Gender reassignment: I’m man enough to admit that it was a mistake The Sunday Times 13.10.19

The original article is here.

Peter Benjamin knows more than most about the realities of transgender life. For several years, he tried living as a woman. Then he had sex-reassignment surgery, realised he had made a mistake and reverted to being a man.

The market researcher, 60, who has a grown-up daughter and son, says living as a woman was “making me ill”. He is speaking about his experience out of concern for people who, like him, change gender, only to find their lives as isolated and challenging as they were before.

“My anxiety levels were sky high,” he said, explaining his decision to return to his birth sex. “I was seeing the doctors for all sorts of problems. My drinking was going up because I couldn’t cope any more with being transgender. I just had to get out of it.”

Benjamin knows he is likely to attract hostility from some transgender support groups and activists but said he felt a duty to go public. He claims no special insight beyond his own experience.

However, his interview comes 24 hours after it emerged a former psychotherapist at England’s first NHS child gender clinic, run by the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, is asking judges to ban it from giving children hormone-blocking treatment unless a court decides that is in their best interests.

Although that involves children, and Benjamin is an adult, underlying both cases is a fear that people are referred too readily for gender treatment when other difficulties, such as depression, social isolation or autism, are left unresolved.

Benjamin said: “We’re going to have mental health hospitals full, dealing with these children who have decided that they are not transgender as they grow older. The NHS is going to have such a big burden on it over what’s happening. I am so worried.”

The number of patients referred to the gender identity development service at the Tavistock has risen from 77 in 2009-10 to 2,590 in the year to April.

“For adults, if they’re married it splits up marriages. It affects the children, long-term not just short-term. With the adult it can lead to suicide and also again it’s mental health problems. I’m speaking right from the heart about this.”

Benjamin traces his identity confusion to a childhood fascination with women’s clothes. In his early teens his mother kept clothes in his bedroom and he would dress up in them for sexual gratification. He followed his father into the army, where his fetish was rekindled by a trip to a performance of The Rocky Horror Show. His army career ended when, after a heavy drinking session, he bought a skirt from a market stall and brought it back to barracks. His sergeant major found it in his locker. “They thought I was gay,” he said. “Transvestism wasn’t a word that was used in those days.”

His first wife also mistook his fetish for homosexuality. “Her parents came down. There were tears on both sides and I had to go. She doesn’t to this day understand what it was about.”

His second wife encouraged him, even joining Benjamin to shop for women’s clothes. But his behaviour became more reckless. He once hit the headlines for arriving for work as a bus driver on a hot day wearing a dress. He spent weekends away from his wife in a bedsit where he had about 20 full outfits. “Make-up. The whole caboodle.”

Benjamin says he had fleeting sexual encounters with transvestite men and, in 1999, for the first time considered changing gender. He was advised to go away and live as a woman for two years, without hormone treatment, in what was known as the “real-life test”. He did not go through with the process.

In 2005 he married his third wife, whom he credits with bringing his life back on track. He cut down on his drinking and became a churchgoer. But when she died of cancer in 2011, what he describes as his “addictive personality” took hold.

He began to take hormones bought from unlicensed online vendors and read transgender websites. He decided: “I’m fed up of hiding with cross-dressing. I want to become a woman.” A psychiatrist diagnosed gender dysphoria and his female lodger called him Victoria, saying: “You’re a posh bird. You need a posh name.”

He describes a pathway to surgery in 2015 during which specialists did little to examine his history of heavy drinking and addictive tendencies. He says the NHS even paid a private London hospital £10,000 to operate within a target waiting time. His doctor, a Christian, refused to recommend him for breast augmentation surgery. “I praise God to this day.”

Benjamin had his first inkling that he had made a mistake when he was driven home after the operation by his son and daughter and found himself feeling horribly alone. “They took my suitcase upstairs and then my daughter gave me a hug and then they left. That was the only support I had. There was no follow-up psychiatry — nothing.”

Hopes that he would quickly be accepted in a circle of female friends were dashed. “I hoped to have more female friends but the opposite happened. I thought, ‘Ladies who lunch, go on holiday, have friends around for coffee,’ but it just didn’t happen.”

Benjamin is solidly built — he served with the British Army of the Rhine from the age of 16 to 20 — and admits he did not look convincing as a woman. “It’s easy, isn’t it, being a man? I can just put on a pair of trousers and a top and go out. Being a woman, people ridicule it. People were staring. I had to watch my back.”

He was taken aback by the hostility he encountered. “Travelling on the train, I’d be absolutely dripping when I came up to London because I was scared I would be attacked or assaulted. I’m not scared where I am living but for a simple thing like leaving for the shops, I’d be having panic attacks.”

He traces his decision to detransition to a conversation with an acquaintance from his Pentecostal church, in the Southampton area. He relates how she approached him as he was leafleting on Good Friday and said, out of the blue: “Who is Pete?” He replied: “Pete is me.” She said: “God doesn’t want you to be Victoria any more.”

Supported by his pastor, he moved to remove almost every trace of Victoria. His women’s clothing went first. “Some of it went on Good Friday and the rest went over the Easter weekend. The lot. Seven bin bags full. Handbags, make-up, wigs . . . even the pink sponges and flannels. I deleted my social media. I deleted [almost] all my photographs of Victoria.”

However, he has been unable to reverse the surgery, which removed his male genitalia in 2015, and has not updated a birth certificate, issued on August 31, 2016, which said he had been born a girl.

He is being advised by the Christian Legal Centre, whose chief executive, Andrea Williams, is considering legal action on his behalf. “It is tragic that such a vulnerable man was given a life-changing, irreversible and ultimately devastating operation without his profound mental health issues being addressed properly,” she said.

“His experience represents a deep and disturbing warning for our society as it is told that the answer to deep-rooted gender identity confusion is hormone prescription and radical surgery.”

Benjamin is reconciled to a quiet, largely solitary life and says he is finally certain about his identity. “I met someone yesterday and I told them what had happened to me. She said, ‘Oh, I liked Victoria in the pink,’ and I said, ‘No, not for me. This is me. This is the real me.’”

@NicholasHellen