Culture

The McIver’s Ladies Baths Is An Oasis For All Women

"It was like a vision of heaven in there. I went for a swim and left quietly a few hours later, glowing. I felt so seamlessly accepted, so safe. It was one of my happiest days."

McIver's Ladies Baths

The first time I went to McIver’s Ladies Baths in Sydney, I was ready for a fight.

It was Boxing Day 2016 and my new Australian passport had arrived on Christmas Eve, with gender marker ‘F’ for female. This was my first ever ID to indicate that I am a woman — a federally issued document, recognised internationally. I still had a dick. Earlier I had asked in a trans women’s Facebook support group if anyone had been to McIver’s before. I remember reading a comment that said, “As long as you’re not waving it around doing helicopters, you’ll be fine.” So I went down to Coogee literally clutching my passport, as if I was going to some distant foreign land. I had my side of the argument ready.

I threw a gold coin in the bucket and the nice lady smiled. Absolutely nothing happened. Nobody cared, nobody looked at me twice. It was like a vision of heaven in there. I went for a swim and left quietly a few hours later, glowing. I felt so seamlessly accepted, so safe. It was one of my happiest days.

This has consistently been my experience at McIver’s ever since. No drama, no discrimination, not even a dirty look. I went there for years when I needed peace. I started telling people that I wanted my ashes there after I died. I couldn’t think of a better place for my soul to end up, a perpetual oasis of calm, secure in the identity I fought long and hard for.

Earlier this year, I took another trans woman there. It was her first time swimming in public since coming out. I don’t have a dick anymore, but she does. Again — nobody noticed, nobody said anything, nothing happened to either of us. She was so happy.

When I first heard outrage on Twitter that McIver’s had a discriminatory rule on the books, I tried to shut the story down.

Someone had called attention to the fact that their website apparently specifies a rule that trans women need to have had the surgery to be able to enter, vaguely citing an exemption to the Anti-Discrimination Act.

I knew that they were legally allowed to refuse men, but the trans stuff was news to me. As a rule it seemed unenforceable, and it also made little sense under what I knew of that Act and Australian law generally. I’d never looked at the McIver’s website before, and I’d never had anything but acceptance there in practice. It scared me to think of messing with a situation like that.

Media exposure is often a bad thing.

I thought back to stories I’d heard from older trans women who lived quiet and peaceful lives until Caitlyn Jenner came out, when they suddenly became a “debate.” I thought of horrible stories I’d heard about a similar situation to McIver’s at Hampstead Heath Ladies’ Pond in the UK — ravenous tabloids having a field day with it, men showing up at the gates to enforce who is and isn’t a woman.

I didn’t think drawing the public eye to McIver’s or attempting to change a rule that as far as I knew only existed on paper would help us one bit. I encouraged everyone to keep this hush, that if they really wanted to do something about it they should contact the council about it privately and through trans advocacy groups and leave it at that.

Another trans woman messaged me and told me I was wrong. She said that the tide had turned long ago and the community would back us now. She said the letter of the law didn’t so much matter as the acceptance of the public. She said not everyone’s experiences had been as good as mine, so this really mattered. She said making a fuss would tip McIver’s over into formally being inclusive, and that people would then feel safe going who don’t feel safe going now. She felt a culture war over it was unlikely.

I hope with all my heart that I was wrong and she was right.

Strictly speaking, this so-called “ban” doesn’t affect me personally at all. I have a vagina now and all my documentation has changed. They would have no grounds to keep me out. But that’s not the point. I cannot in good conscience go anywhere that defines “women and girls” in this way. I am the same woman now that I always was.

I could also talk all day about the absurd grey areas of Australian transgender identity law. It’s not as simple as “you get the surgery, you can change your birth certificate.” Not at all. There are clashing federal and state laws and a whole heap of other complications.

Hypothetically, under what McIver’s want to enforce, a trans woman born in Victoria with an intact dick could go to McIver’s but not a woman in the same situation who was born in NSW.

I’m imagining both of them going together, each bringing 100 points of ID to the beach, both having been told their federally issued passports that say ‘F’ aren’t enough, taking their birth certificates out of manila folders in their backpacks, next to the towel and sunscreen. I’m imagining them trying to explain how a NSW birth certificate can say “Male” while an Australian passport for the same person can say “Female” and both documents can be valid. I’m imagining them arguing with the nice volunteer lady who sits next to the donation bucket, trying to determine who counts as a woman for the purposes of this one place and who doesn’t.

I’m imagining butch cis women, who often look more masculine than any trans woman I have ever known, being asked to either prove themselves with ID or, I guess, drop their pants. I’ve often seen Muslim women at McIver’s — I’m wondering if they’ll get asked about their genitals too. I’m imagining the bucket lady being sternly instructed to scrutinise the crotch of everyone who enters, then ask what state they were born in, and then ask if they’ve done the paperwork with their local Births, Deaths and Marriages. I don’t think any of this is ever going to happen. But that’s not the point either.

My Dad once complained that if I died before him and my ashes ended up at McIver’s, he wouldn’t be able to visit me. Frankly, I can live with that. But if there aren’t trans women in heaven, I’d rather end up in hell.


Joni Nelson is a trans woman from Sydney, now living in Melbourne, who comes home as often as she can.