“It’s About Restoring Hope”: Inside Melbourne’s First Trans And Gender Diverse Swim Night

For many of those in attendance it was the first time they'd worn a swimsuit in years.

Darebin Gender Diverse Swim Night

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On Saturday evening around 75 people went for a dip at the Reservoir Leisure Centre in Melbourne’s north. For some of those in attendance it was the first time they’d been swimming in years. Stripping down to your togs and revealing your body to the world can make a lot of people feel uncomfortable and anxious. But for members of the trans, gender diverse and non-binary community, those feelings are often amplified a hundredfold.

“Bathers are really tricky,” says Belinda Zipper, who was at the pool on Saturday. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that when you wear bathers in the modern age you’re exposing a lot of your flesh. And it can expose lots of shapes and bumps and lumps that you may not want to show.”

Zipper is in her 40s. She came out as transgender a couple of years ago, but before this week had never been swimming as her female self. “I bought bathers and they’ve just been sitting in my wardrobe,” she tells Junkee. “I’ve been too scared to go to either the beach or the pool in them.”

It was feedback like this, from people like Zipper, that led the Darebin City Council to set up Victoria’s first trans and gender diverse swim night. Held after-hours, the event was open exclusively to trans and gender diverse people, their families and their friends.

“We’ve heard first-hand from our trans and gender diverse community how uncomfortable they can feel in a public pool environment,” said Darebin Mayor Kim Le Cerf in the lead up to the event. “It makes absolute sense to offer them a safe and welcoming place to swim after hours.”

So it was that Belinda, and dozens of others, were able to dust off their swimmers and dive headfirst into the water.

A Safe And Welcoming Place

The idea for the swim night was first put forward by a then-member of Darebin’s Sexuality, Sex and Gender Diversity Advisory Committee.

“One of the last meetings I was at, they were talking about what issues to move forward with, and I suggested that we have a trans and gender diverse night at a pool in a closed session,” Tina Healy tells Junkee. “I put it forward fairly tentatively because I wasn’t sure what people would think. But I was blown away by the enthusiasm for the idea.”

A coordinator with Alphabet Soup, a trans and gender diverse peer support organisation, Healy has worked extensively with members of the community, and says she often hears people expressing similar concerns to those shared by Zipper.

“Trans people often feel that they can’t go to a beach or to a swimming pool,” she says. “Something it’s because they don’t feel safe. Sometimes it might be because of self-esteem issues. But it’s a big issue. I remember it myself, from when I was transitioning.”

“I just thought [the swim night] could be something that could really impact on people’s lives, and make a real difference,” she adds.

Inclusion, Not Division

For the most part, news of the swim night was met with great enthusiasm. But as is inevitably the case when it comes to the rights of LGBTIQ+ people, there was also a backlash. In this case it was small, but still, it was ugly. On Facebook and Twitter and in the comments section below news stories, the initiative was decried by angry conservatives and trolls as reverse discrimination and PC virtue signalling. How could trans people claim to want equality, they asked, while at the same time demanding special treatment?

“There’s a sizable marginalised community that is excluded on a day to day basis,” says Healy, when asked about the backlash to the swim night. “Isolation and loneliness are major factors affecting the quality of life for many [in the] trans, gender diverse and non-binary community, who often feel excluded from events that the rest of the public takes for granted.”

For Zipper, the vitriol expressed by critics drove home why events like this are so important.

“We don’t want to want this,” she says. “I don’t want to wake up and go ‘oh I can only go swimming once a year because that’s when Darebin puts on its swim night’. I’d rather go to my local pool in Richmond and swim any time I like.”

“We only need these swim nights because mainstream society doesn’t accept us,” she adds. “We don’t want to be discriminated for or against. We want to be treated exactly the same as everyone. But even though the laws may treat us the same – legally I can go to a swimming pool and swim – it doesn’t mean there aren’t unspoken rules that make it very uncomfortable and very unsafe for me to do so.”

“The decision by Darebin Council isn’t about division,” says Healy. “It’s a principled move driven by the need for inclusion. It’s about changing people’s lives. Given the horrendous depression and attempted suicide rates in the trans, gender diverse and non-binary community, it can be about restoring hope and saving lives.”

A Beautiful Experience

Despite the trolls, the passion of the community ensured the swim night was an enormous success. A Darebin spokesperson told Junkee the pool was “full of smiles”, and that the feedback they had received on the night had been overwhelmingly positive.

“It was just fantastic,” says Zipper. “It really was a beautiful experience.  I can’t speak for anybody else, but everyone seemed to have a really great time.”

“There was a lot of people. A variety of people — transmasculine, transfeminine, trans male, trans female, gender non-binary people. It was just beautiful.”

Zipper was also full of praise for the organisers. “They had three changing rooms I think – a gender neutral one, and then a male and a female,” she tells us. “The staff were so positive and supportive and enthusiastic. It was so lovely.”

“I grew up in Reservoir,” says Healy. “I can picture myself as a scrawny little kid swimming in the Reservoir pool, hiding a deep secret I could tell no one. I remember how lonely and sad that made me feel sometimes. It was the ’60s. I held no hope of ever living as I truly felt.”

“Who would have though that 50 years later, I would be joining the rest of my trans, gender diverse and non-binary community, swimming in the same pool.”

Based on the reception, Darebin may look at hosting another swim in the future — and Zipper says she would definitely attend again.

“I would go back again, because it was such a great place to be connected with the trans community,” she says.

But perhaps she won’t have to wait that long. Events like the swim night, Zipper tells us, can be a kind of “stepping stone — a little safe space to explore before we go out into the real world.”

“It’s certainly given me the feeling of safety and confidence that I can now reach out further and just go swimming at the beach or pool whenever I like.”

Finally, she can get her money’s worth out of that bathing suit.

Feature image via Reservoir Leisure Centre/Facebook

Tom Clift is Junkee’s after-hours editor, and tweets at @tom_clift