Shakyapada: Full Interview

Duration 28:22


Shakyapada Jenny Roberts

Interviewed by Billy Frugal

6 December 2018

BF: Hello, so I’m Billy Frugal, it’s the 6th of December 2018 and this is an interview as part of the West Yorkshire Queer Stories.

S: And I’m Shakyapada Jenny Roberts, I prefer she and her and I was born on the 18th of September 1944. I live in York and I identify as a female or as a trans-woman.


S: OK, I grew up, I was a fairly late developer in terms of realising that there was a gender problem. I think I’m quite good at coping with the situation as it is – now I felt very odd in my childhood but then I just assumed that everybody else felt pretty much the same so I just got on with it.

My sister was much older than me and didn’t live with my parents so I didn’t have a sibling sister which might have been a clue for me if I had had, I might have borrowed her clothes I suppose but that didn’t happen. It wasn’t until I got married in my twenties that I actually has access to female clothes and one day when I was on my own I tried some on and it kind of blew my mind and I don’t know to this day what made me do it. But once I’d done it then that was kind of like, there was no going back. I just found it very thrilling, very exciting and it just felt very good to be wearing a dress. So, and I was shocked as well, I assumed that I was a cross-dresser so I tried not to do it after that, it was just a bit too powerful for me. So I tried, not very successfully, not to do it. And at first I thought maybe I’m gay, so I hung about near a cottaging toilet in Harrogate where I lived at the time and got picked up and discovered that I wasn’t gay and that it was something else.

So it was quite a journey for me and it took me many years. I got married and my marriage broke up, nothing to do with that, and I got married again some years later and I thought that getting married again would just sort me out and that would be fine, it would all go away, and of course it didn’t and I admitted what my predilection was to my wife, she was very shaken by it, it didn’t really improve, found it very uncomfortable but in the end I was able to cross-dress when she wasn’t there and in private which felt a bit sordid I must say, and I didn’t like it very much but it seemed to be a bit of a release and this went on for a long time from somewhere round about 1970 up to round about 1992 when I was trying to do other activities to stop me doing it.

I had been an ultra-distance runner, running something like 170 miles a week, I was so exhausted do that and working that just simply didn’t have time to do anything else, or the energy, so that kept me sort-of sane for a while. I renovated my own farmhouse and on top of the running laboured at that and the business so I was just really wearing myself out and in the end I just couldn’t do it any longer so I decided that I was going to have to try out what, find out what was going on and just sort of explore it a bit more rather than trying to push it away. I went to a cross-dressing night in a social club, not it wasn’t a club it was a day centre that was empty on a night and there was a whole bunch of cross-dressers there and so I got changed and my wife came with me and we went to this social event and it was just great, I just loved it; I felt really comfortable, I felt like there was something really wholesome about it, it felt really good and I just got the chance to talk to lots of people and it was the first time that I went out in public like that, and it felt very empowering actually.

So after that I decided that I would go to Manchester and just get involved in the gay village in Manchester so I stayed in a hotel on the night before and changed and went to the clubs and just basically had a good time and I ended up staying two or three, sometimes four nights in Manchester and it sort of became a home and I got to know people in the village, I was a regular in all the clubs and bars and I just had a really good time and it felt great. And then going back home and changing back to being male just felt really horrible, it felt just quite the opposite; unwholesome and very difficult, so as time went on I began to face up to the fact that I was transsexual and to cut a long story short I decided that I would have to seek advice, I began to realise that I wasn’t a cross-dresser, that I was transsexual and so I went to a gender clinic and talked to them and got put on hormones and found that it just got better and better and I even on the hormones I just calmed down; I felt softer, I felt much more me, and ultimately my wife and I had to discuss what was going on. We tried all sorts of compromises, she was very good actually, she said that I could stay away for most of the week and just come back to her as her husband on a weekend and I felt I couldn’t do that; it was dishonest and it, it was fraught with difficulty, so in the end we decided that we had to part and so I bought a little flat in Earby, a border town, a little mill town, on the borders of Yorkshire and Lancashire because it was convenient for Manchester and my sister lived nearby and so I sort of settled there for less than a year, about eight months, and then I moved to York and at that point I decided I wanted to live my life and not be part of a trans ghetto in Manchester, and I too, I had some really good friends there but I wanted to live in the real world and not in some kind of, sort of, to me anyway, make believe world and they were quite upset when I left but I moved to York and I just really started living my life in York and became the Neighbourhood Watch rep and went down the street knocking on every door just announcing myself and inviting people to join me in Neighbourhood Watch. So I got to know lots of people and I settled in fairly quickly actually, made some good friends, both gay and straight and just began to live my life. Started a bookshop, met a new partner and started to settle down.

So, that sort of actually becoming me was great – it sort solved a lot of my problems with my life, a lot of the unhappiness that had been welling below the surface, but it didn’t solve it all of course, and although I had a good life I had pretty much everything; I had enough income, a really nice new partner who I’m still with and a lesbian obviously, and I was in this lovely relationship which was just felt very good but I was still dissatisfied in spite of all the good things I just was getting upset when things went wrong and I just always thought that every new year’s eve I thought ‘this year will be a good year, everything will work out fine this year, the world will be right this year and I will be happy’ but of course it never happened. It was a little bit of a fantasy, a big fantasy actually, so what I did then was to think well, what can I do to put it right? So I thought well, I’ll need a big house in the country and a big garden and then I can be a gardener and that will be really nice so we did that, we sold everything we had, bought a house 20 miles North of York, landscaped the garden, altered the house, and at the end of two years I was still miserable and I just thought ‘I’m doing something wrong here, this is not going to work, I’ve been trying for something like 65 years, 64, 65 years to actually get the world the way I want it, get my world the way I want it and clearly that’s not going to happen’.

So I thought, I’m looking in the wrong place I need a different solution and I think that was a little bit of insight actually, into my nature and maybe into human nature, so then I started looking on the internet, I’d got this vague memory of being interested in Buddhism in my 20s so what I did I just searched for Buddhism to see what there was around and I came in touch with, well first of all I investigated Soca Gakkai because I’d got friends who were Soca Gakkai Buddhists and that’s mostly about chanting which didn’t appeal to me, so I didn’t, could really find anything else around, nearby, so I went on Amazon and just by chance I happened to buy a meditation CD, I mean I didn’t know who it was or what it was about or whether it would work but it was in fact from Wildmind, which is part of Triratna and the meditation practices were mindfulness of breathing and loving kindness meditation and I started practising them strait away when I got the CD with my new partner and we both practices them and I just found them very powerful and what happened was that I had this sort of quite strong realisation that the world was going to act in the way the world was going to act and that it was rather pointless getting upset about that. In fact it was much easier to just go along with it and accept that this is the way it was so I started having this catch phrase of ‘on well’ and just allowing things to wash over me a little bit more anyway and I immediately, within a few weeks, I was feeling ‘gosh, this is working, this is really good’ and I started to really enjoy meditating and having a little bit of time to be quiet and to get get to know myself better rather than constantly rushing around .

So then I was living, actually 46 miles away from the nearest Triratna Centre which was in Leeds so I thought well I’ll give it a try and I went along there and did a Saturday, a Tuesday night course on meditation to begin with, really like it, really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it and then I went on an ‘Introduction to Buddhism’ course there and found that just like, it was just so familiar, it was something like, it just felt like what I’d been trying to do all through my life; the ethics, living an ethical life, trying to behave in ways which were helpful to other people and being kind and being grateful and being generous and all these kings of things and I had been trying to do that but I didn’t have any kind of guidelines so I hadn’t done it particularly well. But it was seeming very familiar, so what I did then was to keep on with that; start reading books, and go to the Buddhist centre every week, the community night and it was a round trip I remember of something like 96 miles so it was quite a commitment and then I got more involved, I got very excited I remember saying to somebody ‘something really wonderful is happening to me’, my whole being felt joyful and I felt this really sense of faith and love for what I was doing and for the Dharma, the Buddha’s teaching, so I started helping out at the Centre which meant I was going perhaps two days a week and then three days and I was still travelling this enormous distance back home, this round trip of 96 miles, but I could feel my life changing and I had this sense that I really needed to do this, I really needed to look after this practice and keep it doing it and explore myself and my habits and my reactions to the world much more.

So in the end we’d only been in this house about three or four years and we bought it at the top of the market and by now the market, housing market had slumped so we found, we decided that we would move, my partner was really good, agreeing to that though she wasn’t in any hurry, and we actually sold it at a big loss and we bought a house in York, on a bus route to Leeds, a little, a much smaller house with a smaller garden, much more in keeping with what I wanted at that point, we’re still there and very happy in it, it’s a very lovely semi.

And so we moved to York and I was able to go to Leeds on the bus regularly so by now I was in the Ordination Process and enjoying myself, just meeting new people, learning new things, being part of study groups, and I think by then probably starting to lead some lunchtime meditations and I really loved the idea of continuing to deepen my practice and the Ordination process is a kind of training process to move you towards a point where the whole of your life revolves around your Buddhist practice so you become a Buddhist in the truest sense of the word. Not a monk, not a nun, but somebody who lives the Buddhist life fully, who follows the Buddhist precepts and studies and meditates and generally tries to live a very good life and to work towards awakening, to awakening to the way things are which is quite mysterious and not the way we thing they are. So I won’t go into that [laughter].

But I just thoroughly enjoyed it, so I started going off on training, training retreats in South Wales and it’s a women’s retreat centre, so Triratna is streamed generally into men’s wing and a women’s wing and I mean the two genders do mix but a lot of the activities are single sex so the training, the retreat centre was single sex and I spent, I would spend a fortnight there, at least once a year, sometimes twice and I did tell them, right from the beginning I’ve been very open about who I am and where I’ve come from so I did tell them right at the beginning and just so that they had the opportunity to say no. It would be really uncomfortable. Because, you know, I think we need to respect other people’s discomforts or views, not necessarily agree with them but to just have some respect for other people’s feelings, so I’ve always felt that it was really important to talk about it and try and educate other people if they need it and to do it from a point of view of friendliness rather than being aggressive or over-assertive.

Anyway, they were very happy about it so when I started going on the retreats I did feel a bit nervous, I was... I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t be accepted and the first day was always a bit of a trial because I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t know whether people would react, the people who were there, how they saw me; whether they saw me as... You know, they didn’t know I was transsexual or whether they actually saw that I was and didn’t like it, or saw that I was and were OK about it, because nobody, of course, ever says.

So, anyway, once I got over the first day, particularly on the first few retreats I just seemed to settle in and I got on really well with the other women and had really good retreats and in those we have study groups as well as meditation and rituals so I did all of it and got on very well indeed, had chats with some of the Order members there and some of the other participants and just generally was quite open about who I was and where I’d come from and that just sort of went on, I got more involved in the Centre, I did more work there, visited other Centres and made friends in the wider movement, went on two Karuna appeals, which are fundraising appeals where you go ‘round, one in London, one in Manchester, where you have an area and go and knock on every door in the street and ask people basically to take out direct debits for people in India who are suffering from degradation; the Dalits who used to be called untouchables suffering from the degradation and just actually treated in a really appalling way and live very poor lives and are really seen as really right at the bottom of the pile.

So, I did that twice and each one for six weeks and they were very intensive and I was living in community with other women and getting on really well with them, there was no problem at all and so I these kinds of things, went on retreats, started leading classes a bit more and just generally got really into the fibre of Triratna and thoroughly enjoyed myself, never has a moment’s doubt that I didn’t want to be ordained, I didn’t want … I really wanted to deepen my practice and become an Order member and about … in 2016 I got my letter in April, telling me that I was going to be invited to join the Triratna Order and I went on a three-month ordination course up a mountain in Spain in April 2017 and living with 17, 16 other women in very basic conditions up this mountain; showering outside with buckets of water and just generally living off-grid and that was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Challenging but I just made, we all, all… 16, 17 really became friends, particularly the 12 people I got ordained with; we’re still very good friends and so then I got ordained in June in Spain and came back in July and just got on with my life and it took me a while to settle down, it’s a big thing getting ordained but once I got back I did what I’ve always wanted to do for many years since I became Buddhist actually, and began to hold classes in York and invite York people to learn about Buddhism because my feeling is that I’ve just got so much out of my connection with the Buddha and the Dharma and the community that I want other people to benefit as well and I really wanted people to benefit in my home town and also I’m getting on; I’m 74 and it’s getting a bit much, it was getting a bit much travelling backwards and forwards to Leeds many times a week so I just wanted to have a bit more time for myself but also to do some real benefit to the people of York in terms of introducing Buddhism there.

And I think just to end, one of the things that I always believed very, very strongly is that, is about respect really. I really.. I really... I’ve always believed that I would want people to respect me and if I want people to respect me then I think it’s really important that I respect other people. So right through my transition from being a, living as, a man, to fully living as a woman and eventually becoming a Triratna Buddhist Order member I’ve always been very keen on listening to people and not expecting people to accept me in many ways, that might seem counter-intuitive and some people I know don’t agree with that but all the way through I’ve tried to be open and when people have, particularly some radical feminists have expressed a discomfort with me I’ve always respected their view and asked them to respect mine. And actually what’s happened is that because I took that approach they... they soften and we, in many ways, manage to become very friendly towards each other. In fact, when I had the bookshop, and it was a lesbian bookshop, we had customers from a women’s centre in Sheffield and it was a women’s centre that I had been not allowed entry into when I first came across it, which was right at the beginning of my transition and I wasn’t allowed in because I was an ex-man, I was transsexual, and they allowed only women in. And I said ‘that was hurtful but OK I respect your views’ and then I had this bookshop for about six years and one of the women, the women from this centre in Sheffield used to come in and buy the books and support the bookshop and one of them one day said to me, many years later ‘why don’t you ever come down and see us in Sheffield’ and I said ‘well, I don’t come down ‘cause you won’t let me in’ and she said ‘No! we’d be really pleased to see you’ and I just took that as a real proof that actually respecting other people’s views and not demanding you be accepted, not demanding that you are let into women-only places actually is a really positive thing and in the end I found that I get that there are no spaces in which I’m not being allowed or I’m being discouraged from entering so I would give that message to other people that, you know, the Buddha said that hatred never ceases hatred, so it’s only love that stops hatred happening so if we can be respectful and kind to other people whatever they think of us really, then in the end that breaks down barriers and we can get on together and we’ll feel better and in many ways I’ve had a really good journey through this … this story and I’ve not had a lot of abuse, I’ve not had a lot of upset and generally I’ve made lots and lots of good friends and been really well received and for that I am so grateful.

B: Thank you Shakyapada

S: It’s a pleasure