Spotlight On: Trans Activist Rebecca Tallon de Havilland

"There's a light shining on me and I want to be like a mirror that shines back on my community.”

Content warning: suicide, substance abuse 

Rebecca Tallon De Havilland has always been a fighter. She was the first trans woman in Ireland to receive a female passport and is now an important figure in trans and HIV awareness worldwide.

She knew that she was “in the wrong body” from a young age and seeing the first transgender Bond girl ‘Tula’ helped her realise what was possible.

“But that was Hollywood,” she explained, “What you can do in Hollywood, you can’t necessarily do in Ranelagh… So, I kind of dismissed it from my head.”

Having been expelled from school at the age of 15, she said, “People don’t realise it’s very hard to go to an all-boys school when you’re a girl.”

But she did feel “fortunate” to be a teen in the 70s, “The straight men were wearing platforms and long hair. And then of course, we had glam rock and we had David Bowie… So, I kind of escaped through that.”

By 17, Rebecca was styling hair for photoshoots and won young hairdresser of the year and a scholarship in London – a time that changed her life. Though she hadn’t knowingly come across any trans women yet, being exposed to “drags and gays” made her feel at home.

Rebecca became sought after in the fashion scene doing hair and makeup for shoots, eventually opening her own modelling agency in Dublin.

“I had an editorial in nearly every magazine at least once a month, if not a couple. They didn’t make money, but they kind of gave us the status we needed,” she said.

Although her success was on the rise, the life she knew was quickly ripped away from her when she was ‘outed’ on the front of a newspaper.

“To wake up one morning and be on the front page of every red top newspaper and have my whole story been exposed was tough. It was scary. And the only thing I could do was run away, tail between my legs, to London.”

At this time, Rebecca was in the process of transitioning. She likened it to the awkward stage of puberty: no matter what age you transition at, she said “You feel like you’re the ugliest.”

She had no money, and began working in bars and clubs, “to stay alive”.

“I got pretty badly abused and turned to sex work because I was broke and I needed to save money for my surgeries.”

Amidst this terrifying time, she received a positive result for AIDS and was given two years to live.

“I think that’s when I really went off the rails, because at this stage, I had nowhere to go, there was nowhere to hide. I found myself very alone. But I always had Soho,” she explained.

Soho was home to all those who felt “rejected”, where the lonely felt lonely together.

“I was a heroin addict, a crack addict. I suppose an alcoholic, I just didn’t realise it because I was drinking and drugging so much that I don’t think I ever got drunk.”

Rebecca found a surgeon to perform her “lower surgery”, and said she went through with it despite the health risks at the time.

“I often think it was more the will to be Rebecca that got me through it than anything else,” she said.

“I said [to the surgeon] ‘If I do [die], please, just get rid of it. Please don’t let me die the way I was born.’ And the surgeon promised me that he wouldn’t.”

Thankfully, the surgeries went well, but Rebecca was still dealing with addiction. After an attempted suicide, which she had alerted a friend about moments before, she was put on life support in Chelsea Westminster Hospital.

Once she was released, she had plans to try again, but they were interrupted.

She explained, “I didn’t realise I was on suicide watch. And then I was dragged kicking and screaming out of Tesco, and I was sectioned.

“That was my rock bottom, when I couldn’t go to the loo or do anything without somebody standing over me. And I thought, ‘oh my god, this must be prison.’ It was so bad. On April 3rd this year, that will have been 18 years ago, and I haven’t picked up a drink or a drug since.”

Rebecca reconnected with her family in 2009 and returned to Ireland. Shortly after, she discovered her co-worker was her daughter, whom she had had before transitioning. They found each other by chance and remain in each other’s lives today. She even has a granddaughter who is the “apple of [her] eye”.

She moved to Longford to be close to her mother, and quickly became the most sought-after hairdresser in the town, and “part of society in rural Ireland.”

Having kept her HIV a secret, she became very ill when her medication ran out. She was given 18-months to live, but something told her to get a second opinion. She found that there was medicine that could help her in London, so she headed back, determined to survive.

Homeless, living in B&Bs, and going to food banks in 2013, Rebecca stayed strong and hopeful. In 2015 she got the all clear. She explained, “I remember making a vow to myself that if I did get undetectable, I was going to come out of the shadows and I was going to talk.”

This was the beginning of the amazing work that Rebecca continues today.

She told her family and began to share her story. She also started ‘Project Bootcamp’ for trans girls to help with everything from hair and makeup to sexual health. Her work led her to brushing shoulders with Prince Harry, who then followed her on Twitter and helped her to get Kensington Palace as the location for her bootcamp graduations.

“Kensington Palace has become my second home, they’re such great allies. I do all the trans training for the Tower of London, for all the palaces, Hampton Court, Buckingham Palace, all of that. I’ve got free pass into all of them. Amazing, a little Irish girl!” she said.

Rebecca now runs a trans unit in Chelsea Westminster Hospital, the same hospital that she was on life support in just 17 years ago.

Project Bootcamp is still helping trans women in the UK, Ireland and worldwide and Rebecca continues her work for HIV awareness working with the NHS and HIV Ireland.

Her TV Show for Virgin Media, Rebecca’s Second Chances, is set to air in September and will see her help those who need a boost in their life.

Considering her own multiple close encounters with death, Rebecca said she feels that the reason she is still here is to help those who need her.

“The respect I’m getting now is huge. There’s a light shining on me and I want to be like a mirror that shines back on my community.”