Winning the battle to be herself

Sara-Jane, formerly Thomas, came to terms with gender identity disorder

Sara-Jane, formerly Thomas, came to terms with gender identity disorder. Now she hopes to alter Irish attitudes, writes Kathy Sheridan

Her soft, engaging voice, peachy skin and frilly blouse speak of a 47-year-old woman at ease with herself and her femininity. But nature played a demonic trick on Sara-Jane Cromwell. It fashioned her as a 6ft ¾in tall, perfectly functional male body with a female brain. Its only merciful omission was an Adam's apple.

The flawlessly hairless face is down to a dozen "hell on earth" laser hair removal sessions in a Cork salon. The breasts are courtesy of hormone therapy. The rangy body has been reduced from 18½ stone to 14 stone by dint of salsa dancing, resistance exercises and sensible eating.

In the Dublin hotel where we meet, there is some polite curiosity among staff about the "tall woman" conducting interviews from a lounge sofa.

"Ah yes," says one, when all is explained, "we had an idea . . ." How? "It's the hands," he murmurs, almost apologetically. "They're man's hands."

Born in the Dublin suburb of Ballyfermot, the early years of her life read like a typical, misery-lit production, a cycle of relentless bullying, humiliation and violence in a classic large, two-parent, Irish Catholic family. Her mother was so profoundly manipulative and damaging that Sara-Jane refused to attend her funeral.

A teacher told her mother that Thomas was "retarded" (probably because he was left-handed), a label that her mother never sought to change.

Sara-Jane now feels that she was a particular target for violence and humiliation "because I was different". In recent years, some family members admitted that they recognised her "girlie tendencies" while very young and put it down to attention-seeking.

Interestingly, those "girlie tendencies" were also recognised by her mother, but in a profoundly negative way. It was Thomas who was kept home from school from the age of nine, to clean the house and to mind the younger children. He never finished primary school.

"I don't know how I didn't end up in Artane. School inspectors even called to the house," she says now. "I don't think life would have been any worse in Artane. Rejection is rejection, regardless of what guise it comes in."

This violence, rejection, and suppression of an instinct and condition that Thomas could not name would lead to a desperate, lifelong struggle to "fit in", a life replete with suffering, a disastrous marriage, flirtations with various religions and numerous suicide attempts.

AT THE AGE of 12, he was working in a full-time job in a clothing factory, then a petrol station, a butcher's and a weaving factory. Occasionally, as an adolescent, he met girls he liked.

In one case, he "fell head over heels" for a girl, as Sara-Jane now describes it in her book, Becoming Myself. In another, he meets a girl "and fancies her like mad".

For the reader of a book which is, after all, about gender identity disorder (GID), this raises obvious questions about Thomas's sexuality. But for Sara-Jane, one of the downsides of disclosing her condition "has been the way people automatically assume they can ask me questions about my sex life and my sexuality".

However, if her aim is to demystify and explain the medical diagnosis and daily reality of GID, is it not a legitimate area to explore? She points out that GID is not to be confused with sexual orientation.

"There are differing sexual identities in GID and non-GID people." So what did that mean for Thomas? "Sexual longing never came into it," Sara-Jane says now.

"In my case, I dated because I wanted to be normal, not because I was gay, lesbian or bisexual. My first encounter that way was initiated by someone else. It felt completely foreign to me. Still is. I just didn't get it," she says, before bursting into surprised laughter at the unintentional double entendre.

It is not Sara-Jane's way to be sexually crude. "I've thought about it, but never really knew the answer," she continues. "I used to describe myself as bisexual."

That sounds rather racy? "It was the complete opposite," she says. "I needed to resolve; still haven't." At this stage, she says: "I have no sexual preference whatever. I consider myself asexual, partly because of the [ hormone] treatment. I enjoy my friends and their companionship far too much and the last thing I would want to do is complicate things."

What she wanted all along was female companionship. Her pride and delight in recent "girlie" nights out is evident. As a person in a man's body who worked in all-male environments and only emerged as a woman a few years ago, she has had an almost unique insight into the workings of the male mind. And by this assessment, they do not emerge with particular credit.

"They are what they seem. Functional," she says in her usual measured tones. "In all my time working with men, I never once heard them talking about relationships, or getting excited about relationships. While women work on a relationship, nurture it and pour themselves into it, men are completely functional. They'll bore and move on to the next one. Like fish.

"They get far more excited about football, cars, or their jobs or machines. I have concluded that women definitely have something men do not have - that sixth or seventh sense. Collectively, women could be a powerhouse. I think men are afraid of women and they express that through domination and sometimes through violence. So many men think that because they fancy a woman, that that must be enough of a reason for her to acquiesce to dates and intimacy. The attitude is 'why not?'. It's as though they're doing the woman a favour."

She recalls the "crude and rough" response of her male colleagues when it became apparent that her catastrophic marriage was not producing offspring.

"They asked me did I want them to go up and 'sort out' my wife. Individually, they would be quite different. On their own, they could be an almost completely different species."

BUT, SHE CONCEDES, she has found men among the medical professionals, who are "absolute gentlemen. Even though they don't fully understand the nature of the condition, they are still respectful."

Although she found fine professionals in this country to finally recognise that she was not suffering from clinical depression but from a diagnosable medical condition, it was not without a battle.

"My consultant could not get his colleagues to engage with him on the issue because of the perception around the terms 'transsexual' or 'transgender' and the confusion with transvestism and crossdressing. To them, it was a fetish or a psychiatric condition," she says.

It may be more common than they imagine. The figure once used for people with GID was one in 500,000; now, she says, experts are suggesting that it could affect one in 2,500.

The battle also continues within the gay, lesbian and bisexual (LGB) communities. "Transgender is a huge debate within the gay community," she says. "For example, I see some gay men who are far too feminine for this not to be an issue. Some are clearly struggling with it."

But the confusion with men and women for whom a certain kind of dressing or sexual practice is a lifestyle choice has caused enormous problems for her and her particular cause, she says.

"People expect to see Mr Pussy, Lily Savage or a Bet Gilroy [ the former Coronation Street barmaid]. They look past people like me - they just don't expect that kind of normality. Then you have others who want GID recognised but want to remain within the LGB scene - and that's a fundamental difference between them and me."

The upshot is that she has disassociated herself from TENI (Transgender Equality Network Ireland), the organisation she helped to found, "as I felt that organisation's decision to include all manner of fetish lifestyles which have nothing to do with GID, was misleading".

She has founded and now runs a client- based (rather than membership-based) organisation called GID Ireland (GIDI), with a board of management comprised of people with GID and experts.

"I took the issue away from the whole gay/lesbian scene. If you want to be accepted as normal but keep using the terminology that makes you an exception, it's absurd. The media also has a huge role in this. You look at the redtops or turn on the TV and see Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake treating the issue in a way that is sensationalist, salacious and wholly inaccurate," she says.

THE PROCESS OF reorganising, she says, has left her almost bankrupt and behind in her own schedule of transformation. This week, she will be meeting her consultants to organise that final step - her "genital realignment" surgery - to be performed in Charing Cross Hospital in London sometime this year, she hopes, with funding from the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF).

"The NTPF has already covered GID surgery," she says. "It's fairly routine surgery there and I'm looking forward to it with a passion. It has a 97 per cent success rate in terms of what it does for your life afterwards. I will no longer have GID. That's the end of it all. I've paid a high price, but it's been worth it. Nature is what nature is."

Meanwhile, she has written several chapters of a novel, is working on a source book called Transsexuals in Ireland, and plans to write a sequel to her autobiography called Being Myself.

Becoming Myself : The True Story of Thomas who Became Sara, by Sara-Jane Cromwell, is published by Gill & Macmillan

Ireland's first national symposium on GID, sponsored by the HSE, the Equality Authority and Department of Health, will take place on Wed, Feb 20. GID Ireland: www.gidi.ie