GRAEME COUSINS hears about a difficult journey to find happiness as a unionist Christian trans woman
As a transgender unionist Adrianne Elson recognises that most people see her as an oxymoron.
The 48-year-old was born male and after 40 plus years trying to suppress her femininity, she changed her name from Adrian and embraced her gender transition.
She is taking hormones to aid her female transition though has not yet attained a gender recognition certificate which would see her legally recognised as a female.
Adrianne met me in a Belfast cafe wearing a jacket sporting a PUP badge on one lapel and a Trans Pride badge on the other.
She said: “Most people probably don’t realise there is a unionist behind Trans Pride (a campaign group for gender equality). LGBT rights is something so often associated with Irish nationalism and republicanism.
“I think people see someone who is an LGBT activist and a unionist as an oxymoron. I don’t see that it is. If you view unionism in a UK-wide context and look at someone like Ruth Davidson – she’s gay and she’s leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.
“If you’re an LGBT rights activist you’re expected to be a nationalist, and conversely if you’re a unionist you’re a social conservative. It’s much easier to fit in if you’re like that, but these two things are big passions of mine – trans rights and unionism.
“With me not being from Ulster I think people expect me to adopt a neutral position on the union.”
Originally from Liverpool, Adrianne came to NI in 2005 in search of a ‘cure’: “I felt very ill at ease with my gender identity as a trans woman and my sexual identity as bisexual.
“I wanted to come here to plug into the evangelical Protestant church scene. People said to me, ‘why on earth would you come to Northern Ireland, the least LGBT friendly part of the UK?’ That’s exactly why I came here ... for an exorcism. I was hoping I’d get a road to Damascus style conversion.”
However it was while protesting against Gay Pride in 2005 that she realised she needed to embrace the very thing she was railing against.
Adrianne said her transition was “phased” from then until 2012 when she “came out” as a trans woman: “You have to understand that I didn’t get the same upbringing, the same lessons that a cisgender young girl would get with clothing, make up, etc. It’s hard because sometimes you’d get it wrong and be subjected to a lot of ridicule on the streets. It’s very exhausting. I found myself flipping back and forward between the two – a trans woman and a male persona.
“I just wanted to be able to get on a bus and not have everybody staring at me.”
She said: “When I came out (in 2012) a weight lifted, but there’s other issues that come with it.
“It angers me when people suggest this is something we do for attention. Why would anyone choose this as a lifestyle when it means losing your friends, losing your job security, falling out with your family. It would be absolute madness to choose to put yourself in a vulnerable position.
“You have to be on your guard constantly, assessing whether or not people could be verbally abusive or might physically attack you because of how you look. It’s tiring.
“Touch wood, I’ve never been hurt physically. I’ve been threatened with violence and verbally abused. This has happened in Belfast, but it’s also in London.”
It was through a transgender support group that Adrianne met her partner Michael who transitioned from female to male. They have been together since 2012 and had their relationship blessed in a church service in 2014.
She said: “We’re not legally married because I’m still trying to get a gender recognition certificate. It’s a very difficult document to get, it requires a lot of paperwork.”
Adrianne has been taking hormones to aid her female transition: “I want to be perceived as a woman but I’ve no problem telling people I’m trans. I’ve no shame in my journey, in my past.”
The NI Railways employee joined the PUP in 2016 after previously being a member of NI21. Asked if she has encountered any obstacles or issues with the PUP, particularly its links with loyalist paramilitarism, she said: “No, my motivation for joining was simply because I’m a unionist and they support equal marriage, everyone in my branch has been extremely supportive.”
Adrianne is involved with Unite the union’s LGBT committee and was selected to attend the TUC LGBT conference in London next month.
She said: “I feel the PUP’s left of centre unionism dovetails well with my trade union activism.”
Post-punk music, cask beer and train spotting are among Adrianne’s wide variety of interests.
Of her childhood she said: “I was very unsure of myself at school. I was always different. I have Asperger’s, dyslexia, dyscalculia and I was bullied intensely. I left with no formal education to speak of and I went into the railway industry – a very masculine industry.
“When I was a child I became fascinated with trains. I’ve always been interested in politics too. When boys at school were worrying if Liverpool would win the European Cup I was worried what was going to happen in the miners’ strike.”
She said her mother had stopped her from doing ballet as a child to prevent her from further bullying but taking it up as an adult helped her to find happiness: “Once I got into that female environment and felt a sense of belonging, I knew I was on the right path.”
A former member of the Orange Order, Adrianne talked about her enduring Christianity: “I’ve always had a sense of spirituality though my beliefs have been questioned at times.
“I go to church when I can. I don’t see a juxtaposition between being Christian and transgender. Part of being politically engaged is that you have to learn to respect other people’s opinions.
“When I transitioned I made the decision to leave the Orange Order. It was all handled in a very Christian manner.”
She commented: “I understand people will have difficulty accepting me. I was in their shoes once.
“I don’t think Belfast is any less tolerant than any other big UK city, it’s just that politically it can be perceived as such because of the situation we’re in, the ones that are seen as the tribunes – the advocates for the strongest brands of unionism or nationalism – is what people are gravitating to.
“There is a lack of engagement between the LGBT and trans movement with people from PUL background. I think there’s an unwillingness from people from PUL backgrounds who might identify as LGB or T to move in the same spheres of activism as I do.
“While there’s a radical element within the LGBT community I don’t consider myself to be overly radical. I want trans rights but I don’t want them at the expense of other people’s rights. I don’t want to see the breakdown of the traditional family or want to damage Christianity or any of the churches or religion in any way. I don’t want to damage the governance of the Province. What we’re trying to say with Trans Pride is that it’s a protest but it’s also a celebration. We’d like the same rights that other people in the UK have.”
She added: “As a member of the PUP, I would love to run for council. I don’t know whether my lack of formal education would be a barrier. I would hope that the unionist electorate will one day be ready for a transgender candidate, whether that be me or another person. I’d be lying if I told you I wouldn’t love it.”