Petra Wenham: 'I was empowered by my 'glass shard' moment'
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
Pain is a complicated thing. Whether emotional or physical, we’ve all felt it. But what if your physical pain led you to face your emotional pain head on?
That’s exactly what happened to Petra Wenham.
Petra is a cybersecurity retiree based in the heart of the Suffolk countryside, and after a bout of illness that saw her hospitalised just a few years ago, she decided to take the leap and start living her life as her true self.
Assigned male at birth, in 2015 Petra realised, at the age of 68, that she had been living in the wrong body her whole life – and made the brave decision to transition.
Originally from rural Sussex, Petra recalls what early childhood was like, and realised how different she felt to her peers at such a young age.
“I went to the local village school in the early 1950s, and I never really clicked socially or played with the other boys. It just didn’t feel right – whereas I felt more comfortable with the girls,” she explains.
“But as you make your way through school, the gender stereotypes really come into play. Gender is concept created by society, and is ultimately tied to your birth sex. So as we went through junior school, the girls started moving away from me as they saw me as a boy, and I eventually became isolated.”
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Petra soon fell foul to playground bullying and name-calling, and before eventually going to an all-boys' school.
“I think my mum probably twigged something was not quite right – so instead of following the majority of my classmates to the local co-educational school, I was sent a few towns away to a boys’ school.
“It didn’t do me any good though,” she chuckles.
Petra left school at 16, and worked her way up through various telecommunication jobs before achieving a degree in electrical engineering.
“Did I get on well with the female telephonists? Absolutely. But at that point in my life, I’d learned to hide behind the gender that society gave me. It was difficult and painful. I always liked female fashion, but I couldn’t really go into a shop and look at the clothes properly, it was always from a distance.”
Struggling with the ongoing inner turmoil that her gender identity brought her, Petra was six months into her postgraduate role at BT when she met her wife, Loraine.
“I have to say, it was a fairly instant connection. We’re soulmates.”
Following a whirlwind romance, the two married just six months after their first date after before having two children and eventually moving down to Suffolk in 2003.
But just a few years ago, Petra found herself hospitalised with a severe case of colitis during the summer of 2015.
And it was this pivotal event that led to what she dubs her ‘moment of clarity’.
“My family were incredibly worried for me – at one point, my weight had dropped to around 55kg, and I was unable to put on weight.”
While awaiting bowel surgery, Petra kept herself entertained on her laptop and eventually came across a blog by American academic and transgender activist Jennifer Boylan.
“In her blog, she draws upon an experience that happened to her around 20 years ago. When she was living in her male mode, she dropped a glass on her kitchen floor, and it shattered. She swept it up, and two days later, she went to answer the door but must’ve missed a bit as she stepped on a shard. She thought to herself ‘it’s only a small piece, it’ll work its way out soon.
“Three weeks later, she went to A&E to have it removed, and she said the pain relief she felt was instant. That was the exact moment when she said to herself ‘I’ve been suffering with all this pain on the inside too, and I’ve been living as a man, but my perception of myself is as a woman’. That was her ‘glass shard moment’. And me reading that, given the fact I was suffering and unwell myself, got me thinking about my own life at that point. That then coalesced to become my very own ‘glass shard moment’.”
Overcome with a newfound sense of clarity and relief, Petra postponed her surgery and waited until she was discharged before discussing how she felt with her wife.
“The thing is, Loraine knew I did the occasional crossdressing before we got married, and that I did it for mental relief. I was presenting as I should be, but I never twigged that I could transition. When I came out of hospital, I said to Loraine I was seriously thinking about everything, and that I believe I’m transgender.
“You may know you don’t fit in with the male gender – or the female gender if you’re a transman – and you try to live in the gender society has assigned you, but that often leads to gender dysphoria.”
Gender dysphoria is defined by the NHS as ‘a sense of unease that a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity’.
“You may have realised you’re transgender, but you might not have accepted it – and the big transition is moving from knowing that you are, to accepting it.”
After coming out to Loraine, not only did Petra’s emotional wellbeing improve, but so did her physical wellbeing.
“I definitely believe coming out and losing the stress of hiding my true self was instrumental in me avoiding the surgeon’s knife.”
Petra was prescribed a probiotic that helped relieve her colitis symptoms, and soon saw a vast improvement in her health when compared to just a few months prior.
“Stress is a much-underrated cause of overall health problems,” she adds.
After coming out to her wife, Petra began to slowly tell her nearest and dearest – and was met with overwhelming support.
“It’s obviously one of those things you don’t drop as a bomb on everybody – but rather it slowly permeates out. Everyone was supportive, but my eldest was still processing it at the time, which is reasonable. It’s hard to grasp that one of your parents is changing, even more so if you’re a child. But if they were children today, I wouldn’t advocate hiding anything from them, as we’re in a different society compared to 20 and 30 years ago.”
With her physical health on track and a weight off her mind, Petra soon set about looking for support groups in the region.
“A friend of mine came to see me that following January, and she introduced me to a support group in Norwich for trans people. But it took me until August that year to pluck up the courage and go.”
Both Petra and Loraine became regulars at the group, finding solace in the support and shared experiences from the other attendees before getting in touch with a GP to begin the process of transitioning.
But due to the long waiting lists for NHS gender clinics, Petra was referred to a private gender clinic in London and started her journey to transition in January 2018. It was here she had hour-long consultations with a psychologist. And a year later, she began hormone therapy.
“I would say January 2018 is when I was fully out,” she adds.
Firmly on the path to becoming her true self, does she wish she’d have come out sooner?
“It’s difficult. If I had all of the information I had at my fingertips today when I was 18 or in my twenties, there’s a reasonable chance I’d have transitioned. But then I’d have missed out on Loraine and family, so I don’t know.”
Feeling comfortable and finally living as as the woman she was meant to be, Petra soon turned to her local Women's Institute (WI) for support, companionship and camaraderie.
“I eventually became involved with the Cake and Revolution branch in Ipswich – they seemed very forward thinking, so that’s why I joined them. And all I can say is they’ve been very welcoming and supportive.”
The group has been so supportive that it has given Petra a platform, and allowed her to conduct a number of trans awareness talks to members both in-person, and virtually once lockdown hit.
“I find my talks cathartic, and I'm at the point where I’m enjoying giving them as I’m helping raise awareness for the trans community.”
Not only does Petra share her life experiences with her fellow WI members, but also members of the medical community.
“I was asked to give my talks by a local NHS trust here in the region, where I also cover issues such as legislation, how to interact with trans people, alongside chromosomes, genes, and intersex conditions.
“It’s now used as a central training resource for trainee GPs that serves the whole of the East – and in fact I gave my 20th talk just a few weeks ago. Where I can, I use links to resources such as the NHS and the World Health Organisation as I want people to understand that being transgender is real – and not an opinion – which unfortunately a lot of anti-trans people in the press and public eye seem to think, as they’re talking about these things without a real knowledge or understanding.”
And Petra’s incredible journey, education and activism in recent years certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed – as just last summer, she broke down boundaries and became the first transgender cover star on the Women’s Institute magazine.
“I knew there was going to be an article on me, but it was only later on that I saw I was on the cover!”
The magazine’s July/August edition came out on July 1 – and was met with an abundance of support.
“Off the back of that, I was approached by a number of radio stations and newspapers for interviews, and I’ve done various podcasts too.
“I’m incredibly pleased with the publicity, alongside the opportunities I have for my talks, as it’s important for me to raise awareness.”
As she continues fighting for trans rights from her home in the Suffolk countryside, she has a message for anyone who may be experiencing what she once went through.
“It’s never too late to transition, and in the end, you will yourself a much happier and more grounded person. You may lose friends and families – but ultimately you will find a new family within the trans community, and the wider world at large. I’m still the same person, but my external shell has changed to match my own perception of myself, which is female.”