Born in England in 1940 as a boy named Mike, Gayle Roberts always wanted to be a girl. She waited 55 years to transition.
The former high-school physics instructor—the first teacher in the Vancouver school district to transition on the job—had the support of her employer, colleagues, friends, and second wife, to whom she’s still married. Her transition couldn’t have been smoother.
Yet she looks back at those years of having to conceal her gender identity as a period of utter torment, and she hopes that by sharing her story, she can offer hope and support to anyone struggling with what’s known today as gender dysphoria—or any other issue related to personal identity and happiness, for that matter.
“Be who you want to be,” Roberts says in an interview over lunch at a Commercial Drive restaurant. “That’s the secret of life. Be proud of who you are.”
As far back as she can remember, Roberts’s self-perception didn’t align with the gender she was assigned at birth.
“As early as four or five years old, I remember wanting to be a girl,” she says. “Growing up, I was too ashamed to tell my parents, and I couldn’t show them through behaviour. So everything was pressed down. I felt completely locked in. I was in a lot of psychological pain.”
After moving to Canada at age 11, Roberts prayed she would one day wake up female, a coping strategy that didn’t last, since her prayers went unanswered. She later went to see a psychiatrist, who told her she had multiple personalities and that some traumatic event from her childhood had resulted in her having the desire to be female. She accepted for a time that she was mentally ill and continued with psychotherapy for several years.
Trying to repress her feelings, Roberts got married and tried to be a "stereotypical" man, keeping busy with teaching and sports. Once she told her first wife how she really felt, the marriage ended.
Still feeling as though pretending to be a man was her only option, Roberts got married again, to her current partner. With a lifelong love of physics, she began teaching at Lord Byng Secondary School in 1983, going on to become the head of the science department. On the outside, her life may have seemed perfect, but on the inside, she was miserable.
“I would come home [from work] and sob and sob and sob,” Roberts says. “I would crash on the couch and go to sleep.…I got to the point where I could barely function.”
By this time, gender dysphoria was better understood, and Roberts had begun to realize that, in fact, she wasn’t suffering from a mental disorder. She made the decision to transition to being female, and her life changed in an instant.
“When I made that realization and accepted it, within seconds, literally seconds, all that gender dysphoria completely disappeared,” Roberts says. “The reason I wanted to be a girl was not because of some trauma or because my parents screwed me up, but because that’s who I am inside. That’s my gender identity.
“I was at peace with myself,” she adds.
Three weeks into the school year in 1995, Roberts took a leave of absence to transition. Her spouse went through a grieving process but helped her through it with unconditional love. “She said to me, ‘I’d rather have a live sister than a dead husband,’ ” Roberts recalls.
Roberts was comfortable in her own mind being a woman; the hardest part of transitioning was being at ease out in the world.
“Being a woman, that felt right for me, but I realized that going out into the world and expressing that, I didn’t know how people would react,” she says. “I used to go everywhere in my car as a safety thing, even if it was two blocks. I didn’t know if people would laugh or attack me—who knows? I needed a period of learning how to be comfortable in public.”
She remembers her first bus trip from Tsawwassen to downtown Vancouver and back, and how nervous she felt. No one seemed to notice her. It felt like a victory. “I gradually lived the life of a woman, and everything fell into place.”
She went back to work in the fall of 1996 and was welcomed with open arms by the principal, teachers, administrators, parents, and students alike.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate,” Roberts says. “I was wonderfully supported. I can’t think of a single thing that could have been done to make my transition smoother than it was. The VSB was just wonderful.…I had students come up to me and say, ‘You’re very brave.’ But it’s not that smooth for everyone.”
Roberts—who is a coauthor of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation’s Supporting Transgender and Transsexual Students in K-12 Schools: A Guide for Educators and a former chair of Vancouver Coastal Health’s advisory group to the Transgender Health Information Program—applauds recent updates to the VSB’s sexual orientation and gender identities policy. The revisions to the 2004 policy are aimed at establishing a safe, inclusive, equitable, and welcoming environment for students and employees of schools, including those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, two spirit, intersex, and queer, as well as those questioning their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. She was also heartened to see Archdiocese of Vancouver Catholic schools adopt similar guidelines.
Although things have improved tremendously for people like her, Roberts says more needs to be done to support transgender people.
Seventy-four percent of transgender students have been verbally harassed about their gender expression and 37 percent have been physically harassed, according to the National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia in Canadian Schools, a 2011 report by Egale Canada Human Rights Trust.
Youth with gender dysphoria also have a higher attempted-suicide rate, according to the U.S. 2010 National Transgender Discrimination Survey Report on Health and Health Care: 45 percent for those aged 18 to 44 compared to the national average of 1.6 percent.
“My story is not just about me; it applies to everybody,” Roberts says. “It’s so important to accept who you are and be comfortable with who you are and to have support to do that.”