'No one wants to talk about us as people': What life is like for trans people in Scotland today

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We spoke to trans people about their experiences in Scotland.

A video posted on Twitter by Nicola Sturgeon has focused attention on the ongoing tensions over trans rights in Scotland.

In it, The First Minister said transphobia should be treated with ‘zero tolerance’ as young people leave the SNP in ‘significant numbers’ over it.

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And at the weekend, activists targeted the SNP’s headquarters over the ongoing transphobia row.

But how do trans people feel about this debate over their lives and identities? What is it like to be trans in Scotland in 2021?

In the wake of all this discussion, we interviewed a number of trans people about their experiences and thoughts on issues which will shape their lives.

‘It’s exhausting to be trans in Scotland’

Dylan Hamilton is 16 from Linlithgow. He says he was almost forced to become a trans activist as a result of his climate activism.

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Dylan Hamilton and Heather Herbert have spoken out about their experiences of transphobia in ScotlandDylan Hamilton and Heather Herbert have spoken out about their experiences of transphobia in Scotland
Dylan Hamilton and Heather Herbert have spoken out about their experiences of transphobia in Scotland

"It’s difficult to live normally without my identity becoming a problem,” he says.

Like many young people, Dylan was involved in the school strike for climate protests sparked by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg.

But very quickly, he received a torrent of abuse online for being trans.

He said: "I realised being openly me – even when I talk about things that have nothing to do with being trans – people who are transphobic started attacking me.”

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The abuse has spilled from social media into real life, with boys at school threatening to beat him up. But he considers himself lucky. His best friend, also trans, had their home spray-painted with slurs.

"I have had people mock my voice and try to use my old name,” Dylan says, “I just want to be me and they make that difficult.”

On Nicola Sturgeon’s recent Twitter video, his thoughts echo those of other trans people interviewed for this piece.

He says: “It’s good that she’s saying it but actions speak louder than words. She hasn’t been there when we needed her to be.”

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Dylan, whose parents both left the SNP over the transphobia row, said: "What she’s said is too little too late. She’s let the problem fester. It means she’s always supported us but just sat there and let it happen.”

‘This is just a political topic to them, it’s my life.’

Tensions have flared up recently in part due to changes to Scotland’s Hate Crime and Public Order Bill.

The bill – which proposed a new crime for “stirring up hatred” against protected groups – came under fire from some concerned with the impact on freedom of speech.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf last week submitted an amendment which would exempt criticism of transgender identity from the law.

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Refusing to use a person’s preferred name or pronoun would not be considered to be threatening or abusive in the amendment, which is called ‘Protection of freedom of expression’.

“People do have freedom of speech,” said Dylan, “However they aren’t free from consequences. What they can’t do is disrespect the trans people they meet.

“They can’t say my pronouns are invalid. That’s basic human decency. It’s just a political topic for them. For me, it’s my life.”

Dylan says he has considered leaving the country as it has become difficult to live here.

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"It’s exhausting being trans in Scotland. My identity is becoming involved in everything I do.”

He compares the recent surge in transphobia to the backlash against gay rights in the ‘80s.

“We aren’t dangerous. We are less dangerous than any other group and we are the group that’s more likely to be hurt.

“My mum is worried about me going into public bathrooms that aligns with my identity. Suicide rates are ridiculously high. I hope most people would like to see that fall.”

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A UK study in 2014 found 72 per cent of trans people had self harmed, and more than one in four had attempted suicide.

Meanwhile, transphobic hate crimes have soared in recent years, with two in five trans people reporting an incident in 2017.

Dylan’s plea to others is this: “Women’s rights and trans rights aren’t in opposition.”

‘No one wants to talk about us as people.’

Molly is 25 and lives in Edinburgh. She transitioned eight years ago but still doesn’t feel comfortable telling people other than close friends she is trans.

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"My flatmate doesn’t know I’m trans,” she says, “I’d be scared to tell my employer. You never know how someone's going to react.

“I have had incidents where people have been aggressive and quite violent.”

Molly feels the current debate around transgender rights has empowered transphobes.

She said: “Hate groups seems to be targeting trans women with a good degree of success.

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“There’s always an article about us, there’s almost an obsession with the danger we pose. It feels unbalanced.

“No one wants to talk about us as people.”

One of the reasons she moved to Scotland from Northern Ireland was because it was perceived to be one of the best places in Europe for LGBT people.

But recent events like the amendment to the Hate Crime Bill have made her feel “unsafe” and “scared”.

“I don’t think there should be debate around a trans person’s identity,” she said, “If you said the same thing around race that’s shocking. If you discuss whether gay people are real? It feels like it’s an allowed bigotry.”

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She says it was “really positive” seeing Nicola Sturgeon’s message, though she has friends who are a lot more pessimistic about what the First Minister will do to tackle transphobia in her party.

“She should be suspending transphobic members,” says Molly, “I hope she listens to us the way she’s listening to the more gender critical members of her party.”

‘I’ve been spat at and called names’

Heather Herbert is a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Labour party. She lives in Aberdeen.

“This isn’t an SNP issue, there’s transphobia in all the parties in Scotland and the UK,” she says.

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The 44-year-old transitioned five years ago and says she has received less abuse than she feared.

"I’ve had my fair share of being spat at and called names, but it’s not as much as I expected. I thought I’d never have another job.”

Heather feels transphobia has “definitely got worse” in recent years, and the media has a part to play.

A survey by the charity Trans Media Watch found 70 per cent of trans respondents felt media portrayals of them were negative or very negative, with 78 per cent believing they were either inaccurate or highly inaccurate.

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“That kind of message day in day out, it seeps in and permeates what people think,” Heather says, “I think transphobes are feeling more empowered at the moment.

“It’s really a small minority of people but they are very vocal and feeling empowered by the media and by lack of action from political leaders.”

How does she address some of the concerns which have been raised – for example about young people being pressured to transition?

"People are pressured not to be trans,” she says, “It’s very difficult to transition, it’s a very scary thing to do, to risk everything.

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"It’s not a decision you take lightly. They say ‘it’s a phase, you’ll grow out of it’. People don’t grow out of their gender identity.”

If anything, trans healthcare needs to improve, Heather says.

There are “insane” waiting lists just for appointments at gender identity clinics, she says, with some having to wait 2-3 years in Aberdeen, and others 5-6 years in Glasgow.

"There’s nothing that’s comparable in the NHS,” Heather says, “Especially for something that leads to self harm and affects mental health to such an extent.”

The LGBT Health & Wellbeing helpline is available at 0300 123 2523

Mindline Trans+ is a confidential national helpline at 0300 330 5468

Stonewall Scotland has a free information and support service weekdays on 0800 0502020

Samaritans has a 24 hour helpline on 116 123

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