Getting to know Kayleen White

Trans Day of Visibility 2020
Transgender day of visibility

Transgender Day of Visibility: Getting to know Kayleen White

“Believe in yourself more.”

In recognition of Trans Day of Visibility, Pride in Water took the opportunity to talk with Kayleen White a Wastewater Treatment Engineer who was born in Queensland and now lives and works in Melbourne, Victoria. Kayleen has been part of the water industry for 40 years and has been described as a Transgender Warrior helping to improve the rights and wellbeing of the Trans Community.

Kayleen (right) with Julie Peters at a Pride March in 2001

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us, were so glad to be able hear more about your story and time in the water industry. I thought maybe to break the ice you could share a fun fact about yourself?

I lived on a small yacht in a marina in the 90s, and did some experimenting with grey water recycle (but mostly used the marina facilities).

A great double water-themed fun fact! So, what drew you to the water industry initially?

I wanted a way to contribute to people’s quality of life, and initially – in the late 70s, when I was at uni – I was interested in the public health aspects of wastewater management generally. The ability to also contribute to looking after the environment was another attraction – especially when that could be done, by reuse, in a way that contributed to what is now termed a “circular economy”.

There are probably a few of us in the water industry who can relate to being drawn to our industry for similar reasons. Can you tell us why is a day like Trans Day of Visibility important to you?

When I consider the lack of any information, let alone a credible role model, that I endured as a kid in Queensland, I know how important it is for young people to be able to see trans people is. That is the importance of such days for me: it helps saves kids’ lives.

Kayleen White (second from right) talking guests at the opening of the Talbingo waste water treatment plant in 1995

Visibility really is key, and it’s so powerful when you put into context how it can save a younger person’s life. You’re definitely a credible role model especially being a co-founder of Trans Gender Victoria (TGV), what led you to help establish TGV?

In the decades after I transitioned, most of the couple of hundred trans people I knew (through support groups) had lost their jobs at transition- many were being driven to living on the streets. One survived a murder attempts but was in a bad way for quite a while afterwards – and all of us were suffering from the effects of the active discrimination we faced.

We needed legal protection against such overt acts of hate, and that led to the formation of TGV.

It should also be noted TGV was building on decades of prior activism, so we actually had quite a good base to start our work.

That is heart breaking to hear and unfortunately still very relevant even today. Do you think non trans and gender diverse LGBTIQ+ people could do more to support the Trans Community?

I think there are times when the LGBTIQ+ communities need to work together, and times when we’re more effective working on our own.

At the moment, I think the main issue is making sure all of our communities are free of the blight that is “lateral hostility” – for instance, getting rid of biphobia.

Each of our communities – and some people, such as myself, have a foot in several – has strengths and weaknesses.

I agree that it is important that we recognise that we are one big family who should support each other, but also take pride in our individualism. Would you say there are any particular groups or organisations have given you the most support throughout your life?

There have been quite a few, but the one group that stands out from all the others is: my friends.

Friends are so vital, for some of us they are our chosen family! During your career what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the water industry?

There are a few:

  • the move towards a more open delivery of work with the implementation of things like design and construct, Public-Private Partnerships, etc, and the move away from very rigid prescriptive approaches;
  • increased use of automation and online operations; and
  • moves to make the water industry more inclusive.

We haven’t always introduced these changes well, but eventually we learn and get it as close to “right” as we can.

Such interesting periods of evolution to have witnessed. Here at Pride in Water we are all about trying to make the industry more inclusive so it’s good to see it make the list. Do you think we need to do more to make STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) careers in our industry more inclusive for the LGBTIQ+ community?

I think we need to make STEM careers more inclusive for a whole bunch of people – women, other cultures, and the LGBTIQ+ communities.

Kayleen White - 2002 Sydney Gay Games

Kayleen at the opening ceremony of the 2002 Sydney Gay Games where she skippered the highest placed all female sailing crew.

We definitely agree, the more inclusive we are the more likely we are to attract the best and brightest! What do you think we could do better as an industry to support our trans colleagues?

The main thing is to always use the pronouns that are appropriate to the trans/gender diverse (TGD) person. In most cases, particularly for trans people, there are adequate contextual clues (e.g., my email signature block includes my title “Ms”) for the pronouns to use to be clear.

In other cases, there may be a need to ask for the TGD person’s preference. When doing so, given that the question has been used to bully and abuse TGD people, make sure :

  1. the question is ONLY asked in private;
  2. the question is NEVER asked more than once in an organisation;
  3. you preface the question by stating what your pronouns are – don’t say “it is so you can avoid offence” – you’ve likely already caused offence.

If you make an error and use the wrong pronoun, don’t make a big deal out of it: apologise, use the correct pronoun, and move on.

Great advice, especially for people who maybe aren’t familiar about the importance of pronouns. What have you seen that gives you the most hope for our industry?

The quality of younger people coming into the industry.

I think our industry is undergoing an image revamp which is great for the talent it now attracts. If you could give your younger self a message what would you tell them?

Believe in yourself more.

Beautiful, something we can all relate to no doubt. Thank you so much for your time Kayleen.

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To hear more about Kayleen’s incredible life story and her career over 40 years in the water industry (including her colourful alternative career title!) take a listen to the podcast she recently did with Joy 94.9 FM for their Transgender Warriors Show last month.

You can follow Kayleen White on LinkedIn here

Kayleen White (Middle) with Joy presenters Sam Elkin and Gemma