LONDON — If anyone else had been on that desolate British beach one wintry evening nine years ago, they would have described a shorter-than-average man, slight, and still fully-dressed, walking straight out into the sea; seemingly heading towards oblivion. “I was up to about my shoulders,” the survivor recalls. “And I stood there for ages. Not quite having the courage to take that next step which would have taken me out of my depth.”
It was December but the sea was uncharacteristically calm and the tide was coming in, so no great gravitational pull dragged the figure away from the beach: “If it had been rougher… Well, I’m not much of a swimmer.”
By the time this parent, who had been blind since childhood and was suffering from partial hearing impairment and depression, returned to shore they had made a decision. Those wet, male clothes were thrown out, and from now on, Emily Brothers was going to live as a woman.
Today, less than a decade later, Brothers has been selected as the Labour Party’s Parliamentary candidate in Sutton and Cheam, South-West London, where she will stand for election in May. She is the world’s first blind, transgender politician.
After years on the margins of society, transgender people are finally being accepted into the mainstream—in Hollywood at least. Transparent won a Golden Globe last month, Glee is about to experience its first gender reassignment and reality-TV patriarch Bruce Jenner is reportedly undergoing his own transformation. Brothers confesses that she hasn’t been keeping up with the Kardashians, but she has a message for the Olympic gold-medal winning Jenner: “Welcome to womanhood, it is a great place to be.”
That doesn’t mean the transformation is easy, of course. More than 5,000 miles from sunny Los Angeles, Brothers is sitting in her modestly decorated suburban home, which doubles as her campaign office, mournfully describing marital breakdown, total rejection by her parents, and temporary exile from her children, who initially refused to be seen in public with her.
For Brothers, 50, there was an added complication; how do go about radically altering your appearance when you don’t know what you look like? She vividly remembers the first time she left the house as a woman. “It was terrifying,” she said. “Going out and not being able to look in the mirror was so hard, I started with make-up and it was very difficult. Living on my own—more times than not I looked a bit too orange really.”
She underwent gender reassignment surgery in June 2009, and in all the years of appointments with doctors, surgeons, and clinicians, none said they had encountered or even heard of another blind transgender patient. Brothers was on her own.
When she came out publicly as transgender in December, more than a year after she was selected as a Labour candidate for this year’s general election, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper ran an item that ended: “Thing is though… being blind, how did she know she was the wrong sex?”
Brothers says it may have just been a stupid joke, but it hurt. “It was very personal and it was cheap,” she said. “What The Sun failed to do was explain that yes, there are particular challenges for a blind person who is going through a gender transition.”
“I know I’m a woman because I know how I feel. There’s an inner sense you don’t need to have sight to know you feel female.”
Despite her fears, that first trip outside as a woman was a modest success. A worker on the London Underground helped her on to the train and radioed ahead to let staff at her destination know that a blind passenger was on the way. “He said ‘I’m just putting a blind lady on the Victoria northbound train.’ The fact that he said ‘I’m putting this lady on,’ made me feel so good—maybe what I thought was impossible, might be possible.”
In the coming years, Brothers would learn that make-up was unnecessary—“My friends told me I didn’t need it”—and they were right. She became more confident in her appearance, and built a strong reputation as a professional woman, becoming president of the National Federation of the Blind and a senior executive at the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
As soon as she was selected, Brothers was celebrated as the first blind woman to run for Parliament. She received a rapturous welcome when she addressed the Labour conference and was pictured with Ed Miliband, the party leader who hopes to be elected prime minister in May. “So proud to have Emily Brothers as a Labour candidate. She is an important voice in our movement,” Miliband said.
Brothers also identifies as a lesbian, which puts her in yet another tiny minority among the world’s politicians.
So why did she feel the need to announce that she was transgender? Partly, the decision was motivated by fear. “Increasingly I had this pressure, I had this secret, and felt that sooner or later, because I’ve seen it, not with politicians, but other people who’ve got a transsexual background where a newspaper gets wind of it, and a story kicks off,” she said. “If that was going to happen that I should take the lead. I thought there was potential for a negative, and if it starts negatively then it’s difficult to turn it positive.”
Aside from that snide remark by Rod Liddle in The Sun, the gamble has paid off. Brothers sounded surprised as she explained that she had not experienced a single negative word from anyone else, in print, in the street or even online. “A lot of people are saying they’ve found my personal story inspiring and it certainly has laid a challenge down for me to live up to. So while it’s been very positive, there’s very high expectations out there,” she said.
With trailblazing comes a lot of responsibility. Especially when you are representing several minority groups in the political sphere that is so desperate for a greater diversity of voices. As a woman with eyesight and hearing issues, Brothers would be one of a tiny group of disabled MPs. David Blunkett, a blind Labour colleague and the former Home Secretary, invited Brothers for a meeting where he shared a host of practical advice on speeches, networking and keeping up with all the briefing documents, but he made it clear how hard it would be to do the job as a blind person. She conceded: “David said it’s tough.”
But then Brothers, who was sitting upright on the sofa in a multicolored cardigan with a rose-shaped fastening, tends not to do things the easy way. “People say I have a huge amount of resilience, and I do. I’m bloody minded,” she said.
She knew she was putting her family life at risk when she told them she needed to live as a woman. Her wife had found a skirt under the bed and suspected she was having an affair. Brothers recalled that she was to hear that explanation again a few years later when a regular taxi driver picked her up from the family home after a visit. “’It’s a shame about Mrs Brothers,’ the driver said to me. ‘Oh really?’ I said. ‘Her husband left her last year, used to see him all the time but he’s disappeared. Apparently he was a real womanizer.’—I thought if only!”
She wasn’t having an affair, but her wife decided it would be right to end the marriage. Despite the divorce they have remained close, with regular “gossip” sessions. The same can’t be said for Brothers’ parents who were appalled. “At first they said I was having a breakdown,” she said. “I was shouted at, abused, they said ‘You’re sick in the head,’ my mum was the more vocal.”
Eventually, she wrote to her parents and asked for them to stop calling unless they could be more civil. The relationship was so badly eroded that when Brothers’ little brother lay dying in hospital a year ago, no one let her know there was time to come and say farewell. She only found out that he had died a month after the funeral.
“Even if they had come to accept my gender, and accept me as a daughter, then there would be a real challenge about me having a relationship with a woman because that wouldn’t be right either,” she said.
Last month, Brothers read about the death of Leelah Alcorn with horror. The teenager from Ohio took her own life when her Christian parents refused to accept that she wanted to grow up as a woman. “I try to understand where the parents are coming from; they feel like they’ve lost a son like my parents do. I understand that they are fearful of what other people think, of their child, of them, you’ve got bad genes or you’ve brought them up wrong. They feel a sense of shame or guilt,” she said.
“I respect people of different faiths, what I don’t respect from people of any kind of religion is that they judge people. People use their standards to say, this is how everyone else should be. If religion is about anything it should be about caring and giving love to people and understanding them, so to push people away I think doesn’t put their faith in a good light.”
Brothers’ greatest fear, and the prospect that drove her to walk out into the sea, was how she might hurt her children, who were 10 and 12 at the time. “If I didn’t live then they could just go on talking about ‘dad,’ they wouldn’t have all this embarrassment and pain. I’d heard so many stories of people in my situation who lose contact with their children—their children hate them, what they’ve become, and I didn’t want that for my children, I didn’t want that for me.”
There was a period when the kids avoided going out in public with Brothers, but her son, 20, now lives with her back in the family home when he’s not at university. They don’t call her ‘Mum’ because they already have one of those, but the relationship has settled down.
For the first time in the conversation a smile spread all the way across Brothers’ face. “I wanted them to feel part of my evolution,” she said. “The lovely thing is that they actually chose my name… Not many parents can say that.”