‘My transgender portrait was the final validation of my transition’
I first met Lisa Kelly five years ago at the York LGBT Forum stall at York Pride. There I met a confident, strong transgender woman. Later I found out it was the day she says ‘saved her life.’
Today we’re sitting in National Trust’s Beningbrough Hall Gallery & Gardens, where a portrait of Lisa by Tanya Raabe-Webber is on display. Lisa is also about to self-publish her story in a book, Becoming Lisa.
She has come a long way from growing up as a shy child struggling with her identity.
“I grew up in Tadcaster. I was being called a poof, a queer, a faggot. All the terms that were usually thrown at gay men, but I wasn’t gay. I knew I was different,” Lisa tells me.
Lisa knew back then that she didn’t identify with boys but she wasn’t like the girls either. “The first time I really knew I wasn’t a boy was moving from junior school into secondary education.
“All the other boys were developing muscles, starting to get facial hair and their voices were dropping. The girls were starting to develop chests. I’m looking at the boys and thinking ‘Well I don’t really fit with them.’ I’m looking at the girls and thinking ‘But I’m not going the same way.’”
She experimented with women’s clothes. First her mum’s, then her own. Lisa says this was first time she felt truly “comfortable.”
“I didn’t know about other transgender people,” she says. “Also, I hadn’t even heard the word transgender.”
“I was going to work as Dave. I was going to the bank as Dave… But in all other areas of my life by then I was Lisa”
But in a life before social media where being openly transgender wasn’t encouraged, it was hard to find others like herself. A marriage of convenience followed, along with bullying and mental health issues during the eighties and nineties.
After the Gender Recognition and Equalities Acts came into force, by 2012 Lisa felt ready to make the transition.
“During my transition I was going to work as Dave. I was going to the bank as Dave and going to the garage as Dave but in all other areas of my life by then I was Lisa,” she says.
“I’m now finally being my true self so my true feelings and true beliefs are coming out. Now I don’t really give a toss what people think about me.”
She says getting involved in local groups changed everything. Events like the one where I first met Lisa made it possible to meet people who had struggled just like her.
“It saved my life. I got involved with the LGBT Forum in York and it gave me purpose to my life,” she says.
Being accepted as Lisa, and getting signed up as a member helped her move from suicidal thoughts to become a transgender activist.
Inspired by that experience, she started York Third Saturday, the first ever social for trans people in York. She also became co-chair of the York LGBT Forum and has since started transgender workshops.
Lisa came to have her portrait painted after giving a talk to Beningbrough Hall staff. She met the artist Tanya Rabbe-Webber at a previous exhibition. “Me and Tanya just hit it off,” she says.
“We were chatting about our life struggles and things like that. We found a real connection.”
“It was a bit of a surreal moment to know that I was replacing David Hoyle”
When Tanya was later invited to become resident artist once again for the exhibition ‘Sitters and their Stories’ Tanya asked for Lisa to be involved.
“Beningbrough contacted me and naturally I jumped at it. I was thinking ‘Wow. Why me?’”
“Tanya thought that I was inspirational, that I had a story to tell and the rest is history. That day last October, loads of people came. It was a bit of a surreal moment to know that I was replacing David Hoyle.”
Lisa loved sitting for the painting and believes it is an important chapter for her and transgender visibility in her area.
“It was absolutely amazing. It’s an experience that will live with me for the rest of my life,” she says.
She says the painting feels like her “final validation.”
“I felt accepted in York anyway but now it’s like people can see me. It kind of educates people as well. Everybody in life struggles. Transgender people face a lot more struggles. We’re just normal human beings. This painting is just a surreal moment.”
“You can be just like me. You can be better than me and you can go on to bigger and better things“
Following on from the portrait, Lisa is now set to release her book chronicling her journey from life as Dave. From small boy from working class town struggling to come to terms with his identity; to Lisa, a strong confident woman.
“I thought I could put this in a book that could reach more people. Hopefully educate general society that we’re just normal people. We face various obstacles and hurdles and hopefully give them a better understanding of what a trans person faces, so maybe they’re a bit more understanding towards us.
“Also for other trans people that you can hit the extreme lows and you can bounce back. You can be just like me. You can be better than me and you can go on to bigger and better things. The world is your oyster. You can do it. You don’t have to be alone.”
Lisa is a poster girl for resilience, and triumph over adversity. And that poster has been painted and hung in a gallery. Her portrait sits pride of place in Beningbrough Hall now until November as a symbol of what she’s overcome, and celebrating transgender women everywhere.
Tanya Raabe-Webber’s portrait of Lisa Kelly; Lisa’s Freedom is on display in Beningbrough Hall until November 2018.