Philippa Ryder: My tale of transition is a love story

Born in Dublin in the 1960s when there was little knowledge of transgender issues, it took decades before Philippa Ryder began to transition. In the meantime, she had married and had a daughter. Her new memoir charts her incredible journey 
Philippa Ryder: My tale of transition is a love story

Philippa Ryder’s memoir, My Name is Philippa, is published by Mercier Press.

Philippa Ryder began her life with a different name and, to the outside world, as a different gender.

Born in the 1960s, Ryder grew up in a time when the word transgender hadn’t entered the vernacular. It would be another 38 years before the Dubliner discovered a chat forum for gay men, lesbians, and transvestites and began her journey to who she was born to be.

Her memoir, My Name is Philippa, is a story of transitioning from one gender to another in a country that has undergone dramatic changes within her lifetime.

It’s an honest, unflinching memoir that at times, doesn’t present its narrator or those at the heart of the story in the best of lights - something that isn’t an easy feat in a time when we are all so afraid of saying the wrong thing or being viewed as regressive.

As publication day approaches, Ryder admits she has had some “sleepless nights.” “But, I have told a true story and I feel it was necessary to tell it.” 

At the heart of My Name is Philippa is the relationship between Ryder and her wife Helen. The pair met in 1980 at a Star Trek convention in Leeds and there was an immediate spark.

They married six years later, in August 1986, and more than four decades later, they are still together, having renewed their vows as wife and wife in a ceremony in 2009, 23 years after they first said I do.

But the transition from husband and wife to wife and wife was not without its challenges. Ryder writes that the effect on the partners of transgender people is sometimes ignored “even by the trans people themselves”, and admits she feels she too was selfish at times during her transition.

“I was pushing, pushing, pushing for Helen to understand and to accept me immediately. I think one of the things to emphasise is the fact that I had 40 years to come to terms with who I was.”

 “Helen, although she knew from a very early stage of our relationship, she hadn't really processed it. She didn't really understand the depth of my desire to transition.” 

In addition to Ryder’s transition, there was also the realisation that she was bisexual - which in some ways was an even bigger challenge to overcome.

“That was a very difficult conclusion to come to for me,” Ryder says. Her sexuality is explored in the book, in ways that one can imagine was difficult for Helen to read.

“Helen knew everything before she read the book,” Ryder says, but it was a different story for their 25-year-old daughter, Jenny.

“She was a little bit shocked,” Ryder says, but when asked for her reaction to the book recently, she recounts that her daughter said simply: "It shows my parents are human, and I'm really happy about that.”

Philippa Ryder, My Name is Philippa.
Philippa Ryder, My Name is Philippa.

 What shines through in this memoir is the strength of Ryder’s family, and the writer says she views the book as a love story between herself, Helen and Jenny.

It is also a love letter to her mother, though she sadly passed away some years ago without fully accepting that, though she had raised a boy, her child was destined to be a woman.

“I put it down to a generational thing,” Ryder says.

While the pain of her mother’s unacceptance is palpable, Ryder says she knows how lucky she is that her wife Helen and daughter Jenny have fully embraced her.

“I know of other trans people, especially trans women who are estranged from their families, sisters, children. It's not an easy journey."

While her mother ultimately didn’t accept her for who she was, many others have come around with time, and Philippa’s nugget of advice to anyone transitioning is allow those around you time to process the change.

“Your work colleagues, your family, your friends - give them time. Don't expect them to immediately accept you. It is a very traumatic experience for everybody.” 

Ryder says she is impressed by the current generation of young trans people, in particular their confidence and ability to express themselves.

"The knowledge that they have about the whole issue is just incredible. It's wonderful to see. When I came out, originally, I was tongue-tied, I didn't know what I was saying, I didn't have the information, but now they've got the information, they've got the competence, it gives you a lot of hope for the future.

“Basically, we just want to be accepted for who we are. And the teenagers and the early 20s trans people are not accepting the fact that society is not going to let them be who they are, they are fighting for their rights, and one of the reasons that I wanted to publish the book is I want to show the older trans person as well, that they can do this, that they can keep their family together.” 

As one of the original members of the Steering Committee of Transgender Europe, a board member and chair of Transgender Equality Network Ireland and COO of social enterprise Under the Rainbow, Ryder has a long track record in promoting and campaigning for trans rights.

But, unlike some of the other non-fiction books on this topic that have landed in bookstores in recent weeks, her memoir does not feel like a political manifesto or a call to action. Instead it achieves what Philippa says her aim was in telling her story - proof that love and time can heal almost anything.

“I wrote this book as a beacon of hope,” she says. “Helen and I stuck together, Jenny is incredibly supportive and as time went on, more and more people came to accept me for who I am. "

“I’ve had such a successful transition and I wanted to share it with the world.” 

  • Philippa Ryder’s memoir, My Name is Philippa, is published by Mercier Press

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