Devon's first transgender mayor appointed

Rachel Clarke is the new mayor of Bideford
-Credit: (Image: Submitted)

A milestone has been marked not just in Devon, but also in the life of 73-year-old Rachel Clarke, who has been elected as the new mayor of Bideford - becoming only the second transgender mayor to have been appointed in the UK.

Back in 2021, Rachel became a Torridge district councillor and later its first transgender councillor but lost her seat in May 2023 having changed parties from Conservative to Independent. She instead became a Bideford town councillor and served as deputy mayor last year.

She was then voted in as mayor by fellow councillors on May 16, and her inauguration took place yesterday, June 4. By her side during her year as mayor will be her daughter Louise, 44, who has proudly accepted the role of mayoress.

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It was only three years ago that Rachel began her transgender journey following the death of her wife. They had been married for almost 50 years.

She recalled: "I became a Torridge district councillor under my male name then after my wife passed away in March 2021, I became me after waiting 70 years. On my 70th birthday I decided that I didn't know how long I had left on this planet but however long it is I want to enjoy myself.

"I was born in 1951, just nine years after World War Two ended. It was only in 1967 that the homosexuality law changed and education about it in schools was non-existent.

"I knew from the age of three something wasn't right. I was stuck in a man's body but how could I explain that to anyone? Like a lot of men of my generation, I did the whole thing of getting married and had four daughters and now have eight grandchildren.

"All throughout my married life Rachel lived inside me but it was hidden from everyone until about 1983. My dad died in 1980 and enough was enough for me. I sat down with my wife and we tried to work out the best way forward.

"If you love someone there is no reason to change anything so we didn't, but when she died and I became a widow I could do what I wanted. I decided if I only have one year or 10 years, I will have lived my life how I always wanted to."

Rachel Clarke in her full mayor robes -Credit:Submitted
Rachel Clarke in her full mayor robes -Credit:Submitted

The physical transformational journey from becoming a man to a woman has seen Rachel have to sell her house to pay for surgery in Istanbul, Turkey, after being told she would have to wait seven years just for a NHS appointment at the West of England Specialist Gender Identity Clinic based at The Laurels in Exeter.

She has also had hormone support from a clinic in London and now happily lives in rented accommodation.

Rachel recalled: "The waiting list meant I would have not been seen until I was 77. I had been waiting 70 years so I was not going to wait another seven."

Rachel admits she was 'absolutely terrified' about how people would react to the new her. Not all of her family and friends have been accepting of her decision, despite some knowing about her feelings for many years, but she says she has no regrets.

She said: "I was quite prominent in our church. Some people who I had known for 30 years faced the walls when I came in even though I had told them 25 years ago. I don't go to places that cause me mental harm. I have only got to be treated badly once and I will avoid those situations."

To educate the next generation of young people growing up in North Devon, Rachel has given talks in local schools.

She said: "I talk to them about my journey and explain that we are all just human beings at the end of the day. Our brain tells us what we are and you can't take your brain out so you have to readjust your body. I have not changed. I might have other bits and pieces but I am just me. We are all normal people. It's just that our brain is the wrong body; that's the only difference. Coming out as Rachel was amazing. Bideford is a lovely place. I walk into town and everyone says, hello Rachel'."

Rachel Clarke is well-known for her voluntary roles in North Devon -Credit:Submitted
Rachel Clarke is well-known for her voluntary roles in North Devon -Credit:Submitted

Rachel is well-known among the community due to the diverse jobs she has done over the years. After working in the Merchant Navy as a 'catering boy' she later settled in North Devon and became a road sweeper for Torridge Town Council.

Other jobs have included being a manager at KFC, financial advisor for TSB, bus driver and running sign-making companies. Throughout her life, Rachel has gained great enjoyment from various voluntary roles, especially helping the homeless.

It was while voluntary as a night cook at the Freedom Community Alliance centre in Barnstaple back in 2018 that she decided to become a councillor after some young men from Torridge were turned away one cold winter's evening because they were not from within the catchment area.

When Rachel was elected and became the lead member for housing and homelessness the following year she initiated changes to its policy which meant anyone homeless within North Devon and Torridge were treated the same.

Looking back at her political achievements, she said: "I have done quite a lot of good and I have still got more work to do. I like doing things and seeing results."

Rachel, who is retired, is hoping that as mayor for Bideford she can help many more people and also inspire others that it is never too late to live the life you have always wanted to lead.

She said: "The role of mayor in my eyes is to serve the community; not for the community to bow to me. You should be approachable and being mayor is an honour. I never, ever dreamed that I would become mayor.

"A couple of councillors were a bit wary of a transgender mayor and they kind of said to keep it quiet but now I'm mayor I can be as loud as I like."

Her chosen charities for the year are Bideford-based Transilience CIC which supports trans young people in North Devon and TTVS which was established as a registered charity over 32 years ago, and since then has provided the lead for volunteering throughout the Torridge area.

Rachel is excited to confirm that she is helping to organise Bideford Pride 2024 on Sunday, August 18. It will see a big parade go through Victoria Park in Bideford to celebrate diversity.

Rachel Clarke's daughter Louise, the new mayoress of Bideford -Credit:Submitted
Rachel Clarke's daughter Louise, the new mayoress of Bideford -Credit:Submitted

Joining Rachel on the day will be her daughter Louise and other events during her term as mayor.

Rachel said: "Louise is enjoying being mayoress already. She is supportive and has been throughout my transition since her mum passed away. It's never been a secret to anybody so it didn't come as a surprise to anyone.

"We are all human beings at the end of the day. What I want to give is just love. My message would be don't hate because there's no logic to it; it only harms. If you put effort into loving people you feel good. I never hate anybody; there's no point."