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Journeys through life: Joanna's story

Fri 25 Dec 2015 In: Community View at Wayback View at NDHA

Whether you're g, l, b, t or f, or any of the other sexual minorities that make up our wider community, one of the common experiences we all go through is a journey from what society at large expects of us to what we individually become... something different. Something to come to terms with. Often we also become something we initially didn't understand, at least not fully. Joanna's journey started out as Anthony, a kid brought up in the still class-ridden, austere environment of post-WW2 London, with a fairly rigid family life only leavened a bit by “lots of uncles and aunties who “spoiled me rotten.” Her mum was involved in the repertory theatre circuit, her father was a joiner and cabinetmaker. Despite being discouraged from taking up an entertainment career she got involved in folk music at one stage singing with a young Paul Simon. But the sea and the allure of far away places were calling. On land she was a sales manager and at sea was working as part of a shipwreck salvaging team. “I realised I had at least bisexual tendencies,” she reflects now, but she repressed them. Joanna met a New Zealand girl who, with a hankering for travel and a life at sea, stirred up a longing to leave rigid class-defined Britain. Told she might take thirty years to reach the role of marketing and sales executive because “your grandfather was only a leading seaman wasn't he?” she set up business independently, setting up an encyclopedia sales agency with seven staff. But still the sea called. As Anthony she married the young Kiwi woman and, with the intention of sailing away to a new life together, they set out to build a boat, “but it was a failure... so we got out of that and bought an old boat. She was sixty two years old then and still plies NZ waters to this day, over a hundred years after she was built.” Although dyslexia had held her back in earlier years Joanna now found the flip side of the dyslexia coin was that she was very good with her hands, particularly woodworking. I was no good at book learning but once I'd seen someone do or make something I'd got it.” So the couple upgraded the boat and in 1972 set forth on a two-year journey to the other side of the world. By the time they reached Florida 'Anthony's' wife was pregnant. They seriously considered staying on in the USA, at least until the baby was born, but getting residency and a green card would have also meant becoming eligible to be drafted into the US military for the Vietnam War. It was a one in fifteen chance of ending up getting shot at by the Viet Cong but that was a risk they were not prepared to take, especially with a baby on the way. Briefly tutored by a gynaecologist on how to handle pregnancy and even childbirth, the couple sailed off again, through the Panama Canal and onwards across the wide Pacific to Tahiti, navigating by the stars - a challenge which gave Joanna “a great deal of pleasure.” Her Kiwi parents met the couple in Tahiti. While her wife and her mother flew to NZ Joanna and her father-in-law, a qualified seaman, followed in the boat, just missing out on being present for the birth of their son and grandson by ten days. Soon a second son was born and over the following ten years Joanna built a 62ft kauri ketch and set off to show their children the world. “We wanted them to see the world the way we'd seen it, not through a TV screen.” Along the way the boys attended school in Spain and the family became fluent in Spanish, a skill which held them in good stead when they adopted a young Venezuelan girl. Their family was complete but Joanna was aware that as Anthony her life was not so ship-shape. Increasingly she was becoming aware that she was “attracted to beautiful men in the same way as I was to beautiful women... I was terrified of that.” Settling down in New Zealand she became involved in the marketing side of a construction company. “I rose to the second in charge position and we grew it into a $40 million operation.” Her qualification as a charter captain held her in good stead, and a stint at a shipping brokerage saw her mixing with the likes of Sir Peter Blake in his Ceramco NZ days. It was at this stage that Joanna started writing books, “I found I loved story-telling, initially based on my family history and my sailing experiences.” She wrote under the pseudonyms AJ Pearce and Joanna Jayne St John, the latter more fancifully inclined, “in fact a bit raunchy.” AJ Pearce titles included Pearce's Ocean and Oh What a Life. The author photo of 'Tony Pearce' on the back cover of the latter title shows an pleasant-looking, rather ordinary, middle-aged bloke dressed in shirt, vest and cloth cap. Her marriage foundered and she dated several women, eventually remarrying, but that relationship was not to last. She was also becoming more and more attracted to women's clothes. “I've got very good taste in clothes and would help my second wife buy her clothes... I love the feel and look of them and started to like cuddling up in nice silk nighties.” Just on twelve years ago, with two marriage and a period of dating a number of women behind her, 'Anthony' was left with a wardrobe of women's clothes. “I started to wear them and really got to like it, and my life changed. I met a group of people, we now call ourselves loosely the Roslyn sisters, and they had been cross-dressing for some years.” Auckland hospitality legend Peter Taylor had just opened his second Ponsonby Road bar, Dorothy's Sister, and in hanging out there “I just blossomed. 'Sisters' Katherine and Selina were absolutely staunch supporters, they went to Dot's every week." At last Joanna was well and truly out of the closet. That coming out is at the core of a trans-themed theatrical production, People Like Us, quietly in preparation in hired Auckland rehearsal rooms and due to be premiered during the Auckland Pride Festival. “The opening song in our show is called The Black Lace Prison, and while it's trans-themed it's about the closets we all lock ourselves into and sometimes we have to be dragged out of.” That opening number will introduce audiences to several of the most talented and respected trans entertainers in Auckland, including Ramon Te Wake and Cindy of Samoa. Joanna's coming out was ironically made a little easier by the example of one of her sons who had come out to her as gay some years before. “I've always had a very open mind, in London I knew many gay people though I wasn't actively gay.” Her acceptance of her son's sexuality was influenced by her growing awareness of the then-fluid nature of her own sexuality and gender. Although Joanna sometimes reverts to Anthony for some family occasions, she is now increasingly liberated and up-front. She remembers the first time she walked out in full female guise. “It was incredibly liberating, I don't actually think of the male side of me when I'm in fem mode. I'm a sort of all or nothing person, so when I started to get into it I'd overtake my sisters in the amount of time I'd spend shopping for clothes. I'd shop as a woman but I know that when I walk though a mall I pass superficially but if people look more closely they see that I'm very tall, 6'2”, and I've got quite big hands and feet. I'm lucky I've got quite good skin for my age... but regardless of what people think I just walk on, tits out and shoulders back, as a woman. I'm not exactly a spring chicken but I'm on very mild hormones and as I've started transitioning at an older age my doctors have warned me not to expect too much... but I do feel totally feminine." People Like Us draws on Joanna's life experiences. “There is one scene in particular in my mind. My sisters and I getting ready to go out on a Friday or Saturday night, all bustling around looking like a bunch of old crones and old men. Suddenly the wigs go on and... wow!” “But I don't want it to be seen as just about a man who feels liberated as a woman, it's about any feeling that anybody has been hiding that they think is good and they suddenly do it and it's the greatest thing in their lives!”     Jay Bennie - 25th December 2015

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Friday, 25th December 2015 - 7:41am

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