AFTER decades spent living in fear, Swindon’s transgender community has broken its silence in a bid, at last, to put the T in LGBT.
"WE want to be treated like human beings," declares Jeremy Farmer rising from his seat, his fellow 'trans' activists nodding in agreement.
While great strides have been achieved in championing lesbian, gay and bisexual rights in recent years, the transgender community has remained widely marginalised from society and even, to a lesser extent, within the LGBT movement itself.
Forced into hiding or cowed by transphobia, fear of gratuitous attacks or rejection far too long, a courageous band of transgender campaigners in Swindon has launched the TransSwindon action group in a bid to take the fight for social acceptance and legal reform out in the open.
"We want to get it out in the public, be more proactive so these issues become as everyday as LGB's," added the 49-year-old group chairman, who began living as a man nine years ago.
"We are way behind LGB - the T is forgotten about. We have no equality in marriage, in the work place, our employment rights are inexistent, we get abuse. It's about liberties and acceptance."
"The perceptions need to change," added fellow member Laura Steel, 29, who came out as transgender in 2011 and started transitioning to female in 2012. "We are seen as second-class citizens."
The new campaign group was born out of the existing Swindon TransGender Group, which for the past has 26 years has offered support and a safe and friendly environment for transgender people to finally be themselves.
Not content to remain in the shadows, TransSwindon's members have come out publicly, sharing their harrowing and often traumatic journeys to raise awareness of the discrimination, intolerance and psychological issues facing transgender people.
One of the campaigners' main objectives is to shed light on the contempt and brutality encountered daily by an isolated community and the authorities' reluctance and even failure, at times, to intervene.
Lucy Vallender, 30, was repeatedly attacked in her hometown until finally she moved to Swindon for her own safety.
She claims prosecutors brushed off her allegations and refused to take legal action even after eleven assaults.
"I came out to my mum in 1998," she explained. "She didn't take it very well so I suppressed it for many years, to the point where I couldn't take it anymore. When I started dressing as a woman I was attacked and assaulted. I reported it many times. But the Crown Prosecution Service said prosecuting was not in the public interest.
"There is a lot of transphobia. People call you names; and officers stop and search you. You are bullied and made to feel like a criminal. We are trying to change things and protect people in the community. There is a lot of discrimination and poverty in the trans community because you always have to look down a peg when you're looking for a job. There is no protection for us, no help."
Tazmin Prosser, 41, from Swindon, started transitioning two years ago, despite knowing from the age of 13 she was a "woman trapped in a man's body". Feeling powerless and inadequate, she repressed her true identity which led to decades of self-harming.
"I put myself in hospital - I tried hanging myself and took two overdoses," she reveals candidly. "I got married, had children but it was now or never when I decided to transition. I should have done this years ago.
"It not easy. I got rejection from my family - they haven't disowned me but because I have two kids they don't think it's right."
Even when their families embrace their transition, the psychological ramifications of identifying with the opposite gender are not to be underestimated. It is a very long and choppy road for those considering gender reassignment surgery. They must undergo therapy and wait an average of two years before being allowed to take their transition to the next stage.
Yet as it stands, people transitioning in the region must travel either to Charing Cross in London or Exeter to receive counselling for sessions of up to an hour, a maximum of every six weeks.
With around 200 known 'trans' in and around Swindon alone, TransSwindon is determined to offer counselling in the town both to those struggling emotionally and physically through their transition and people having difficulty coming to terms with gender dysphoria (a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity).
Counsellor Janey Templer-Milligan recently approached the group to offer help to current and future members in their hometown.
"If I had counselling and more information when I was a lot younger, a lot of the problems I suffered would not have happened," added Laura Steel, from Chippenham. "For a long time I suppressed it. When I started questioning my gender it resulted in depression."
Alarmingly, 48 per cent of transgender people under 25 alone admitted to having attempted suicide in 2014, while 59 per cent had considered doing so. It has been claimed the suicide attempt rate could be reduced by 93 per cent if counselling and emotional support became widely available.
As such the group is hoping to reach out to those living each day in fear before they come to harm or take their own lives.
Like many in her community, Laura Smallwood contemplated suicide as the only way out before gathering up the strength to live as the woman she always knew she was.
"I went through all these phases of buying women's clothes and wearing them in private or I would go out in public if it was dark but then you're at risk going out like that at night - it's dangerous," said the 47-year-old from Calne. "Then I would purge, I would throw them away. It's really destructive. I was in a really dark place. I was seriously considering doing something unforgivable, jumping off a bridge. My family is catholic and Catholics are really down on anything LGB or T. So I was hesitant to come out. I did some research online on the transgender community and it suddenly clicked. I thought, 'Why can't I be like that, why can't I go and be myself?' I went to Swindon TransGender Group. I wish I had known the group existed sooner.
"The group is a bit of a secret though. It has its place and purpose but with TransSwindon we wanted to go out there in the public."
TransSwindon is also determined to challenge a legal system which still strips transgender people of their basic human rights through legislation such as the so-called 'spousal veto'. Currently, if someone is married and seeking a Gender Recognition Certificate, the document that allows someone to change their legal gender, they must receive permission from their spouse.
This means the decision is taken entirely out of their hands.
Despite numerous obstacles ahead, members are resolved to break a deep-rooted stigma and blow a wind of change for generations to come.
"It's an exciting time for us," added Laura Smallwood with a smile. "We are putting a face to these issues and changing perceptions of who we are. We are transgender and proud."
To find out more about TransSwindon go to transswindon.wordpress.com or email TransSwindon@gmail.com.