Ruth, 79, looks so ordinary but hides an astonishing secret – one her family have struggled to come to terms with
08:09 GMT, 28 June 2012
Ruth Rose, as she is prefers to be known, is Britain's oldest transexual
Fashion has lost none of its allure for Ruth Rose, who at 79 has no intention of descending into that old age netherworld of elasticated waists and polyester.
Her wardrobe is filled with beautiful, elegant vintage and haute couture dresses accrued over a lifetime. She shows me a particular favourite; a Japanese printed silk gown which, when teamed with a white mink, she tells me, drew gasps of admiration when she wore it to the Royal Opera House a few years back.
The day we meet she is wearing a flattering printed jersey dress with V-neck and bracelet-length sleeves. It is from an upmarket mail order company with an impossible to spell name. ‘Oh, haven’t you heard of it” she asks, surveying my rather uninspiring M&S ensemble.
However, there is one item in Ruth’s wardrobe that looks a little out of place given the plethora of silks, satins and designer labels.
It is a man’s suit. ‘I keep that for when someone wants James to attend a funeral,’ she says. ‘When you reach my age, there are rather a few of those.’
For 77 years Ruth was better known as James Rose, a respected former RAF navigator, mechanical engineer, financial consultant and, latterly, spokesperson for the elderly.
James sat on county council committees and the policy sounding board of national charity Age UK.
He was an articulate, authoritative advocate who met Government ministers to discuss future policy for care services and pensions.
However, two years ago, James — a divorced father of three and grand-father of four — started living as Ruth because he was no longer able to ignore his desire to be a woman, which began at the age of nine.
Next year, when he will be 80, Ruth hopes to undergo the final stage of transformation — gender re-alignment surgery — which will make her Britain’s oldest transsexual.
Why anyone in their twilight years would put themselves through such drastic surgery seems incomprehensible, especially when Ruth tells me that in the past five years she’s had one knee and two hip replacements.
She has successfully overcome bladder cancer and almost died at the age of 76 from pericarditis, a virus that inflames the sac around the heart.
‘Recovering from the hips and things, I had only one more thing to do in my life,’ says Ruth in her first in-depth interview.
‘Once you have experienced these feelings, they never go away. If you’ve got it at 20, you’ve got it at 70, but three times stronger. It becomes more obsessive as life goes on.
‘Psychologically, it is already done. All I need is the bit I can’t do. It’s just the physical tidying up.’
Meeting Ruth is disconcerting. She
is as comfortable talking about Chanel handbags as gas turbine engines.
Certainly, there appears no hint of a troubled soul behind the decision
to change sex.
‘Unless someone can make themselves a
reasonably successful life as a man, they are not going to make a
successful life as a female,’ says Ruth, who has been prescribed female
hormones by her GP and will attend her second appointment at the gender
clinic at London’s Charing Cross Hospital in September.
Eighty per cent of sex change operations involve turning a man into a woman
‘The change is about making progress, not dumping something unsuccessful in the hope something else will be better. It is not an escape.
‘The process hasn’t been immediate, but it is complete. I don’t feel any kinship with my old male self. I still do male-orientated things, such as repairing my car, but my mental attitude is totally female.
‘I feel I am starting my life all
over again, completely afresh. It’s as if I’m 20 again. I feel euphoric;
that’s the only word for it.’
But Ruth concedes that euphoric is not the word her family might choose to describe their feelings.
was only a year ago that she started attending county council and
government meetings as a woman. Apparently Paul Burstow, minister for
care services, and Steve Webb, minister for pensions, didn’t bat an
eyelid when Ruth turned up in James’s place.
had no back-chat from anyone, it’s been marvellous. Nothing but praise
and a slap on the back saying: “Why didn’t you do this earlier” ’ says
If nothing else, this remarkable story serves as a barometer for changing attitudes towards gender identity.
gender dysphoria is a medically recognised condition, but when James
Rose was a young man it was classed as sexual perversion.
James, born in Hertfordshire in May 1933, was a wartime evacuee, educated at Gresham’s public school in Norfolk.
I was nine, I would ask myself: “Why am I a boy” I just wanted to know
what it would be like to be a girl and secretly dressed up when no one
was around,’ says Ruth, who didn’t have a lot of contact with her busy
father and, with just one older sister, had few male influences at home.
James as he used to look before he became 'Ruth Rose'
‘In the Forties and early Fifties, the world of women was mysterious. No shop would display women’s underwear inside, let alone in the window. It was considered dirty-minded to even think about it. But I was intrigued by my mother’s and sister’s clothes.
‘I was fixated on women’s clothes because that was the symbol of sexual difference. I wasn’t happy being male. Behind the facade there is this terrible urge you hope will go away — a nagging feeling. You want to connect with the female side of yourself and dress up.
‘In those days if a man walked down a street in women’s clothes, he’d be arrested for offending public decency.’
At 18, James started an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering and at 23 joined the RAF for two years. Commissioned as an officer, he worked at the Royal Aircraft establishment in Farnborough, Surrey, where he met his wife.
She was two years younger and a secretary. They married in 1961 and stayed married for 42 years, having three children, who are now all aged in their 40s.
‘I did not tell my future wife about my feelings — at the time it was considered some kind of sexual aberration,’ says Ruth, who secretly bought clothes and dressed up as a woman.
‘I thought if I got married that those feelings would go away, but they didn’t. I was always attracted to women — femininity for me had nothing to do with sexual desire. I wasn’t looking for male attention.’
His wife found out by accident in 1973, when James, then 40, was in hospital for a hernia operation. Rooting around in the car boot, she found photos of a woman.
‘She came zooming into the hospital with these and said: “Well, who’s this” I had to tell the truth,’ says Ruth, who explained that it was him in the photographs.
Because the couple still loved each other and had young children, they stayed together.
My wife was tolerant, but one day she
said: “What I don’t like about Ruth is she can take away my
husband for as long as she likes, make him disappear completely and
bring him back when she wants.”
James was never allowed to dress up as a woman at home, but had occasional nights out with the Beaumont Society, then one of the few groups for men who wanted to live as women.
‘Once a month we’d meet for meal in a restaurant in Fulham, driving as close as we could to the door and scuttling in hoping that no one would notice us,’ says Ruth.
‘Of course, I felt terribly guilty. I had committed myself to a marriage and felt I had betrayed it by bringing in something that was neither wanted nor expected.
My wife was tolerant, but one day she said: “What I don’t like about Ruth is this: she can take away my husband for as long as she likes, make him disappear completely and bring him back when she wants.”
‘We never had much in the way of cross words, but inevitably as the children grew up and left home we drifted apart.’
The couple divorced amicably in 2003. ‘It was my wife who initiated the divorce. I was upset, but I’d been half-expecting it,’ says Ruth.
‘I think she felt rather fed up, unsupported and isolated because I was away here and there, busy with my various activities.’
The Roses sold their house in Camberley, Surrey, and both moved to the south coast — Ruth lives in East Sussex — in 2007 to be near their elder daughter and her family. But after his brush with death in 2006, James finally decided he wanted to live publicly as a woman.
‘I still see my former wife about once a fortnight,’ says Ruth. ‘When she was ill last year, I went round every night for three weeks to cook her a meal.‘
'We are still close like that, because there were never any other people involved in our divorce. She will accept me as Ruth, but she prefers me to come round as James'.
‘My children seem comfortable with the fact I’m living as a woman, which they became aware of as adults,’ says Ruth.
‘We are a close-knit family and they are tolerant, but my decision to go for gender re-alignment surgery came as a shock to them.’
It certainly did — they only found out when Ruth went public with the news in a newspaper this year.
‘I was not truthful with the family. They knew I dressed up, but they didn’t think I was going to do have a sex change. It was more or less at the last moment that I let on to them,’ says Ruth.
‘I left it far too late. I was worried about their reaction, and there’s never a right time. It caused a few rows within the family, but it’s all cleared up and they have accepted it and adjusted well.
‘The whole situation is of my making, not theirs, and they can react to it whatever way they like.’
So Ruth is looking forward to the 2,000 operation, which will include penis removal, but not vaginal construction — and which will be paid for by the NHS.
After a lifetime of National Insurance contributions, Ruth is also an active NHS volunteer and says she has more than ‘given back’.
‘It’s not for me to demand an operation, but if, based on their evaluations, they offer it to me then all well and good,’ says Ruth. ‘I will be happy with what I get. I don’t want the artificiality of breast implants or to prance around like a sex object.
‘That’s not my side of femininity, and at 79 I have no desire or need for a sexual relationship.
‘All I want is to be well-dressed and admired. I have never been happier living as Ruth. I never wake up in the morning wishing I was still James.’