pipes or the Pottery on Belvoir St., the namesake of these apartments built on the very site, is the place I now call home.
In 2008 came a life changing struggle. I had lived in Thailand for 12 years. The second year there I met someone named ‘Toy’ and we settled down, for 7 years we were happy together. In 2008 after a prolonged illness in which she drastically lost a lot of weight, Toy was diagnosed with AIDS. I was tested a week later and the results, the same. For this to happen we both must have had HIV for years, but we had no symptoms. Within weeks I was hospitalised with AIDS related pneumonia. In a hospital in the north of Thailand, the love of my life was losing the fight to AIDS related kidney and liver disease. No amount of medical treatment or care helped and she died 5 months after diagnosis. Though not visible to others, losing Toy in this way affected me so very deeply.
As a major turning point in my life, the AIDS diagnosis and the death of Toy tops the list. The effects can be immediate, or take months or even years to manifest. When I left Australia in 2000, I thought I was going on a six month working holiday; that became more than 10 years away. As a turning point, a seed was planted for the person I would become 15 years later. If someone had said to me in 2000 a week before I stepped on that plane to Bangkok, “You’re going to go to Thailand and this and this and this is going to happen to you”, my reply would have been incredulous.
What would I say to my younger self? “Stay the course, grow to be the ‘you’; you need to be. Stay curious, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, dare to dream, read books, if you travel, make it an adventure. Fall in love; find happiness in yourself and love what you have achieved in life. Because in the end; all harvest”.
These days, I like the person I see looking back at me in the mirror each morning and I say ‘life is pretty damn good’. I only wish my family liked that person too. Being transgender and HIV+, maybe is too much for them. I am persona non grata. Perhaps they will come around, perhaps not. The most important thing in my life is I am happy in myself, my life is authentic to the person I am, not one smothered by the expectations of others.