There was something touchingly traditional — even a little old-fashioned — about the wedding last week of Army Captain Hannah Winterbourne and
Hannah, 31, elegant in a strapless, figure-hugging dress of ivory lace, was marrying the first man she’d ever fallen in love with; actually her first boyfriend.
‘She looked stunning. When I saw her I just welled up, she was so beautiful. I was mesmerised,’ says Jake.
‘And you looked very handsome, too,’ smiles Hannah, who still feels a sense of disbelief that she is now a married woman.
‘Just a few years ago the idea of ever being married was inconceivable,’ she says. ‘I never thought the day would come. For most of my life it wasn’t even a remote possibility.
‘I’d never even been on a date before when Jake asked me out in December 2015. I was terrified! I’d only just started to come to terms with the possibility that someone might one day want to love me. But by the end of our first evening together I’d told him I loved him — after a few drinks, admittedly.’
She smiles. ‘And we spent every weekend together for months after that. On that first date we knew we had a future together.
‘When I told my family and friends I loved him they were very wary for me, concerned that I wasn’t just caught up in the emotion of having my first boyfriend. But three years on he still makes me feel I’m the centre of his universe; that literally nothing else matters to him. I feel very loved.’
The chemistry between them crackles like an electric current. They are bonded not only by love and the formal commitment of marriage, but also by shared experience: both Hannah and Jake are transgender.
Hannah is the highest-ranking officer in the British Army to have transitioned from male to female.
Jake, 40, who directs his own films and acts, took a transgender role in the Eddie Redmayne film The Danish Girl. He began gender reassignment in his late 20s, having known with absolutely certainty that he was ‘a boy inside’ from the age of two or three.
Growing up in an affluent household in West London with his mum, who raised him and his younger sister while their father ran the family’s prospering theatrical costume business, Jake was a miserable child, ‘humiliated’ by the girl’s body in which, through some anatomical accident, he felt he’d been forced to live.
‘I have very curly hair and my mum thought I didn’t want it to be long and unruly, so she let me cut it short. But actually I wanted to look like a boy,’ he says. ‘My father thought I was an endearingly tomboyish little girl, but I knew I wanted to be a boy and for me it was just a medical anomaly that my male brain had been wired into a female body.
‘I hated being prinked and preened and put into dresses. It felt like humiliation. If I was mistaken for a boy, I’d revel in it. When my mother corrected people, my heart sank.
‘I faced puberty with dread. I felt as if my body was turning against me. I used to go to bed every night and pray to God I’d wake up as a boy. I’d strap down my breasts. I couldn’t bear to look in the mirror because my body disgusted me. I was so miserable and full of self-loathing.’
At his private secondary school in central London, Jake was alienated from both the boys and the girls. ‘I didn’t know which loo to use until a kind teacher allowed me to use theirs,’ he says. ‘I was introverted, anxious, rebellious. I was taunted and bullied for not fitting in.’
Meanwhile, Hannah, growing up in Cardiff with her older brother Jeff and their parents Wendy, now 61, a teacher, and Brian, 63, a programme manager, did not feel the acute angst that assailed Jake. But she also felt alienated from her body.
‘I used to enjoy clothes shopping with my mum,’ she remembers. ‘I’d walk round the girls’ dresses section and wish I was a girl, but I didn’t tell my mum. Instead I developed a sense of shame about my identity which intensified with puberty. I coped by adopting a double life.
‘In public I embraced the strong, competitive, sporty side of my personality. Then secretly I’d sneak into Mum’s room and try on her clothes. I was meticulous about not being caught because I was afraid of the consequences.’
In that era, the transgender community was routinely vilified and mocked as freakish; the butt of jokes or cruel taunts. Neither Jake nor Hannah felt they had anywhere to turn; no recourse to counselling, help or empathy.
Today, Hannah speculates that her decision to join the Army might have been a subconscious effort to sublimate her feminine side.
‘I wonder if I was trying to “cure” myself of being transgender by going overtly down the masculine route?’ she reflects. ‘Perhaps I thought that if I threw myself into physical sports, this feeling would go away.’
Actually she proved to be an exemplary soldier, winning a ‘best cadet’ award on a week’s training camp before being awarded a place, at the age of 16, at Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College, in Nottinghamshire.
‘I threw myself into the physical, military life to hide the pain because I was so convinced that becoming a woman was unachievable,’ she says.
‘Mostly I coped — I worked hard and it was a decent distraction — but there were moments when, late at night on my own, I opened a little door onto my soul and despair crept in.
‘There were girls and boys at the school, and the girls would talk to me about their antics and I wished I was one of them.
‘I was always sexually attracted to men, but before I transitioned a relationship with a man never felt like a possibility. It didn’t feel right. It’s a very odd thing, but because you’re not able to embrace your true identity, the idea of sharing yourself with a man was difficult.
‘So I shut out those feelings. I withdrew from any kind of intimate relationships. It felt wrong imagining the boy me with a man when I wanted to be the actual me — a woman — with a man.’
If this logic seems convoluted, it is because Hannah’s emotional and physical confusion was intense. Desperate to be the woman she was suppressing, it did not occur to her then that she could possibly transition. Instead, when she was 16, she came out to her peers — though not her parents or tutors — as gay.
‘It gave me a point of reference. It allowed me to embrace more aspects of my femininity, and although I was at a military college with testosterone-driven teenage lads, they were pretty much all supportive,’ she recalls. ‘My fellow cadets reacted with courtesy. A lot of them remain good friends.’
From college she progressed first to Newcastle University — where she gained a masters degree in electrical engineering — and then to officer training at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, Berkshire, where her anguish sharpened.
‘We’d have formal dinners in barracks and the girls would all be in their lovely dresses with hair and make-up done, and the boys would just chuck on a black suit and tie,’ she remembers.
‘On those Saturday evenings I would spend three hours locked inside my room doing a full face of make-up, putting on a wig, high heels and a beautiful dress, then I’d sit there alone for about half an hour, so I could savour a memory of getting ready for dinner as myself.
‘Then, 20 minutes before going down to dinner, I’d shower, take off all my make-up and put on my suit and black tie.’
There is an intense sadness in this revelation. Jake, who has heard it before, stretches his hand across the table and squeezes Hannah’s. He is a handsome man, neatly barbered, slim, fashionably dressed. She, bereft of make-up and with her blonde hair tied back, emanates an understated beauty. They are, as they say themselves, ‘just like any other couple’.
For both of them, of course, there was a moment when they knew they could no longer live in their misappropriated bodies. They had to become themselves.
Hannah realised this when she was a second lieutenant on a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2011. Living in cramped quarters with seven other officers, she had no room for her ‘secret’ wardrobe.
With no privacy and no feminine clothes, there was no scope to be herself. ‘That was when I thought, not “should I change this?” but “I need to change this”,’ she says.
On her next posting back to the UK she mustered the courage to see a doctor, who in turn referred her to a military psychiatrist.
‘When you transition it’s baby steps,’ she says, ‘and if you’re knocked back you stay there for a very long time. But I found people were kind and understanding.
‘Not only did the psychiatrist say I didn’t have to leave the Army, he also said he’d helped someone like me before. I was like, “wow!” ’
But there were still hurdles to surmount. Hannah had to find the courage to tell her commanding officer she was transgender and planning her transition. She remembers the moment: ‘I was so terrified I was shaking,’ she says. ‘I thought he was going to shout at me. But he responded: “Do you know I’m gay?”
‘He was a lieutenant colonel in the infantry. I was shocked. I said, “No sir, I didn’t,” and it turned out he was not only gay but a member of the Army LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) forum. So I’d hit the jackpot.
‘He was fantastic, so supportive — and he asked me to come to a military LGBT meeting.’
Newly promoted to the rank of captain, Hannah arrived at her next unit proud to announce: ‘I’m transgender.’ It was a breakthrough. ‘My baby steps were becoming strides,’ she says. ‘My confidence was growing and my next commanding officer was just as great as the first.’
When she was prescribed her first oestrogen therapy — in the form of a patch — her fellow officers celebrated with her.
‘We had a patch party,’ she laughs. ‘For solidarity, everyone came wearing a strip of Elastoplast and we cracked open the champagne.’
She also had testosterone blockers in tandem with the patches, and laser treatment to remove her facial hair. And at Christmas 2013, just as she began hormone therapy, she went home to tell her parents.
‘I told Dad first,’ she remembers. ‘I said I had something “quite important” to tell him. I said, “I’m transgender” and he said, “Thank goodness it’s not something serious”. I think he thought I had a dreadful illness.
‘For Mum, though, it was particularly hard. She worried I’d be bullied, harassed, beaten up.’
But actually, Hannah’s new identity gave her life meaning and hope. ‘The changes were slow,’ she recalls. ‘I developed breasts. My face started to soften and my muscle mass dropped.
‘I remember taking a group of soldiers rock-climbing in Kenya and I laughed when I realised how my upper-body strength was just smashed.
‘And I was so excited to start with, I went a bit over the top with hair and make-up and nails.
‘I worried about my soldiers but they were courteous and respectful. A few of them called me “sir” by accident for a while, but I knew they meant well. They tell me: “I love working for you, boss.” ’
For Jake, meanwhile, life had changed, too; irrevocably and for the better. He, like Hannah, had first come out as gay ‘because I wanted somewhere to belong’.
He was 16 when he told his then widowed mother he was a lesbian. ‘And she said, “as long as you’re happy”. ’ But palpably he wasn’t.
He had affairs with women — he had always been attracted to them — but a deep-seated revulsion that his body felt wrong continued to afflict him.
Having graduated in film and media studies from Westminster University, in his late 20s he went to New York, where for the first time he met a transgender man who was ‘good-looking, successful, happy and fulfilled’. This was Jake’s moment of realisation. He returned to London and told his mother: ‘I’m not gay. I’m a man. I’ve always wanted to be a man.’
Her reaction was calm and supportive. ‘She said: “Well what are we going to do about it?” And in a couple of days she’d come with me to my first appointment with a private doctor and helped me pay for hormone treatment.’
So Jake’s physical and mental transformation began. He started to take testosterone and within six months his voice was lower and his beard had begun to grow. His musculature altered, too, and his jaw became sharper and more masculine.
‘At the same time the veil of darkness lifted,’ he says. ‘I used to walk with a hunched-over chest, but as my breasts disappeared I started to walk tall.
‘I worked out. I took care of myself — and my personality changed. I started to be confident, affable, outgoing. Actually, after wasting 30 years of my life being intensely miserable, I was happy.’
Neither Hannah nor Jake will discuss what they term ‘lower surgery’ and when I raise the question of whether they have had it, they point out politely that it is an impertinent and unnecessary question. ‘Would you ask anyone else about their genitals?’ asks Jake, reasonably.
They have been married for barely a week when we meet and the lustre of their joy-filled wedding at Chelsea Register Office has not worn off.
Forty friends and close family gathered for the occasion. There were squealing children, smiling colleagues, dancing elderly uncles and much admiration of Hannah in her glorious gown.
Jake looks back to when they met: they had exchanged flirty messages on social media after a mutual friend, an actress, had told Jake that Hannah thought he was ‘cute’. Then Jake suggested a date: they would meet at 3pm under the clock at Waterloo Station.
‘And when I saw her there she looked nervous and scared and so lovely,’ he recalls.
They went to the Royal Festival Hall to admire the view of the Thames. There was a lovely dinner by the river. ‘And then I leaned in and kissed her,’ recalls Jake. ‘It was a sweet first kiss. Really special for both of us.’
Their shared experience of transitioning was, of course, a bond. No awkward explanations were needed. ‘And that was a huge relief,’ says Jake, who proposed on a rowing boat in Central Park, New York, in September 2017.
‘I was so nervous and jittery I couldn’t get the words out,’ he recalls. ‘And through floods of tears, Hannah accepted.’
She shows me her sparkler. Her fingers are elegant, feminine.
They plan to have children, perhaps through surrogacy or adoption, but they know the path will be fraught with challenges.
I’ve no doubt they will surmount them through the sheer strength of their love.
‘I’ve never felt for anyone as I do for Hannah,’ says Jake, giving his new wife a gentle kiss. ‘And the fact is, I love her more every day.’