'I know who I want to be': Why I decided to undergo male-to-female gender reassignment
Rosalind Ryan talks to Vivienne Snowdon, who plans to have an operation to become a woman in October
Thursday 18 June 2009
"I have always associated myself with being female, and identified much more with girls when I was growing up. When I was little, I heard the alternative name my mother would have given me had I been born a girl and I thought 'Yes, that's who I should've been'," says Vivienne Snowdon.
Vivienne, 42, of Glasgow, is undergoing male-to-female gender reassignment. She has been receiving counselling and hormone treatment for 14 months under the NHS, and is planning to have the full operation in Thailand in October. The cost, including travel, will be £13,000, and she is raising the money herself. "It's something that I feel has to be done," she says. "For me, the process won't be complete until then."
It is hard for Vivienne – born Jim Sneddon – to say exactly when the process of her gender transition began. For many transsexuals, there is not a specific turning point, but a deep-seated knowledge that they were always meant to be somebody else. Vivienne agrees, but says it is one thing to recognise that fact and quite another to act upon it.
She says: "I was nine or 10 when I started cross-dressing. I could fit into my older sister's clothes and would 'girly it up' in front of the mirror! But there was always the guilt that comes with that, the knowledge that it was something I should keep private. However, it also felt like this wonderful thing that only I knew about. It was a wee secret to myself, and I liked that."
A difficult childhood in Glasgow made it even harder for Vivienne to express who she really was. "I used to have long hair and was always very feminine. But I was bullied terribly at school. I had a bad road accident when I was nine, and was off school for quite a while recuperating," she says. "Then I started at a new school, and because of the long hair and still being quite weak from the accident, I was bullied severely at least twice a day for a couple of years."
But as Vivienne grew stronger, she learnt to handle herself. "Soon I could turn on the bullies and gave them all a good hiding," she says. "It wasn't all at once, but over a period of time. There was seven of them and I managed to turn on all of them."
By the time Vivienne left school, she was looking and behaving much more like a male. "I just got on with being a dude, living the way society says a man should be. I wasn't so distracted by my gender disorder that I couldn't live my life," she says.
Part of her old life was being a dedicated Glasgow Rangers supporter and getting involved in that "very macho, masculine environment". As a man, she also had a number of relationships with women, but now recognises that they may have indicated something about her gender disorder. "They were always the most incredibly beautiful women. I was fascinated by how perfectly feminine they were," she explains.
She was married at 26 and spent her married life as a man, but when her marriage ended three years ago, Vivienne felt able to start being more feminine. "A lot of the responsibility of the roles of 'husband' and 'father' were taken away with the end of my marriage. I felt much freer after that and decided to indulge that side of my personality. I wasn't consciously saying 'I'm going to change gender', but I just wanted to express myself," she says. "Deciding to live your life as a woman isn't a sexual thing, or a perverted thing, it is actually quite a beautiful experience. To me, it felt like putting myself back in touch with a part of me that had been neglected."
Vivienne began buying women's clothes and make-up, but was only dressing in her own home. None of her friends or family knew about that side of her personality, but one day she introduced them to Vivienne in quite an unorthodox fashion.
Psychologists advise transsexuals to tell people about the transition first and then introduce themselves as a woman, but Vivienne threw caution to the wind. She says: "I was dressed at home and my nephew called and asked if I could go into town to meet him. I had the option of changing, or going into town dressed as Vivienne and saying: 'Deal with it'. He's quite a tolerant person and was actually cool with it. The guys he worked with were cool about it too, which made me feel incredibly liberated."
Vivienne expected her transition to be the hot topic of family conversation, but when she went to see her sister was surprised to discover her nephew had not told his mother. "She opened the door and was like, 'What?!', but was very understanding. Then my two other sisters arrived, so I was introduced to all the women in my family at once." Vivienne's transformation was so dramatic that one of her sisters failed to recognise her.
She says: "We were in the living room and my sister came in. I hadn't seen her for years as she was living out of the country. The others said to her, 'Who do you think this is?', and she replied: 'I'm really sorry, I don't know who you are'. When I said 'It's your brother!', the look on her face was hilarious. She was totally amazed."
Vivienne's parents both died before her transformation, but she says the rest of her close family and friends have now accepted her. She believes this may be because she is much more relaxed. "I think a lot of people prefer me as a femme. I'm just much happier as a person now" she says. "I know I still have some way to go, but in my head I know what I'm doing and who I want to be."
Unfortunately, not everyone reacted to her transition so well. "I have had some abuse shouted at me down the street, but you can't expect everybody to accept you. You have to allow some margin for arseholes," she says, good-naturedly.
As part of her new life, Vivienne is planning to visit Pride London for the first time. "It will be a great experience. For me, it symbolises trying to break down intolerance and barriers," she says. "Many people are marching for the right to live their life the way they want, which is great, but for me it's also a march for tolerance. A lot of macho guys may be looking at us thinking, 'What a load of... whatevers', but those people should look inside themselves and see if they can be more tolerant, see if they can change. I will be marching for a less macho, more tolerant world."
Though her own change is not yet complete, Vivienne is excited about the future. "I'm a musician and songwriter, but I never felt comfortable being on stage as a guy. I felt like a fish out of water. I'm not saying I could do that as Vivienne, but it would be a great hurdle to get over if I could.
"I think it's just a question of having more confidence, being able to say to the world: 'This is me and I'm happy. This is who I am.' Which, I guess, is the same for everybody really."
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