Sometimes and occasionally...
"Petra Wenham sits neatly in a pretty white blouse, denim skirt and perfect mauve nails. She has youthful skin and smooth, bare legs. She is 74 years old — but could pass for 15 years younger — and glows with pride as she recounts the events of the past few weeks. Not just the news coverage and endless requests for interviews, but also the myriad wishes of goodwill from the small Suffolk village where she lives with Loraine, her wife of 48 years, and also further afield, on social media platforms from all around. And all caused by her star turn as cover girl on the latest issue of Women's Institute Life magazine. Not just any cover girl, mind you.
'I am so, so happy,' she says today.
'The happiest I've ever felt. I've done well and finally I'm who I should be.'
She beams as she talks — about her new friends in the WI, the welcome she's had from the sisterhood, the lectures she now gives to improve awareness of trans issues and, of course, her ever-expanding wardrobe.
'Oh my, I love shopping — online, eBay, charity shops, the M&S outlet store,' she tells me as, together, we flick through the rails of clothes in her spare room.
'She's got so many clothes,' laughs Loraine. 'Far more than me now!'
The truth is that if Petra's a bit giddy about it all, it's hardly surprising. It was just six years ago when, spurred by a month-long hospital stay for a particularly nasty bout of colitis that — after more than four decades of marriage, two children, two grandchildren, a desperately unhappy childhood and a lifetime of suppressing her true self — Petra had what the trans community refer to as her 'egg-cracking' moment. 'I just knew I couldn't continue,' she says. 'And when I came home from hospital, I told Loraine that I couldn't hide any more. I was transgender. And I had to transition.'
It must have been quite a conversation. And one that presented a huge and very real risk that Loraine, whom Petra describes as 'my rock, my wife, my life partner, my everything', would up and leave. But, incredibly, the thought never crossed Loraine's mind.
'No, no, no! In fact, I think I was glad and relieved that, finally, it was out in the open. That there was a resolution — a plan. I don't like secrets — I never have.'
This secret had run for their entire relationship, back to before they even wed when Petra first confided that, occasionally, she needed to cross-dress. 'Not for a sexual thrill, but for comfort, for mental relief, that I was presenting as the woman I felt I was,' she explains.
'Maybe I'm strange, but it didn't bother me at all. So off we went!'
So Loraine was by her side when Petra finally found the strength to tell their two adult children that she was transitioning. 'Stunned is the word, I think. They had no inkling at all and it's a very big thing,' Petra says. 'Today the eldest is still processing but accepting, while the other is fully on board.
And I've told them I'm very comfortable with being called Dad and Grandad still — it saves us from racking our brains to come up with something else.'
And Loraine was there, too, when Petra later broke the news to their neighbours and friends. In fact, it's hard to imagine Petra having the strength to do any of this without Loraine. But then, Loraine is also the only person who has ever seen and loved Petra for who she truly is.
Petra was born a boy and grew up in a rural Sussex village in the 1950s. And it is hard to imagine a more dismal-sounding childhood. Her father passed away when she was just a baby due to complications following his time as a Japanese prisoner of war on the Burma railway, which left Petra and her mother in a council property with little money. And all caused by her star turn as cover girl on the latest issue of Women's Institute Life magazine. Not just any cover girl, mind you. And from the early age of five, Petra knew something was wrong.
'Back in the 1950s, gender was very rigid,' she says. 'It didn't fit me, being a boy. It never fitted.' At first, she hung out with the girls. 'I was happy. I had friends.' But when they were seven or eight years old — around the time Petra started secretly trying on her mum's clothes — the class cleaved in two. Suddenly boys played only with boys, and girls with girls, leaving Petra, dyslexic and self-conscious in her second-hand wardrobe, in the middle — friendless and vulnerable.
'I didn't dress differently in public, I didn't think I behaved differently, but kids sensed there was something different about me.' And they made her life a misery. 'I was badly bullied — both mentally and physically, called 'sissy' and all the usual names. And there were some proper beatings,' she says.
'It's now felt that gender dysphoria is very close to PTSD, because it's a trauma — you are one thing and the world is pushing something else.' Secondary school — an all-boys institution — was worse.
'I think my mum must have twigged something was up and sent me there to get a better grounding in being a man,' she says today. 'I never felt very supported by her.'
'I think I coped with a mixture of resilience and putting it all deep in a box,' she says.
'I expect I went home and cried, but I've tucked it all away. That's just how it was. I just sort of shut down.'
Against the odds, she did well and went on to secure a degree in electronic engineering. But life only really started when she met Loraine, from Essex, through work at telecoms HQ. 'We hit it off immediately,' says Loraine, all pink and soft at the memory. 'She looked about 19 but was actually 25 like me.'
'It was just instant,' Petra interjects, also damp around the eyes. Their first date was a trip to meet the scientist Kit Pedler. 'We talked and talked until about three in the morning. We've been together ever since,' says Loraine.
They were married in January 1973 and, with Loraine by her side, Petra could finally relax and be herself. Or as much of herself as she dared. Because, of course, this was the 1970s. There was little understanding, no empathy and a lot of prejudice when it came to cross-dressing and gender issues.
'In the media it was all drag queens, transvestites and the mucky end of the sex industry. So I kept closeted,' says Petra.
The one time she did dare to pop out alone in her female finery, she was stopped by a kerb crawler and completely traumatized. 'So that was the end of that. Back inside again,' she says. But also, life took over. Babies, then toddlers, then children.
'I never cross-dressed when they were around so, mentally, back it all went in the box.' Instead, she buried herself in work. 'It was my way of pushing the thoughts away,' she says. 'I was a bit more physically absent than I would have liked to be.'
But never emotionally absent from Loraine. Their bond is extraordinary. Today, they finish each other's sentences and gaze at each other constantly with a blaze of love — and relief. But, for years, Loraine worried about Petra. How, when living as a man, she was so quiet, withdrawn and had no friends.
And in 2005, when they moved to Suffolk and Loraine joined the local WI and even went on to run it, Petra felt shut out. 'I was a bit jealous. I wanted to go, too,' she says. So, Loraine would come home after every meeting and tell her all about it. It was only in the very late 1990s, thanks to the internet, that Petra's world finally started opening up.
'Suddenly there was all this information!' she says. And the more she researched trans issues, the more at home she felt.
'It was 'Oh gosh, their story's similar to mine',' she says. 'There was a whole community out there.'
A community of trans people and support groups which gave her the strength finally to come out to her friends and family in late 2016.
'The stress just lifted,' she says. 'It was a huge relief to tell people, but we have to appreciate we live in a very, very friendly village and people couldn't have been nicer,' she says.
'One of my friends still talks about the beautiful camel coat Petra wore home from one of her hormone appointments!' says Loraine. It has been a long and complicated journey that has involved their entire family, but they've never looked back — and it's nowhere near over. There have been high moments, such as the arrival of Petra's new passport and driving license — 'I punched the air when they arrived!' — and the WI photoshoot. But also endless hormone and hair removal appointments, all horribly slowed by Covid-19.
'Thank goodness I don't have a hairy chest,' she says.
'I'd never have married you if you did!' laughs Loraine. Of course, in many ways, Loraine has also had much to adapt to. Not least, the physical changes.
'It took a little while to get my head around, but you are still the person I fell in love with,' she says, looking lovingly at Petra (who is currently sporting a blonde wig, but explains that, beneath, she's growing her own hair into a pageboy style).
'That person hasn't changed. It's just the outward presentation. I'm just so pleased that you're happy and comfortable, and much more chatty and making friends,' Loraine adds. Many of whom have come through the WI. Because, in 2020, after years of envying Loraine, Petra finally joined the Cake and Revolution Suffolk branch of the WI, which has welcomed trans women since 2000.
'I chose it because it is dynamic, young and active. I just love it. It gets me to spread my message.'
Indeed, Petra has thrown her energy into supporting others and spreading the word through lectures and online talks. She's even made a video on gender issues used by the NHS in training.
'For a lot of people of my generation, it feels like it's just too late. They've lived so long in the wrong body they can't take the decision,' she says. 'But it's never too late.' Indeed, one look at Petra reveling in this later-life flourish is enough to convince you. Though, she didn't have to do it alone.
Because by her side — holding her hand every step of the way and sharing clothes, fashion tips and, increasingly, the bathroom mirror — has been the truly wonderful Loraine, who puts it simply: 'If she's happy, then I'm happy.'
It's no wonder Petra loves her wife so fiercely"