When I talk to 53-year old Julia Ford, I have little trouble believing her when she claims to be as ‘mad as a bag of spanners’. She is lively, funny and extremely talkative; our conversation lasts for over two hours. Her stories have me in near-hysterics, and even at her most serious, I never have to wait long for a joke. But a few years ago, she was so severely depressed that she was losing one or two pounds in weight a day. If I had phoned her back then, she assures me, we would have had a very different conversation.
Julia was born male, and until relatively recently was known as David. Despite having identified as female since her early childhood, she spent more than two decades in a relationship with a female partner whose children looked upon her as their father. But six years ago, her partner – the only person aware of her true gender identity – died suddenly. In the months that followed, Julia began feeling unable to continue living as a man.
When, after months of unsuccessful treatment for depression, she eventually broke down and admitted the truth to her doctor, Julia was diagnosed with gender dysphoria – the condition where a person’s perception of their own gender does not match up with the sexual characteristics of their body. Some individuals identify as transgender, or gender variant, without wishing to medically change gender – they may cross dress, or take on a role traditionally perceived as belonging to the opposite sex. But in severe cases, the discomfort that arises from the condition is so extreme that the individual is left no option but to go through a process of gender reassignment, ending up with a new body and a new identity.
It is impossible to know exactly how many people in this country are living with gender dysphoria, for the simple reason that many of them keep it a secret. In a 2009 study, the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES) reported that although only 10,000 people have so far presented for treatment, a further 50,000-90,000 may yet do so. The number of people seeking treatment for gender dysphoria is rising by 15% per year, perhaps an indication that attitudes to transgender people are gradually becoming more tolerant.
According to Rory Smith of The Gender Trust, a national charity that supports those affected by gender identity issues, many of those who seek treatment go on to integrate seamlessly into the wider community. ‘Most people just want to transition and get on with their lives,’ he says. After transitioning, many people go into ‘stealth’, whereby they live as their new gender without making it known that they have gone through a process of gender reassignment (although this, Smith says, is easier for trans men than for trans women, who despite hormone treatment and voice therapy are often unable to entirely cover up their masculine bone structure or to ‘unbreak’ their voices).
Despite this, transphobia is still, he says, ‘something that really needs to be tackled.’ Since she came out four years ago, Julia has been not only rejected by the children she brought up as her own, but threatened by them. She is nonetheless admirably self-confident – and while the inhabitants of her small village were predictably shocked when she first began living and dressing as a woman, she has become a well-known and well-liked figure in her local community. Others, however, find it significantly more difficult.
‘Lots of people only go out at night – but that’s a lot more dangerous than going out in the day,’ she says. ‘There are all these people who can’t or won’t go out – it drives some of them to suicide because they don’t know who to turn to or who to speak to.’ In a report by the Brighton-based LGBT research organisation, Count Me In Too, 58% of trans respondents felt marginalised because of their identity. One woman described being transgender as ‘a continual process of exclusion, pain and suffering.’ Trans people are over five times as likely to have attempted suicide than non-trans people, and are ‘significantly more likely’ to have been affected by depression, anxiety, isolation, insomnia, panic attacks and addictions and dependencies.
For all her confidence and humour, Julia is certain that continuing to live as a man would eventually have killed her. ‘If I hadn’t made that choice to become my real self,’ she says, ‘I wouldn’t have survived much longer. I used to sleep with a razor blade at the side of my bed every night. I wasn’t afraid of dying, but I didn’t want to die, so that was why I made the decision to talk to my doctor.’ Doing so, she says, ‘was like someone had lifted a ten-ton weight off me.’
Nonetheless, Julia regrets waiting so long before seeking help. ‘I just wish I could press rewind, go back and start again,’ she says. It is by no means uncommon for transgender people to wait until later in life before coming out. Countless trans people settle down and raise families before they make their gender identity known; indeed, the median age for transitioning is 42.
‘Most people hate themselves for it and hide it for years on end,’ says Smith.
Today, Julia is determined to do all she can to help others struggling with gender dysphoria. ‘People are ashamed of it, and you should never be ashamed of who you are. That’s why I want to raise awareness … I can’t do much, but every little bit helps.’ She encourages anyone dealing with a gender identity issue to speak to their doctor as early on as possible.
Julia grew up in a pre-internet society, and was forced to read the majority of the dictionary before she learned of the existence of the word ‘transsexual’. But today, information and advice are available at the click of a mouse. ‘Hit the internet,’ is Smith’s advice to people coming to terms with gender dysphoria. ‘Start talking to people – even if you can’t talk to family and friends, you can talk to people on forums. Look at Youtube blogs … You’re not alone, and you see that if you look on the internet.’ Finding out you are one of many, he says, is ‘amazing’.
Currently undergoing a gruelling process of hormone treatment, Julia hopes to complete her transition next autumn. ‘I’ve never been so happy as I am now,’ says Julia. ‘I want other people to feel what I feel now – I’m living proof that it’s possible. All it takes is courage.’
For information and support about gender dysphoria and other gender-related issues, try visiting these sites: