Tuesday 21 November 2017

Making room for the T in LGBT

What's in an acronym? Following a landmark year for the LGBT community, gay man Declan Henry felt he still didn't know much about his transgender allies

Leading lady: Laverne Cox is a well-known transgender personality
Leading lady: Laverne Cox is a well-known transgender personality
Declan Henry
Caitlyn Jenner
Hari Nef

Most of us can probably name a famous transgender person - whether it's Caitlyn Jenner, Orange Is The New Black's Laverne Cox, model Hari Nef or Cher's son Chaz Bono. However, in 10 years' time, it is estimated most people will know a transgender person, just like everyone now knows somebody who is gay.

By that time, much of the current curiosity surrounding trans people will have waned because it will be the norm for people to say they have trans relatives, friends, neighbours and work colleagues - without fear or shame.

Trans issues are moving more and more to the forefront of society and as a gay man, I was ashamed of how little I knew about trans people - so I decided to write a book about it and seek out those trans voices. Being part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, I regret that amongst the gay community there is still a general lack of knowledge about trans people and the issues they face on a day-to-day basis.

"I feel the 'T' is just something that is tagged at the end of LGBT," said Ruth, a trans woman I spoke to. "Gay people can be as ignorant as anybody else in society about trans issues. They are equally capable of poking fun and making snide comments. These are hardly the actions of allies."

Caitlyn Jenner
Caitlyn Jenner

In most western countries, there's greater tolerance of gays and lesbians than trans people, who are still vilified and far more likely to be ostracised at work, attacked or, in some countries, even murdered. It is reasonable to ask if trans people are the last group in society that can be ridiculed and judged without any apparent consequence.

How can society change its attitudes towards trans people? True equality isn't just about tolerance - what is needed is a broad-minded and empathetic attitude, but this can't be achieved without understanding trans identities and dispelling the myths and fears about them.

Laura, a trans woman, told me: "It is like you've been wearing a really itchy suit your entire life and didn't know, until now, you could take it off. What every trans person can say is they just 'know' their gender is wrong for their biological sex."

I am aware that much curiosity surrounds trans people and I too have bought into this. I know if I'm sitting next to a trans person in a restaurant or on a train, it's enticing to look at their clothes, footwear and make-up, particularly if it's a trans woman. I have even found myself rooting for the person when they are spoken to by a waiter or a ticket collector - and when they get up and walk. I have wanted them to be convincing in their new gender because I know it's a harsh world and that people have a propensity for saying horrible things, shattering confidence in the process. But society doesn't have to be like this. Awareness and knowledge break down ignorance and bigotry, and can create a world where everybody can get on with their business without interference or prejudice.

There are as many differences as there are similarities between trans and gay people. Misconceptions and discrimination affect both, and they share similar nuances. They are closely acquainted in terms of homophobia and transphobia. Although homophobia is still prevalent in certain sections of western culture, and homosexuality is still illegal in over 75 countries, there is no denying there has been progress in terms of inclusion and acceptance, culminating in same-sex marriage legislation in many countries. Up until it was declassified in 1992, homosexuality was deemed a mental disorder under psychiatric illnesses. But trans people are still under the mental illness umbrella of psychiatry and having a 'mental illness' label leads to society viewing trans people as being unwell, different or strange.

"Some people view trans as something that goes against the norms of society," Caroline, another trans woman I interviewed, explained. "We are viewed as having a medical condition. Yes, it is a mental condition. How can it not be? But it is not a mental illness. I am not mentally ill. Before I transitioned, my brain and body did not match each other. I viewed it as something that could be fixed. So I fixed it through years of treatments and surgeries."

Hari Nef
Hari Nef

In Ireland, the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act in 2015 gave trans people the advantage of being amongst only a handful of countries in the world where they could self-declare their gender and gain legal recognition without seeing a doctor or needing medical treatment. They followed Argentina, Denmark, Malta and Colombia in allowing trans people to self-determine outside the medical process.

Although the Act was seen as a positive step forward for transgender rights in Ireland, it faced criticism for having exclusions within the trans community. At the moment, the Act excludes trans people under 16 and does not allow people who are non-binary (ie those who may not want an 'M' or 'F' on their birth certificate) to be legally recognised. It will be reviewed in September this year, with trans activists advocating to include young trans people, non-binary and intersex people (those born with visibly ambiguous genitalia that do not entirely fit what is considered 'male' or 'female').

In addition to the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, there is a need for society to address transphobia and the bullying of young trans people in educational settings. Some teenagers are coming out much younger these days and often face challenges in schools, such as wearing uniforms that don't match their gender identity, using the wrong facilities, being referred to by the wrong name/pronoun, etc. Many young people struggle, experience bullying and drop out of education at the earliest opportunity.

Research shows that if people have support from their families, they are more likely to thrive. Coming out as trans involves a complete change of identity, which puts trans people and their families under great stress and can result in self-harming behaviour and suicide ideation. It is found that people who have experienced suicidal ideation or attempted suicide had often faced rejection and verbal and physical abuse from their families, as well as suffering distress and abuse in their communities, workplace and the media.

Megan, a trans woman, told me the lesson she had learned over the years was: "Be as confident as you can. Confidence breeds confidence. Don't let idiots knock you back. I remember being in a shopping mall once and heard the words, 'freak, freak!', knowing only too well they were being directed at me.

"I made sure I went out the next day. I felt nervous and highly-strung, but it was something I had to prove to myself - that I could beat the bullies. These days, I no longer walk around with my head bowed. I look straight at people. I meet their eyes and, as a result, very little abuse is directed at me."

Declan Henry
Declan Henry

Trans Voices: Becoming Who You Are by Declan Henry (€15.50, Jessica Kingsley) is published January 19

Irish Independent

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