“In many ways my aunt Lydia’s titanic battle made it so mine didn’t have to happen,” says Colin Foy.
My great aunt Florence used to say of the Foy family: “Here’s to us, there’s no one quite like us.” It’s a fairly common turn of phrase, probably uttered by countless great aunts of countless clans throughout the ages. In the case of us Foy’s, however, old aunt Flo was fairly spot on. Along with the usual cast of characters that make up any family, mine boasts the honour of having produced the single most important figure in the struggle for equal recognition for transgender people in Ireland: Doctor Lydia Foy, a transgender woman who fought an exhausting 19-year legal battle to have her gender recognised by the Irish, and later European, constitution.
I was eight years of age in 1992 when Lydia began the journey that would culminate in her landmark legal victory. Thinking back on my earliest memory of my new aunt, I can’t help but laugh at how small a deal it seemed at the time. There was no awkward sit-down between child and parent. My dad simply took my brother and I aside and giddily explained: “Your uncle has had a sex change and she’s coming to stay for Christmas.” That was it. You see, Peter Foy, my father, has a great knack for weighing up a situation and simply knowing the right way to handle it.
Even back in 1992, a far less liberal time, especially in rural Ireland, my father never tried to hide or sugar-coat Lydia’s existence. His view was, and always has been, blood is blood and we support our own. While some in the family struggled to accept Lydia’s transformation, my father almost immediately showed his support for his sister by offering a bed and, in many ways, a family for Christmas.
It’s a tradition that continues on to this day. The festive season simply wouldn’t be the same without Lydia’s arrival, complete with Santa hat and her faithful canine companion Bambi Presley Foy.
Regarding the legal battle that would in time afford Lydia legendary status, myself and my younger brother were blissfully unaware of its magnitude. This is not because we were sheltered from the hard facts of Lydia’s struggle. If anything the opposite is true. My brother and I were frequent eavesdroppers while Mam, Dad and Lydia discussed ‘the case’ at length. Looking back it strikes me that Lydia never spoke openly of herself as the freedom fighter she was and is.
To her it was a duty. Talk of the hard slog it surely was didn’t come up at the dinner table; instead Lydia preferred to poke fun at the magnitude of it all, speaking of the characters she met along the way and the unusual situations she found herself in, more often than not charming some lawyer or politician with a bar or two on the harmonica that never leaves her handbag. That’s not to say that we were totally shielded from the controversy and condemnation that Lydia attracted from some quarters.
When the case broke in Ireland, making front-page news, my younger brother Peter and I received our fair share of hurtful schoolyard comments. Being the hot-head that I am, I was involved in a few scuffles when some ignorant bully-boy crossed the line. Of course at home we were actively encouraged to turn a blind eye to the dissenters, but I adored my aunt and I could only bite my tongue for so long. We may have been young but we were wise enough to know that Lydia’s struggle had far-reaching consequences for many people, and that her work could literally change lives. And we wouldn’t hear a bad word about her.
The support shown to Lydia by my own family would go on to shape the moral fi bre of my brother and I. I consider myself to be so lucky to be part of such a liberal, understanding and embracing family. As a gay man myself, I was fortunate enough to have never dealt with the pressure associated with coming out to my family; I knew I would be accepted with open arms as Lydia was.
In many ways Lydia’s titanic battle made it so mine didn’t have to happen. As well as the lives of thousands of transgender people all over Europe that Lydia’s battle directly affected, I saw my own life positively altered by her struggle. My family’s rallying around Lydia made me feel safe to be myself. We always take care of our
Today Doctor Lydia Foy and myself have a tremendous relationship, although she is a hard lady to pin down (collecting prizes and awards doesn’t leave her with much free time!). But when we are in the same room it doesn’t
take long to find me matching guitar chords to whatever instrument Lydia has brought along for the occasion. I often say that if Lydia had not devoted her life to the cause she would have eventually gained notoriety for her sharp creative mind and her ability to master any artistic endeavour she puts that mind to. Behind the image of Lydia we all know, the woman who tirelessly fought for her right to be recognised, is a truly unique, talented and warm person. That person deserves as much recognition as the fabled human rights heroine.
Lydia introduces me as “my nephew Colin, who’s almost as eccentric as I am”. I can’t help but take that as a huge compliment. My aunt Lydia is a truly unique human being. Determined, brave, generous, kind and, yes, pretty eccentric! To share some of those traits and to think that she sees some of herself in me is a wonderful compliment. Here’s to us. There’s no one quite like us.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN GCN ISSUE 312
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