“I would feel more comfortable if I slept in a nightdress, that kind of stuff.”
Wearing a woman’s nightgown to bed and growing long hair were two of the gradual steps that led Sarah Brown to transition from a man into a woman.
The former Liberal Democrat councillor was born male but is now legally female, backed by the support of her wife Sylvia who has stayed with her throughout her transition. They are one of the small minority of marriages that survive one partner changing gender.
Brown, 42, describes simple things like wearing a nightdress as “kind of a release valve” to address feelings she had since she was a teenager.
“It was like there was the inner – not quite beast – but this inner thing that is demanding attention, and you can just feed it little things like sleeping in a nightdress, it would go away for a while. But it kept coming back, and every time it came back it wanted more.”
Sarah Brown [left] who used to live as a male, and her wife Sylvia
One of the first people Brown trusted with the truth was Sylvia, her partner of 20 years who married Brown when she was living as a man. Since then they have divorced, married again twice, and welcomed a third person into their now polygamous relationship.
They wed in 2001, when Brown was 27 and Sylvia - another former Liberal Democrat councillor - 25. “Sylvia did the white dress and I did the whole coat and tails thing,” Brown says, admitting now that she was already unhappy dressing as a man at that point. “I didn’t feel comfortable doing that at all. I was in my 20s, I hadn’t reached the point where you can turn round to social convention, and say actually no.”
Sylvia, now 40, with whom Brown started a relationship in 1995, was one of the first people she trusted with the truth. “I told her that I did have these feelings and didn’t understand. Transexual was not a term I would have used about myself, largely because of the media portrayals and things. And so it was kind of our little secret between me and Sylvia and a few select friends, for some years.”
Gradually the way Brown appeared in public changed too. “I grew my hair really long, I started adopting a very androgynous presentation.” Strangers would apologise when they mistook Brown for a woman from behind, and Brown would be secretly thrilled.
Throughout this, Sylvia was supportive. “She was fine. It wasn’t something she had a problem with. She was never straight down the road anyway, as it were, shall we say,” Brown says, referring to the fact that Sylvia considers herself to be bisexual.
“She was sort of fairly open to querying the relationship a little bit. She’s never been one to really like sort of stereotypically macho men, and you find this a lot actually with cis women [women who are not transgender] who end up partners with people who then go on to transition. Quite often they have a habit of being drawn to people who turn out to be trans women.”
Brown had certainly never been a ‘macho’ man: “I guess I didn’t ‘get’ men. I don’t want to be stereotypical about men - I have a lot of very nice male friends - but the stuff that men are stereotypically regarded as doing, they just didn’t interest me. But in fact a lot of things that women stereotypically do don’t interest me either - you can’t say I’m a girl because of the things I like, it’s because of what you feel inside.”
It was Sylvia who first raised the idea of Brown transitioning to become a woman physically through surgery. “Sylvia brought the subject up before I did. She said at one point, almost sort of semi-jokingly, that when her grandparents were dead, I ought to look at having a sex change.”
Brown laughed at the time, but within 18 months the pair were seriously discussing the idea.
For Brown, her secret female identity had become an obsession. “I reached a point in my early 30s where I couldn’t think about anything else, and I started to get these visions of myself as an old man, sitting in an old people’s home in my 80s waiting to die, and crying all the time, with nobody knowing why I was just inconsolable. And I just thought to myself that this is intolerable, I’ve only got one life - this is something that I need and I can’t go through my entire life knowing that I will regret never taking that opportunity."
The medical transition – taking hormones and having genital surgery in 2007 – put strain on their partnership. “When you transition medically you kind of put your life on hold for a while to deal with it,” explains Brown. “I think the biggest issue was starting oestrogen. It sort of re-wires your brain and you go through a second puberty. You get all sorts of mood swings and it’s a lot like the first puberty, only you don’t write as much bad poetry. That was sometimes a little bit strained.”
But despite that, both Sylvia and Brown were confident they would stay together. “I don’t think there was any question,” Brown says.
In fact, Sylvia was happy with Brown becoming female: “She said she prefers it this way. The only thing she misses occasionally is she used to like the male scent I would have in bed. That’s down to your hormones, I don’t have that any more.”
Having changed from a straight couple to a lesbian couple, the pair face some new challenges. “Suddenly you’re dealing with homophobia, and in certain circumstances you start referring to your partner rather than your wife, or something like that, because you don’t know how people are going to react.”
One painful aspect of Brown’s transition was that in order for her to get a Gender Recognition Certificate and be legally certified as a woman with rights against sexist discrimination, Brown couldn’t be married to a woman - same sex marriage wasn’t legal in the UK when Brown transitioned in 2009. So the couple were forced to divorce – “We rationalised it by convincing ourselves it was just a piece of bureaucracy but when the judge finally issued us a decree nisi [ending the marriage] we left the court holding hands crying.”
Two weeks later, they held a civil partnership ceremony at Magdalene college in Cambridge, where they live today. “We didn’t let each other out of our sight in case either one of us got run over by a bus,” says Brown.
“The second time we kind of did it for us. That was very definitely a thing we did for ourselves and not for other people. Sylvia wore a black dress and I wore a white one. And it was mostly friends rather than family that came.”
Sarah Brown and Sylvia rockclimbing
They then upgraded their civil partnership to a same-sex marriage this year. “The third time we just thought, ‘Oh sod it,’ turned up to the registry office in jeans, did the paperwork and then went for a cup of tea.”
Like many trans women, she has spent time working to copy the behaviours of other women, she explains. “A lot of people want to blend in because there are safety issues. There’s a lot of socialization that cis women get when they are teenage women that we don’t.”
Although there are some typically female behaviours she’ll never be interested in: “I can’t stand wearing high heels, for example, I just think they are ridiculous things.”
Sylvia helped her develop feminine behaviours to an extent, Brown says, but “Sylvia was not a girly girl either, she’s kind of a geek girl and didn’t grow up doing a lot of those things. Our attitude towards gender presentation, I suppose, all three of us, is kind of meh, whatever.”
The third person in the “three of us” that Brown refers to is Zoe, who is now the third person in their relationship.
Brown met Zoe, another transgender woman in the process of becoming female, when both were transitioning.
“We were going through similar stuff and seeing the same medical practitioner.” Brown recalls of meeting Zoe, who is also involved with the Liberal Democrats and was a dad of three when she was male. “Zoe was looking for advice on laser hair removal in the east of England, and I pointed to a place that was local to me in Cambridge. I said ‘well if you’re going to come why don’t we get together for a cup of tea.’ We ended up doing a lot of stuff together transition-wise supporting each other. The relationship got a little bit weird.”
Brown realised she had romantic feelings for Zoe (“Things had developed to the point where we couldn’t ignore it,”) and then revealed this to Sylvia.
“That was stressful,” she says quietly. “As far as we were both concerned we were monogamous, and it was kind of awkward. Sylvia was very upset, but it wasn’t a case of ‘Oh, I want to leave you’ or anything like that because I still loved Sylvia. So we sort of tried to work out the parameters of how things would work together.”
“Zoe and I tried de-emphasising it for a bit, but that made us both quite unhappy. It was a situation that took about a year and a half to really play through fully.”
Despite the obstacles, things worked out, and Brown, Sylvia and Zoe – now 38 – live in a polygamous three-way relationship – two trans women and one cisgender women.
From left: Sylvia, Zoe and Sarah Brown at Sarah and Sylvia's civil partnership ceremony
“It was a case of just kind of baby steps really, seeing how it went,” Brown says of the decision. “Everyone started to go, ‘hang on nothing bad is happening here, and so maybe this is ok.’ ”
While Brown and Sylvia are married, Zoe has no legal relationship with them, so does this mean Brown and Sylvia are the dominant pair in the trio? “No, not really,” says Brown. “If polygamous marriage was available we’d go for that. Sylvia and I are married mainly because that was the historical arrangement. The three of us live together, we share responsibilities between each other, it’s a triangle-type relationship. If one of us is having a bad day, the other two can team together and help out.”
All three share the same room, but not the same bed, “because what we found when we tried to do that is the person in the middle couldn’t get any sleep.”
Since July the trio have lived with with Zoe’s three kids, aged 12, 13 and 14, to whom Brown and Sylvia are stepparents.
Brown agrees that 2015 has been a key year in terms of the visibility of trans people. She welcomes milestones like parliament’s transgender equality inquiry which will report next year, but warns that legislation changes alone are not enough. “What you can find is that you end up with civil legislation which requires you suing someone if you’re been the victim of discrimination,” she explains. “A lot of trans people don’t have a lot of money, a lot of trans people live in awkward circumstances, and don’t have the resources to do that, so legislative change by itself is not necessarily that useful, unless it comes with social change.”
In her role as the Cambridge City Councillor for Petersfield between 2010 and 2014, Brown was the target of an online transphobic harassment campaign. “They would send me vexatious complaints to the council and to my local party, and try to make I things about me in the press, that sort of stuff, and picket events that I was asked to speak at. That was very, very stressful.”
While Zoe has experienced difficulties finding employment, which Brown suspects is because of being trans, she feels she herself has experienced little discrimination. “I’ve been relatively lucky, Cambridge is a good place to live.
She’s not minded to stand for election again, and is currently doing charity work and serving on Stonewall’s trans advisor board. “I’m still engaged politically, I’m on the Liberal Democrats policy group for determining a party policy on sex work, and I also serve on the executive of the both the LGBT body with the party and also the humanist and secularist body.”
Brown identifies as a lesbian woman, while Sylvia and Zoe identify as bisexual women. But it is the process of transitioning that has also formed a key part of Brown’s identity: “I’m a queer woman and I am a trans woman, that is part of who I am, it’s very much shaped who I am going through that experience. Other than reasons of safety, and trying to have a quiet life, I don’t necessarily try to hide being trans. it’s not anything I’m ashamed of.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- The Gender Trust supports anyone affected by gender identity | 01527 894 838
- Mermaids offers information, support, friendship and shared experiences for young people with gender identity issues | 0208 1234819
- LGBT Youth Scotland is the largest youth and community-based organisation for LGBT people in Scotland. Text 07786 202 370
- Gires provides information for trans people, their families and professionals who care for them | 01372 801554
- Depend provides support, advice and information for anyone who knows, or is related to, a transsexual person in the UK