Philippa Ryder is one of the early commitee members of Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI), which was honoured by President Michael D Higgins this month on reaching its tenth birthday. She married her wife, Helen in 1983, at a time when she was beginning to question her gender identity. Now with a grown-up daughter, the two are still happily married, but their journey towards acceptance was not without its dark days. Photo by Babs Daly
Helen: We met in 1980 at a Star Trek convention in Leeds. We became friends first, and a few years later it changed into romance.
Philippa: I was exploring my gender identity at the time, and I thought, I better tell her about my feelings.
Helen: We didn’t even know she was transgender at that point. She told me she had feminine feelings, and I put it down to her being an extremely gentle person.
Philippa: We got married in 1986, and were a typical married couple. The trans side of me was kept in the background. The way I dealt with it was by keeping busy.
Helen: There was nothing outwardly different, but in the privacy of our house Philippa began to explore a bit with clothes. It put a strain on things because I thought, ‘she’s changing our marriage.’
“Then The Internet Arrived”
Helen: The real pull started when our daughter Jenny was born. We had a young child in the house, Philippa was dealing with her feelings; I was trying to cope with both, and not doing very well.
Philippa: Then the Internet arrived and I discovered there were possibilities that I had not known about. I felt I had to start exploring this.
Helen: Half of me wanted her to do that, and half of me was saying, ‘This isn’t what I signed up for’. We were hiding it from Jenny, and from the world. In a way I thought Philippa might get it out of her system.
Philippa: My very first time out in public as Philippa happened in 2000. It was one of the highlights of my life. I went to a club called Gemini, where I got dressed. I had intended staying there, but two other people said, ‘let’s go out’. So, I found myself on the town. What a night!
Helen: I sat on the floor in tears several times, wondering what was going to happen. I didn’t want to be by myself with a young child. I was still in love with Philippa, but I was running after her, trying to keep up and trying to haul her back at the same time.
“I needed to move faster”
Philippa: I wanted her to see that I needed to do it, that I needed to move faster. Then in bed at night I’d be lying there thinking, I hate myself for doing this. I shouldn’t be doing this to her.
Helen: Jenny was noticing changes too. She was in fifth class and we found out that she was worried we were getting divorced. We explained to her that there are some boys who are girls, and some girls who are boys. She was upset because she didn’t know what was going to happen to me.
Philippa: We’d had the tears, we’d had the hugs, we’d reassured her that we were far from splitting up, and then when Jenny was going off to bed and she turned around and said to me, ‘You have to be who you are’. It’s been total acceptance since that moment.
Helen: Philippa got involved in the early days of TENI and started going to a support group in Outhouse, and I just didn’t want to meet anybody. Then Transgender Europe came to Dublin and Philippa pushed for me to come and meet them. I did and I found they were really normal. To me it was a defining switch, when I realised it might not work out so badly after all.
Philippa: There wasn’t a decision to transition. I wanted to go to the first Transgender Europe conference in Vienna, but my passport was still in my male name. I was advised to go to a psychologist and get a letter, written for immigration officials. Then, because I was in the system, the process had begun. My hormone treatment began in April 2006, on my birthday.
Helen: She told me that if I wanted, she would stop, but I started saying, ‘This is going to happen. We either give up on everything or try and go ahead as a couple.’ I say now that, ‘I married the person, not the gender’.
Philippa: The basis of our marriage is friendship; Helen is my best friend. There are other people I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today without, but Helen was, and is, my rock.
Helen: Now we’re a fully committed, out, lesbian couple, as you might say. It was extremely painful going through it all, and we know people who are going through it now. We try to support them. Some married trans women say to me, ‘I wish my wife was like you,’ and I say, ‘No. We took 20 or 30 years to get here’.
This interview was originally published in the January 2017 Wedding Issue of GCN (Issue 325) which is available to read online here.