Transfigurations – A Soul Set Free
My Story – by Carol Steele, the owner and creator of this web site
How do you start to tell a transition story as difficult as this?? I suppose the best way would be to begin by explaining the difference between sex, gender and sexual orientation.
Sex is what is between your legs and is generally the same as your chromosomal sex, gender is how you perceive yourself to be and this is determined by your brain and finally sexual orientation is who you are attracted to – and I suppose we could say that this is determined by the heart.
Often, the first words uttered immediately after the birth of any baby are either “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl” and this for most people is how they are – their chromosomal sex and body type are consistent with their brain sex or gender. However, in a few cases, this is not so and it only starts to become apparent as the child develops that their gender does not match their anatomical sex (what is between their legs). This is what happens for people who are transsexual and our minds tell us that our genders do not conform to our anatomical sex. Every person’s sexual orientation is independent of either their anatomical sex or their gender.
Aged 11 (1956)
Aged 19 (1964)
Ghent in 1975
Llysfaen in 1975
Llysfaen in 1975
At the age of six years old I was taken away from my parents and had to spend six months in a children’s convalescent home (Dr. Garrett’s Home for Sick Children in Conway, North Wales) as by this time I had started to completely withdraw within myself and was refusing to eat. The first month was spent in the hospital wards where I was fed via a drip to keep me alive and whilst the doctors there tried to figure out what was wrong with me. After about a week I was re-introduced onto solid foods slowly and gradually weaned back onto a solid diet. After about a month I was released into the convalescent area where I started to mix with the other children and found myself playing with the other girls there and not mixing with the boys. I preferred their activities to the rough and tumble of the boys games. Attempts to make me play with the boys were rebuffed by me going off my food again and so the authorities allowed me to play in the girl’s groups where I seemed happier and more content.
This behaviour continued when I was allowed to go back home to my parents – and at school I was starting to get bullied (verbally) by the boy’s who decided to call me “Stella” and classified me as a ‘sissy’ because I wouldn’t join in their games and continued to associate with the other girls. I remember feeling quite proud that they recognised me as being feminine and girlie.
At the age of seven, it finally dawned on me what was so wrong with me. The year was 1952 and the newspapers were full of the story of Christine Jorgensen, the American GI who was the first to undergo sex reassignment treatment. I vividly recall my father reading the story to my mother and making some really cruel and terrible comments about it and I realised that whatever I felt, I must keep this a secret from everybody, especially my father or risk complete rejection from everybody I loved. So, the first seeds of shame about my conviction of my real identity were planted and for years I tried to hide the certainty of who and what I was from the outside world – and doing this would become the root cause of my bouts of abject depression.
By this time I was now associating myself with female characters in films (don’t laugh – I wanted to be like Doris Day when I grew up) and when I was asleep and dreaming, I was always a girl in my dreams. Every night I would pray so hard that God would realise that he had made a mistake with me and that I would wake up the following morning without my penis (at that age, the difference to me between girls and boys is that boys had a penis and girl’s didn’t).
As puberty started to approach, I was dreading my voice breaking and the first hairs starting to appear on my face. I had read about boys being castrated in Italy to prevent the voice from breaking so I made plans to run away from home and travel to Italy to have this done – but I was also terrified that I would be caught and brought home in disgrace for wanting this to happen and of being incarcerated in a mental institution because of it, and so the long period of self hate, shame and mental anguish began in earnest.
I passed my 11+ and started my secondary school life at an all boys grammar school where I learned that I would have to toughen up or end up being physically as well as mentally bullied – so I learned to erect the barrier and hide behind that facade. I was a quiet studious ‘boy’ although I did excel at gymnastics being small and very lithe. I was also ‘teacher’s pet’ to one of my form masters – maybe he recognised something within me for, as it turned out, I discovered years later that he himself was gay. Being at an all boys school was difficult for me as I felt like a stranger in an alien world, and it became even more difficult when I realised that I was attracted to boys and I had my first crush on one of the boys who I will just call ‘A’. We became good friends and I was going to go away with him and his parents on holiday, but I think he realised that it was more than just friendship on my part and he passed me a note one day in class saying the holiday was off. I just burst into tears in the middle of the class and had to be taken to see the school nurse before being sent home. I had made up some excuse for my tears and ‘A’, to his credit, never divulged anything to the other boys, otherwise it would have led to terrible bullying.
In 1961, when I was sixteen I left school and a year later left home to rent a small flat in Manchester, with the express intention of making the change – but I was so frightened, I simply didn’t have the courage to go out and buy clothes etc. Back in those days, there were no such things as home computers, the internet or other support groups – I was totally alone and in a desperate attempt to make contact with anybody else out there who might be able to help me, started going to some of the gay pubs and bars which were dotted around the city centre – and it was here that I first met the drag queens and knew instantly that I had absolutely nothing in common with them – they delighted in parodying women – not being women, and in the end returned home completely traumatised and beaten mentally and spiritually.
After I left school, despite gaining two ‘O’ levels at the age of 14, I completely messed up on the others when I was 15 – mainly because of the depressive episodes that I was experiencing – so had to do evening classes to get the ones which I had fluffed and then went on day release to get firstly my ONC and then HNC certificates. I then went on to University as a mature student and all this study was helping me suppress my growing feelings of being unable to cope with the body that I had been born with. It was during my first year as a post graduate student at university that things started to come to a head and Manchester became one of the first cities to open a “Nightwatch” switchboard for students and one particular evening, in the depths of another deep depression, I phoned in desperation and I got put through to a wonderful female student counsellor. She listened as I sobbed out my truth about myself over the telephone – I think I poured my soul out to her over that 2 hour ‘confession’. She didn’t laugh (as I was half expecting) and I could feel her empathy over that phone line. The dam I had built up within myself was finally breached and I felt more optimistic about myself than I had done for years. She managed to put me in contact with another trained counsellor who had more experience with these matters and Jack (and his wife) were really kind and sweet to me. Jack was able to put me in contact with a few other people who were making the same transition and he also urged me to seek medical help.
It was during this time that I met Linda B (surname withheld as I don’t wish to out her) and in 1972 we formed one of the first groups for transsexual people in the UK (the Beaumont Society existed, but if you were found out to be TS, your membership was terminated because they didn’t want you ‘contaminating’ their transvestite members) and we managed to set up a meeting place in a house in Salford courtesy of a sympathetic friend called Piers. The group grew fairly rapidly and I was asked to give a talk to the students union at Manchester University about transsexuality. After the meeting I was approached by a young trans guy (who identified as a lesbian at the time) who told me that he had always been conflicted about his gender – this person transitioned shortly afterwards and later went on to become one of the leading campaigners for transgender rights and he was part of the legal team that won that all important victory in Strasbourg that forced the then Tory government to implement what became known as the Gender Recognition Act of 2004………. but I digress, our small group moved, with the help of S. (again unnamed as I don’t have his permission to include his name here) from the house in Salford to the Chaplaincy Rooms at Manchester University and became the Manchester TV/TS Group. Besides providing a meeting place for people, we also campaigned at various events for better treatment of trans people. Other groups were forming at that time and we had close links with the Leeds TV/TS group which was led by another trans woman called Caroline and also a transgender group in London.
In 1972 I approached my GP who referred me to the psychiatric unit of my local hospital – but after wasting a year with them whilst they tried to ‘correct’ my ‘wayward’ thoughts – including trying to persuade me to undergo electroconvulsive shock therapy and a course of testosterone injections (to make a ‘man’ out of me), they finally referred me onto the newly created Gender Identity clinic at Withington Hospital in Manchester. They were extremely helpful in that I was finally diagnosed with gender dysphoria and they started me on the cross-sex hormone therapy which began to change my body and they also encouraged me to make the change. Whether it was the hormones or just the knowledge that I was finally doing something about how I felt about myself, but it also had the beneficial effect of reducing the bouts of depression which I suffered from to the extent that they became virtually nonexistent.
This happened towards the end of my post graduate course and shortly afterwards I started back at work (I had been sponsored by this company through university). Unfortunately, I was expected to join the company’s pension scheme and I had to undergo a medical with the works doctor and it was becoming all too obvious that my body shape was changing by then – so I, in my innocence, thinking that anything which I revealed during that examination would be held sacrosanct, explained to the doctor what was happening to me. Two days later I was summonsed to the Research Director’s office and told in no uncertain terms that they would not countenance this and if I didn’t submit my resignation, I would be sacked on the spot. In the end, this did turn out to be a blessing in disguise and I left the company and immediately made the change to live full time in my new gender role. This was a truly wonderful time for me – no longer did I have this strange dichotomy within myself and I slowly built up a new circle of friends, a few from the past who didn’t care as they primarily liked me for being me and some new ones who didn’t know about my past.
I was transferred from the GI Unit in Manchester to the GI Unit at Charring Cross Hospital in London – where one of the stipulations was that I had to not only live for four years in my chosen identity role, I also had to have a paid job for at least three of those four years and this was what was proving difficult at first. I must have written hundreds of applications out and I also attended many interviews, but always drew a blank. Finally, after yet another fruitless interview, I telephoned the personnel manager of my last interview and asked point blank why I had been rejected – and then the truth was explained to me. One of my colleagues who had volunteered to give me a reference actually began the reference by stating “When I worked alongside this person at the Clayton Aniline, she was a man……….”. I was absolutely distraught and devastated. However, just a few weeks later fortune suddenly changed in my favour. When I had made my change, I had written to my university, explaining my situation and they had been wonderful and issued me with new degrees in my new name. I received a letter from my old professor (a sweet and kindly man) who wanted to meet up with me to discuss something which had arisen out of the thesis I had written for my doctorate. He went on to explain that he knew about my change and had been the one to make sure it had been approved by the whole senate committee (this was the first time anything like this had happened at Salford University and therefore it required senate approval). He and one of the other lecturers took me out to lunch and after discussing the matters that needed clarification, went on to talk about the change and how I was coping. Of course the matter of the damning reference came up and he told me not to worry about it, just to give any prospective employers his name as one of my referees in place of the doxxing reference. Also, if I was still finding difficulty in finding employment, he would try and sort out a post doctoral research post at the university for me. However, it wasn’t needed as the very next job application I made, I was successful.
I went to work for a small company in London, which was ideal for me as it then meant I didn’t have the long trip down from Manchester to London every month to attend the GI Unit at Charing Cross Hospital. After completing the requirements which they made, I finally had the surgery I had craved for all those years. It was a truly magical and wonderful moment for me. The pain when I finally came round after the operation was indescribable – despite being dosed up to the eyeballs with morphine, but beyond that there was an infinite feeling of peace and joy, at long last I was a whole being at one with herself. My mother, who was at my bedside when I came round, said that she would never forget the look of absolute happiness on my face. She had travelled down from North Wales to be with me during this final stage of my transition (she had been marvellous and completely supportive of me throughout the whole transition – as had my sister). My brother, unfortunately, found it quite difficult (although this was complicated by the fact that he worked at the same company as I did before my transition and therefore probably had to endure some pretty unkind comments about me after I left).
One of my very few and only regrets since my transition involved my relationship with one man whom I was unlucky enough to meet and fall in love with. It was not ‘love at first sight’ more of a friendship that developed into a full on relationship and thus developed over a period of several months to the point that he moved in with me. I hadn’t disclosed any of my past to him earlier on in the burgeoning relationship and as it developed into something deeper, it became more and more difficult to tell him, but in the end, the topic of children came up and I knew that I had to come clean about my previous life. Well, he just went mental as I tried to explain about myself – so much so that I ended up hospitalised after he punched and kicked me in a blind rage. The police wanted to prosecute, but I refused as I didn’t want anything about myself revealed when it came to a trial – and I was certain that his defence lawyer would have made my past a central part of his defence – and I could see all the headlines in the Sunday papers as it was in the late 70’s and something like this was juicy headline news for rags such as the News of the World. Unfortunately this episode did sour my views on men and subsequent relationships never really got going as I was always wondering when the next fist would be thudding into my body and so I never allowed myself to become heavily involved and always backed out if I found myself falling for the guy I was dating.
Fast forward my life to the present and I am again very active in transgender politics having started Transfigurations in 2013 as there were no support groups for trans people in Torbay. This has grown substantially in the work that we do and in addition to our adult groups, we now have a group which caters for transgender children and their parents and we have a busy help and support telephone line.
In 2015 I was a runner up in the Lifetime Achiever Awards category of the National Diversity Awards which was held in the beautiful Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool.
I also do a lot of work with Devon and Cornwall Police as an Independent Advisor – and was presented with their highly coveted “Citizens in Policing” Award in 2017 for the work that I have done for them raising awareness of the issues that transgender people face.
I have also worked closely with our local hospital on their protocol for the way that transgender people are treated both as patients and as members of staff. On a more strategic level, I work with NHS England on their service specifications for the treatment of transgender adults and also the one for children and adolescents.
Besides all that, I maintain this web site and our online forums – and also keep our user searchable database of trans-friendly doctors and GP’s up to date – which is a vital resource for finding a GP who will treat trans people in the correct manner.
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