‘The kind of woman I’ll be is me’
David Thomas was a father of three and a West Ham fan, with a fabulously blokey record collection, but always struggled with being a man. Now, at last, he has decided to transition. Ahead of his new column starting next week, he tells Mick Brown about his
David Thomas talks to Mick Brown about decades of wrestling with his identity, and how he finally decided to transition
Ihave known David Thomas for probably 25 years. Known, that is, in the way one gets to know people who work in the same field. We have met a few times over the years, exchanged one or two emails; we have mutual friends. As a fellow journalist, I read his profiles and opinion pieces for national newspapers, including the Telegraph, although I’ve not read the thrillers he has been writing in recent years under the pseudonym of Tom Cain. I had a vague awareness that he was married with children. If you had asked me who of my acquaintances was most likely to undergo the transition from male to female, I would probably have put David Thomas somewhere towards the bottom of my list. And so, it turns out, I have never really known David Thomas at all.
Thomas, who is 60, has been in transition for the past three years. He has told some people, not told others – not, until now, as it were, ‘gone public’.
A close friend of 40 years, with whom he was at university, during what one might call ‘the Bowie years’, when gender-bending was all the rage, expressed huge surprise to Thomas. ‘I said, “Well I was walking around covered in make-up,” and he said, “David, we all were.”
‘On the other hand, I was at a dinner party, and the conversation turned to the whole trans thing. I could see it turning into dangerous waters, so I said, “Just for the record you should know I am transgender, so please, when discussing this…” I rather hoped it would kill the conversation. Instead, no…’ Thomas laughs.
‘One of the people there was an old school friend, a doctor, who I hadn’t seen in 20 years and afterwards he said, “David I really wish you luck. It’s an extraordinary thing you’re doing and I really hope it works out for you. And speaking as someone who knew you when you were 16, this comes as no surprise to me at all.”’ What he makes clear is that everybody he knows – well, almost everybody – has been supportive.
Travelling by train to the country town where he lives, to meet him, I was unsure quite what to expect. The David Thomas I knew was a tall, even-featured, well-dressed, urbane man with dark, swept-back hair and a cultured, middleclass accent.
He was waiting to greet me on the platform. Tall, even features, older, of course. He was wearing a red jumper, jeans, a silk scarf loosely tied around his neck. Chelsea boots. It was only later that he told me they were women’s clothes. I did not, at first glance, notice his markedly smooth complexion, a result of the treatment to remove his beard – ‘hair by hair, laser shot by laser shot. And believe me, you wouldn’t do it unless you really, really wanted to’ – or the slight swelling of breasts, a result of the oestrogen treatment he has been undergoing. He was carrying a tan Mulberry handbag – that could conceivably have been a manbag. It’s hard to tell these things.
Thomas was married for 28 years, but his marriage ended in 2016, and he now lives alone on the top floor of a large country house that has been subdivided into flats. He redesigned the interior himself. ‘I wanted to create a home that looked lovely, but was also a refuge where I could do what I feel I had to do and feel safe.’ There are stylish sofas and rugs. The walls are Patent Yellow by Edward Bulmer – the colour the architect John Soane used to decorate his drawing room – it took Thomas an age to find the right shade. There are vintage fashion photographs; rare Rolling Stone posters, signed; original drawings of the New Look from the atelier of Dior; doorstep-sized art books neatly arranged on the coffee table.
Thomas describes himself as a man, but transgender. I tell him I’m not sure exactly what that means.
‘What that means is I’m still legally male; I more or less have a male body. I was raised as a man, educated as a man and lived as a man. But it’s a huge problem for me to stay male and be male. I know how to do it; I can talk “bloke”. If I go to the football, I can swear along with the best of them. And I’m not pretending. And if I get incredibly nerdy about military history, I’m not pretending. But for years and years I wrestled with this amorphous feeling, trying to overcome it. And then I realised that I had to accept it.’
Explanations for gender dysphoria are complex. ‘It’s a great comfort to me,’ he says, ‘that the NHS and the World Health Organization no longer define gender dysphoria as a mental disorder. It’s not a delusion. It’s how you are. The NHS guidelines say that no one is sure of the exact cause of dysphoria, but it appears to be linked to hormonal issues in the womb. The hormones working on your brain don’t give the correct dosage, so your body is physiologically one sex, but your “brain sex” is the other. You’re born differently wired.’
He corrects himself with a slight smile.
‘I was born differently wired.’ Transitioning, ‘trans rights’, gender fluidity, transwomen in sport, prisons… it is hard to escape the increasingly heated debate around gender, and Thomas has strong opinions on the subject, which he will be discussing over the coming weeks in his column for this magazine. It is a conundrum he has been thinking about for 45 years.
His father was a diplomat, his mother ‘a diplomat’s wife’, who later entered politics and became a working Liberal peer. Many of his early years were spent abroad. Then came prep school, and Eton. ‘My parents weren’t at all rich, but thanks to Dad’s job, the government paid a large chunk of the fees. I always felt a bit chippy because of that,’ he says. ‘Eton is a hard school psychologically; tough, competitive all the time. You have to adopt a carapace to protect yourself.’ That carapace has now been abandoned.
In his last year at prep school he’d had a crush on another boy – not unusual for a 13-year-old at an all-boys boarding school. But he never felt sexually attracted to other boys, never had a gay experience. It wasn’t that. It was something else. While the other boys had posters of Ursula Andress and Raquel Welch on their bedroom walls, he had a collage of Vogue models.
‘And I wasn’t thinking about sleeping with them. I was thinking about being them.’
For his 15th-birthday treat, his father took him to see the musical The Rocky Horror Show .He sat in the darkness watching Tim Curry sing about Fay Wray, with the line, ‘I wanted to be dressed just the same.’ ‘And I thought, “That’s exactly how I feel…”’
A few months later, Jan Morris published her book Conundrum, recounting her experience of transitioning – not the term that was used then – from James Morris. Sitting in the Eton library on a
rainy autumn afternoon, Thomas read a serialisation in a Sunday newspaper.
‘I think that was the first time I understood it as a process – that you could do something.’
By now, puberty was making his body more male. ‘From being a short, weedy kid who was useless at sports, I suddenly became much taller, more athletic.’ But other aspects of adolescence were far more troubling.
‘Being transgender you think things that non-transgender people just don’t. I remember lying in the bath at the age of 15 or 16 and looking between my legs, and coming up with fantasies in which it would all be somehow got rid of – I’d have a disease, or some terrible accident. The very thing that most boys would fear the most… I was thinking, “Is there some way of getting rid of all this?”
‘But, again, I wanted to be normal.’ He laughs. ‘Who doesn’t?’
When, as a 19-year-old student at Cambridge, he started seeing a psychiatrist to discuss the problem – the first in a series of psychiatrists he would see over the next 30 years – he was told he would ‘get over it’.
‘I am a heterosexual, white male, 6ft tall, with just about the best education you can have in the world. On the privilege scale I am off the chart and I’m proposing to destroy it all. Of course, they said “don’t be silly”.’
And so he carried on. His conception of sex, he says, was, and remains, heterosexual. He had intense emotional and sexual relationships with girls, but he was never, as he puts it ‘phallically driven’, never slept around. He adored girls and always felt more at home in female company than male. He remembers a girl once telling him, ‘You’re the only boy I’d ever invite to a hen party; I hope you’re not insulted.’ ‘I said “No”, very casually, but secretly I was thrilled!
‘I had all these feelings and I felt deeply ashamed of them,’ he says,
‘and carried that shame for the next 40 years. But on the other hand, I loved it when my hidden self was validated. I tried to find a happy halfway house. In the ’70s you could walk around with slap on, and quite flamboyant clothes. It enabled me to express that part of me, and my girlfriends never seemed to mind. I spent literally decades wrestling with this thing – “Look at you with your hairy legs, your size 10 feet – who are you kidding? And think of all you’ve got going for you.”’
He pursued a successful career as a journalist and author. In 1995, he wrote a book, originally entitled Walk Like a Man, intending, he says, to explore ‘what a man is supposed to be’, which was interpreted by feminist critics as a backlash against women. (That it was actually published as Not Guilty: The Case in Defence of Men probably didn’t help.) ‘I was denounced as this terrible woman hater,’ he remembers with a laugh. ‘Such a woman hater that I want to be one!’
More telling, in retrospect, was a chapter about transsexuals. ‘I can only beg for your tolerance,’ he wrote, ‘both for the very existence of transsexuals, and for the stories that they have to tell. After all, they are the only people who can speak from experience, from both sides of the sexual fence.’
‘I’d forgotten writing that,’ he says. ‘But reading it now, it feels like a cry for help: “Please someone. Hear what I’m really saying.”’
He had always wanted to have a closer family than the one he grew up in. He married and had three children, all now adults. ‘And my heart was true; I really loved my wife. I really love my children. The bit that wasn’t true was that I was a normal man doing it all, but I desperately wanted to be that guy.
‘I remember reading about somebody who’d had a sex change, as they used to call it, saying you should never go through with it unless you were going to kill yourself if you didn’t. And I thought, “Well, I don’t want to kill myself, so that’s fine.”’
For years, he says, he was trying every strategy he could devise to be ‘normal’, applying every intellectual rationalisation for how he felt and why. ‘How can I live with this? How can I be a better husband and father without doing anything drastic. There’s got to be a fix. I longed to be able to come home and say, “Don’t worry darling, I’m better now.” But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t find the way, the drug, the therapy, anything that would reboot me to the correct setting.
‘The irony was that the more I tried to be sane, the more I went round the bend. And the people I was trying to protect were the ones I hurt most.’
He suffered from terrible depression, anxiety and insomnia, haunted by intense fantasies of being female.
‘I thought, “Well, your fantasies are your escape valve. You’re depressed, and some people when they’re depressed imagine a different self.” It literally took me until I was 50 to understand that I’d got it completely about-face. I was anxious and depressed from the gigantic psychological effort of suppressing a huge part of my nature.’
In 2010, he had what he describes as ‘95 per cent’ of a nervous breakdown.
‘And that was the turning point internally for me. I began to understand, I’ve got to own this. Fighting has done me no good at all, and it’s not done anybody else any good either. But even then it was years before I truly accepted who I am.’
‘I am far more worried about a surgeon messing with my face than with my genitalia’
Five years ago, he and his wife separated, and they are now divorced. He says it is difficult to talk about this. ‘I’m entitled to describe my experiences, but I don’t have the right to speak for other people. That’s their business and their privacy.’ But there comes a moment, he says, when you have to be true to yourself.
‘I just wish I’d been able to cope with it all much better. That failure, and its consequences, are by far the greatest regrets of my life. But there’s no point sitting around feeling self-pity. So then the next thing is, what do I do about it?’
Over lunch we talk about his doomed obsession with West Ham, and swap rock’n’roll stories from his days as a journalist, writing profiles of musicians. Back in the sitting room I look through his record collection: Little Feat, Springsteen, Dylan and Bowie box sets. I tell him, it’s about the most blokeish record collection you could hope to find. He laughs. ‘I know, and my proper hi-fi and my widescreen TV…’
We talk about the changes that his body is undergoing – its softening, his breasts developing. He is using exactly the same oestrogen patches as menopausal women.
‘I’ve actually compared notes with female friends, you know, “Where do you stick yours?” And transwomen call it HRT too.’
He has been learning how to take his voice to a higher register, and move in a less obviously male fashion. ‘I told one friend I was learning to walk like a woman. She just looked at me and said, “But you already do.”’
The measures he has already undertaken have so far cost him between £15,000 and £20,000.
Soon he will require an even more expensive procedure: facial surgery. His cheeks will be ‘plumped up’, the tip of his nose narrowed and his jawline and brows lifted. The philtrum – the slight indentation between the bottom of your nose and your top lip – is, generally, longer on men, but there is a small operation to raise the top lip by two to three millimetres. ‘It sounds like a lot of work, but it’s much less than a lot of transwomen have,’ he says. ‘And by the way, and I think this is telling, I am far more worried about a surgeon messing with my face than with my genitalia.’
If there is one thing that the vast majority of people know for sure, he continues, it is whether they are a man or a woman, a boy or a girl.
‘The problematic thing for me is that I didn’t know where I was. That phrase, “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body,” never worked for me, intellectually or emotionally. But I could picture myself as a woman freed from a man’s body, if that makes any sense. It’s only in transition itself that you really know though. And that’s one of the reasons people should take time over this.’
There was a period, six months ago, when he was moving house and living temporarily with his father, that he briefly ‘slipped out’ of transitioning – ‘and I missed it’. It confirmed him in his belief that he was on the right path.
‘I’ve learnt that the more I come out as trans, the happier, and the nicer person I become. And the more I live the process, the more at ease I am.’
The next step will be ‘living in role’ as a woman – taking a female name, presenting as a woman when he goes out, using women’s loos, and so on. Or as transpeople call it, ‘going full-time’. He thinks he will be ready to do that next year, following the facial surgery. He will then be required to ‘live in role’ for at least a year in order to get the go-ahead for the final sex reassignment surgery; two years to receive a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), making him officially, legally female. It is not mandatory to have sex reassignment surgery, however, to qualify for a GRC, and he is still ‘not 100 per cent certain’ about the whole process. ‘I don’t want to box myself in. I might yet find a resting point along the way.’
He has been accumulating a wardrobe of clothes in anticipation of living in role. ‘I have 40 years of shopping to catch up on!’
He leads me to a small dressing room off his bedroom and riffles through his wardrobe, pulling out shirts, jackets and a couple of coats.
‘I think if any woman of my age looked through all the clothes and labels, they would think this is exactly the kind of wardrobe that a fashionconscious, arty, middle-class woman, who is in late middle age and doesn’t want to look like mutton dressed as lamb, would have. Friends almost always pick something to try on, which I hope is a good sign!’
For now though, Thomas says, anything too feminine is kept firmly in the closet. ‘I never, ever want to hear a little voice saying, “Mummy, why is that man wearing a dress?” That’s not going to happen. I will not go public until I feel absolutely ready to do so. Increasingly though, I feel frustrated at not being able to put a body, a face, a voice and a presentation to my identity – and that’s driving me nuts.’
There is a line, he says, in the American TV series Transparent, about a middle-aged man transitioning, where he explains to his son that he is not wearing drag, saying, ‘I was wearing drag all the times you saw me as a man.’ ‘That’s how I feel now, presenting as a man. So it’s with some restraint that I’m sticking to the rule of “not before time”.’ A delicate question, in anticipation of his final transition, having been a heterosexual man, how does he imagine his sexual life would be as a woman?
‘Assuming anybody wants me at all. A 62-yearold tranny…’ He laughs. ‘I’m used to lying next to a female body. But if and when I fully transition, because I think of sex in a heterosexual way, and because I would then be a woman, I would be wanting to be with a man.’ He pauses. ‘This is massively hypothetical. But my presumption is I’d continue to be heterosexual, but maybe not. There’s an almost limitless way in which gender and sexuality can be combined.’
So what kind of woman, I ask, will he be? ‘Fabulous!’ he laughs.
‘The kind of woman I’ll be is me.’ He won’t stop supporting West Ham, or writing novels, or playing his Little Feat records. ‘And that’s why the question people ask, “But are you a real woman?” is so ridiculous. Everyone focuses on the idea of becoming a woman; but I focus on the idea of becoming myself.’
His therapist asked him the same question. ‘And I said, “I want to be standing in the queue for the ladies, thinking I never used to have to do this, and the only reason the woman next to me is looking at me is because she likes my handbag.” In other words, I simply want to blend in. And I’ll just be more me than I was before. The real me.’
‘I’ve learnt that the more I come out as trans, the happier, and the nicer person I become’
Above A month-old David Thomas in his father’s arms in 1959; rowing for King’s College Cambridge in 1980 (second from back); Thomas in summer 1983
Above Thomas photographed at home last month: somewhere ‘I could do what I feel I had to do and feel safe’, he says
Above Thomas in 2011 and last month