Following the announcement last month that Justice Minister David Ford had promised a review of how hate crime laws are implemented here in Northern Ireland the BBC Newsline team ran a series of reports investigating those who have been let down by lax or nonexistent protective laws. As part of this five part hate crime series the Newsline team revealed one sector of the community who is not protected by this legislation – the transgender community. England, Wales and Scotland have all amended their hate crime laws to include transgender but as usual Northern Ireland has not followed suit.

The police have been recording incidents against the transgender community since 2007, but there is no law to prosecute anyone who targets them because of their identity.

Victoria Garrett from Saintfield, County Down appeared on the Newsline show to raise awareness of the issues facing the Transgender community here. We recently caught up with Victoria before going on stage as her alter ego “Twanda” in her new show Den of Iniquity at the Foxes Den in Belfast.

Victoria was keen to stress that transphobia is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to issues affecting the transgender community in Northern Ireland and there is much work to be done in many other areas to give transgender people more security, rights and civil liberties.

“The program was primarily about hate crimes, the umbrella of issues that goes with that was missed, matters concerning subjects like adoption and trans support services also need to be addressed, we have a long battle ahead for equality and recognition”

“Transgender people are often misunderstood, even use of the LGBT acronym shows misconceptions in some peoples understanding, of course it’s sometimes just a case of political correctness gone mad but on one hand you have transgender people who experience gender identity issues and on the other you have LGB people experiencing issues with their sexual orientation, two completely different matters entirely that are often lumped together”.

“For example a man can experience gender dysphoria, undergo the sex change process and still be attracted to women, basically becoming lesbian” an example which highlights the very clear distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation and indeed raises awareness of the sometimes stereotypical view of people changing gender to pursue the love of another of the same sex.

My interview with Victoria made me understand that education goes a long way in helping people get to grips with this issue, trans gender people are people too, they deserve the rights and respect that we all feel we ought to have but still they are shunned, abused and overlooked by our society.

“I remember the first time a gentleman held a door open for me, at first it was slightly puzzling but upon realising what had happened I couldn’t have been happier for it was the first time I had been properly acknowledged as female. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face the rest of the day. It wasn’t all nice for me in the beginning though. At first some people didn’t give me the time of day when I told them of my intentions to become female, some people shunned me, some didn’t want to know me, but for the people who remained in my life and opened their minds to the subject, they quickly realised it wasn’t difficult to accept me for who I really am, I am much more happy and content now that I feel like I am me.”

This was my first time sitting and chatting with a transgender person and seeing her together with her heterosexual boyfriend Ed I could think of nothing more natural and comfortable than being in the presence of two happy people in love. It seems education through contact is invaluable. People seem to find it hard to forget about the differences presented to them and let these differences shape a distorted view that this is something too difficult to understand and too far from the “norm” to be acceptable.

Last month we reported on the findings from an equality commission survey examining experiences and attitudes towards discrimination in NI. It found that a worryingly high 35% of people would mind having a transgender work colleague, 40% of people would mind having a trans neighbour and 53% of people would mind if a trans person had a relationship with a member of their family. If transgender people feel they

are in the “wrong skin” and “can grow to literally hate the body they inhabit”, why then should undergoing the sex change process to feel true to themselves and be happy also deprive them of rights and leave them vulnerable to such discrimination? The Northern Ireland assembly has chosen to dictate to people who they can and cannot be by starving this community of the rights they so justly deserve.

“This isn’t some form of mental illness but a biological condition influenced by pre-natal development”. Putting things into perspective – would we agree with our government depriving people who have had nose or boob jobs of their rights because they wish to become more happy and content with their bodies? No, because this seems to be within the grasps of our MLA’s understanding and fundamentally that is what it all boils down to. The way in which people detach transgender from so called “normality” is an absolute disgrace.

Such negativity and neglect is a cruel norm for anyone to have to live with but hopefully change is on the horizon with Victoria wanting to hold people and government bodies accountable for their decisions and actions.

“I have stood up to represent this community and it is time for things to change, the government is now willing to listen, myself and others are talking and meeting with groups and organisations such as the PSNI and the Equality Commission regularly, we also hope that we can get a forum open in the not too distant future to offer further support”.

If you caught Victoria’s interview on BBC Newsline you will be aware that she was subjected to an horrific transphobic attack and as a testament to just how motivated and dedicated to this fight she has become – she became the first transgender person to take the prosecution of the individuals involved all the way through the Northern Ireland legal system.

“I feel like I got off pretty lightly, some people have been through much worse – stabbings, threats, beatings and other forms of intimidation, its horrendous. The court case felt like a small victory for me and I feel as though much more needs to be done, many don’t have the support or courage to go through it all. I am not going to be behind the door and I am happy to offer guidance, advice or support to others who feel vulnerable or alone in that way. Thankfully I have had the support of a wonderful man who loves me, my amazing family and a great network of friends to get me through it all.”

Victoria’s partner added “Vicky has taken such an inspirational stand for what she believes in and it has required a huge amount of courage to tackle these issues head on, a lot more has to be done to give the trans community equal rights and I will be behind her giving her all the support she needs”.

Victoria added “I have received messages of support from all over the world Australia, Greece, Morrocco and more locally in the UK. This has made me stronger and strengthened my resolve to continue the good fight.”

Hopefully now that the ball is rolling on this topic we will soon see progress as the government begins to realise trans hate crimes and rights abuses are a VERY real thing.

Paul Steenson