The end for LGBT? Why trans issues should be separate
A Northern Irish support group for transgender people wants their issues to be separated from the wider LGBT movement because their concerns are fundamentally different.
Focus, the Identity Trust, says it should be LGB but not T – with trans (and intersex) matters sliced off because they are all about gender, rather than sexuality.
Frances Shiels, Secretary of the charity, told Scope that there is a broad lack of understanding and a number of misconceptions about what it means to have Gender Dysphoria.
Most people will know that it involves a clash between a person’s biological gender and their emotional and psychological identity. However, this clash is perhaps more straightforward to characterise (in lay terms) than some realise.
The person’s self-identity, the gender they feel and know they are, is what it is. That is their real identity. Unfortunately for them, their physical gender does not tally with this – and that is the medical condition they have.
Other than the similarities that cut across all minority equality matters, this has no common ground with lesbian, gay and bisexual concerns.
Frances told Scope: “We think LGB and T issues need to be separated in everyone’s minds. Of course we accept that every single person has a sexual orientation, and transgender people are no exceptions, but we are as equally represented in all the sexual orientation categories as the rest of society.
“But that is completely separate from our gender issues which affect us from the day we are born right through to the day that we die.
“Focus has refused funding in the past, and will continue to do so, that anyone way suggests we will dilute our message, which is that our issues are to do with gender specifically and not sexuality.
“We want a society of equals where every single person is accepted for their own uniqueness and are not criticised or excluded because they are different from what society determines as ‘normal’, whatever that means, and whatever area of your life you are talking about.
“So there are misconceptions, I think, amongst other LGBT groups that we don’t support their right to self-expression. It’s not that, it’s that our issue is a different issue and should be treated as such.”
Focus points out that the Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission in NI, Dr Michael Wardlow, has already clarified to OFMdFM that trans issues are gender-based and not appropriate for consideration under sexual equality legislation.
The transgender community has not been very well catered for in Northern Ireland, however the picture is not completely grim.
While Focus says the extent of healthcare and well-being provision falls far short of what is required, there is a clinic here in Northern Ireland and for many years people have been able to visit it and pursue transition to their correct gender.
People have been able to follow a pathway to physical transformation – although it is long and can be difficult, and can also feel antagonistic according to Focus – and gain legal recognition for their true gender.
This recognition is complete insofar that, post transition, individuals enjoy full legal recognition for their newly certified gender. For instance, transgender people have been getting married for years here in Northern Ireland (though obviously only heterosexual marriages).
However, the services that do exist are not adequate, and Focus is especially concerned with a lack of support both for transgender individuals but also for their loved ones, who tend to be shocked when a family member or friend reveals they are transgender and who can be left confused and feeling like they have no-one to talk to.
A lot of what Focus itself does is in relation to support services. They run group sessions where transgender individuals can meet together to speak about their issues.
There is a gentle entry into these services, with people not brought in initially – for reasons both of security for all involved and to ensure the newcomers feel comfortable revealing themselves or opening up about how they feel.
Initially people are “buddied” with another individual to ease them in gradually.
The charity also provides forums for transgender individuals along with their family members to meet in groups to discuss and try to better understand what is at hand.
“We provide services that should be provided by the NHS and which are not. We are also providing services to the families – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren – of transgender individuals.
Frances says all of these meetings can be hugely emotional and also cathartic, and that for anyone involved it is often “the only room they’ve ever been in where they don’t have to hide or have to explain themselves.”
The major issue for transgender people is perhaps not rights or services at all, but social attitudes.
We live in communities that have little understanding – not necessarily through bigotry, although of course there will be some of that, but definitely through naivety and, in the non-pejorative sense, ignorance – of trans and intersex needs and where almost nothing is easy for people who might live their lives terrified of revealing their medical condition, instead staying stuck in a body in which they do not feel comfortable or right.
Frances said: “Largely transgender people don’t have a problem with their own gender, it’s how society views and interacts with us that causes the problems and largely if we can change social attitudes then many of the issues transgender people face will ease.
“I lived my life in fear for almost 60 years. I didn’t start my transition formally until I turned 60. Fear that I would be rejected – rejected by my family, by friends, by peers, fear that I would lose my career, fear that I would have physical violence visited upon me if anyone was to know my true identity.
“I was afraid that my parents wouldn’t love me if they really knew who I was. They wanted a son and so to be loved I felt like I had to be a son so for 60 years I lived my life for other people.
“Nature loves diversity but human society likes conformity. We want to be accepted as an integral part of every community. We don’t want separate services for transgender individuals, except those specialist health services that directly impact our medical condition.”
The clearest indication of just how suffocating our social norms can be for people trapped in the wrong body is our knowledge of what percentage of the general population has Gender Dysphoria: we don’t really have any.
Frances says there is no remotely reliable estimate for such figures, that largely the transgender community remains “nearly impossible to reach”, but small steps forward in social acceptance and knowledge of trans and intersex issues appears to be making more people comfortable in coming forward.
“For instance, five to ten years ago it was three people per year who presented themselves to the clinic here in Northern Ireland. Now it’s three a week.
“The only reliable figures in regard to transgender individuals are those of people who have presented for treatment.
“There’s very little research done on anything, really. However, one thing that is emerging is that around 40% of those actually seeking out specialist treatment have attempted suicide at least once.”
Creating a society where transgender people feel comfortable revealing their condition will be incredibly difficult.
For what is almost certainly a vast majority of people, their self of sense in gender terms is aligned with their biological gender and this makes it difficult to properly empathise with someone who isn’t that fortunate.
Returning to the crux of Frances’ point about LGB and T – trans issues are in dire need of raising awareness and, as well as being different issues, being placed under the LGBT banner risks shrinking the sector’s ability to clarify it’s own identity and needs with the wider public.
For anyone with transgender issues affecting their lives, or even anyone who wants to show support, this week sees the Transgender Day of Remembrance – and Focus will be marking the occasion with an event at all All Souls Church in Belfast this Sunday, which has an open invitation.
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