Sarah Simoni, 49, left, and partner Alexandra Leenen, 56.

Transgender Hair Transplant Patient, Alexandra Leenen.

Sarah Simoni, 49, left, and partner Alexandra Leenen, 56. “I don’t agree,” says Alexandra, “with trans women with male genitals sharing a women’s changing room”.

Article by Louise Gannon – The Times
Source: The Times UK

In a rambling Fifties country house in the verdant heart of Kent, three generations of one family have happily settled into this very traditional, comfortable neighbourhood where they are now considered valued regulars at the village shop and nearby pub.

The house is simultaneously impressive and cosy, dotted with eclectic furniture and works of art that have come from travels to Vietnam, the Middle East and South Africa. In the kitchen, a glass Mason jar sits on the window ledge three quarters full of a sourdough starter; a large tortoiseshell cat, Henry, is asleep in a wine box on top of the wine fridge, one leg fully extended in somnolent bliss.

As Durban-born Sarah Simoni, 49, busies herself alongside her mum, Dee, 76, making tuna melt sandwiches for the family lunch, she stops, knife suspended in her hand. “I never thought this is where I would end up, but it works for all of us and we love it.”

She laughs and adds, “But if you had told me at 21 that I’d fall in love and marry a man who transitioned to a woman… And then she and I would move into a big house with my mum, dad, sister and her three teenage children… Then I’d have said, ‘You’ve got to be joking. That could never happen to me.’ ”

It did.

Sarah has now been married to Dutch-born Alexandra, 56, for 8 years. When they first met in 2011, Sarah was the personal assistant to a senior executive at Deutsche Bank in London and Alexandra Leenen – then Harold – was the high-profile chief operating officer of one of its larger divisions.

With a background in law, he was a 6ft, wealthy, clean-cut, highly intelligent titan of the top-floor boardrooms, in charge of operations in Europe and the Middle East. In the 27 years he worked in corporate banking, he had acquired a wardrobe of immaculate silk ties, sober shirts and Savile Row suits, along with a reputation as one of the best operators in the business.

Alexandra and Sarah.

Alexandra and Sarah. Surgery was cancelled three times

“You prepare, then it’s scrapped again,” says Alexandra TOM JACKSON FOR THE TIMES MAGAZINE

Today – which happens to be Valentine’s Day – I am upstairs in the couple’s white and cream bedroom.

No topic is off limits, from their sex life to their views on JK Rowling, trans politics (“I am a woman in every sense but biologically. I still have X and Y chromosomes,” says Alexandra. “I don’t agree with trans women with male genitals sharing a changing room with women”) and corporate attitudes to gender.

Alexandra’s opinions are as considered as they are forthright. She is feminist in her views. “I believe in the banking world I did extremely well because I have always thought like a woman,” she says.

“I didn’t join in the shouting around the table. I would listen and wait until I completely understood and had something to say. Very much like a woman. In a woman, though, that is seen as passive. In a man, it is seen as intimidating, which is viewed as a good thing.

“I did very well in that world because I was a man. I would never have reached the positions I did if I was a woman. It is a man’s world.”

As the woman she is today, she knows many of those corporate executive doors may have closed to her. “There are people I have known and worked with for years who cannot deal with me as I am now. They can’t accept it,” she says.

“But the pendulum has started to swing. I deal with a lot of younger people in finance who have no problem and have been very supportive of me. Maybe I will never be part of the old corporate banking world I was in before. But I could be part of a new corporate banking world and that is something I want to take on.”

When they first met in London in 2011, Sarah, who has a degree in psychology, was divorced and in a long-term relationship with the Bafta-nominated producer of the film Boiling Point, Bart Ruspoli. Alexandra was going through a divorce after a ten-year marriage to a fellow banking executive.

Alexandra Leenen

Alexandra Leenen at Deutsche Bank, when known as Harold

COURTESY OF ALEXANDRA LEENEN

“My boss was tied up in a meeting,” recalls Sarah of that first meeting, “so asked me to look after Harold. He was this guy people were terrified of because they thought he was silent but deadly. Somehow, we ended up drinking two bottles of wine, talking for hours and having a blast.”

“And that was it,” says Alexandra. “For a year. Then we were seated next to each other at a dinner. By then we were both single. I knew I liked this woman – she was different from anyone else I knew. She was smart, her life was all about friends and family and she was very beautiful.”

Life with Sarah was a huge transition for Harold, then 46. Brought up in a strict Catholic household in the Netherlands where money was tight, he was the youngest of three high-achieving brothers (Luke, the eldest,is a professor of trauma surgery and Peter, the middle son, a pilot). Harold studied law and then got his first finance job at Deutsche Bank, where he rose rapidly through the ranks. He married, built a large and impressive house near Frankfurt and lived a focused, career-driven, conventional life well into his mid-forties, when his marriage began to fall apart.

Sarah, meanwhile, grew up in a comfortable, loving family with her younger sister Cat – a talented musician – in South Africa. She left in the Nineties, disillusioned by the politics of her homeland, and moved to London. She threw herself into a lively social scene while holding down a high-pressure job as an executive assistant in the City.

For Harold, as she was then, Sarah’s lifestyle – full of artists, musicians and open-minded folk – was a revelation that felt liberating.

I ask Alexandra at this point whether she had felt all her life that she was a woman. Does she regret not doing this sooner?

“In my early life it wasn’t even in my orbit that there was anything different,” she answers, patiently. “As I grew in self-knowledge, in confidence, it was a realisation of who I was. It was not a decision and it could not have happened to me any earlier.”

Ideally, she tells me, she wants to stop explaining herself and “just be who I am”. Later, she sends me a blog she has written. “Being transgender is not a choice. The only choices you have at your disposal are how you deal with it mentally and how you manage the process of your coming out. People, believe me when I say, I would much prefer to be a ‘normal bloke’. Bloke Life would be a lot easier. And cheaper! Hormone treatment, surgeries, counselling – the list is endless. To say nothing of a whole new wardrobe and classy heels in size 8.”

She recalls as a child secretly putting on her mother’s stockings when she was out of the house. Her first wife knew this was a “thing”. Sarah, too, felt comfortable with first the stockings and then, later, the cross-dressing. “We talked about it,” she says. “It was something he [Harold] liked. It felt different but I was OK with it. I loved him and it was a part of him. We were very open. All our friends knew and were totally accepting. There were no secrets.”

Work, however, did require a double life. In May 2013, Harold was promoted by Deutsche Bank, tasked with overseeing operations in Dubai. Not only did he ask Sarah to go with him, but to be his wife. They talked about his feelings of identity. “I remember her saying, ‘I don’t want to marry you under false pretences. I’m on a journey and I don’t know how far it will take me,’ ” says Sarah.

Alexandra adds, “I remember then saying, ‘But I think it will go all the way.’ ” Sarah nods. “I thought about it for three months. I didn’t fully realise every implication. All I knew was that, whatever was going to happen, I wanted to be with her.”

In 2014, they married in South Africa. There were two ceremonies. The first was a legal ceremony, attended by friends, and Sarah and Alexandra were both dressed as women. The second ceremony, a month later in January 2015, was a more conventional family affair with Harold in a suit and Sarah in a wedding dress.

Alexandra and Sarah

The second of the couple’s wedding ceremonies in South Africa.

2015 COURTESY OF SARAH SIMONI AND ALEXANDRA LEENEN

Dubai – where they lived for the next five years, followed by a year in Bahrain – is not a country known for tolerance towards the LGBTQIA+ community. Yet in terms of Alexandra’s transition, this turned out to be as much of a blessing as a curse. “It was a slow process,” says Sarah. “But that gave me time, and I needed time to get used to everything.” It was complicated. Both childless, they had decided they wanted children. Hormone therapy was put on hold while Sarah underwent two (ultimately unsuccessful) IVF treatments.

On the eve of her third appointment, she woke up in the early hours of the morning knowing she could not go through with another attempt. Was this because she felt bringing a baby into the relationship would be too much? “No,” she says. “I knew she would be an amazing parent. It was me. I was 42, I had this feeling that something would go wrong and I wouldn’t be able to cope. It was such a powerful feeling and I couldn’t ignore it.

“I woke her and said, ‘I can’t go through with it.’ I explained how I felt while she held me. We both sobbed for the rest of the night. The clinic tried to persuade me to go through with it. Lexi [Sarah’s name for Alexandra] told them, ‘This is her body. Respect her decision.’ ”

I ask about their life in Dubai, how things changed as the hormones began to kick in. “I could – and should – write a book,” says Sarah. “A lot of it was hilariously funny. Some of it was terrifying. Lexi started to take big risks. We’d go into shops, buying clothes, and she’d be asking me to bring women’s clothes to the changing rooms. I would be petrified of being caught.

“Then she’d go off to work, wearing stockings and frilly knickers under her suit. That actually made me so sad. More and more at home she was dressed as a woman. She was very open with her younger members of staff, who adored her and were so loyal to her. They’d come round for parties and we’d have a great time. But at work, she had to hide who she was and I could see how that was really starting to affect her, so those suits made me sad.”

Alexandra agrees. “I was changing. My breasts started to grow. If I wore jeans they were women’s jeans. My hair was longer. At a mosque I was asked to leave the men’s queue and go to the women’s queue, but biologically I was still a man.”

Within the corporate world his new look was beginning to present a problem. It was becoming clear to Alexandra that she could no longer fit so easily into the life she had led before. “I had to be true to myself, true to who I really was,” she says. In 2017, she left Deutsche Bank, where she had worked for nearly three decades.

She was, however, immediately headhunted to join the management team of a Bahraini bank where she took the first step to a public change, going by the name of Alex, her middle name, instead of Harold. They lived in Bahrain for a year before she decided to take time out and travel to Thailand to undergo gender affirmation surgery.

Their friends – including Sarah’s ex-husband, Joe, who they say is a great supporter – have been universally accepting. Alexandra’s parents have passed away, but her older brothers, says Sarah, have both been “amazing and very, very caring”.

Next to the bubbly Sarah, Alexandra has so far seemed a far quieter character, understated in her jeans, black Ugg boots and sporty black sweatshirt; her polite manner almost formal compared with Sarah’s casual, friendly ease. Now, as she opens up her wardrobe to show me a multicoloured, outrageously glam array of designer dresses, skirts and blouses, I start to recalibrate my opinion.

I am suddenly fully aware of everything that this wardrobe represents to her. She starts to pull out pair after gorgeous pair of Louboutins and skyscraper Jimmy Choos. “I have about 40 in all,” she says with pride.

Alexandra has two wardrobes, Sarah has one. “My best clothes are the ones she buys for me,” says Sarah. “She always bought clothes for me right from the start of our relationship and definitely improved my style.”

“Sarah had terrible clothes,” says Alexandra. “When I met her she wore baggy army pants which hid her incredible figure and then would say, ‘I dress for comfort,’ which is no excuse.” Sarah shrugs.

Alexandra has undergone hair transplants along with breast, nose and eye surgery, as well as that very expensive, seven-hour gender affirmation surgery in Thailand in November 2021.

In order to change her German passport (her first wife was German and she holds dual Dutch-German citizenship) from male to female, she had to see two separate psychologists for intensive interviews. She was also required to write a “transition CV” for a judge. “That was incredibly therapeutic,” she says. “I had to write a lot about myself, my feelings and my emotions.” Her petition was granted by the judge on the spot on the basis of her CV and psychological reports.

Theirs is very much a story of our time. It is not one that is all bright smiles, fluffy, flirty clothes and cute anecdotes about sharing life and lipstick together. It is about transition and identity. Not just for Alexandra but for Sarah, her family, their whole friendship circle and the upper echelons of the corporate world. There has been pain, sacrifice, confusion, anger and stumbling blocks in equal measure to the laughter, liberation and compassion.

There are issues that still hurt: issues of sex, identity and the navigation of a relationship they prize above all things. Sarah, who has always retained her maiden name, will not refer to Alexandra as her “wife”. “That would make me a lesbian and I’m not a lesbian,” she says. “I am a heterosexual woman.” They share a bed but no longer have sex. When Alexandra first began to transition, initially with hormone therapy, in 2014, “three things happened”, says Sarah. “His pheromone smell changed, he began to develop breasts and I went into perimenopause, which floored my sex drive.”

Alexandra remains attracted to women. Before they travelled to Thailand together in November, when she underwent two operations to remove her genitals and create a vagina, they knew they would have to face the reality that other sexual partners could become part of their world.

“As long as no one falls in love,” says Sarah.

She looks sad. Part of her still mourns the loss of the man. “He had such a beautiful penis,” she says abruptly. They both laugh at her outburst. So how did she really feel about being by his side throughout those weeks in a Thai hospital? She is momentarily silent. “Honestly,” she says seriously, “to be with the person I love, witnessing her becoming who she really is? I feel privileged to have been there.”

Family members flit in and out of the room as we talk. Sarah’s 79-year-old father, Alex, a vigorous, straight-talking former lawyer, left Cape Town a year ago – at Alexandra’s behest – to come and live with them, to escape the devastating economic and Covid situation in South Africa. “Look,” he says, “when I was first told about all this I thought, ‘Dear God, what’s going on here?’ I worried about Sarah. But she’d always known. It did not stop them loving each other.

Alexandra Leenand and Sarah

The couple in their Kent kitchen.

TOM JACKSON FOR THE TIMES MAGAZINE

“I still worry, but I look at my teenage grandchildren and it never shocked them. It doesn’t bother them one iota. Or their friends. Alexandra is Alexandra. Sarah is Sarah. I still get my pronouns wrong but Alexandra is not militant; Sarah is the more militant one. We feel happy to be here, happy to be part of this life. I don’t always understand, but I’m listening and learning.”

His grandson, who alongside his twin sister and younger sister has settled into the local school, tells me his friends like coming to the house “because everyone is so chilled”.

As a couple, what makes Alexandra and Sarah extraordinary is their honesty. There is no sex “but there is intimacy”, says Alexandra. “That to me is being in bed and feeling Sarah’s foot on mine in the night. Our closeness.”

Sarah nods and says, “And laughter. We laugh a lot. And love. I am with someone who knows how much family means to me, someone who saw my anxiety every day as the situation in South Africa got worse. Who was prepared to bring over my family, live with them – that’s everything to me.”

Within the family there have been issues to get over – some easy, some more difficult. “It did take time for us,” says Dee, Sarah’s mother. “But they both accepted that.” Alexandra tells me how, four years ago, once she knew she was going to go ahead with gender surgery, she took Cat’s three children to breakfast in Cape Town to tell them. “I wanted them to hear it from me and to know they could ask me any questions and voice any opinion,” she says. “I started to explain myself to them and then I waited and the youngest said, ‘Can I have two eggs with my breakfast?’ I thought maybe they were just avoiding it, that I hadn’t explained things properly, so I started again. But they were just, ‘Yeah, that’s cool. Good for you.’ No drama. Nothing.”

Plans for the surgery in Thailand – one of the leading countries for this procedure – coincided with Covid. They relocated from Bahrain to England, renovated a house in south London and went through three cancellations of surgery (“You have to prepare mentally and emotionally and then you have to deal with the fact it’s not happening again and again,” Alexandra says) before finally flying out in November. Family and friends were updated in a group WhatsApp.

Their life is not simple. Alongside surgery, in the second lockdown with conditions spiralling in South Africa, Alexandra asked Sarah’s family to come and live with them, sold the house in south London and relocated to Kent where they are currently finishing off a huge annexe in the garden for her parents (her sister Cat and the three children live in the main house with them).

“So far, everything is working,” says Sarah. The locals have taken to them quickly. Alexandra and Dee cook together, school pick-ups are shared and the children have found “great friends” in the community.

This year, now fully recovered from surgery, confident in who she is, happy and settled in her family life, Alexandra is planning a return to a career in finance. She knows – regardless of any much vaunted changing attitudes – that it is not going to be easy, that the corporate world is a tough nut to crack. She may be, however, the very woman to ring real changes. “I’m ready,” she says. “There’s no going back now.”

Shoot credits
Styling
 Hannah Rogers. Hair and make-up Fiona Moore at Arlington Artists using No7