The woman in me

testimony ; When is a woman not a woman? When she is "outed", as Dr Rachel Padman was last week, as a former man. Transsexuals are still fighting for the same rights as their adopted sex. But harder still are the years before the sex change, writes Mary Rabbett, still a he but desperate to be a she
It's a nice day, this day in the second summer of my new life. The sun is shining , but I sit indoors, typing, not caring about the warm brightness outside. I have a story to tell, a life to explain, unhappy people to reach; other people like me. What do I mean by "like me"? Well, I'm glad you can't see me face to face: I do have my vanity, after all. What would you see if you could? A rather haggard looking middle-aged man, somewhat effeminate. Gay, you'd probably think: but you'd be wrong.

Not gay. I belong to a much more exclusive minority altogether. You see, I have a strange problem. When I look into a mirror, I do not see the image that would appear to you. Oh, I see the same over-large nose (I'm very fond of that nose, it's a Welsh nose, my mother's, so don't mock), the lined face; but I just do not identify with that person. Because I am a woman.

I have to admit, I don't have much of the external appearance of a woman. No breasts or hips to speak of, for a start. Long fingers, nails, and eyelashes, yes, but then I was a very pretty child, hard though that is to imagine now. Full lips and huge eyes - it's amazing that I was never molested, considering that I went to a boys' school. Perhaps I would have learned something about myself if I had been; but then, perhaps not.

For I already knew, you see, had known for a long time. Not that I was a woman - or a girl, rather - but that I wanted to be one. I'd known from some time in my infancy, from inchoate feelings, that it must be nice to have a pretty name as girls did, to wear nice clothes as they did, to have lovely long hair... onto an unspoken understanding that I ought to be a girl myself. I was nine when I actually told someone; it seemed such a natural thing, that a boy should rather be a girl - girls were so much nicer than boys, after all. But I can't say that it felt natural when I was ten, sneaking into my parents' bedroom and trying my mother's clothes on, heart hammering, consumed by a desperate need. And there, in the mirror, I saw something like myself, and I knew a feeling of inner tranquillity, of rightness, that I had never experienced before. It was truly a fateful day.

At 13, I made the earth-shattering discovery (reading a Sunday paper) that it was possible to be changed. There, in black and white, was the story of a woman called April Ashley who had been born a boy as I had. It was too much. How could I tell anyone? I couldn't, so I carried on trying to be a boy. For ten years I tried, and for seven of those I suffered from clinical depression. I thought it was because I was sexually incapable, as, in fact, I had heterosexual inclinations; most of us do, hard though people find this to understand. But I didn't "work" properly, not till I was 23, sorted out by an understanding woman who was very strange herself - and just what I needed. But the depression didn't go away.

Eventually, I trusted her enough to tell her my long- suppressed confession, and she wasn't shocked (so few people are when they know you, I have found). On the contrary, she encouraged me to act it out. And so I started to wear women's clothes. This was the mid-Seventies and people hardly noticed, because I didn't go as far as to wear skirts. I was just colourful, and I had a heavy beard to define me as male - and the depression went away. The relationship only lasted for a year and a bit, and I never connected the two things until last year.

I read archaeology at Sheffield University and for the next decade I made my living as a freelance archeological specialist, excavating on sites around the country. When I was 25, I met someone wonderful and got married - as most of us do. Of course, I told her because she had to know what she was getting. Mostly it was a happy marriage, but living with a woman sometimes became unbearable, because it reminded me of everything, and my need became overwhelming.

I started to go in public as a woman for the first time under cover of night, and the liberation was almost unbearable. I told a friend, had dinner with him (my wife didn't like the way I flirted with him; I was astonished to find myself doing it. He was astonished to find himself reacting). The subject of a sex change came up, and my wife was understanding. She'd support me - until I was no longer a man. That seemed perfectly reasonable, but I loved her too much to lose her, so I did nothing. The marriage ended nine years later in difficult circumstances. But I met someone else who encouraged me, and we even went to pubs together as two girls, and I wanted and needed more and more. But how could I want to be a woman when I enjoyed sex with women so much?

Can I explain? No. Sex and gender are two very different things. I no longer have any sexual feelings, and I don't miss them; it may be that as a woman I will get them back again. But with who or what I do not know; I remain attracted to women - but not like that, at least I don't think so. I can visualise loving a man, but not being attracted to one. There is so much that I have to learn... perhaps I will remain without sexual feeling.

For it has happened at last. My personal crisis came when my father, to whom I was very close, died. I had just finished doing a Phd at Cambridge, but I found it impossible to deal with his death and retreated to Scotland, where I now live. With both parents dead and my marriage over, I'm not-so-young and free. I am my own woman.

Yes, woman. Last year, I awoke from ten years of misery and drink to a sunny day like today and decided that I would wear something pretty. And I kept doing it... on my own, when before I had usually only felt the need when living with a woman. And I noticed things, strange things. I was changed. Happy; productive; busy and energetic, different. So, after a while, when I was sure, I went to a doctor. This was obviously good for me, so I would change my gender, live as a woman.

And all went smoothly until the hitches began. Too smoothly - I should have been warned. I saw a psychiatrist who recommended treatment and a psychologist who arranged the treatment and referred me to a specialist. It was early December and a lonely Christmas was not such a bleak prospect. I expected to wait, I am not stupid, but it was four months before I heard anything, and then it was only to be told that my health authority don't provide that treatment. When somewhere else was found, there was the matter of having to get permission from the health board here to pay the one there, and then join a waiting list. And so I wait, severely depressed since that first setback.

But as time passed, I have learned more about myself - my new self. I wrote and learned, and with the help of Jan Morris, who I've spoken and written to, I understood: I was a woman, I had been all along, and at last I let out the person I had suppressed so long. And it was good. But it had to be complete. Nothing would now satisfy my need for identity except a complete sex change, the option which had always been too final.

It is frightening; but I'm on my way, now. And it is this journey that I want to share, so that people may perhaps get a glimmer of understanding of those like me. I did not ask to be as I am; now I ask to be allowed to be as I must. I have finally taken my first halting steps towards a day when I can look in a mirror and see me at last. It is already a year since I made the decision, and it will take time; but I have faith that I will get there.

Legally speaking, transsexuals can change their physical appearance but not their sex, as determined by their chromosomes and set down in their birth certificate. A transsexual therefore cannot marry a person of their birth sex, but in the main, transsexuals run the risk not of breaking the law but of flouting the rules and by-laws of individual institutions, in which case they might be accused of gaining an advantage by deception.