Transgender: I never felt like a boy -- but now I've been set free
Vanessa Lacey is a transgender woman who has spent her life living in the wrong body. After a lifetime of wearing a mask, she tells Sinéad Nolan about how it feels to finally be herself ...
Dressed in a red jumper and a vibrant blue scarf, Vanessa Lacey (47) stands at the gates of the school in Waterford waiting for her little boy to emerge.
Scanning the crowd, she is like any other parent watching for a familiar face to appear. Yet, for Vanessa things are a bit different. This is because four years ago, people would have just seen an ordinary father standing outside the gates.
Vanessa talks through her journey as a transgender woman in Ireland.
"Since I was a very young child, since my first memories, I have never felt as a boy," she says.
"My parents named me something else, that's understandable. I got a blue blanket and my parents gave me a boy's name. People didn't know about gender identities then, in 1964, especially in Waterford city."
Vanessa's earliest memories are of liking girls' things, feeling comfortable with dolls, fashion and clothes -- being interested in girly magazines -- of never liking anything boyish.
"I remember in Stephen's Street in Waterford, kneeling down and cutting out the cut-out dresses in Bunty, I don't know how old I was five or six, it just felt so comfortable.
"But around that time too it seemed to change -- I started to feel discomfort. I don't know whether someone said something to me or what but football pictures and football books seemed to appear at that time as well," she says.
It was then that a lifetime of being misunderstood began.
"I was always crying as a child. I'd sit down and listen to sad music and I'd cry. I remember my father saying: 'Will you stop crying, you're a boy, will you get on with it!'"
But Vanessa couldn't make the feelings go away. Her school life that ensued was miserable.
"Primary school wasn't too bad but when I went into secondary and adolescent and puberty it was just a complete and utter nightmare.
"I only spent three years in secondary school. I left when I was 14. I failed every exam I ever sat because I couldn't concentrate for one minute on what I was doing."
Eager to try and change her future, in the late 1980s Vanessa moved to London and like most young people, in their early 20s away from home, she fell in love for the first time.
"I fell in love with the person," explains Vanessa. "She was lovely, I worked with her for a while. Eventually, towards the end, I told her that I always felt as a girl and I dressed as a girl.
"We went to see a counsellor there who told me it was my fault. This added to the guilt. I felt quite useless, actually."
Vanessa had thought London would change everything but it didn't. There wasn't a lot of understanding over there about her condition at this time.
"I always thought of that expression 'woman trapped in a man's body', that's such an easy term to use -- but it is!
"It very much feels like that. Trapped is the word, it's unbearable, like you're encaged in this different gender and you feel so uncomfortable with the role that you're playing.
"That's what it was, it was a façade and a mask and a persona that you're giving to everyone else, while inside you feel you're dying."
Afraid of what would happen if she did come out, Vanessa continued to hide her true self behind a mask.
"Even when I came out, no one had any idea, because I had created an illusion. I got into football and running and drinking and backing horses, anything that I could mask the way I felt. I ran, I ran, I ran -- I was like Forrest Gump, I ran so much!"
Vanessa and her girlfriend finished after three years, after moving back to Ireland together.
"It didn't last because I was trans, and I still miss her very much," she explains sadly. "She was a wonderful person."
It was then, after Vanessa opened her own business French-polishing and spraying furniture, that she met her future wife and got married. They had two children together.
At that point, Vanessa looked and acted like a man.
"I was married for 14 years, to a wonderful woman who gave me two of the most wonderful things I could ever have in my life so we are still friends."
Vanessa has also maintained a great relationship with her kids, and tries to be as involved in their life as possible.
"I love them to bits. My oldest boy is 15, he's just remarkable, they both had to face an awful lot when I came out -- which really hurt everybody, but also them having to tell their friends was difficult as well.
"But I think they've been very lucky, their friends have been very good -- especially my teenage boy's friends.
"My youngest boy who is 11, he would have found out when he was 8, I think at that age when they're growing up, it's more acceptable."
But apart from this, life carries on as usual for Vanessa.
'My youngest, I bring him to school, collect him from school, he stays with me most of the time. As he said the other day, he can't see the 'big deal'! If anybody has been hurt, it was them -- but they are just my inspiration."
Many people might call Vanessa's transition a choice but she refutes this word immediately.
"I wouldn't use the word choice -- a lot of people think it is a choice. It's not a choice. I would have loved to grow up one gender. It would have been so much easier on me. It would have been so much easier on my kids.
"No one chooses to be born a certain colour, or to be gay or have psychological problems, nobody chooses."
But it wasn't just her children that Vanessa had to break the news to.
She also had to face telling her parents and brothers, who didn't take it well.
"It was so painful for them, and they were so frustrated. It was just really painful for everyone involved.
"My mam died of cancer a couple of years ago, that's really still raw. I miss her very much."
And Vanessa admits that the guilt was always the worst part.
"I always felt guilty, you do feel guilty. Luckily enough I tried to educate myself, and did a psychology degree. Now I realise it certainly wasn't my fault and it is not anyone's fault whether they have a different gender identity or sexual orientation."
Vanessa is tall, slim and striking looking with angular features. To pass her in the street you may think she is like any other woman. But Vanessa decided to go through with the operation to change to a woman completely.
She now identifies as being transgender and a woman and avoids other words to describe herself, such as transsexual.
"The term transsexual, I hate it because it infers that there is sex involved. However -- and this is the confusing part -- transgender is an umbrella term for transsexual, transvestite, intersex, gender-queer, so it's very broad.
"It's over our years I began to transition. Eventually I got to see an endocrinologist in Dublin. After seeing him for a year or two years I went to London, where I went the psychological route again. I was assessed twice, and then got referred on to surgery."
She talks about how she felt after the operation.
"I didn't feel it was this fantastic thing like people expect. It was quite emotional, it was quite hard on my body physically and mentally, but I'm just delighted and thrilled it's over with. I feel so happy. Happier then I ever, ever thought I would experience in my life.
"I think facing into transition was the scariest part -- the operation scared me just like any other major operation might. I was worried about the consequences when I came out of it."
Vanessa also mentions how liberating getting hormone therapy was. "It was like getting a pair of shoes that fit for a change!" she laughs.
Vanessa now works as a development worker for Transgender Equality Network Ireland.
"I just needed to give back to the people that helped me," she explains.
"A third of transgender people surveyed have attempted suicide in their life and that's only the people that we know about.
"I'm also interested in working in mental health in general, not just with transgender people.
"Last year alone we had 300 visitors to our support groups, in Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Cavan.
"We also are starting work on parent and family support for trans people which is fantastic. We are meeting with some parents at the moment, and some volunteers, not before time either."
Vanessa says every day can be different with people's reaction to her.
"I'm quite accepted in Waterford. Some people look at me in amusement -- other people look at me and say fair play to you.
"In my local pub on a Saturday night I might stick out but in the middle of the day there's not an eye blinked.
"I went in last Saturday night, there were some fellas on a stag night -- they thought I was some source of amusement. There was some touching and things but I just threatened with getting them thrown out so they soon stopped!
"They don't mean to be ignorant it's just a fear, they don't know the issues, and if they knew the issues they wouldn't be fearful. My big thing is to raise awareness through education for children.
"The main thing at the moment is gender recognition legislation and that's something that TENI are fighting hard on at the moment."
Swapping her trousers for a dress and her short hair for a shoulder length cut, life has been a bit up and down for Vanessa to say the least. But she is philosophical.
"I've had fantastic friends, especially Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender group in Waterford who've been remarkable, especially when I was first coming out. They've always been there for me."
So what does Vanessa hope for the future?
"To be as happy as I am now, to see my children go to college, to see my children being happy in their life and just to see them growing up. Hopefully to bring the transgender community into 2012 and 2013 and seeing their families accepting and embracing them for who they are."
For more information or to seek support on transgender issues go to www.teni.ie