This month 22 year-old Ellen Murray will make history when she becomes the first transgender candidate to be on an election ballot in Ireland. She speaks to Brian Finnegan about how coming out led to her political career, and the reactions she’s getting on Belfast’s doorsteps.
On May 5 this year, Ellen Murray will celebrate her 23rd birthday. She will also stand for election to the Northern Irish Assembly, becoming the first trans politician ever to do so on the island of Ireland. Her journey to politics was wholly rooted in her experience from the moment she came out as trans, in 2013.
“When I was growing up in West Belfast, in what was fairly homogenous working class nationalist community, I was fairly uninterested in politics,” she tells me. “I was 19 when I came out, and I found myself not able to access healthcare services, so I went to my local MLAs and got issues raised in the Assembly. That started my advocacy work, and I pretty much work full-time now in doing advocacy for trans and non-binary people in Northern Ireland. That brings me close to political systems on a daily basis, everything from issues to healthcare funding and access up to strategy, government policy and law. I’ve just got a fascination with it.”
Before she came out, Ellen, who is also autistic, suffered with mental health problems, and found it hard to function.
“Growing up, to everybody else’s mind, I was a cis gendered person,” she says. “I was hiding away. My family are fantastic, but it was moving out of the family home that allowed me to explore things, starting to talk to communities online and to people at my university.”
Now, only three years later, Ellen is canvassing in the Sinn Féin stronghold of West Belfast as a Green party candidate, and she’s doing so on a social justice ticket, born of her trans advocacy work. She didn’t take the decision to stand for election lightly.
“It was extremely daunting,” she says. “I had to consider everything from personal safety to mental health, to ability to process things, to general support, to what I would do if it blew up in the media.”
And blow up it did, with newspapers both at home and abroad all writing headlines about Ellen’s gender identity.
“The media coverage has been unprecedented,” she says, “but there’s been very few bad responses. Mostly out canvassing the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, which has been heartwarming. In terms of talking to people, most are focusing on policy stuff and my politics. “I think there’s a relatively good understanding at a basic level of binary trans people, but that understanding can be very unhelpful at some times, in that it can be very stereotyped. I don’t think there is very much understanding of non-binary issues, but certainly there hasn’t been very much need for me to explain the whole trans people to thing generally, because I’m told that they know what it is, what that community is.”
She may be getting heartwarming reactions on the doorsteps, but in Northern Irish political life there’s a lot to overcome.
“To begin with, homophobia in the political discourse in Northern Ireland is pretty rife,” Ellen says. “There’s a political party which consistently says, for example, that if homosexuality was recriminalised it would support the law and follow it to the letter. Trans issues haven’t really had the exposure in Northern Irish politics to attract transphobia, but certainly from a lot of conversations with a lot of representatives from different parties, that mentality is definitely there. “There is an assumption that within a lot of the parties, and unfortunately mostly unionist parties, that it’s still socially acceptable in Northern Ireland to propagate homophobia and transphobia.
While even the harshest of politicians in Northern Ireland won’t openly attack someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity in public anymore, I have seen homophobia and transphobia manifest itself online, and at different sittings with decision making bodies.”
In their election manifesto the DUP said that it stands by “its commitment to family values and marriage and will continue to do so,” which essentially means the party will continue to block same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
“We’re going to be relying on actions through the courts,” Ellen says of the fight for marriage equality up north. “All of those of implications and legal qualms around them. In terms of timeframe it’s very muddy, but there are court challenges coming, particularly now that the republic has had their referendum outcome.”
Ellen chose the Green Party because of their inclusive approach. “I sniffed around a other parties for a long time, but I didn’t feel comfortable, because while I was welcome to be there, it was to tick boxes and look good, but not actively take a front-running role in things. What I found attractive about the Greens was that they proactively seek from people from marginalised groups, that they had a gender balance and disabled candidates, for instance.”
Becoming the first trans candidate in Northern Ireland has come with its responsibilities. “I’m aware that anything I say, of the effect on the LGBT community and particularly the trans community,” Ellen says. “We’ve seen time and time again where public representatives have accidentally done significant harm to communities through the messages they give. I’m very cautious about how I phrase things, that I’m not throwing people under buses.”
When I ask her about her status as a role model for trans people in Ireland, Ellen is matter of fact. “It’s hard to ignore the role model part,” she says. “A lot of trans folk have been very supportive and quite excited at the prospect of me running for election.”
From now until May 5, election day, it’s going to be a hard slog. “Everybody needs a hobby,” Ellen laughs when I say she has tremendous courage in taking on the Northern Irish political system, not only as a trans woman, but also while dealing with autism. Then she gets serious. “I’m having difficulties with physical health at the moment and I need to watch the amount of travelling and canvassing I’m doing. It’s really just listening to my body and my brain, and adapting as appropriate to that.”
Something tells me that, despite any hurdles she faces along the way, Ellen Murray is in this game for the long haul.
This interview appears in May’s GCN. Read it here.
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