Sunday, 15 August 2021

Interview with Petra Wenham


Monika: Today I have the pleasure and honor of interviewing Petra Wenham, a British woman from Suffolk, UK, the first transgender woman to star on the front cover of the Women’s Institute magazine, WI Life. The Women's Institute is a community-based organization for women in the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand. Petra is a speaker and activist for a Suffolk chapter of the branch, the Cake and Revolution WI. Hello Petra!
Petra: Hi, to give your readers some additional background. The WI in the UK is a charitable organization and started in 1915 although its roots are in the late nineteenth century in Canada. There are numerous local WI groups organized into geographic federations generally based on a County. These county federations are in turn federated together under the national federation (www.nfwi.org.uk). It is the national federation that publishes the WI Life magazine and who commissioned the feature article on myself.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Petra: I am a retired 74-year-old transgender woman who transitioned to living full-time as a woman in 2018. I’m married and earlier in 2021 we celebrated our 48th wedding anniversary and we have two children and two grandchildren.
I and my wife love holidaying in Europe, always train based (we love Eurostar). Some holidays are with organized tours and the next one, assuming there are no Covid-19 issues nearer the time, we'll be with an organized tour on a hotel barge exploring the waterways of Alsace and Lorraine. Our last holiday, self-booked, was in October 2019 and that was wonderful as I was able to book everything using my new name as well as giving my new passport its first outing (correct name and sex/gender, hmmm, was that a pun!). Overnight in Aachen then onto five nights in Nurnberg followed by six nights in Freiberg.
While I do not consider myself an activist on transgender matters, I have been interviewed by ITV Anglia, BBC Radio Suffolk & BBC Radio Norfolk, the Bury Free Press, and very recently, the WI Life magazine which carried a major article on myself including putting me on the magazine cover and yes, I am a WI member. I give regular transgender awareness talks to community groups and so far this year, 2021, I have given talks to twelve Women’s Institutes (WI), all using the Zoom video meeting facility.
During 2020 I gave a number of talks including one to trainee GP’s at my local NHS Trust. I have more talks lined up for this year including another one to an NHS Trust hospital. Away from the WI and my trans awareness talks, I’m a member of the British Computer Society and as a volunteer, I write nine to ten articles a year on Information Security. I was also involved with the BCS efforts in the ‘Identity Assurance’ area.

"I am very comfortable in my skin, very
comfortable to be able to express at long
last my true gender identity."

Monika: You are becoming a celebrity. :) How does it feel to be in the spotlight? By the way, you look lovely on the cover of the WI magazine.
Petra: Thank you! Quite honestly I hadn’t given it much thought though I did move to lock down my social media accounts. It’s an extension of my personal work to improve awareness of the transgender condition. I am very comfortable in my skin, very comfortable to be able to express at long last my true gender identity. That WI Life article has certainly raised the agenda of awareness and it's been picked up by a number of the mainstream newspapers and the Daily Mail is doing an exclusive on me.
I’m not taking any payment for the Mail’s exclusive, I and the WI are doing the exclusive on the basis that a good donation is made to the Mermaids Charity. Not sure exactly when it’ll be published. It was due for Saturday 10th but some sporting events seem to be hogging the limelight at the moment, so likely Monday or Tuesday 12th or 13th July.
Nigella Lawson tweeted a lovely comment about the WI and the article and I was interviewed by my local BBC radio station and clips of that interview were aired in news summaries on BBC radio 2 and Radio 4. Radio 4 also interviewed me for their main 6 pm news program. I’ve now had more inquiries from WI groups seeking my talk.
Monika: Probably not our readers are familiar with the work of The Women's Institute. What activities do you pursue within the Institute and specifically within your own branch?
Petra: Well, Cov-19 lockdown rather put a damper on face to face meetings and activities but via Zoom, there have been many wonderful talks across a wide rand of subjects from stamps to beachcombing to mindfulness, oh and gender ;-) Many WI groups put together their own program of events and these have been supplemented by events organized by the local federations. And WI National has its own college providing a rich range of online events included a live tour of Paris, cooking including ethnic foods, and many others. As lockdown has been easing I invited my WI group over to my rural Village for a walk through the countryside followed, of course, by coffee and cake bake at my home.
Monika: The Institute seems like a very friendly place for transwomen, which is the opposite of the rhetoric advocated by the UK's TERFs.
Petra: Yes, I’ve found the WI members very welcoming and supportive, and via Zoom I’ve come into contact now with a good few hundred members spread across the UK. A post I did for Transgender Day of Visibility in the WI Facebook group and also copied to another ‘off topic’ WI FB group attracted over 700 likes and some 70 comments of which only one was a bit on the negative side (not in a nasty way) and that comment was jumped on by quite a few people. Very heartwarming.

On the cover of the Magazine of The
Women's Institute.

Monika: Given my own experience as well as that of many girls and women that I interviewed, I wonder whether we should be called ‘runners’ instead of transwomen. We run, run, and run away from our feminine self until it catches up with us. The only difference is how long we can run. How was it in your case?
Petra: Ha-ha, yes, that’s so true. Even when we find the words and understanding to describe ourselves, we tend to suppress it as it’s at variance with the societal idea of what our gender should be (i.e. tied to our sex assigned at birth). It takes courage to take that step to finally accept the truth that we are transgender and then move to doing something about it.
Monika: What was your wife's reaction when you told her about your transition?
Petra: Loraine knew before we were married that I occasionally cross-dressed. I did it for mental relief, not any sexual stimulation. When I was dressed in female mode I felt complete, very comfortable, and at ease with myself. In those early days, we were the same size so I ‘borrowed’ Loraine’s clothes. So when I admitted both to myself and Loraine that I was transgender it didn’t come as a shock. Loraine has said it came as a relief.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Petra: I’ve been lucky in that my transition has been relatively easy. Both of our children are accepting but the eldest says they are ‘still processing’, it is a difficult area to get your head around. We are a fairly small family but so far all have been accepting. I’m retired and I started transitioning towards the end of my working time so that hasn’t been an issue and former work colleagues have been accepting, which was a blessing.
In other ‘professional’ aspects, the transition has gone well and all my articles for the British Computer Society published by Computer Weekly in their Security Think Tank pages are under my new name, even all my old articles have been updated with my new name. The hardest thing? It was plucking up the courage to finally accept that I was transgender and that I needed to embrace it, to fully exit the closet and transition to be my female self.
Monika: Was there any moment in your life before your transition when you were very close to come out but you changed your mind?
Petra: Yes, when I first realized that I was most probably transgender. That would have been in the early 2000s. But recovering from redundancy, co-founding a small specialist security consultancy that necessitated moving house in order to release funds rather consumed my being at the time and for a few years. So I continued suppressing my trans side.
Monika: Did you follow any stories of transgender women in the past?
Petra: No, not as such. One of the earliest trans women that I could relate to was Kate Craig-Wood who founded Memset, an Internet services company. Kate came out in a Sunday Times article in March 2008, an article that I read at the time. Jan Morris of course and Christine Burns are two other trans women whose stories I’ve read.

"It takes courage to take that step to finally
accept the truth that we are transgender and
then move to doing something about it."

Monika: Do you remember the first time when you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Petra: Trans women on TV. That would be Rebecca Root in BBC TV’s rom-com “Boy meets Girl”. Only ran for two seasons which was sad but it was a very good series portraying a trans woman as a woman, which we are. Meeting a trans woman in person, that would be in January 2016, we are the best of friends and enjoy (lockdown excepted) meeting for lunch or dinner.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow now?
Petra: None specifically though I do follow Zoe Birtwhistle the trans model for fashion and Justine from Germany for her great insights into the human condition.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Petra: There is growing acceptance but I feel that trans people are where the LGB people were some 15 or so years ago here in the UK. Section 28 is now history and we have same sex marriages but even so, there is a way to go even for LGB people. Sadly we have a Government that is to the right in political terms but there are mixed messages.
The consultation on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 was eventually kicked into the long grass but the NHS, the Passport Office, and the DVLA all use self-declaration to change sex/gender markers and in May 2021 the Government appointed a Special Envoy on LGBT rights.
The furor kicked up by the anti-trans brigade centered around what had incorrectly been termed “self ID”. In fact, it was “self-declaration” and I should point out that self-declaration is a legal process, unlike self-ID which is not. Self ID can be likened to an author writing under a nom de plume, it’s not their legal name. Self-declaration requires independent witnesses to verify the change and there is legal sanction should the process be used for the wrong purpose.
For example, obtaining a new passport required a letter from the consultant psychiatrist at the Gender Clinic stating that I was transgender, was stable, and intended to live the rest of my life in that ‘acquired’ gender (the medical term used). That letter together with two forms of officially acceptable documentation showing I was living in my gender (Rate or tax demands, bank statements, utility bills, etc.) together with my original Deed Poll document (legal name change), new photo, and old passport and bingo, a new passport.
A very similar process is in place for the Driving License and of course, my GP handled the NHS changes. So, If I can get a passport and driving license with my correct sex/gender and name, why can’t I get a gender recognition certificate the same way! Anyways, I do feel things are moving forward, if a little on the slow side, and once politicians realize we need to be supported and that support could lead to ballot box votes then I suspect things will start to pick up apace.

"There is growing acceptance but I feel that trans
people are where the LGB people were some 15
or so years ago here in the UK."

Monika: You are invited to many transgender awareness meetings. What was the most interesting question that you had to answer during such meetings?
Petra: Hmmm, two questions tend to come up at my talks. One is ‘had I known what I know now when I was much younger (teens to ’20s), would I have transitioned earlier’. My answer is that that is a difficult one looking at it from today’s perspective but likely yes, but then I’d have likely missed out on meeting Loraine and having a family. The other question is my views of trans (women) in sport. To which I answer that the jury is out on that.
I point out that I and trans women in sport have similar levels of Oestrogen in their system and a much lower level of testosterone in their system than the women I’m talking to. I point out that being on Oestrogen and testosterone blockers (or an operation that removed the testicles) for a couple of years or more the muscle mass of the body will reduce to female levels. Loughborough University started a project to evaluate the subject but Covid-19 and lockdown had put a stop to the study. I hope they can restart it.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Petra: Very important, Loraine, my Wife of 48 years is my rock and because of our mutual love, respect, and her complete support, it gives me the confidence to be me and to go out and give those trans awareness talks.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Petra: Hmmm, if you had asked me that a couple of years ago, I’d have said no, but today it’s a maybe.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Petra: My experience and that of all my trans friends is that we are all very much happier people once we have embraced transition. It’s a scary thing, a leap into the unknown and I know some people who have lost family members and perhaps more, but they still are happier more centered people for transitioning. And it’s not just being much much happier but as we are no longer burdened by doubt we have the energy to move forward, to do things, to be more successful. But it has to be said that transitioning is not all plain sailing, far from it.
Advice, seek out a support group, get to know other trans people, a good support group will accept you even if you are in the very early questioning phase, don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek out information, don’t be swayed by the myths and misinformation that is often peddled by the anti-trans media and people that really don’t have a clue.
Monika: Petra, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Petra: Thank you ever so much for inviting me Monika, it’s been a fascinating experience and I hope your listeners will find some value in my musings. 

All the photos: courtesy of Petra Wenham.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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