Life as a transgender woman in Cork

Erica Coates, aged 65, from North Cork, was born male, but in recent years has lived life as a transgender woman. Here she shares her story with CHRIS DUNNE
Life as a transgender woman in Cork
WOW FEATURE Erica Coates

ALTHOUGH Erica Coates was assigned male at birth, the 65-year-old farmer from Kilinden, North Cork identified as female.

And it was only when she plucked up the courage and took the plunge in July, 2019, confiding in a friendly make-up assistant, that she announced she was transgender.

“I never felt like a boy,” says Erica, who is still amazed at the tremendous goodwill and messages of support conveyed to her after speaking on Liveline. She appeared on the Joe Duffy show, offering helpful advice to a transgender young man experiencing delays for his endocrinologist appointments.

“There is a buzz in the locality,” says Erica. “All my neighbours were listening in to Joe Duffy. I wasn’t aware of the discussion until a friend rang me and told me to listen in. She said ‘turn on the radio quick — there is somebody on struggling with gender issues.’”

Erica could identify with the young man who was affected by Covid-19, causing his medical appointments to be delayed.

“I wasn’t keen to talk on air,” admits Erica. “But I was always born and bred to help people out going back to my ancestor’s time if anyone had a problem. So when I was asked to give a positive message, I did my best. If I could save one life, I knew it would be worth it.

“The young man on the radio was struggling with gender issues most of his life, causing depression and anxiety. I was keen to help the caller.”

Erica is a celebrity in her neck of the woods.

“Some of the neighbours came and hugged and kissed me!” says Erica, laughing.

“I wasn’t keen to tell the whole world, helping people is my only goal, telling them there is light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes the fear of admitting something is worse than living with it.”

Erica’s positive message was heard loud and clear.

“Even my solicitor rang me to say he heard me on Liveline when he was driving in the car and he told me that he turned up the volume when I came on the radio,” says Erica.

“My dad, George, died three years ago and I am still in the process of sorting out the estate.”

Erica has a new look.

“I’m just back from the hairdressers,” she says.

“I have a new look. I love having my nails done and wearing jewellery. I’m booked into the beauticians next week!”

Erica embraces her femininity.

“I was always extremely feminine. After speaking to Jennifer in Debenhams I brought all my suits to the charity shop. I wear skirts and dresses all the time now.”

Erica had to live her life for six decades feeling disconnected from society and uncomfortable in her skin. But since meeting the friendly assistant on the Lancome counter who was so helpful, prompting Erica to open up to her, she has connected with her real identity, finding her true roots and an important part of her heritage.

“Since I was a child, all my life, I knew there was something a bit different about me,” says Erica.

She liked her own individual look.

“I always wanted to leave my hair long and I loved the idea of having earrings and jewellery. But I never knew anything about being transgender.”

Erica Coates with Shauna, Karen and Marion of Karen's Beauty Salon in Fermoy.
Erica Coates with Shauna, Karen and Marion of Karen's Beauty Salon in Fermoy.

It must have been lonely for Erica growing up in a rural farm not confiding in anyone?

“Growing up a boy in a rural area, these things weren’t talked about at the time,” says Erica.

“I never mentioned anything to my parents about how I felt. It was something I couldn’t bring myself to talk about. I think some of my friends had already figured things out but they wouldn’t say it to me.

“Years afterwards, I heard about gays and lesbians and I knew I wasn’t going down that road. I had heard of men becoming women and women becoming men but I didn’t think about the whys or the reasons.”

What were Erica’s schooldays like?

“I went to school in Glanmire,” says Erica. “There was a fair share of bullying went on. I was always very blonde and I wore glasses. I wanted to appear fashionable.”

Did she socialise in her youth?

“I went to dances. It was always girls I danced with,” says Erica.

“I preferred dancing in a group like people tend to do now.” But company was scarce and Erica spent long nights alone.

“Yes, it was very lonely,” recalls Erica. “You’d get very down. The love of my dogs kept me going.

“On the long winter nights I’d put the lights off and listen to classical music. I could lose myself in the music. That’s how I dealt with it.”

Times were different when Erica was growing up in the 60s and 70s.

“My dad was a very conservative-type person. Maybe if I came out and said it I might have been able to go down that road years ago. But I really couldn’t do it.”

But Erica, conflicted and confused, felt she had to tell someone.

“I just told my brother one day. ‘I don’t know whether you suspect or not’, I said. ‘But I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m transgender and I’m going with it. No ifs or buts about it’. The mind was such a state, I just had to do it in the end,” she says.

Erica, who rears cattle and is involved in tillage on the 65 acre family farm bordering Rathcormac, Watergrasshill, Ballyhooly and Glenville, lives with her three dogs, Sydney, Jacob and Kirstie.

“The neighbours and the whole community have been very supportive of me,” she says. “I’m getting loads of congratulations and messages saying; well done!”

Erica kept her real identity secret for years.

“The penny dropped with me when I was watching the Late Late show one Friday night and a guest on the show was talking about being transgender and making the change,” says Erica.

“I was in my 50s then and the conversation ticked all the boxes with me. I just kept it to myself for years and years.”

And then one day, someone genuine and kind crossed Erica’s path.

“I was in Cork city shopping and I stopped by the Lancome counter in Debenhams,” says Erica.

Jennifer had a lovely manner and a listening ear.

“She was the first person in the world that I told,” says Erica.

“A complete stranger!

“Jennifer was so friendly and so helpful that I announced I was a transgender. I was getting more feminine bit by bit but that day the gate opened.”

Erica never looked back.

“From that day on I was just going across that bridge and I wasn’t going to go back. And that was it.”

Erica got a new lease of life. She was free now to live her life.

“It was like a sentence over me. My body was free but my mind was inside in solitary confinement,” says Erica

“But that day the sentence came off and the gate was opened.”

Erica, diagnosed as having gender dysphoria, says with support from her GP, psychologist and the Cork Transgender Peer Support Group, she has continued her journey to become her true self.

Born Erica John, Erica Isobel is her own person now, there’s no going back.

“I got an ornamental Japanese tattoo on my left shoulder,” she says. “It says Erica Isobel. I can’t change that!”

“Since that time I crossed that bridge, people say to me, you’ve totally changed, you’re always happy now!”

Erica is happy that she can offer support and advice to others who might find themselves in a bad place mentally.

“We all know what mental struggles can lead to,” says Erica.

“I took the opportunity to speak up to try and help someone to go in the right direction.”

Erica is courageous. Her heart is in the right place.

“I thought it was my dark secret but I’m the same person I always was. One of the neighbours said, ‘we knew that for years but we couldn’t say it to you’. He said, ‘you are probably the most honest I’ve ever dealt with in my life and to be true to yourself you had to go with it.’ “Blue turned into pink and my life changed for the better!” says Erica.

Cork Transgender Peer Support Group is a confidential support group for people with a diagnosis, or awaiting a diagnosis of gender Identity Dysphoria. This group is for people who are planning, or in the process of going through their medical and social transition, and for those who have completed their transition. The group is a safe place to meet other transgender people to share experiences, make new friends, and avail of peer advice and support. The group for over 18s only meets on the first Monday of each month at the Inniscarrig Centre Western road, Cork at 7.30pm. Phone: 085-1935461. Cork Transgender Peer Support Group, is located at 4, South Terrace Cork.

I wasn’t keen to tell the whole world, helping people is my only goal, telling them there is light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes the fear of admitting something is worse than living with it.

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