When I was 7 years old my mother gave birth to a beautiful baby boy called James. He was the most angelic creature I had ever laid eyes on, all chubby cheeks and squidgy head and innocence. He grew into a young boy with perfect blonde curls, startlingly bright blue eyes and a wonderfully calm, good-natured soul. I adored him. My friends and I would dress him in my old clothes, bridesmaids' dresses and flouncy blouses, giggling at how ridiculously perfect he looked as a girl.
He was not like my other brother, who liked Batman, Nintendo and fighting with me. James preferred to play with Sylvanian Families and cared for a tiny bunny rabbit in our garden. For his third birthday he requested a doll’s house, which my dad beautifully crafted in pink.
As James grew older, school became increasingly difficult for him and he was bullied by his peers. As much as children can be nasty and mean, they are also intuitive souls. They sussed out that James was different, that something didn’t quite fit with their notions of gender identity, which society had placed upon them and which they felt they were expected to uphold. Living in a small town in Somerset, ideas about gender were limited and being trans was unheard of.
At 18, I moved to London and fell into a whirlwind of parties and lectures. I stopped going home as often and during my brother’s formative teenage years I was not there to watch him grow or to offer him the support he so desperately needed. Periods of deep depression ensued for him and self-harming became an outlet for his psychological pain, brought about by a deep sense of body dysmorphia. He was a desperately shy teenager and our relationship drifted.
A few years later, aged 24, my mum called: "There’s something I need to tell you about James." "I know what you’re going to say, Mum," I confidently assured her. "We’ve all known for ages that James is gay." It’s strange how gender and sexuality get so easily confused. "No, it’s actually not that at all. James feels that he’s been born in the wrong body physically and wishes to identify as a female. So for the time being we will call her Jay."
And just like that, I had a sister.
There was no grieving, I did not miss or yearn for my brother. Instead I was overcome with an intense sense of pride for my new sister.
It was the easiest thing in my life to accept. When you have a bond as strong as a sibling's, questions of gender identity don’t enter the equation. You love them and accept them, regardless of how they identify. It becomes a non-essential part of your relationship. Of course, it took a while to reprogramme my brain to say 'she' instead of 'he', 'sister' rather than 'brother'. Gender pronouns most certainly get stuck in the brain!
There was no grieving, I did not miss or yearn for my brother. Instead I was overcome with an intense sense of pride for my new sister. I celebrated every inch of her, proudly telling all my friends about her choice to be female. Our relationship strengthened, our bond tightened, and our friendship flourished as a result. It was as though my sister had been hiding this terribly painful secret during her childhood and now she was free to wholly and completely live out her truth.
My sister continues to transition, at a pace that is right for her and her body. She is now legally a woman, has changed her name on her passport, has had breast implants and facial surgery. She continues to battle with exactly what being female means to her and how exactly her female identity will manifest.
The path for a trans person is often difficult. Unemployment, homelessness, addiction and mental health problems are commonplace, and my sister is in no way exempt. Even though as a family we offer her as much support and love as we possibly can, society has not yet reached the same place. My sister has started to live on the edges of society, pushed to the margins.
It makes me so angry to think that someone as gentle and as good-natured as my sister could somehow be misconstrued by the wider community, that people could view her as an outsider, a freak, less deserving of respect or, worse, a sexual deviant and a pervert, not worthy of sharing a toilet with a cis-female for fear of threatening their 'safe space'.
There are no safe spaces for my trans sister. NONE.
In the last four months she has suffered two transphobic attacks, both of which were violent and sustained. Fear lives and breathes in my family unit. There is a constant and underlying anxiety that one day we will receive a call, a knock at the door, a policeman on our doorstep. Trans people die much younger than most. The average life expectancy for a trans woman in the US is between 30 and 35 years. Forty-five percent of trans pupils in the UK have tried to commit suicide and transphobic attacks are on the rise. Last year, the LGBTQ charity Stonewall published a report which found that 53% of trans people aged 18-24 had experienced transphobic attacks in the previous 12 months, a third of trans people have been discriminated against because of their identity in a bar, café, nightclub or restaurant, and almost half (48%) of trans people don’t feel comfortable using public toilets through fear of discrimination or harassment.
Gender politics right now is a melting pot of aggressive tones, fearmongering and misunderstanding. You only have to watch the recent Channel 4 show Genderquake to see this at play. People are scared of change, of anything that messes with the status quo, worried that it may somehow negatively impact their lives. This is born from fear of the 'other' and a lack of education; it's nothing new. Some people are progressive in their thinking, accepting of change, open to different ways of living and being. Others are not. By examining something we are able to make it less scary and over time, with enough discussion, I hope that society will become less scared of trans people, particularly trans females, and realise that they are just the same as you and me. Humans, deserving of respect and acceptance.
I wish that everyone who’s shouted a nasty insult at my sister or punched her in the face or trolled her online or spat at her for no reason could be transported to our childhood garden, to our Sylvanian Families and pet rabbits. I wish they could see the innocence in her eyes, the gentleness in her soul, that they could grow up with us and watch the struggles she has faced so that they could learn to understand her choice to transition.
I hope that, one day, we can all live in a society that accepts and respects everyone's choices regarding gender. I hope that my sister can live her #bestlife without fear of being attacked as she walks down the street. I hope that we will reach a time when trans women and sexual predators are not mentioned in the same sentence.
Until that day, a picture hangs on my wall, a self-portrait by James aged 14. A beautifully etched, charcoal outline of a face that smudges at the corners, blurring and morphing into something new. It hangs there as a reminder of the power of human transformation and the importance of perseverance in the fight for change.