'There's no easy way to tell your children you're transgender'

Claire Farrell, a transgender woman who works with the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland, says Ireland's improving support for the trans community makes her proud Photo: Steve Humphreys

It's been a big week for the transgender community globally with Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover bringing the cause to mass attention. But even before that dramatic moment, the rights of the transgender community was a hot topic here in Ireland.

A Gender Recognition Bill is currently before the Oireachtas, and if passed will enable transgender people to declare their own gender when applying for a new passport, driving licence, and when getting married.

Claire Farrell, a transgender woman who works with the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland, says Ireland's improving support for the trans community makes her proud Photo: Steve Humphreys

And prior to the passing of the same-sex marriage referendum, married people who had transitioned would effectively have had to get divorced in order change their gender on official documents. Previously, trans people required a supporting statement from a medical practitioner - now, all that's required is their own word.

One person who has worked towards this happening is Claire Farrell. The 71-year-old Dubliner is a transgender female. She has been living as a woman fully for the past three years.

"My life is much, much different now to what it was when I was younger, and during my working life. I worked as a male, totally.

"I allowed Claire out on occasion, but now I can live as her. The turning point was certainly retirement; running my own business, there was a fear I would lose clients, and a fear there when I worked in the charity sector also."

Claire has known she was transgender since she was a small child.

"From the age of five or six, I knew I was different, but I didn't have the vocabulary to express it until I was in my 20s.

"Even then, it was only snippets of information I got, and usually not about people in Ireland. It wasn't until I was in my 30s that I really started to understand who I was."

When she was a teenager, Claire's mother discovered her dressed in female clothing.

"It was a 'wait until your father comes home!' sort of thing. It was awful, and I was beaten for it. I grew up with six brothers, and it wasn't talked about at home."

Claire was married and has three children; she met the woman who would become her wife when she was 18-years-old, something her family were pleased about.

"Well, they would have thought that my being trans had all gone away, but of course it hadn't. Up until the time I was caught by my mother, so to put it, I was acutely aware to keep it hidden. Back then, I would have been locked up! That was the environment.

"My mother hauled me off to a priest who heard my confession, can you imagine? It was later arranged for me to see a psychiatrist, who for me was absolutely useless.

Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover story

"There was a worry in my own head about getting married, because I knew that there was this underlying issue, but the psychiatrist told me to go for it, to get married," she says.

For Claire, the underlying issue was the fact that she knew in her heart and soul that she was a woman, masquerading as a man.

"I was really trying to be male, but I was a girl. My concern came from the fact that it wouldn't be fair to my wife, that I wasn't being completely honest with her.

"And yet, I didn't want to lose her because I loved her. I still do. I was attracted to women even though I was a woman."

Claire's wife discovered photographs of her dressed as a woman in their home several years in to their marriage. However, she didn't recognise Claire.

"She thought I was having an affair! It became the lesser of the evils," she laughs ruefully. "She was really quite supportive."

The two are still in contact, despite separating more than 16 years ago, and Claire says: "She's a wonderful person. She's met Claire, who would come out when we were on holiday together.

"I was grateful she was supportive, but looking back, she was probably uncomfortable. We don't talk much about back then, but we do talk about the transgender issue; I brief her and keep her updated on what's happening. I think she's happy I'm living my true life, she's just that sort of person."

When Claire and her wife separated, she sat down and wrote identical letters to her son and two daughters, now in their 40s, explaining who she really is - a process she says was incredibly difficult with a lot of tears on her part.

"Writing to them was traumatic, but it had to be done. One of my daughters was already aware; she had just known.

"Obviously they were hurt, but they dealt with it and there was no falling out or anything like that. They did their best.

"My eldest daughter is actually very supportive, and my grandchildren are aware. To use modern parlance, they're cool with it. Thankfully, my children are grounded and well-adjusted."

However Claire realises that in this case she is fortunate. "There's no easy way to tell them, it's very difficult for everybody involved."

One of the more emotional aspects of Caitlyn Jenner's transition was how her famous children and step-children have been dealing with the transition from Bruce to Caitlyn. Khloe Kardashian in particular found it very difficult, saying that she felt she'd been lied to by her stepfather. Is that common with the children of trans people?

"Lied to is a bit heavy," says Claire. "Our basic instinct is survival. Many, many trans people commit suicide because they can't cope with who they are.

"I'm involved with the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland, and they have to deal with people who are suicidal all the time. It's just so incredibly difficult, so I would call it more self-protection.

"One has to try and get through life with the complication of being trans. It's not something that you just think about now and then - it's there constantly."

For Claire, there was no other option than to be her true self.

"It had to be done for my own survival. I'm a very positive person, and I'm very lucky, that attitude has got me through life."

When the question of Caitlyn Jenner comes up, Claire seems to share the opinion of a large portion of the trans community. While they're grateful for the visibility of the issue in the media, Caitlyn is also as different to the vast majority of trans people as an A-list straight celebrity is to the person on the street.

"While it would have been extremely difficult for Caitlyn during all those years, she's in a different world to most of us.

"She has plenty of money that has allowed her to transition much more smoothly. Just look at the cover of Vanity Fair, (pictured above) - she looks amazing! But take a trans person who's poverty stricken, that's a completely different world. It doesn't bear thinking about.

"I was lucky, I had my own business, I could accommodate Claire."

Claire understands why many of the community are perturbed. "I notice a lot of trans people are critical and even angry, because she's getting all this publicity.

"But I think there's no such thing as bad publicity, because we have been invisible for so, so long. It's great that there is attention on the trans world.

"On the other hand, it brings some unwarranted attention, but you can't have it every way," says Claire.

Claire believes that the trans community has come a long way in Ireland.

"We've always been about 20 years behind the gay world, but we're catching up now. Look how Ireland has changed in the last few weeks alone, it's so extraordinary. It makes me so proud to be Irish. We have come an awful long way."