"I wasn’t the only victim of your verbal and physical violence." Paris Lees. Photograph: Ryan Harding Photography.
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Paris Lees: Why I won't be sending you a father's day card

When I tell people I no longer speak to you, they assume it’s because of my difficult and lengthy transition from male to female. That frames me as the problem. I don’t speak to you because I don’t share your values and I don’t like the way you treat people.

Oh Father.

Every dad, whether he admits it or not, looks for recognition on Father’s Day, but there will be no card or packaged gift from me to you this morning. Today I get to insult you simply by doing nothing. Petty, perhaps, but the only protest I can make against your impact on my life. This snub, of course, arises from social expectation – the sort you tried to force on me as a child, though I suspect the irony is lost on you. I know it’s self-defeating to carry ill feelings. I know hate hurts the person feeling it just as much, if not more, than those it is directed towards. I believe in forgiveness, too, when people seek it. So yes, I like to think I have a big heart these days but I do still allow myself this one slight glimmer of spite.

I was bullied as a child, violently, mercilessly, and constantly. I’m a woman today but back then I was seen as a sissy boy – a fact knocked, kicked and thumped into me at every opportunity when I was too weak to fight back. “You’re gay”, the kids at school would shout, the very worst of insults back then. When shouting wasn’t an option they’d write cruel things about me on bits of paper and pass them around the classroom. And when I got home I could expect a clip ’round the earhole for “talking like a poof”. I wasn’t the only victim of your verbal and physical violence.

Sometimes when I tell people I no longer speak to you they assume it’s because of my difficult and lengthy transition from male to female. That frames me as the problem. I don’t speak to you because I don’t share your values and I don’t like the way you treat people. I needed you to love me as a child. People assume you don’t accept me but the truth is I don’t accept you. I didn’t write this letter to hurt you though. I didn’t write this letter for you at all, actually, and I have no idea how you will feel about it or even if you will see it. The damage children suffer can be so toxic to their adult lives. This letter is for anyone whose father wasn’t some romantic stereotype who pottered around the garden while mother prepared Sunday lunch.

I daresay, like my mum, you’d have adjusted to my new identity given time. She wasn’t there for me, either, when I first transitioned. I know what it’s like to spend Christmas alone because my family found my presence more awkward than rejecting me. I also know what it’s like to feel bullied, again, as an adult, in the streets, for daring to walk down them. The taunts became 'fucking tranny', for a while, and cruel jokes about people like me are now written in newspapers, and circulated nationally. Thankfully I reached some kind of normality. Perhaps you were right about normality, perhaps it is the most important thing.

I don’t know what I would do without my mum these days and the rest of my family. They got on board. If they hadn’t I suspect I would still be trapped inside the house popping antidepressants and waiting for people who are not you to bring me food. Or worse. I read a study recently. It compared transgender people who have family support with those who do not. Guess what? Of those who were supported, none faced housing problems, 72 per cent reported life satisfaction and 4 per cent had attempted suicide. Those who weren’t supported gave rather different feedback. Over half faced housing problems and just 33 per cent reported life satisfaction. Saddest of all, 57 per cent had attempted suicide. They don’t print stuff like this in Father’s Day cards.

I’d like to tell you about my friend Fox. He was born female. This is what happened when he told his father he wanted to transition: “Dad stood up and cut off my sentence, saying ‘I think I know what you’re going to say, and I want you to know I support you 100 per cent’. It was exactly what I needed to hear and it brought us much closer together”. Fox’s dad Bryan still gets cards on Father’s Day and the only thing that has changed is the gender of one of the senders: “I had two daughters, but I now have a daughter and a son. My wife and I are both proud of his achievements and willingness to promote transgender issues.” He told me he’s pleased Fox opened up to him because he cares for his son and “each day of living a lie is a day unfulfilled.”

I’m telling you this because I want you to know, Father, that it is possible to love your child even though they are different.

I know it can be hard for parents. I know you probably didn’t know any better. The lack of information about people like me in the media and the way we are demonized by the tabloids doesn’t help. I’m trying to change that now, Father, through dialogue, empathy and compassion. Check out the work I’m doing with All About Trans raising awareness among media professionals. There’s a great deal of progress to be made. Many trans people are still rejected by their families when they transition and fear of this often keeps them from transitioning at all. They miss out on the fulfilling lives that I, and many like me, have been lucky enough to secure.

So that’s why today, Father, honestly, if I were to send a card, it would be addressed to me.

Paris.

Photo: Getty
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Lowering the voting age is the best way to protect the franchise we've fought so hard for

Empowering young people is the best way to renew civic and political engagement.

Too many believe that politics isn’t working for them. That those who make decisions are not acting in their interests. And too often, narrow interests win over the wider public interest. Our economy isn’t working either. It never will until we repair our fragile politics.

When I was leader of Oldham Council I recognised that to reform, it must open up. It needed to bring forward ideas and challenges from all those who are affected by decisions taken in their name.

We gave constitutional rights for the youth council to move motions and reports at our full council meeting. We opened up our meetings with live web-streaming and questions from all residents. And we embraced social media, combined with instant comments, which were shown in the chamber during debates.

It opened up democracy and gave councillors an insight into issues which affect young people. But two things stood out. The first was that many of these issues are the same ones which affect the wider public. But they are affected in different ways by decisions or the lack of action by government. Second, and most importantly, while we were engaging young people they had no say over who was making decisions on their behalf.

So of crucial importance to me is how we bolster democracy to weather the challenges it faces today and in the future. Recent events at home and abroad have convinced me of the importance of this. There are two separate approaches that parliament must take. Firstly, we must devolve more power from central government to local communities. And secondly, we must at all costs renew civic and political engagement here in the UK. I’ve come to believe that getting more and more young people engaged in politics is fundamental to realising this second point. And I see lowering the voting age as key to cementing this.

I hear the arguments against this loud and clear. Eighteen is the official age of independence. Eighteen is when someone forms their world view. And 18 is when reasoned, judgemental thought suddenly kicks in. On that basis, the years preceding that are presumably some kind of wilderness of rational thinking and opinion forming. Someone even tweeted at me this week to inform me that under-18s don’t know what they want for dinner, let alone how to vote.

Needless to say, I find all these points unconvincing and in some cases dismissive and patronising.

I speak with people even younger than 16 who have coherent views on politics, often a match for any adult. They even know what they want for dinner! And I am of the strong belief that empowering young people through a wider enfranchisement will speed up this development. Even better if votes at 16 is accompanied by compulsory political education in the preceding years.

So if your argument is that young people are too immature, that they lack political knowledge to be given the vote, or that they aren’t responsible enough – then I say to you, bring on lowering the voting age! As my argument is that empowering young people to vote will help overcome these challenges where they exist.

But where do other countries sit on lowering the voting age? Admittedly, among western democracies, the UK would be taking a bold step-forward. In Europe, it’s only Austria where all 16-year-olds can vote. There are some patchwork exceptions to this closer to home. For example, the voting age on the Isle of Man is 16. And this week we heard that the Welsh Assembly is considering lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections.

Outside of these scant examples, there is little precedent for change. However, we shouldn’t find ourselves cowed by this. Our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote.

200 years ago on Tandle Hill in Royton hundreds of protestors, who had travelled from nearby mill towns like Oldham and Rochdale, gathered together. They were preparing to march on Peters Field in Manchester on a summer’s day in August 1819. What was at stake was a greater say in parliamentary decisions, at a time of famine and widespread poverty. Non-land-owning workers were entirely excluded from the franchise. By the end of the day, government cavalry had cut down 14 protesters, and injured hundreds more. In 1832 only men renting or owning valuable land were given the vote. And it wasn’t until 1918 that all men were included in the franchise.

This month we remember the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The sacrifices made during the First World War by our working-class men and boys, 250,000 of whom were under 18, was a catalyst for extending the vote to all men.

Next year we celebrate 100 years since the start of women’s suffrage. In Oldham, Annie Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst fought tirelessly. They would both be arrested before seeing that privilege granted to only some women in 1918. Today it is sobering to think that women didn’t have the vote before 1918.

And it was only in 1970 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, allowing teenagers to vote for the first time in the UK. Prevalent then were exactly the same arguments that stop 16- and 17-year-olds voting today.

While we recognise the fight of others, we fail in our duty if we believe the fight for democracy is settled.

So I draw inspiration from how the franchise has steadily grown throughout our history. And I reflect on the acts of courage, grit and determination that have won us that change. With the extension of the franchise have come the liberties, freedoms and values that make our society what it is today. It hasn’t happened of its own accord. Lives have been lost and bold steps have been taken for us to enjoy placing that cross alongside the candidate of our choosing.

This cannot be seen as a way to shift the political debate to young voters either. Many older voters, including many of my friends and family, feel that politics isn’t working for them either. Reducing the voting age isn’t the silver bullet to address that disconnect, but it is vital to strengthening connect between decision makers and those who pay taxes.

I welcome the debate on lowering the voting age. A debate about once again spreading the freedoms and responsibilities of our society to many more people. And I’ll match arguments against this every step of the way. Because I am clear in my mind that defending the franchise and extending the franchise are two sides of the same coin.

Jim McMahon is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

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