First Lady tells the story of Liz Roberts, the first New Zealander to undergo full sex-change surgery. Alison writes, ‘This chapter is a big contrast to the glamorous, gossipy parts of Liz’s story that took place in 1960s London, and the Australia theatre scene of the ’80s and ’90s. Liz had been in prison before, albeit a mens’ prison, and in part for the “crime” of being caught wearing women’s clothing. The ’60s and ’70s were a dark time for anyone who stepped outside the social norms. This time she was sent away for a more serious crime – assault – but to a women’s prison. I had to admire her very practical attitude to time in the big house – head down, get on with it, throw a party to bring a tiny bit of happiness to a bleak life inside….’
One night in 1975 I was with friends having a convivial drink and a catch-up at the Bush Inn Tavern in Riccarton Road — a great place to gather, especially when they had a band playing. The hairdresser and her married man were there and throughout the night she made a point of walking past our table again and again to drop snide remarks, asking pointedly how many men were at the table:
‘Oh, and of course there’s you, too!’ she said.
I told her not to push it. She came up to the table again, goading me, talking past me to my friends and referring to me as ‘he’.
I’ve never hit anyone in my life, before or afterwards, but I’ll admit that night I snapped altogether. There was a large bourbon bottle on the table, a ‘double’ bottle as I remember. I lifted it above my head and lowered it straight down on her crown like a monarch christening a royal yacht. It cut her a beauty actually, and for one brief moment it gave me the greatest pleasure. Of course all hell broke loose, the police were called, and I was escorted out of the bar, booked and released on bail, and in court the next day at lunchtime.
I knew it was back to jail for me; there was no getting out of this one. As I faced the bench I realised the magistrate’s wife was a weekly client of mine, I’d done her hair that very morning. His Honour fixed me with a look.
‘Well, Miss Roberts, do you have anything to say for yourself?’
‘Just that you’d better tell your wife to find another hairdresser, I won’t be available next Friday.’
I was convicted of common assault.
The sentence was remarkably similar to the one I’d served two years before for impersonating a woman — four and a half months. This time, though, I was able to serve it in Christchurch Women’s Prison. I heard later that when I arrived at the prison, they’d all thought I was a doctor or a welfare officer, with my silver-grey suit and short blonded hair. It was only when I turned up in the line the next day that they realised their mistake.
My ‘situation’ was made crystal clear to everyone from the outset. In fact they all probably knew before I arrived, thanks to the fact that the prison superintendent was the uncle of a man I’d been dating. I had to report to his office on my arrival, and the first thing he told me was:
‘Now Liz. I want you to promise you won’t get involved in the dolly service while you’re in here.’
I had no idea what on earth he was talking about, and said so.
‘Don’t be silly about this,’ he warned.
‘I make dresses and style people’s hair — I don’t play with dolls.’ Which shows you how innocent of life in a woman’s prison I was: the ‘dolly service’ was the sex trade between the lesbian inmates.
This time around my sentence turned out to be a good thing, a chance to take a breath and separate from my real life, which had been stressful and difficult for a time. I asked if I could work six days a week instead of five and have just Saturdays off, which was the day that Tim would pick my mother up in his car and bring her to see me. I’m not sure they’d ever had anyone ask to work an extra day every week and they were delighted. As I was a good cook, they put me to work in the kitchens.
Between six days a week in the kitchen and a bit of hair-dressing in the small salon room, I was able to keep my distance from the other inmates most of the time. There were some really nice girls in there who were unfortunate enough to get caught doing things they shouldn’t have been doing. Outside, lesbianism was not really recognised as a reality — a hangover from Victorian attitudes, I guess — but inside the screws knew exactly what was going on. There were fights, too, plenty of them. One day I was coming out of the kitchen and heard a huge uproar. I was almost level with the control room when someone pulled me back.
‘Liz, don’t go any further.’
‘I have to go to the loo!’
‘Well, you’ll have to wait.’ As she spoke, the source of the noise (a huge Maori woman called Wikitoria, who was in for murder) roared into the bathroom, ripped a toilet clean out of the tiled floor and hurled it through the control room window just a few feet from us. They had to send for some male prison officers from Paparoa to subdue her.
I was fortunate that most of the women left me well alone, but I did attract a bit of curiosity, particularly about my medical needs. I was usually transported to St Helen’s Hospital, where I was under the care of Professor Gerald Duff. A sweet and gentle man, he spent a lot of time warding off the medical sister who would escort me from prison, and who appeared quite desperate to know why I needed so many hospital visits. Professor Duff would insist she stay in the waiting room, telling her that our appointments were private. The need to bathe twice a day meant I also had the luxury of using the pristine bath in the medical ward at the prison, and when that was not available, the staff facilities.
One afternoon the local doctor who served the prison inmates decided he wanted to have a good look at me for himself, so I was called upstairs, stripped off and put into stirrups. I waited, and waited; an hour and a half passed and still no appearance from the doctor. Downstairs the inmates had eaten lunch and been returned to their workplaces, and the hunt began for Liz Roberts. The place was in an uproar, with word spreading quickly that I’d escaped somehow, and all the while there I was, reclined with my feet in the air.
When they finally tracked me down I was given an apology of sorts, lunch in the staff room, and returned to work with instructions to keep quiet about my ‘misadventure’. When the doctor requested a repeat performance the following Tuesday I declined, telling him I was not in the habit of putting my legs in the air for any man and had no intention of doing so again for him. He was not happy.
My mother had kept the news of my arrest and jailing from my father; but she herself never missed a Saturday visit, faithfully delivered by Tim who appeared to think that if he kept in with my parents we would pick up as we’d been before on my release. But the stretch in Christchurch Women’s had given me time to think about where I’d been and what I wanted. I decided I did not have to live an emotional roller-coaster with a man I no longer trusted. The week before my release I was given a brief home leave and returned with my hair coloured, nails done and in proper street clothes rather than the denims and T-shirts I’d been used to inside. I left prison the next day without a trace of bitterness, rested and quite ready to face life on the outside again.
First Lady: From Boyhood to Womanhood (Upstart Press, $39.95) is available at Unity Books. Alison Mau is appearing at the samesame festival at AUT on Saturday, February 13.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.