Human Race: ‘I think it’s best to be open’

Photo: Ben Knight

Twenty years ago, Megan Key was an overweight smoker who partied hard, drank too much and took recreational drugs. She was also a man – a deeply unhappy one. Today, the 41-year-old transgender woman has four marathons under her belt and couldn’t be happier. ‘I can’t tell you how important running has been in keeping me alive and well,’ she says. ‘It’s been a fundamental part of my transition into the woman I am today.’

Megan is so passionate about exercise that she has launched a social media campaign, #transgirlscan, to encourage more transgender women to try sport. ‘Transgender people are more likely to suffer physical and mental health problems,’ she says. ‘Exercise can help, but a lot of exercise environments pose problems: there are issues with clothing, changing rooms and gender identification. That’s why running is so great – you can put on a hat and sunnies and go straight out your front door. That’s empowering. My message with #transgirlscan is that anything is something.’

Megan, who is a regional manager for the National Probation Service in Birmingham, always knew that she was different. ‘As a child, I didn’t know what transgender was but I knew I didn’t fit in at the all-boys school I went to.’ By 18, she weighed 15 stone and was suffering from depression. ‘I was put on Prozac and referred to a counsellor, who diagnosed gender dysphoria – which meant my mind was not happy with my body. They talked about the idea I might be transgender – a male body and a female mind. I told no-one; it was too painful.’

Instead, she sought comfort in food, drink and drugs. ‘Occasionally I’d get drunk and confide in someone – but I felt immense fear and pressure all the time.’

When Megan was 28, she travelled through Asia and Australia, where she adopted a healthier lifestyle. ‘I set myself a goal of one year to lose weight. Through diet and exercise I shed seven stone.’

She returned to the UK in 2004, lighter physically but still carrying the burden of gender dysphoria. Her fears of coming out as trans publicly were so great that she contemplated killing herself.

Her GP diagnosed agitated depression, a combination of anxiety and depression. ‘He talked about the mental health benefits of regular exercise and said, “Why don’t you try running?” so I signed up for a fun run with a friend. Running proved surprisingly addictive. It helped me take control of my body; how I looked and how physically and emotionally strong I felt. When it seemed other things were beyond my control, running was the one thing that I did for me, and I could see and feel the progress I was making.’

Megan was soon running 40 miles a week and in 2007 she signed up for the New York Marathon. She went on to run marathons in Paris, London and Berlin. ‘I found the long runs meditative,’ she says. ‘I finally felt I was in a healthy place.’

So much so that, in 2010, Megan finally told her mum and dad that she was transgender and was going to transition to being a woman. ‘My family were great,’ she says. ‘They’ve been so supportive.’ By 2012, there was only one place where Megan was not openly trans – the office. ‘I was putting on a suit and going to work as a man,’ she says. ‘It was very stressful.’

Megan had been in discussion with the HR department for two years before she felt ready to come out. ‘It took that long to take the plunge,’ she says. Finally, one Friday at 5pm, Megan wrote an email announcing to her colleagues she was a transgender woman and was changing her name to Megan. ‘I pressed ‘send’ and ran out the door!’ By Saturday her inbox was filling up with messages of support and congratulations. ‘I wondered why I’d waited all those years,’ she says.

The support Megan experienced could not have come at a better time because her running was about to hit a roadblock. ‘I’d been overtraining and I had bone bruising in both my legs,’ she says. ‘I was advised to stop for a bit or risk permanent damage, but I tried to battle through for a few months. It was really tough because I was on hormone treatment, which made me gain weight and lose muscle mass. Eventually I had to give in and let things heal. I cycled to maintain fitness.’

Happily, Megan is now back in her running shoes. Earlier this year, she was in Liverpool for the LGBT Pride festival, and joined a 10K run from the Nike store around Liverpool Dock. ‘I was the only openly trans person there, running with dozens of people I didn’t know, and everyone was so friendly,’ she says.

‘When I first started transitioning, three years ago, I’d never have run with a group, as I worried what people would think. My journey has been one of acceptance.’

Megan is keen to share her experiences because, she says, there are so few trans people in the public arena. ‘I think it’s best to be open so people can learn. I say, “My name is Megan and I’m a she”.’

Megan also visits schools and talks about transphobia and homophobia for national charity Diversity Role Models. In September, she was thrilled to win an award for being a positive LGBT Role Model at the National Diversity Awards. ‘We don’t need people to feel sorry for us – we just need people to acknowledge and accept that we’re part of society,’ she says. ‘There’s a lot more to me than being transgender. I’m a successful businesswoman, an advocate, educator and, of course, a passionate runner.’