Ex-Lancashire headteacher Carolyn Mercer is a strong and confident woman who describes the first 55 years of her life as “pretending to be a man.”
Today, she has opened up about becoming a speaker on transgender, equality, diversity and education.
“When I was three, I realised I was different,” she explains.
“I was told I was different and that it was wrong and I read in the Bible it was wrong.
“I felt dirty and ashamed. I wanted to be like I thought the majority of people were.”
As she pauses while her audience listen spellbound, Carolyn Mercer’s lips widen and she smiles wryly before saying: “I am Carolyn Mercer. I am 68 and I am left-handed.”
Although it sounds like a quip, Carolyn’s words are deadly serious as she goes on to explain: “The generation before me, left-handedness was so abhorrent, your arm was tied behind your back or your hand was slapped.
“You were forced to use something that was not natural to use.
“The French for ‘left’ is gauche as we use to mean clumsy and the Latin word for left-handed is ‘sinister.’”
Carolyn adds: “In the Bible, left-handedness was described as a sin and there is also a reference to men dressing in women’s clothes.
“This is in the same chapter that says: ‘All of you are going to hell because you are wearing clothing of mixed cloth.
“The chapter before that says: ‘If your son misbehaves, take him to the city walls and stone him.’”
Carolyn, who lives in St Annes, has the utmost respect for people having rights and opinions and says it is important for her to understand different people’s viewpoints.
But she also doesn’t want to remain silent and watch while people are bullied because of their gender, the colour of their skin or their weight.
Highly intelligent and accomplished, Carolyn is strong and confident and was once the then youngest secondary school headteacher in Lancashire.
Since retiring as headteacher in 2002, Carolyn has been involved with many organisations including being hospice trustee and vice-chair, trustee of a national hospice charity, a member of Lancashire Constabulary Independent Advisory Group and chair of Lancashire LGBT.
However, Carolyn is also modest and seeks no publicity for herself and only agrees to talk to me about her story following one of her many speaking engagements where she is seen as a role model for equality and diversity.
Carolyn, who came from a working class background in Preston, says as well as her left-handedness, she realised there was something else that was different about her.
She recalls: “From about the age of three, I realised there was something different about me.
“It was not until much later that I realised what it was.
“I was born, described and registered as male.
“However, my gender was at odds with my biological sex and I was diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
“I was totally screwed up not knowing what was wrong.”
Carolyn left school at the age of 16 with minimal qualifications and began working for a plastering and tiling contractor in the office and onsite as a labourer and tiler.
She remembers: “I was very successful at pretending to be a man.
“I remember walking across a building site carrying big bags of cement.
“I was also a rugby prop forward and did weight lifting and boxing.”
Although Carolyn was managing to fool the world outwardly, inwardly she admits she was in anguish.
She explains: “I did not understand why I felt the way I did.
“I remember thinking: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could have a brain transplant into a body that fits the way I am.”
At the age of 17, Carolyn went to the GP and explained that she thought something was wrong and asked: “Can you cure me?”
Carolyn says: “I wanted to be like what I thought all the other people were around me.
“I am normal, I was normal, I am normal.
“But at that time, I wanted to be average, not different.
“My GP just said: ‘Stop bothering your mother.’”
Desperate, Carolyn sought help from everyone from the church to psychiatrists.
As a 17-year-old, Carolyn was subjected to barbaric electro-aversion therapy to “cure” her gender dysphoria.
She recalls: “I was taken into a darkened room, strapped to a chair and given electric shock treatment.
“The strategy was to make me associate what I wanted to be with pain.
“It took me 40 years to stop shivering at the thought of that treatment.
“People punished me in this way as if it was okay.
“You would not do that in a prison; you would not do that in a concentration camp.
“But I went along with it because I wanted to be cured and not different and dirty.
“It was a long time ago. It does not happen in this country now.”
Carolyn adds: “I don’t want sympathy. I did not just survive, I succeeded.”
It was voluntary work running a youth club that led Carolyn to realise her vocation for teaching.
She trained as a primary school teacher but after responding to a shortage of maths teachers, she completed her final practice in a secondary school.
By the age of 26, Carolyn was head of mathematics then gained an Open University degree and a Masters degree in Education Management at Sheffield Hallam University.
Professionally, Carolyn became head of year, deputy head and acting head before becoming headteacher at a Blackpool’s Highfield High School at 37 as the then youngest secondary head in the county. Carolyn says: “I got married and had two children. We are still together.
“But I suffered from severe depression and went through an extremely stressful time.
“I was even having suicidal thoughts as I thought that would be better for my family.
“It wasn’t until 2000 that I met a psychiatrist and for the first time, someone said to me:
‘You have a clear choice. You can put up with it and stay as you are. Or if you want to change your gender role, I will help you.”
Carolyn began transitioning and hit the headlines as a headteacher after being “outed” in 1994 and again in 2002.
In 1994, as Carolyn was transitioning as a headteacher, someone leaked it to the national press and she was suspended while an investigation was carried out.
Carolyn recalls: “I was at home and a photographer came to my door and asked to take a photo of me.
“Unknown to me, he had taken a photo.
“When he arrived, I had been in the kitchen preparing a meal and I went to the door holding a tea towel in one hand and in the other hand, I was carrying an upright courgette!
“This was the photo that appeared in all the tabloids. That’s what the tabloids did then. I can laugh about it now.”
It was being suspended from her job at the school that hurt Carolyn the most.
She admits: “This was my life and my livelihood.
“I was suspended and an investigation was carried out and my staff were asked for anonymous comments. The charges against me were not to do with my gender, they claimed I did not have the honesty or integrity to be a headteacher.
“There was no case to answer. I returned to school and back to being a headteacher.
“You do it because you have an inner strength.
“I have been lucky. But I am determined, stubborn and resolute.”
In 2002, Carolyn hit the headlines once again. After 18 years as headteacher and after some of the most successful years of the school, Carolyn retired in 2002.
Since then, Carolyn has held many roles including governer at Blackpool and Fylde College, a trustee at hospices and numerous voluntary roles.
Carolyn says: “None of these roles have been because of my gender.
“It is about doing the things you do best as normally as you can.
“You can’t force people, you can’t buy people, you have to win people.
“In 1994 when I hit the headlines, there were very few other stories about transgender.
“In 2002, there were more. Now, in 2016, you almost cannot open a newspaper without seeing something about transgender.”
Carolyn explains that for her it was never about appearance, clothing or make up.
She says: “Outwardly, my appearance has changed. But my DNA is still the same as it was. Gender is to do with what’s between your ears, not between your legs.
“I do know that I feel more comfortable now than I did before. I did not need a psychiatrist to know which gender role I was most comfortable in.
“I feel more comfortable in a female role.”
Carolyn says she has not experienced any problems to her face.
She says: “It is amazing how fair people can be if you let them. I still live in the area and I see some of my former pupils and they come up to me and say: ‘Are you all right Carolyn?’
“I was invited to a reunion and a former pupil chatted to me and we discussed why I left.
“He told me: ‘We would have looked after you.’ Then two former female pupils came and told me: ‘You are really brave.’
“My usual response to that is that it was the first 55 years of my life that were brave.”
Laughing, Carolyn adds: “Someone once said to me: ‘You haven’t lost your intellect.’”
Dryly, Carolyn adds: “Any surgery I had was not to my brain.”
Carolyn finds it difficult to understand transphobia and believes education is the key.
She has been speaking to students from Blackpool Sixth Form College and Aspire Academy about the difference between being average and normal.
Carolyn says: “Half the population are either above or below average, but mathematically, 99.7 per cent of the population fit the description of ‘normal’ on the curve of distribution.
“Also, all seven billion people on the planet are unique and yet share 99.9 per cent of identical DNA.
“This puts difference of gender, race, colour, weight, height, sexuality etc into perspective. A phobia is an irrational fear.
“Who would be frightened of me because of my gender?
“I request respect as a human being and respect as a woman. I have been very fortunate, but not everyone is as lucky. My friends and family have all been superb.
“I will not accept any credit or blame for how I was born.
“What I have done with it is my responsibility. I can only do what I believe to be for the best.
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to remain silent.”