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What do you do when your daddy says he wants to be your mummy?

Claire McNeilly hears the extraordinary story of a woman trapped in a man's body for 60 years and her relationship with her pastor son


Frances and Tim Shiels are coming to terms with their new relationship

Frances and Tim Shiels are coming to terms with their new relationship

Kevin Scott

Frances and Tim Shiels are coming to terms with their new relationship

Meet Frances Shiels - the woman who says she was trapped in a man's body for 60 years.

Frances' Story - 'It pains me that my decision to be me has had a fallout on those I love most in the world'

Growing up as John Francis, and known to everyone as Frank, the Londonderry native who was born in the Bogside said she always knew she wasn't really a man.

Nevertheless, 'Frank' did try to conform to social norms by getting married and having two children - but the strain of living a lie eventually took its terrible toll.

Now though, and despite a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and subsequent transition, there is no happy-ever-after for Frances, who has found that following her heart has harsh consequences.

"People have been mean and abusive," she admitted.

"They consciously mis-gender me, and still call me 'sir' in a restaurant or coffee shop. It even happens on the phone when I answer it 'Frances Olive'.

"I also don't have any public social media presence because I've been forced off it by bullies."

For the 67-year-old former statistician, who has lived in south Belfast for two and a half years, it's also a lonely road.

"I'm the oldest of seven children and only two of my siblings are totally accepting and embracing of my identity," said Frances, who has had two surgeries under the NHS and has met the criteria for being legally female.

Wearing fashionable glasses with green rims and dressed in a baby pink leather jacket and a long multi-coloured pink and black dress for our interview, stylish Frances is far removed from her previous incarnation.

But she said she has always "known who I am from my absolute earliest memory", adding that "for a long time in my teens I thought I was schizophrenic - or mad, but I didn't tell anyone".

I remember going through puberty and not being physically attracted to boys or girls

Indeed, as a young boy, Frances even considered becoming a priest.

"I remember going through puberty and not being physically attracted to boys or girls so I thought I'd been given a gift from God," she said.

"So I considered the priesthood and I spent time going to two different seminaries in Co Cavan and Co Dublin for quite a while from when I was aged 13 to 18. I thought God wanted me for the priesthood and was making it easy for me to cope with a life of celibacy."

But after "praying for a sign" around the age of 17 he didn't get one and went home from a seminary "confused" and "uninterested in relationships with girls other than as friends".

Frank was 22 when he got married to a girl he went to primary school with and had known all his life. She was also his best friend for decades.

The couple, now divorced, had two children - son Tim, the 44-year-old pastor of Omagh Community Church who continues to stand by the person he still calls 'daddy'; and a daughter with whom she has no current contact. Although they are now estranged, Frances, who's now a policy advisor for FOCUS: The Identity Trust, said his ex was the first person who knew of his personal struggles.

"My ex-wife knew for a long number of years but I don't think she recognised the full import of it," Frances said. "She misinterpreted the cross-dressing. Suffice to say we both recognised that it was an issue. We did attempt to live with it for approximately 20 years before I couldn't survive any longer.

"When my ex-wife discovered my identity we tried to continue on as things were before with the elephant in the room.

"I embraced it all and tried to be the best possible father, husband, brother and manager. I did the absolute best I could."

In 2012 Frances and his ex-wife went together to get help from the NHS. That journey ended with an operation that marked the start of the transition. During years peppered with bouts of depression, anxiety, unemployment and social phobia, Frances revealed that she had also attempted suicide three times and had been considering it again before going to her GP in great distress "aiming to complete suicide" but "not wanting to put that burden on my family".

Frances was finally officially referred to the regional gender identity service by a consultant psychiatrist in 2000 but relations with his wife, whom he no longer sees, broke down in 2012 and they parted ways.

"My ex always made it very clear that it was totally unacceptable to her that I would cross-dress, that I would express my true identity in public and it was coming to an absolute crisis," she said. "The amount of pain that we were both undergoing ... it became impossible for me to bear it any longer and I was literally at the stage of choosing whether to be or not to be."

It pains me that my decision to be me has had a fallout on those who I love the most

Frances is extremely conscious of the hurt and turmoil she has caused to her nearest and dearest, who may never come to understand her motivations.

"It pains me that my decision to be me has had a fallout on those who I love the most in the world, those people I continue to love," she said. "The feeling of isolation is at times almost unbearable."

But that said, she's convinced it's better being Frances than denying her true self.

"I am immeasurably more comfortable as me," she said. "This whole journey has been about resolving my inner conflict and I have done that. I'm totally comfortable in my own identity and I don't have to fight that any more."

Yet there remains the guilt of bringing the challenge of her identity to her son and family.

"A lot of things happen to transgender individuals like me and they're largely down to societal attitudes but they affect the people around me," she admitted. "There is transphobia all around me.

"My ex-wife and my family would have experienced that sort of societal transphobia and I feel guilty because if I wasn't transgender none of this would be happening. Timothy has been able to transcend all that because he knows the true me."

For Frances, though, this rocky road leads to her future path of choice. "I always thought I had some sort of a calling," she said.

"Now I'm convinced my vocation is to shed some light for society for those transgender people yet to be born.

"I'm still here and the purpose of my being is to help change society's attitude to people like me and to make people realise we're not mad and we don't have two heads.

"God created us the same way He created everyone else."


Tim and Frances Shiels together

Tim and Frances Shiels together

Kevin Scott

Tim and Frances Shiels together

Tim's Story: 'I accept it as Frances's reality but I don't approve of it... we've agreed to disagree'

Pastor Tim Shiels thought he'd already dealt with everything this world could throw at him.

The 44-year-old had been a homeless drug addict, spent five stints in rehab and tried to take his own life before eventually getting clean and turning his life around.

But the Omagh man, who is no stranger to battling for survival, was destined to face yet another bump in the long and tortuous road after his father told him he'd always felt like a woman trapped in a man's body.

"I honestly thought I had seen it all," he said. "It was around the beginning of 2012. The exact date is a mystery to all of us at this stage - we've all been through so much already.

"But what do you do when your daddy sits down at your kitchen table and essentially tells you that he wants to become your mammy?"

He added: "My understanding or ignorance of gender dysphoria was limited to what I'd seen on Coronation Street [with Hayley Cropper, a male-to-female transgender character]."

Sitting in the lobby of a hotel, with his divorced dad who now identifies as a female, Frances, the father-of-four and pastor of Omagh Community Church speaks candidly about the shocking revelation from almost eight years ago.

I accept it as Frances's reality but I don't approve of it, nor do I agree with it. Ultimately, we've agreed to disagree

But Tim, who still calls his father 'daddy', also confided that while he "accepts" that Frances believes he was always a woman, he refuses to accept his father's assessment that it's a medical, rather than psychological, condition.

"That's where the tension exists between him and me," he said. "I accept it as Frances's reality but I don't approve of it, nor do I agree with it. Ultimately, we've agreed to disagree."

Describing his conflicted feelings following the admission made by his father - who used to be called John Francis, better known as 'Frank' - Tim said he was angry and "wanted to poke his eyes out".

"It was a wave of emotion, going from shock into a processing of 'What do you mean? That's nuts. Daddy are you okay?'," he recalled.

"As Frances was sharing this story I remember pausing and asking myself, 'What do I do? I'm a pastor, I love God'. So I asked Jesus, 'What would you do?'

"That was the default setting for everything else that would follow, and I just felt my spirit telling me 'You've just got to hold his hand' even though I wanted to run."

Tim cannot, however, remember if he did physically take his father's hand.

"Neither one of us can remember the exact moment," he said. "I'd like to think I held his hand, but I knew the message was that I had to maintain the relationship and journey with this. It would, however, have been easier to run."

That made Jennie very angry. She was counting the cost and the impact of this on the kids

After sharing the news with wife Jennie (43), a midwife, she requested a "lead-in time" where their children - Sian and Oisin (then aged 12), Aoife (8) and Cadhla (1) - could continue to see "Grandad Frank".

"Frances wasn't up for that - as far as she was concerned the decision had been made and we had to get up to speed with it," Tim said.

"That made Jennie very angry. She was counting the cost and the impact of this on the kids.

"We felt we were being told that this is the beat of the drum, and you're either in or out.

"I felt that I'd already made the decision (that I was in), but everybody else then had to make their own."

Tim said that when they told the children they were "met with blank faces". He then told them he wasn't going to "force them to be in any relationship they didn't want to be in".

Although Jennie has yet to meet Frances due to "all the complexities of the situation", Tim told how the older three children initially "decided that they wanted to hang out".

"We went to a cafe and it was very difficult," he recalled.

"Frances was described as a man and being greeted as 'Sir'... and in their heads everybody was looking at them.

"So you've got an eight-year-old and two 12 year olds looking at someone who's supposed to be their granddad but presenting themselves as a female.

In the end they all felt it was easier to not engage with the emotion and the abnormality, so now there's no contact

"The reality is their granddad was there, looking like a woman. It didn't make sense to them, they felt so uncomfortable with and decided it was too much for them.

"In the end they all felt it was easier to not engage with the emotion and the abnormality, so now there's no contact."

Explaining gender dysphoria to them wasn't enough to make them understand their granddad's new persona, as Tim added: "I'm 44 and I still can't make sense of it."

He added: "Our youngest journeyed the longest but the turning point for Cadhla was two summers ago when we were walking up the quay on the River Foyle and she found it incredibly difficult and very uncomfortable to have everyone looking at us."

Recalling the words the consultant used to describe how his father had been feeling pre-transition - "it's like a cooker standing in the mirror and seeing a fridge" - Tim said he accepts the analogy and hopes it will "help people understand the complexity of this issue".

"We've got to accept there are people in our community who are suffering like that on a daily basis," he added.

In his role as a Church leader, Tim said none of his congregation have rebuked him for his dad's decision. On the contrary his "incredible Church family" have been very supportive.

"As Frances and I have journeyed together, I'm in a more authoritative position to speak into this and I've become more public and I'm travelling across the UK and Ireland to speak to churches," he said.

"More often than not the reality of the Church is that we look at people as problems to be fixed but regardless of how Frances is today, my daddy is not a problem to be fixed. He's a person to be loved."

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