This Is What It's Like When Your Sibling Transitions
By Posted on 27 Nov 2017
The message came through on Facebook. It was June last year, and my sibling was informing me that they were due to see their GP to try and get a referral to a specialist clinic to discuss gender.
‘Because, for as long as I can remember, I have not been OK with my own,’ they wrote. ‘I’m not exactly sure what that means in terms of what I’m going to do about it, but I feel like this is a good first step.’
A final sentence invited questions. At first, I didn’t have any. I only had the urge to offer my support and show that nothing would change between us. In the end, it turns out I was wrong about that. But right then I wanted to acknowledge what bravery it must have taken to send that message. I wanted to say, ‘Go for it, I’ll support you and be here if you need me. I love you.’ But I am the older brother, and an idiot, and we’re from a self-effacing Northern family more used to making jokes than expressing emotions. So instead I typed, ‘Fly like a dove,’ and immediately regretted it.
We were both born in a small village outside of a fading industrial town in the North East. Eliah was always the convivial child favoured by aunts and uncles. I, two years older, spent most of my time complaining about wanting to go home. We grew up in the house our parents still own, facing out on to an A-road that claimed most of our cats. When I was 11,
I accidentally broke Eliah’s wrist, jumping out of our apple tree on to a den of old sofa cushions, inside which Eliah was hidden. I don’t think they ever blamed me. Or for hiding their favourite stuffed toy, for giving them the worst part in games, or for generally being immature long after we’d left childhood behind.
Later, our relationship took on a sort of respectful distance, played out on visits home from where we live now (me, London; them, Sheffield) over drawn-out Christmas Days. They’ve retained their Northern accent. Mine has been worn down by London living. They’re tall and so am I. They dress to please themselves. My dress sense needs help. We have a few common musical reference points and shared familial frustrations but, apart from that, we leave each other to it.
Shortly after Eliah’s Facebook message, we met up in Berlin. I’d arrived early for a stag do; they were visiting their girlfriend, who was studying there. We met on Warschauer Strasse in the centre of the city. I didn’t know what to expect, but was open-minded.
Hunched over a vegetarian shawarma, they told me they were about to change their name to Eliah and use the gender- neutral pronouns ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’. I listened and was happy for them. Since they graduated from university, it’s been evident they have their head screwed on. ey’re settled in She eld, are an active supporter of a range of liberal movements, work for a charity and play for a football team in their spare time. I knew that they are surrounded by a supportive and progressive group of friends and, at this point, I believed my only job was to listen.
‘I want to keep my middle name,’ Eliah said, excited, anxious, more con dent than I’d ever known them. ‘And I don’t know how Mum will feel about it.’
They knew this was only normal, but they couldn’t help but be held back by worrying about what other people would think. ‘Our mum’s always been pretty open-minded,’ I said…
‘I know, but…’ Eliah said.
We parted a few hours later. It was, strangely, the first time we’d ever been in a foreign country together, and our conversation, to my mind at least, felt free of old family dynamics as a result.
Some months later, I saw on Twitter that Eliah was crowdfunding for chest surgery. Waiting times for surgery, hormones or even appointments on the NHS can be lengthy and often trans people turn to other sources to fund what they feel are lifesaving operations. With surgery costs, private doctor’s fees, accommodation and travel to and from London, Eliah estimated the whole thing would cost around £6,000.
‘Throughout my life I’ve struggled with how I feel about myself…’ they wrote. ‘From praying to God to let me wake up and be a boy as a child to reverting to playing with children’s toys in an attempt to stave off puberty, this has followed me throughout the years; through rites of passage and pivotal life points, throughout first relationships and present ones, through ups and downs, it has always been lurking in the background.’
The procedure sounded painful and my stomach clenched at the thought of my younger sibling enduring it. Most of all, I felt like I’d let them down. I hadn’t realised the depth of these feelings.
It wasn’t enough to offer the occasional ear, or remember pronouns; I needed to actively learn about this and offer support in any way I could.
We met a few weeks later to watch a band in London. As we waited, Eliah told me how they were feeling their way along, too. They told me they were thinking about going on a course of male hormones, but were worried about what it would do to their voice. I told them I felt the same way going through puberty. I was apprehensive about getting a typically male voice, but you get used to it in the end. They were worried about explaining all of this to our father. They told me they feared that testosterone would make them lose their hair. They glanced at me. ‘Yours isn’t too bad, though.’ I could sense their resolve hardening and hoped the few words I could offer helped.
A month later, Eliah had their first Harley Street appointment to discuss gender realignment. I met them and their new girlfriend on my lunch break. Before we’d even been introduced, Eliah launched into a breathless and excited digest of that morning’s appointment. They were ecstatic and frustrated and pranging out all at the same time.
That evening, Eliah stayed at my house. When they talked, they were measured and intelligent and I knew they had a lot to teach me. They talked about being told off for using the boys’ toilets at primary school. About stealing my Action Man underwear. About family.
‘After Berlin, I needed to talk to Dad,’ they said. ‘I came out to him with a Facebook message. I was really fucking nervous. I sent it, then went to the pub.
I had some drinks and then I read his reply and I was so relieved by what he wrote.’
‘I was just so happy that I was literally crying for about 10 minutes in the toilet.’
A shared history flashed through my mind and I realised that I’ve only ever known half of the story. It’s taken Eliah 25 years to share what they told me that night. If I were in their position, I’m not sure I’d ever find the courage to do so. But it’s
all stuff I should have known, or sensed, and might have if I’d been a more caring sibling. I’ve dedicated my new novel to Eliah. It was always going to be dedicated to them, only now the name’s different. But this is about far more than changing a name, or physical appearance. It’s about beginning a new life as the person they were always meant to be.
I’ve always felt like Eliah knows I love them, even if I don’t say it. I’ve always felt like Eliah is tough and could take care of themselves. They are and can, and I should say it, too. Especially now I know the question isn’t ‘Do they need me?’ but ‘How can I help?’
Eliah: ‘For the first time, we could talk honestly
Well, that’s it. It’s sent. And breathe…
It wasn’t the most explanatory of revelations; I’d purposely avoided detail, unsure of both my reaction to the reality of
my situation, as well as my brother’s. If I only put that I was going to my GP to ask about being referred to a gender clinic, it didn’t sound so bad, right? It didn’t sound like I was going to permanently change how I looked or anything…
I’d always viewed my relationship with my brother as a difficult one. It seemed to take us longer than other siblings to grow out of that ‘not getting on’ stage, and I was afraid he’d not accept me. No, I knew he would accept me, but I was afraid he’d take the piss.
Instead, I was met with a short poetic response (of course I was, he’s a writer). Naturally, I felt relief but, more strikingly, my perception of him had shifted. Those few words told me he wasn’t going to treat it as a joke; I was being treated as an equal for the first time and he was going to be supportive. This was important. I think I shed a tear.
To help Eliah’s journey go to **youcaring.com/eliahwardforsurgery-903592youcaring.com/eliahwardforsurgery-903592youcaring.com/eliahwardforsurgery-903592 **
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