‘Some men with trans women keep them in the shadows. I’m lucky Max doesn’t care’
Juno Dawson has had a long, often heartbreaking struggle to become the woman she always knew she was. But she never dared to dream she’d find a man who’d love that woman. Eimear O’Hagan hears the story of a thoroughly modern romance
With just three months to go before they marry, Juno Dawson and her fiancé Max Gallant are brimming with excitement as they discuss their wedding plans. The venue – an artist’s former home in the South Downs National Park – is booked, a vintage Vivienne Westwood gown hangs in Juno’s wardrobe and the guest list has been drawn up, ready for invitations to be posted.
Just one aspect of this visibly besotted pair’s day sets them apart from thousands of other couples who will say ‘I do’ this summer. When Juno walks down the aisle on her father’s arm, it will be a major milestone in the journey she’s been on for the past nine years, which has seen her transition from the male body she was born in, to becoming a trans woman.
‘Before I transitioned, I wasn’t interested in marriage,’ says Juno, 38, a bestselling novelist and journalist. ‘I was really uncomfortable with any sort of traditional “boy role” and being a groom is one of the most gendered roles we place on any human. But after I began this journey in 2011, when I thought about being a bride it made much more sense, in the same way all of my life made more sense to me then.’
For Max, 26, who proposed last November with a platinum and diamond ring at their home in Worthing, West Sussex, what’s important is marrying the Juno he met 18 months ago, not the person she was in the past.
‘I would always have fallen in love with Juno, no matter when we had met,’ he says. ‘But I’m glad it happened at a time when we can live our life together, and love one another openly. I’ve known since before I met her she was a trans woman, as she put it on her dating profile, but it’s just not something that matters to me.’
Juno was 30 when she made the decision to begin transitioning, but there were clues long before that she was in the wrong body. ‘When I was really young I used to ask when I would turn into a girl. I loved Barbie dolls and always had to be Daphne from Scooby-Doo when I played with my friends. But it went much further than that. When I imagined myself as a teenager or adult, it was always as a female. My internal vision of myself was never as a boy.
‘My parents took me to a doctor because they were concerned what I was saying wasn’t normal. Nowadays it’s more likely a professional would question if I was transgender, but this was Bradford in the 1980s and there just wasn’t the same awareness and education there is today. As I got older, I learned to hide those feelings because I was made fun of.’
Aged 12, Juno came to the conclusion that she was gay after realising she was attracted to men. ‘I fell in love with the actor Dean Cain, who played Superman in the 90s TV series at the time. It was a weight off my shoulders because I’d struggled to see a future, not sure of who I really was. But at least now I could imagine love in my life, and I was excited. I came out to some friends when I was 15 and to my mum when I was 20, although she already knew. In fact, it was she who initiated the conversation.’
Although she felt she’d found her place, living as a gay man, Juno wasn’t completely content. ‘There was a sense of belonging and community. I knew who I fancied, could go on dates and have relationships, fulfilling that very human need to find love. But I couldn’t stop the “what if” thoughts. “If I was a girl I could do this, or go out with him.” They were present in my mind through my teens and 20s. I figured out my sexuality very young – I like men and have never had a relationship with a woman – but what I didn’t realise then is that sexuality and gender are two completely different concerns.’
‘It was more important to be Juno than to have a boyfriend’
Then Juno had her lightbulb moment. ‘I was writing a book and for my research met lots of gay, bi and transgender people. Speaking to the trans women and trans men, they were retelling my childhood back to me. I could see all my thoughts and feelings in them. It hit me that my childhood experiences were more consistent with trans people than gay people.
‘I told friends, who were incredibly supportive, and urged me to see a professional – which I did.’ But telling her parents that she was transitioning was a far harder conversation than coming out as gay. ‘They had assumed I was gay before I told them, whereas they didn’t expect this at all. Although, once my mum had dealt with the shock, she did say she probably should have seen it coming after I’d asked her, aged three, “Am I a girl?’’’
Juno has now had all her surgery (including a nose job and facial feminisation) but will continue to take hormone replacement therapy for life. She refuses to discuss whether she has had gender reassignment surgery, which changes genitalia from one gender to another. ‘I always call it the Dame Judi Dench test,’ she laughs. ‘Would you ask about her vagina?’
Before meeting Max, a retail manager, Juno had relationships with mixed success. ‘Some were lovely and we remain friends. But there were others for whom the attraction was the fact I am a trans woman, fulfilling some fantasy or curiosity on their part. A year before I met Max, I went on a date with a man who I later discovered had used a fake name and was married with a child. When I confronted him about it, he threatened to throw acid in my face. It’s a huge regret of mine that I didn’t report him to the police,’ she says.
‘When I began my transition, I didn’t know of a trans woman in a successful relationship with a man so I didn’t know if that would ever happen for me, but it was more important to be Juno than to have a boyfriend.’
Like many modern couples, Juno and Max ‘met’ on the dating app Tinder, in July 2018. ‘I was drawn to Juno’s profile because she’d written a bit about herself, whereas a lot of people just post photos and it’s impossible to get a sense of who they are,’ says Max. ‘I’ve only ever been attracted to women and she said she liked books, disliked mushrooms and that she was trans – so I wanted to get to know her.’
They arranged to meet for a drink in Hove, East Sussex, where Juno lived at the time, but she admits she set off for their first date with fairly low expectations. ‘I was excited about meeting this tall, handsome man with a big beard but I’d also just finished dating someone who’d completely wasted three months of my life. It’s fair to say I was a bit jaded.’
But that first date led to a second the very next day and, after a month’s separation when Juno flew to Australia and New Zealand for work, they reunited and haven’t looked back, buying a home together last year.
For Juno and Max, the meet-the-family milestone carried extra significance. ‘I introduced Juno to my family within a couple of months of meeting her,’ says Max. ‘I’d already told them she was a trans woman and it wasn’t an issue for them. Although some people would worry about their family’s reaction, I knew they would support my relationship, especially once they met her and saw how great she is.’
Juno and Max met on Tinder in 2018 and got engaged in November last year
Juno’s family also approve. ‘They really respect how he has treated me,’ she says. ‘He has committed and hasn’t messed me around. When Max told his parents he was dating a trans woman I was worried as you never know how people will react. But I really admired his no-fuss approach, getting it out of the way quickly. His family has been so lovely and chilled about it, as have his friends.
‘We are not unique but there are men out there who want to be with trans women and keep them in the shadows. I’m lucky to have found a man who doesn’t care. When Max and I are out in public we are treated like any other couple. It’s been around four years since anyone got my gender wrong.’
Max and Juno first discussed marriage just five months after meeting but got engaged last November, when Max presented Juno with a ring they’d chosen together. ‘We’ve set the date in June and are having a very relaxed, humanist ceremony,’ says Juno. In the eyes of the law, their marriage will be viewed as between a man and a woman, after she gained a Gender Recognition Certificate.
‘I had to send evidence to the Gender Recognition Panel, including sign-off from the doctor who treated me at the gender clinic. Then all my previous documents were destroyed and I was issued with a new birth certificate. For legal purposes, I was never male and never called my old name.’
For Juno, meeting Max has brought her happiness and a sense of serenity she was missing. ‘I’m not searching any more. I spent years looking for bliss in all the wrong places. Now I’m with a man I love as the gender I was meant to be. I feel at peace.’
Juno donated her fee for this feature to the Mermaids charity (mermaidsuk.org.uk). Hair and make-up: Annelie Bystrom at House of Juba using Nars and Maria Nila.