ON SUNDAY, September 24, Sunderland's LGBT community will take to the streets in force, to be part of Pride, a city-wide celebration of sexual diversity and equality.
Among those marching with Pride - in every sense of the word - will be 58-year old Sunderland College lecturer, Steph Bloomfield, who - having lived as Steven for more than five decades - started to transition to female early last year.
The English tutor, a father to one daughter; and a son - who tragically passed away in 1997 - is 'trans and proud'.
"As a society, we label people; man, woman, gay, straight, bi, non-binary... Being trans is a label I accept. It's something I am immensely proud of, because for me, it means I am living – it was this or something else not worthy of thought.
"I'm also a father, and that is a label I accept too, because, not to do so would be to suggest I have regrets, and I don't. I told my daughter I was transgender before anyone else. She is the most important person to me."
Steph admits that from the age of 11, she started to feel 'different'.
"I didn't really know why and there wasn't a name for what I was experiencing then, but I just felt something wasn't right. It would have been impossible to talk about it then. It was the late sixties, early seventies."
Shelving her feelings, knowing she was not gay - "I was always attracted to women so that's been strange - to move from being a straight male, to a lesbian female," - she carried on with life, ‘doing everything that society expects of a man’.
"I became a soldier, then a fire officer, I like climbing mountains – still do. To anyone else, I was a normal guy, doing normal guy things. But life was passing me by. I started to realise what was going on - what I needed to do to deal with how I felt," says Steph, who has been a college tutor – teaching various subjects but now English - since 2000.
Steph first started to wear women's clothing at home as a teenager, as a way of expressing, on the outside, how she felt on the inside. While she was carrying on with life as a male, as the years went by, it was becoming harder and harder each day to suppress her feelings - she was meant to be a woman.
"I gradually started to realise what 'different' meant. I started to accept that I was trans."
Able to put a name for her feelings, Steph also began to realise that she could no longer live as a man.
"For me, it was this or ending it. I couldn't carry on. I desperately wanted to live as the person I felt I was. I wanted to see the person I know I am when I looked in the mirror - to see a female.
"I was a married man. Though we had separated by the time I told my ex-wife, hurting the woman I loved - and I did love her, completely - was just about the hardest thing I could ever do. Because it must have seemed to her I had been living a lie and that she had too. While living as a man was not what I felt I should be, that was my reality. My marriage was never a lie - I loved my wife deeply. I still do, but I had hidden myself from her."
Having lived as a man for 56 years, in January 2016, Steph decided to 'come out' and start the process of becoming a female.
“I remember speaking to my daughter. She had seen a pink dressing gown on the back of my door, and I sat her down to talk to her. I hadn’t wanted to do it then, but I knew she had seen it as she asked if it was mine. I just told her it was cheap in M&S.
“When I told her we needed to talk, she said, ‘have you met another woman’ – I said, ‘no, not in that sense’; ‘are you gay?’ – ‘no’. And then I told her I was trans. She just said ‘hmmm’ and that was it really. She accepted it, and whilst I can never say what is going on in someone’s head, she has always seemed to be fine with it. She’s from a different generation,” she adds.
"It was January 4 2016. I went to my GP and told her how I felt. And my journey began. I didn’t want to hide anymore. I couldn’t hide anymore. I remember walking through the Metrocentre for the first time in women’s clothing, and though I still had short hair, I just felt happy.”
One poignant moment of Steph’s journey was the day she told her father, who - as a man in his late eighties - had lived through times in which LGBT issues were neither discussed nor socially tolerated.
"My mam died in 2001, without really knowing the real me. Though I think she may have guessed at some point – she caught me in some stuff a few times and simply said, “Rather you asked next time!” But I had to tell my dad. That was hard.
"I explained everything and after I had finished, he just told me, 'you're still my child and I love you'. And he did.
"That was the humanity of the man. He was just a decent, generous and loving father. And I miss him enormously, as he died in November last year.
The relief of telling him is clear on Steph’s face, some 20 months on.
"To have acceptance has been a huge relief. My daughter, my brother, my family, most of my friends. They did not always understand but they accepted me wholeheartedly as Steph.
"My best friend worried that he would lose the person he went to the gigs with. I think he thought that I'd change overnight and that we couldn't talk about the same things we used to. But we do. I am still interested in Hi-Fi, music and tech stuff. And when he realised that, I think he understood there was nothing to worry about."
As well as the backing of family and friends, Steph's transition has been embraced fully by her employer Sunderland College. She has since set up a community – LGBT Plus Group - to ensure that young people, who may be having difficulty in coming to terms with their sexuality, can talk safely and openly to their peers.
"For young people who are coming to terms with being LGBT, the world can feel very scary, and they can feel isolated and alone. Accepting who you are and how you feel is tough at any age, but for our young people, who are going through enormous changes anyway - leaving school and preparing for work or university - it can be hugely stressful.
"Alongside my colleague, Steve, we meet fortnightly with students, as an open group and we provide a forum for discussion.
"We talk, we share stories and we give people a chance to be honest. That's so important. Suicide can be such an issue among people who are battling with their sexuality and we have to protect our students and enable them to feel confident in talking about their feelings.
"A former student said to Steve recently, 'if it weren't for this group, I wouldn't be here anymore'. That was it – in one line that person summed up why we do this. Because these are people who are struggling. These are people who need our support. They’re the ones in turmoil."
She adds: “Recent studies suggest that there are many who might change their mind about being transgendered, so it’s important that they’re supported through their feelings. It’s not counselling – it’s just a group of people sharing their own very unique stories.”
Sunderland College is a champion of LGBT rights, and is sponsoring Pride in Sunderland, as well as running a range of activities across its campuses to mark the occasion and ensure young people feel free to express themselves, whatever their sexuality.
"Schools and colleges have a vital role to play in supporting young people, who may be starting to understand their sexuality and feelings.
"Giving them that support - allowing them to talk to others and express how they feel is critical. Every LGBT person will go through their own journey and experience – no two are the same. What we must do is ensure that our young people know they're not alone.
"By celebrating difference, and championing Pride in the way we do at Sunderland College, we tell our young people to be themselves and be proud of who they are. We enable them all to live their life happily, and freely. We show them that they're welcome here. That they're part of something - a community. That we care about them."
So, what does the future hold for Steph?
"I live. That's all. My life hasn’t been crap – I did so many fantastic things before this. The only downside has been not being able to express myself fully until now – to live as the person I always was.
“This is what living is about - being who you really are. I enjoy life. And I take each step as it comes. This is my journey - and I am happy."