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BIG funding aims to transform the lives of transgender people in Wales

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Awards for All Wales
Release date:
6 12 2011

It was on a Sunday afternoon when Tony gathered his family in the living room at their north Wales home and presented a letter to his wife and daughters to tell them that he was in fact a female called Debbie.

Debbie Roberts is now the Chairwoman of the Unique Transgender Network in North Wales and recently took part in the Gender Fluidity project, a research and support development project ran by the Welsh LGBT Excellence Centre in Cardiff and funded through the Big Lottery Fund’s Awards for All programme. The aim of the project is to develop a stronger network for transgender people in Wales and to provide more advice and support for individuals like Debbie who are going through major transitions in their lives.

Debbie, 57, is a transgender person and has been hiding behind Tony all her life. But she just couldn’t hide anymore and had to tell the world who she is.

“There was no blinding light, it just felt like the right time to tell them all,” says Debbie.

“I always knew I was different from the other boys. I envied the girls and their fabulous clothes, and I have dressed as a woman since my early teens. I love being one of the girls and expressing outwardly the emotions and feelings that lurk inside, it just feels so right.

“I am informed by my family that I was always in trouble from the age of five.
I went to a Catholic school and the nuns were always dragging me out of the Wendy House and making me play with the boys and their trucks and cars and things. So it’s obviously something that was evident from an early age.

“For me, it’s not a lifestyle issue; it’s a way of life. I’ve been hiding it all my life. I’ve been trying to be a male and it’s been hard work. I had to present this façade to everyone which wasn’t real.”

Confused and with nowhere and no one to turn to for advice and support, growing up in Liverpool was difficult for Debbie who was raised as a male called Tony:

“I was born and raised in a two up, two down terraced house in Liverpool and you weren’t bought up to show these things,” she says.

“To be honest, people knew about gay people but I honestly don’t think they were even aware of transgender people. Kids used to bully me because I was skinny and weak. We’re talking the 1960s here and I wasn’t aware that I was transgender then, so they certainly didn’t know. I just knew the way I felt in my head and I thought I was just the only one in the world who felt this way.”

It wasn’t until Caroline Cossey, an English actress and model who had a part in a famous James Bond film was revealed in the News of the World as a transsexual in 1981 that Debbie suddenly realised that she wasn’t the only one.

“I read the article and I thought Wow! There are others like me out there,” she says.

“One of my proudest claims is that I’m now friends with Caroline Cossey on Facebook. I’m just so made up that I’m friends with a lady who made me realise
I wasn’t the only one all those years ago.”

A double-life

For six years, even before coming out to her family, Debbie was chair of Unique Transgender Network, a voluntary organisation supporting transgender people in north Wales and west Cheshire. She admits it was hard to keep both lives going and she even had a secret wardrobe in a storage unit that her family didn’t know about.

“Even when I was married I would become Debbie as often as I could,” she says.

“I’ve been the chair of Unique for the last six years and I’ve been going to conferences in France and Cardiff as Debbie. I travelled to lots of places as Debbie before I told my family. It’s been difficult because I had to forward plan everything. It wasn’t just forward planning of how I would get to a meeting; it was also about what I was going to wear. I had a self storage unit in Cheshire which was like a walk in wardrobe that I used.”

In the process of divorce from her wife, she also understands the impact her coming out has had on her family.

“In the last two years, my own needs became so strong that it had to change,” says Debbie.

“My wife never had a clue. She always thought I was quite a feminine man, and she was fine with me being transgender, but what caused the rift is the deceit that went on for so long. I know she needs a man in her life and I can’t be that for her. My daughters have been great and I’m staying with my eldest until I sort out a flat for myself.

“I hid it from them for so long because you learn to compartmentalise things. It's like a switch in my head. I could switch Debbie on and off but it became more difficult to switch her off because she became more and more me. You become very adept at inventing excuses, finding reasons to go out of the house and things.”

In hindsight, Debbie knows she should have come out years ago:

“Hindsight is a great thing but when you’re growing up in the 60s and 70s in Liverpool, you were expected to find a girlfriend, find a wife, have children, start a family and you tended to follow that line,” she explains.

“Peer pressure dictates that you should do things a certain way and you do it, because you’re frightened of anyone else finding out. You do whatever is expected of you. I must admit that I was surprised when my first wife got pregnant. I honestly didn’t think I had the ability to father children because I thought I was too much of a girl. Don’t get me wrong, I loved both of my wives, but as the years go on, your testosterone levels drop and Debbie was coming more and more to the forefront.  

“I’m Debbie now and I don’t want to go back!”


Feeling liberated, Debbie, who works as a housing officer for a housing association, came out to her employers in January and has been living and working as Debbie since August this year.

“My colleagues in work have been absolutely amazing and I couldn’t have asked for more support,” she says.

“I’m Debbie everywhere now and it just feels like the real me.”

Debbie is currently going through the process of gender reassignment and is on the waiting list for surgery, which is about two years away and will involve having his penis surgically removed. It has been a long process but she believes it will all be worth it in the end.

“My journey began when I went to see my GP who then referred me to a psychosexual therapist in north Wales who is a specialist in gender identity,” says Debbie.

“I went to see him and he organised four or five one hour sessions. At the end of the first hour, he said ‘Debbie, I think we’re holding you back, you’re ready to move on.’ He referred me to a psychiatrist who said exactly the same thing. Now, I’m only waiting for blood test to establish what my hormone levels are and what needs to be done to start hormone treatment.

“The gender reassignment surgery is about two years away now. Growing up, I always felt my body was wrong, now I am being given the chance to rectify it. Now, I'm just waiting for the NHS to give me the go ahead.

“When I was growing up, my sexual orientation was confusing. I had some counselling a few years back and they established that I was like a heterosexual female.   I would certainly like a boyfriend one day.”

Breaking down barriers

Debbie was bullied and teased growing up and she still believes that a lot of stigma exists regarding transgender topics, which she puts down to a lack of education. Through Unique supporting individuals and providing information and diversity training to the wider community, the group works to break down barriers and help transgender people accept themselves and find acceptance from others.

“When people engage with you, they realise you are just a normal person,” she says.

“The only difference is that your brain is the opposite gender to the one on that little piece of paper they give you at birth. It’s all about education really. The more you talk to them, the more they understand. This is the whole ethos of Unique – we will talk to anybody who is prepared to listen to us.

“If I can educate one person and they tell even more people, then the word spreads and that’s got to be half the battle. Lots of TV channels have made programmes about transgender individuals and transgender Issues over the last six years and I think that’s making people realise that it’s not a weird, perverse thing. It’s the case that our brain says one thing and the body says something else. There’s nothing you can do about it, it’s there and inherent in your head.”

She added: “I think the best way to raise awareness is through education. Long term we need to be educating children in schools. If we can stop the stigma in schools, then it can only make the future better for us.”

A new future

So what does the future hold for Debbie?

“I want to have surgery, to have a gender recognition certificate, a female birth certificate and to basically carry on doing what I’m doing with Unique,” she says.

“I just want to be me and make sure that Unique is still going from strength to strength. That’s the most important thing. Support for transgender people is the best thing they can have. Lots of us aren’t as strong as I am and they can have health issues. As a community we do get a lot of attempted suicides because they can’t get to where they need to be quickly enough and this does impact on their mental wellbeing and that of their families.”

Encouraging more groups in Wales to apply for funding, Gareth Williams, Awards for All Programme Manager for the Big Lottery Fund in Wales, said: “This project is a prime example of how small amounts of money can make a big difference to the lives of people in communities most in need. That’s why we are urging more community groups and projects to take full advantage of and reap the rewards from this programme.”

He added: “Our message is simple - if a community group has an idea for a project which supports community activity, extends access and participation, increases skill and creativity or generally improves the quality of life of people in their area, then we definitely want to hear from them.”

Available in English and Welsh, the application form for the programme can be downloaded, completed and emailed direct to the Big Lottery Fund as well as being available in hard copy. Application forms are available from www.awardsforall.org.uk or by phone on 0845 4 10 20 30.

Further Information

Big Lottery Fund Press Office: 02920 678 207
Out of Hours Contact: 07760 171 431
Public Enquiries Line: 08454 102030
Textphone: 0845 6021 659

Full details of the Big Lottery Fund programmes and grant awards are available at: www.biglotteryfund.org.uk

Notes to Editors

  • In Wales, the Big Lottery Fund is rolling out close to £1 million a week in Lottery good cause money, which together with other Lottery distributors means that across Wales most people are within a few miles of a Lottery-funded project.
  • The Big Lottery Fund, the largest of the National Lottery good cause distributors, has been rolling out grants to health, education, environment and charitable causes across the UK since its inception in June 2004. It was established by Parliament on 1 December 2006.
  • Since the National Lottery began in 1994, 28p from every pound spent by the public has gone to Good Causes. As a result, over £27 billion has now been raised and more than 330,000 grants given out across the arts, sport, heritage, charities, health, education and the environment.