Shay Robertson, 51, who works in a garage, surprised fiancée Julie McLean, 53, with a ready-made wedding day. The couple, both parents from Northampton, tell the story of how Shay following his dreams led to true love and happiness…
As his fiancée Julie walked down the aisle dressed in a beautiful lace gown, Shay Robertson, rocking a smart blue suit and a neatly trimmed beard, was bursting with pride.
Their wedding was 11 years to the day since they first met. But back then they were Sally and Julie, both mums of two.
Now they were about to become husband and wife after Sally underwent five years of grueling gender reassignment surgery to become Shay, a man whose looks are based on the singer and actor Shayne Ward.
“Our wedding day in April this year was perfect,” says Shay. “I wanted to show my love for Julie, especially after all the support she’s given me. We’d talked about getting married for a long time and I had to work hard to save the money but it was worth it.
“Julie’s the love of my life and I feel very lucky. It was the best day of my life.”
The tale of two mums who met as work colleagues but ended up as husband and wife is a very modern love story.
Shay says he was never comfortable in his own body.
“I was always attracted to women and was quite masculine in the way I dressed. I saw myself as a butch lesbian. My two relationships with men were short-lived but I don’t regret them because I had my two lovely children, Andrew, now 32, and Aimee, 23.”
Julie was in a similar situation, divorced with two children.
“I was married for 20 years when my ex cheated on me,” says Julie. “I was on my own for a long time, then I had a short relationship with another woman when I was 40.
“I loved talking to Shay, who was then Sally, at work. We only talked about our kids and work but I felt there was a real connection.”
The friends lost touch when Julie left her job but two years later Shay sent her a Facebook message.
“I immediately replied, ‘It’s about time!”‘ Julie laughs. “On April 11, 2011, we became a couple. I couldn’t have been happier.”
But shortly afterwards, a chance remark changed the course of their lives.
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“Shayne Ward was on TV and I said how much I admired his look, especially his stubble,” Shay explains.
“Julie turned to me and said, ‘You want to be a man, don’t you?’
“I couldn’t speak for at least a minute. My mind was whirling because I didn’t want to admit it in case I scared her off.
“I’d always felt like a man. When I was young I wanted to pee like a man and in bed I felt like a man. I felt I was in the wrong body.
“So I took a deep breath and admitted that yes, I did want to be a man.”
To Shay’s relief, Julie was completely unfazed by the news. “I told Shay, ‘It doesn’t matter who you are or what you are, I love you for you,’” she recalls.
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After researching the treatments available, Shay went to his GP to set in motion gender reassignment, a five-year process involving five radical surgeries. “It was such a relief to have Julie’s support,” he says.
“The first step is to prove you’re living in your new gender role for two years, so in 2012 I changed my name, calling myself Shay as a nod towards Shayne Ward.
“I still had a big chest and once in the post office I was asked twice if I’d brought my husband’s driving license in by mistake. It was embarrassing. I felt people were staring.
“But it made me more determined. I didn’t discuss it with anyone other than Julie and my kids. My son was fine, but Aimee, who was 14 at the time, was worried what other students would say. She’s happy now though. In fact, my kids are my best friends.”
Julie adds, “I was so used to calling him Sally so there were quite a few slip-ups but I got there in the end.”
As the months passed and the effects of the testosterone gel kicked in, the couple took photos to chart Shay’s progress.
“My jawline changed and I grew hair on my chest and back. My hips became less womanly,” says Shay. “It was exciting to see the changes and to buy my first male razor and shave my beard to look like Shayne’s stubble.”
In 2016, Shay underwent his first surgery, a double mastectomy, known as “top surgery”.
“There’s a picture of me, grinning, as I’m taking the dressings off,” he says. “It was such a relief to get rid of my breasts.”
Just three months later, Shay had a full hysterectomy. This was followed by “bottom surgery”, a 13-hour procedure to create a penis using skin from Shay’s forearm and buttocks. Shay’s urethra was stretched to fit his newly created penis, so he could finally pee standing up. During another, a small ball filled with saline fluid was placed inside his tummy. When Shay presses the ball, the saline moves into the penis to simulate an erection.
“Some of the surgeries were risky but the results are incredible. To have a fully working penis is beyond my wildest dreams,” he says.
“I can orgasm when I have sex with Julie and I feel like the man I was always meant to be.”
Julie had no problems adapting to her new-look partner. “I hated seeing Shay suffer,” she says. “But I fancied him as much as I did when he was Sally. He looks great.”
Shay has only had positive experiences since his transition. He even received an encouraging letter from Shayne Ward after the star heard Shay was basing his new look on him.
“I’d love to meet him one day to thank him properly,” says Shay.
The one person who doesn’t yet call him Shay is his dad.
“He’s elderly and it’s been hard for him so he still calls me Sal, even though I don’t look like his daughter any more. He did give me a watch with ‘To my son’ engraved on it so I know he’s trying, and I know he loves me.”
A surprise wedding
Although Shay proposed to Julie in 2013 when he was still living as a woman, it wasn’t until last Christmas that he revealed he’d secretly been organising their wedding.
“Shay led me downstairs and there was a board with photos of all the wedding things he’d arranged,” says Julie. “It was an amazing surprise and I was so happy that he’d chosen April 11 to mark the day we first became a couple. It was an incredible day with 40 close friends and family. The ceremony was held in a beautiful chapel at Gretna Green’s Anvil Hall.
“Shay’s daughter Aimee helped me choose the wedding dress and I had ‘You took your time’ engraved inside Shay’s wedding ring, which he loved. “When it was time for the wedding rings to be handed over, an owl was supposed to fly down, carrying them in a pouch to give to the best man. Unfortunately, the owl swooped past our heads and perched up on a ledge! Luckily, the real rings were in the best man’s pocket.
“We’d written our own vows, and one of Shay’s was to say how sorry he was that it had taken him two years to contact me after I left my job – time that we could have spent together. It was really emotional.
“The best thing was being surrounded by our family. Shay and I have eight grandchildren between us and it was lovely that they were part of the day.”
While there are no plans for a honeymoon yet, the couple are happier than ever as newlyweds and Shay is loving life as a man.
“I’m definitely more confident than I was as a woman,” he says. “I’m physically stronger too and can manage all the lifting work at the garage. But I’ve retained the emotional intelligence I had as a woman. I’m a great believer that everyone should follow their dreams. I did and I feel like the happiest man alive.”
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