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Rebecca Tallon de Havilland: ‘All I wanted to be was me. Why did I have to pay such a price?’

Rebecca Tallon de Havilland had lunch with a transgender friend recently. They talked about old times and the wild nights out in the clubs of London, and they marvelled at how much more accepting of transgender people society is today.

hen the friend turned to Rebecca and said something serious and profound. “She looked across at me and she said, ‘To be who we are, we had to be willing to lose everything’. And that made me a bit emotional because it was so true for me. The irony of it all, really, is that I didn’t murder anyone, I didn’t rob a bank, but I suffered the kinds of consequences that people who do those things face.

“It sounds corny, but all I wanted to be was me, the person sitting in front of you now. And looking back at it all, I just wonder: Why did I have to pay such a price?”

Thirty years ago, Rebecca was outed as transgender on the front page of an Irish newspaper. Two photos accompanied the story. One was of her “in front of a nightclub looking very much like Lily Savage”, she laughs ruefully, at the slightly teenage dress sense that came with the “second puberty” of transition. The other was from her days as a male model.

Rebecca had been building herself up to tell those close to her in Ireland that she intended to fully transition, but the story robbed her of that.

“When I saw it, my whole world fell apart. It was a very vulnerable moment for me. I was kind of building myself up to saying it, because at this stage I knew I was going to become Rebecca. And I was becoming Rebecca. But that story ruined my career, it ruined my life, it ruined everything.”  

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Rebecca Tallon de Havilland. Picture by Gerry Mooney

To some readers, Rebecca’s story may have seemed like a scandal from another planet, but she came from a family just like many others.

She spent the early part of her childhood in Granard, Co Longford, the middle child of three. Her father was a mechanic, and her parents split up when she was an infant.

She never considered herself a boy, but she recalls the moment when she realised her sister was going to wear a white communion dress.

“It was the best and the worst day of my young life. I’m not a jealous person at all, but I was jealous of her. Because in my head I was the one wearing the dress.”

Rebecca’s grandmother, who helped raise them, allowed her to dress as a girl. On Saturdays, Rebecca would go into Granard and do Irish dancing, fantasising that the kilt was a skirt.

“It was an idyllic childhood, really. I don’t recall anyone ever saying that I was a sissy.”

She convinced her grandmother to allow her to wear white shorts, a white shirt and a blue velvet jacket on her own communion day. “And I walked up that aisle proud as punch. I felt loved.”

When Rebecca was seven, her mother moved with her young family to Dublin, first to Rathmines, then down the road to Ranelagh, and Rebecca spent her formative years in a house on Beechwood Avenue.

She was sent to a boarding school in Dublin, where her gender identity would have none of the freedom of expression she had enjoyed at home.

“I remember just my brother and myself holding each other’s hand on the first day. Absolutely terrified. It was like my whole world fell in around me. I’ve had a few of those moments, but that was the first one.”

At the school she was groomed and sexually abused by a Christian Brother.

“I was told if I told anybody that I would end up being put away because it was me that was evil, not them. I thought I was protecting my little brother as well. I only realised years later they would never have gone near him. He was one sock up, one sock down. I was neat and pretty.”

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Rebecca Tallon de Havilland interviewing Maureen O’Hara in Cong, in 2012

The abuse affected her profoundly. “I used to always believe my thinking was warped compared to my other teenage peers or siblings. I thought that I was evil, so I had to hide it. It didn’t allow me to kind of explore my sexuality or anything like that. I felt that whichever way I’d gone, I was wrong.”

She was attracted to girls “but in the sense of wanting to dress them”. She went to teenage discos like Wesley and the Leinster Cricket Club and had girlfriends, “but I didn’t do much with any of them, I’m sure they wondered why”.

At 15, she was expelled from school. Her misbehaviour was “acting out”, driven by the abuse, she says, and she went straight into hairdressing, where she would forge a successful career at His ’n’ Hers on Richmond Street at Kelly’s Corner.

By then it was the 1970s and androgyny was all the rage. She wore make-up in public. The first pair of shoes she bought herself were platforms from a market on Camden Street.

“My mother said, ‘They’re girl’s shoes. You do know that?’ I said, ‘I know.’”

She also experimented further with her sexuality. “I did like boys. But I suppose I didn’t know my own body. I just still felt it was wrong.”

In the late 1970s she had a relationship with a woman and married. The marriage didn’t last, but she had a daughter and now has a granddaughter, who’s 17, and she is close to both of them.

She had heard of the transgender model and actress Caroline Cossey, who appeared in the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. But transitioning still seemed to Rebecca “sort of akin to a teenager saying they want to be Brad Pitt. It seemed like a Hollywood fantasy. Besides, I didn’t have the money to do it”.

In the 1980s, with her hair buzzed “like Annie Lennox”, she began doing magazine and editorial work as an offshoot from her hairdressing career, and it took her to London, where she worked as a modelling agent.

In a nightclub, she happened to get chatting to a couple of women who told her they were transgender. It was this chance meeting that brought home to her the idea she really could transition.

“For the first time in my life, I found me. I could finally see my future in front of me.”

She got to know other trans women on the nightclub scene in London and, with their help, she began taking “black market” hormones. These medications caused her body to become more feminine, but also caused her to go through a second puberty.

“I was becoming a teenage girl in my late twenties. I was already in your face, kind of flamboyant. But then I was switching. I was getting angry and having mood swings.”

She also noticed that her sex drive was gone. “But that was fine because I actually hated having a penis. At that stage the dysphoria was crippling.” 

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Rebecca meets Prince Harry at a Terence Higgins Trust event in 2017

Her profile in the modelling industry and the exposure that came with that career made her fairly well-known in Ireland, but it was a “double-edged sword”. Eventually the press attention led to her being outed in a Sunday newspaper. She was devastated, but decided to press on with her transition.

“By then I had got to a stage where I couldn’t look at myself naked.”

She recently watched Bill Hughes’s documentary about her old friend Vincent Hanley and found it “triggering”. Hanley died in 1987 of complications from HIV.

That same year, after undergoing routine tests that were required before gender reassignment surgery, she was informed she, too, was HIV positive.

“It’s a tough thing to say this, but for me that was even worse than the child abuse. Something was lost that day when I was told, and I never got it back. I just felt the Christian Brothers were right, I am evil, and this is what I get for it. You have to remember the kind of stigma there was then. We were told it came from Africa or that you had to be into seriously sexual things. And I thought, ‘I don’t do that stuff, I’m a middle-class girl from Ranelagh.’ It was called Aids, it wasn’t HIV. It was supposed to be a death sentence.”

She went into denial “It was at that point the safest place to go and she relates that denial back to the sexual abuse she suffered as a child.

“I was good at blanking things out. As bad as the abuse was, it gave me an advantage over most people in the art of survival.”

Looking back on that period, she says she “can still feel that pain, that rejection, that aloneness, that ‘Is there only me in this world?’ feeling”.

“And of course, at this stage I felt I was talentless. I was jobless. I wasn’t even able to open up a bank in my own [female] name. I had been on the way to be a millionaire with my work. All of a sudden I was sliding into skid row.”

She was raped three times and still carries the psychological scars. “You don’t recover from that. You can only cry into a towel for a few hours and anaesthetise yourself that little bit more. I tried to report something once and I was told, ‘Look at you, what do you expect?’”

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Mr Pussy and Rebecca Tallon de Havilland

She started drinking heavily and taking a lot of cocaine. “Then, before I knew it, in a very short period of time I became a junkie. I was a heroin addict. I was a prostitute. I would often be standing on corners in Soho, either trying to rip off a punter or do a punter just to get 20 quid.”

She moved to Amsterdam and ran a brothel there and spiralled further into addiction. “I was able to erase my reality, push it all away.”

Rebecca remained determined to transition, however, and continued to put money under the mattress to fund it.

In 1991, she found a surgeon who was willing to perform a gender reassignment operation. She handed over every penny she had, in cash, at the clinic in London.

She was reminded that the operation was risky because HIV would make her susceptible to infection. Just before she was taken down for surgery, she spoke to the surgeon. “I said, ‘If I do die on that slab, promise me one thing that you’ll still cut it off’. And he said, ‘I promise’.”

When she woke up, her boyfriend at the time, Antonio, was holding her hand. “I said to him, ‘Is it gone?’ And he says, ‘Yes’. And I smiled and just went back to sleep.”

After that, life felt “a bit more under control”, although it would be a long time before she got fully sober “There was still a bit of champagne and cocaine” but she felt she had “lightened up”. More importantly, she had “found my tribe of misfits”.

Her infamy at home was being regularly dead named (when someone uses a trans person’s name from before they transitioned) and misgendered in Irish press articles, which tended to have a “sexualised Page Three nature”, she recalls.

She also had to fight for her right to be recorded as a woman on her passport. Coming back from a holiday in Greece in 2001, Greek airport police refused to allow her to board because the “M” on the passport didn’t match her name, her appearance or her legal gender.

“I tried to explain. I had a queue of people behind me with all this going on in an airport. And then I was dragged off into a room and strip searched.”

She spent two days in a holding room before she was finally able to put the Greek police in touch with the surgeon who had operated on her.

“I felt at that point like I’d gone from lady to guttersnipe and I wasn’t having it.”

When she returned to Dublin, she went straight to the passport office and threatened to go to the press if the issue wasn’t sorted.

“I said, ‘Do you want to see my vagina?’ she says, laughing at the memory. “And they were like, ‘No, no, no’. You can imagine the scene. And I would’ve been quite willing to show it, to be honest.”

Six weeks later, she got her new passport with its “F” marker in the post, and she takes credit for the legislative changes that followed, allowing trans people to have the correct gender on their passports.

The last decade-and-a-half have, she says with characteristic saltiness, “been up and down like a whore’s knickers”.  

She lived in Belfast for a few years in the 2000s and got completely sober there. She was married two more times, but she’s single now.

A few years ago, she decided to be open about her HIV status and was gratified by the huge and supportive response. She has also become a noted sexual health campaigner, and until the beginning of last year was a columnist and editor for trans affairs with Boyz, a British LGBT+ magazine. However, it had previously given space to gender critical feminists and, when David Bridle, the magazine’s co-founder and editor, reiterated that he felt debate was being stifled, Rebecca resigned.

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Rebecca with singer Beverley Knight at a Terrence Higgins Trust Fundraiser

Looking back at it all, she says she was “helping [Bridle] out” by taking the gig in the first place and, while she disagrees with him, she doesn’t believe he should be cancelled for his views.

Still, as she acknowledges, there has been monumental progress in terms of public acceptance of trans people over the past few years.

“I’m delighted it’s brighter for everybody right now, but I would say we still have a long way to go. I want this piece to be a call for a new Ireland in terms of how trans kids, especially, are treated.”

Besides her campaigning she has addressed parliament in London and media work, she runs a bootcamp for trans girls at Dean Street in London’s Soho. The work has brought home to her how much poverty is an issue in the trans community.

“It’s a huge problem, something I never had to deal with growing up, but speaking to these girls has opened my eyes.” A new camp will soon be starting in Dublin.

In a life packed with incident, Rebecca looks back now and says she was “just
trying to put one foot in front of the other and not stand on another landmine”. Strangers call her Ma’am or Miss, but the only labels she likes “are the ones on shoes and bags”.

She still lives in London, in a house in Chelsea where she has a pink door and a pink fridge and two dogs, Barbarella and Cinderella. Now, at 64, she feels Ireland calling her home. There has been a groundswell of support from the LGBT+ community here – the likes of Mr Pussy – and she will be the grand marshal of the LGBT+ section of the St Patrick’s Day Parade on Thursday, something she calls “a huge honour”.

“I’ve tried to come back here so many times. I never chose to leave Ireland. I never chose to give up my career. I never chose to be witch hunted. I never thought I would live long enough to see society change. You know, Dublin’s my home, and I want to come home.”  

Rebecca will run bootcamps at David Marshall Hair Salon davidmarshall.ie.
@BexDeHavilland

https://www.independent.ie/life/rebecca-tallon-de-havilland-all-i-wanted-to-be-was-me-why-did-i-have-to-pay-such-a-price-41436119.html Rebecca Tallon de Havilland: ‘All I wanted to be was me. Why did I have to pay such a price?’

Fry Electronics Team

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