Transgender and over 50: Kate's story

Anna Walker

“Something has happened this past year. Trans people have been really invited to the table. Trans people are being invited to have a voice.” One of the loudest voices in the transgender community undoubtedly belongs to 50-year-old theatre performer and writer, Kate O’Donnell. 

Kate O'Donnell is having a busy year. In March she spoke at the 'Women of the World Festival' at the Southbank and she's just wrapped filming for the new series of BBC sitcom Boy Meets Girl. Currently touring her new show, 'Big Girl's Blouse', Kate took some time out to tell us about her experiences as a 50-year-old transwoman.

“I feel like, as a trans person, not everyone feels confident to stand up, or do interviews, or share their voice. I’m really happy to do that because I’m a performer—it falls into my skill set.”

Read more: What does it mean if someone is transgender?

For someone so confident, it’s surprising to discover that Kate didn’t always know herself so well. “I read an article recently called, ‘Why didn’t I know I was transgender?’ and that was definitely the case for me. I was very feminine. I went to an all-boys’ school, but I never joined in with boy games and performed all the girl parts in school plays, so I loved theatre. I think for me it was always theatre helping me explore my identity.”

Kate O Donnell explaining transgender during her show
Kate creates theatre around a flip chart in her show, 'Big Girl's Blouse'. Image via Vipul Sangoi

Despite being quite content at school, playing fashion designer and learning to knit, teachers soon became concerned that Kate was showing too many feminine traits. Letters went home, and she was sent to see the doctor.

“Luckily he pooh-poohed it all, but I remember that after that I went underground because I thought it was going to get me in trouble. Looking like a girl, dressing like a girl… I buried it and became very secretive.”

“People kept their heads down in the 1970s, there was no time for gender. We had a lesbian living opposite us and we used to stare at her… literally, go and watch her doing her shopping [laughs]… They didn’t have the terminology then, and so there was no root for me to transition from.”

Read more: Learn the right terms with our gender glossary 

Growing up transgender during the 1970s has now become the theme of Kate’s theatre show, 'Big Girl’s Blouse', which uses humour, music and costume to tell the story of what she describes as “Being trans when nobody knew what trans was”.

"There’s something about being 50 plus that means you have confidence and how you use that is up to you, it feels like it’s now or never."

“It’s interesting because I stopped performing for a while. I got sober, and then I transitioned, and all that took quite a long time. For years I was in an improv theatre company that told other people’s stories. Then a few years ago I realised that I wanted to tell mine.”

“I couldn’t have done it when I was in my 20s, I think it’s because I’m in my 50s—I’m excited about getting older! There’s something about being 50 plus that means you have confidence and how you use that is up to you, it feels like it’s now or never.”

“There wasn’t much trans theatre out there and it was just before the bubble burst when all the homophobia and transphobia really exploded in Russia. I felt motivated by that to stand up and be queer.”
 

kate o donnell
Kate telling her story in 'Big Girl's Blouse'. Image via Vipul Sangoi

It’s taken Kate a long time to get to this place. Confused by something she had no words to describe, she floated between identities for years, living for some time as a gay man.

“My gay relationships were never quite right. They never lasted very long and they were always more like friendships. Then I started doing drag and I worked for Boy George. He had a record label at that time called More Protein and one of his artists was Eve Gallagher, she has a song called 'Love Come Down'. He saw us dancing and the next thing we knew we were flown to Paris and performing in front of 25,000 people. When I look back, my drag was always very feminine, always moving towards being a woman."

"I just thought, 'Do I really need this? Have I got the strength to go through another thing?'"

After these incredible highs came some serious lows.

“Even though I was getting sober and I’d gotten a decent job and a house, I knew there was something missing. Somebody transitioned in front of me and I had really strong and surprising feelings of jealousy and anger. I was trying to support them but when they told me they were going to transition I said; ‘No, I don’t think you should’. I went away and thought about why I’d said it and then I realised that I was transgender too.”

“I’d already come out as a gay man and dealt with that. I’d already been an effeminate little boy and dealt with that. I just thought, Do I really need this? Have I got the strength to go through another thing?"

"One of the best things that happened for me was Nadia [Almada] winning Big Brother. I remember crying and thinking, The British people don’t hate transgender people. I’ll always celebrate that bit of television, it spurred me on.”

kate with choir
Kate's choir wearing t-shirts for her #standbyyourtrans campaign 

Kate revels in talking about her work with young trans people.

“They make me feel very hopeful,” she explains. “I often do workshops with school children where I create a gender spectrum. I tell them, ‘Men are there and women are there, stand on the bit of the spectrum that represents you.' 99 per cent of the time nobody stands on the male or female markers. I look at them and I feel really excited. If I’d done that in a 1970s school they wouldn’t have known where the middle was.”

She’s particularly eager to tell this next story, an example of how older generations can use love to change years of prejudice.

“I was auditioning some transgender kids and one came along with their granddad, who was probably around 70. He fascinated me because he was really trying for his grandson. He was so full of love for his grandchild but he said he really struggled with the pronouns. And that’s okay. It’s okay to struggle with the pronouns when your heart’s in it."

"I feel like there are three or four generations of trans people who have been really overlooked and neglected."

“He told me, ‘I love him for who he is but I worry about him’, and his eyes were welling up. I think when it’s someone you feel love for, their being trans isn’t the problem—it’s the unfamiliar.”

Although she’s hopeful for the younger generations, Kate tells me she worries for the older trans community.

“I feel like there are three or four generations of trans people who have been really overlooked and neglected. I can see that their confidence isn’t always where it should be and I think that’s because they were made to be invisible and because they’re so used to hiding.”

This past neglect still plays out in present day hate crimes. Three in four transgender people are subjected to hate crime every year, and Kate's had enough.

“To be honest I’m just bored of it. I’m really bored of hearing that my friends are still being shouted at. When I’m in a good mood I can use my creativity to work with people on their prejudices. But when I’m not, and I hear stories about people harassing my friends, I get impatient.”

“We’re not going back. The tipping point for trans has passed. Nobody can pretend trans people don’t exist now. People used to deny it and pretend it wasn’t happening but it’s out there now and it’s fab. Let’s celebrate.”