When Steve became Eve, she found acceptance in Ireland
New to the Parish: English couple Eve and Maybelle Wallis arrived after Brexit in 2017
Maybelle (L) and Eve Wallis (R) in Wexford. Photograph: Patrick Browne
Eve Wallis cried when she turned on the news the morning of June 24th, 2016. Her wife Maybelle had stayed up all night to watch the results of UK referendum to leave the European Union. The couple had already discussed leaving Birmingham if Brexit passed. Now it was a reality.
“I had a really bad feeling about it because I’d been out leafleting in our local town centre,” remembers Maybelle. “The amount of bitterness and hate that you’d get made me feel I didn’t want to live in this place. About 60 per cent of the population voted to leave in the part of Birmingham where I worked.”
“We were into real right wing territory and it was almost getting racist,” adds Eve. “It wasn’t Birmingham, it was England. It was driven by the Tory party and Ukip. We just got sick of them.”
Maybelle, who worked as a consultant paediatrician with the NHS, was also worried about the future of the British health service. Her son from a previous marriage had finished university and the couple had paid off the mortgage on their home. It felt like the right time to move.
However, Brexit wasn’t the only reason that pushed Eve and Maybelle to pack up their trailer and take the ferry across the Irish Sea.
Society demands that if you are born with a penis, you dress like a man”
Maybelle met Steve in 2001 through an online dating forum and the couple got married soon afterwards. The child of an American father and Taiwanese mother, Maybelle grew up and studied in London before moving to Birmingham in the mid 90s. Steve, who was also previously married, had spent nearly 12 years working as a service engineer and later as a diving instructor in Plymouth before moving back north to Birmingham.
Ten years passed before Steve decided to “come out” to his wife. He had recently been diagnosed with gynecomastia – when a man’s breast tissue begins to swell– which he says was “a blessing in disguise”.
“I felt like I’d ran out of maleness. I had struggled with the feeling most of my life but kept it under wraps.”
Maybelle was totally shocked when her husband announced that he had decided to become a woman.
“It was completely out of the blue and was quite scary really,” says Maybelle. “I had a very mixed reaction. The first thing I said was ‘great, we can go shopping for clothes together’ but then I got really upset. Eve had this secret for such a long time that she hadn’t been honest about. That was really hurtful. In a way it’s like a bereavement because you lose the guy you thought you were married to and you think, here is this new person. I’m also a worrier and thought, 'Oh God, we’ll never be able to go caravanning or cycling again because of other people’s reactions’.”
Maybelle considered separation but eventually decided to stand by her partner. “When the person you married is in their hour of need you can’t just leave them.”
Eve felt guilty for hiding such a huge secret from her wife for so long but was petrified by how people would react to the truth.
“The reason it was secret in the first place was other people. Let’s face it. Society demands that if you are born with a penis, you dress like a man. If you’re born with a vagina, you dress like a girl. You’re either A or B. But have you not seen effeminate men or butch women? Gender is a wide spectrum.”
Most of Eve’s loved ones, including her mother and Maybelle’s son, responded very well to news of her transition. She attended a support group in Birmingham and gradually began to dress as a woman in public. She began using oestrogen patches and met an endocrinologist in London who explained she already had a very low testosterone count.
“It brought home that I had run out of maleness. I’d always been very over the top with my interests; I was a biker, a diver, a maintenance fitter, all very male things. Perhaps it was to counter the female side.”
We were struck by the courtesy and friendliness of the people we met”
Her boss and colleagues at Worcester County Council also responded well but the couple’s neighbours in Birmingham were not as comfortable with the change.
“Living in the suburbs of Birmingham we had never really made friends among our neighbours, even before Eve’s transition,” says Maybelle. “Her appearances en femme were met with some cold stares. One woman would point Eve out to her friend if she saw here driving past.”
After the results of Brexit the couple began arrangements to move to Ireland. They say they were nervous about moving to a country which up until recently was known for its conservative and religious views.
“We were apprehensive about relocating to Ireland and feared we might not be accepted but at the same time we felt we had nothing to lose. Having been uncomfortable in our own backyard we wanted to try and live somewhere where we felt there was going to be some acceptance.”
Maybelle applied for work in hospitals across Ireland through a recruitment agency in Dublin who also put the couple in touch with Teni (Transgender Equality Network Ireland). They travelled around the country as Maybelle interviewed for jobs and settled on Wexford where they bought a house.
“We were struck by the courtesy and friendliness of the people we met and by being able to walk around in the towns without getting disapproving glances.”
Hearing older Irish women in rural shops and cafés call her “love” and “dear”, Eve felt accepted in a way she had never experienced in Birmingham.
“It’s excellent to be treated the way that I feel. It gives me a glow inside because it’s what I want to be. I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I’m transgender. I’m not doing this to fool blokes into having sex with me. Sex has got nothing to do with it. It’s gender, not sex. I haven’t changed sexual preference wise, I am who I am.”
In April, Eve travelled to India for gender reassignment surgery. She had spent months researching clinics and settled on New Delhi after meeting two English women who already undergone the procedure.
She said you can’t use the changing rooms, they’re only for women. I said ‘excuse me, I’m fully transgendered’ and she said, ‘yes, I know’”
“I was on an NHS list but you have to wait 18 months for the surgery in the UK an that was miles away. To do it privately would have cost in excess of £20,000 (€23,000). I paid $7,300 (€6,500) in India.”
Eve returned to Ireland in mid-May after more than a month in India and is currently recovering from the surgery. Asked if she’s happy with the results she says “Yes” without a moment’s hesitation.
While she was initially worried about the move to Ireland, Eve says Wexford now feels like home.
“Within four days of picking up the keys were in a nearby bar making friends and on the following evening about twelve people came to our housewarming,” says Maybelle. “They accept Eve as she is, whether she’s doing DIY jobs in her scruffs, or made-up and tidy for a night out.”
Eve has only had one negative experience since the move to Ireland; when she contacted a lingerie shop to arrange a bra fitting. “I explained to her I’d just had my implants done and she said you can’t use the changing rooms, they’re only for women. I said ‘excuse me, I’m fully transgendered’ and she said, ‘yes, I know’. So I put the phone down.”
Maybelle is very happy with her new position at Wexford General Hospital. “In the hospital corridors, I have learned to walk more slowly than in the UK; we don’t barrel along avoiding eye contact.
“There are problems here, like long waiting lists for outpatient appointments and investigations and an over-reliance on Dublin for specialist treatment, but there is not the dysfunctionality of today’s NHS.”
The couple are now planning refurbishments on their new home and Eve hopes to find part-time work and do volunteering once she’s fully recovered.
“Birmingham is a fading memory. Now we have a house high on a hill among golden gorse and pine trees.”