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.
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.