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Let's accept that being dramatically different is what makes us all human

The story of Adrianne Elson, a trans woman who was an Orangeman, is inspirational, says Fionola Meredith

Published 05/08/2016

Adrianne Elson is in the middle of her transition
Adrianne Elson is in the middle of her transition

Coming from Northern Ireland, a place defined by its sick sectarian politics, I love it when people don't fit neatly into pre-approved boxes. It feels so refreshing and unusual. Adrianne Elson, the trans woman who used to be an Orangeman, is a great example of someone who remains fabulously resistant to those rigid moulds.

When Elson came to Belfast she was a man - a man in headlong flight from his deeply repressed wish to be a woman. Determined to ignore those inner yearnings, Elson became a member of the Orange Order as well as a hardline Christian, who took part in protests against the Belfast Pride parade. Yes, she was one of that grim crew that stands on the sidelines every year waving placards about the wages of sin being death and other doom-laden messages as the noisy, colourful pageant streams on by.

But while Elson was participating in one of those protests, her moment of personal enlightenment came. "I just thought: 'What am I doing here? Why am I protesting against them? They're just human beings like me'," she told the BBC. "I knew at that moment that I had to start living as a woman."

It's not the first time that Elson has talked openly about her struggle. Previously she has spoken movingly of how she "fought a pitched battle for four decades" of her life. "I used to sit at the bottom of Sir Edward Carson's statue at Stormont and think: 'Why can't I just be like others'?" For her, Carson represented a powerful metaphor: "Conservatism and rebellion in the same person - and that made sense to me and how I felt about things."

A Christian trans woman who idolises Carson. It's not what you expect, is it?

Identity politics, with its awful, narrow impulse to conformism and exclusion, demands that people assign themselves to certain inflexible categories, each with their own set of rules. Men, women, right, left, white, black, gay, straight, trans, non-binary - the list grows longer with each passing day.

But the trouble with treating people like members of a category - basically members of a tribe - is that it denies them their individuality. All the things that add up to make them that odd, unpredictable and marvellously contradictory thing - a human being.

Ruth Davidson, the openly gay leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who was in town this week to give the annual Pride lecture, is another person who brilliantly defies the usual tribal rules. As well as being a leading Tory - scary enough - she is a church-going Presbyterian and a unionist, who happens to be engaged to an Irish Catholic woman.

Or take Caitlyn Jenner, the most famous trans woman in the world. It gave some people quite a gunk when they realised that Caitlyn was no fashionably right-on Democrat, but was actually an ardent old-school Republican. Jenner herself joked: "It was easy to come out as trans, it was hard to come out as Republican."

It all makes me think back to the horrendously divisive (and still ongoing) Ashers case, when there was a battening down of hatches, a retreat to the tribal huddle, among some members of the local gay community. For example, because I stated my belief - later echoed by the veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell - that people should not be compelled to promote political ideas with which they disagree, I was denounced in some circles as a bigot and an enemy of gay rights. One prominent local activist said that as "a heterosexual journalist" - her words, not mine - I couldn't possibly comprehend the problem with Ashers.

A similar attitude was on display recently when the columnist Owen Jones walked out of a Sky News discussion about the Orlando massacre. He told the presenter "you don't understand this because you're not gay".

Cutting ourselves off from those who express different or challenging ideas - on the basis that if you're not with us, you're against us - and retreating into the safety of the tribe might feel comforting at the time.

But it's ultimately a self-defeating move. Reject our commonality and we consign each other to the cold, hostile wilderness. Come together and we can make important things, like marriage equality in Northern Ireland, finally happen.

As the story of Adrianne Elson shows, becoming your own person is not a box-ticking exercise. It does not involve signing up to a code of approved behaviour and acceptable beliefs.

It is about saying: above all, I am a member of only one tribe, in all its strange, shimmering diversity. It's called humanity.

Belfast Telegraph

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