Trans woman makes history as she stands for Assembly
It has been an extraordinary journey for 22 year-old Ellen Murray, the Green Party candidate for West Belfast in the Assembly Elections in May.
Raised in Andersonstown and Finaghy, she is one of a new generation of politicians whose activism is not rooted in Northern Ireland’s past.
“I grew up in that community post conflict and people my age couldn’t be bothered discussing politics,” she says.
“I saw it as an old men’s game, a money game, full of vested interests, unchangeable, a sectarian rabbit hole where nothing happens. I was completely put off and never considered voting never mind running for office.“
“Now I am very enthusiastic about standing. There has been nobody for the trans, or even LGBT community in the Assembly. It would send a pretty cool message if this gay trans woman were elected.”
That is going to be much easier said than done in a seat which is so strongly dominated by Sinn Fein. But the fact she is standing at all will have at least some impact on the political discourse leading up to the Election.
Murray’s journey into politics is at least partly inspired by her experiences as a young trans person coming out in Northern Ireland.
At school, she went to a Catholic grammar, she was confused about her adolescence and the onset of puberty.
“I intuitively knew what was happening but I did not have the words to describe it, she says.
“I’ve never subscribed to the belief I was born in the wrong body as such I just felt it wasn’t developing in the way it should be. My own understanding was intuitive to the point I knew something was wrong and something needed to change.
“But this is not the kind of thing you are taught in school and it wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I could articulate it.”
By this time she was suffering from depression and was in a bad place.
And it was when she turned for help to the health authorities that she got involved in activism.
When she was told by the Health Service that she could not expect any treatment in the foreseeable future she decided to fight her corner.
She lobbied MLAs, succeeded in getting the matter raised at the Assembly and even secured a letter from the then Health Minister Edwin Poots, pledging to look into the matter. “Then, lo and behold, a few months later I got an appointment.”
This experience led her to join Sail NI, a group that provides support to the families of transgendered people, where she leads on policy development.
At the same she also felt that there was a need for more support for younger trans people.
“What triggered me was stumbling upon internet communities: they may be far from perfect but they are lifelines for people.
“You will see young people documenting their daily lives and telling their stories without filters and when you see those stories that can really lift you up.”
Ellen found a number of young people on tumblr and Twitter and suggested that they meet up in Belfast for a coffee once a month.
This group evolved into GenderJam, the organisation she now chairs.
It provides support for individuals and also campaigns on policy issues for the trans community.
She is a passionate advocate for policy reform and highlights three areas where GenderJam is campaigning for change: better access to health care for the trans community, improvements in school regimes and legal change. In terms of health care there are two main issues.
Trans people often complain about the way they are treated in A&E and when seeking mental health services “We often get poor reports where people are finding themselves invalidated and questioned at every turn,” she says. There are also problems with access to screening and check-ups which are offered on a gender basis, and don’t account for trans people.
Over and above this is problems encountered with trans-specific care, it can be hard to get treatment unless you have a job, because doctors are demanding people live “ a real life experience” before treating them. There is also an expectation that they turn up for appointments in the gender they identify with and are told that If they are not “out” to everybody in their family circle they will not be treated.
Ellen says in order for many trans people to get the medical support they require it is often necessary to lie.
She says that schools are getting better in catering for trans pupils but says that, as a whole, either don’t know what to do and get it wrong or think they know after talking to one trans person but then find the advice they have been given doesn’t work for others.
Specific issues are trans pupils being told to use accessible bathrooms rather than boys or girls and then finding that they are unusable because they are deployed to store photocopiers and the like. She also wants to see those schools that still insist that girls cannot wear trousers as part of t heir uniform to revise their policies.
“Schools are really important, she says, “because the school experience can have a big impact on mental health and also where schools are supportive it makes an enormous difference. “
Finally she wants to see legal change including clearer definition of hate crime, and the abolition of the Gender Recognition Register for trans people. She would like a new system whereby people can choose not to assign themselves a gender at all. Many trans people find the current system intimidating and embarrassing and there is a lot of resentment around married couple having their marriages forcibly annulled if one of them applies to have his or her gender reassigned.
Ellen joined the Green Party after attending an event organised by NI21 about women in politics. She thought that the only male on the panel, John Barry of the Green Party, was the only panellist talking sense.
She subsequently became active in both the Young Greens and the Queer Greens before deciding she wanted to stand for public office.
“I’m very enthusiastic about it but I’m also prepared for it not going well.
“I’m not afraid of the roughness of politics. The thing is when you are a trans person that’s a rough existence. I’ve been very lucky in escaping the violence but you do not get an easy time from people who can be extremely hostile. You should see my block list on twitter!
“I suppose issues I faced when coming out seem translatable to this and it seems less of a potential culture shock – standing for election is wee buns in comparison.”
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