Sunday 25 September 2016

The Irish Trans Community: 'We're real, we exist... and we're not going away'

Like Bruce Jenner, many Irish transgender people have been on a brave journey

Tanya Sweeney

Published 03/05/2015 | 02:30

Taking charge: 19-year-old Daniel Zagorski made the transition from female to male in 2014
Taking charge: 19-year-old Daniel Zagorski made the transition from female to male in 2014
Bruce Jenner reveals he is transitioning into a woman on a Diane Sawyer Interview special on the ABC network in America

There's rarely a dull moment in the Kardashian clan, but for once the spotlight wasn't on camera-ready Kendall or even curvy Kim. Last weekend, the world's eyes were firmly trained on Bruce Jenner, the patriarch of the famous family, as she confirmed that she was transitioning into a woman. In a highly emotional and raw interview, conducted with Diane Sawyer and seen by 17 million viewers, Jenner said that she has known of her true identity as a woman since childhood.

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Slowly, transgender people are moving into the eyeline of the mainstream, from actress Laverne Cox to the Golden Globe-winning series Transparent.

In a small but highly significant move, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have revealed that they fully support the wishes of their eight-year-old child, who was christened Shiloh. Shiloh now prefers to be called John.

These positive media messages are having a knock-on effect in the real world. TENI (the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland) have had 1,000 enquiries since the beginning of the year; a sharp increase on last year. It is difficult to pinpoint how many transgender people live in Ireland at present, but the Gender Identity Research & Education Society estimates prevalence of gender variation at 1pc of a general population.

Alas, not everyone has a parent as supportive as Jolie, and in 1950s Ireland, Claire Farrell (71) admits that she "had enough savvy" to keep to herself any incumbent feelings that she felt different.

"I knew (I was female) since I was about five or six-years-old," recalls Farrell, who transitioned from male to female. "I tried to fight it though - I tried to be male. I did everything 'male', and eventually got married and had children, but it just wouldn't go away."

Transgender people often describe their experience as being 'trapped in the wrong body', and while some trans people feel it oversimplifies a more nuanced experience, this feeling certainly rang true for Farrell. Being transgender is not a lifestyle choice, and transitioning is certainly not a decision taken lightly (to clarify, transvestite people are those who derive pleasure from dressing as the opposite sex, though don't feel the compulsion to live permanently as that gender).

"What I say is that I had masqueraded as a male until I could express myself as a woman," says Farrell.

In her teens, Farrell's mother discovered her dressing up in her sister's dresses. Her father attempted to 'beat it out' of her, while her mother 'hauled (her) off' to a priest. Puberty, predictably, was a living hell for her.

"I would cry myself to sleep every night and pray I'd wake up as a girl. But in those days you just couldn't talk about it. You'd literally have been put into a mental institution."

In the early 80s, Farrell finally went to see a specialist in London, who confirmed that she was indeed transgender. Finally meeting other trans people in Ireland in the early 80s, Farrell started a helpline, Friends Of Eon, to help those in a similar situation.

On Thursday nights, when she would offer support and advice to others, the phone would literally not stop ringing. Becoming increasingly involved in activism, Farrell recalls how she "sort of ran a double life". The time then came for Farrell to separate from her wife; explaining the reason for their separation to her three children turned out to be one of the most arduous parts of her transitioning journey.

"I came out to them all at the same time by writing them a letter," explains Farrell. "It was the most painful letter I'd ever written… tears just flowed as I explained what was going on. Generally, they accepted it."

Farrell's children are still coming to terms with her new identity, but one thing will always hold firm: "I'm 'Dad' to them, and I'll always be Dad, and I have no difficulty with that," she says." That's how it should be really, and other trans people of a similar age all feel the same way."

The ignorance around transgenderism is slowly but inexorably eroding. Still, there are small, everyday irritations to contend with: "Even something like opening a bank account can be a problem," explains Farrell.

"You have to 'out' yourself every time. If you say, 'I'm Claire Farrell', the next question is usually, 'male or female?'.

Hopefully the Gender Recognition Bill (which was recently passed in the Seanad and will bring huge difference to the lives of transgender people in Ireland) will change all that."

Says Broden Giambrone, Chief Executive at TENI: "So many more young people have the language needed to express themselves, and their families are supporting them," he observes.

Other changes are afoot when it comes to transgender visibility, but sometimes it feels as though progress is happening at a glacial pace.

Daniel Zagorski, 19, who transitioned from female to male last year, says that while he always felt more comfortable presenting as a boy, he "didn't know a thing until he was 15".

"I met a transgender guy on the internet, who became my friend," he recalls. "I Googled 'transgender', and then it all clicked.

"But there was still a lot of confusion as well. We live in a very progressive world, but some parents, or peers, or schools, aren't very accepting."

Zagorski's parents are slowly accepting their son's identity ("initially, my mum wanted to fix it"); his friends, meanwhile, have no issue with Daniel's decision to transition.

When he was in sixth year, he even conducted a class to enlighten his peers.

"I wanted to take that power from them when it came to speculating," he recalls. "I think it would be really beneficial in the senior cycle to talk about gender identity in general, for everybody."

And to move ever closer to a world where transgender people can live honestly and without difficulty or shame, Farrell notes that acceptance and dialogue needs to happen way before people make it as far as college.

"It's all about putting supports in place in schools, specifically for children so that they can be who they are," she explains.

"We are a serious minority in this country, but we're real. We exist and we're not going away."

For more information or support, log onto teni.ie or call TENI at 01 873 3575.

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