‘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

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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

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