The Perse School

Lower Sixth explore transgender issues

17 Jun 2016

“You’re a boy.” A simple statement which would be accepted without question by most young males. Yet, for 5 year old Adrienne May, it was something she couldn’t quite understand – was she a boy? A student at The Perse from 1951-1958, Adrienne returned on 16th June 2016 to speak to Lower Sixth pupils about her life as a transsexual.

Growing up in Britain in the conservative 1950s, Adrienne spoke of a world where gender was viewed as black and white. Knowing she was different since the age of three, she was sent to a boy’s boarding school at the age of 12 with the hope of ‘straightening her out’. During her time at The Perse, she played lots of sport: rugby, hockey, athletics, and even learned to swim in the Cam “amongst dead fish and other detritus”. She was good at rugby, playing hooker for the first XV and, later, her employer, only retiring from the sport after her teeth got knocked out.

Throughout her time at school, however, she felt as though she was acting and putting on a persona to ‘fit in’. She struggled with her gender identity and told the students about how she self-harmed, feeling as though she was the “only human on Earth deliberately harming themselves”. At the age of 16, she spoke to her GP about how she was feeling. From there, she endured a long series of various therapies, psychiatrist appointments and questionable advice. She recounted one particular doctor who even offered to put her to sleep for three months to see if she would ‘wake up right’! Eventually, when she was 36, she was finally offered hormone therapy, followed by surgery at the age of 41.

Adrienne had a successful career in banking, working in a remote part of Sierra Leone until illness forced her to return to England. She then worked for an American company, and in 1976 received an award for being the best performing of all sales staff. Shortly after receiving the award, however, she was asked to resign due to her imminent sex change, and instead took up a junior role in the Civil Service.

Turning to the modern world, Adrienne explained how advances in scientific research showed differences between male and female brains, and links to those who identify as transgender. She also told the audience about changes in the way the law recognises transgendered people, and how both the EU and European Court of Human Rights had impacted on equality legislation in the UK. Despite these advances, it is still far from easy to be transgender, and Adrienne gave statistics about high levels of violence and suicide amongst the transgender community, as well as long waiting times for treatment.

Adrienne concluded by telling the students to “have the courage to be themselves” and to “remember that not everyone is born whole – we are all different”. This was an incredibly insightful and personal account of what it is like to be transgender, and how times have changed since the 1950s.

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