Captain Sarah's Odyssey
The Hobart Citizen of the Year (1998)
"Brian's changed hasn't he? He's now a woman." Rick Parry, brother.
"I tend to see myself as a third gender. I live as a woman. I'm known as a woman, legally I am. However I'm able to use all those things that I learned as a male & put them to good use in my life now. I don't reject my previous life." Captain Sarah Parry, "Windward Bound"
"Obviously I've never made love to a woman & I have no intentions of doing so. I don't put Sarah in a male or female category. That's how I manage... it's just lovely to be together." Jennie Kay, Sarah's partner
This week's Australian Story takes us into a realm some may find difficult to fathom.
Sarah Parry has made headlines as the driving force behind the Matthew Flinders Round Australia Re-enactment voyage.
But until now her unusual personal story has remained very much under wraps.
Sarah spent more than forty years as a man called Brian Parry. Brian served as a naval diver in Vietnam. He was married & his work on building the square-rigger Windward Bound earned him recognition as Hobart's Citizen of the Year in 1998.
But not long after completing Windward Bound, Brian decided to become Sarah.
She now lives in a steady relationship with Hobart pharmacist & mother of three, Jennie Kay, who first fell in love with Sarah when Sarah was Brian.
Sarah & Jennie & their family & friends talk candidly, movingly & humorously about the long & sometimes difficult journey to acceptance.
· 23/9/2002 8:00
Captain Sarah's Odyssey
· Producer: Judy Tierney
· Researcher: Judy Tierney
Hello, I'm Caroline Jones. Tonight's Australian Story takes us into a realm some may find difficult to fathom. Captain Sarah Parry has made headlines as the driving force behind the Matthew Flinders round Australia re-enactment voyage. But until now her unusual personal story has remained pretty much under wraps. Sarah Parry spent more than 40 years of her life as a man, a navy diver who served in Vietnam. Now she lives as a woman in a settled relationship with a partner who first knew & loved her as a man. This is Sarah Parry's story.
SARAH PARRY: It began as a dream to build the ship. It began as a dream to create a project to work with young people. It began as a dream to honour Matthew Flinders.
ABC News, January 26, 1998
REPORTER: The Hobart Citizen of the Year is the coordinator of the 'Windward Bound', a traditional square-rigger built by young volunteers.
Brian Parry: It is certainly recognition of the effort that everybody's put in & particularly the work the kids have put in.
SARAH PARRY: Welcome aboard 'Windward Bound' - that's the first thing I have to say. I'm really looking forward to this voyage. It's long been in my mind as probably one of the more difficult voyages on the coastline because we have no contact with anybody for two weeks.
RICK PARRY, brother: Well, Brian has now changed to Sarah, & that is a big change. Sarah is the captain of a square-rig sailing ship. This sailing ship operates for the purpose of allowing young people a sail training experience that will help them find their inner self & give them a positive experience for the rest of their life.
SARAH PARRY: When I was a teenager I used to fantasise about metamorphing between male & female & back again, because as a young male that was where I was & that was where I obviously was safe, but I wanted to go to the other side, step over the fence, so to speak, & experience what it was like as a woman, but with the ability to step back if I didn't like it.
I was a surfer, a 'surfie' as they were known in those days, with the bleached hair. I used to have a great deal of difficulty relating to girls at the time because I was in a kind of - I hate to use the term 'no man's land', but that's where I was. I wanted to be like the girls. I wanted to wear what they wore, I wanted to look like they looked, & yet I had this - I wanted to go out with them too.
RICK PARRY: He fell in with a crowd that, in those days, was quite common around the beaches, & they'd jump into a car & they'd be gone for days. Dad didn't necessarily agree with that particular lifestyle & there were a few heated arguments about it. The result of one of those arguments - Brian was off to the recruiting office & in the navy. The best thing that ever happened to him.
SARAH PARRY: Dad was a naval officer & long term, long, long term in the navy. I did my first overseas trip to Borneo, but this is before Vietnam really started to fire. And then in 1965 I was attached to a warship called 'Vendetta' & we went to Vietnam.
We were very thoroughly trained in dismantling mines & bombs & booby traps & setting bombs & booby traps & doing all those sorts of things. You could call it blokey stuff, but I didn't see it as that. I just saw it as fulfilling one of those little goals in my life, those dreams in my life - to be a diver.
REBECCA DJOKIC, niece: The best line - my uncle's a lesbian. That's great. Though, though, I've found out Jennie's not one. I don't know. I don't think so. It hasn't been an issue in that fact because I suppose partly she's still a man, so I sort of think, there's the compromise.
Jennie's been a part of Sarah's life for so long that I think there's already an acceptance of them being very close, so if it's one step further it's probably natural.
SARAH PARRY: I developed a trade as a joiner, & Jennie & her then husband contacted me, & there was a contract to be done on the house that Jennie was living in, which kept me at the house on & off for nearly three years, I suppose.
JENNIE KAY, Sarah's partner: He just seemed to understand exactly what I wanted when we were restoring an old house. I guess it was a sort of spiritual thing. I had not long ago lost my brother - my only brother - & I just felt this natural rapport straightaway & just a comfort.
SARAH PARRY: And she was home looking after her young kids, & we became fairly firm friends. And at that stage - I mean, at that early stage I was still married & she was married & there was no hint of a relationship or anything like that. It was just this almost soul mate friendship developed.
It was in that very early stage of things that I actually told Jennie about my gender dysphoria & the issues involved with that. I'm still to this day not quite sure why I told her when I did, but it just seemed the right thing to do.
JENNIE KAY: In those very early days he had told me that he dressed up, & I guess that's a bit of a measure of the fact that I saw this person as a totally unconditional friend, & I thought, well, I'd heard that people did that - I didn't actually know of anyone &, indeed, I didn't ever see Brian dressed up.
REBECCA DJOKIC: I didn't find out that he was a cross-dresser until afterwards when he came to our family one day & Mum said, "Now, Uncle Brian's coming to visit & there'll be a few changes. He wants to talk to you & let you know what's going on." He came in the door with all these pamphlets. It was like a seminar on the ins & outs. It was like I was back at school. And it really didn't bother me. I think I only read half the literature, but it actually explained a lot to me.
I'm more comfortable with my uncle as 'Aunt Sarah' than I am with Uncle Brian. It's amazing, because there was always something not quite right to me, & now it is, & I'm happy. I'm very content. It's great.
SARAH PARRY: The boat came about because I had this somewhat insane idea that I could build a ship. It developed & grew. There's an old quote that comes out of America that says the idea to build a boat starts like a cloud on a distant horizon until it slowly spreads & fills your whole sky, & you have to build to get your freedom, & that's really the way it does work.
And then I discovered that Tasmania in particular had a severe youth problem, & I thought, well, there's the answer. There's the reason that the boat is being built. At that stage we hadn't had any youth involvement. We were just pottering along, putting the ship together with a bunch of volunteers.
Reporter: The 'Windward Bound' is a project propelled by community spirit.
Brian Parry: They turn up usually every Sunday & we've got several of them here working during the week. They've taken holidays to work on the boat.
RICK PARRY: The project started as something for the disadvantaged & street kids who perhaps hadn't had the opportunity for those experiences, & also to do something that was a little bit out of the norm that would enable them to find ... to find themselves.
SARAH PARRY: These young people - there were five in the group, & they were the outcasts of Hobart society at the time. They'd been in more trouble than you could poke a stick at. One of them had 169 convictions against him at age 19. I said, "We'll give you one day a week." I thought, well, that's a start. And the one-day-a-week scenario lasted about a day & then they turned up for the second, third & fourth day. And in the end they were turning up at 8:30 in the morning & I was sending them home at 11 o'clock at night.
And it wasn't long before they developed a sense of ownership & pride, & it was quite amazing. I found out later that nobody had ever given them that opportunity. Nobody taught them how to use power tools. Nobody had even given them the opportunity to use them.
Volunteer: Been doing the capping rail & the bulwarks & a bit of the steering. Some of the engine & piping & stuff like that.
SARAH PARRY: And then the North Hobart Rotary got involved. They produced these little plaques & we had a little awards night. When this young bloke, who was probably the roughest & toughest of them, stood up & made this quite impassioned speech about how he hadn't had a conviction or he hadn't had a charge since they started working on the ship, & how nobody had ever trusted him before with anything, & here he was receiving an award & he'd never received anything in his life except a sentence.
One of the group of five was a young man called Andrew Duncan who had a sad background. He was an alcoholic. I'd seen this young fellow come through from being a wreck of humanity, basically, & work his way through to being a pretty decent citizen & a pretty decent human being. And his dream - he had this dream just to sail, to get the ship built & then sail.
Well, Andrew, two weeks before the ship was launched, went on a binge on some personal issue, & in the course of which he was arrested. In the middle of the night Andrew had a vomiting attack & died.
It gave me a determination to see the ship move forward in honour of Andrew. In fact, one of the things I did was start a memorial trust to Andrew to raise money to help young people like him.
Reporter: After five years of construction the 'Windeward Bound' came out of hiding. The training ship has been built with the help of more than 70 sponsors who believed in the dream of Brian Parry Adams.
SARAH PARRY: We took Andrew's family & all the other kids who worked on the ship & we went down to the mouth of the Derwent & scattered Andrew's ashes. And that was sort of as close as we could ever get to taking him to sea. So he's permanently at sea.
RICK PARRY, brother: The younger people that are involved in either this voyage or the ship's normal routine - they come aboard for a whole pile of different reasons, & what they get out of it generally isn't what they think they will. At the end of the voyage, invariably people have changed forever some aspect of their outlook on life, their personality, and their approach to events & issues that will come up in their life forever.
SARAH PARRY: After a long period of time, I had a fairly painful separation with my then wife & we went our separate ways, & at that time I started to realise that this other long-held part of me, this long held back part of me needed exploring further.
JENNIE KAY: I was particularly concerned about the timing. I was frightened for her because she was just extricating herself from a marriage, which obviously had been, you know, these things are very traumatic prior to that. And the ship had just been launched & was just establishing itself into the real world.
SARAH PARRY: I'd never been attracted to men & the concept of changing one's gender & therefore having to have a relationship with a male - I mean, this was all the naivety of the time - but that didn't fit, & therefore I didn't fit. And therefore I was somewhat weird, exclusive, in a somewhat weird, exclusive role that I didn't understand & didn't think I could do anything about.
And then I discovered in the course of my things that not all of us were like that, that there were a number of us that actually continued to have relationships with females.
I went to see my GP, or the GP who actually handled Transsexual people in Tasmania or in Hobart, & she put me through a series of medical tests & question & answer sessions. And then came the day when she said that I could start on hormone replacement if I wished, & I was at a point where I was then, by then, quite convinced that that was the direction I was going, that that was what I wanted to do. The gate had been opened.
I'll never forget the very first time I went out with one of the Transsexual girls in Hobart. And I just went out as me. I mean, I was bearded & swarthy & kind of... & I just went out as I was, but I've never been so frightened, I don't think, in my entire life. In all the time I was mucking about in Vietnam with explosives & other things I was doing, I didn't have a fear. I had a respect for what I was doing but not a fear. But this time I was just plain scared.
And so when I was finally given the green light I just simply couldn't wait. One of my Transsexual friends said to me one day, "some of us come out of the closet, some never quite get there. You kicked the whole house down to get out."
RICK PARRY: Truth to tell, the family was probably shocked. Well, definitely we were shocked. The decision that Brian now Sarah made is, you know, a very courageous decision. Wasn't easy, obviously. The most I've ever wanted of any of my siblings was that, you know, they BE happy. Brian has certainly made a physical change to Sarah, but has always been my brother, now my sister - nothing's changed.
JENNIE KAY: As a pharmacist I was concerned about the medication she was taking because we all know that hormones are a powerful drug. I saw this particular decision as a bit irresponsible, so then I probably got a bit cross with her. I was concerned, but I got cross, which I would say is probably a normal reaction. And then, as I realised that there was no way that she was going to change, this is the timing it was to be. I admired her more & more, as I always had, but I got over that frustrated anger & supported her more & more, so much so that I admired her & I fell in love with her because I just think this person is so amazing.
SARAH PARRY: Because of Jennie's conservative background, our whole relationship has never faltered one iota, but it's been a difficult thing for her at times, much more so than for me. I think there were a number of people in Hobart wondered about whether Jennie had fallen out of her tree, so to speak, when our relationship started. But it has been difficult for her, & it's of course been very difficult for her with her children & also her mum & various other people. But I think as time goes by & people realise that, (a) it's a serious relationship &, (b) that we are very good for each other, that all those sorts of feelings settle down & go away. I think the Transsexual issue was probably the biggest hurdle.
JENNIE KAY: Obviously I've never made love to a woman & I have no intentions of doing so. I don't put her in a male or a female category. I think that's how I manage. Basically, I don't think about it because it's just lovely to be together. But I don't ever stop & think, well, this is very different to what it was like. It's just the way it is.
REBECCA DJOKIC: To see them together, they're just hand in hand, meant to be, & it's wonderful. Jennie's just lovely. She lights up a room. And to have the two of them together - it's just infectious to have an enjoyable experience with both of them.
JENNIE KAY: I find it is a truly unconditional love because we're both really busy people. We are apart a lot of the time & I think that the communication is so good. And that's the beauty of having been such wonderful friends for a long time, that - as I said to my children, who obviously found this difficult too - that I've always espoused as a mother, "Never judge a book by its cover. It's underneath what counts." And I didn't ever think I'd be giving them such an amazing example, but that's what I feel it is.
JULIE PODMORE, friend: The rest of her acquaintances & friends probably haven't welcomed Sarah as much as she would have hoped that they would have. I think that's been a bit of a disappointment to her. Her children have found it very hard. And her cheerfulness has been dented a bit. She's very good at maintaining a good front & so, but those of us who know her well understand that it's actually been extremely difficult for her.
JENNIE KAY: I think the worst part has no doubt been the awful trauma it's caused in my relationship with my children. It caused dreadful trauma. And, because I can't... I'm being true to myself, & I've always had a really good relationship with them, & I've still got complete faith that it'll all work out & they'll see it for what it is.
I said I wouldn't ever be able to call her Sarah, & I obviously do that quite naturally now. I still have a problem with her wearing a bra & wearing her hair up. Now, she's got beautiful hair, so she wears it up & she does it very cleverly. There are various items of clothing - I guess I veer towards the androgynous in preference.
And yet if we do look at clothes together, she's lovely & tall & she can wear beautiful, classic cuts too. And I'm quite happy for her to wear a long shirt or long jacket or something like that.
SARAH PARRY: I have no desire for the operation. I don't need to prove anything to myself. I'm very happy with myself & I have no need to go & remove the bits & go through that enormous trauma of creating a vagina & all the other things that go with it.
You know what we women are like - never satisfied with what we've got. We always want to change it, boost it, do something with it, take it away. I suppose the unfortunate thing is that your breast development is genetic, so if your sisters & mother had small breasts then you get small breasts. Blessedly, they didn't have big breasts.
JENNIE KAY: You run the risk of people saying that, you're pushing it in our faces. I mean, again, it's choosing not to worry about what people think. The motivation is that they get to see this person, then they can go away & discuss & process & talk to me about it & realise that, you know, Jennie's not a silly person. She thinks a lot about this person. She's not going to fall in love with somebody who's not a wonderful person.
JULIE PODMORE: I think the real friends of Jennie's have accepted Sarah because they love Jennie, although I guess that's mostly the women. The people that would have been, say, the partners of those women have had much more difficulty in accepting Sarah. I suppose they still feel as though they relate to Sarah as a man, & they can't quite understand... I think they don't know how to behave now this person they knew was a man is a woman.
SARAH PARRY: In some respects I think we both see me as a third gender, & yet at other times she certainly treats me as a woman. She still likes the little bits of chivalry that I remember as a male, like opening doors & various other things. I'm more than happy to do that because there is a kind of, sort of male-femaleness about our relationship. I'm working both ways, really.
When I'm away from Jen I miss her terribly. We've been such close friends for so many years; we know each other so well. We talk to each other constantly on the phone. And even though she may be - I suppose from Darwin to Hobart must be a couple of thousand miles - it doesn't feel like that. It feels like she's at shore waiting for us to come back.
I had two dreams in my life, & one was to build the ship, & I achieved that, & one was to become a woman, & I thought that was an unattainable dream. Then, Jennie's & my relationship developed, & that's been the most wonderful thing of all. We're just two people who love each other. We have a fantastic friendship & a fantastic relationship. It's unconventional, I suppose, in many ways, but it works, & it doesn't pay to question it as far as I'm concerned. And with all those things happening, what more can anyone want?
The 'Windeward Bound' is currently-(23/9/2002)-off the coast of Western Australia. The re-enactment voyage will continue until the middle of next year.
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