“I was in the supermarket, and a little boy ran past and his mum said ‘be careful of the man’ - and it was such a nice feeling.”
For Lee Carter, 49, that seemingly innocuous moment in the supermarket was one of those ‘winning at life’ moments to be filed away forever.
That’s because Lee was born as a girl called Lisa Keepence, and spent the next 40 years trapped in “the wrong body”. His torment only ended when he underwent gender reassignment surgery in 2012 - and started to live the life he believes he was always meant to live. But it took a long time to get to that point.
Lee, born and raised in Essex but now living in Ossett, has written a memoir ‘Living With Lisa’ about his journey to inner peace. And he is currently preparing to film a documentary about his experiences which will partly be made in Leeds.
Lee hit the national tabloid headlines after having £60,000 worth of transgender surgery on the NHS - and sharing intimate details of his new biology and personal relationships. That’s all behind him now, and there are no regrets. Moving to Yorkshire has brought him love and a more tranquil, laid back life, and the opportunity to achieve the only thing he has ever really craved - acceptance.
Lee was just four years old when he started “feeling uncomfortable” in the female body of ‘Lisa’ which he found himself “locked” in. “My mum was putting me in pink dresses,” he explains. “But I was holding a football all the time and wanting to be mischievous and get involved in ‘boys’ activities.”
I couldn’t understand why I was growing breasts...because I was a boy. I would try and hide them all the time.
“My mum thought I was just a tomboy and I would grow out of it but, in time, she knew something wasn’t right.”
In our post-Caitlyn Jenner world, awareness of transgender issues is perhaps at its peak.
But for Lee, coming from a generation which was only just awakening to LGBT rights, conversations about gender identity and gender reassignment surgery were virtually non existent in everyday life.
Life was, for Lee, like a virtual prison.
In the prologue to his memoir, he explains that it is a story of “a young man who grew up locked inside the wrong body, and the agonising ordeal he endured in order, eventually, to escape”.
Throughout his teen years, Lee dressed as a boy, going to extreme lengths to hide ‘Lisa’ and her developing body.
This included binding his breasts with bandages and wearing painful, tight vests to flatten his chest.
This was decades before ‘gender dysphoria’ became a widely recognised condition, although gender identity disorder was classified as early as 1980.
For Lee, life was about confusion about his place in the world - and about survival.
With his parents’ marriage also breaking up around about the same time, he was left without an adult support network and had to find his own coping mechanisms.
“Puberty was a difficult time,” he admits.
“At 14 or 15 years old I couldn’t understand why I was growing breasts at all, because I was a boy.
“I felt like a boy, I’d been hanging around with boys all these years, and then all of a sudden I have got breasts.
“I would try and hide them all the time.
“I would bandage my chest up so that it would become flat or I would get a strong elasticated vest top that you can wear to flatten your chest, then I would put a T-shirt on top.
“I felt like a boy inside with a female body on the outside.
“It felt uncomfortable that my outer shell did not match my inner self. I was a different person.”
Romantic relationships were complex too, because “I was always attracted to girls absolutely, but I was a boy attracted to a girl not a girl attracted to a girl”, he says.
These internal struggles combined with his turbulent home life ended up sending Lee into a spiral of drugs and self-abuse which it would take decades to recover from.
But then, salvation came in the form of what he believes was an epiphany, and a spiritual transformation which triggered his ultimate physical transformation.
“It wasn’t until I was 42 that I started thinking about having surgery,” explains Lee. “It was very late in life, but after going through a lot of turmoil, not having the right guidance and help and support that I needed, it was just the right time.”
It was, unsurprisingly, a painful and expensive journey, with five operations over three years.
The first, a three hour mastectomy procedure to remove his breasts, was painful but extremely liberating. The final agonising 12 hour surgery finally made Lee “fully a man” as he describes it.
“My whole life transformed at that time,” he says. “I was at University and I was feeling more confident and successful than I had ever been. Because my life up to then had been a lie - but I had finally found ‘me’.”
Finding himself also helped him Lee find peace with his family - younger siblings Karen and Gavin and mum Michelle - who he says had tried to be understanding but had always struggled. “The first time they called me Lee - and meant it - was at my father’s funeral five years ago,” he recalls.
And what of Lisa? Has all trace of her been banished forever? It seems not, as Lee’s journey to peace has also meant a new acceptance that his past and present selves are irrevocably intertwined.
“I think of Lisa as a friend, the person who I went on this journey with,” Lee says. “I have got a lot to thank Lisa for. She has made me the person I am today.”
Lee Carter’s memoir - ‘Living With Lisa’ - is available to buy via Amazon.