Lynda Whitehead is the president of Agender — a support group for transgender New Zealanders. She talks about finding sobriety, happiness and her true self.
1. How long have you been living your life as a woman?
Three years ago I started to transition slowly and I have been living my life as Lynda, the person I really am, for 12 months now. I am on HRT and probably will be for the rest of my life. But look, I'm not a woman and I never will be. I'm a transgender woman. And this is something that people don't get. I have to tell them, look upon me as another type of homo sapien. I'm another gender - there are more than two.
2. What were you like as a child?
I was very close to my grandmother. She loved Wordsworth and she adored flowers - even weeds. She taught me to knit, darn, bake. She even made me a skirt - well, it was a kilt really - and I ran around the house in it. I remember at school, girls seemed to be something ethereal. I just loved the way they looked and dressed, I thought they were magic.
3. Were your parents worried about you?
They weren't concerned. How can I put this without sounding completely self-obsessed? I had a feeling of being special and my parents didn't do anything to dispel that. That feeling lasted all the way through to when I went to secondary modern school when I was 12. This was in the UK. I displayed that self-confidence and got completely hammered for it, beaten up, bullied. And that was the start of my fear. Fear of physical abuse that has lasted all my life.
4. When did your family move to New Zealand?
When I was about 14 in 1964. I started high school in Rotorua and I loved it, actually. I played in the first XI soccer team, second XI cricket team. Yes, I was bullied but I made some good friends and they protected me. Strangely enough, because they didn't have an art teacher at the boys' high school, they had to send me to the girls' high. And I remember seeing my name scratched into several of the desks there. I was popular with girls.
5. Which gender were you physically attracted to?
Girls, definitely. I was never really attracted to men when I was a boy, but my acceptance of myself as a woman today is such that I am attracted to men. And I do have a boyfriend. But I know many trans women who have wives and refer to themselves as lesbians. And yes, that change in my sexuality is possibly a result of the HRT. Taking feminising hormones certainly has an effect on you emotionally. I watched War Horse the other night and cried my way through it.
6. Apart from your gender, have you changed in other ways?
It's made me a better person. I can change my mind now. When I was a bloke I had that pressure to conform and part of that manliness was that you never admitted defeat. "I'm not wrong, mate, you're wrong." Now people will come up to me and say "You know Lynda, I don't think you got that right", and I'll say, "fair enough".
7. As a man, did you overcompensate with macho behaviour?
Well, sort of. But I was five foot five [1.65m] and not very strong so I wouldn't have made much of a wood chopper, if you know what I mean. I would meet very macho men and I'd be a blithering idiot, with a six-foot guy looking down on me - and through me.
8. Did you have relationships with women as a man?
Absolutely. I had an early marriage and we had two daughters. Then I was with my second wife for over 30 years. Initially, I didn't tell her of my gender dysphoria. It was just a dark, dreadful secret that I enjoyed wearing women's clothes and lingerie. You've got to understand, I didn't know anything about gender dysphoria, I didn't know what I'd got. For me it was just a dirty, perverted thing that I'd been doing from a very early age. And then one night I told my wife. Initially, she was upset. Then she came back and gave me her rules. One of them was that nobody was to know, which, for me, drove it even deeper underground psychologically. Yes, I was able to dress in women's clothes. Yes, she showed me everything she knew about makeup. But I think, certainly towards the end, she got a little bit disillusioned.
9. When were you at your lowest?
My wife passed away eight years ago and three years ago I was living to drink. Alcohol had been a problem all my life. As a kid I would pass a pub and, just the smell of the beer and all the guys laughing and carrying on, it seemed to have a sort of mystique for me. Alcohol transported me to another world. I would start in the morning with a cup of tea and a large glass of cask wine. Go to work, have some more wine at lunchtime. Later I just used to drink vodka - large glasses topped up with a little lemonade so I could scull it faster. I also took Prozac. The doctor would say "I'm going to up your doses and don't forget to limit your alcohol intake". I'd say, "Oh, sure!". After my second charge for drink-driving, I rang Alcoholics Anonymous. I wish I had rung them when I was 25. Once I was sober and clean, my brain started to repair and I realised my wife had been my soulmate; when she died, a lot of the male part of me died.
10. Was it hard coming out to people?
I'm a signwriter and I'd started my business as Neil and then suddenly hello, my clients were dealing with Lynda. I had to explain it, but I haven't had one client turn away from me, not one. My children are fine with it. I do have some members of my family who aren't happy but they're very much in the minority.
11. Do you think it's easier for young transgender people now?
Possibly, but the mortality rate in the trans community is still high. At Agender we get all sorts coming to us; I helped someone the other day who was 68, the youngest I've had was 13. The school and tertiary counsellors don't know much about trans issues. The medical community doesn't either; people ask me where's a trans-friendly doctor? Well hang on a minute, shouldn't they all be trans-friendly? We've got 61 people on the waiting list for gender reassignment surgery and we've lost the one surgeon in New Zealand who performed it. The Government has no plans to replace him. We still have a mountain to climb.
12. Have you had a defining moment as a woman?
One thing I love is nice clothes and shopping. You should see my wardrobe - Jacqui.E, Pagani ... About six months ago I was walking down the middle of Northlands Shopping Mall. Shoulders back, head high. I thought to myself, this is as good as it gets.