To mark Transgender Awareness Week, which takes place from 13 – 19 November, peer support worker Michaela Kenworthy shared her story.
Hello, my name is Michaela. I have been working for the Trust since February 2022. Through my work, I support colleagues and service users and members of the public to lead happy and fulfilled lives.
I was so happy when the Trust offered me a permanent job. It made me realise that they value me and all of what it means to be me. I have been given lots of training since I started work and my managers are so supportive; it is an exciting and varied role and I love working here. I have had ‘lightbulb’ moments of realisation during the training because I am learning things that help me understand myself and others better.
I hope that by sharing my story I can help other people to reach out for support and that it will give people hope. I am committed to doing anything I can do can to help change the balance of things in our society for the better.
My family formally adopted me at the age of six weeks old. I also have birth relatives in Halifax and Australia too. I grew up in Barnsley and have mostly lived here. At 16 I left school and started a window cleaning round. I remember it rained constantly for four weeks of the job. My dad suggested that I go help someone he knew who refurbished machines and that was my introduction to manufacturing and engineering. I was paid £70 for three days’ work – I was chuffed to bits. I was offered a job although it turned out to be a place on a youth training scheme. I earnt a minimum weekly wage of £27.50 and travelled between Barnsley and Chesterfield every day. I moved through organisations, progressed through roles in the industry and eventually set up my own business. I started transitioning 9 years ago; in a way, working for myself helped that process because I did not have to make any sort of announcement to my manager or cope with their reactions.
However, for the last 8-10 years of running the business, I really wanted to give it up. To be fair, I had never wanted to go into manufacturing. I felt trapped and depressed; the pressure became unbearable.
In September 2019, I started to become unwell but did not realise how ill I was. When the Covid-19 pandemic started, my business collapsed. The financial pressure, combined with the other pressures of the pandemic, tipped me over the edge and my mental and physical health went rapidly downhill. It was an incredibly tough and dark time.
Looking back, the closure of my business was, in a way, a good thing because it helped me to get vital health care, which led to me finding a job that I love.
I like helping people and it is empowering to know that my personal experience gives me insights that can help other people. Tragically, the suicide and self-harm rates for transgender people are high. Between 66% and 85% of trans people consider or attempt suicide. Often, people who transition are unsupported by their friends, family members or colleagues. This creates extreme emotional pain and anxiety as they lose their income and the support of their loved ones.
I consider myself lucky: I am a proud parent to four children and one stepchild, now grown up and doing life their way. Life can be hard at times, but we face our challenges together and that gives us all stability and strength. The ongoing support of my parents, children and friends means the world to me. When I came out to my mum, she simply said, “Well, I know.” My friends said, “We’ve been waiting for you to tell us.”
I talked to one of my managers about the challenges that transgender people face and the support I have personally received. She responded positively by asking me to set up a transgender support group for people in Barnsley. We named our group TransBarnsley. One of our aims is to help reduce the number of suicides and suicide attempts made by transgender people. The funding for our work comes from the suicide prevention fund. To my knowledge, there has never been a transgender or non-binary support group in Barnsley like ours before.
The group launched in April 2022. We held our first face to face meeting in June 2022 and we now have around 15 regular members. I am proud of the progress we are making together. One group member has come out at work. Two members now volunteer within the group. These are significant personal changes that have taken place over a brief period. It makes me feel emotional when I think about how our work supports others. I am optimistic too about the group’s future. We are helping to break down myths about transgender people, offer vital support to others as they go through the transitioning process and raise awareness about key issues:
A common myth is that people wake up one day and decide they want to change gender. The reality is that the gender transitioning process is long and complex. Only people who are really committed to it complete it. There is currently around a 5-year waiting list for a first appointment at some gender clinics. During the transitioning process, trans people who live without support suffer greatly. This can lead to self-harm or sometimes addiction to alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism.
Did you know that four out of five transgender people are subjected to hate crime? It means that transgender people often live in frequent fear for their personal safety, for simply living a happy and true life. We also recognise that all the statistics that relate to LGBT+ hate crime are unreliable. Victims are often too scared to report incidents, for fear of a backlash or because they are embarrassed about what has happened to them. For people who have not officially come out, the crime reporting procedure can often feel too risky as they don’t want to be exposed to the judgement of others.
It is a sad fact that trans women suffer from the same kind of abuse as cisgender women. Sometimes they face more abuse as a minority of people perceive and misunderstand them as a sexual challenge for the taking.
Trans people are often misgendered as other people respond to the person they see before them. It can be understandable but sometimes it’s triggered by unconscious learned behaviour. I wear a badge which states my pronouns but because my voice is still quite deep, I understand that people get confused and then misgender me. A way to avoid offending people is to change our language to be gender neutral. I also encourage people to be brave and directly ask people what their pronouns are. TransBarnsley are working on a poster campaign for the Trust to raise awareness about the significance of correct use of pronouns which will to improve working relationships and the quality of care we can offer people.
Another challenge we face is simply that we do not know the numbers of trans people who are living in the different geographic areas the Trust serves. We currently have no reliable way of finding out. Through TransBarnsley, we want to offer support to all transgender people, but we can only do that if we can reach them.
I know it can be hard to be open with other people, but I encourage everyone to let themselves be known by others.
I am going to close my story with one of my favourite quotes:
“Thoughts are like birds; they just fly through your head. They will never hurt you unless you grab hold of one and it will peck and squawk at you.” ~ The Reality Slap by Russ Harris.
My ambition for the people I help through my work is that they will be free to live their lives authentically. This will help their daily thoughts to be positive, free from worry and full of hope for the future.