WHAT does it mean to be a woman? What is it that makes you a woman? Are you really born a woman, or do you rather become one, as French writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir argued? I’ve asked myself these questions many times since speaking to Juno Dawson.

It’s not that often as a grown-up that someone makes you sit up and re-examine not only your own identity, but your attitudes to an entire social group. But that’s the effect this thoughtful, articulate woman, one of the UK’s most successful writers of young adult fiction, had on me.

Before we go any further, let’s get something out of the way: Juno Dawson used to be called James Dawson. Almost two years ago she announced in a media interview that she was transitioning from male to female after 30 years of “pretending to be a boy”. Since then it’s been a journey of self-discovery for the writer, who has shared her experiences in a column for Glamour magazine in a bid to bring the lives of transsexual women into the mainstream.

That’s no easy feat, of course. The majority of trans women say they face abuse and discrimination on a daily basis, and this growing group within society – the number of gender reassignment surgeries carried out in the UK has more than tripled since 2000 – is still shunned, either openly or privately, by many of both genders, including some sections of the feminist movement. Writer Germaine Greer has repeatedly called trans women “parodies”, and was accused of transphobia in 2015 when she said: “Just because you lop off your d**k doesn’t make you a woman”. Earlier this year, meanwhile, Women’s Hour doyenne Dame Jenni Murray questioned whether transsexuals were “real women”. The language and issues around transsexual women remain extremely controversial, but more of this later.

Into this atmosphere comes Dawson’s latest book, The Gender Games, her first for an adult audience. Part memoir, part polemic, it explores her own life and decision to become a woman in the context of gender stereotypes we are all expected to fit into. With the sub-heading, “The problem with men and women, from someone who has been both”, it seeks to explore, reshape and ultimately undermine current expectations of gender, in a time when for many young people the concept is more flexible than it has ever been.

That’s not to say this is an overly-serious tome, however. Like Caitlin Moran’s bestsellers How To Be a Woman and How To Build a Girl, Dawson’s book is eminently readable and often very funny. Dawson, who has written a string of successful teen books including Hollow Pike, Say Her Name and This Book Is Gay, which became an international bestseller, says she was particularly keen that it should appeal outside the LGBT community.

“I wanted to get people thinking and talking,” she tells me on the phone from her Brighton home. “It’s not a book about transgender as much as gender, which is something we all experience. But I think transgender people experience it more closely than others.

“As I started writing and speaking to others I realised that nobody is really benefitting from gender and our quite limited notions of what men and women are. Gender isn’t just screwing over trans people, it’s messing with everyone. It just so happens there’s a lot of interest at the moment in transgender but that was simply a way in to think about these bigger issues around the issue.”

Born and brought up in working-class Bradford, Dawson, 32, says she knew from a young age that she was trapped in the wrong body.

“When I told my mum I was transgender she had known from when I was three or four years old,” says the author. “As a child I was constantly asking, ‘Am I a girl? When will I be a girl?’”

She came out as gay while at school in the mid-1990s, but continued to struggle with her identity.

“I know it probably sounds ridiculous, but I just had no concept of being trans,” Dawson says of her teenage years. “I came out because people kept telling me I was a boy and I knew I liked boys. In my mind I thought, ‘That [being gay] must be it’.

“I was 14 at the time and I remember thinking, ‘If you can’t be a girl, this will have to do’. Up until about the age of 10 or 11 I used to think that I would somehow change into a girl. I gave up on that, grew up and accepted the consolation prize.

“Knowing what I know now, and with the role models we have, there’s no way I would have said I was gay. I would have gone straight to trans.”

In some ways her journey echoes wider societal changes that have led to new vocabularies around gender, with terms such as “non-binary”, “gender fluid” and “genderqueer” becoming increasingly common, particularly among young people, who often seem more willing to challenge gender identity than their parents or grandparents.

While working as a secondary teacher, Dawson started writing novels for young people, eventually becoming so successful she was able to give up her job. Then, five years ago, she decided face her demons; the next step turned out to be transition.

“When push came to shove I had to ask myself big questions,” she explains. “Was I going to make do for the rest of my life or give it a go and see if this is an identity that fits, try a better way of being?

“The idea that it happens overnight is nonsense. I spent a year talking about it in therapy, looking at all eventualities – what if this doesn’t make you happier? What if it causes trouble with your family and your job? In the end I didn’t want to get to 70 and have this big question mark hanging over my life, so I went to my doctor and told my parents. I’ve not looked back.”

Since then, there have been lows as well as highs, however,

“Transition is exhausting,” she says. “The thought that anyone would do this because it’s trendy or fashionable is ridiculous – honestly you’d give up after a day. People stare at you, shout at you all the time.

“But if you can get through the first year, which comes with all sort of heartbreak, then I think you’re set for life.”

Dawson’s transformation has been gradual. The beard and the muscles she had acquired to try and make herself feel more male are long gone, replaced by long hair and make-up, though today, she’s in “jeans and an old jumper”. She has recently had facial surgery, paid for privately, to enhance her femininity.

Dawson says her mother “wasn’t thrilled at first” with the transition, believing she was making life difficult for herself. But gradually she has come to appreciate how the change is benefitting her daughter.

“My mum expected the sky to fall in and it really didn’t,” she smiles. “Not that much has changed, I’m still the same child she had all along. Physically I look different, but I’m still the same person. My relationship with my family has got better because there are no more secrets, there’s nothing else to come out of the closet. My grandma came on board very quickly – she barely batted an eyelid. She said she’d known people like me all her life.”

And has being a woman been all she had hoped? That old adage about being careful what you wish for springs to mind. The author thinks carefully before answering.

“On top of all the usual difficulties women face – sexual harassment, the pressure to be thin and all that rubbish – you’ve got the trans bullsh** on top; the heckles, name calling, people pointing and staring. You don’t always feel safe. Being trans is not easy and you constantly have to be patient and forgiving.

“But on a philosophical level it feels right. The fact that I finally get to be what I’ve always been, without pretending, is incredibly liberating. I spent 30 years pretending to be a man. The fun part is giving yourself permission to be whatever you want in life.”

Spending an hour in Dawson’s company, even on the telephone, is fun. She’s smart and funny, and her honesty is arresting. There’s not an ounce of self-pity or sentimentality in the way she tells her story, and she laughs often at herself.

It’s interesting what she says about being patient, too. I’ve never met a transsexual woman before, and beforehand I was worried that I’d use the wrong language or sound patronising. Dawson senses this and immediately puts me at ease. If I’m honest, before speaking to her I also held some prejudices and made assumptions. I like to think I’m progressive, so I probably wouldn’t have owned up to them. I’d have called my arguably quite traditional view on what makes you a woman – the experience of growing up as one in a patriarchal society – feminist. But I don’t mind admitting that Dawson has made me think more critically about my views. And, ultimately, she has changed them.

This challenging of my assumptions began when conversation turned to Caitlin Jenner, previously the American athlete Bruce Jenner, and now the world’s most famous transsexual woman. Look at any picture of her and you will see an ultra-feminine, some would argue OTT type of glamour, an overly-polished image that seems a million miles away from the lives of most women.

I admit to Dawson that I struggle to understand why Jenner has chosen to portray herself in this way, which seems to conform to every sexist stereotype of what female beauty is. Her answer is unexpected and thought-provoking.

“Obviously Caitlin Jenner is one of the super-rich, and that means she can book herself into all the best clinics in the world,” she begins. “And that’s not what it is like for the vast majority of trans women.

“But you have to remember that you are seeing a woman in early transition, which means – and I’d include myself in this – that it’s like dealing with a 13-year-old girl. These women are going through puberty. Your body is riddled with hormones and to begin with you’re basically playing dress-up.

“You’re like a kid in a candy shop – all of a sudden you have carte blanche to access a world you have coveted from afar for many years. You do go a bit mad for make-up, clothes and hair. Eventually, hopefully, you find your style.”

She sighs in frustration. “But isn’t it all such a game? People say I have a lovely figure now, but when I was a boy I was constantly being told I was too skinny. For the first 30 years of my life my legs were a nightmare because they were so thin. Now everyone says I have great legs. What’s wrong with us as a culture that whether female or male we exist in a constant state of anxiety around our bodies?”

She’s right, of course. Which brings us on to Dame Jenni Murray. Writing in the Sunday Times earlier this year, Murray said she had been angered after meeting India Willoughby, a trans woman and TV presenter who has appeared on ITV’s Loose Women. Willoughby, said Murray, believed she was a “real woman” while ignoring that she had lived most of her life “enjoying the privileged position in our society generally accorded to a man”. The long-time BBC presenter has also criticised trans women’s perceived failure to adequately continue the fight for women’s equality, saying they focused instead on clothes and make-up.

Murray insists she is “not transphobic or anti-trans”. Yet, despite her patience with me, Dawson is outraged by the broadcaster’s stance – and the BBC for continuing to employ her following the comments.

“It’s apparently OK for her to make quite dangerous suggestions about trans women, who are already vulnerable, much more likely than other women to be murdered, attacked or abused in the street. We’ve got the BBC paying people to say this. It boils down to a suggestion that trans women are either sexual fetishists or predators in some regard.”

I suggest gently that many women may agree with Murray and Greer, however, that growing up as a man, with all the privilege that entails, whether one likes it or not means it is harder for trans women to understand what it means to have been raised female.

“The problem with that is Jenni Murray has never been transgender,” she replies, clearly angry. “Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche said something similar, but I can’t imagine that she’s dying to hear my views on growing up as a black person because it’s something I have no experience of. How the hell do any of them know what my experience of growing up was?

“I’ve had 30 years of thinking I was getting it wrong, trying to be a boy, not being allowed to be how I wanted to be, excluded from male spaces because I wasn’t masculine enough, being physically and mentally attacked in male changing rooms. What privilege is it they think I had?

“Jenni Murray is a very wealthy, white, middle-class woman. Maybe people like her should check their privilege. It’s so galling when other women try to hold you back.”

I can feel the rawness of the hurt, the burning sense of injustice, and for the first time I genuinely get that other women – and that includes me – are wrong to make many of the assumptions about the transsexuals that continue to form part of the narrative. Maybe we really do need to widen our thinking on what makes you a woman. After all, De Beauvoir’s quote that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, is surely more relevant to Dawson and women like her than just about anyone else?

“Trans women aren’t asking for anything that other women are not campaigning for,” she explains. “We have more in common than we have apart. We’re also after better health care and employment rights, more safety. As women we all want the same things regardless of race, class or disability. We should be trying to help each other out.”

You can’t help but agree with her, and something important occurs to me. Not only does the transsexual community have a true champion in Juno Dawson, all women do. And we should celebrate her.

The Gender Games, published by Two Roads, is out this week