Labour’s first openly transgender candidate: I’ve never looked back since becoming Emily

Emily Brothers, who is running for parliament, on why she’s taking on the Sun, why you shouldn’t use a trans person’s old name, and what Stonewall’s decision to become an LGBT organisation means to her.

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Emily Brothers has something unusual to admit: her two teenage children chose her forename for her. “It’s incredibly empowering,” says Brothers. “It was one of those ways I tried to involve them and help them feel comfortable with the transitioning process.” And it’s a name that suits her well: Emily not only has many connections with the movements for women’s rights – it also means industrious.

When Brothers left her family home in 2007, she threw away the antidepressants and started living as Emily straight away, full-time. “I’ve never looked back,” she tells me.

At 50 years old, Brothers is Labour’s first openly transgender parliamentary candidate – standing in Sutton and Cheam, a seat where Labour scored just seven per cent of the vote in 2010. She remains attracted to women and now identifies as gay – something that the media, acting as if her gender identity is enough to take in for the reader, often overlooks.  But it’s the evening before Valentine’s Day and Brothers and I are discussing the dating scene on her living room sofa over a cup of coffee.

“I’m female and I’m attracted to other women – well, some other women,” she laughs. “So many people in my situation just find it so difficult to meet somebody else, partly because of our transsexual history but also because at my time in life beginning to navigate around the dating process with another woman is both daunting and perplexing. It feels like a huge challenge ahead of me – it’s a whole new world!”

But Brothers is hardly a stranger to a challenge. When she was growing up in her parents’ terraced council house in Liverpool in the late sixties, she was diagnosed with aniridia – a condition affecting the iris – and by the age of seven her eyesight had largely deteriorated.  She recalls the days of riding a bike outside her inner city home and playing with her friends in the street. But from seven, she became a weekly boarder at a Catholic school for blind and partially sighted children. 

Access to information for blind people was extremely limited when Brothers was growing up, consisting of a small number of braille books of classic novels and educational texts. Gender identity was a subject that Brothers only started to read about in the late nineties, following the arrival of the internet.

“I felt very isolated,” she adds. “I should be female, I am female but I’m still attracted to girls. So what on earth does that mean?”

 

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Brothers tells me her previous name, but she asks me not to disclose it. And for good reason: she’s fought to be referred to as a woman, as Emily. “It isn’t something I feel comfortable sharing,” she adds.

But on December 11, after she came out as a transgender in an emotional interview with Pink News, the Sun columnist Rod Liddle wrote: “Emily Brothers is hoping to become Labour’s first blind, transgender MP. She’ll be standing at the next election in the constituency of Sutton and Cheam. Thing is though . . . being blind, how did she know she was the wrong sex?”

At first, Brothers dismissed the column as a “cheap comment from a rag of a paper”. A natural response from a Liverpudlian, perhaps. But Liddle’s comments were met – rightly – with a barrage of criticism on social media and a petition was launched calling for a public apology.  To date, it has over 28,000 signatures and hundreds of complaints have been logged with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). One of these, from Trans Media Watch, has been endorsed by Brothers (IPSO does not deal with complaints from those not directly affected by stories). An adjudication is expected in March.

“The first part of [Liddle’s] the apology was fine,” Brothers adds. But the column went on to make a reference to a Monty Python sketch, with a deliberate alteration to include Emily’s previous name, she claims. “It seems an unlikely coincidence, especially with the reference in the same sentence looking into my background. It feels like a veiled threat and I do not take kindly to it.

“My hand has been forced in revealing my previous name. I could have stayed silent in the hope the change of name wasn’t understood. Yet it would have hung over me, wondering what and how the Sun would apply pressure again. The Sun didn’t help me with my gender identity. They kind of stuck two fingers up at me, even in their apology.”

Despite voices within the Labour party concerned about Brothers becoming embroiled in a battle with a national newspaper weeks before the most bitterly contested general election in decades, she believes that she has to be strong and let the complaint go forward. It is clear that the party would like her to move on, she tells me. But Brothers is adamant: “It is about how other transgender people feel, their families, their friends and their supporters.”

Emily Brothers with Ed Miliband  Photo: Emily Brothers website

Emily Brothers with Labour leader, Ed Miliband. Photo: Emily Brothers

 

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Emily met her now ex-wife – they were married in 1993 – while working for an organisation for blind people. “We were in love,” she tells me. “But she knew something was wrong. She says to me now that there was part of me she could never reach: at times I could be distant and unhappy. She actually thought for some time that I was having an affair after she found women's clothes under our bed.” The marriage broke down in 2007. She describes the day she and her wife told the children that they were to separate as being the worst day of her life.

Less than two years after the divorce, Brothers travelled to Chonburi in Thailand for surgery. “It was very tough for the first year,” she says. “It takes time for the healing – it’s not like flicking a switch, it’s a long process.” And in October 2009 Brothers was able to get her gender recognition certificate. “It was affirming. It gave me a birth certificate that said I was born Emily. It was so powerful. Without that I might have the physical alignment but not the legal recognition that I think is so very important.”

Brothers has been able to restore the friendship with her ex-wife. But her own parents have refused to meet her. Her younger brother died from a stroke days after her selection as the Labour parliamentary candidate. Brothers found out four weeks later – by way of letter – and the funeral had already been held. The letter, from her parents, read: “We didn’t invite you to the funeral because we can’t have someone like you there.” She pauses for a moment. Throughout the interview Brothers speaks defiantly, often smacking her fist on to her diary as she recalls her past. But this isn’t a story she tells with ease.

“I have a huge sense of sadness that they’ve lost a son through death and they feel they’ve lost another through transition. I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to say goodbye and pay respects to my brother. It’s unlikely that I’ll visit his grave because I know my family doesn’t want that.

“People just have a fear of the unknown. That’s why Franklin Roosevelt was so right when he said: ‘there is nothing to fear except fear itself’.”

 

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Yesterday, in a historic move, Stonewall announced that it is to start working on transgender equality – a long overdue measure, according some. The charity has apologised for the neglect of trans issues and Brothers welcomes the news. “I’m pleased that Stonewall are planning to ease into their new role and have indicted that they will complement the work of transgender-specific groups at both national and local level. It is important that those groups feel supported by a new and powerful player entering into trans politics and service delivery.

“For me, as a gay woman and as a woman with a transsexual history, there is a lot of symmetry in bringing together gender identity and sexual orientation, even though they are different characteristics. That’s likely to be different for a woman with a transsexual history who identifies as heterosexual. Stonewall will need to get their heads around those dynamics, not just the language that describes our social narrative.”

But the resounding message from Brothers – and one of the core reasons she will be going forward with the complaint against Rod Liddle – is that there needs to be a public dialogue about trans issues. She knows all too well how transgender people feel and how the transition affects their friends and families. Brothers first outed herself through the fear of being publicly outed in a negative way by a tabloid newspaper. But now this industrious woman has become a source of hope and inspiration for a whole community. 

“Going through a transgender transition is tough. It may hurt people around you and they may not understand but if it’s the right thing for you, then do it because you deserve to be happy,” adds Brothers.

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn

 

 

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