IF YOU were making a film of Cruella Howard’s life there are many ways you could start it.

The moment, aged five, when she first tried on a pair of girl’s shoes and felt ‘alive for the first time’. The day she decided to arrive back at her boys’ school with a ‘humungous, embroidered girl’s bag’ as she returned in Year 10 as a girl because: “It was the only way I could make the statement that this is me.”

Or you could start it the moment when, after a savage beating during which, she says, two boys ‘started punching me and kicking me in the stomach and genitals’ a blade was pulled on her.

“I froze in fear,” she remembers. “They said I should admit I was a man and I was dressing as a woman for attention.”

As the sickening attack continued, Cruella made a life-changing decision. “I thought that if I was going to die, I’d die being true to myself and so I managed to say back that I’m NOT a man. And I now live that way every day,” she says.

Most of us will never suffer such violence or sustained bullying. But, for transgender people, it can be a daily fact of life. Sitting in her Boscombe flat, looking so relaxed and talking with such enthusiasm and joy, it’s hard to believe she is only 22. Not because she looks careworn – she is actually beautiful; tall, slim and with the most fabulous make-up – but because of the unimaginable cruelty she, like many transgender people, has suffered.

Raised in Poole, it was noticed in her family that she preferred playing with Barbies and toy pushchairs to football and play fighting.

“I didn’t even know what I was, there was no label for it but as I grew older I tried to find out,” she says. “I felt embarrassed by my feelings and started Googling stuff like ‘why do I feel I’m a woman but I’m a man?’. I was 13 when I first heard the word transgender and found out what it was and that I wasn’t a freak although I still became depressed.”

Things went from bad to worse in her school where she’d grown her hair as long as she could as a symbol of her femininity. “There were 600 boys and I couldn’t relate to them,” she says. “I had a few nice friends but we were the kind of kids no one wants to talk to, the last ones to be chosen at PE, that kind of thing.”

For Cruella PE was a nightmare because: “It was so traumatic, having to change with boys, I’d always be the last one out and got into trouble with this.”

On one occasion, while visiting another establishment, she used the girls’ toilets to change in. “I believe that is my fitted toilet,” she says, but she was told to use a male toilet. “It was so degrading because you’d have men using the urinal while you were wearing a bra and getting dressed.” She suffered suicidal thoughts and took drugs to relieve them.

After she says her parents chucked her out, she ‘slept in a bush’ for two days before calling ChildLine and eventually being placed into foster care with the estimable Colin and Julie.

“My foster parents were amazing,” she remembers.

“On mufti day I naturally wore a dress at school and was told to go back home and change but Colin came to the school and was in my corner for me.”

Colin and Julie were there to support Cruella through her transition – which started after a private and lengthy evening appointment with her GP. Following intervention from the renowned Tavistock Clinic in London, things improved at school and she was able to obtain the powerful female hormones needed to reverse as much as possible of the ‘damage’ done to her by puberty.

“Puberty was so vicious to me,” she says, explaining the horror of watching her male characteristics develop. “It was like being stabbed; every day I’d say to my body ‘please, please don’t do this to me’.

“At the time it was law that you could only have hormone blockers at 16 but by that time I’d got most of my facial hair, and my hands and feet had grown.”

No transgender woman wants big hands, she says.

And so, inevitably, it is time to ask her about the issue that dominates the curiosity of non-trans people; realignment surgery – the removal or creation of appropriate genitalia.

And this is where Cruella delivers the greatest surprise of all.

“You can have an orchidectomy; removal of the testicles,” she says. “But not every trans person, including me, wants that; for many of us it’s not a goal.” She was once determined to have it but as the hormones kicked in and her body ‘started doing the things I wanted it to’ she changed her mind.

For many trans people, she says, obtaining the expensive hormones and the NHS treatment required to keep galloping facial and body hair at bay can be more important.

“The hormones only do so much and so you need laser hair removal but the NHS will only pay for so much.”

To get the money for the rest, she says, in order to have what are called ‘passing privileges’ (passing as the sex you transition to which leads to less unwelcome attention), many trans people feel forced to work in the sex industry. “I think nearly all my transgender female friends might be selling their bodies to pay for their treatment and I feel the NHS has to wake up to that,” she says, sadly.

She understands people’s fascination with realignment, however.

“It’s completely understandable but you wouldn’t start a conversation with someone about their genitals, would you?” she giggles.

Her lightness is a direct contrast to her bleak teenage years, although she is now reconciled with her parents after spotting them cheering her on at a Bournemouth Pride parade.

She works as a carer and make-up artist and is currently working towards becoming Miss Transgender UK – which takes place in the autumn, involving herself in charity work for the Make A Wish Foundation. Every donation to her page counts as a vote, she says.

Her name, Cruella Howard, is her tribute to one of her style icons, Cruella de Vil, from 101 Dalmatians infamy.

“I didn’t like her being cruel to the puppies, I love animals,” she says. “It’s more her fashion and style that I love. And anyway, how many Sarahs and Charlottes are there in this world?”

The reason she’s decided to speak out are three-fold. She’d like as much local support as possible for her Miss Transgender UK bid. She wants to raise awareness of trans issues. But, most surprisingly and wonderfully of all, she wants us non-trans types to know this: “The reason why I’m so open is because I feel it’s such a blessing, it’s such a positive thing,” she says.

“If you asked trans people about what it would be like to be trans without the abuse and rejection they would say they feel amazing.

“Being transgender is a beautiful thing and people need to know that.”

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