A COUPLE who began life together as man and wife are now happily living together as two women having undergone a civil partnership.

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Sarah Brown and Sylvia Knight are believed to be the first couple in Cambridgeshire to take the unusual pathway of marriage, divorce and becoming civil partners - all so that Sarah could be legally recognised as a woman after gender reassignment surgery.

And despite discrimination since her transition to live as a woman, Sarah has no regrets at making the leap.

In fact she was named at the weekend as one of the most influential LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people in the Independent on Sunday’s ‘pink list’ for her role in pushing for greater visibility and respect for transgender people in society.

She describes herself as “probably the only ‘out’ transgender activist serving as an elected politican in the UK”.

Sarah came in at number 28 on the list – one place ahead of TV fashionista Gok Wan.

But even in a relatively liberal city such as Cambridge, city councillor Sarah – who lives off Mill Road – has encountered abuse and hurtful comments.

“I have experienced three types of discrimination – transphobia, homophobia and misogyny,” she said.

“Since the transition to live as female I’m suddenly a second-class citizen.

“Suddenly my personal space was invaded and I started getting men touching me and being groped on the tube.

“All this stuff I had not experienced before.

“I have also had complete strangers coming up asking me questions about my genitals which is completely rude.”

After attending a Catholic school and studying computer science at Trinity Hall Cambridge Sarah met fellow undergraduate Sylvia – now an adviser at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

The couple married in 2001, six years before Sarah underwent gender reassignment surgery.

However the law required the marriage to be annulled in order for Sarah to be recognised as a woman – something she is campaigning to change.

“It had real implications such as should I have been guilty of a crime I could’ve ended up in a male prison,” she said.

“When we were in court in Cambridge getting divorced we had to sort of convince ourselves what we were doing. However we came out holding hands and crying.

“We developed an understanding together and were interested in each other as people.”

And although she has lost contact with her father as a result of changing sex, she said life as a man was no longer bearable.

“There was always something there and it took a while to figure it out,” she said.

“I would have probably looked to do it earlier but I was scared of public reaction and discrimination. While things were very daunting and sounded quite unpleasant and painful, I spent a long time hiding away from the issue.

“I started dressing as a woman and investigated laser hair removal.

“I reached a point at the end of 2004 where I was in a weird place with my gender presentation and looking back at photos from the time I appeared very female.

“There was nothing holding me in the male role any more.

“I could not think about anything else and could not face not doing it.

“There’s a lot of research undertaken and it showed in transgender people brain structures usually correlate with the identified gender from birth.”

Sarah, who previously ran an IT consultancy company before putting her energy into being a city councillor for the Petersfield ward and a member of the executive of the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats where she chairs the organisation’s transgender working group, underwent gender reassignment surgery in 2007 at a cost of £15,000 to £20,000.

She has taken hormone replacement therapy drugs since.

While Sarah is currently the only transgender member of Cambridge City Council, she is not the first. In 2007 Jenny Bailey – a former Liberal Democrat councillor who is transgender – was sworn in as the city’s mayor.

“Jenny is a good friend of mine and I’m very grateful to her that she has almost paved the way,” she said.

“I’m enjoying being a councillor and love this city and want to do the right thing by it.”

But while she feels “very humbled, thrilled and bowled over” to be nominated and appear on the ‘pink list’, Sarah remarked that being transgender is only one aspect of her life.

“I am still the same person 
and I love climbing mountains,” she said.

“If I have a random conversation I’d rather have it about climbing.”

Leader of Cambridge City Council Cllr Sian Reid said Sarah deserved national recognition after fighting many battles.

“Sarah is an extremely effective member of the city council who brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise,” said Cllr Reid.

“She gives the LGBT community in Cambridge and beyond a strong voice and her work goes a long way to breaking down barriers and encouraging greater acceptance.”

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