Living the dream: Hollyoaks star Annie Wallace on being the first trans actor in a trans role to be nominated for a Scottish Bafta

From Herald Scotland – 6th November 2016

Annie Wallace was sitting in her flat the other day speaking to one of her cats. “You know what,” she said. “I’m an actress on a really good soap on television, I’m famous, and I’m getting award nominations.” The cat, because it’s a cat, didn’t show much interest in the comment, but for Wallace it was a useful moment: a reminder to herself about what has happened to her in the last two years and a chance to articulate what she has achieved. “When I say it out loud, it sounds ridiculous,” she says. “It’s a dream that I had, but I thought I would never achieve.”

The dream was to become an actor, but two years ago it looked like it might never happen. Wallace was in her late 40s, she was working in a college repairing computers and she was also transgender and had not told any of her friends or colleagues. “I kept it very much to myself,” she says. “I just had normal jobs, I kept my head down, I didn’t want to be outed and I did not want to be in the press. But at the same time I did want to be an actor and I had a dilemma – if I became an actor, I was aware that at some point I would have to come out as trans because otherwise somebody would discover I was trans and I thought I’d rather that I was out before that happened.”

In the end, Wallace used her 50th birthday last year as the catalyst for change. Her friends saw her as just another female colleague, but she came out to them as trans and within a few months she had won the part of headmistress Sally St Claire in the Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks. The 51-year-old Scottish actress has now been in the show for just over a year and tonight at the Scottish Baftas in Glasgow, she is up for best television actress, making her the first trans actor in a trans role to be nominated. When she speaks to me from Liverpool where Hollyoaks is made, she says she is still getting used to it all. She’s chuffed and honoured and flattered, she says, and a bit thrown.

One reason for her feeling “a bit thrown” may be that the change that has led to Wallace winning the nomination seems to have come so quickly. There have been prominent trans characters in soaps before – indeed, in the late 1990s Wallace worked as an advisor on the character of Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street and many of the character’s storylines were based on what happened to Wallace in real life. But something seems to have changed in the last few years – there are many more trans characters on television, as well as more trans actors, and now Wallace is the first ever transgender person to play a regular transgender character in a UK soap opera.

Wallace thinks the start of the change came in 2013. “There was a bit of pressure I think from trans actors who did exist but didn’t feel that they were getting a look-in with mainstream entertainment,” she says. “But what happened after that is the programme-makers started to embrace trans actors and realised they had some people out there who can represent trans people in an authentic manner and be entertaining. So it’s not just box-ticking, it’s actually expanding the pool of available talent. And I was lucky to be caught up in it.”

Wallace makes a list of the recent breakthroughs in popular culture: the trans character Kyle Slater in EastEnders, the sitcom Boy Meets Girl about the relationship between a man and a trans woman, and of course her own role in Hollyoaks. Such characters appearing on television day in, day out, she says, will help de-stigmatise trans people; Wallace also hopes to help by talking about her own experiences as a trans woman, although she says it is not necessarily very easy for her to do so.

“I’m talking about the transgender issue a lot more than I used to,” she says, “and I am having to dig deep about it because a couple of years ago I was working in an office mending computers and not even thinking about the trans word at all.”

The change for Wallace came in May last year when she decided at the age of 50 that she would reveal to her friends that she was transgender. “A third of them had kind of guessed, a third of them thought about it and another third had no idea so when I came out, it was a big surprise. There were lots of cheers and support, there was no negativity at all.”

It had taken Wallace 25 years to do it though, having transitioned in 1990. “I was 24,” she says, “and at that time, the gay community was going through a terrible time with Section 28, there was the Aids crisis, gay people were being absolutely pilloried. So you can imagine that trans people came several rungs below that, so it was terrifying. Trans people were being beaten up constantly – newspapers were regularly outing trans people. So for me, I just wanted to keep my head down – I just wanted a job and a flat and a cat.”

It didn’t help that Wallace grew up in Aberdeen where there was no support network for trans people. “There were a few gay support groups and I think one gay bar. At that time there was no support for trans people – I went to a support group in Edinburgh about once a month for about a year before I transitioned because I needed help and advice. I was hugely isolated – I had no close peer group. What I did was very much a solo pursuit but once I transitioned and I got a job and I blended in and I made some girlfriends and we would go out Saturday night – I just did what other women did because they didn’t know, I was below their radar, I wasn’t obviously trans and that’s when I felt that I was living the life of a normal person for the first time.”

Wallace’s relationship with her family was much harder though and in the 1990s she decided to move to Falkirk with a friend to set up a computer business but also to escape some of the difficult relationships in her family – both her parents were shocked when she told them she was trans, but her father took it particularly badly.

“He wouldn’t see me for 15 years so it was a pretty bad time between me and my dad,” she says. “Mum came round really quickly and was very supportive, but whenever I went home, I would see Mum but I wouldn’t see Dad. It was very hurtful but there was nothing I could do because he just couldn’t handle it – he was an old-fashioned Aberdonian who I think if I had turned round and said I was gay he would have had the same reaction. He didn’t understand anything other than the black and white of man/woman, boy/girl.”

However, a reconciliation of sorts happened in 2006. “My father had a big health scare,” says Wallace, “and I think he got a grasp of his own mortality and realised he did not have all the time in the world so one Christmas, I turned up to visit my mum and my dad was still there and normally he went out for a walk and it was like, ‘What’s dad doing here?’ and he said, ‘Oh hello, come in, do you want a beer, do you want a whisky?’ And I was floored because he was literally determined to be ‘business as before’ and he never mentioned anything about being trans. He just went into denial about it. So we had a relationship of sorts back – he wasn’t a huggy person either, he was very distant and he was always like that.”

What Wallace does regret is that, although there was a reconciliation, her father did not live to see her success in Hollyoaks (he died in 2014); she was also never able to talk to him about much of her life, about her ambition to become an actor and her work for the charity Press for Change. It was through her work for the trans charity that she was asked to help as a researcher on Coronation Street; Wallace had always dabbled in acting and saw it as a great opportunity, so she moved to Manchester.

She says that her time with Corrie was very important to her. Hayley was exactly like her when she first came out, she says – nervous and shy – but Wallace is proud of what Hayley became: the first prominent trans character that British audiences had really seen. “For that to be on Coronation Street, the most popular programme in the country, was entirely groundbreaking,” says Wallace, “and it really did an awful lot to promote public understanding.”

However, Wallace believes there is still work to be done and points to the furore over the Mail On Sunday’s recent story about the BBC children’s series Just A Girl, which follows a fictional 11-year-old who takes hormones to suppress the onset of puberty – the headline in the paper was “Fury at BBC sex change show for six-year-olds”. The Daily Mail also recently published a story about claims that the transgender children’s charity Mermaids had “bullied” a school into supporting a mother’s wish that her son should wear a dress. Wallace is still fuming about it all.

“It’s a very retrograde step for any publication to be attacking Just A Girl,” she says. “Mermaids, a charity that I support, are also very well respected and they are by no means irresponsible – everything is really cautious and informed and parent-led. They are organised and careful and are interested in the child coming first. So I don’t really know why the Mail have decided to hop on the bandwagon. They are being probably as cruel to trans people as I have ever seen in recent memory and it’s very disappointing.”

In some ways, though, Wallace is not surprised by the tabloid reaction as, despite all the positive role models on television we’ve discussed today, she still believes that, on the whole, trans people are about 30 years behind gay people in terms of visibility. She also believes the law needs to be changed so that trans people can more easily change their legal gender. The system at the moment requires a trans person to appear before a gender recognition panel, and it is expensive and intrusive; Wallace would like to see the law changed so that trans people themselves can determine their gender – something which the Scottish Government has promised to do.

The alternative – that many trans people continue to live without legal recognition – was illustrated in a recent Hollyoaks storyline, when Wallace’s character Sally was accused of pushing another character, Myra, downstairs and faced the prospect of going to prison. The problem was that Sally had not applied for a gender recognition certificate and would probably be sent to a men’s prison if she was found guilty – something that happens in real life. “In certain parts of the country,” says Wallace, “they will be really strict about it and will send people to a prison of their legal gender and that means they will send you to the wrong prison if you do not have the right certificate.”

The good news is that there is the prospect of reform – late last year, the UK Government announced a review of the policy after the suspected suicide of a trans woman, Vicki Thompson, in a men’s prison in Leeds. But for Wallace the fact that trans people can find it so hard to win legal recognition of their gender is an illustration of how much more progress is still needed.

“And that’s why when certain newspapers come out with hate stories, it’s very disappointing because it undoes a lot of good work of being patient and explaining and answering questions. Nobody is beating a drum and saying we are militant trans people, it’s a case of we want to win over hearts and minds and explain to people and most do understand and they embrace it.”

Wallace also believes that programmes like Hollyoaks will do their bit to win over the hearts and minds and it’s obvious that the show has also brought Wallace a lot of personal satisfaction and happiness. “I hate that word ‘grounded’,” she says, “but it’s very much the case.” She can go home to the cat, she says, put on her pyjamas and sit down in front of the telly the same as she’s always done. But she can also, for the first time in the history of television, see a number of characters on screen that reflect who she is. It’s a breakthrough and, in Annie Wallace’s eyes, hopefully the beginning of something better.