Kent's transgender community may suffer mentally and physically if the government doesn’t put more money into funding support groups, say campaigners.
Today, MPs including Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan are facing questions about equality for transgender people – an area many feel urgently needs to be addressed.
It comes as a dramatic increase emerges in the number of children seeking medical treatment for gender dysphoria on the NHS.
Farrah Herbert from Sevenoaks has spent most of her life wishing she was a woman but only decided to start her transition after hitting her 40s.
Farrah, who has two children, said: “I always knew that I was different from everyone else as a small child. I didn’t really understand what that was until I got a little bit older.
"I remember my earliest memories were blowing out candles, I must have been in junior school so about 7 or 8, wishing I’d wake up a girl and things like that.
"I always knew I was different and it’s not until the introduction of the internet and speaking to other people and understanding it that I understood exactly what it was" - Farrah
"I always knew I was different and it’s not until the introduction of the internet and speaking to other people and understanding it that I understood exactly what it was.
“I think as transgender you spend your entire life keeping it hidden and you don’t want to transition because you don’t want to hurt the people around you so I was leaving it as long as I could so the children could understand it and things like that so I didn’t really make that decision until a few years ago.
“I just decided there was always going to be an excuse to put it off and at the end it got too tough to deal with gender dysporia and I just decided to make that move.”
The sense of feeling trapped and ‘born in the wrong body’ became so much for Farrah that she considered taking her own life.
The 43-year-old said: “I think the only thing that stopped me filling my pockets with stones and jumping in a river was my family. I couldn’t do that to them, but that’s how it felt some days, that it was just getting that tough, I wasn’t living as I should have done.”
Farrah is now happily living life as a pre-op woman but it’s feared such depressive thoughts will increase, if more accessible support isn’t made available.
As it stands, people in the county who want free support could be forced to travel as much as 100 miles to West London – home to Kent’s closest NHS gender identity clinic.
Many feel this can add to the burden of what is often a massively distressing time, having to wait years for life-changing surgery, while facing societal pressures along the way.
In Kent, there are only two known organisations offering support to the community.
One of them is the Medway Gender and Sexual Diversity Centre (MGSD) on Rochester High Street.
They offer counselling and peer support to men and woman suffering issues with their gender identity.
As the group is not government funded, they have no choice but to charge clients – something they’re desperate to change.
Hilary Cooke, chair, said: “At the moment, the centre’s being funded by small grants which we get occasionally but the main funding comes from donations from individuals within the community and we’re lucky that the people who work here provide their services on a voluntary basis, so we don’t have any employees.
“If we had more funding, it would help people access the support. As you can imagine, if people are working voluntarily, they can only commit so many hours so we’re limited on the time we can give to people.
"If we had the correct funding, we’d be able to provide more hours and therefore help more people.”
The other Kent-based centre, TG PALS in Ashford, faces a similar struggle.
They are surviving off a personal donation from well-known boxing promoter and transgender woman Kelly Maloney, as well as other small chunks of cash put forward – but not by the government.
While local NHS trusts do occasionally refer individuals to the centre, no cash is provided from Clinical Commissioning Groups.
Hilary said: “We do get referrals for people who are needing help around issues of gender identity from local NHS Trusts, schools and some GP referrals but at the moment, we can’t access funding to cover that counselling provision.
"Although the NHS does provide free counselling, there’s no specialist counselling in this area.”
“If you’re a young person and you’re coming to terms with who you are in the world and there’s lots of pressures on there to cope with" - Hilary Cooke
She added: “If you’re a young person and you’re coming to terms with who you are in the world and there’s lots of pressures on there to cope with and if you’re going to university there’s all of the debt, your budgets are strained anyway so having to fund help through clinics where it should be funded by the NHS, it just puts more pressure on them to be able to access those help services.”
One person who knows about this strain all too well is Leon Chaffe from Chatham.
He has been receiving counselling from the centre ever since he told his friends and family he is transgender in September, 2015.
The 19-year-old said: “Having to pay for it is a struggle, purely because I’m unemployed, the NHS won’t fund it which is really annoying. We’ve all enquired about it but we’re just waiting for the day they realise it should be funded.”
Figures show the total cost to the NHS in England for whole care pathway (the whole package of support – not just surgery) was £17.13m in 2014 - 2015.
A planned spend of £22.72m is in place for 2015/16.
It is clear a huge amount of money is earmarked for the area but many feel it’s just not enough, considering growing demand.
The MGSD centre feels the funding is needed now more than ever, as they’re continuing to see a rise in the number of people turning to them.
Many would argue this is down to high-profile individuals coming out and raising awareness, including reality star Caitlyn Jenner.
A number of soaps have also helped provide a better representation via storylines and characters, including Hollyoaks and Eastenders.
But if money and help are not forthcoming, Hilary is worried more people will suffer like Farrah and Leon.
She said: “Unfortunately we’ll see more people ending up with severe mental health problems caused by them not getting the help early enough.
"They could end up self-harming and in worst case scenarios, committing suicide.”
The number of adults undergoing gender reassignment procedures on the NHS in England has risen sharply, with a 74% increase in the number of male to female procedures since 2002.
The figures come as a senior doctor admits the NHS needs to do more to keep up with demand for the treatment - with potentially life-threatening consequences for some transgender people.
Dr John Dean, chair of the National Clinical Reference Group for Gender Identity Services, told Sky News: "Certainly not treating people is not a neutral act it will do harm - there are a number of studies that report evidence of suicide and self harm among trans people who are unable to access care.
"It is an intensely demeaning and frustrating experience to have to live in a social role in a body that is incompatible with your deepest inner sense of self."
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