Father of four made headlines back in 1994 in her battle to be allowed a sex swap. Now, nearly 20 years on, she reveals her delight at officially being registered a woman.
Gina Smith rummages in her cavernous black handbag and pulls out a sheet of yellowish paper.
She unfolds it slowly and deliberately, revelling in the impact she’s creating.
Indeed, if someone was to film the scene, it would be no doubt accompanied by a dum-dum-DUM! soundtrack, there’d be audible gasps from the audience and a final round of applause.
The paper now unfolded and flattened on the table, is clearly a birth certificate. Gina, stubby nails painted deep blue, points proudly to the ‘gender’ column. Girl, it states.
“Girl,” she says, puffed with delight. “It’s written down there. Born a girl. Her Majesty’s officials recognise I’m a woman, the department of Work and Pensions have done the same.
“I carry the papers with me because I won’t take any crap from anyone any longer,” she adds, stiffening.
“I have it all here in legal documents.”
Gina, a former soldier and miner who worked in the dirt and claustrophobic bowels of Polkemmet pit, crosses her bare legs and adjusts her figure hugging frock. It has a vivid psychedelic print, cut low at the front and unfortunately just a bit on the short side so that when she bends over to take off her towering heels because they’re hurting her feet, she gives a quick flash of her knickers.
Even if she realised, it’s unlikely that she’d care. For having fought tooth and painted nail to get to the point where she can proudly wave that replacement birth certificate in any face she chooses, she’s not about to worry about flashing some flesh.
Indeed, changing from a he to a she certainly wasn’t without a fight. Back in 1994 when she was officially still male – even though the past life as Ian George Smith, father of four, one-time husband, soldier and miner, was very much no longer on the scene – Gina launched a one-woman campaign that highlighted the anguish of those like her, desperate for gender reassignment surgery but suddenly denied by a controversial health board rule. Her angry challenge made banner headlines. Gina, then in her late 30s, became something of a poster girl for those born in the wrong body, a bit of a pioneer at a time when sex swap surgery was still referred to in headlines as a “gender-bender op” and transsexuals were often cruelly dismissed as some kind of weirdos who needed to ‘man up’.
Time moves on, attitudes change though, surely? Today, 18 years on since life and body changing surgery, it might be expected that we’ve all stopped snickering at the women who feel they really should be men and the men who yearn to be women, and learned to move on.
And yet earlier this month saw the launch of a new campaign aimed at dispelling transgender bigotry. Time for TEA (transgender education awareness) was developed by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender National Youth Council, a unique project that will run in schools, colleges and universities.
As well as seeking to change attitudes among students, it will also target teachers, helping them understand the correct terminology and issues that transgender students might be experiencing.
That launch came just a few weeks after River Song, 18, who is in the process of switching from male to female, claimed she had been banned from the toilets and verbally abused by a member of staff at the St James Centre.
None of which really surprises Gina. After all, the piece of paper she feels she must constantly carry – a legal replacement for her original birth certificate granted post-surgery – proves that simply going through the process hasn’t meant an end to her personal struggle.
“I didn’t do anything that anyone else in my situation would not have done,” she says, shrugging off suggestions that her high-profile mid-Nineties campaign was in any way brave or pioneering. “I suppose I’d fought so hard for so long – I’d got used to fighting. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life without the surgery, so I had to fight.
“Part of it has been me fighting against myself,” she adds grimly. “I did all these very masculine jobs, like joining the army for seven years, working as a miner for two. But I couldn’t shake the feelings that I had.
“Actually,” she sighs, “I don’t think you ever do get your head around it all. It’s ‘why me?’, and ‘why did life pick me for this to happen to?’.”
Gina was the middle of five children growing up in the Midlands and knew from a young age that she was different. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant childhood, she recalls. For a start there were her own conflicting feelings about her identity which arose just as younger siblings came along and she found herself suddenly squashed in the middle.
“People talk about middle child syndrome,” she sighs. “Well I think it all helped to screw me up.”
She craved attention and says she got it in the most shocking way possible. Years later she accused her father of sexually abusing her as a child, claims which he angrily refuted before he died and which, much to Gina’s upset, never resulted in any court hearing.
A bit older and she began to attract attention from men, awakening feelings that she’d been told were wrong and which she battled against by taking on “macho” jobs. “I tried to fight it, I didn’t want feminine feelings,” she explains. “Every time I tried to get rid of the feelings they came back stronger.
“No-one can understand it because even I don’t understand. Eventually I couldn’t stand being two people at once, I thought I’d have to sort it out.”
So she joined the Infantry in 1971 and served in the most butch places of all, Northern Ireland. Later as her regiment’s Colonel’s personal valet, she’d wait until he and his wife went on holiday and then raided the woman’s extensive wardrobe, shedding his infantryman’s uniform to prance around their home dressed in her finest Christian Dior cocktail frocks and heels.
Army life came to an abrupt halt in 1978. Tortured by her secret, Gina went awol in the most unlikeliest of places. “Jamaica!,” she howls. “Of all the places to go awol, I did it on a small island and there was nowhere to go. Twenty-eight days in the slammer and then SNR – services no longer required.”
Still desperate to prove her ‘masculinity’, Gina married, worked at Polkemmet pit and fathered four children. “It was extremely exhausting, “ she remembers. “It was like I was acting all the time and I couldn’t keep on doing it anymore.”
Her marriage ended in 1988 and Gina slowly shed her masculine layers to become, on the outside at least, every inch a woman. Her children, still young at the time, had had no problem accepting her transformation, to them she became ‘Aunty’. “You can’t sit down with a four, six, eight-year-old or whatever and say ‘sorry I’m not going to be your dad any more, they would have been devastated,” she continues.
“I was fortunate that they have just always seen me the way I am and I’m unbelievably proud of them.”
Sex swap surgery was not particularly new – high-profile personalities such as April Ashley had made the male-female transformation in the Sixties, and she went on to become a Vogue fashion model. But it wasn’t much talked about either.
Gina, of Saughton, started hormone treatment and was days away from surgery in 1994 when health bosses decided to stop funding the £7000 gender-swap operations unless in “exceptional cases”. Enraged, she loudly campaigned against their plans, eventually forcing a U-turn and undergoing full surgery in early 1995.
To prove how far she’s come, she recalls a moment during the recent Fringe when she suddenly stepped on to a stage for an impromptu, first ever, stand-up comedy routine during which she fielded questions from the audience – some more intrusive than others – about being transsexual.
She enjoyed it so much that she’s planning a much bigger, more formal show for next year’s Fringe. “It’ll be called ‘Everything you ever wanted to ask a transsexual but were too scared to ask’,” she giggles.
All a world away from the days when she desperately hid herself for fear of being found out, drank too much and thought of ending her life.
“You have to go through a lot alone and have guts and determination,” she nods, “but I couldn’t stand being the way I was any longer. I just want people to know I’m like any other woman.”
Triggered by survey results, campaign sets out to increase understanding
A CAMPAIGN to highlight transgender issues was launched this month.
Developed by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender National Youth Council, Time for TEA – transgender education awareness – is the first campaign of its kind in Scotland and will target older secondary school pupils, college and university students. It aims to work with teachers, helping increase under-standing of transgender issues. The campaign follows a LGBT Youth Scotland survey that revealed more than three quarters of transgender people had experienced bullying at school. Almost nine in ten said that bullying had a negative impact on their education. Fewer than half said they would feel confident reporting it. Nearly half of those who responded said they had left education as a result of bullying.
n More details from www.lgbtyouth.org.uk
More than 80 years of ground-breakers
SURGEONS carried out the first recorded attempt at male-to-female reassignment surgery on Lili Elbe in Germany in 1930, who died three months after her fifth operation.
The first female-to-male surgery was in 1960s America.
April Ashley, pictured, underwent surgery in 1960 and became a Vogue model and actress.
American tennis professional Renee Richards had male-to-female surgery in 1975. Despite opposition, she went on to play tennis on the women’s professional circuit.
Former Second World War fighter pilot and racing driver Roberta Cowell underwent male-to-female surgery in 1951 – the first recorded case in the UK. The change meant she was barred from Grand Prix.