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Trans Awareness Week - Josephine Bennington's story

Josephine is a long-time sea-kayaker and all round adventurer, who spent five years travelling across Switzerland via rail, toured much of Europe via bike, and has returned to kayaking after many years away. As part of our #WePaddleTogether commitments to celebrate role models from under-represented groups, and listen to diverse, intersectional voices, we are pleased to share the insights and stories of trans paddlers this Transgender Awareness Week. Thanks goes to those who have shared their insights and experiences with us.

Trans Awareness Week Josephine Bennington Blog

Josephine sea kayaking

On August 5th, 2005 I declared by Statutory Declaration that I would be Josephine for the rest of my life. After 2 more years I gained my Gender Recognition Certification (GRC) and also a replacement Birth Certificate. I was then 55, and I am today 72. Having taken that momentous step, my promise to myself was that I would continue, and have, to live a full life, not restricted exclusively to a circle of trans people. In fact, I have not lived “within” the LGBTQ community at all. The world, and everyone, was going to see me in the open, partaking of anything I wanted to do. Most of my friends are heterosexual, and wonderfully and strongly loyal.

How did you get involved in paddling?

Between the ages of 40 and 50, and having always been fascinated by boats, ships, the sea, everything maritime, I had become heavily committed to sea-kayaking. The image of the ancient, native but incredibly developed, seaworthy and beautifully shaped craft got under my skin and started my passion then and there.

Courses at Calshot, training, local paddling and kayak-camping expeditions around the UK coast followed, until my “other matter” broke surface and life changed for many years, including the total cessation of sea-kayaking. I sold my kayak and gear with tears in my eyes. So, in August 2005, Josephine’s new life commenced, but without the kayaking. I thought it was over, never to be enjoyed again. In 2019 I finally asked myself why, oh why, oh why was I not sea-kayaking?

Hours of dreaming about it, recalling my expeditions, and watching it on YouTube eventually made it obvious a return was long overdue and non-negotiable. 25 years overdue! I was nearly 70 at the time. The answer was Don’t hang about…do it! In May 2020, I acquired my Valley Etain, spent the summer re-training myself, with the valuable mentorship of Rachel Hudspith. A group expedition with the Cumbria Sea Kayak Group to the Summer Isles in September 2020, was possible between UK Lockdowns. Then, in 2021 I managed to get to North Berwick, Cornwall, Devon, Isle of Arran, and North Berwick again, plus local weekend trips as a member of the Coquet Canoe Club, based at Amble.

What’s your favourite thing about paddling, or can you share your favourite memory or experience?

Best memories? For me, every trip is “the best”. Standout bests are: 

  1.  My first expedition from Arisaig across to Skye and up the west coast to Loch Pooltiel
  2.  Entering Fingal’s Cave, from launching off Gometra on Mull, then a lumpy paddle southwards to Iona
  3. Returning to the water in a new kayak in 2020. I was back where I belong

As part of Trans Awareness Week, we want to support everyone to create more welcoming and inclusive experiences for trans paddlers. What would you like to share with the paddling community, trans or otherwise, to help achieve that?

So, in conclusion, if you happen to be Trans or anywhere within the LGBT+ community and have a desire to get on the water: in a river bubble, a Canadian Open Canoe, or a Sea Kayak, don’t let being Trans stop you. My advice is be authentic, bold, confident in who you really are, be an amalgam of committed, competent and knowledgeable in your sport, show the world that you mean it. The chances of you being accepted without equivocation are up in the 99.99% levels. It is the getting out and doing adventurous stuff that brings respect to you from those within our community, or to whomever you might regale your adventures. My sincere hope, by relating the wide variety of my experiences post-transition, is that you will be encouraged to grab your life, your one and only not-a-rehearsal life and extract from it not just a great life as a trans person, but everything else you want to do. Much can be achieved.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Those who are similar to me will know that you know from a very early age that this is your destiny. It is not the result of curiosity that prompts one to say “I’ll try that and see if I like it”. You just know and you are impelled. Being born in 1949 and knowing by 1959 that I was troubled by a secret knowledge, I kept it utterly to myself and said nowt. It was a long guilt ridden struggle trying to conform to the demands of appearing normal in society that demanded conformity to the heteronormative. And, you will also know this…so much of you IS normal!

For my generation it could take years to understand more about yourself. Today, In the 2000s, your inner knowledge can be addressed at a much earlier age and be received with a sympathy that was not available to me.

– Josephine Bennington