The Clandestine’s Social Mobility and Class Officer Emily O’Sullivan is a Religion, Philosophy, and Ethics graduate with an interest in poetry, Russians, and instigating political debates in a variety of South London pubs.
[Featured Image: Helen and her partner Brian posing together – Helen in a floral dress and Brian in a navy suit and black tie.]
For all intents and purposes, Helen Jasper is a normal 68-year-old woman. Her blonde, perfectly permed hair falls just above her shoulders, and she wears a classy floral dress, holding herself well.
She sits in the pub waiting for me, peering over the heads of the day drinkers in our shared home; Cannock, a quiet ex-mining town. I stumble through the door, a little late, and we exchange greetings.
The first time I met Helen, at Cannock’s only LGBT bar – Candi Caine’s – she struck me as a woman with a story bursting out of her. It had to be told; it was waiting, after lying dormant for so long. And she did begin to tell it, as we stood outside the bar at 2 in the morning.
‘Do you think I look like a man?’ she enquired.
She didn’t have any obvious masculine features, I told her, and she beamed. ‘Well, I did DIY surgery on myself,’ she said, and proceeded to tell us the beginning of a complex story, that couldn’t be recounted in its entirety out on the street.
‘Can I meet you again?’ I said, and took her number, before being called into a taxi. She agreed, and I thought about her for the entire journey home. In fact, I thought about her until five days later, when we sat in front of each other, less than a hundred yards away from the bar where we exchanged a few words on that drunken Friday night.
Helen had experienced a similar upbringing that many people around here had, until the age of around 6-years-old. She grew up in Aston, Birmingham, only a hundred yards from the Aston Villa football ground, with her mother and father, and her two sisters. Helen was, at the time, the only son that her parents had. However, it was at around this age that she began to demand that her neighbour, Janet – who she used to play outside with – swapped clothes with her.
They played around like normal 6-year-olds, and went into the local corner shop, which was owned by Helen’s Aunty. ‘She said to me, ‘I hope you haven’t got her underwear on’, and I had. She smacked my backside, told my Mom and Dad, and my Dad hated me from that day on.’ As Helen privately began to understand that she was transgender, she would continue to wear women’s clothes, away from the prying eyes of others.
When the rest of her family would go out on Saturdays, she tells me, ‘I used to put the bolts on the door, and go and wear my sisters’ clothes… I really felt comfortable.’ As she got older still, she would keep women’s clothes in her wardrobe, and her Dad would go on to find them and burn them, on more than one occasion. Because of this, she began to keep the clothes in the boot of her car instead.
‘I used to go up to the garage, change my clothes, and just drive somewhere where I was out of the way.’
When Helen was 23, she went down to Harley Street, London, in an attempt to find somebody who could help her to transition.
‘I heard that there were people there, who could help. I knocked every door in Harley Street; couldn’t find anybody. I just went back home and thought, ‘I don’t know what to do’.’
For a few years, Helen lived as the woman that she knew she was through those brief moments of escapism, where she could drive elsewhere, feeling at ease in the knowledge that she was ‘out of the way’. In a way, Cannock acted as an oppressive force, and being elsewhere was the only freedom that Helen was afforded.
One Sunday, she came home to find all of her belongings on her parents’ front lawn. She then had to sleep in her car until she found somewhere else to live, whilst all of her belongings sat in a garage that she had rented from the council.
When Helen was 36, she did DIY gender reassignment surgery on herself.
‘I couldn’t get nobody to listen to me. I went to my doctors, and I said, ‘I need help.’ He said to me, ‘all I can suggest is that you need to see [a different] doctor, and that’s all he ever said. He wasn’t helpful, the opportunity wasn’t… well, it was there, but it didn’t exist, if you know what I mean.’
Despite Helen’s pleas with various medical professionals to help her, people always doubted that she truly wanted to medically transition into a female.
‘There’s always that question there: ‘is this the direction that you really need?’’
As a result, Helen felt that she had no other option but to take matters into her own hands.
‘It just felt right,’ she said. ‘If I hadn’t have done it, nobody would have listened to me. I felt I’d got to do something that warranted a response, and that’s what I did.’
She continues, ‘I did it at home. The one went down the toilet, the other one was bleeding. I’d got a load of towels – I’m not bragging about this, but you know, I’m just saying, the situation that I was in and – I put a load of towels on the seat of the car, I drove from Cannock to Stafford’ – an eight mile journey – ‘and I walked in A&E and passed out.’
The most sobering of all of the things that Helen had shown me – or told me – as we spoke, was a letter from Charing Cross Hospital, dated 22nd September 1987. Using a typewriter, the Consultant Psychiatrist at the Gender Identity Clinic had written this letter to the Department of Psychiatry at Cannock Hospital.
Amongst other things, it stated the following:
Mental state: Mr Jasper was a sad looking man with long hair and masculine features. He was not cross dressed. He seemed somewhat depressed and was weepy at one stage of the interview. He was not psychotic and had some insight into his problem.
Despite the fact that Helen had, just over a year ago, done her DIY surgery, the Consultant Psychiatrist writes:
My impression is that he is episodically transvestite.
The biggest shock, surely, is that Helen’s desperate attempt to be taken seriously as a transgender woman through her DIY surgery – something that she felt she had no other choice but to do – was dismissed as episodic transvestitism. As many people understand this term, it simply means that one derives enjoyment out of dressing as the opposite sex, without the necessary implication that they feel inherently uncomfortable in the body that they were born in.
Later, he concludes that Helen’s private attempt at gender reassignment surgery was nothing short of ominous self-destruction:
There are signs of an underlying personality disorder with ominous self-destructive acting out (self castration and motor accidents with legal problems still pending).
As Helen later tells me, ‘I was more upset that he’d got that air of doubt.’
In 1988, when Helen was 38, there was a moment that defined how the rest of her life would pan out. She was with her Mom – who was much more understanding about Helen being transgender after the passing of her Dad – and they decided to get a drink in a pub, after they had returned to Cannock from a hospital visit in London.
As they entered the pub, which Helen would later frequent, a man called her over.
‘He said, ‘don’t go on that side of the bar, they’re planning to chuck beer all over you. Stay this side.’ I said, ‘oh, thanks very much.’ And that was Brian.’
They would see each other a few more times here, until one Christmas eve, when they both happened to be in the pub. Brian was supposed to be having a meal there on Christmas day, but they’d sold out. Helen invited him over to her house for Christmas dinner – she had more than enough food for him to have a meal, too – and after thinking about it for a while, he agreed.
When the day came around, they got on ‘famously’. In fact, they got on famously for 30 years after that, 18 years of which they spent living together.
‘I never thought that I’d end up with a normal male to female relationship, let alone living with somebody,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t happen to transgender people, you know. I’ve had the relationship I’ve always wanted.’
On 12th April 1994, Helen had male to female gender reassignment surgery at Charing Cross Hospital, which the official documents state ‘consisted of penectomy, orchidectomy, vaginoplasty and vulvoplasty. She did well post operatively, and has continued to live successfully in the female role since that time.’
Helen tells me, ‘I’ve never took a painkiller since I came around. It’s as though I’d achieved and got everything I’d always wanted.’
She shares a similar sentiment when it comes to her DIY surgery, which she states – perhaps shockingly – didn’t cause her any pain. When asked whether she wanted any painkillers at the hospital, she declined the offer.
Helen was also the first person in the country to be given hormone replacement therapy (HRT) implants.
At 68-years-old, Helen is trying to adjust to life after the loss of her soul mate, Brian, last year. She believes that the abuse that she received from her neighbours – which was likely to be rooted in transphobia – and the further neglect by the police, ultimately contributed towards his death due to the constant stress and worry that he endured.
In an email that she sent out to the police, she states, ‘I truly believe that all this is because they know that I am transgender… Is this what you would call justice?’
She was arrested by police after being accused of using offensive hand gestures towards her neighbours, which she vehemently denies, and she insisted that she had evidence to prove otherwise. Nevertheless, she was put in a cell; never to be charged with any wrongdoing. Her neighbours, who she has received death threats from, got no more than a £50 fine.
I ask her how she finds being transgender in Cannock, a town not particularly known for its open-mindedness. ‘Difficult,’ she says. ‘If I go in any bars in Cannock, other than [Candi Caine’s], I get verbal [abuse].’ She even notes how people touch her breasts when she goes out. Whilst it is hard to comprehend the tension felt when she is simply trying to live her daily life, Helen tells me, ‘I’m the person I am through everything I’ve gone through.’
‘It’s difficult at times, that’s why I enjoy going up [to Candi Caine’s] at least.’
Whilst in the bar one day, a woman called Helen over to drink with her, and they have since become good friends. ‘I said, ‘are you sure?’ because, you know, it’s difficult when you get accepted for the person you are.’
Helen has found a home at Candi Caine’s, and she visits the bar three times a week. In a town that lacks progressiveness, it seems to be one of the only safe spaces for LGBT people, who may otherwise have had to endure abuse in regular bars and pubs.
For Helen, the question of her gender is a simple one, and has been since she first wore her neighbour’s clothes as a 6-year-old child. To the various onlookers, gender seems to be more complex, which must lead us to ask – especially after hearing of Helen’s story – whether this really needs to be the case.
My time with her was short; two hours at most. But over that period, I learned the story of an extremely strong, phenomenal woman, who has fought to be recognised as the person that she truly is, even in the face of doctors who didn’t believe her, a socially conservative family, a discriminative police force, and people on the street in the town that she lives in, who can’t accept her for what she is: a woman.
Despite everything that she has been through, Helen still possesses an impressively quick wit, and the ability to turn a deaf ear to the harsh judgments of others.
‘You can call me what you like, as long as you don’t call me one thing,’ she quips. ‘Too late for my dinner.’