Nothing About Us Without Us

Today, TENI – Transgender Equality Network of Ireland announced their new CEO. He is a white cisgender man. While there is no doubt that his CV is impressive, I am personally incredibly disappointed that the board of TENI have appointed Stephen O’Hare. I’m incredibly upset that the only trans organisation in Ireland that receives funding is being led by a cis man. Trans people experience unemployment at 3x the rate of the general population (1) and perpetrators of transphobic violence are more than 2x likely to be cis men (2). I believe that the trans community should be led by a trans person. To have a cis man representing the Irish trans community at the highest political, economic and social levels sends out the message that we cannot be trusted to lead our own communities in our own fights for rights, equality and acceptance.

I will be attending TENI’s General Assembly on Saturday 7th October from 3-5pm at the Chocolate Factory in Dublin to put some really hard question to the TENI board. ___________________



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Gender Fluidity 

Transitioning is a complex journey. Questions are asked, self-identity is challenged, sexuality can change, and all this is ongoing.

When I first thought about my gender properly, I began to identify as a genderqueer woman.  At the time, my only frame of reference was My Transsexual Summer on Channel 4, and despite the inclusion of Fox Fisher on it, the show was presented as journeys of binary gender transition. By the time I had tried on my first binder, I had begun to think of myself as transmasculine. I even briefly identified as a trans guy, but I was never comfortable with that definition. Finally I came to the realisation that my gender is non-binary. How I understand my non-binary identity is now the aspect of my transition that changes the most.

When I finally hit on the non-binary ‘label’, I knew that my understanding of my gender was not yet complete, merely that I had found a parameter within which to define my gender identity. I told myself that a deeper understanding would manifest itself with time. At the time, I was struggling with more immediate issues relating to my medical transition. One of the biggest questions at that time was whether or not to start taking testosterone (T). I knew that if I did take T, that I might medically transition to a point of regret, but in the end I decided that the risk was worth it. 

I’ve now been on varying doses of T for approximately 18 months. Overall, I am enjoying the changes – much more than I thought I would, actually. However, the closer I get to “passing” as male, the more aware I become of my increasingly tentative connection to the queer female community, and this scares me. The confusing thing is that I don’t want to be seen as female. But as non-binary identities don’t really have a specific place yet in these overwhelmingly binary spaces, it’s hard to know where I want to fit in. I constantly battle with having to choose between the gay/bi male community and the gay/bi female community. 

This internal struggle makes me question my gender in different spaces. On the whole, my interaction within these binary spaces leads me to ask myself if I am genderfluid. On reflection, it’s a label that I am becoming more comfortable with identifying with the longer I ponder it. It’s possible that my expression in these spaces is more relevant than my identity, but the further I get into my transition, the more these elements overlap. In gay/bi male spaces, I identify more closely with femininity/femmeness, whereas in gay/bi female spaces, it’s in my masculinity that I feel most comfortable. 

For this reason, I still identify closely with the butch female/non-binary community, and I have begun to identify more closely with the femme male/non-binary community. It’s only in queer spaces that I genuinely feel comfortable enough to express both parts of my identity without fear of being perceived as the ‘wrong’ gender (i.e. female in male spaces, male in female spaces). Therefore, it would seem that it is binary gender which forces me into this identity of gender-fluidity. 

As an openly non-binary person, I am aware that I cannot ever fit into these binary communities, yet the world in which we live is structured around binary gender! The easiest way for me to navigate this world is to find a way of ‘fitting in’, and for me, that means identifying as genderfluid. I still express my gender freely in queer spaces, which allows me to feel at home in my gender identity. Due to the rarity of such spaces, I tend to immerse myself in those communities that I do discover, which has lead some well-meaning heterosexual cisgender people to encourage me to try to “fit into the real world” better. My response to these people is this: I am fitting in as best as I can. This world was not designed for people like me. This is why I spend all my time and energy trying to change it when I can. Some people say I do so much for the non-binary trans community through my activism. But the truth is that I do it first and foremost for myself. I don’t want to feel like an outsider in my own home. 

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Hypomania + Insomnia

For the longest time, I have thought that the depression I experience is not unipolar, but bipolar. I discussed this with my psychiatrist at the GIC, who said that my ‘manic’ episodes are not severe enough to warrant a ‘diagnosis’ as bipolar. Although I understand that my manic periods don’t result in hospitalisation or psychosis, they still affect me such that aspects of my life drastically change due to the extreme highs and lows.

Once I started to take Venlafaxine I noticed that I needed to sleep less, I was more agitated and I had a lot more energy. I started Venlafaxine not long before I started taking testosterone, so I struggle to discern from which substance the changes in my physical and mental health came. Recently, a good friend of mine just started taking Venlafaxine too, and talking to her about how it makes her feel has made it clearer in my mind what Venlafaxine is doing to my mind/body/brain.

Before I ever started to take anti-depressants, my mental health went from really low points in winter, to really high points in summer. As time went on, the length of time between the highs and lows became shorter and shorter, until I was swinging from one to the other sometimes several times in a day. It was exhausting. It’s only from talking to my friend that I’ve realised that these extreme “mood swings” (for lack of a better word) have become less intense, less repetitive, more spaced out. However, it appears that although the really deep, dark lows have become much less intense, the highs have become far more concentrated than I have experienced them before.

It used to be that when I was ‘manic’, I would become super sociable, I would sleep less and yet somehow be more energetic. This time, however, I’m not just sleeping less, I’m barely sleeping at all. Whenever I do sleep, it is a half-waking sleep from which I awake feeling irritated, agitated and full of nervous energy. I don’t need to eat, and if I didn’t force myself to have at least one meal a day, I would simply go without. Hunger exists, but it’s like a long-forgotten sock left underneath a dusty sofa. It does not drive me or call to me, but simply hides away, easily forgotten. I cannot switch off fully, but being unable to switch off, I cannot be fully switched on either, existing instead in a fuzzy haze of insomnia, hypomania and exhaustion.

The strangest thing is that it does not scare me. I am aware that the crash will come (and with a really high-high, there follows a REALLY low-low), but somehow I feel that on Venlafaxine it won’t be able to touch me like it has done before. I am, however, concerned. I know that lack of sleep can bring on hypomania, and that hypomania brings with it insomnia, so it’s like a cat chasing it’s tail – the circle goes on repeating itself. The last time this happened to me, I experienced insomnia and hypomania with severe depression. This time, I don’t feel depressed, just vaguely aware that the depression is there, but it’s trapped beneath the surface – by, I think, Venlafaxine. The solution for my insomnia the last time was low-dose sleeping pills, prescribed for only 10 days, to regulate my sleeping pattern enough that I could eventually fall asleep more ‘naturally’.

Maybe I’m putting to much store by the anti-depressant medication that I take, but after doing some research into it, it appears that Venlafaxine can indirectly cause hypomania due to the side effect of insomnia. It’s worth mentioning that I have been through quite a lot in the last 2 months between looking for work and lots of things going on in my personal life. It has been a tough couple of months, with a lot of stress and anxiety, so it’s not really surprising that I worked myself up so much that I am currently unable to sleep for longer than 2/3 hours at a time. I also did some research into why hypomania/insomnia and bipolar disorder are so interdependent, and supposedly people who are bipolar have a sensitive body clock, which is easily affected by irregular circadian rhythms. Where I live, the sun only sets for about 5 hours in the summer. Sleeping without blackout curtains means that I get no sleep at all.

I don’t have an immediate solution to my current insomnia predicament. Currently I have been awake for 24 hours – my head feels fuzzy, my body is agitated and full of nervous energy – yet I do not feel sleepy at all. I intend on staying awake until at least 10/11pm tonight and then I will attempt to fall asleep at a regular hour (i.e. before midnight). Hopefully I will be so exhausted that I will actually sleep through the night, and deeply.

Posted in Anti-Depressant Medication, Mental Health | 2 Comments

Daily challenges of living with depression 

A friend of mine recently reminded me of an aspect of depression that is often overlooked: that the lack of motivation to do things can affect not only your ability to participate in social activities, but every element of your life, including eating.

People who don’t really understand depression often offer advice such as “if you ate healthier food you would feel better” or “if you could just get a regular sleeping and eating schedule, everything would start to improve.” While I don’t disagree with the content of the statements – certainly routine and consuming healthy food has been demonstrated to prove overall health – they’re not particularly useful pieces of advice for a depressed person. The thing is that eating healthy food involves one of two things: making it yourself at home cheaply; or buying expensive pre-made food at high-end supermarkets. As most people can’t afford the second option, eating healthily means making it at home. 

This involves a fairly uncomplicated, but task-laden process that takes time, energy and effort:

  • Decide what to cook – either by looking up recipes or memory of familiarised recipes.
  • Write down or remember ingredients for recipe. As a trip to the shop requires a lot of effort, this will also often requires including everything else that you have run out of on the list too.
  • Work up the motivation to actually go to the shop.
  • Go to the shop to get food. Depending on circumstance this can involve making decisions about what to buy or not buy based on: what is within budget; what you can manage to carry if going by foot or bicycle; how strong your will is to avoid buying junk food or easy-to-make food.
  • Get home and unpack the food. 
  • Work up the energy to actually cook something.
  • Cook the food and eat it.
  • Clean up the kitchen afterwards or shove everything in the dishwasher if you can afford the electricity.

I know this reads like a #firstworldproblems list, but the reality is that, for me, this was the step-by-step process I had to go through in my head in order to make food. Sometimes just thinking about it all would overwhelm me so much that I wouldn’t be able to leave the house.

Over time, I found ways around this. I would use the days or hours when I was full of energy to cook massive portions of one-pot dishes that were cheap and simple to make, and then freeze the excess for the bad days. Sometimes the bad periods would last longer than my food supply and I would go through weeks of eating porridge and stewed beans until I had another good day. I’m fortunate that I love cooking. I can’t imagine how I would have coped if I hated cooking. I relied on recipes with lots of beans, tinned tomatoes and root vegetable, which are cheap to buy in Northern Ireland. I would spend maximum £20 per week on food, sometimes as little as £5 when I was really broke.

Having little money can massively impact on mental wellbeing. The constant worry about running out of money, having to count every single penny spent, becomes exhausting. Add this to the anxiety and/or depression already experienced and it becomes almost impossible to escape worry, despair and/or hopelessness.

It’s crucial to understand that tackling severe or non-functioning depression requires a comprehensive approach that takes into account all aspects of an individual’s life. When I was signing on (getting social welfare benefits), I received monthly payments of £220 from the housing benefit office and £245 for unemployment benefit – £465 in total. My monthly outgoings included £275 for rent, £20 mobile phone bill, £18 for TV licence & internet and £15-40 for electricity and gas (depending on season). This would leave me with £110 in winter months to pay for public transport, food, and any emergency expenses that came up. I know it’s not dire poverty, but it also isn’t enough money to live on without constantly worrying about running out. It’s not living, it’s struggling. 

There has been so much effort put into challenging social attitudes towards depression and anxiety, but little has been done to address the social inequalities that reinforce the systemic discrimination towards people living with severe mental health issues. It’s time to start thinking about the bigger picture and how we can begin to challenge these imbalances. 

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One thing at a time

There are days, sometimes weeks, when I feel fantastic. Then there are days, sometimes weeks and months when I feel pretty crappy. On the crappy days, my mantra becomes “one thing at a time”. When my depression was really bad, it was the only thing that got me out of bed. It was my mother who taught me about this. When I was in my first year of university, back in 2009, I would struggle with getting out of bed. My mum’s advice was to just do “one thing at a time”. She also suggested having little rewards to work towards to motivate myself to do the things that needed doing. When I couldn’t get out of bed, my reward was Crunchy Nut Cornflakes – if I managed to get out of bed, I would have a bowl of it for breakfast. I ate crunchy nut for breakfast that whole academic year.

Nowadays, when my depression tries to drag me into despair and hopelessness, paired with despondency and an inability to motivate myself to do anything other than lie on my bed and play Spider Solitaire on my phone, I remind myself of this advice. “One thing at a time”. For this to work, it requires not so much total focus on the task at hand, but more of a passive awareness that I may only manage to do this one thing, without any further pressure on myself to complete another task. Only by taking pressure off myself to do anything more than a single task, will I manage to motivate myself. Often, this is paired in my mind with a small push such as “if I manage to make the bed, then I might walk to the shop to get an ice cream”. Although the reward in itself is also a task (which would have completely defeated me a few years ago), now I am able to work the energy up to take a walk to the shop to get the ice cream. 

For those who haven’t lived with depression, it can seem a ridiculously simple thing to be defeated by. Unable to find the energy to walk to the shop? #firstworldproblems. Part of me feels the guilt of this mindset. After all, I’m lucky that I live in a country where it’s safe to take a random walk to the shop, and that I can afford such luxuries as ice cream. I’m aware of this, but knowledge of this only serves to make me feel more worthless, compounding my depression and making it even harder to work up the energy to leave the house.

As I lie on my still unmade bed, contemplating the simple task of getting out of bed and making it look tidy, I realise that writing this blog post is simply an avoidance tactic to delay getting out of bed. Perhaps, when I’ve posted it, I’ll make myself a coffee. One thing at a time, followed by a reward. Maybe, once I’ve had my coffee, I might have the energy to make my bed. 

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What? I can’t hear you…

I’ve never really written about my hearing loss, perhaps because it’s so much a part of who I am that I struggle to separate myself from it. I was born with high-frequency hearing loss and I’ve never navigated a world without it, so I don’t have any other reality to compare it to. It’s hard to imagine what my life would be like without it because it permeates every aspect of my life, from my interactions with other people, to the way that I navigate the world, both in my home and outside.

I have a particular type of hearing loss that is, apparently, common among people whose birth parent had pre-eclampsia (high-blood pressure) during birth. I was born a blue baby, taken away from my mother as soon as I was born to be put into an oxygen incubator. I remained there for a few days, or perhaps a week, I can’t remember what my parents told me. No one knew what might be the side effects of my birth as a human-smurf and my parents were told to watch my development to see if I would be ‘normal’. As I grew into a toddler there seemed to be no major issues, and it wasn’t until I went to pre-school that anyone noticed that not everything was ‘as it should be’. My pre-school teacher had worked with deaf and hard of hearing children before and picked up on my hearing loss through my behaviour, which matched the behaviour she had seen in other children with hearing loss. I would fail to respond when my back was turned despite repeated calls for my attention, I would watch other children’s behaviour and actions before taking part group activities, and other children were aware of my hearing deficiency even before I was, telling the teacher that I couldn’t hear her and repeating instructions to me without being asked.

When my teacher drew my parents’ attention to this, they had my hearing tested and my audiology reports came back confirming my teacher’s suspicions. I remember having speech therapy classes for a long time, to teach me how to speak properly, for how could I voice sounds that I couldn’t hear? I remember my speech therapist fondly – she spoke with an accent that could be called “the Queens English”, and I accordingly developed quite a posh accent that became a source of much distress for me during my teenage years in Ireland, as no one would believe, on first meeting me, that I was Irish, as I didn’t have the accent.

I’ve had a series of hearing aids over the years, with varying results, none of which I have worn for very long. As anyone who has worn a hearing aid will tell you, they are itchy and somewhat uncomfortable to have in all day. When it’s windy, they squeak at a very high pitch that would normally be outside my hearing range, but unfortunately is very much within my hearing range when I’m wearing my hearing aid. After an unsuccessful attempt of wearing a hearing aid in both ears around the age of 7, I never requested a hearing aid for my right ear again. I remember complaining that sounds echoed and sounded muddled with a hearing aid in both ears. As an adult, an audiologist explained to me why this would have happened – apparently the high-frequency hearing loss in my right ear is too profound to be ‘fixable’ by modern technology. It’s not possible to amplify sounds that I simply do not pick up on at all. My hearing loss is related, not to issues with the structure of my ear, but to nerve damage from the oxygen deficiency I experienced when I was being born. The sounds that I don’t hear in my right ear are the sounds that are crucial for understanding speech. The sounds that we make in speech at the start and ends of words are high-frequency. Without being able to hear these sounds, speech becomes a muddle of vowels without the consonants present to make sense of the noise. Words like cat, bat, that, pat, hat, fat, sat all sounds the exact same coming through my right ear.

Now I’m living in Berlin, in a country where I’m only just beginning to learn the language (German), a few people have told me that I seem to be quite quick at picking it up. The irony is that my hearing loss prevents me from hearing many of the sounds that distinguish words in the German language, and learning languages, although easy for my musical brain, are extremely difficult for my ‘ears’. The reality is that navigating the world with my particular type of hearing loss (I cannot speak for other types) is much like navigating the world in a place where one is only beginning to learn the dominant language of discourse.

Have you ever had the experience where you’ve picked up enough basics to make it seem like you can speak the language without actually being able to understand much at all, and the other person begins jabbering away at you, assuming you understand everything they say? Well, that’s pretty much what it’s like for me on a daily basis, regardless of what language people are speaking. I’ve become an expert at reading people’s body language, tone of voice and facial expressions, for these are much easier for me to understand than speech itself. So when people speak to me in a language that I barely understand, I can bluff my way through a conversation by nodding at the right points, smiling with interest, and dropping in the few words that I do know: “Ja, danke” etc. It’s really not so different to listening to someone speak to me in English in a crowded environment with a lot of background noise, or where the person speaking has a particularly soft or high-pitched voice.

I’ve more or less given up on wearing my hearing aid, despite having got the latest high-tech version in the last 2 years. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it’s just that I’m so used to hearing the world my way that I don’t really enjoy hearing it the ‘normal’ way. Of course, this means that I often speak too loudly, miss parts of conversation, or make a lot of noise that are really loud to others, such as banging cupboards, closing doors, clacking my cutlery on my plate or bowl… the list goes on! All of these sounds resonate at low frequencies that I do hear, but they also resonate at much higher frequencies that I don’t hear, which sound much louder than the low frequencies do, so it sounds deafening to anyone with average hearing. Anyone who has lived with me will give testament to this!

On the whole, I like being able to zone out of the chaos of the world around me. Sometimes, though, I have a tendency to avoid situations that can be difficult without my hearing aid. Phone conversations are my worst nightmare, as I rely on visual cues that just aren’t present in a phone conversation, including lip-reading. Large group situations, loud parties/clubs, windy locations or spaces with lots of traffic noises (including sitting in a car) make it nearly impossible for me to distinguish speech. Wearing my hearing aid can help, but if someone is sitting to my right, I will spend most of the night nodding and smiling in much the same way that I do when someone speaks to me in a language that I’m attempting to pretend to understand. Honestly, only people who know me really well are able to tell when I’m pretending – my family, close friends, and sometimes partners. The longer you know me, the easier it is to notice the symptoms: blank look in the eyes, lack of active response to conversation, lots of vacant smiling. I’m usually quite an engaged person when partaking in conversation, and the more important a situation, the better I am at pretending, so much so that people have whole conversations with me that I do not follow, which can result in sometimes comical, other times embarrassing situations, in which they refer to the conversation which I then have to pretend to remember. The monkey with face in hands is the only emoji appropriate for this situation 🙈, yet it recurs ridiculously often!

You might ask: “why not be honest about your hearing?” My response is that I have experienced so much assumption that being partially deaf = being somewhat socially incapable/stupid/unemployable that I usually don’t tell people about my hearing loss until they know me much better, at which point I usually get the “oh, I never noticed/I never would have realised/ You’re just like a normal person response.” It becomes incredibly tiring to be told that my hearing loss doesn’t prevent me from being normal (why the obsession with normality??) so I just keep it to myself and get on with life in my own way. Normality is overrated.

I believe the queer outlook I have on life originates with my experience of life by being partially deaf. I just don’t see life through the same lens that others do. I don’t experience peer pressure in the same way that many other do. I exist in my own private world that protects me from much of the criticism that life might otherwise throw at me. I don’t allow anyone to tell me how to live my life. Maybe this comes from my hearing loss. Maybe this comes from my upbringing, which was unconventional in many ways, with a strong emphasis on individuality, feminism and self-belief. Maybe I would be exactly the way that I am without my hearing loss, but there’s no possible way of determining that. Nevertheless, I think that my experience of life through being partially deaf has changed me, affected my politics, my outlook, my empathy and my understanding of others. Being queer is being me, and being me is being partially deaf. For me, one does not exist without the other.

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Sorry, you do not exist. Please try again.

Last month I finally received a decision from the Irish Department of Social Protection regarding my appeal for legal gender recognition as a non-binary person. They responded with a resounding “No.” Although it was disappointing to receive this decision, I was not surprised. There is no precedent in Ireland for recognition of non-binary gender, nor even a hint of the existence of non-binary gendered individuals.  My appeal had been based on an interpretation of the Irish Gender Recognition Act as failing to state explicitly that gender is binary. Quite clearly, as you can see in the letter below, the government officials disagreed.

The next stage in the process is either to appeal through the Circuit Court, or to bring a plenary action challenging the constitutionality of the Act. The Irish Republic is founded upon the Irish Constitution and is the fundamental law of the country. It guarantees certain fundamental rights and my lawyers believe that the best route for challenging this decision is to demonstrate that the Gender Recognition Act breaches certain fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. If the Act can be found to be in breach of the Irish Constitution, then they will have no choice but to recognise my gender as non-binary. This route will not be easy, nor will it be quick. However, I knew that this challenge to the Irish Gender Recognition Act could take years and I decided at the start that I was committed for the long haul.

If we decide to bring a plenary action, my lawyers will call oral evidence in order to properly assert my fundamental rights. I will need to give evidence, and my consultant psychiatrist from the Belfast Gender Identity Clinic will have to give evidence regarding non-binary gender as an inherent aspect of many people’s identity. We will also need at least one, if not two, other independent doctors to endorse the fact that non-binary gender is a reality for many people. An academic who can provide evidence about other countries’ acceptance of non-binary gender and a relevant NGO which could give evidence of the negative effect of non-recognition of people’s non-binary gender will also be called upon. We are going to have to convince the court that recognition of non-binary gender is a fundamental right of those people who regard themselves as neither male or female. (Paraphrased from an email correspondence with lawyers).

I’m both nervous and eager to move forward with this plan. My hesitancy is based on my abhorrence of the medicalisation of trans identities worldwide. By calling upon so many medical professionals to “prove” the existence of non-binary gender, we will be feeding back into this twisted understanding of trans people as somehow “sick” or “mentally ill.” However, I am aware that sometimes in order to break the system you have to do it from within. If this route will bring about non-binary legal gender recognition, then I’m willing to commit to it. Already, this process has been going on for over a year, and very little has happened so far. I’m ready to start the real fight.

I’m incredibly fortunate that TENI (Transgender Equality Network of Ireland) supported my initial appeal by helping bring together the fantastic group of lawyers who are working on my case pro bono. When it comes to human rights, there can be no half measures. It is not acceptable to only partially recognise the trans community – non-binary people deserve legal gender recognition too, and I refuse to back down until my gender is recognised, not only on passports, but on my birth certificate, in medical institutions, in educational institutions, by banks, by insurance companies, even by corporate entities. It’s evident, as demonstrated by the “pink pound,” that corporate advertising is as valid a measure of equality as any other, albeit one with many elements of discrimination inherent within it. I know that legal gender recognition won’t solve many of the issues faced by the non-binary community (particularly for those facing intersectional discrimination), but it’s a step towards forcing wider society to recognise that gender is not binary.


Posted in Non-Binary Journey | 2 Comments