A new start after 60: ‘I decided to transition at 68’
Sometimes one kind of pain can bring to light another. Stuck in hospital for a month, Petra Wenham resolved to confront an unease she had carried throughout her whole life. She was 68 and had lost 30kg as a result of severe colitis. “My family were very worried. I was evaluating my life.”
Between morphine injections, Wenham, a retired cybersecurity consultant, had time to wander online, where she found a blog whose author had decided to transition after treading on a shard of glass. Something about the way the pain, vulnerability and sense of mortality galvanised the blogger spoke to Wenham.
If the internet had been there when I was in my late teens, early 20s, would I have transitioned then?
“I realised that your past … you look at it and realise all of the pain. You’ve had all this pain and you really need to do something about it and at least get a bit more out of life,” she says.
In 2015, Wenham was discharged to await bowel surgery. “I came out and my first thing to do was to sit down with my wife, Loraine. She knew that I did cross-dressing from before we were married. At the time we put it down to transvestite traits. We had no other knowledge. That odd bit of cross-dressing brings sufficient mental relief that you can carry on. But in the end it doesn’t. You have to do something about it. I said to Loraine, ‘Look, I believe I’m transgender. This is what it means.’”
Wenham believes Loraine probably understood the truth before Wenham herself did. This year they celebrated their 48th wedding anniversary, having married six months after their first date (a dinner at the Institution of Electrical Engineers). Wenham was only a little nervous proposing. “We were soulmates.” And now? “The personality of the person doesn’t change,” Wenham says. “I subscribe to the view that all of us love and love knows no gender or sex.”
Together they joined a local support group. By the time Wenham referred herself to the London transgender clinic in October 2017, she was already living as a woman, though not fully out to all family and friends. Her children – two sons in their 40s – and grandchildren, still call her Dad and Grandad. “There is no point in confusing the kids. It might confuse the world, but that’s fine,” Wenham says.
As a child, Wenham was shy. “You become a loner. As you go through school the society norm for gender starts kicking in and the girls start moving away from you because you are seen as a boy. Nevertheless, you are not part of the boy set.”
Now Wenham has found her voice. In July, she was the first transgender woman to grace the cover of WI Life, the Women’s Institute magazine (as a member of the Cake and Revolution group in Suffolk). She has delivered many talks to other WI groups and local organisations, including NHS trusts, on her experience as a trans woman, and joined Pride marches.
“I don’t particularly feel like an activist, although I’ve sort of fallen into that role,” she says. “What I’m doing is trying to educate. I want to help people to get a better understanding of the transgender condition.”
Does she ever regret how long it took her to transition? “If the internet had been there when I was in my late teens, early 20s, would I have done it? The chances are yes, I probably would. But then again, I would have missed out on Loraine, the family, the grandchildren. It’s a difficult call.”
Wenham never did need that bowel surgery. After she took probiotics, the colitis began to vanish. She and Loraine believe she was suffering from stress caused by decades of unacknowledged pain. “Because they never found a cause for my colitis. They were looking for some sort of infection. There wasn’t one.”
Now, more than ever, she says, “I’m very, very comfortable in my skin.”
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