There was nothing particularly unusual when award-winning actor, writer and director Jake Graf went down on one knee in New York’s Central Park to propose to his girlfriend, British army captain Hannah Winterbourne, in September 2017. They had, after all, been dating for two years and realised that they had a future together – if only they could find a balance between Jake’s film commitments and Hannah’s overseas postings as a serving officer in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.
Except for the fact that bride-to-be Hannah was assigned male at birth before transitioning to become the highest ranked trans Officer of the British Army. Her now husband Jake spent even longer living as a woman. Together they live in South London with baby daughter Millie, born to a surrogate carrying eggs Jake had frozen before undergoing gender reassignment surgery. They are delighted to announce a second baby is on the way. I caught up with them to ask what life is like as one of the world’s highest profile trans families.
Did either Hannah or Jake ever imagine growing up trans or that they would one day meet, fall in love and begin a family with a fellow transgender person?
“No. Growing up transgender and in the closet, reading all the horrible things on social media that were said about transgender people made you feel entirely unlovable,” says Hannah. “So the prospect of even dating or having a relationship, let alone marrying and having kids, is like a dream come true to me’.
As for Jake: “I grew up in London under Margaret Thatcher and Clause 28. I’d never heard the word trans or transgender, I just knew from a very early age that I was a boy and got no help with that whatsoever. From a very early age I suffered from crippling self-doubt, low self-esteem, a total lack of confidence because I knew myself to be a boy but was told my whole life that I wasn’t. I couldn’t have imagined even transitioning. Certainly not falling in love, getting married and having a baby. Having what a lot of people perceive to be a normal lifestyle. To me it seemed absolutely unattainable. I feel absolutely privileged and very, very fortunate every day.”
So how did this perfectly normal couple meet?
“We met online to begin with,” says Hannah.
“We met on Facebook,” interjects Jake. “It was all very innocent. No Tinder or any of that! Hannah popped up as someone I might like to know, I messaged her, got a message back about an hour later saying that Hannah had seen my exploits and would like to meet at some point.
“I think we were both open to a relationship. I’d seen her on telly and thought she was cute. We had our first date in December 2015. It began at Waterloo station and ended with our first kiss at the BFI, then sitting on top of the Royal Festival Hall looking out across London and drinking wine. We talked about our lives, love, hopes, dreams. Our date lasted eleven hours!”
Given their very different backgrounds, Jake working in media, Hannah pursuing a regimental and regimented career in the army, I’m guessing it must have been easier for Jake to come out than for his wife.
“It’s never easy to come out in any situation,” says Hannah.“The challenges were just different. I worked in an industry that is traditionally very masculine, very male-dominated. I had to play to those roles in order to be myself. To come out and tell other people that you work with that that’s not who you are, that actually you are a different person is a very daunting prospect in that industry, but actually people were great, very supportive.
“I was very matter-of-fact, I tried not to sensationalise it, tried not to make out it was this really big thing. I said, ‘All I’m really asking for you to do is to call me by a different name. In a broader context not much is changing.’
“Everything actually became a lot easier. Yes, there were ups and downs and difficult conversations with friends and family but ultimately every step in my transition has been a positive one and has left me in a much happier place than when I started.”
Did transitioning in any way affect the day-to-day operational effectiveness of soldiering? Were Captain Hannah’s tasks reassigned in line with her gender?
“No, not at all. I deployed (including tours of Afghanistan and Kenya) both pre- and post-transition. In many ways I became a much better soldier after I came out. Before you come out you’re carrying around a huge amount of emotional baggage pretending to be something you’re not. Every time you answer a question, enter a room, you tell a lie. That takes a lot of emotional energy and it’s really difficult to deal with. When you can be your authentic self in any context you can throw all that energy into doing whatever you want to do.”
According to Stonewall’s Trans Report, anti-trans discrimination remains rife in the UK with two in five trans people having suffered from a hate crime or other incident in the past twelve months. Many continue to hide their true identities because they fear discrimination and half of all trans people hide their true gender at work. That is unsurprising when one in eight trans workers has been physically attacked in the workplace, either by a colleague, or by a customer.
Can Hannah and Jake explain just what it is about being trans that inspires such fear and hatred among so many?
“I think people fear what they don’t understand,” says Jake.”And obviously people have been conditioned to think in terms of pink and blue, and boys and girls. Everything is gendered from your washing-up brush to the colour of the toys your child plays with. And strangely enough, the things you buy in pink are always more expensive than the things you buy in blue! But I think we [the transgender community] have put the cat among the pigeons a bit. Altered people’s understanding of the world. It’s also true that the vast majority of people have never knowingly met anyone who’s transgender, so we remain these shadowy figures that people only read about in the media.
“When Harvey Milk was trying to get the gay rights movement to a good place he would say, ‘Look to your neighbour, look to your brother, look to your friends and you will see one of us.’ That’s not the case with trans people. People get their information about us from the media, from the press, from people who seek to harm us. Putting out that kind of negativity can only have a trickle effect of violence and aggression.
Hannah adds, “There is a very small minority of people who believe that transgender women in particular are at odds with wider society.”
“That minority stokes a huge amount of animosity”, chips in Jake.
“It enrages a very small amount of people who unfortunately have a very large voice. Social and mainstream media give the impression there is a huge divide when in reality that divide doesn’t exist,” concludes Hannah. “I see so much love and support: we should really be framing the conversation differently to ask why is there such a small minority of people who seem to enjoy being outraged.”
Do Jake and Hannah therefore feel an obligation to put themselves out there and spread this message or are there days when being such a high-profile trans couple gets in the way of them leading a normal life?
“I grew up in a time when there was zero transgender visibility,” explains Jake. “I found it very hard. There’s the mantra ‘You can’t be you if you can’t see you.’ I thought I was the only boy in the world in a girl’s body. I lived as a lesbian for a decade. Whereas Hannah came out as a gay man I came out as lesbian. It was very hard because I knew I wasn’t a lesbian. Without seeing anyone like me I wasn’t able to live authentically. We know how hard it for other trans people – not just kids but trans adults – to realise that they too can live authentically, that they can come out at work, that they can get married, have kids. There really are no limitations so long as they are able to surround themselves with positivity. For us visibility is very, very important. We feel very fortunate to have that voice and that platform.”
Hannah points out that they do not represent the entire trans community but she is thrilled to see the emerging visibility and diversity of the community to which they belong.
How old were they both when they first sat down and spoke with another transgender person?
“I didn’t meet another trans man until I was 25,” says Jake. “It was very difficult. At the age of 18 I became part of the lesbian community and fell into alcohol abuse and all kinds of terrible negative behaviour to numb what was going on in my life. It wasn’t until I was 25,when I thought ‘I’ve had enough of this’, and went to live in NY for a year. And within that lesbian community in New York there was this young, very handsome guy and I thought, ‘Why is this guy always out with the girls?’
“Turns out he was a young trans guy who took me under his wing. He taught me everything from how to take hormones to how to have top-surgery. This guy genuinely saved my life.”
For Hannah it was “when I was about 22 or 23. Even though there were trans people I was aware of, it wasn’t until just before I came out and saw a psychiatrist to understand how I was feeling and what to do with my life. I met with a transgender RAF officer who was amazing, and so supportive, caring and understanding, exactly what I needed. I was very lucky.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, good luck and good fortune have cropped up a lot in this conversation. But it takes more than luck to change perceptions and more than fortune to change behaviour. If Jake or Hannah were Prime Minister for the day and could pass any law to make life for their community easier, fairer, safer, what law would they introduce?
“If it was me,” says Hannah, “I would make it crystal clear under the Equality Act (2010) that trans women have the same equal rights and access as cisgender women, something which has been muddied and twisted in the last few years. Any protections must of course extend to all trans and gender non conforming people, but trans women usually seem to be in the firing line. There is also currently a huge campaign to lobby the Equality and Human Rights Commission [EHRC}, which, as we all know, is on a very dangerous path, to ensure that they continue to fight for the needs of the trans community.” (The EHRC, led by Baroness Falkner, has recently faced repeated accusations of transphobia from a coalition of LGBTQI+ organisations including the trans charity Mermaids of which both Hannah and Jake are patrons.)
How much would the right to self-determination of gender help with that?
“I think actually our legislation is fairly good. It’s the interpretation of it and how it’s challenged by people that remains problematic,” Hannah says.
“Can I just pick up on the point about self-determination?” asks Jake. “There is so much terror whipped up, and so much mis-information and propaganda. Let’s not forget that self-identification has been in place in Ireland, Malta, Denmark, Portugal, Argentina for years and years without incident. It’s just hatred and bigotry. There is no basis to any of this nonsense propaganda that self-ID would all of a sudden result in a spike of rape and abuse.”
So will the government come to realise that self-identification is the way forward?
“It might not be this government,” says Hannah. “But it’s the only way any progressive country would aim itself. To allow people to define who they are.”
“It’s a great shame,” says Jake. “We used to be top of the European LGBTQ equality and progress list, and I think we’ve now dropped to number 10 as a nation. Obviously Brexit played a big part in that and I think this current government has also made an impact but I think the media has driven a lot of it. Unfortunately we are slipping to a place where, quite frankly, we should be ashamed to be.”
While far from perfect in the UK we remain some way ahead of other nations. What can people here do to effect positive change in other parts of the world?
“I think our ability as individuals is obviously limited,” says Hannah. “But as a society we can show what equality can mean and how it can work and enrich everyone’s lives. That is the real example to set and I don’t think that we (in the UK) are setting the best example right now and we could be doing better. But certainly I would hope people would look to the western world in general and say that having human rights and equality has proved to be a positive thing.”
In 2015 Jake was invited to Obama’s White House. That must have been some day out?
“It was part of The Danish Girl film’s press tour. The PR firm promoting the film organised the first trans-specific event at the White House. It was under the Obama administration obviously – I couldn’t imagine it happening under the last one! About a hundred trans people working in the media, film, television all congregated at the White House. It was just an amazing day. All these queer, transgender people ooking at each other in amazement as we were being checked in through the White House security.
“We were taken into a huge room where everyone spoke, there were panel discussions and screenings. It was the most incredible experience and then we were given a private tour of the White House. It’s giving me goosebumps now. It was one of the defining moments in the lives of all these people who had fought so hard all their lives to be seen, and then there we all were. In one of the most important and historic houses in the world!’
Has Hannah experienced a similar highlight since coming out?
‘’For me it was being awarded an MBE. Going to Buckingham Palace and standing in front of Prince William and receiving a medal that says, ‘This is for your service to the transgender community.’ What really shocked me was that the Royal Family put the picture of me and Prince William on their social media. For an institution such as the Royal Family to support and award a trans person for trying to make the world a better place for transgender people meant that in some small way I’ve done something with my life that will hopefully make life for trans people a little better.”
While Hannah now works in the city fighting financial crime, Jake is currently shooting a short film with his good friend Eddie Redmayne as executive producer. Redmayne, of course, received some criticism for playing the role of transgender woman Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl. However, the three are good friends. Did Jake find the criticism levelled at Redmayne unfair?
“Of course. Eddie is a huge supporter of the trans community, a huge supporter of Hannah and I. He played a role, which I think he did brilliantly. At the time there were no trans actors who could have brought in a budget of fifteen-odd million. He really raised a lot of awareness about what it was to be trans. And I think a lot of what he did and said afterwards, voicing his discontent at what JK Rowling said, standing up for us, and standing against her was very brave of him.”
I assume from this that baby Millie won’t be brought up reading Harry Potter?
“No,” says Hannah.“What’s very sad is that I used to be a really big Harry Potter fan. For me personally those books have been tainted, knowing that the person who wrote them has written such vitriolic things about the trans community, that I will never read them to my daughter. As much as I think the books were wonderful and actually had a lot of true equality written into them I can never separate them from the damage she has done to me and to my community.”
I’ve just time for a few quick-fire questions before Jake and Hannah have to put baby Millie to bed. So here goes…
Who takes the bins out?
“Me,” says Hannah without hesitation.
“You do occasionally,” counters Jake.
Who is the better cook?
“Me!” claim both in a dead heat.
And who is the first to wake when baby Millie gets up in the middle of the night?
‘’I am,” says Hannah, and this time there’s no argument.
“But I do all the cooking, the cleaning and wash the pans up in the morning,” adds Jake, proving that for even this most modern of celebrity couples there is no such thing as a short cut to the new normal.