Love & Other Drugs: Ireland’s Infamous First Sex Change
Husband, make up artist, cancer fighter, grandmother, heroin addict, published author, model, model agent, escort and Ireland’s first sex change subject are just a handful of the titles that Longford born Rebecca De Havalland has encountered throughout her life. Staunchly anti-drug legalisation and sober for seven years, Rebecca’s life remains a constant concoction of drugs. We meet in Soho, London, at Balans in the centre of London’s gaybourhood and discuss all things mind altering over coffee and some cheesecake.
I’ve been keeping up with a little bit of it but I kind of got pissed off with the whats-her-name, the really old looking yoke, Lydia Foy, and I just feel very kind of eh, and I’m not being funny I started the whole ball rolling. I was the first., and you know not by one or two years, by nearly a decade.
I had my operation in ’89, I was 31, but I had been on hormones from probably about my mid-20s and I couldn’t tell anyone because I was nearly em, sectioned for being on them by my GP who told my mother because he was the family doctor. And I felt I had to talk to someone that’s how I ended up on a lot of black market stuff. Legally he should’ve been able to give them, like if I was living here [London] at the time I would’ve got them. That’s why I did a lot of traveling back to Ireland, I was hoping I could go back, continue my career, because here I was going through it all, the industry here was really tough. My head was pretty messed up with hormones. I didn’t look the best when you’re in transition. So I couldn’t really do my career and that’s when I ended up kind of working all around here, working all the late night drinking bars.
I knew from a very young- I knew before my holy communion. My sister made her communion before me and I remember thinking ‘oh I so want to be a girl’ and even before that I would’ve prayed to be a girl. But as you get older you start coming into your teenage years and kind of think to yourself ‘this aint happening’. I had learned about drag queens and I thought ‘that’s not me’. Like a lot of my friends that are here now are gay boys during the day and big drag queens at night. I didn’t want that split.
Here it was quite ok, quite ok to be going through a sex change even though it was the mid-80s here. There were about seven of us that did it together. Sadly though there’s one, two, three, four of us left. There was actually more than 7 as there was seven dead, that just didn’t make it on the drugs scene, drink, they just over dosed and not intentionally. I always say, really and truly, I’m so lucky to be here. We did the same things. People will say to me, when I say I did heroin, they’ll look at me now and say ‘you did heroin?’ and I’ll say ‘don’t let the cover fool you’. If you’d have seen me seven or eight years ago you’d have said ‘yeah what else DON’T you do?’.
I will be sober seven years in October and I haven’t touched drugs in over eight years. I don’t know what made me stop doing drugs – I’d been hospitalised a few times and I was kept in for two or three months because I was totally like, no weight on me, the living dead. And then it got to a stage here in London that hospitals refused to treat me and rightfully so. They kind of get pissed of when they start seeing you once or twice a week.
I did heroin, I did crack cocaine, I did ordinary cocaine, I did speed, did E’s, didn’t really like E’s. Never did grass, isn’t that mad, just did not like it, just left you lying there and also that’s why I didn’t really get E’s either. Unless, there was one that was out at the time that I loved, it was called Love Doves. I remember one night in Trade, on a Saturday night, I was after getting ready, ready to party and I took this E and I sat, there was a coffee shop area, and I sat there for the whole night. I couldn’t get up to even go to the loo, my legs felt like two lumps of cement, my head was mega paranoid. I did that for a while because all your friends- or do half an E and then I started drinking a lot, and thought ‘well I’ll drink more’ and then I’d take a bit of speed. Of course speed, I could clean this street, windows and all in half an hour on good speed. It took time for it to be visual, you’d just keep putting on more make-up and more make-up and more this and darker eyes until that just didn’t work either any more.
Dubonnet & Lemonade
I was a late starter as well with drinking. I remember at my 21st I was probably the only one not drinking. I started drinking Dubonnet, everyone always laughs at me, even my sister laughs at me. Dubonnet and lemonade, like you might as well not drink, and this was kind of like my mid-20s and I think I did it because at that stage I’d started going to gay bars, I was supposedly out, out in a sense, I knew I wasn’t a straight man, kind of had one foot out the door, out of the closet. Then when I came here, going through all the emotions of the hormones and that which made me very paranoid and makes all of us very paranoid back then.
I always say I put in an apprenticeship in with alcohol, hated beer, hated cider, hated gin, hated martini, any drink you could mention I hated and then somebody gave me vodka and orange juice. I thought ‘can’t taste anything, this is lovely. I’ll have another one’. Two later I was confident, I didn’t give a fuck what you or anybody else thought about me, everything went out the window and all of a sudden, I had landed. I remember when I stepped over the line. It was around 1999, I was working at a bar and we were ringing in the New Year, I was assistant bar manager. When the bar closed at night, like any good bar person, we’d stay behind and have a few drinks and then I would have to be up early to kind of get the bar together. I discovered I was shaking like crazy, this is nine in the morning, after three or four drinks I started to straighten out. I popped over to the corner shop and buy a half bottle of vodka and that’s when I realised I had crossed the line.
I had kicked a heroin habit and then my friends came over one day and brought all the stuff and I started smoking heroin again. I went cold turkey. It was horrible but because I had moved into West Hamstead, the hospital were giving me a script for methadone and West Hamstead is a really posh kind of little village area. It was my own snobbery that kind of helped because I thought ‘I am not going into that chemist, ME, and say ‘could I have my methadone please” and them having that on me forever. So my own snobbery that got me through it. Four days of absolute hell, felt like I had maggots in every blood vessel in my body. I had to crawl in and out of very hot baths and very cold , to almost numb the body so I didn’t feel these things. I’d say by day three I was beginning to feel a little bit better. Day four I thought ‘I’m ready to get ready and go out’. I had only moved into West Hamstead, I knew there was a pub at the top of the road. Walked up, ordered a drink and I think by the end of the day I was pretty well pissed but I had a lot of people around me and we were all chatting and said they’d see me all there again tomorrow night. I thought ‘this is great, keep away from Soho, West End where you’re done for’. I’d say after about three or four days, then the manager offered me a part time job, would I like a part time job because I was very popular with everyone. Why not, I’m doing nothing, why not. That part time job led to to full time which led to full time and then the assistant bar manager. It was when I put down the drugs, is when I realised I had a drink problem. But it took a while obviously to admit that to yourself, what’s the problem sure I’m Irish we all do it, it’s part of our culture.
I mean I go back to Ireland, like I lost my Mum this year and I go back to Ireland for funerals, for weddings. I’m here a lot, I’m there a lot. And I watch them all and I think ‘oh they’re all alcoholics’ but they’re not, they might be heavy drinkers but the thing is what they could do I couldn’t. They could drink and drink and drink, they could get up in the morning and go and work. That’s the difference. Like I remember one stage, when my drinking had gotten so bad, being a hair and make-up artist, forget it. At that stage I knew my career was gone. I couldn’t even do my own fucking make-up.
My working life couldn’t have been better. The agency had models booked out then suddenly I was being plastered over newspapers. So what that did then, I lost the business and it pulled my family away from me. Because obviously my brothers and sisters had kids in school and they were being slagged and bullied over me and it just drove a huge rift. So I came back to London and basically ended up working on the streets because that’s all I could do. I had a client of mine, we never did anything, it was more- I got in through an escort agency, I used to go and see him twice a week. He said to me one say he says ‘oh my god’ he says, ‘your eyes look very sad’. There’s certain things make-up cant hide. And he says ‘what would make you happy’ and one of my friends, Jodie, she was getting her boobs done and she was going to Harley Street. So, well I said ‘my friend Jodie is going to get her boobs done’ and he says ‘ok, go along, get a consultation and let me know. Jodie wasn’t going the next day. So anyway, I went, brought one of my friends with me, went to the guy I knew was doing boobs. In London he was known as the tit man. Went in and he says it’ll be three and a half grand. I said to the receptionist ‘could I just call somebody’, I called the guy. He said ‘where are you’ and I said ‘I’m in Harley Street’ and he says ‘I thought you might be’. ‘They’re three and a half grand’ I said ‘but they can do them next week’. He tells me to hand over the phone to the receptionist and before I know it she was taking all his card details. That was by eleven o’clock in the morning. Tits for breakfast!
Volatile. Everyone of them. In one way or another. And I think it’s because I was never happy with myself. I thought when I would become Rebecca, the glue would fix all that, but it didn’t. It fixed a certain part of me, it didn’t fix everything else, it didn’t fix my childhood, it didn’t fix the abuse of my childhood. It didn’t fix that I’d lost my family. It didn’t fix that I had gotten married as a boy to prove, to try and prove to myself I was normal and that my child was born, my daughter and it didn’t fix that she was taken from me.
Now, I think I could take a relationship on board. Since I’ve been sober I haven’t been with anyone but as I always say there’s enough finger prints on my arse, there’s more on my arse than there are in Scotland Yard, as I always say. I had a past. Even that part of my life was searching, I don’t want to sound like one of these ‘ I found God’, no I didn’t find anything. Ok, I’m fifty-six today and I just think, it’s probably now that I probably feel, almost like complete and then having a near death experience and it was just nature. In hindsight, the throat cancer and all that stuff it was down to abuse and smoking crack cocaine and heroine, and ok smoking cigarettes. Smoking cigarettes is something I did from the age of thirteen.
I found out in April 2013. ‘Oh dear’ he says ‘ I think you’ve pneumonia’, so that was the start of it. And he says ‘you’re going to have to go to hospital’ and I said ‘I’ll go tomorrow’ and he says ‘you wont even last till tomorrow’. Was more or less rushed into Dublin, into James’ and I was kept in there for around four or five weeks. My whole world is falling around me. So they didn’t have the treatment for me. I thought no, fuck this, I’m going to get a second opinion. So obviously I had friends living in London who I’m staying with now and I came over, visited the GP I went to here. They do all the tests and tell me they have the treatment that we can help you here. I had to have all my teeth removed, get my throat done. Started to lose all my hair, thank god I’m a hairdresser and I have extensions. And then I was also diagnosed with emphysema from smoking. It’s been one thing leading to another. So as far as I know now I’m ok, I look ok.
My argument is it doesn’t matter how they get here, they get here. But if you legalise them, I mean alcohol is legal, look at the streets of Dublin or London on a Friday night and tell me that that’s ok. Sugar is legal, look at the damage it does to people. So no I don’t think any mind altering substances should be legalised. All I can say is, if these were legal when I was there, I wouldn’t even be here today. Probably half of what has me here today is I had to have comedowns. That I had to go and search. You had to suffer. My alcoholism, I didn’t. I mean I could stagger across to Tesco on a morning at 8 o’clock when they open and buy a litre and a half of vodka for a tenner. That made it worse for me, that made it doable. And I was on a litre and a half bottle of vodka a day. If you look into yourself the reason is problems. And I was alive alive oh with problems.
I mean I feel safer walking down here any time of day or night than I would down O’Connell street. I did live in Soho for many a day and I do still come down, ’cause Tasty Tim, my friend, DJ’s here and then the Tranny Shack around the corner. I kind of stayed away from all that especially when I had given up drugs and drink here because these are the streets where, I kind of, fell down. To be able to be back here now, going out with most of my friends that get wasted, wrecked off their heads but I know when to leave.
I’ve learned too to sneak away, never say goodnight. They don’t know when I’ve left but I’ve left.
Words and Photography: Azzy O’Connor