The Gamechangers: No. 1 – Frances Shiels

The Gamechangers is a series of interviews with social activists based in and around Belfast that will explore how they see the world and what they are doing to change it.  The first interview is with Frances Shiels, one of the founders of FOCUS: THE IDENTITY TRUST, a peer support group for transgender and intersex individuals and their families. 


Dave : Hello Frances, I know you are currently involved with an organisation called FOCUS:THE IDENTITY TRUST. Tell me a bit about yourself and your involvement in the Trust.

Frances : Hi Dave, it’s great to be given this opportunity to talk about me and more importantly the work of FOCUS. I am a 62 year old woman of Transgender history. I was born on Easter Sunday 1952 into a Catholic family, the oldest child of 7, I have 5 brothers and 1 sister. I have known from my earliest memory that I am female but always knew it was something I couldn’t dare tell anyone else. So I did my best to be the best boy, and then man, I could possibly be, not for me but for all those around me who thought I was and expected me to be and behave as the male they saw.

I was very successful outwardly at being that person, however I lived a life of fear for 60 years. Fear that I would be rejected, fear that I would lose my family, or my career, or that I would have violence visited on me. The fear and stress caused me intense pain which eventually resulted in chronic physical and mental ill-health.

It wasn’t until I started to attend the Transgender Peer Support Group attached to the Regional Gender Identity Service in Northern Ireland that I got to meet other Transgender individuals and got to know that my experience was not unique. That room was the only space in which I didn’t have to speak to explain myself, that I knew everyone understood, that I was truly accepted, that I could reach out into and get the support I needed to be me, to feel at ease. It is no lie to say that without that Peer Support I would not be alive today. But in June 2013 that group was put into permanent suspension.

It was then that that a core group of us got together to form FOCUS: THE IDENTITY TRUST to meet the need for Peer Support for transgender and Intersex individuals and their families in Northern Ireland and also the Border Counties of the Republic of Ireland, there was no regularly organised Peer Support North of Galway on the West Coast or Dublin on the East Coast.

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What is unique about FOCUS Peer Support Groups is that we only accept referrals from formal Gender Identity Clinics or Registered Medical Practitioners. Our Groups are totally confidential with clear guidelines so that anonymity and safety for those who need it can be totally ensured.

Very often Transgender and Intersex individuals and their families can feel totally isolated, for this reason experienced members of FOCUS provide individual “buddying” of individuals and families in a location suitable to them until they reach a situation where they are sure our group support services are appropriate for them and they are ready to join our formal support group sessions. We know from personal experience how difficult it can be to walk into a group situation for the first time.

I am part of that buddying network and facilitate our Northwest Peer Support Group.

Dave: I hear how important Peer Support is and how passionate you are that Transgender and Intersex individuals and their families get that vital support that they need. Are there any other facets of FOCUS’s work you are involved in?

Frances: Yes. In the Trust we recognise that a lot of the recurring issues raised in our support groups are to do with the lack of understanding of our medical condition in mainstream society at all levels which leads to prejudice and discrimination in all areas of our lives, if we are genuinely going to make a real difference then FOCUS needs to be more active in challenging misconceptions, prejudice and discrimination. It is for this reason that I have chosen to be one of the more visible members of FOCUS. I deliver most of our awareness raising sessions, and our training on Human Rights and Equality issues. I do a lot of lobbying with politicians and policy makers to have our issues recognised, understood, accepted and acted upon.

Dave: Tell me a bit about the lobbying you do. What are the main issues for Transgender and Intersex individuals and are they the same in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?

Frances: Our condition, Gender Dysphoria is a life-long medical condition which impacts every aspect of our lives from the day we are born and assigned the wrong sex, through school, through puberty, into adolescence, and on into adulthood right through to old age and end of life care.

It affects our education, our employment and training prospects, our relationships with others and our physical and mental health.

If I am forced to highlight particular issue common to both jurisdictions I would have to say the first is the question of access to specialist healthcare provision, particularly surgery and post-operative care. There is no provision for our specialised surgeries to be carried out anywhere on the island of Ireland so there is no expertise in the delivery of aftercare either.

In Northern Ireland there is consistency of approach and delivery of specialised treatment as we have formal Gender Identity Services organised on a regional basis through Brackenburn Gender Identity Clinic for adults and the recently developed KOI service in the Regional CAMHS service for Gender nonconforming children and Transgender adolescents. In the Republic at the moment there is no definitive treatment pathway for those diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria. Access to and how Treatment is delivered is a lottery with no consistency of approach and depends solely on the interest, knowledge and preference of individual General Medical Practitioners.

The second huge area of concern on the island of Ireland is access to appropriate Human Rights based Gender Recognition processes. The Republic of Ireland is the last country in Europe not to have any form of Gender Recognition Legislation and has been found to be in default of European Human Rights Legislation. Yet despite this Dr Lydia Foy (who has been seeking for many years to have her gender recognised and who took her test case to Europe) is still waiting for her gender to be legally recognised and to have a birth certificate issued in her true gender.

In Northern Ireland despite the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, Transgender individuals in the UK still don’t “own” their true gender, having to rely on a medical process of diagnosis and treatment regimes to be able to gain recognition of their true gender identity. Unlike the rest of the UK, Transgender individuals in Northern Ireland in a marriage or civil partnership have to have that legal relationship dissolved prior to being able to have their true gender legally recognised.

Dave: How can wider society assist with the obviously huge concerns for Transgender individuals and their families?

Frances: Transgender and Intersex individuals are part of society, not apart from it. We are your son, your daughter, your brother, your sister, your aunt, your uncle, your mother, your father, even your grannie or granda. We are part of your community, your faith group and your workplace. All we want is to be accepted and treated with the same dignity and respect that everyone else expects and largely receives.

We are not seeking additional rights over and above anyone else but look forward to a society of equals where each is valued individually for their unique talents and enabled to positively contribute positively to the common good of their communities.

Each and every one of us can help to make that change a reality by educating ourselves and others on the issues of all marginalised groups – not just the issues of Transgender and intersex individuals – by championing the rights of others, by challenging all instances of discrimination, hate speech, inappropriate language, by coming to the aid of victims of any of these incidents and by reporting to the relevant authorities any incidents of bullying, harassment or physical violence perpetrated on any vulnerable members of our communities.

Finally I would like to thank you personally, Dave for giving me this opportunity to share this information about myself and FOCUS:THE IDENTITY TRUST. It is only allies like yourself who will enable change in society.

Dave: You’re most welcome. Thank you for sharing so much of your life and work. Your courage to speak out, your activism for equality, and the work of FOCUS, is an inspiration.

Frances: Finally, I would appeal to everyone reading this transcript to share our website address at every possible opportunity—YOU’LL NEVER KNOW WHOSE LIFE YOU MAY CHANGE FOR THE BETTER BY THAT ONE SIMPLE ACT.

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“I lived most of my life in fear” – Why we need a Trans Manifesto

Tomorrow, on Wednesday 2nd July, a Trans Manifesto will be launched at Stormont, the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, by Junior Minister Jennifer McCann.  Speaking in support of the manifesto will be Dr. Michael Wardlow, the Chief Commissioner for the Equality Commission, and Norma Shearer, Chief Executive of Training for Women Network.  Others to publicly support the campaign include MEPs Martina Anderson and Jim Nicholson, as well as MLA Anna Lo.


The Trans Manifesto has been developed by Focus: The Identity Trust.  Focus: The Identity Trust works to support Transgender people in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the issues which face Trans people are different in each jurisdiction.  They hope by developing it that it will transform how Trans people are viewed across the island of Ireland, north and south.  It is also hoped the Trans Manifesto will act as a guide for policy and decision makers on issues relating to Transgender individuals.

The launch of this Manifesto is important for a number of reasons.  For many Trans people the T at the end of LGBT is at best a silent one, and nor is the inclusion of T in LGBT even appropriate (see here for more info).  In short, while LGB is about sexuality and attraction, T is about gender.  They are different issues.  Public understanding of Gender Dysphoria – a recognised medical condition  – is limited.  The language used and the narratives constructed around Trans issues need to be formed and shaped by those who identify as Transgender rather than those who identify as Cisgender.

Focus say they don’t want extra rights for Trans people, just the same rights as everybody else.

“I lived most of my life in fear,” said Frances Shiels, secretary for Focus: The Identity Trust.

“I don’t want all of the Transgender and Intersex individuals yet to be born to have to endure the same pain I suffered, afraid to reveal my true identity. Hopefully the launch of this Manifesto and its endorsement will lead politicians and everyone else in positions of influence across the whole island to effect positive change in society that will directly impact on the lives of Transgender and Intersex individuals. After all Transgender rights is a cross –party issue which needs government support. These proposals , if acted upon, will have a hugely positive impact on the lives of many Transgender individuals and their families.”

The Trans Manifesto is made up of three core statements around dignity & respect, empowerment, and imagery:

  1. Regard Trans individuals as equal citizens with equal rights.
  2. Empower Trans individuals to be authorities on all aspects of their own lives.
  3. Encourage diverse, representative, realistic & positive portrayals of Trans individuals.

The Trans Manifesto also makes 2 specific requests of all political parties:

  1. A commitment to include positive images of Transgender individuals in all Central Government publications to increase positive visibility.
  2. A commitment to the speedy introduction of Human Rights based Gender Recognition legislation across the whole of Europe , which is independent of any necessity to fulfill any requirements or to undergo any medical procedures.

The full text of the Trans Manifesto is available here.

Trans issues are among the least understood in the media and society at large.  Many people simply do not know what the issues are and what they can do to help.  One easy thing to do is to read the manifesto and understand the issues better.  Another is to raise awareness of it by sharing it on social media.  Another way of showing support and solidarity is to write to local MLAs and MPs to show support for it.  Transgender rights and equality are not only cross-party issues, they are issues for everybody who claims to stand on the side of equality and justice.  In the end there is no true equality for anyone unless there is equality for everyone.


Reflections on peacebuilding and Loyalist masculinities (genderpeace conference)

The following is the text from my presentation at the genderpeace conference.  It received lots of feedback on the day which I will address in a future post.   

In trying to formulate a narrative approach to gender conscious practice in peacebuilding, I want to offer some reflections on my own peacebuilding practice and share some of the stories that have informed my own research.  Much of my work has been concerned with what the idea of the transformation of masculinities means in ‘post-violent’ Northern Ireland, in particular the case of Loyalist masculinities.

Rather than one singular story I will use a range of stories and quotes that will illustrate some of the features that have characterised Loyalist masculinities.  These should not be viewed as universal or absolute.  It is important to recognise that there are many forms of masculinities and that they are flexible and changing.

I recently wrote a guest blog post for  My presentation will expand on some of the themes that I briefly explored in that piece, and also add some other material.

A lot of men are not interested in talking about gender because it involves asking ourselves difficult questions about the nature of gender injustice and our role in it.  In this short presentation I want to address some of the difficult questions about gender and peacemaking and this means, as a man, asking difficult questions about masculinity, specifically patriarchal masculinity.  For the sake of clarification, I would define patriarchal masculinity as the will to dominate power relationships with women and also other men.

I have been greatly influenced by the African-American feminist writer bell hooks.  In her book Teaching Community (p.xi), hooks writes: ‘We believed then and now that the most important measure of the success of the feminist movement would be the extent to which the feminist thinking and practice that was transforming our consciousness and our lives would have the same impact on ordinary folks.’

As a result of reading hooks, I have reflected on what it means to be successful as an academic and as someone involved in peacemaking.  For me, success is not how many papers we have written, or how many book chapters we’ve contributed, or even how many hits our blog gets.  The only measure of our success that ultimately matters is how much our work impacts the lives of ordinary people.

My research allows me to talk about my research only.  It does not qualify me to speak on behalf of Loyalism or for Loyalism.  It also does not allow me to speak about what is going on in Republican/Nationalist/Catholic communities.  I have not attempted to do any comparative work between the two major communities in Northern Ireland.  My guess is that some of the issues facing Loyalist men are unique to Loyalist communities, and others are the same as other communities.

Before we begin to talk about the issue of masculinity, we also need to acknowledge that gender does not exist in a vacuum.  Unless we understand gender within the wider context of economic injustice and racial injustice we have failed before we begin.  Our concern for justice and equality must always transcend our own interests and our own suffering.  Unless we are concerned with injustice and inequality everywhere we cannot claim to be concerned with addressing gender injustice and inequality.

It is within this context that we can begin to understand the gendered identity of Loyalist men.

The theologian Stanley Hauerwas calls the low-class white male the most voiceless person in our society:

‘The most voiceless person in our society is the low class white male….What it means for them to be voiceless is that they don’t have a story that can make their lives intelligible.  The only stories around are, ‘You must be lazy because you didn’t get ahead,’ and I think that is an extraordinary destructive story….Many [lower class white males] live in a hopeless world so what you do is drink, screw, and die.’    (Iconocast podcast episode 17)

The effects of economic injustice are of course not unique to Loyalist communities.  A Republican ex-prisoner I know tells the story that when conducting a workshop with a group of Republican youth, he asked if any of them had ever been in the same room as a Loyalist before.  One of them replied, ‘For fucks sake, we’ve never even been in the same room as a flipchart before.’

The challenge for Loyalist young men growing up is dealing with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.  My own workshops with Loyalist young men sometimes involve an exercise called ‘What is my dream?’  When faced with this question many young men answer that their dream is to win the lottery or to become a porn star.  Young men are growing up in a place so devoid of hope and opportunity that their greatest dream is to win millions of pounds or to get paid to have sex.

The crisis facing Loyalist communities is one of abandonment: economically; socially; and politically.  It is only when people can see a way out that they will have hope.

In my article on Eamonn Mallie’s website, I described Loyalist masculinity as ‘the elephant in the peace process’, to which someone replied: ‘There are a lot more elephants in that room’.  And that may well be true, but the reason I chose that analogy was because in my view Loyalist masculinity has been mostly ignored, largely maligned, and often misunderstood.

I think there is so little education around masculinities because there is so little understanding about what masculinity is and how it can be approached.

In her book The Will To Change, ‘bell hooks’ argues that if we take away the privileges that patriarchy has given men then we would find that they are suffering just as much as women.  In the case of Loyalism, patriarchal masculinity has left Loyalist men brutalised and suffering, with nowhere to go.

The dominant form of Ulster Loyalism that emerged during the period of ‘the troubles’ was defined by heavily militarised notions of masculinity.  In many areas men were often willing to take up arms, of one sort or another.  For some this meant joining the British army, for others this meant joining Loyalist paramilitary organisations.  In the same way that young men are told that the army will turn them into ‘real men’, so too ‘real men’ joined the ranks of paramilitary organisations.  A UVF ex-prisoner told me:

‘Men in this area would still, always down through the history of this area…always want to be in the army of some sort.’

On the walls of public housing estates and inner-cities, the figure of the Loyalist ‘warrior’ became immortalised in the form of murals.  A UDA ex-prisoner recalled:

‘Gunmen in our estates, and the places where we lived, were idolised.  They were heroes.  They were heroes, full stop.’

Young men growing up in Loyalist areas often had to deal with the triple effects of poverty, an education system which rendered many of them second class by the age of eleven, and the wider effects of deindustrialisation and the loss of jobs.  In this context paramilitary organisations provided many men with a story that gave them both meaning and status that was difficult to attain elsewhere.  The UDA ex-prisoner summed up his attitude towards education growing up:

‘When we grew up, ‘Education’s for fruits!’ You know?  It was for gays. You know?  ‘Pffft, don’t touch that, we want guns!   Gimme guns, gimme guns!’’

He went on to describe the attraction of the figure or the Loyalist ‘warrior’:

‘Bonfires where I grew up, see every eleventh night?  Six, ten, sometimes fifteen Loyalist – UDA – gunmen, out to the bonfire, all machine guns, the lot, all the kit [makes noises of machine guns going off], the full monty.  You’re standing there with wee lads seeing all these big lads coming out with AK47s and all, do you know what I mean?  And giving it large.  It was like rock n roll and toy soldiers right in your front garden, you know what I mean?  Wow, give us some of that!  No more ‘A-team’, I want in there, know what I mean?  That is what you were aspiring to, you were seeing that, you know?  So you had that planted in your head.  Gimme that, gimme that.  And you seen the power it give the men, you know what I mean?  It give them recognition within the community, you know what I mean?  That’s what the kids aspired to do.  Kids wanted to go out and kill Catholics, as simple as that.  That’s it.  We didn’t play cowboys and Indians.  We played Provies and UDA, do you know what I mean?  Seeing who could stiff the most, you know? That’s the way we played it when we were growing up, you know?’

It was while conducting a focus group with Loyalist women that I first became aware of the deep suffering of Loyalist men as a result of patriarchal masculinity.  When asked about men and their emotions, one woman replied:

‘I look at some people now and I think they’re dead behind the eyes.’

Others added that many Loyalist men were:

‘Closed.  Shut.’  ‘Paranoid.’  ‘Switched off.’  ‘Haunted.’  ‘Desensitized.’

Later, a UDA ex-prisoner described to me how this process of emotional detachment took place:

‘Everybody changed in so many ways….And you do become hardened.  Death means nothing to you.  Even life itself, you know, the value of life.  You’re prepared to give your life.  You’re prepared to go to jail.  You’re prepared to give up your freedom and your family.  So you go step by step by step, [from] being what you would call normal to being a soldier, or a hard-line paramilitary.’

One ex-UVF prisoner described how this took its toll on family life:

‘If you harden your heart, well that’s gonna be hardened towards your relationships and other areas, whether it be your wife, your kids or even the way you talk and treat your friends, you know. In them days you didn’t wanna show sign of weakness.  Everybody was fucking John Wayne.’

Loyalist patriarchal masculinity has claimed more victims than many of us want to admit.  It crushed the souls of those who managed to make it out alive and exiled them to a land of emotional disconnection.  More than one Loyalist ex-prisoner has told me they are afraid to sleep because they might wake up screaming in the night.  It is common to hear stories of Loyalist men, decades after their involvement in the conflict, dealing with alcoholism, drug addiction, and other mental health issues.  Others, unable to cope at all, have taken their own lives.

Some might argue that these men chose their own path and now they have to deal with the consequences.  Some might say they deserve what they get.  Many people are so enraged by the suffering caused by Loyalist men that they refuse to acknowledge that Loyalist men have also suffered.  And yet, if we are to all move forward together towards a shared future for everyone, we can not afford to ignore the elephant in the peace process.  Acknowledging the suffering of Loyalist men might provide a point of connection that ultimately leads to transformation of Loyalist masculinity.

So what about the transformation of Loyalist masculinities?

An article on the bbc website recently included a quote from a UDA leader, on how Loyalist masculinity is changing: ‘We say now arm ourselves with education….Five years ago, two people started university within our organisation; this year 16 people. Sixteen young lads and girls started university, so we’ve been on that journey, we’ve been on the journey of education because education is the new power.’

What is interesting about this quote is that it recognizes that patriarchal masculinity and the old belief that education is for girls and gays has not served Loyalist men well.  However, it represents only a partial change from patriarchal values.  Where it maintains a loyalty to patriarchal values is that he describes education as ‘the new power’.  This is a partial transformation from violent patriarchal masculinity to what hooks calls ‘nice-guy’ patriarchal masculinity.  It does not represent a full transformation of patriarchal values but it is a step in the right direction.  True transformation does not take place in a moment but in the context of a post-violent society it is a slow, discontinuous, and uneven process.  Transformation from patriarchal values means more than changing from violent patriarchal masculinity to nice guy patriarchs, it requires transcending power and the will to dominate.



‘Genderpeace’ is a one day conference happening tomorrow in Belfast.  It’s organised by Mediation Northern Ireland with the goal to ‘unfold powerful stories about gender and peace’.  Unfortunately for anyone reading this who hasn’t booked a place, it’s full up already, and I believe there is also a waiting list should spaces become available.

Mediation Northern Ireland advertises the event as ‘exploring new ways of understanding gender-conscious peacebuilding through conversations, reflective practice and consultation.’

The phrase ‘gender-conscious peacebuilding’ could be used to sum up the work I’ve been involved in for the last several years, so I was more than happy to be asked to be one of the contributors.

I’ll do a post after the conference which will include my own contribution and also some reflections on the thing as a whole.  My own feeling is that these conversations about the role of gender in peacemaking may, at times, be difficult, but they are hugely important and long overdue, and well done to the organisers for creating the space for them to happen.

Below is a list of the speakers and biographical information, complete with picture of me and my favourite sunglasses (which sadly won’t be making an appearance as they were lost forever up a mountain).

Prince Harry the ‘Brew Bitch’


The picture above is taken from the Sunday Life, a Northern Ireland based newspaper, on Sunday 27th January 2013.

Before I start, I have to admit that if I had to pick a favourite royal, despite his grandmother’s symbolically powerful work for peace the past couple of years, for pure entertainment value, Harry would be it.  He does seem like he is a bit of a laugh and relatively down to earth.  So this isn’t really having a go at Harry so much as it is pointing out something of the misogyny that is deeply embedded in British military masculinity, of which he seems to be the new public face.

Harry is no stranger to P.R. disasters.  In fact, this wasn’t even Harry’s first P.R. disaster in the last week.  A few days ago he made the headlines for comparing his role fighting the Taliban to a video game.  This was most likely a ploy to make Harry look like the ‘warrior prince’ but ended up with him looking more of a wally than a warrior.

So, to his latest comments.  This time, in order to make us think he was just ‘one of the boys’, he told a story about how when he lost a board game with his military pals, he would have to do all sorts of chores for them, essentially making him their ‘brew bitch’.  Now the way we can view this is put it down to a bit of a laugh, just some harmless banter between some of the boys, or we can see it as symptomatic of a huge problem of sexism and misogyny within military masculinities, in this case the British Army.  That was the way the conversation played out when I posted it on twitter.  I’ve included the screenshot below.

The conversation finishes up with @HunkyJimphorps getting to what I consider to be the heart of the matter.  The problem of patriarchal masculinity is essentially about power and the will to dominate women and other men.

‘calling himself the “bitch” when he had to be subordinate to other men is in fact a hateful way to think about women’