If she wanted to, and she probably doesn’t, Trans performer Judy O’Brien could tell the story of her life through A-ha moments. It might start with the summer she was seven years old and buried her My Little Pony.
Judy, who was assigned male at birth, found a trowel, dug a hole and covered her beloved sparkly doll with dirt.
“Even at that age I was scared that people would see me with this girly doll so I hid her,” explains Judy, now 39 and the Culture, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at New Zealand Rugby.
“A boy at school played with Barbie dolls and I saw how he had been treated so I knew it wasn’t safe to be different.”
Tall, elegant and with a tousle of blond hair she constantly tucks behind her ears, Judy counts off another significant moment – when she was 14 and wearing pigtails and a purple blouse to a mufti day at Papakura’s Rosehill College, a get-up that attracted side-eyes and nasty slurs.
“It was the first time I was able to present a more realistic version of myself but I was made to feel that I was wrong. It showed me how narrow minded people can be when you don’t fit into their world view.”
Things got worse before they got better, exacerbated by puberty “which didn’t feel like a puberty my body should be going through”.
There was a breakthrough of sorts in the goth scene, which allowed Judy to engage with others who also didn’t fit the norm. “If people were going to treat me like an outsider then I decided I would own that as my identity.”
Home life brought its own challenges: Judy’s parents divorced when she was nine and she moved to Palmerston North to be closer to her mother’s whānau. A year later there was another move, back to Papakura to live with her grandparents.
“My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor from Vienna, an incredibly resilient woman who’d been through so much trauma in her life. She was one of my primary caregivers and taught me a lot about resilience.”
And confidence. By then in her last year of high school, and identifying as bisexual, Judy was ready to claim her “fabulous self”, experimenting with her look and staring down those who dared to toss the word ‘faggot’ her way.
Despite bouts of depression, Judy did well academically and in 2002 enrolled in a psychology degree at Auckland University.
She found her tribe among the other psychology students in her halls of residence “(It seemed that we all had some kind of trauma in our backgrounds”). All was going well until one of those students hung herself. “We were going out for the night and she went back to her room and killed herself.”
The pain of that loss, 20+ years later, still resonates. At the time it nudged Judy towards the open arms of the trans community, drag queens and gender nonconforming people.
She’d harboured a fascination with drag since tricking her father into taking her to see Priscilla Queen of the Desert when she was 11.
“I told Dad it was a road movie! But I’d never seen drag queens or trans people in mainstream media before so it blew my mind. I was like, how do I do that? How do I become like them? It was the first time I realised that people like me could take up space.”
She found a ‘Drag Mother’, well-known performer Michael Pattison, who taught her how to walk, dress, do her makeup and rock a wig. “I learned how to bring out my fabulousness, to put on a face that was more real than the face I was born with.”
Telling her deeply religious family was another matter.
“One day I was wearing full slap [makeup] and Dad came home. He said, you look gorgeous, will we be seeing you like this more often? It was a huge relief because I thought he would throw me out or disown me. Yet he changed his very Catholic view of the world for his child.”
Judy’s father even bankrolled her first pageant, Miss Drag Auckland 2004, which she won.
After graduating, Judy moved to Wellington to work for the Ministry of Justice on a sexual violence taskforce. Her boyfriend of the time, later her husband, moved with her. But a year later he accepted a place in Toronto to do his PhD and so they moved to Canada’s east coast for six years.
Unable to find a job Judy turned to drag performing and MCing events, her sharp wit and personality soon making her Toronto’s ‘IT’ trans girl. Some of the more notable inclusions on her CV include a feature film, a short film and playing the Virgin Mary in a video for US rockers Fall Out Boy.
While Judy is at pains to say that not every trans woman wants or needs hormone therapy and surgery, she did. In 2011 she started on the former, followed 18 months later by a series of surgeries to medically transition.
For Judy, the benchmark was being able to ‘pass’ as a woman. “My goal was to been seen as a woman based on the understanding of what a woman looks like.”
After her marriage broke up, Judy came back to Wellington, wielding her long blonde hair and beautifully made up face as a weapon.
“It was my armour so that no-one would challenge me.”
The planets eventually aligned with Judy’s dream job – project manager for Wellington’s Sexual Abuse Prevention Network (later rebranded as RespectEd Aoteroa) where she also lived on the front-line of diversity and inclusion mahi. That included working with parents of gay youth and supporting gay and trans youth.
But in 2021, while applying for another job, the Seek algorithm suggested Judy might be keen on the New Zealand Rugby role.
Turns out Trans performer Judy O’Brien was very keen. “I’d been writing a column for Express Magazine on trans issues and one of the topics I’d written about was trans women rugby players so I was interested in this area. Plus, I played one season of rugby as a kid!”
Two years down the track and Judy and her five staff spend their working hours trying to make rugby more inclusive to all New Zealanders, but particularly women, Māori, Pasifika and the rainbow community.
“Our aim is for anyone of any ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation to see themselves represented in rugby.”
While Judy had scaled back her performance work while she bedded in the day job, she’s now got the head space to be able to dust off the sequins.
That includes hosting Loud & Queer in Wellington on Saturday 20 May under her stage name, Judy Virago. The one-night comedy extravaganza is part of the NZ International Comedy Festival.
“I’ll be co-hosting with comedian Tom Sainsbury who I did a play with 20 years at Auckland University. We actually got married on stage in that play! I’m looking forward to working with Tom again on this production which will feature comedy, drag queens and a lot of fun.”
Judy is such good fun that we’ve overshot our interview time and she needs to get to a meeting.
I ask her what the future holds and she mentions her partner, who she lives with in Wellington but doesn’t want to name, and the A-ha moments he’s provided.
“When I married my ex husband in a platonic union, I think part of me never really believed I would ever find romantic love. It didn’t feel like an option for me as a trans woman and very rarely do we ever see positive representation of trans people in loving relationships. But since finding my partner, he’s supported me to take on major challenges, just by being in my corner. There are hateful, harmful, voices out there trying to silence and eradicate women like me.
I’ve lost so many friends and sisters to premature deaths caused by transphobia, homophobia, murder and suicide. I’ve been verbally, physically, sexually, socially and psychologically assaulted throughout various points of my life, just for being different. But my partner showed me what it’s like to feel safe, secure and loved for everything I am and have been. And he provided space in my life for a journey of healing from all of that trauma.”