Transgender and over 50: Rhys's story
The relentless buoyancy that Rhys maintains throughout our interview is made all the more remarkable when he tells me that he only learned about gender dysphoria two years ago, when a doctor told him about the condition.
“Ever since I started transitioning my life has exploded, it’s been really nice.”
Exploded seems like something of an understatement. A PE teacher for 28 years, Rhys has recently branched out to start his own trampolining business, which goes into several schools and is now considered an academy; all funded off his own back. He’s also started doing sports massage therapy and has a treatment room at home.
Amid this career success, he’s also found time to run five marathons, including New York, Dublin, London and Amsterdam and about 30 half marathons.
“At the moment everything is really peaking and ironically it’s all started happening since I told the world I was transitioning.”
“I’d never even heard of gender dysphoria. I was 48 so I was massively relieved because I’d felt like a freak all my life. I’ve got ginger hair too so I had the full whammy. Thankfully I was very good at sport, which was my saving grace. I think it probably saved my life in the end.”
Rhys’s memories of his longing to be a boy go way back through his childhood. “I wrote a letter to Father Christmas when I was four years old and said ‘Can you make me into a boy?’ That was my Christmas wish.”
“My sister can even remember me pulling my bikini top off as a child on the beach and my mum saying ‘why is she doing that?’ I was very frustrated and very confused. There was no information. I couldn’t speak to my parents, my sister, or my brother. I didn’t know what it was; I just knew I wanted to be a boy. Nobody could help me and nobody could explain it. I had to hide it and shut my inner self off and pretend. It was like I was pretending to be a girl.”
As he tried to force himself to act female, Rhys remembers how exploring his sexuality only led to further confusion.
“My mates became dates, which was horrendous. I thought that maybe I fitted into the gay box for a while and had gay relationships but then I realised no, I definitely fancy straight women. I certainly didn’t fancy men, I wanted to be one.”
"My sister is worried about losing her sister, but I’m not going anywhere!"
“I decided in the mid-'80s that after trying relationships with both genders, I couldn’t settle with either. I had a hard time then. I didn’t know what to do and felt like I couldn’t find a relationship. It was hard.”
Rhys does hope to find love in the future. When he meets the right person, he’s confident they won’t care about his past. “You don’t fall in love with a man or a woman, you fall in love with a person.”
Now that he has begun his transition, Rhys has also had to tell his family. “My dad is 80 now and he’s been brilliant about it. But telling the rest of my very Catholic, very traditional Welsh family… I knew they were going to take it exceptionally hard.”
“My younger brother is a pastor in a Christian church and he said biblically speaking he couldn’t call me a man. My sister is the same. I said to him ‘If someone who is transgender walks through your church door, are you going to turn them away?’”
“I love them deeply and we’re still very close but they don’t really understand. My sister is worried about losing her sister, but I’m not going anywhere! I think they’ll come around in the end.”
“For me by far the easiest generation to tell were my nephews. One just said, ‘We’re happy as long as you’re happy. It must be a big relief for you.’ Pure acceptance. They thought I looked wrong in a frock anyway.”
The school Rhys taught at told his pupils about the transition during assemblies
As a secondary school teacher, you’d think that coming out at school would be about the most terrifying thing one could do, but Rhys says his transition there couldn’t have been better.
“Telling the head teacher was a massive relief. It’s a big secondary school with nearly 2000 pupils, and on the last day of term, my head teacher did assemblies to say I was now Mr Carter and my pronouns were he, his, him. Letters went out to the parents and it was all done within 24 hours.”
“I found myself sat on the couch that evening thinking about how 2000 letters had gone out about my transition. It felt like the whole of the West Midlands was talking about me, but in a nice way.”
There’s an emotional shift when Rhys explains how he chose his new name. A friend who had transitioned decided to ask their mother what they would have named them if they’d been born a boy, but Rhys’s mum passed away before he began transitioning.
"It felt like the whole of the West Midlands was talking about me"
“At the same time that I was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer which was so hard. I had to put my life on the backburner and not tell my family while she was ill. I couldn’t ask her, but we’re very Welsh and her favourite Welsh name was always Rhys, so that’s what I picked.”
The family ties in Rhys’s name run deeper still. While he wanted to change his surname, to fully distance himself from his previous self, Rhys didn’t want to disassociate from his family. “I used my grandmother’s maiden name [Carter] instead. She was a great lady and lived until she was 91. She was very small but very feisty.”
Rhys’s life has changed beyond recognition in the past two years, but one thing that’s remained solid is his faith, which he credits with getting him through rougher times.
“If I had a different personality I might not have been as strong as I have. I’m a Christian so I believe in God and I feel very blessed. That’s helped because I always knew I wasn’t a bad person. I followed my heart and fortunately, God gave me the strength to get through.”
Read more: Transgender and over 50, Kate's story