I gently peeled off my bandages, four days after surgery, got into the shower and – heart pounding – slowly brought my head up to face that mirror. Seeing my body with breasts for the first time was so overpowering, I burst into tears.
I always felt my most vulnerable in the shower, in front of our full-length mirror. Once my clothes were off, and my make-up was washed away, I’d be left staring at an ice-cold reflection that didn’t look like ‘me’. Until March this year.
I don’t know how long I stood there, sobbing and soaking up that moment. After 21 years, I finally had physical confirmation of my gender, and it was the happiest and most liberating feeling I’ve ever felt.
I was assigned male at birth – and named Charlie – but I never felt comfortable with my gender. When I was eight years old, I remember locking myself in the bathroom and wrapping the towel around my head, pretending I had long hair and that I was female.
As I reached puberty, whenever I thought about my future self, it was always as a woman. It never clicked that it meant I was transgender, but as I connected less with my reflection, and the cis male role society expected of me, I began to piece the puzzle together and ask myself, ‘What if I’m not male at all?’
When I came out as gay, at 14, most reactions were positive. I used it as an outlet to explore my femininity – and the first thing I did was buy make-up.
At 16, I told a friend that I liked the idea of doing drag, but I was conflicted as, for me, it sounded like a cover-up for what I really wanted: to leave my house as a woman – and not have people clock that I was a guy. On my last day of Year 11, I wore 6in stilettos to school as a nod to the real me – some students applauded and cheered me on. But the pressure of saying I was trans out loud was still too much.
Within a couple of years, that feeling started eating away at my mental health and I suffered with anxiety. Not knowing anyone who struggled with their gender was isolating. I could follow trans people on social media, but when they said things like they felt they were “trapped in the wrong body”, I couldn’t relate because I didn’t feel trapped. It was more not knowing how to deal with these huge emotions – realising you’re trans is more complex than one-transitional-story-fits-all.
By 18, I’d reached breaking point, so I told my family that I was trans. I don’t think my parents were shocked. I’d been making them watch RuPaul’s Drag Race for months in a bid to help them understand and, when Caitlyn Jenner came out as trans in 2015, I used the situation to educate them. They took an interest and asked questions, but had concerns. When I said I wanted to start medically transitioning, my sister said they all needed to step up the support.
I went to my GP and asked for a referral to an NHS gender identity clinic (GIC) so that I could start hormonal treatment. He didn’t really give me any advice, but said: “There are doctors who specialise in this stuff, so I’ll try to get you a referral.” I had no idea then that it would take seven months just to get the letter. In the meantime, I did what I could to make myself feel more feminine; wear mascara this day, buy high-waisted jeans that day. I also had a coming-out dinner in a local pub with two friends.
Sadly, not everyone was supportive. When I told my boss at the shop I was working at, he told me he didn’t want a drag queen walking around. He’d give me dirty looks and say I looked like a prostitute. I overheard him saying: “If he makes you feel uncomfortable, I’ll send him out the back.” Eventually, he fired me. I managed to get another job waiting tables, but because it was a rural, conservative village in East Sussex and I knew I didn’t ‘pass’ as female, I had to revert back to being male. It was such a mind fuck. I became depressed. Every time I was called ‘Sir’, I’d end up crying in the toilets. Outside work, I’d dress as a female and people would shake their heads at me. They’d look disgusted or call me names – some would even video me – it felt horrendous.
It takes so much to say you’re trans. And then you have to put your whole life on hold for months on end, waiting for medical assistance while other people get to have opinions about your body because you’re standing out against what the majority of society sees as normal. Waiting for my GIC referral was torturous. I stopped socialising, reached dark levels of loneliness and started having suicidal thoughts. Even after my assessment – 14 months after receiving my referral letter – the therapy helped, but I was told I’d have to wait, again, to find out whether my GP could prescribe my hormones. By then, it had been almost two years and I remember breaking down, sobbing: “Why me? Why do I have to go through this shit just to be the person I am? I didn’t choose for life to be like this!”
Two weeks later, on October 23, 2017, hands trembling with excitement, I took my first oestrogen pill – the hormone responsible for the most female characteristics. I was given a set care plan and prescription (for life) of oestrogen and, after six months, I was put on a testosterone blocker. The first change I noticed was my emotions: I became less angry, felt more empathy and I couldn’t control when I cried – and my sex drive plummeted. Fat started distributing more to my hips, thighs and my face. My skin became slightly smoother, my facial hair got finer. I started having filler and Botox in my chin and lips to help make my face look less masculine.
About eight months in, I bumped into old colleagues who’d say things like, “Wow, your face looks fuller,” or “You’ve got a bum!” The results were so slow, I relied on other people’s recognition of my femininity. But after a year, my breast growth was still less than an AA cup size. My mindset was feminine, but I was torn with my appearance – which is why, after a lot of research, I decided to have surgery.
I ended up going privately because I wanted a clinic that specialised in transgender patients and I’d watched Transformation Street – a documentary that featured The London Transgender Clinic and Mr Christopher Inglefield – before making my decision. At my first £250 consultation, in March 2018, I listed all the surgeries I wanted. I saw it as a chance to build my body from scratch.
I had a set picture in my mind of the woman I wanted to look like. I’d always wanted long, dark, sleek hair, but I also had so much body dysphoria. I thought I had to change everything about myself, and that surgery would ‘fix’ everything. Apart from wanting breasts, I was obsessed with facial feminisation surgery (FFS) procedures, which bring male facial features closer in shape and size to ‘typical’ female facial features. I wanted rhinoplasty, my hairline lowered, my browbone shaped back and heightened, more cosmetic work on my chin and jaw, and my Adam’s apple removed.
I remember telling Chris that I’d never felt beautiful. He told me I was beautiful, and that I didn’t need all that surgery. Not least for the fact it would cost a fortune. He was so understanding and kind, and said a couple of procedures could make a big difference. He advised me away from FFS and towards ‘one thing’ that would allow me to leave the house more comfortably.
I took some time to think about what would make me feel most feminine. In the end, I decided on rhinoplasty and breast augmentation.
During the first two years of my transition, I was convinced that gender reassignment surgery was essential for me to feel female. But somewhere along this journey, it was less about ‘getting rid of my penis’, and more to do with feeling comfortable with myself. There are risks involved with ‘bottom’ surgery – it can damage nerve endings and sex can be less pleasurable. I think there’s a specific kind of guy who will date a trans girl, and – in my experience – the majority of those guys prefer girls who haven’t had bottom surgery. I just see it as having a type, like preferring blondes. And I think a guy needs to be sure of himself if he dates a trans woman – there can be a lot of judgement and questions when you do. Through dating and discovering more about my sex life, I discovered that my genitalia doesn’t define me. It’s simply a part of me. Plus, I like my penis. It’s something different about me.
I’m not sure how many people will understand that. I can’t explain how it mentally feels to not need a vagina to feel like a woman. When one client at work found out I was transitioning, the first thing she asked me was: “Are you going to keep your willy?” And I was like: “Jesus!” It’s rather intrusive to ask someone that, isn’t it? I’d never ask about her vagina. But society is still obsessed with sex organs when it comes to changing gender. I wish some cisgender people realised that, just like the way men and women aren’t always binary, neither is the process of transitioning.
I had to get a loan to pay for both surgeries, which cost £11,500. It’s a lot of money, but it’s nothing compared to the psychological price of waiting for something you’ve wanted all your life.
That day finally arrived on March 20 this year. I was so hyped up. My dad came with me – we got a hotel in London, and went for dinner the night before to say goodbye to the old Charlie. We’ve never talked deeply about our emotions, but he’d accepted my decision. Still, I could tell he was nervous for me, so I kept telling him it was going to be OK.
Walking into theatre was a different story, but before I had the chance to freak out, I was under the anaesthetic. When I woke up three hours later, I was freezing from the ice pack on my face – and in pain, but too woozy from the drugs to take in the reality of what had just happened. Four days later, I took that shower where I saw myself properly for the first time, and my confidence has been growing ever since.
Before surgery, my proportions felt so masculine – now, just being able to wear clothes that fit my body has made an impact. Whether it’s being referred to as ‘Ms’ or just feeling that I can face the world, it‘s made everything better and calmer. Surgery isn’t for everyone – trying to achieve this image of who I see in my head has been exhausting – but it was the right decision for me. It’s horrible that we get treated differently because of how we look, or how others perceive gender, but I am seeing more people being open to others living their life the way they want – hopefully that’ll spread.
For as long as I can remember my biggest fear was that, if I died, I’d be buried as a man. And when I was transitioning, that my family didn’t accept me as female. But they do. It has helped me love myself, too – I couldn’t have done that before. I genuinely don’t think I’d be here today, if I was still male. I wasn’t living, I was just… existing.
That’s why I wanted to tell people what it’s really like to transition. I get the odd comment on social media, but the majority is positive – and I’m learning to seek less appearance-validation from others. If I look good, and I feel good, then ‘trans’ is just one of the many labels that make me who I am.
Now, when I look in the mirror, I see the person I wanted to be for so long. More importantly, I see a future. I want to travel the world. I want to find love. My next step is to change my gender legally. It feels like my life is finally starting.