Transgender actress Lexie Matheson appears in an all-women version of Shakespeare's Henry V at Auckland's Pop Up Globe Theatre this month. The AUT lecturer in events management is an activist for transgender prison rights.

1. Is this your first role as a woman?

It is. It's real buzz. I had a 35-year professional career in theatre, film and TV but the work stopped when I began my transition (from male to female) in 1998. Even transgender roles weren't going to transgender actors so I thought, "What am I going to do with my life?" The fabulous Paul Minifie at Maidment Theatre gave me a job as business manager which enabled me to come out publicly in a supportive workplace.

2. How did you land this role?

The director Grae Burton sent me a message saying "How's your medieval French?" He had me in mind to play a maidservant to the Princess of France in a comic scene where I try to translate the names of the parts of the body into English for her. We almost get to the naughty bits, it's very funny.


3. What's special about this version of Henry V?

Not only do we have an all-women cast including two transgender women, we're not pretending to be men either. We're performing one of Shakespeare's most testosterone- driven plays -- about war, power and the brotherhood of men -- as women. Shakespeare introduced hundreds of new words and phrases into the English language and some of the most blokey came from Henry V, like "swagger", "once more into the breach" and "band of brothers". It will be interesting hearing a woman use those words to urge her female army into battle.

4. What do you think of the popular TV show Trans Parent?

It's disappointing they have a heterosexual actor playing a transgender role. It happens all the time. Look at Eddie Redmayne in Danish Girl, Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, Felicity Huffman in TransAmerica. The only shining light is Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black. It doesn't mean those performances don't have a place in our journey because it's only 20 years since every gay or trans person you saw on TV was a criminal.

5. Has Caitlyn Jenner's coming out been positive for the transgender community?

Saying things like, "The most important thing a woman does when she wakes up in the morning is think about what she's going to wear," is not altogether helpful. She's won all these awards and now she's writing her life story, I think "you only just came out. You have eight months of a life story".

6. When did you realise you were a woman?

I always knew I had a secret but I didn't know what it was. When I was 8 I saw a magazine article about Christine Jorgensen, one of the first American women to have gender reassignment surgery. I stole the magazine and put it under my mattress. I kept that secret through relationship after relationship.

I didn't start cross-dressing until I was 35. When I was hospitalised with a life-threatening illness I started going to a counsellor who helped me work through some historic sexual abuse issues. I remember driving home one day going: "I haven't had a suicidal thought for six weeks." That was a huge amount of time. All these scars up my arm are from years of self-harming. But once we'd got the sexual abuse stuff sorted out he said: "I think there's something else."

7. What did you do when you realised?

I did everything wrong. I went home and told my partner, "I've discovered I'm transgender and I'm going to transition." She went: "Well that's us over -- I'm not lesbian." I hadn't thought about that. So I was on my own journey from then. People say you're very brave for doing it, but really you're very stupid if you don't. As soon as I said, "This is who I am," all the unsafe sexual behaviour stopped. But transition is still a traumatic thing. You go from being a privileged middle-class male to a transgender lesbian with no job or health insurance.

8. You're now married to Cushla. Were you still male when you met?

I was still officially male when we married in the Catholic Cathedral, but I'd already started my transition. The Catholic church knew that and were okay with it. I'll always love them for that. I didn't change gender on my birth certificate until the Same Sex Marriage laws had been passed because remaining married was more important to me. That's why we made a submission to the Parliamentary Select Committee. My son who was 10 at the time spoke. I really admired him for that. We sat through fundamentalist groups saying, "Imagine what will happen to the family?" My son said, "I'm sitting here - perfectly happy and well adjusted. It's like they don't see me."

9. How did your three children from previous relationships cope with your transition?

It was a big challenge for all of them for me to say that because I'm on a journey everyone else has to be dragged along unwillingly. They're adults now. We talk to each other and they allow me access to my grandchildren.

10. How did you become a lecturer at AUT?

My boss at the Maidment encouraged me to do some university papers which was pretty cool because I'd failed dismally at university in the 1960s. I got an A+ for my first assignment and four years later graduated with an MA with honours in arts management. I've been lecturing at AUT for 10 years now and I've never had a student call me "he".

11. You're an activist with the group No Pride in Prisons. What's that about?

We protested at last year's Pride parade because they allowed gay Corrections Department staff to march in uniform. That was like a slap in the face for the trans community who are still routinely mistreated by the prison system. We've had instances of rape just last year after trans women were put in shared bunkrooms in male prisons. I've been beaten up by cops and put in a male prison cell full of bikers with one toilet in the corner.

12. What would you like to see changed?

The problem is gender identity is not covered by the Human Rights Act. You can't discriminate against people on the grounds of colour, sexual orientation or gender but gender identity can be a grey area depending on where people are in their transition. They might be taking female hormones but not everyone can have surgery -- it's expensive and some people simply don't want to do it. Gender is what's between your ears, not what's between your legs.