Niamh O'Reilly

Ellen Murray is a 23 year old trans woman from Belfast, Northern Ireland. She is the founder and current chairperson of GenderJam NI, a trans youth charity, and she is the Youth Support Coordinator for SAIL, a trans family support organisation in the region. She specialises in healthcare and education advocacy, and is involved in policy work on trans issues at local, regional, national and international levels. She has twice been a candidate in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, first in 2016 and then again in 2017, standing for the Green Party in Belfast West. She is a chronically-ill wheelchair user and electric bicycle rider, and is a keen infrastructure nerd. She has a cat called Bilbo, who is more popular than her.

You’re just done running for election as a Green Party candidate in Northern Ireland for the second time. What’s it like running in Northern Ireland for a party that is neither explicitly unionist or nationalist?
Running as a “non-designating” political candidate feels surprisingly normal, to be honest. Although many of the parties here do identify and campaign along “orange and green” or Unionist/Nationalist lines, my politics have never really aligned that way, and in reality, most people seem more concerned about their day-to-day political worries like equality issues, access to education and healthcare, and their ability to live happy lives. In many cases, the social divides along green/orange lines are relevant, but most people seem to treat non-sectarian and neither-Orange-nor-Green parties quite well. There’s a growing number of people who personally attach themselves to parties which do this – the Green Party, Alliance and others – as Northern Ireland moves further on from conflict and new generations of young voters come to political maturity. I hope it’ll continue to get progressively easier to be a political candidate whose main axis of identity is not on the Constitutional/border issue.

As a person who is both transgender and a sufferer of a chronic illness, how were you received politically? Did you have to put up with a lot of nonsense or were your constituents and running mates open and accepting?
I’m very lucky to have received relatively little abuse or harassment during my two campaigns to date. Last year, I was announced as the first trans candidate on the island of Ireland, and I got a fair bit of transphobic response to that. In the year since, I’ve started needing to use a wheelchair part-time, and this year has brought along some ableist responses towards that. Most people seem very keen to see atypical candidates, in all honesty, and being disabled and trans is definitely very atypical in Northern Irish politics! On the whole, though, I’m very lucky to have a strong support network around me, so I was able to put up with the bits of abuse I’ve experienced so far.

What’s the weirdest thing that was said to you or happened to you while running for election?
I don’t know if anyone in politics ever gets used to people they don’t know coming up to them and saying they voted for you, but it’s definitely a wonderful, if bewildering, novelty. The weirdest thing has to be the guy who insisted to know why I wanted to give heroin to children – the Greens are for decriminalisation of drugs and the treatment of addiction as a health, not a criminal, issue. Giving heroin to children is… something else entirely, but he must have read into the policy a little too much. I won’t forget him in a hurry. I was also told someone has a shrine to two Green Party candidates in their hallway, one of whom is me. I definitely won’t forget that in a hurry.

There was a lot in the news about an escalation in xenophobia and hate crimes in England particularly after Brexit. Have you seen much of that up North?
There has been an increase in hate crimes across the UK as a whole after the Referendum vote last year, and we have seen that in Northern Ireland as well. As always, it’ll take a while for the official figures to reflect this, but community organisations are seeing the increase already, and are doing more support work around hate crime and hate incidents already. This is likely to get worse as the EU exit continues, unfortunately.

As well politics, you’re also an established activist for transgender rights. How did you get into activism?
I got into activism through necessity – I came out as transgender in 2013 when I was 19, and almost immediately got held up in healthcare services due to the Gender Identity Service [the clinic which supports trans people in NI] not having enough staff to take on new patients. I raised it with my MLA (my representative at Stormont) and got the Health Minister at the time to help out through the Northern Ireland Assembly. I was hooked, and went down the long road of advocacy work. I was always planning to be an electronics engineer – I ended up in activism purely by accident and by circumstance, but happened to love it much more than engineering, and also suck at it far less too!

You run two transgender advocacy organisations, SAIL NI and GenderJam, tell me about those. What do they do, and how do they differ from each other?
I founded GenderJam NI in 2013 as a trans youth organisation – we support transgender, non-binary, questioning and intersex young people aged 25 and under across the whole of Northern Ireland. We do everything from running social groups, having Dungeons and Dragons and film nights, giving out free safe chest binders and doing talks to schoolchildren. I started working with SAIL in 2015 and am one of their 4 voluntary Directors. SAIL is a family support organisation for trans people, though I don’t do family support work myself – I focus on young people almost exclusively. The two organisations complement each other well, though, and many of our young people and families get support concurrently as they come out and transition.

What are the best and worst parts of working in transgender advocacy?
I absolutely love seeing the positive changes in people’s lives that we’re able to affect and enable – when young people come through the door shaking like leaves on their first visit, and six months later come crashing in with a gaggle of friends feeling on top of the world, that’s a beautiful thing to witness. We get to see a lot of the good things in people’s lives, and the significant progression of people’s happiness when we’re able to provide support. One of the worst and most difficult things is seeing so many people struggling with self-harm, suicide and severe mental illness, most of which is caused by isolation, abandonment, discrimination and intimidation within society. It’s extremely difficult to make things better in a lot of situations, and it’s an awful feeling to have to accept that miracles can’t be worked. However, we’re thankfully seeing more and more people having positive experiences, and fewer and fewer those awful, traumatic negative ones.

You suffer from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a chronic illness characterised by frequent dislocations, severe fatigue and heart issues. How does that affect your day to day life as an activist, politician, and cat parent?
Being chronically ill has forced me to really take my work and activism much more carefully – having to ration my energy and activities means I have to pick and choose what I do much more, and feel able to say no and turn down requests for work. I’ve learned to say no to things I don’t want to do, and I’ve learned how to navigate the healthcare system as a patient, which helps when advocating for other trans young people during my work. As a politician, being disabled has taught me an incredible amount about the importance of accessibility, of welfare and social supports, and of a healthcare system that’s fit for purpose. I’ve also met some fantastic disabled activists who’ve taught me endlessly useful things about the ethical and moral necessities of politics, and how we need to approach issues around disability, poverty, isolation and ill health. As a cat parent, it’s made me be stuck in bed much more often, which my cat loves, as my chest is his favourite bed. Bilbo always keeps me company when my illness is flaring up.

Lately you’ve started a campaign of sorts surrounding mistreatment of claimants of Personal Independence Payment. How did that come about?
I applied for PIP (the equivalent of Disability Living Allowance in the UK) in August 2016, and have recently been turned down for any assistance whatsoever, on the basis of false reports and an incorrect statement made to the government department in charge of benefits by a healthcare professional. In the Department for Communities’ eyes, I can walk 200 metres regularly and safely (not the case!) and do everything else in my life without assistance (not the case!), and all because of the way an assessment was carried out. Things like this are being experienced by thousands of disabled people across NI currently, but across the UK, 80% of denied claims are overturned upon appeal – something is afoot. It’s early days for PIP in Northern Ireland, so we’ll have to see. I’ve detailed everything that’s gone wrong with my case personally on my Twitter account.

Lastly, on a lighter note: How’s Bilbo?
He’s very well. He’s currently out on the hunt, but as of yesterday he was very good and extremely fluffy. I look forward to exploiting his handsome face again for Twitter likes very soon.

We’d like to thank Ellen for doing the interview with us. She can be found online at ellenmurray.co.uk or as @ellenfromnowon on Twitter.