Successful far northern jockey Bill Smith never caused much of a commotion in life. But just before his death at the age of 88, ill health forced Bill to reveal a secret to medical staff. Bill Smith was Australia’s first transgender jockey.
A headstone on his grave now declares him ‘Australia’s first female jockey’. Although well-intentioned, Bill Smith was actually transgender.
Bill lived, worked and identified as a man for over 60 years. He was to the best of our knowledge, Australia’s first transgender jockey.
Various online sources claim Bill took up dressing as a man because of his wish to work as a jockey, an occupation restricted to men during his lifetime. But Bill began living and working as a man long before he became a jockey.
Bill shared his life story with a nurse at Herberton Hospital on the Atherton Tablelands during the two weeks before his death. Other sources confirm key components of that story.
Born in England and assigned female at birth, Bill came with his family to Australia as a child. He retained fond memories of his father working with livestock on a property in Western Australia. However, following his mother’s death, Bill’s father placed him in an orphanage and abandoned him there.
Life in the orphanage was hard. In his teen years, Bill worked from dawn until daylight for no payment performing household chores and looking after younger children. At the age of 16, he ran away. Bill started dressing, living and working as a man, taking a job on the wharves — tough work. He ended up employed on a boat that carried passengers and cargo between Adelaide and Cairns where he eventually jumped ship.
In Cairns, Bill found work at a stable and eventually worked his way up to being a jockey and horse trainer. Later, he took a job at the Cairns Brewery. Other sources confirm that Bill Smith worked at the brewery for between 10 and 20 years, training horses and riding on the weekends.
After a successful racing career, Bill retired to the tiny Tablelands township of Innot Hot Springs.
‘Australia’s first female jockey’
When Bill’s story became public knowledge after his death, his local community reacted positively. The local Lions Club eventually raised funds to restore his unmarked grave and erect a headstone.
But also following his death, a couple of old blokes who once rode against Bill claimed they’d always suspected his gender and that his nickname on the track was ‘Girlie’. Funny how these stories only emerge afterwards, with the benefit of hindsight. Strange that no one mentioned anything back in the day.
In 2018, 87-year-old Bill Jessop who was 12 when his parents became friends with Bill Smith told CNN no one had a clue.
“He used to come to our house as we lived behind the racecourse. He was very quiet.
“He raced at Mount Garnet and around the place and I can remember he had a big stallion that used to buck.
“We didn’t have a clue Bill was a woman, it didn’t come out until years after he died.”
Bill’s local community no doubt meant well by erecting the headstone and declaring him ‘Australia’s first female jockey’.
But Bill did not simply dress as a man out of a fervent desire to work as a jockey. He lived, worked and identified as a man for over 60 years. Likewise, the communities where he lived and worked accepted him as a man for over 60 years.
By the time of his successful racing career, Bill was aged in his 50s and 60s. Obviously, a fit old bugger as they said back in his day. And 3 decades after he began living as a man.
Bill Smith was Australia’s first transgender jockey.
He lived his truth.
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