Transphobia and mental illness – Deborah’s story

10/05/2022

Deborah is a trans woman who experiences depression, anxiety, dissociation and personality disorders. As part of her work for our Oxfordshire Carers Support Service, she often guides carers who are seeking support for LGBTQi+ and related mental illness issues. She knows more than most about the impact that being trans can have on your mental health. In this blog, she explains her story and talks about her experience of the intersection between transphobia and mental illness.

Hello I’m Deborah, I am 57 years old but approaching my 21st birthday this September, I was born and assigned as a biological male in 1965. Following seven years of very difficult psychological assessment I underwent Full Gender Reassignment Surgery, completing my medical transition in September 2001. This was the first time I ever felt ‘complete’ as a human being.

As a child I knew that I felt and saw the world differently to my peers, I simply couldn’t relate to boys and I never felt connected within myself. I didn’t understand this ‘difference’. I became a target at school and childhood was increasingly distressful. Eventually social services instructed my Mum to attend children’s psychological services. When I told Mum I was planning to transition, she disclosed that I had been given a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia at seven years old. She had refused to accept this, hoping that it was just a ‘phase’ and I never saw ‘those quacks’ again.

  • As a child I knew that I felt and saw the world differently to my peers, I simply couldn’t relate to boys and I never felt connected within myself.

That was my first brief experience of mental health services and I look back now and understand that this was the beginning of many destructive core beliefs that I would gain in life. My Mum’s mental health deteriorated, which led to many periods of hospitalisation, our family was torn apart and my siblings placed with foster parents. Eventually, we all came together in an amazingly kind and caring Christian faith-based children’s home. This was wonderfully life changing in so many ways but hitting puberty I now understood my ‘difference’. With all of this going on, I still had three younger siblings to look after, but what could I do? I would cry and pray, begging God every night to wake me up ‘right’. From conversations, I understood that gender and sexuality were taboo subjects, so I never disclosed how I felt about myself and I felt very much alone. I buried myself deep and hid away within myself, I presented to everyone as a typical young man leaving the children’s home at 18. I didn’t do very well, stumbling through life making lots of bad decisions.

In my early 20’s I still hadn’t knowingly met anyone like me, I had never met a crossdresser or a transsexual either. I really didn’t know how to meet anyone like me or how to access to the LGBT community, I just struggled through most of my 20’s quietly crossdressing at home with the curtains firmly closed. As an adult I think this is where I really begun to become mentally unwell. My life was falling apart, and I was exhausted from fighting my inner self.

  • As an adult I think this is where I really begun to become mentally unwell. My life was falling apart, and I was exhausted from fighting my inner self.

Age 29 my life took an unexpected u-turn and I met a very special woman, I ‘came out’ as crossdresser from the beginning and she immediately accepted me for who I was. I don’t have the words to express what this meant, for the first time in my life I did not have to hide my true self. So many years of being alone and afraid, I now had to learn how to be me, no more hiding within. I began to explore my true gender identity and eventually I approached my G.P. requesting referral to Gender Identity Clinic.

In the following years my mental health failed me, the combination of a difficult childhood and my gender difference led to self-harm just to survive myself. Eventually as an adult trans woman, I mentally broke down and during mental health treatment I made several suicide attempts. I experienced depression, anxiety, visual & sensory hallucinations with dissociation and absences. Following five years of mental health treatments I was diagnosed with personality disorders, (borderline, paranoid, avoidant, dependent and obsessive compulsive). But I was glad to get my diagnosis, my transition as a trans woman had helped me to live within my body, now I could finally learn how to live to be myself as a whole.

There is a myth that identifying as transgender is easy, you just say it and “hey presto!”, magic happens and that’s it. The reality for trans people is very different. I have been verbally & physically assaulted because I was trans. Firstly as a child by a violent father then by others because I was from a broken home. I learned from a very early age that people are cruel, especially if you are perceived as different, lesser or weaker. I witnessed how LGB people were treated and spoken about by society and the media in the past. Now I see and hear similar language aimed at the trans community today, it’s a language that promotes fear & transphobia. Is it any surprise that as trans people, we are still trying to find our place in our society?

  • It’s a language that promotes fear & transphobia. Is it any surprise that as trans people, we are still trying to find our place in our society?

For me, living as a trans woman is to live every day with a shadow of fear, it’s always there just behind you where you can’t see it, but you can feel it. Whenever I leave my home to do the things that cis people do everyday without thought or concern, I have to face that fear. To face the glances, the false smiles, the misgendering and sometimes the ‘in your face’ experiences. It’s not about having a thick skin, it’s just about being able to survive from day to day in any way you can. Then you come home and turn on the TV to learn that ‘conversion therapy’ will be illegal, unless you’re trans – in which case it’s ok. You realise that as trans you are still seen as lesser and all you can do is cry. It’s exhausting and it always takes a heavy toll.

My mental ill health developed from a complex mix of abuse, neglect and fear, from developing coping strategies that protected me from a difficult childhood. A childhood and early adult life made more complex by my gender dysphoria and having to hide my true self away, to be invisible. I often wonder if I had been able to be open about myself as a trans child would I have ever become mentally ill?

I didn’t ‘choose’ to be trans and I didn’t ‘become’ a trans Woman. I was always trans and I always identified as female. Society has come a very long way in its acceptance of many differences, the freedoms and protections that trans people have now are a stepping stone forward. But it is fragile.

I would say to anyone who is trans and experiencing poor mental health to try to put your fear aside and reach out, don’t hide within yourself, you are enough, and you are not alone, there are kind people out there that want to help. There is a way for you to be YOU and YOU can be amazing!

This was a little bit of my story, I am simply me, I am Debbie, I am proud to be trans and I am pleased to meet you.

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