If those who selected Emily Brothers to run as Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Sutton and Cheam in May thought the biggest challenges in her life came from being blind, they were wrong.
Days after her selection in November, 2013, her brother suffered a massive stroke. She didn’t learn he had died, aged just 46, until her parents wrote a month later. They said they "couldn't possibly have had someone like me" at the funeral, she says. Sitting in the living room of her Sutton home, she tells Huffington Post UK that, more than a year later, she still feels unable to visit his grave.
The attitude of her mother and father shows the challenges Brothers faced as she struggled to come to terms with being transgender. She can only speak to her parents via letter because they, in her words, "fundamentally believe" her transition from male to female was wrong.
Brothers, 50, says she always felt female but tried at first to fit into a "stereotype of who I should be and how I should do it". After losing her sight as a child, she went to a boarding school for the blind in her native Liverpool, attended university and eventually married and had two children. But she felt continuing this life was not possible. "I felt as if I was trapped... I worked hard at it but increasingly it wasn't working for me, I felt increasingly depressed". She began having suicidal thoughts.
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On a December night in 2006, she came very close to killing herself. While staying on the Isle of Wight, she walked out into the sea. "We were trying to make the marriage work but the cat was out of the bag. I had to... I couldn't go forward." She went for a walk on the beach in the early hours and waded out until the water was at her shoulders. "I didn't do it consciously... I just kept on walking. It was a winter night. Nobody around. I didn't even feel the cold, I just thought, 'I can't continue this'. I'm not much of a swimmer. If the tide was going out, if it had been a rougher night, I don't think I'd have had the energy fight it. I must've been there for ages, I'm surprised hypothermia didn't get me."
She remembers thinking of her children and wondered if "it would be kinder to them to just slip away. The other side of me thought I had to be there for them." She went back to shore and reflected on being "on the brink". She says she "probably wouldn't be here today" if she hadn't decided to act. "I do remember thinking 'I might have to come back [to the beach] and finish it'."
She began her transition despite fearing hurting her family. "If it's taken me so long... then clearly it will be difficult for others," she thought. Her marriage ended. She knew her parents would not accept it. Her son William, now 20, and daughter Victoria, now 18, feared they and her would be ridiculed. Brothers summarises their initial reaction as: "We don't understand but we love you."
At one point, after six months of hormone therapy, she was out Christmas shopping with them when they suddenly wanted to go home. "I asked why. They said: 'You couldn't be a man even if you tried. Everybody thinks you're woman'. It wasn't that I looked different, it was that they knew what the situation was and they got uncomfortable." For several years, her children did not want to go out in public with her. "Gradually, they built confidence, they began to realise, actually, everyone treated me as Emily, as any other regular woman." She remains "good friends" with her ex-wife.
After struggling to get her family to accept her transition, asking the public to do the same was not tempting. But privacy and politics rarely mix. Her career - working in the voluntary sector for a decade, then at the Equality and Human Rights Commission - took her into pressure group politics, advocacy for the disabled and minorities and Labour Party activism. She stood in the local council election in 2010 without coming out. When she was selected to stand for parliament, she still had not.
"Part of me hoped I wouldn't have to, part of me - the sort of, principled part of me, said: 'I should be able to live my life as a woman in the way that I have been for a number of years without intrusion'," she says. She reflected on examples of appalling, recent press behaviour towards transgender people, such as Lucy Meadows, the teacher who committed suicide after being outed by the press, and Kate Stone, who was referred to as a 'sex swap scientist' in coverage of her horrific accident.
She had known many officials, politicians and journalists since before her transition and all it would take to make her past public was "a conversation here or there". She says: "I thought long and hard about it... It was evident a newspaper would out me and do so negatively. I felt it was important for me and the people around me... to try to set a positive note and I could achieve that by coming out." But her decision was not, she says, exclusively out of necessity. After becoming a full-time parliamentary candidate, she reflected on the type of politician she wanted to be.
"It was clear to me that... " She pauses. Throughout the interview, she speaks with a slow-paced emphasis. "The heart of leadership and politics, is trust. I need to say as a politician, where I come from, where I'm trying to go, what my motivations and policies are based upon." She says there would have been "no conceivable reason" to come out publicly if she were not a politician. "There's that issue of trust between politician and electorate... I had to come out," she adds. "It's important I'm honest with the electorate. This is my experience, yes it's different from them, but I sure know what it's like to be challenged. I sure know what it's like to have to find some resilience."
Brothers does not relish divulging such personal things. "There was [a time], when I could've said, 'I will sacrifice my political interests because I want privacy'. I could've done that, but is that social justice? Is that equality? Is that people having their civil rights recognised? No," she says.
She came out in an interview with Pink News, which said she was the first parliamentary candidate of one of the three main parties, to come out of their own free will. "I remember thinking 'what have you done, girl?' I was terrified. I was about to put my life into spin... Saying things to people publicly which are very private, very personal, very deep." She adds: "When you press that button, you know there's no turning back." She only warned a handful of people in advance and didn’t tell Ed Miliband, knowing he would be “cool” with it. Miliband tweeted his support afterwards.
Emily Brothers has long been a courageous campaigner on disability rights & now on trans issues too.— Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) December 9, 2014
Two days later, commentator and professional provocateur Rod Liddle joked about Brothers in his regular column in The Sun, saying: “Being blind, how did she know she was the wrong sex?” In her words: "It all kicked off." A petition calling for the paper to apologise was launched and the matter trended high on Twitter.
Brothers calls it "a cheap comment". "I don't expect any better from The Sun, I'm a Liverpudlian. I had very little truck with it." But the support she received convinced her to join Twitter, which she had resisted because of the "trolling and all that nonsense". "The Sun forced me onto it...They were seeking to intimidate me... to undermine my role. It didn't succeed.” After the column triggered online outrage, Liddle apologised to Brothers and even said he would vote for her if he lived in the constituency. But in a subsequent column, he said he'd decided he wouldn’t vote for her "even if she was standing against Nick Clegg, George Galloway and Michael Ole Ole Biscuit Barrel from the Silly Party".
Brothers says this made Liddle sound “like a teenager muttering an apology”. "He's entitled to a view. I just thought it was disappointing but nonetheless I accept his apology,” she says. The Sun itself did not apologise. Brothers says it should take editorial responsibility for its columnists and is backing efforts by Trans Media Watch, a charity that campaigns for fairer press coverage of transgender people and is pursuing this. "I'm not upset for me, I have the kind of resilience and I'm a politician, so you have to take knocks of this nature, whether it's fair or not, people will say stupid things,” she says. "But other people out there will not just be offended by it but upset by it. It also just illustrates a lack of understanding." She hopes pulling the press up on hurtful language can "contribute in some small way to making things better for people when they come out". "Hopefully in the future there will be a time when it will be possible for people not to feel the kind of pressure I did."
'Transgender' is the T of LGBT. But it is hard to imagine a politician getting the same reaction from Liddle if they came out as gay. I ask Brothers if she feels it's harder for transgender people to come out. She doesn’t hesitate. “Definitely,” she says. "For a whole host of reasons. [It's] not surprising. Many of us who have a transexual history have taken a long time to understand ourselves.
"How can we expect others to be fully educated about our lives and experiences? People may not come into contact with people who have a transexual history, if they do, they may not know. People who didn't know me before have been shocked... We've had very few role models, open role models for transgender people, particularly those in mainstream life, people haven't seen what it entails." She says a transgender mainstream politician in parliament would be "amazing step forward", adding: "Hopefully, my journey will make it easier for other transsexual politicians in the future."
I am not the first journalist to sit in her living room and ask Brothers deeply personal questions. But she surprises me when she says she is disappointed none of the previous articles included her comments about her sexuality. She remains attracted to women and now identifies as gay. "It's interesting in all the media coverage I've had, there has been no reference to it, that point hasn't been understood. In some ways, my gender transition is enough to take in, without then looking at the sexual orientation." I ask if she feels confident enough to pursue a romantic relationship with a woman. “It’s a new world. I would love to,” she says.
Then, in one of the few light-hearted moments in our two-and-half-hour conversation, she adds: "The 'how' bit is the challenge...I'm not part of the gay scene. I haven't done dating for decades. I have this thing in the back of my head about, on the first date, when do I tell them about my gender history? Is it starters? During the dessert? Or is it three months in? A year on?"
At the time of our interview, it has been nearly two months since she came out. Has there been any reaction on the doorstep? She says no, adding Liddle is still the only person to say anything unpleasant. Campaigning has continued as normal and no potential voter has mentioned it, at least not within her earshot. She says, optimistically, that her suburban London seat is “winnable” for Labour.
In 2010, her party won just 7% of the vote. With the Lib Dems polling badly, incumbent Paul Burstow's majority of 1,608 looks vulnerable to the Tories, while Labour’s strategy of focussing on target seats has left Brothers' campaign with fewer resources. As a blind candidate, she relies on two members of staff, paid for from a special fund for disabled candidates, to help her navigate events and convert material into braille and other formats when needed.
For all the challenges of a parliamentary run, Brothers says she will run again if she loses, possibly in a by-election in the next parliament. She has lived in or near her constituency since 1990, is not entirely happy that all the parties "parachute" candidates into places they have no connection to but adds politicians "sometimes have to seize the moment". She admits she would have to "nurture" any other prospective seat and work to "convince local people I have their interests first". I'm reminded of her comment that coming out is important in order to have an "honest conversation" with voters but she says she looks forward to a time when her past is not mentioned when it is irrelevant. "That is something the media and others need to get their heads around," she adds.
Since she came out, she has received only one, brief letter from her parents. "It was just basically saying they were aware of some of the news coverage, including Rod Liddle's comment, but they didn't express any opinion,” she says. "I hope in some ways they're able to see the response to me has been very positive and it makes them feel more comfortable about it." However, she says their position on the issue and "deep sense of rejection" at her transition leave her doubtful there will be any change.
"My parents did some great things for me, as a blind child losing my sight, they were tremendously supportive. I have a lot of respect for what they went through," she says. “It's just very sad... They feel they lost a son, they've lost two sons in very different ways... yet they could have gained a daughter.” Her children see it differently. "They went through that bereavement process of losing a father but they wouldn't want me to reverse my gender change because they don't want to lose Emily."