Debbie Hayton shared her journey exclusively with Hood magazine. Stories are central to the human experience. By sharing them we make profound connections, we understand more acutely, and our compassion grows. Here, Debbie Hayton shares hers…
Do you really need to do this? Do you not care about the rest of us at all?’ asked my wife, Stephanie. But my energies were overwhelmed by my own needs; an inward focus that left nothing for anyone else. After a lifetime spent hiding my inner turmoil, my mind revelled in what I thought were new freedoms. I was talking about my gender identity; how I was a woman trapped in a man’s body, and why I needed to transition. That was eight years ago, in 2012. It’s hard for me to remember how it took over my life, though maybe easier for Stephanie, who had to keep her feet on the ground while my head was in the clouds.
But while I felt liberated, Stephanie was traumatised. I thought I went slowly; to her, I raced at the speed of light in a direction she did not want to go. Then, just 18 months later, I stood in the dock at Birmingham magistrates court to tell a magistrate that I was now Debbie Hayton.
Transition, to put it lightly, was a learning experience. The clerk assured me that everyone who seeks justice stood in the dock. In less than five minutes, I read out my statutory declaration, watched as it was signed and sealed, and left the building with a new name. But it wasn’t just a name; changes were also needed in my wardrobe, which contained little more than two pairs of jeans, a dozen T-shirts, a few sweaters, my comfy shorts, and a couple of suits for work. I was clueless. The second-best piece of advice I was given was to book a personal shopper slot, and request at least two hours. As I blustered on the phone, they reassured me: ‘Don’t worry! We see a lot of this.’ Despite my worries and prejudices, they didn’t seem to mind. Why should they? Their business was selling clothes, and my money was as good as anyone else’s.
It was there that it began to dawn that maybe my biggest concerns were not getting funny looks on the bus—they were closer to home. It was Stephanie and our three children, who watched on in bewilderment as I raced ahead.
Soon after I emerged from the court, I embarked on a tour of banks and public services changing my details. Everyone seemed eager to help. At my bank, I was directed to Phil, who ‘knew how to do it’. Two or three times a month, he told me, he changed a marker in a drop-down box from ‘M’ to ‘F’. That was it. His colleagues thought he worked magic, but actually, the magic happened in a distant marketing department. Overnight, I stopped receiving mailers adorned with images of cars and golfing holidays. In their place were photographs of flowers and spa breaks.
Unfortunately, by the time I got to the call centres, the novelty was wearing thin. For trans women like me, the telephone is the instrument of the devil. Despite my protests that I was a woman, five thousand miles away call centre staff heard a man. After trying and failing to make myself understood, operation name-change ground to a halt. But what does it matter what name a distant company might hold on a database, less so gender markers? What matters most are those closer to home.
That brings me to the best piece of advice I was given: the hardest places to transition are in your own head and within your family.
Other people on the bus couldn’t care if I am trans—if they even notice at all. They have their own lives to worry about. Work was a bigger concern; I’m a teacher, and my employer planned carefully. But in the end, what prevailed was my ability to teach physics, inspire children, and unjam the photocopier.
Family was where it mattered, and where it often hurt. Not long after I transitioned, I spotted my 12-year old son walking towards me, sandwiched between two friends. As the distance closed to 20 metres, he noticed me. There was panic in his eyes. At 10 metres we made eye contact. His friends were oblivious. Five metres and the tension was palpable. We passed without acknowledging each other, and neither of us turned around.
‘Thanks for not saying anything, Dad,’ he told me as he went to bed that night. Parents can be embarrassing at the best of times but, to a boy out with his friends, a trans parent might feel like the worst of times. Nobody had prepared him to deal with that. Things did get better. Three years later, he grumbled that I could have at least had the decency to transition during his GCSE year so that he could have applied for special consideration in his exams.
My transition was hardest of all for Stephanie. While I celebrated new freedoms, her life was made harder. As I crashed through life, she had to pick up the pieces. She counselled our children, looked after the house, and dealt with enquiries. People who walked on eggshells around me unleashed their worries on her. We got through it, but life had changed forever.
When one of our children won an award, we were invited to a buffet reception. As we mingled, I introduced myself to other parents as I always do – ‘John is my son’. The truth, but maybe not the whole truth. Elsewhere in the room, Stephanie described herself as John’s mother. When the connection was finally made, I explained somewhat sheepishly, ‘and I’m his Dad.’ Trans people have rightly emerged from the shadows. But, still, we are not expected to be found at socials trying to hold our plates in one hand, our champagne glasses in another, and our son’s prize in a non-existent third. One day, perhaps this will change. But right now, this is my reality.
Something that has brought trans people once again to the forefront of the news cycle is the furore surrounding an essay written by author JK Rowling. Even more recently there was a very public spat between Baroness Nicholson and transgender activist, Munroe Bergdorf. It’s easy, however, to overlook what, or rather, who, is being discussed—the wider trans community. People who are probably more concerned about keeping a roof over our heads and getting home from work in time to make the tea. While I do roll my sleeves up and want to be part of these critical conversations, real life carries on; life that involves work, rest, play and putting out the bins on Tuesday night. Or, more often than I’d like, jumping out of bed at six the next morning as the refuse truck comes down the street.
If I knew in 2012 what I know now, would I still transition? Honestly, I’m not sure. Eight years ago, I thought I was some kind of woman, and I needed to transition to find my true self as if I was not my true self already. After living this life, I know that I have never been a woman. Womanhood is not a feeling in my head or anyone else’s. I was certainly driven to transition, but not because I was trapped in another body. I now realise there is only me in here, and that I have always been here.
In hindsight, I do wonder whether there might have been some less drastic remedy, but the compulsion at the time was overwhelming. I am in the same body, but I like it better the way it is now. Even if I didn’t, what has gone can never be put back.
Alongside my family, the hardest place for me to transition was there, in my own head. The trans conversation is punctuated with talk of acceptance and validation. But not from my fellow travellers on the bus. What’s most important comes from within. We all transition as we move through life. For some of us, switching our gender is but one step on the way. It is not an end, but a means of finding ourselves. In doing so, I accepted myself. I just wish that it had not come at such a cost to those I care about most.
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