Pioneering BBC DJ Stephanie Hirst, who garnered millions of listeners before transitioning in the public eye, has hailed the importance of International Transgender Day of Visibility.
The presenter and activist will take to the airwaves tonight to celebrate the momentous day as Channel 4’s voice announcer from 6pm, which will be interspersed with short clips retelling her inspiring story.
Speaking to Gay Times, Stephanie urged trans people fearful about their future not to suffer in silence: “Talk to someone, help is out there, you are most certainly not alone. If you’re questioning your gender, confide in someone.
“We don’t need to lose another life to this. It may seem like a long journey, but you’ll never regret it – I’ve met hundreds of trans people and none of them have.”
She also explained why today’s celebration, as the world recognises the achievements and promotes the visibility of transgender people, is so necessary: “Hopefully, in years to come, we won’t need it, but right now it’s vital. It’s a celebration of authenticity.
“It’s important for other trans people, but it also educates the public – and education is why we’ve come so far in such a short space of time. It’s really important to tell them that all I and other trans people are doing is correcting a birth defect.
“It gets it onto the newsfeeds, onto Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and people see me or they read about me and get educated.”
Stephanie heaped praise onto British media for their progress in promoting diverse voices: “All the broadcasters have a responsibility to be diverse – British broadcasters, especially the BBC, nail it, they’re amazing when it comes to diversity. Just look at BBC3 and the stories that are shared.
“The BBC were at the forefront of this – in 1979 they commissioned a programme, The Change of Sex, a man called George was transitioning to Julia, and that got 21 million viewers. That was before social media. It was pioneering television, and a real pioneering commission by the BBC.”
Stephanie said she knew two things as a child – “I wasn’t a boy, and I loved TV and radio” – and she began to forge a high-flying career on the airwaves, winning millions of listeners, but “at weekends while my parents were out, I was in my mother’s wardrobe.
“When you’ve been out and had a few drinks with your friends, you wake up the next day and feel disjointed from reality – I felt like that as a child, a teenager, into my twenties, and my early thirties.”
Having built a fantastic radio career including, as she puts it, a six-figure salary and an Aston Martin on the drive, she faced a crossroads between continuing in the same vein or confronting the secret that was destroying her: “Why would I blow that up? Why would I throw a grenade into that charmed life? Because I wasn’t being authentic.
“I was on the edge of suicide, I used to drive home on the motorway, I’d get to a certain point and nearly drive into the central reservation. Then one sunny day I looked at my sofa and thought ‘I can get a new sofa, I can get a new car, it doesn’t matter – what matters is being authentic and true to myself’.”
After speaking with an old friend who she had confided in when she was 17, and explaining that she “wanted to die”, she was convinced to see her GP, and from there her new life began.
She announced her transition live on air on the BBC’s Stephen Nolan programme, and left her job at Capital Radio, where she had entertained legions of listeners for 11 years with her show Hirsty’s Daily Dose. She originally planned to transition in secret and retire from radio, but an old employer contacted her and said, “You could save a life by doing this publicly” – his words, she said, echoed in her mind, and she took the inspiring step of staying in the public eye during her journey.
The BBC welcomed Stephanie back to radio with open arms in 2015, where her career has since flourished with a weekly Vinyl show and appearances on BBC Breakfast, BBC Inside Out, as well as writing in various national newspapers.
“As soon as I transitioned, my whole world became in colour, I got clarity for the very first time. I can see clearly now, there’s no fog, and I feel so wonderful to be able to walk back into a radio studio and be myself and do what I do: connect with the audience. Being trans doesn’t define me – I’m just a broadcaster. The team at Salford Media City have been unbelievable.”
Although Stephanie’s story had a happy ending, she’s conscious that others are still facing adversity.
“I shake my head at the bathroom bills in America, they’re based on ignorance and religion,” she said. “There’s not one incident of a trans person attacking a child in a bathroom in America. I hope to god that this would never happen here in Britain. It troubles me but I try to look on the positive side – I hope educating people will make them see sense.”
She has since attained icon status within the trans community – she made The Independent’s Rainbow List, which celebrates the positive contribution made by LGBT people, two years running, speaks to countless trans people in need and receives many Facebook messages from people struggling with the very same thing she once faced.
“I thought I’d lose everything,” she confessed, “but in the end, I gained everything.”
Words Jonathan Shiel