As I hovered at the careers stall, I scribbled my name down on the list to join the army.
‘It runs in the family,’ I told the recruiter.
I had always been interested in the military – both my grandfathers had served during World War two – one in the Royal Artillery and the other in the RAF.
It wasn’t long before I was enlisted into the Royal Regiment Of Fusiliers, an infantry regiment.
It felt like the most masculine path I could take – but all the while I knew I was denying who I really was…
I’d spend the day in combats and camouflage, before sneaking to my room at night and getting changed into women’s clothes.
I’d secretly bought silky tops and flowing skirts and smuggled them back to the barracks from nearby shops.
‘That’s better,’ I’d smile, twirling in front of the mirror to admire my reflection.
But feelings of guilt and fear would creep in and I would quickly revert back to male-mode.
I had known I was ‘different’ ever since I was a child.
At the age of five, I’d stomped around the house in my mum’s dresses, jewellery and high heels feeling a million dollars.
At school, I’d been that child who dashes straight for the dressing up box to don a princess gown at playtime – avoiding the sandbox, cars and football.
I didn’t understand what was ‘wrong’, but I was certain I was born in the wrong body.
As I reached adulthood, I became even more confused, embarrassed and terrified.
But growing up in Saddleworth, Oldham, Greater Manchester, in the 70s/80’s, left me feeling that ‘coming out’ and being my true self wasn’t an option.
I buried my feelings as best as I could – pushing any little niggles about my gender to the back of my mind and focusing on my career instead.
I served for 30 years and rose up the ranks to Colour Sergeant – completing operational tours of duty in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Iraq.
Despite forming close friendships with my colleagues, no one knew that deep down I identified as a woman.
It was difficult living with my own secret war inside my head.
I’d known it for as long as I could remember, but – back then – there wasn’t the term ‘transgender’ and I suppressed how I felt. I married a wonderful woman and we went on to have two beautiful children.I knew my family loved me unconditionally – but I worried they wouldn’t understand me.
It was only in February 2015, when I retired from the army, that I felt brave enough to venture outside as a female.
I decided it was time to come clean with my family and live openly as a transgender woman.
The first person I confided in was my wife, Annabel*, so I sat her down and told her – knowing I had to accept the consequences, whatever they may be.
‘I have something I need to tell you,’ I blurted out, feeling sick with nerves. ‘I was born in the wrong body – I’m transgender.’
She was so shocked and initially felt angry, upset and betrayed – like our whole life together had been a lie.
But after some time – and doing research into what it means to be transgender – she became supportive.
I felt so guilty – like I had used her to hide who I really was. I had never meant to. But as the months passed, it felt like a weight had been lifted.
I had always been angry at a world that, I believed, kept people like me suppressed and hidden.
After becoming the person I was meant to be, I felt a much happier and nicer person.
Life changed dramatically all of a sudden.
My wife and I started living separate lives under the same roof.
In October 2015, I even visited a transgender event in Cardiff. A few months later I attended Leeds First Friday (LFF) and have become a regular attendee at this fun and supportive event. My wife even came along with me to find out more and to provide some moral support.
But after a year passed, we realised we couldn’t continue our relationship the way it was.
It wasn’t fair on our children. We hadn’t told them yet.
And in 2016 I moved out.
We split up because I was no longer the person she had married – she wed a man and was suddenly joined to someone who wanted with all their heart to be a woman.
We have remained friends for the sake of our kids.
After I moved out, I told our children, and they were accepting of their new normal.
‘I’m still your dad,’ I promised them. ‘I’ll always be your dad.’
They come to stay with me regularly and we hang out and have fun.
‘I’m not going to hide who I am anymore,’ I vowed.
Even the majority of my friends and wider family stuck by me.
I told them: ‘I’m Andrea now – not Andrew – but you can call me Andi.’
One former colleague even texted me saying: ‘If you’re happy mate that’s all that matters.’
I got a job as a delivery driver with Total Produce, Gateshead and my GP referred me to the NHS gender identity service in Leeds in September 2016 – but I knew the process could take some time.
In 2017, I started living as a woman both at home, in the workplace and whilst I was out and about in public.
At first, it was a little nerve-wracking, but soon I realised most people were too busy living their own lives to really care or notice about mine.
I’m currently still in the NHS pipeline to receive support in my transition – I know it won’t happen overnight and I have to be patient.
I’m currently waiting for my diagnostic appointment at the Leeds Gender Identity Clinic.
I’ve waited 52 years to be the real me, I can wait a little longer.
On a night out at a burlesque event, I bumped into a model and she told me all about the ‘Alternative Model Of The Year Contest’.
‘You should definitely enter,’ she smiled.
After a bit of hesitation, I bit the bullet and went for it.
Everyone was so kind and encouraging.
I’d caught the bug and kept going back – making it to the catwalk final of the contest for the past three years in a row.
I signed up to a modelling agency, Rogue Model Management in 2019 and whilst I’ve had no paid work yet, the alternative modelling community is such a friendly and supportive place and it has given me the confidence and opportunity to show the world who I really am – a beautiful person and woman.
In 2019 I also started broadcasting a Heavy Metal music show on Hard Rock Hell Radio, an online station.
I have no regrets over joining the military, it was an important time in my life and I believe my service gave me the strength and confidence to become the real me, but I do regret wasting so much time not being me.
I’m just so happy I finally decided to come out and show people the real me, and I’ll never hide that side of me ever again.