In some ways, it was just another adventure.
Neil and Byron, mountaineering mates for 25 years, were parked up in Arthur’s Pass. Bantering in the autumn light, they readied their gear to the sound of music – a tradition to pump them up before heading into the wilderness.
In other ways, the friends were breaking new ground. It was the first time they’d tramped together since Byron, a father of three, came out as a woman.
Byron Skinner, a 51-year-old orderly at Christchurch Public Hospital, had felt she was a female since childhood. It took her 43 years to articulate this to those around her.
Her dad died aged 48 of a heart attack in 1990. When Byron reached a similar age, she felt she had come to “the end of the road”.
She decided to accept what she had known since she was seven years’ old. She started on hormone therapy in May last year.
Neil, her best friend and partner in adventure, was the last person she told.
“Explaining to my ex-wife and children was one thing – but he was different,” Byron says.
“Just what we’ve shared in all those years, it seemed to me a very big gamble.”
The pair met in Auckland in 1992, when Neil moved into the same flat as Byron’s then-girlfriend.
“He walked in with this big banging smile on his face,” Byron says.
“That’s how it all started.”
It was Neil who inspired Byron’s love of the outdoors. When he moved to Canterbury to be closer to the mountains, Byron followed a year later.
In 1994, the pair conquered 3000m for the first time, on a weeklong expedition to Pioneer Hut on the South Island’s West Coast. Two years later, they took on Mount Cook/Aoraki’s eastern ridge.
The backcountry antics forged a friendship built on trust, reliance and endurance. Byron says the pair have had “only a couple of hiccoughs” in more than two decades.
In the film, Neil recounts the occasion Byron came out. It was at Under The Red Verandah, one of Byron’s favourite Christchurch cafes.
“We hadn’t seen each other for a little while, and I gave him a big hug,” Neil says.
“He said: ‘Ooh, watch my boobs!”
Neil tells the anecdote with a chuckle that belies the grief he grappled with after Byron’s announcement.
Louise, a filmmaker and Neil’s wife of 14 years, was similarly shocked at the news.
“Neil, for quite a long time, had thought that Byron was going through some stuff, but didn’t quite know what it was,” Louise says.
“When he’d gone into town to meet with Byron this day, he sort of thought that maybe something was up, but had completely misread it.”
When the couple next had Byron over for dinner, she was dressed, not in the activewear that had been her trademark, but in feminine clothing, hair and makeup – a reflection of the identity she had finally claimed.
Loading Docs, an annual showcase of short documentaries, had this year adopted the theme of “change”. Louise felt Byron’s story was worth cinematic exploration.
“One of the things Neil said to me I thought was really poignant was, ‘The transition isn’t just for the person changing gender, Louise, it’s a transition for all those that are close to that person as well’.”
Byron recalls a text message from Louise, in the wee hours late last year. Would she tell her story on camera?
Byron agreed immediately. She hasn’t had second thoughts.
“I’ve gained a strength beyond what I ever thought was possible for me,” she says.
“I’ve done some big things in my life, I suppose – physical challenges – but this one just surpasses anything else I’ve ever had to deal with before.”
Neil took longer to come around.
His initial response was a flat “no”. But when he and Byron had a heart-to-heart while Louise was overseas, Neil had second thoughts.
“I was very touched by that and very proud of him,” Louise says.
“I knew he didn’t want to do it.”
Byron isn’t sure what made Neil, by all accounts an extremely private person, go on camera.
“I think, at the end of the day, he did it for me. That’s just a sign of total support, really.”
Louise says the filming was a professional exercise, though it impacted her more than if the subjects had been strangers.
“I would be in work mode, and then I’d go out and actually have a little cry, or I’d have to go out for a walk around the block and have a breather.”
Byron will attend tonight’s premiere in Auckland with her younger sister. Neil has not seen the film.
“I think he feels like he’s done his bit, he did it with openness and full commitment, and he doesn’t look back,” Louise says.
“I’d say he feels like that was sort of his gift to the two of us.”
All Loading Docs shorts can be viewed on loadingdocs.net and TVNZ on Demand.
By Britt Mann