Cleric admits faith was challenged when Eimear revealed desire to become a man
By Allan Preston
July 6 2019
A minister has spoken about her initial struggle to accept that her child was transgender.
Rev Linda Ballard said it had been a big shock emotionally when Eimear revealed a wish to change gender and become a male.
The cleric admitted facing challenges from the religious community, but now wants to change the way people think.
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Rev Ballard from Bangor was speaking after a recent survey found that over a fifth of people here were prejudiced against transgender people.
While welcoming the report, she said her experience told her the real figure was likely to be much higher.
Finn (36), born as Eimear, now lives in Berlin and works as a historian.
He came out as transgender to his mum in his early 20s.
Speaking during a quick break in a busy afternoon giving guided history tours, he told the Belfast Telegraph that Northern Ireland could still be “a very hard place” for transgender people to live in.
He said he had preferred to move away to protect himself from negative reactions.
Rev Ballard, who is married to Ronnie, is a former minister of First Dunmurry Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church. She stepped down last year.
She said she had always imagined getting to watch her daughter grow older and that coming to terms with the change had initially been a painful experience.
“I went through a phase of living in a complete fog about it and it took me quite a lot of time,” she said.
“I was intellectually able to accept what he told me but it was a big shock emotionally.”
Seeking out advice, she said her doctor at the time was only able to point her towards a radio interview on the topic for guidance.
“Finn is extremely perceptive and may have realised this, but I avoided the conversation after he let me know he had something to tell me,” she said.
“Deep down I think I already knew and I did my best not to have the conversation, but it was my son who compelled me to face up to realities.”
Finn says he hadn’t even heard of the concept of being transgender while growing up, but had always felt “ill at ease”.
“I had always presented myself as a boy when I was young, but when kids are so small people don’t notice so much,” he said.
“When puberty comes along there’s pressure to wear certain clothes, I found that very difficult. The only way to express it was that I was a very masculine girl.”
Standing out in this way, he said, made him an easy target for bullies in school.
He added: “My mother maybe doesn’t realise I’d already experienced hard times.
“She thought I would experience bullying when I started to transition to a male but I’d already done all that in school. Whatever happened to me after that, I thought I could manage it.”
A turning point was the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry starring Hilary Swank, which tells the story of Brandon Teena, a transgender man in Nebraska who eventually becomes the victim of a brutal hate crime.
“That was a true story but also a very tragic story so I did worry about everything,” Finn said.
“Before that, I just felt really alienated from myself but I began to see that’s not necessarily how it has to be and there are people who feel the same and change it.”
He was already studying in England when he started hormone treatment to transition and could no longer avoid telling his mum and dad the truth.
“Really, it just got to the point where I didn’t feel I had a choice and would have to transition medically in order to continue,” he said.
“I wanted to let my parents know and I found it very difficult. I had moved away so it was a very distant thing. Part of that was about protecting myself, if there were any negative reactions at least they would be far away and contained.
“It was hard enough for me to understand.”
His mum said: “I don’t think any such conversation is likely to be easy because of the emotional complications around it.
“But I think that underscores his courage and determination to be honest with me and let me see him as the real human being that he is, instead of the one I perceived him as.
“I would hand all the credit to my son to how he dealt with it. However difficult it was for me, he had the inner strength to meet the challenge he was facing.”
She stood down as minister of First Dunmurry Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church in September 2018.
She revealed she initially feared how the religious community would react to her son being transgender.
“I became a regular church attendee again around the time Finn came out as transgender,” she added.
“After that I had a very strong sense of wanting to minister to transgender people and their families.
“I applied to the non-subscribing church and my sense at that time was that I would probably be rejected and the church wasn’t the way to take this forward. But I was actually accepted as a minister and encouraged in my calling, so here I am.
“Others frequently disagree with me, but my understanding of the gospel is one of love and I was in a theological framework that let me develop those ideas.”
She also studied at the Presbyterian-run Union Theological College in Belfast to deliberately have her views challenged.
“They remain unchanged, which may show how recalcitrant I am,” she said.
“I’ve had challenges in my own religious community as well. I wouldn’t claim everyone was on the same page, we’re all human.
“I’ve faced open challenges from people of other religious denominations. That’s understandable, it’s their right and how they think.
“What I want to do is to change the way they think.”
The change was not accepted by everyone, with many of Finn’s own friends reacting badly.
“I think that he had a tough enough time in England. It destroyed some friendships where they didn’t support him, and strengthened others who were extremely loyal and dedicated,” Rev Ballard added.
Here, she also became more keenly aware of the abuse others faced.
“I personally know transgender people who are afraid to leave their homes because of social treatment they may receive,” she said.
“People have had verbal and physical abuse as well as having excrement put on their doors.
“Internationally, hundreds of transgender people around the world are murdered every year, usually those who transition from male to female.”
Finn added: “To be honest, if people have problems with me over the most essential part of my identity then it’s not much of a friendship.
“One struggle for me was that I had friends in the Pride society who thought of me as a lesbian.
“It was hard for them, they were fixed in their notions of masculinity. Not only for straight people, but also LGBT people can often parrot those fixed concepts of gender.
“I never really presented as hyper masculine or very macho. People would tell me: ‘You’re too soft to be a man, why not just be a lesbian?’
“That was a little frustrating and hurtful at times but I understand it, though people are much better informed now.”
Finn said he considers himself one of the lucky ones, with the unusual support of having a pro-transgender minister for a mum.
“I’m very proud of her and think it’s a fantastic thing she’s doing. Northern Ireland is a really religious place, I’m not really religious. So if change comes from the church, so much the better, it’s good for people to know they have a place of refuge there,” he said.
“I hope it will improve. I don’t know what to say, the measures that need to take place for abortion, for gay marriage, I hope are imminent.
“I saw the marches in the wake of the death of Lyra McKee with people calling for equal marriage. I do wonder what will need to happen for things to change — the DUP will certainly not change their minds.”
Although he has now lived away from home for 20 years, Finn keeps up to date with developments in the LGBT community here.
He added: “I have been back home and have some contact with trans people in Northern Ireland.
“I think they’re gaining confidence but I think it’s still a very hard place to live as an openly trans person.
“I’m not sure how much hostility there is on the street, but you have the DUP in such a powerful position who are, in my view, overtly homophobic.
“I doubt they view trans people in a positive way. Certainly when you have a party like that legitimised by a large popular vote, you’re not going to feel comfortable.”
Last month a study by ARK — a joint initiative by Queen’s University and Ulster University — found 21% of those questioned are prejudiced towards transgender people, but 72% describe themselves as “not prejudiced at all”.
Rev Ballard welcomed the report, but noted most who had responded had self-identified as not being prejudiced.
Offering advice to other parents of transgender children, she said: “We are all individuals, that we all bring our own talents and gifts and that it’s not something to be afraid of. If you meet and talk to a transgender person your perception is likely to be radically altered.”
For further information on support for transgender individuals and their families in Northern Ireland, visit www.thefocustrust.com