NATALIE Porter is a tall, elegant and well-groomed lady.
But like most women she’s not satisfied with her appearance. She’d love to be a few inches shorter and a tad more curvy on the hips.
But pushing aside life’s insignificances, Natalie, at 49, is in a happy place. She has a fulfilling job at Mill Hill Community Centre, Blackburn, a loving family and a new partner – things most people could easily take for granted.
But most people haven’t been on the tortuous journey of self-discovery that has dominated this lady’s life.
For Natalie was born a boy and lived as a man most of her life. She married a wonderful, understanding woman Tish, with whom she’s still best friends and who bought the first razor to shave her legs with when she made the decision to live as a woman. They have an 18-year-old son who is so comfortable with the situation he often quips, “My dad, she says....”.
Next year, after a long programme of hormone injections – which have gifted her a pair of 38B boobs – she hopes to undergo surgery, the final part of her gender reassignment.
Natalie has decided to tell her story to the Lancashire Telegraph to dispel prejudices surrounding transgender people. It’s a story with a heart-felt message – that regardless of age, colour, gender or sexuality, we are human beings and being true to oneself and others represents freedom.
This is her story.
THE boy that Natalie was came to Blackburn at the age of 10 from Liverpool. Dad worked for the town’s museum and art galleries services, mum was a cook at Meadowhead Junior School.
“I had a happy childhood,” she says. “But at 10 years old I knew I wasn’t a boy, but I wasn’t sure what I was.
“My parents took the steps most parents would and encouraged me to do boys’ things.
“This never became a big issue in my life then.
“I used to have little fights with my parents. My mum made me a denim jacket and I wanted pretty buttons on it. I wasn’t allowed them, I had to have brass ones.
“Dad has never accepted it and we are not talking since the day I was diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
“It’s a great sadness to me. Girls need their dads and I’m no different. My mum reckons it will mend in time. I hope so.”
The NHS website describes gender dysphoria as ‘a condition in which a person feels that there is a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity’.
“This mismatch can cause feelings of discomfort that are called gender dysphoria,” it continues. “Gender dysphoria is not a mental illness.”
For Natalie, adolescence was relatively easy.
The teenage boy was rescued by the New Romantics: He adored Bowie, Bauhaus, Duran and Duran. He could wear make-up and frilly blouses and not look out of place at Bogart’s in Darwen or Angels and Annabella’s in Burnley.
At work, as an apprentice electrician for Blackburn Borough Council, he wore make-up and his look was tolerated as “extrovert”. After all, everyone was into New Romanticism at the time.
But one day his manager, who was also a friend, took him to one side and warned him that his image would hamper his career chances. He had big ambitions, so had no choice but to fit in or fail.
“That was decision time. I was 21 and had to grow up,” she said. “That’s when I really did change my life and became male. The transgender thing wasn’t an issue at the time it was more a change of dress style.
“I had big ideas for the future working on major projects, the sort of things you see on the news British Aerospace, ICI, military bases. So it was an easy decision, “I’d had my fun. I started to dress very male in jeans and sweatshirts, but I had to copy male characterstics.
“I had male role models at work to emulate because male behaviour didn’t come naturally to me.
“I was never comfortable with sexual banter so I used to avoid it. It seems like a million years ago now.”
“I had to act all the time and that was very tough in the early days. I couldn’t be the kind, gentle, tactile person that I am so I did a lot of things that weren’t really me.
“I’ve always been very generous. I’ve given lots of money away freely. But I’m also spiritually generous. My natural instinct if somebody is upset is to give them a hug. It doesn’t matter to me whether they are male or female. You can’t be any of those things in this country and be a macho male.”
Living a lie took a huge mental toll and Natalie suffered a series of breakdowns which rendered her unable to work at times.
During one of these periods, at age 27, she visited a job club where Tish was the leader. They started dating and married 18 months later. They had a son and their marriage lasted 15 years.
“Tish didn’t know I had any doubts about myself because I didn’t know,” she said. “It’s less of a lie once you’ve committed yourself.
“As she will tell you, my life wasn’t about family, it was about work. I was extremely driven and as long as I was progressing, and I certainly did at that time, I was happy. Work was my escape. I loved to work. There was nothing else but work.”
Dubai beckoned and an amazing job as a manager on the Dubai International Airport expansion project, the largest project of its kind in the world costing more than $15billion.
So the family with their son, who was 13 at the time, moved out there. Tish hated the heat and she wasn’t comfortable with some of the cultural aspects, so she took their son and left.
“When Tish went nothing really changed between us,” said Natalie. “We spoke every day and when we got divorced we even used the same solicitor.”
“I loved Arab and East African culture. Behaviour is very much non-gender specific. They greet males and females in the same way. You see two men talking and one man will put his hand on the other’s knee. There’s a lot more affection even in working relationships. I was more comfortable with Arabs than men in this country they are naturally more empathic and affectionate, so I fell into their culture just fine. I didn’t have to pretend in east Africa or Dubai. “ From Dubai she went to Ethiopia working on an irrigation project for small farms that she funded herself, and for the East African Electricity Distribution Grid and other consultancy work. She also worked at Qatar’s International Airport.
She spent around four years working in the Middle East and never intended returning to Britain. But when the global financial crisis hit work dried up and Natalie was forced to return to Blackburn and his parents’ home.
For the first time in her life she was without work and fell into a deep reclusive depression: “That was the start of my real problems. I went into a very steep decline.” she said. “For the first time in my life I didn’t have a job and it wasn’t my choice. It gave me too much time on my own to think. I didn’t know how to be a man any more. I hadn’t had to act while I was in Ethiopia.”
She wouldn’t come out of her bedroom and only opened her door at night to eat and return to her room. It was Tish who came to her rescue and urged her to see a doctor.
Within 24 hours her case had been taken on as an emergency by the mental health team “I ended up with a wonderful counsellor who I met up with for an hour a week. By the second meeting transgender was mentioned. I thought they would give me a testosterone pill and make me into a man again.
“It hadn’t occurred to me to become a woman. When he suggested it to me I poo-pooed the idea, but I soon changed my mind. It all started to make sense.”
When she told Tish of her desire to become a woman she was broken-hearted.
“I always knew there was something, but I didn’t know what it was,” Tish said. “I knew the real person. When I heard, it took me 24 hours to get used to it. I was in shock and in tears. I felt I’d lost something. I had never considered what I was being told.”
But when she did come to terms with it, she went round with a pack of some razors, pointed at Natalie’s hairy legs and said, “If you want to be a woman you better shave that lot off...”
“Tish and I were always best friends,” Natalie said, “but our relationship is better now and I’m not buried in work all the time.”
Tish replies: “Now I have an explanation. I’m a liberal sort of person. All I’m bothered about is people being happy.
“Many people aren’t as accepting, men in particular see Natalie as a threat.
“I have seen a transformation. She is a different person and we both have to work hard at not falling back into the past. These days we argue and move on. This friendship is worth hanging on to. I treasure it.”
Tish even went with Natalie on her first shopping trip to buy women’s clothing at BhS and M&S in Blackburn.
“I stood on guard waiting to slay anybody who may question if she should go into the women’s changing rooms. Nobody said a word.
“It was brilliant. Everyone was really helpful. It was very difficult for Natalie to do that.”
In those early days, Natalie had no intention of becoming fully female. But three times when she was dressed in unisex clothing with women’s jeans and boots, she was addressed as a man. She was distraught.
She made an appointment with a solicitor to change her name, the next was the decision to have the operation. She has her first meeting with the surgical team in April. “I had to be 100 per cent identifiable as female,” she says.
Natalie now has a female partner with whom she is very happy, and is keen to differentiate between gender and sexuality.
“I am gender blind. I just like people. Friendships are very imporant to me. It wouldn’t bother me if I never had sex again.
“I have no libido with the treatment I’m on as I have zero testosterone and a lot of oestrogen which makes me more of a mother than a lover. Sex would never be an issue because I’m quite happy cuddling all night.
“With my new partner we are feeling our way together slowly, but we’ve never slept together.”
2014 is going to be an interesting year full of hope for Natalie Porter.
“For years I pretended to be a man. Then I tried hard to be a woman,” she said. “Finally, I’ve decided to be myself and I’m happy. This has been a journey to find myself.”