People sometimes ask when I decided to become a woman. I reply: “I was always a woman. I just decided to stop hiding the fact.” They say kids have a sense of their gender around six or seven. I did – and I was confused. I was the eldest of nine children with a very introverted father and extroverted mother. After me were six girls, with my two brothers bringing up the rear.
My mother told me she caught me dressing in her clothes around the age of four. I have no memory of this, though it must have made an impression on me. She never caught me again, and I did not stop.
I grew up in small-town Ireland, where there was no-one apart from white, Catholic heterosexuals. This was not the kind of environment to tell your parents that you did not believe in God and did not want to go to mass, much less that you were gay– or, God forbid, transgender.
That kind of revelation would at best have you totally ridiculed. At worst, you would be severely punished and possibly sent to a psychiatric institution.
Being a smart kid, I learned to disguise myself. But I also wished there was some kind of machine or mishap that would change my gender.
It never happened so I knuckled down and did the best job I could of living as the wrong person. I was really good at it. Home alone, I often dressed as a girl. My parents, now long dead, had no idea. If they did, they never let on.
There were incidents at school that pointed to me having a different nature from ‘normal’ boys. I guess my parents worried I might be – shock, horror – gay.
When boys hit me in the playground, I’d never hit back. One of the nuns told my mother, and my father reprimanded me for not fighting back. I told him I didn’t know how. They sent me to boxing lessons to toughen me up. Somebody hit me on the nose and I was so traumatised I never went back.
Come puberty, despite having so many sisters, girls interested me. As a teenager I did all the usual stuff to prove my ‘macho-ness’. I was quite good at Scouts, and when I joined the army reserves, I was also quite good at that.
At 19, I met a girl and fell in love. When I knew she was the one, I felt honour-bound to tell her I was different. This was a huge risk: she could have dropped me and told people in our circle that I was weird. But she took it in her stride, and never told a soul. She has been my partner/wife for 41 years. So I hid my true nature from everybody apart from my partner. We le Ireland and went to London. With her permission, if not her approval, I had my stash of clothes and dressed when she wasn’t home. We agreed she would not see me dressed. Admittedly, in another attempt to hide, I had a full beard and would have looked very odd. It didn’t stop me, however.
This lifestyle continued, on and on , for the 16 years we lived in London and in Hong Kong. I did my bit as an alpha male and had my ‘hobby’ on the side.
In the early 2000s, we moved to Queenstown, where we’d bought a section some years earlier. My double
life continued: I became more and more reclusive as I wanted to spend more time as my real self.
By now my wife tolerated my dressing as a woman when she was around. There are some funny stories about near-misses when people came to the door.
OUT AND PROUD
As I got older, the desire to be myself got stronger and stronger. I’d never appeared in public dressed as a woman but in the rst inkling that I was coming out, I shaved off my beard.
In 2009, one of our close friends – who was the same age as me and had been like a sister – was diagnosed with cancer. The hammer blow of mortality hit me very hard.
The desire to really be myself started to build very strongly. I resolved to go, with my wife, to Esprit in Washington State – a convention for transgender people starting to come out. It is especially recommended for couples dealing with this situation.
I’d done some work on my voice and clothes by then, and had even bought a cheap wig. We headed to San Francisco – our first stop en route to Esprit, which was to be my first outing as a woman and where I would get my first human-hair wig.
There’s a photograph of me standing in our hotel room as I prepared to go out to meet the world. I had no idea what was awaiting me: if I had, I would have just stayed in bed!
My wife wouldn’t come down in the lift with me so we organised a rendezvous where we would meet. With a beating heart, I peeked out to make sure nobody was in the corridor. Holding my breath for what seemed like forever, I opened the door and made my way to the lift . I was terri ed. I prayed that when the lift came, nobody would get out, and my prayer was granted. But my luck had run out.
As the lift opened at the ground floor, I rushed out to get to the meeting point as fast as I could. I nearly trampled the hotel manager, who gave me an odd look. Heart in throat, I rounded the corner into the main lobby and headed for the door. The bellboy was walking towards me. He took one look, smirked and turned about-face. I could see him in the mirrors behind the reception desk. He gesticulated to his mates to look at me. Their faces lit up in mirth. He walked in front of me to the door, turned and held it open. “Come this way, madam,” he smirked.
The show must go on, I said to myself, and mastering what little grace and poise I had, I bowed to him and said, “Thank you, my man!”
On the street, things did not get much better. I met my wife and we started walking to the wig shop. I realised I’d have to walk past a construction gang, digging up the road.
“God, if you are ever going to take me, this might be a good time,” I said to myself. He sent an angel: a female cop appeared and we walked closely behind her. None of the road workers said a thing.
At Esprit, it struck us how many of the other participants came from macho professions: elite soldiers, loggers, truck drivers. I was not the only one using machismo to disguise my real self.
I went to one more convention and realised that I needed to attend a full immersion programme. I was lucky to attend the Art of Feminine Presence run by Rachael Jayne Groover from Melbourne.
I went on a number of her courses in the US and Melbourne: the ladies on these programmes accepted me as a sister. I cannot thank these exceptional and supportive friends enough for helping me gain con dence and get in touch with my feminine nature.
After this, I’d usually take two suitcases on overseas holidays – one with guy clothes and another with girl’s clothes. Usually, we’d spend a fair amount of time as two women.
It got to the stage where it was no longer feasible – emotionally and psychologically – to continue living the lie. It also a ected me very deeply that 41 per cent of transgender people attempt suicide. I could not live with this on my conscience and not do anything about it.
I was in a position of privilege and knew it. If I did not do something to help others less fortunate by trying to establish a role model, the carnage would continue.
If not me, then who? If not now, then when? I decided to set myself two mantras: ‘Go hard or go home’ and ‘Help make transgender normal’, and have tried to live by these rules. Over time, I wrote a book [Me!: The Gi of Being Transgender on Kindle] that looked at being transgender as a gi instead of a curse [see the panel on the opposite page].
Driven by all these forces, my wife and I decided that March 1, 2016, would be the date I would start living as a woman, full-time. Before that, I had to tell the key people in my life and put in motion changes such as my name, passport and driver’s licence.
As a member of the local Rotary Club, I told the president and the incoming president. Not only were they fully supportive of my transition, but the president threatened to resign if I wasn’t fully accepted by the members.
Queenstowners being the salt of the earth, she never had to carry out her threat. Not only have they accepted me without innuendos, they elected me to be the president last May.
What I did not realise, until I started to come out, was how accepting Queenstown people are, and what resources there are in this town. I would encourage anybody who is experimenting with the transgender lifestyle to come to Queenstown.
You’ll find people to help with your hormones, therapy, hair and electrolysis (Hush Spa), laser your beard and non-surgically remodel your face (Skin Institute), do your nails (Elysium), and not bat an eyelid – or make any judgment of you.