'I was a husband. I was a father. But none of it felt right. I struggled'
Following her successful case at the Equality Tribunal this week, Louise Hannon tells ROSITA BOLANDabout her confused life as a man and her decision to become a woman
IT’S NOT long after noon, and Louise Hannon has already done three radio interviews and one with a newspaper. She was on Today With Pat Kennythe previous morning, and on Matt Cooper’s show later that evening. Even as we sit down, her phone trills insistently. It’s yet another request for a print interview, and she hasn’t even had an opportunity to reply to the television chat show that wants her on as a guest.
“I am exhausted,” Hannon admits frankly, looking overcome. “I never expected to be on the front pages of newspapers. I am amazed at the level of media interest, and the number of supportive messages I’ve had on Twitter and Facebook.”
Hannon was in the headlines this week because, supported by the Equality Authority, she won a case against her former employer, First Direct Logistics, for discrimination on gender and disability grounds. She was awarded €35,422. For the media coverage, Hannon chose to relinquish her right to anonymity. Why?
“I surrendered my anonymity for a number of reasons,” she says. “I thought it would make employers take transgender people more seriously. I run the Irish Tranny Group, and I had a strong sense that other people were having the same workplace problem. I thought it would encourage transgender people to be themselves.”
Hannon smiles swiftly, her eyes glinting. “And I’m also stubborn.”
HANNON IS STILL biologically a man, but believes she was born to the wrong gender, and plans to have sexual reassignment surgery. Louise is not the name she was given at birth. Neither is the surname Hannon. She chose both herself in 2007, changing her them by deed poll at a time in her life when she had decided to “transition”. “Most people keep their surnames. But my eldest boy is a teacher, and I didn’t want him to be . . . ” She leaves the sentence unfinished.
Antrim-born Hannon, who is in her 50s, was an only child. As a boy, she was brought up on a dairy farm, with the expectation that she would eventually take it over. “When I was 16, I wanted to do fashion design. My father wouldn’t hear a word of it. And when he fell ill, I did go back and run the farm for some years.”
She refers to having been sexually abused in childhood but will not be specific about its nature. Nor does she consider it to be connected to her transgender condition.
As a young man, she married “because it was the thing to do”. There were two children. “I was a husband. I was a father. But none of it felt right. I suffered from depression and struggled with confusion and what my role in life was.”
The marriage lasted 22 years. “My wife picked up that something wasn’t right, but she didn’t know what it was. How could she, when I didn’t even know myself?” By the time the marriage came to an end, and they had decided to separate, Hannon was secretly dressing in her wife’s clothes. “I had struggled with something for 22 years.”
The catalyst came when Hannon met and fell in love with a Canadian woman. “She was a trained counsellor who’d worked on gender issues. Two days after we met, she said to me, ‘You should go and find out if you are transgendered.’” Hannon saw a counsellor for six months. She slowly realised that she was indeed transgender, which she defines as being born to the wrong gender.
“I don’t like the expression transsexual,” she explains. “Because it’s not a sexual issue, it’s a gender one.”
Over the five years Hannon was with her Canadian partner, she began to dress more frequently as a woman. The relationship ended when her partner told her that she wanted the person in her life to be a man, and moved out. Within a fortnight, she had moved in with another man.
“It took me four years to get over that. It stalled my transition. My brain was in grief mode.”
As she talks, Hannon goes backwards and forwards in time, frequently mentioning dates with unusual precision. Dates matter to her in a very specific way: they are the markers of time before and after she chose to change her life and live as she felt she was always meant to live. “It’s like a clean slate since I changed my name. I don’t have the same emotional baggage that I did when I was in male mode. I don’t have the same history.”
By the time she split with her Canadian partner, Hannon was living in Dublin. She had previously had a number of jobs, including as a truck driver, as a civil engineer, and DJ for a pirate radio station. She started working for First Direct, and it was here that she decided it was time to make “the transition”.
Hannon defines this as dressing full-time as a woman, changing her name, and expecting to be treated as a female by society and her colleagues. She informed her manager that she was changing her name by deed poll, and that she would be arriving into the office on a certain date dressed as a woman.
“His jaw hit the floor and then bounced back up again,” she recalls. While the company was initially supportive, her work life became increasingly difficult. “It got to the point where I was being called Louise one minute, and the next by my male name. It was very stressful. Eventually I flew off the handle.”
There followed a period when Hannon was permitted to dress as a woman in the office, but was asked to assume a male identity when meeting clients. Eventually she decided she had no alternative but to leave the company.
“I thought long and hard about taking my case to the Equality Tribunal. I would never have been able to do it if I was living in male mode. When I was in male mode, I had a great inability to say no to people. Now as Louise, I am much stronger. It feels right for me to be the way I am.”
The tribunal found that requesting Hannon to switch between male and female roles when she had chosen to be a female, was discriminatory. In a statement, First Direct said: “We regret we failed to provide the full level of support and understanding required in these circumstances and we wish Louise well in the future.”
SINCE MAKING THE TRANSITION, Hannon has been on a lengthy course of hormones, as well as using oestrogen patches. Her voice, for instance, does not sound like a man’s.
She is also one of a small number of people in Ireland on the HSE waiting list for sexual reassignment surgery at a London hospital. The cost is €29,000. However, in Thailand, where there is a long-established practice of sexual reassignment surgery, the cost is €6,000. “When my cheque [from First Direct] comes through, I’m going to go straight to Bangkok,” she says. “I can’t wait any longer.”
There are a number of people in Ireland at various stages of transgender transition, many of whom Hannon has met to share information and support.
Apart from Thailand, there are a number of other countries where people can go for surgery. Colombia specialises in cosmetic surgery. Ghent in Belgium is also popular, and clinics in the US offer a ra nge of treatments, including what Hannon describes as “official feminisation” – a method of plastic surgery where the face is remodelled through the mouth, and costs an average of €20,000.
Given the strong course of hormones, the resultant changes to her body, and the pending surgery in Thailand, does Hannon worry about her health and the physical side effects of the process she is undergoing?
“Yes,” she says. “It took me two years to get up the courage to get my ears pierced . . . I do worry about my health, but I need to do this. I have waited long enough to get here.”