“The first time I went out in public dressed in female clothes was when I was 16, in 1963. Homosexuality was illegal at that time. You wondered whether what you were doing was legal…"
At 69, softly spoken Helen has seen Britain’s attitudes towards the transgender community change enormously in her lifetime. I ask her whether she was scared during that memorable first public outing.
“Oh yes. I was living in Suffolk at the time and I caught the train to London. It was an old corridor style train and I changed in the toilet. I wandered around the West End for half an hour and then went back and took the train home again.”
It might sound like a surprisingly casual affair, but this first outing as Helen wasn’t without its close encounters. “On the way back an official called out to me and I thought, Shit, I’m in trouble. I raced through the corridor, dived into the next toilets, changed my clothes and heard this knock on the door… It was only a ticket inspector, but what would have happened if I had been stopped?”
It’s a sobering thought.
Helen sailing in South Africa
Fast-forward 53 years and Helen is embarking on a journey of a different kind, in a life that is far from defined by her trans-ness. “I’m still involved in the trans community but that’s not my life”, she explains.
“I’m going on a holiday to Thailand this year with my social group, SPICE. It’s kind of a youth club for adults and it does all sorts of activities, workshops, and weekends away. Most of the group know my history so it’s no secret. One of the other ladies said she was very happy to share a room with me in Thailand and I’ve shared rooms with loads of others on holidays before.”
When Helen began to transition publically, things weren’t so straightforward, in fact, she lost her job. “I was told it would make things very difficult for the rest of the engineers and they’d have to take down their page three photos from the wall, moderate their language. A couple of weeks later my contract was terminated.”
"We were regarded as perverts and weirdos"
Helen estimates that this has happened to 97 per cent of the transgender people she’s known. “In some cases it’s because they’ve been doing a macho job that they didn’t want to do any longer, but the vast majority have been made to feel awkward, fired, or faced out and out discrimination.”
The Sex Discrimination Act was modified in 1999 to make this kind of intolerance illegal but it didn’t spell an automatic end to the prejudice. “It’s not easy to prove that these cases were discrimination because employers can always find excuses.”
“Charities like Press for Change often helped, but I was a witness once and you could see the prejudice in the eyes of the people judging the cases. We were regarded as perverts and weirdoes.”
After losing her job, Helen began to apply for work in the public sector and quickly landed a position with Greater Manchester Probation. It was an emotional, and formative moment. “All the way through the interview I was thinking, Why haven’t they mentioned that I’m a transsexual?—because this time, I’d put it on the application form.”
Helen receiving a Diversity Award Certificate from Princess Anne in 2009 for work promoting equality in her role with Greater Manchester Probation. Image via John Prater
With all the progress British society has made, it’s still remarkable just how recent most of the legal changes promoting transgender equality are. As Helen reminds me, "In 2008 that a person could still be thrown out of a hotel for being trans.” The law that changed that was the Goods and Services Act.
“As it happens, one of the only places I was thrown out of was a lesbian disco in Manchester because they thought I was a transvestite.”
Historically there has occasionally been tension between the LGB (lesbian, gay and bisexual) community and the transgender community. “There are trans people who hate lesbians and gay people and there are lesbians and gay people who really chastise trans people,” Helen explains.
“Some gay guys—and it is a minority—will say you shouldn’t need to change your gender just to have sex with men, but they misunderstand the issue. I do think there’s far more to be gained from being part of LGBT than there is to lose from it, though. People are stronger together than they are apart.”
"It’s about helping individuals feel comfortable with themselves and, in some cases, stopping people from committing suicide"
This strength in solidarity has significantly advanced the acceptance of trans people in British society, and Helen has noticed a real attitude change in the last 15 years.
“There’s been a general acceptance in Britain not just of trans issues but LGB issues as well. I think that the generation I belong to has done a lot of pioneering.”
Helen’s own brand of pioneering has been extensive. Although she’s been on countless boards and committees—including LAGIP, the support network for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people working in probation—it’s her more personal, one-on-one work that I’m interested in.
“When I was first transitioning, I had a page on Geo Cities and was talking on chat rooms with people who would often say they’d never met another trans person. I would tell them to come down to Manchester so I could meet them, and several of them did. I ran into some problems, though, and in one instance a woman was sectioned a couple of days after I saw her. I decided that if I was going to carry on then I needed some training in counselling.”
Helen loves going on adventures with her social group, SPICE. Here she is pictured on a sailing trip
Amazingly, Helen has never turned a client away because they couldn’t afford her services and laughs as she estimates that throughout her counselling work she probably made a surplus of “About 47 pence” per year.
“It didn’t matter. It’s about helping individuals feel comfortable with themselves and, in some cases, stopping people from committing suicide. As far as I know I haven’t lost a client to suicide.” A 2014 study found that 48 per cent of transgender people attempt suicide before the age of 26. “If I’ve made any difference to one or two of them then that’s great.”
When I ask if there are any issues she feels particularly affect her generation of trans people, she explains that she’s concerned about dementia. “People may start to forget the later part of their life and go back to a period where they were another gender.”
Despite this apprehension, Helen is optimistic for the future of Britain’s transgender community. “The attitudes are different now. I think there’s a bit of a backlash in the States but generally speaking, things are a lot better, although there is still a lot of work to be done. The way we are treated and dealt with now is quite different to 20 years ago now. It has changed enormously.”
“People are starting to realise that we’re actually human beings. [She laughs] It may sound weird, but we are.”
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