I’m from Ukraine originally. I lived there until I was eight; we moved to Melbourne in 1993. For the first few months we moved in with my aunty and uncle and cousin in Clayton South, then we rented across the road for about two or three years, before finally we bought a place in Dandenong.
I remember a lot of those early days in Ukraine – friends, school, kindergarten, my grandparents, the city of Lviv where we lived. I miss my friends. Before I left, I went to say goodbye to them. “I’m going tomorrow,” I said. “Yeah right,” they said – they didn’t believe me. They asked, “Can you send us a can of Coke or Pepsi?” They weren’t available in Ukraine then.
My childhood was very upside down. By 13, I knew I was transgender. I’ve always felt different. I would go into the female toilets at school and dress as a girl. I felt this is who I wanna be.
I had no support from my mum and dad. So I decided that I would transition on my own. I started laser treatment last month. It’s a lonely journey, but now I’m on it, I feel happy. I just want to be who I want to be – I don’t care what other people say. I want to be treated like a normal person. On my days off, I dress as a woman. I love dressing up – it means being happy with who I am. I’m not Denis, but Michelle.
Before I sold The Big Issue, I was a chicken farmer by trade. I had to count how many were dead. When I first started, I couldn’t pick up a chicken – I was a bit afraid. In the end, though, I just couldn’t do it anymore: I was dreaming about chickens every day.
I’ve done a lot of jobs over the years. I’ve mowed lawns, cleaned buses. I got a job stacking wood, and I worked at Coles Lynbrook. I even did my Certificate III in forklift operating.
The Big Issue was a good opportunity. I like the work, and I travel to suburbs all over Melbourne. I love travelling long distance, and it gets me out of the house. I start at 8.30am and work till 5pm from Monday to Saturday, six days a week.
When I get home from work, that’s it – I switch off straight away. For hobbies, I love to walk my puppy, Charlie, a Malamute. I don’t take him for a walk, he takes me. Aside from that, I sometimes do landscaping for my church; I’ve done it for the last five or six years.
The money from the magazine has made a big difference to me. I’m saving for my gender confirmation surgery. It’ll take me about two years to earn enough. After the surgery, I don’t know how it’s going to be – it’s going to be a new life, a different world. If you want to become a woman, there’s a lot of things you’ve got to understand.
I’d like to experience love with someone – a girl or a guy, I don’t mind, I want to have a relationship with someone.
Michelle sells The Big Issue at Camberwell, Berwick, Mentone, Sorrento, Wheelers Hill and Rowville, Victoria
Interview by Nick Durham
Photo by James Braund