When the idea of gender reassignment surgery was first suggested to Martina Stuart at the age of 54 when the then married father-of-four and country vet was in rehab for alcoholism, their initial response to the counsellor who had suggested it was short and not particularly sweet.
“I told him words to the effect that he would be better off going somewhere else and multiplying,” Martina, who is sharing their story to support Unilever and Superdrug’s ‘United We Stand’ campaign in support of LGBTQ+ community, explains over Zoom. “But every time I have seen him since, I thank him for asking me that question. It led me to look at my life from a very different perspective.”
Prior to that pivotal moment, Martina had been living a “double life” – seen in public as a well-respected vet and family man in North Yorkshire but inside battling torment about their identity which contributed to a serious drink problem and suicide attempts.
Martina, who now uses the gender neutral ‘Mx’ name title, explains that growing up the idea of changing gender seemed an impossibility. “It wasn’t an option. I often say to people if you are surrounded by a brick wall and there is no way out of it, you don’t find a way out – you accept the fact of life as it is.
“I went to Liverpool University – even at that stage I was living a double life. I had a regular girlfriend and a life outside of that. I then met my wife and out went the clothes and out went that side of my life. I was determined that this was true love and would change everything and I would actually become the person people thought I was meant to be.
“I have always worked quite hard and took my job very seriously. We had four daughters and I got used to working even harder. It would be 5am and I would be starting work and at 11pm I would be doing the books. That took its toll and I lost the battle with the bottle.”
Martina says by 1997 a suicide attempt took place. “The work, the responsibility and living a false life had taken its toll.”
Martina carried on working but in 2001 broke their neck after falling from a height when attempting to carry out some repairs to a barn while drunk. Martina says matters finally came to a head in 2003 when another suicide attempt resulted in being arrested by police while threatening to kill themselves.
“Following the arrest, something changed – I realised I couldn’t continue to run from myself any longer. I went from wanting to die to wanting to live.”
This was followed by the pivotal rehab session and it was the process of writing out their life story and explaining it that led to the counsellor suggesting gender reassignment surgery.
Martina, who got divorced from their “wonderful wife” following rehab, says gradually coming to accept the truth of that assessment was central to tackling their demons.
“For the first time in my life, I asked for help. I asked for help from the people around me and I also asked for help from a power I now call God. I stopped taking substances and in the process of doing that and searching inside myself I found Martina inside me. It was a gradual process.”
The journey to becoming Martina was still a long one after that point.
“In 2009, I went to my doctor and said I think I wish to investigate the possibility of gender realignment,” Martina explains. “It came as a bit of a surprise to the doctor and a hell of a surprise to people who knew me.
“I didn’t know where this journey was going to end but I knew I had to explore it.”
They started living permanently as Martina from 2012 and it was a further six years before having surgery.
Martina says the length of the time the process took was actually something of a blessing.
“I liken it to going on this ‘trans train’. In 2018, I was on my way down to London for surgery thinking this is the end of my journey. I got to Kings Cross and saw the Eurostars at St Pancras with the ability to travel anywhere and realised this is the beginning of a new phase.
“I walked into surgery 100 per cent convinced I was doing the right thing and that was so reassuring. I know many people get frustrated by the amount of time these things take but from my point of view it felt quite beneficial this was a gradual, slow process. Had it all happened in a flash of light, I think it would have been too much. It has been an amazing journey and I know there is more to come.”
Martina, who lives on the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds, says of their family’s reaction: “I have no doubt that my daughters were very concerned about me at times. They have been a bit bewildered by the way things have gone. My daughters are far more content to have a happy Martina as a parent than a dad they needed to worry about.
“Telling my mum was the really interesting one. When eventually I did, I wandered into the nursing home she lived in and she said ‘You don’t look as bad as I thought you would do!’ She said she was just upset I hadn’t been honest with her earlier. Before she died, she told me, ‘I’m really glad I don’t have to worry about you anymore’.”
Martina says members of their local community have also been understanding – even if it has taken some people a while to get used to their new identity.
“Very often I am misgendered but I understand it because it took me 50-odd years to get used to the idea. People accept me as I am or they certainly seem to.”
As part of the Unilever and Superdrug campaign, Martina has appeared in a short video. “I spent many, many years trying to make my mind fit my body to actually end up with my body fitting my mind,” Martina says in the film. “I’m so grateful that I have been able to become the me I believe without a doubt I was meant to be.”
Martina says taking part in the campaign after a friend recommended their participation felt like the right thing to do. “I was happy to do it because I have been blessed with a fairly outgoing personality and I can share the joy of being happy in my own skin and being happy to be me.”
Martina says while their journey through life has been challenging at times, it is one they wouldn’t change. “Had I been born 50 years later, I wouldn’t have had four amazing kids and a wonderful wife. My life wasn’t all misery, there were some amazing times which I would have missed out on. If I had my life over again, I really do believe I would follow the same path. I’m blessed to still be alive – at times it was a pretty close run thing.”
Martina says they have been sober since rehab. “Happiness is an inside job. I’m happy to accept the fact I am trans. How many people get the chance of two lives? I feel blessed. The secret of happiness and contentment is to accept who we are just for today and enjoy the journey every day.”
Campaign aids helpline
The ‘United We Stand’ campaign is seeing Unilever and Superdrug donating £50,000 to support the work of the Switchboard LGBTQ+ helpline.
A spokesperson said: “This year’s partnership will specifically provide resources to help improve Switchboard LGBTQ+’s education and training programmes for its 200+ volunteers. Working with award-winning filmmaker Jess Kohl, a series of short films have been created celebrating the stories queer British life; exploring alongside gender and sexuality, race, age and geography. United We Stand explores the rich tapestry of the LGBTQ+ narrative that exists and continue to evolve in British queer life. They also show how far we have come and how much further we need to go.”
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