Helen Hallam: Full Interview
Interviewed by Alys Duggan
29 January 2019
AD: This is Alys Duggan recording for West Yorkshire Queer Stories on the 29th January 2019. Would you just like to introduce yourself please?
HH: Yeah. My name is Helen Hallam, um pronouns [laughs] she/her um date of birth very very very old, very old, I’m well retired so [laughs]. Where do I live? I live in Keighley West Yorkshire, thousand feet above sea level so it’s quite cold when it’s cold and er how do I identify well I’m, I’m a female, I’m a lesbian, er, that’s it.
AD: Ok great well shall we start there, how did you – what did that mean for you when you were younger, how did that come about?
HH: Um, well the first thing I’ve got to say is that um, I am a trans woman, um, which, at one point I felt I needed to say that all the time, um I don’t feel I need to say that anymore, but if I’m asked I will say. And I got asked last week in, in one of the LGBT groups I go to in Manchester there was a lesbian couple and one of them asked me, they said they didn’t want to be rude but, um, they couldn’t make up their mind if I was trans or just a cis woman, and I said, 'Well as it happens I am, I am a trans woman' and we chatted about that. But I got asked um when I first started on the journey I was in um, a photographic shop in Keighley it was Max Spielbergs or Spielmans, whatever it’s called, getting some photos developed and there was an Afro-Caribbean girl there and we chatted away and chatted away and um, waiting for our photographs, and she said, ‘Do you mind me asking you, are you a trans woman?’ and I said ‘Well, I am, but because you’re such a nice woman I’ve told you, but if you’d have asked me – you know before we’d had a chat, I’d have said ‘fuck off, just fuck off’, cos it’s none of your business.’ But I didn’t. So um we’ve been friends ever since, that’s come in quite nicely.
Um, so I am a trans woman but I’ve always been a woman, the whole of my life I’ve been a woman. Er, it’s very difficult to explain, but, I’ve always felt I was female, from/through childhood. [telephone rings] Sorry. Um, so in childhood this is how I felt. When I got to about 14, maybe – yeah about 14, I said to my parents this is how I felt, and this is in the 1950s, and er, my parents said, ‘Oh you’ll grow out of it, you know, you’ve got a sister, you’ve got brothers, we know about these things, you’ll grow out of it’. So I got to 15 and um – bit more than 15, and I said ‘Look, this is how I feel. I’m not growing out of it.’ And, my parents obviously didn’t know much, well, in the fift- you didn’t know much about those things and um, they said, ‘Look, if you keep saying these things, we’ll probably have to take you to the doctor’s. The doctor will refer you to a’ – they used to call them mental hospitals, you know the psychiatric hospitals – ‘mental hospital’ – particularly working-class people, you know and I’m from a working-class background, said ‘We’ll have to take you to the doctor’s; the doctor will probably refer you to a mental hospital, and, what’s gonna happen then is you’ll get electric shock treatment – now is that what you want? Is that what you really want?’ Well at that age I got really very scared. Nobody wants that. And the way that – I don’t think they did it out of any, I don’t think it was a bad thought on their part, I think it was just the way that things were.
Er, and then, I started to – I went to work at 15 and… I got abused by one of the people at work and it was quite – it wasn’t very nice, er and they er – at that time the police er didn’t do anything, particularly when it was a working-class young person, from not a very affluent background and, I – a person that was middle-aged and middle-class and money and kind of a director, it was just... So that meant I had quite a breakdown then, I didn't – I, I never went back to that employment, um, and my mother knew, um, somebody that she was friends with that was a manager in a fashion shop and that's where I went to work. And it was okay, I coped because I'd always been involved in groups and, most of the groups I'd been involved in, were – well they were male and female groups, but most of the people, or a lot of people in the group were female and obviously I could stick with the females and it felt okay. And basically what happened was, I knew that I should have got an education so … but I was, as I worked through, through my life at that point and it was the sixties and it meant I could have longer hair, I could have longer nails, I could dress in a unisex way. And in that way I could kind of hide my identity. I had the social norms, the pressures of the social norms, but I could hide my identity and, um, I was involved with a group, a big group, and I got friendly with one girl in the group and we ended up getting married, which was a big mistake, I mean we were together a long time but I could never be the male, very difficult to say, but I could never be the male. And it, basically it didn't work. I mean it… no blame on her, um, she wanted a male and I wasn't that male.
Um, and then, as I got older, and started to understand something about my own issues, I decided that I was going to get an education which is what I did and um, I did – I got into a college to do a pre-degree course it was called, the Diploma in Higher Education and I got through that, and then I did a degree at Sunderland Polytechnic in Behavioural Studies, Social Psychology. And then – but once I’d got into that environment I was meeting people, and I got friendly with, um, a group of lesbians which was very good for me and I felt at home and it felt right.
Then I did a – I went from there – I did a teaching certificate at Manchester, at Manchester University and started teaching. I found I couldn't teach in a school and I ended up teaching in a Further Education college and then I, I did a Masters at Salford. So all of that meant that, as a person I was starting to grow, and then I got – um, I'd done all kinds of work, but I got a job in an FE college, teaching Social Psychology to carers, health workers, social workers and, again, my manager was female, my colleague, colleagues were female – almost female, and 95 percent of the students were female because at that time, caring, social work, seemed to be a female profession. It seemed to be. I think that's changed now – well I know it's changed. Er, so basically it was a safe kind of environment. It was safe because – it wasn't easy because I had to – again, I could, I could be wearing unisex stuff, you know I didn't have to conform the way that I would have had to do in a shop or in an office or whatever, I didn't have that kinda – to deal with.
Um, and, in the eighties, I really had a breakdown, and it was to do with my identity and who I was and, um … but I had some young sons, and that was quite a difficult period, so with my sons I did most of the child-rearing, most of the caring, I was working but it was me that took them to school, it was me that fetched them home from school, it was me that made the food, it was me that looked after them – most of the time. So that really was a, a plus for my maternal instincts because it wasn't anything that I didn't want to do, I wanted to do it, I wanted to do that and I did it and that was a real – but nevertheless I still had this kind of a crisis and … I started to pursue a lot of different activities at that point and to – there was the Section 28 so I was on demonstrations about Section 28. It was all – it all seemed to be part of the same pattern. Well, I decided, as I got towards retirement, um, I was having real difficulties sitting on this, pretending to be one, not being the other, not being who I was, in a genuine way – I don't know if that makes sense – but in a genuine way, and I, um … I got redundancy from college, they didn't want to give it me but I got it, and I took – I had property in Spain and I went to stay in Spain for, I think seven months, seven or eight months, and I just decided, 'I'm going to be who I am', and I did and from that point I've just been who I am.
So I've been quite active in LGBT groups, knowing how difficult it is for people to come out, knowing what kind of support LGBT people need. And I found, really this is – I feel at home for one thing, I feel being me, I don't really mind saying to people, ‘I'm a trans woman’, but in normal conversation I don't, if I'm with groups of women I don't say, 'oh by the way I'm a trans woman', I don't say that because I'm a woman, er now, because I've had all the surgery and everything, my mind and body fit together. Um, I know when I was having the operation, the surgeon asked me did I want – and I could have had it done at the same time – implants to kind of make my boobs a bit bigger, but I didn't, because I was happy with my body the way it was with hormones; I was happy with my body. I wasn't happy with my genitalia obviously, it didn't fit who I was so once I'd gone through all that surgery, once I… my body and my mind were at peace with one… each other, if you want to put it that way. I felt one person, a whole person. So, that's really my story.
AD: Did you feel like there was a turning point when you stopped feeling that you had to announce being a trans woman?
HH: Er ... I never, I never announced I was a trans woman if I was just in normal society – if you want to call it normal society, straight society. So for example, while I was in Spain, um, I didn't get challenged, people just accepted who I was. Um, I think it was only when I first started getting active in LGBT groups that I, I could see that by me saying to people, 'Well look, I'm a trans woman', um, and I was in a couple of – I started off in a trans group in, in Bradford, at the Equity Centre, and that was a very supportive group, and I've a lot of friends still from that group, even though the group is now defunct, it's finished, um, because there's been too many problems at Equity Partnership in Bradford that a lot of trans people have just moved away, it doesn't really have – it has some young trans groups, because they're run by one of the workers, but for older trans people, there just aren't any there now.
So I, I decided I had to, I had to say in those groups – and like I said, the case I gave you about the Afro-Caribbean girl, um – so if I'm asked, in straight society, um, I have to make a decision whether to say. But I don't have to make a decision because I think, I think outside of LGBT groups for the last six or seven or eight years I haven't been asked, ever, outside. Um. The only difficulty I've had is on the telephone with Asian taxi drivers, er, so that's the only – but other than that I haven't had any issues. I had, I had problems with, at first, before I did all the speech stuff, um, with Barclays, with Barclaycard, and they had, er, voice recognition systems, and I kept getting referred to security so I made a complaint, and they gave me fifty pound, and then it happened again and they gave me another fifty pound, and I thought well, ‘How many fifty pounds can I keep getting from Barclays?’, but it doesn't happen with them now [laughs]. So….. [laughing] sorry.
AD: So, was it when you came back from Spain that you started getting involved in groups?
HH: Well I, I got involved with er, I got involved with the LGBT groups in Spain and I'm still involved with the LGBT groups in, in Malaga and Torremolinos and I really love them. They're lovely, lovely people and accepting, um, so, that's when I started being involved but, yeah of course when I came back, um, and, there was all the stuff with the Gender Recognition, er, Certificate but there was all the stuff with the gender clinic and, er, I … wanted, and needed a Gender Recognition Certificate because that, that was the only way I could change – I'd changed my passport and I'd changed my driving license, I changed my bank details – but I really needed a Gender Recognition Certificate so I could get my birth certificate changed. And when that happened, that was the happiest thing that's happened in my whole life, I was so happy, and it was such a relief to see my birth certificate that said my name and girl – I find it difficult to explain that to anybody else.
AD: Makes a lot of sense to me.
AD: Could you tell me a bit more about in Spain, with the groups there, did you already know people? Or how did you make the connections?
HH: In Spain?
HH: Um, well, basically ... Spain had been for a long time under a dictatorship with Franco, and er when Franco died that's when I started going to Spain. And what happened, because Franco had died and because there'd been a change of government and because there'd been – the socialists and the left wing were in power and the left wing were quite strong, um, it was – still is to some extent – but it was at that point a very tolerant society, that people started saying, 'Look, we're gay' you know, 'We're LGBT' and because of all the repression, a whole – there was a whole explosion, um, you know the – all the films were censored before, when Franco was alive, and I've still got some old films that I bought on a car boot sale that had been… and they were censored films, um, but when Franco died, when the new government took over, um … you know it was far, far more liberal in its attitude to pornography, to all kinds of sexual ... deviations, it was like a, it became kind of a normal thing to be who you were, because of the repression. It's changed now a little bit; it's steadied down a bit, but that time – I met – what really made me, er, start attending the LGBT in Malaga was, I met a lesbian; we became quite friends and um, she'd been, like me, in a relationship with a man, she'd been married, because when she was – and we were the same age – she had been almost forced into a marriage, she was a lesbian but she'd been forced into a marriage because being gay under Franco was just, well they'd have just put you in prison it was just awful. And she married and as soon as they – Franco had gone, as soon as the government – she got rid of that, out of that, and said to her family and her friends, you know, 'I'm a gay wom- I'm a lesbian, this is, I’m not' and got divorced. And so we were quite good friends, and still are good friends, um, and that, that was a big turning point for me.
AD: So tell me about the groups that you're doing now.
HH: Um, well, the, the other thing that I want to say which I think is quite important for the way that I am now, um. After, after I went to, um, college as a mature person and um – I met a woman, I really liked her, and we were friends for a very long time. Er, basically, after a lot of years – we weren't students anymore – we got together, and er, she was the first person that I really said, 'This is who I am', and um ... Anyway we, we got married and, she's gone with me the whole of the – through all the – everything, and, when it – when I got my, um, Gender Recognition Certificate, we re-did our marriage. From being male-female to being female-female and they asked us, you could only do this, I can't remember the date, but there was a date when it happened [13th March 2014 implementation, 29th March 2014 first marriages], that same sex could marry, rather than a civil partnership, and, when we applied to re-register our marriage as female-female they asked us, 'Now, do you want it on the date that the law changed, or do you want to retain your original date?' and we said we wanted to retain our original date. And what they said in the registry office, they said, 'Basically, if you don't put the date of the new law, people will know' and we thought, 'Well, does it really matter? We were married on this day and this is our anniversary and this is the day, not the day the law changed.' So, and we, we're still together and she's still supporting me and I'm still supporting her and basically that's um, that’s been – and I'm one of the real fortunates amongst the trans community, that many, many trans people lose their relationships, but I didn't, and um, it's been the most wonderful thing. I think it's the most wonderful thing and – it's not been without trauma for, for my partner, it's not been without trauma, she's had a lot of trauma, but we've reached a stage, I think, where we just get on with life. We don't worry too much about anything.
AD: How long have you been together?
HH: Um, well we've known each other, as I say we've been friends, um, ooh … I don't know, forty years. We've been married for, twenty? I dunno twenty-five years or something? Long time.
AD: And, um, did it affect your relationship with your kids?
HH: Did it…?
AD: When you transitioned, did that – ?
HH: It had a traumatic effect initially, um, but I don't think, she wasn't surprised, it wasn't a shock to her; I'll put it that way.
HH: And I have, I have two more friends that I've known for um 40 years, and um, – one of them is an Asian man – and, we'd supported each other through a lot of different things and, when I came out – he was one of the first people I had to tell – when I came out and told him, he just put his arms around – he gave me such a big hug and he said, he said, 'You were a good person before, you're still a good person. What's the problem my friend?' That was it. And then the other one, er Yvonne, er, when I told Yvonne, she said: 'Helen, d'you think I didn't know?' [laughs]. So it wasn't any big secret, amongst those people that were close.
AD: Do you think that's cos it was apparent to them, or because you'd kind of talked about it in a more maybe subtle way beforehand?
HH: Er ... I can't really answer that. I don't know; in life things just happen, don't they? When I, when I did my first degree, I didn't – I wasn't gonna go into teaching; I wanted to be a social worker and that's why I went to Sunderland because they had a very good – at that time they used to call it – not a diploma in social work – they used to call it a CQSW and they had a really good CQSW course there and er that's what I was going to go on to. But um it was my tutor there that um, er, Cherry – she was really lovely – she was a lesbian and she said, you know, 'I think what you should do is go into teaching' and she said, 'There's ten days before the applications close and I have a friend at the university in Manchester; do you want me to make an appointment for you to go?' and I said, 'Yeah'. And within 2 weeks of that – her recommending – I went down to Manchester within a few days, I got um – I had the interview and within 2 weeks, um, I was told, 'Yes you've got a place on the teaching course' [laughs], that was it, or the diploma in – I don't know what it was called – [laughing] PGCE [laughs].
AD: Oh yeah, yeah.
HH: Yeah. They don't do them anymore but anyway, so um, I'd – in that interview we just talked in general about all kinds of things, and that was it really. So it's just been a, it’s – life is like that, you know you can plan as much as you want, but stuff happens, stuff happens.
AD: So would you just like to talk a bit about your involvement in LGBT groups?
HH: OK. Right, um, well when I, I've talked in the previous part about being involved in the LGBT groups in, in Spain and, um, about the effect that that had on me which was quite profound. When I, um, started on the journey and, um, – the thing is with being transgender, you have to – you don't have to do – in fact, many people don't but I, I, I went to see the doctor and talk to him and I got, um, on to the um – I went to the gender identity clinic, and there wasn't the long waiting lists that there are now. So I didn't have to wait very long; I got on almost immediately and um there ... I soon found, you know, when I first started going that um I really needed more support from people, and there were all the notices up about various groups and, I really needed more support, and um, it was Jeanine, my partner, who found out about the various groups, cos she felt I should be going to these groups and I, I agreed. And it was Jeanine that found me the one at the Equity Partnership which was, um, called Trans Positive.
AD: Where's the Equity Partnership?
HH: It's in Bradford. And they had a group – which is defunct, it's defunct because there's been so much difficulty there for trans people and non-acceptance of trans people, in fact it used to be called, um, er, LGB and T [pause]. Well, it was only about 18 months ago that they decided to take the 'and T' and make it LGBT. They still haven't made it LGBTQ or LGBTQI, which is what they should be doing. Um, but anyway, the, the trans-positive group was run by a trans woman who I'd known for 30 years; I'd known her a very long time. She used to do some work in the college and I used to ask her to come and talk to my students. Going back, well, as I say, 30 years. And um, she's now um no longer active at Equity Partnership because she felt the way that I felt, and she felt driven out. Um, she had to resign as a trustee because of the transphobia there, and I resigned as a trustee because of the transphobia. And this is in an LGBT safe place. And the others that used to go to the group have all gone to Transmission, which is run by MESMAC Bradford, um, so there are no older trans people there.
But anyway, when I first started going to the Trans Positive, I found it beneficial, I found I was getting support, I found I was getting help, I found I was getting information. And I felt included. And that was very important. And I've remained friends with some of the people that were in that group. So from there, I started getting involved in other groups at Equity Partnership; um, I always went to the network meeting, which was a meeting of all the people that ever used the centre like, you know, gay women, lesbians, gay men, there's a group from – Asian gay men, um, all kinds of groups, and then groups that are wider than that and they had the network meetings every couple of months and I found it was really comfortable mixing with the wider LGBT community, I really did.
Er, and from there, I started going to the Older and Wilder, which is a lesbian group, and I loved that group, I loved it but there was, again, antagonism between a small minority of the lesbians in that group not accepting trans women and it didn't matter how I tried, I couldn't get them to accept me, and I don't know why. I hadn't gone down the same path as them, but still I'd gone down a pathway which ... which was just as traumatic but in a different way.
Um, and then I started going to other groups, um, and one of the groups that I started going to, and I really liked it, was a group in Todmorden, for older, er, LGBT people, and I, I got accepted there and I've made – and I go there – you know if we go out, whatever, I try and go to everything I can there and, and I think I'm supposed to be the social secretary [laughs]. I think I am. I went to the loo and came back into the meeting and they said, ‘You've been elected social secretary' so, yeah, okay. Um, so that is a group that I'm involved in. And I really love the group.
I'm involved, I was involved in a group in Keighley, which was, er, a part of Equity Partnership but it was a separate group, it was run by one of the workers from Equity Partnership. And we had quite a big membership, and it started to dwindle away, and the worker had other things to do, so quite often, when it was a meeting day she'd ring and say, um, she couldn't go because she had this or that to do, er, was I going, would I make sure? – and I said, 'Yeah, yeah' and basically from there – she got made redundant because we lost funding to MESMAC so her job went, and um – so I started to co-ordinate the group, and I started to do some publicity and there was a gay man, Richard, who used to come, on a regular basis. And between us we decided – and then other, other people came – we decided we were going to become independent from Equity Partnership, which we did last year. What we did is we told Equity Partnership, 'We don't want to be part of your organisation; we want to work with you; we want to have events or we want to – you know – but we want to be separate; we want to raise our own money' – cos they've never given us any money. So I, I went to see the Community Development Worker, we developed a constitution, we advertised in the local paper, we got some reports in the local paper, and gradually, gradually, gradually that group has built up, and now we've got – usually for each meeting there's 15, 20 or more, um, and we – we have our own constitution. I'm the secretary with that.
Then I started going; I was at the, er, Happy Valley Pride, um, running an information stall, and we got a visit from – a lesbian couple came from Manchester and they were from the Out in the City group and we had a chat, and they said, 'Why don't you come?', so I said, 'Why don't I come? Fine, I'll come' so, from that point I started going to the Out in the City in Manchester which is, um, again, a similar group to the group in Todmorden, it's for over 50s, it's for older LGBT people, and again I felt at home, and I felt I could do useful things.
And then I started going to a group in Manchester, um, called Concorde, which is – was a group – because trans positive had finished, um, so there was only, there was Transmission, which was part of MESMAC in Bradford, and I, I went to quite a few of their meetings but I didn't like the set-up, um, I didn't like the set up because it was, um, it wasn't… it, it was a more… the group was younger people I think, and the management of that group is more autocratic which didn't fit very well for me so I don't go there anymore.
So I started going to this group in Manchester called Concorde and it was for transwomen, for transvestites, and I got told off by a younger person for saying that, but they refer to themselves as transvestites, so they're transvestites, er, and for, um ... ‘occasional women’, we'll put it that way. Some of the transvestites were um, more or less full-time women, but not always. Some were part-time, you know it was just as they, as they felt, as you go through your various moods in your life, you know where you feel more feminine, more masculine or whatever, er, and that was a good group; I liked the group. We also had, er, because it was Manchester we had a good number of drag queens coming, so that group was just a fun group, and we had some speakers and we had – but, um, because of where they held the group, the bar didn't feel it was making enough money out of us. It was in the gay village in Manchester and we were upstairs so the group is still going but we're about to pack it up, and we're going to form another group, I think at the LGBT foundation in Manchester, but that's kind of work in progress.
So basically, that's how I've got involved in all the groups, and part of being in the Manchester group and part of being in the Todmorden group is that we've had connections with the group in Oldham; there's a group for older LGBT people in Oldham and we've managed to make a relationship with them and so basically that's my involvement in groups.
AD: The group you're running independently from Equity Partnership now, what do you actually do, do you run events or…?
HH: Yeah, what we do with that is we have a, we have a monthly meeting which is quite um, it's usually fun, we always have some food and we have some – I mean there’s not – we don't do too much business but it's fun. But what we do is we do have time to consider issues, so there have been a number of our people that have had issues with their own communities, with, um, being, being gay in a small place like Keighley, we've had members come down from Settle in the Dales and Skipton, so what we've decided to do, we decided to change the name from Keighley LGBT Support Group to Keighley and Craven, and from the start of March we're holding meetings now in Skipton as well, so that's growing. But we do do, like, for example, last week, we had a message round from Nick to say, 'Would anybody like to go see the film Claudette?', that was last Wednesday, so a group of us went to see Claudette.
AD: Is it Claudine? Maybe. The French one, with Kiera Knightley?
HH: Yeah. Claudine, but it was about Colette. You know the writer? Sorry, it was about the writer Colette. Er, so a group of us went to see that. We quite often go out for lunch, we have a regular thing where we go out for lunch on a Friday because in Keighley there is a café called Cake'Ole, and it's run by a gay couple, and they make the most gorgeous cakes. They started off with a café in Skipton, called Cake'Ole, and they opened a branch in Keighley called Cake'Ole, and they're going to open another one in Bradford called Cake'Ole [laughs]. So, basically if we go for lunch we like to go to that venue because it's a gay-run café, and we feel comfortable. So those are the things we do.
AD: Okay, thank you.
HH: The other thing that happened, sorry, the other thing that happens with the Keighley group, there's um, a person from Equity Partnership was being involved in the games night decided to start running a games night, instead of running it at the Equity Centre to start running it in Keighley, because she comes from – this person comes from Oxenhope and so she started running a games night in Haworth, and apparently that's becoming popular as well, all part of our…
AD: Yeah, so there's a huge network really?