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Photo – Emily Outside The Queen’s College Oxford

Photo – Emily Outside The Queen’s College Oxford

In a speech given last night to The Queen’s college, Oxford, Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Sutton and Cheam, Emily Brothers addressed ‘the identity challenge’. Drawing on her personal experience of disability, as a woman with a transsexual history and gay woman, Ms Brothers spoke about common threads of multiple identities, but also how each dimension can be distinct.
The Queen’s College dates back to 1341 and has longstanding links with Northern counties. The library has one of the largest collections in the world. Past students have included Tim Berners-Lee, Rowan Atkinson and Tony Abbott. Following her speech, Emily Brothers said:
“I’m encouraged by the interest being shown by so many young people in LGBT issues - most of them straight, yet so very supportive.
“I hope my words of encouragement to fellow Liverpudlian, Sarah Davies and her fellow students, will help in some way to take forward the challenges and opportunities for younger generations.”

Photo – Emily with Sarah Davis (Student Organiser) at The Queen’s College Oxford
Photo – Emily with Sarah Davis (Student Organiser) at The Queen’s College Oxford

Please note that the following extracts are taken from a more extensive speech given to The Queen’s College, Oxford, on Monday 23 February 2015.
“Self-identity is complex – it as a shifting sense of belonging. Different aspects of identity are dominant or passive, depending on the circumstances at the time. This creates a notion of unravelling and interwoven strands, coupled with a sense of fluidity, interaction and multiplicity, ultimately shaping people’s identity.
“Disability and relationships often centre on nnegative messages. We are often perceived as unsuitable romantic partners, regardless of sexuality. It is for many people the deepest sense of oppression we experience - often the source of our deepest pain. It's easier for us to focus on changing discrimination in education employment and housing than to talk about our exclusion from sexual relations and parenting.
“Compared to the general population, disabled people wait longer in life to begin dating, have their first sexual experience and fewer marry.
Segregated education limits interaction between disabled and non-disabled young people, so can reinforce stereotypes about disabled people being asexual. However, it isn’t clear to me that greater levels of mainstream education have improved matters.
“Those growing up with disability and developing sexual identity often lack family role models, as no other relative may have experienced either facet. Even public support for the sexuality of their daughter or positive portrayal of independence for a disabled son may not translate privately into acceptance. The sense of isolation is greater when family support is absent.
“I went to a catholic boarding school for blind children in Liverpool. It was a much closed environment, impossible to explore issues of difference. I recall a period of deep depression as a teenager, breaking down at times – saying I wasn’t normal, but didn’t have the words to explain, just the fear that stopped me. Family life wasn’t a sanctuary because of my parent’s traditional values, limited education and lack of exposure to wider social issues.
“I was in a lonely place. Visual impairment meant that information available to me was very limited. Braille or audio information was limited to classical literature and education textbooks. I couldn’t take a print magazine from a shop or library and read it independently. The internet was decades away. That’s why I lacked the knowledge to understand why I felt female, but I was trapped in the wrong body – there was no escape. It was even more confusing, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t attracted to males. It was much later that I worked through the differences between gender and sexual orientation. It all seemed so crazy and impossible. That’s why I didn’t make the intellectual leap that I was a girl and gay. Hence, we try to normalised, to do what is expected. I went on to marry, have two great children and a successful career. “I never felt at ease with myself and that sense of incongruence grew over time.
“Opportunities to interact socially with others, let alone chances to be sexually intimate, are only too scarce for many disabled people. It is challenging enough for society to accept that disabled people have sex, but quite mystifying for it to contemplate that they might engage in same-sex relationships.
“Even hetrosexually professional attitudes can be negative. I recall going to Family Planning with my ex-wife in our mid 20’s to be lectured by a GP who told us contraception wasn’t necessary as surely we wouldn’t be contemplating intercourse. There was no capacity to consent issues, just a blatant pushback that two blind people would do the deed. Only after insisting on contraception was it prescribed. We went on eventually to have two children. Even now some people seem to find that bewildering.
“As much of the academic literature sets out, power is an important dynamic in relationships – not just the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ type. Talking to many disabled people over the years, I’ve observed that there is often a better balance between partners when both of them have a disability. When one partner has a disability and the other not, that can lead to the kind of control that the disabled person is unable to escape. This seems to be equally true in hetrosexual and gay relationships. That’s not to say it is always the case, but it is a dimension that has concerned me from time to time. Changes in circumstances can therefore supress somebody’s sense of self.
“The onset of disability in later life or the evolving nature of a progressive disability can place strains on the best of relationships. You may start off in a relationship as non disabled people, but then illness or impairment changes things irrevocably. Just because you qualify for a Blue Badge overnight due to a car crash doesn’t mean you have suddenly become well versed in the ‘social model’. You probably still have all those misconceptions of disability, coupled with the anger and upset many experience when needing to live differently. Some, often men, refuse to accept the limiting aspects of impairment and set out to over compensate – what is sometimes described as ‘the super Crip’ approach. Not only does your identity change, but your partner will be in emotional turmoil and their response will be so very important. That’s why some relationships break up.
“At the special school for blind children in Liverpool which I attended as a weekly border, independent was the mantra. As we were segregated, it was a bit like a prison: ‘when you get out of here you need to stand on your own feet’. I think it tends to be a trait for most people who go to boarding school, but perhaps with some particular emphasis for disabled young people.
My generation and those beforehand left special school to go on to segregated further education or rehabilitation, to get trained in typing or some form of craft. I was the rebellious kind, applying to mainstream college in defiance to the system. If I couldn’t be female, I damn well wasn’t going to be put in the blind corner. It was that strong sense of independence that helped me through mainstream college and university at a time when support services were not available.
“I wanted to study geography at A Level and take a degree. Yet RNIB refused to supply Braille material such as maps, as they opposed my move into mainstream and consequential rejection of a place at their specialist college. I went on to study history and politics, as I wasn’t prepared to be bullied. A decade later I joined RNIB as their senior manager responsible for post 16 education and employment services, taking the opportunity to radically reform their approach to mainstream provision.
“This experience brought me into contact with campaign groups for blind and other disabled people. I became politicised because of those education struggles, resulting in me identifying more strongly as a proud and determined disabled person.
“The downside to having self responsibility instilled into me was that I’ve never been very good at accepting any kind of help. Non disabled people often find this unfriendly, but I’m beginning the get a better balance these days. I think that’s because I need help from time to time as my hearing loss has become more significant, but my daily interactions as a woman are quite different from my previous experience. I suspect part of my earlier normalisation to conform as male was the defence mechanism of independence. It was like a shield that meant I didn’t accept any kind of vulnerability. That doesn’t mean I’ve transitioned from a headstrong male to a quietly submissive female, far from it – that’s why my friends call me ‘miss independence’ when they are irritable about me declining their help with something, usually quite trivial. What I’m describing is a change in my sense of self, how others interact with me differently and that varies depending on their gender or whether they have a disability or not.
“Passing is encouraged when society does not easily accept difference, and it consists of being able to succeed in being perceived as part of the dominant group and therefore not noticed most of the time. For disabled people this typically consists of passing as a non-disabled person and for transgender people it means passing for normatively-gendered. In order to be considered a "successful" transsexual, you must appear to not be transsexual at all. As somebody who passes successfully, that made my decision to ‘come out’ really tough, as people didn’t know and I risked damaging the dynamics of woman to woman interaction.
“People will often not talk about their disability or transsexual history because there is a perception that their bodies are less valued and are considered a deficit of the person.
In response to oppressive personal attitudes and institutional behaviour, many disabled men and women seek a “normalisation” of sexual expression, working towards gaining the same experience as others. This usually takes the form of competing as an unequal for society’s acceptance. This happens by participating on the terms of mainstream society and adapting to sporting, drinking and sexual values and assumptions held by society.
“Increasingly though, disabled people are rejecting this notion of normalisation. Only the most resilient will succeed (albeit superfluously) in an environment built on stereotypes and exclusivity. Taking the “normalisation” approach is more about conformity than rebellion. Disabled people should therefore resist competing, but instead challenge the mythology about their “sexless” life.
“Multiple oppression refers to the fact that the effects of being attributed several stigmatised identities are often multiplied (exacerbated) and they can be experienced simultaneously and singularly depending on the context.” (Vernon 1999)
Calculating multiple disadvantages is not a straight-forward task. Variations in the risk of, say, non-employment are explained by adding the effects of disadvantages together. These are not exponential, as the risk of non-employment does not necessarily rise as the number of disadvantages increase. The level of disadvantage will depend on the complex mix of strands.
“Individuals need to harmonise their various strands of self-identity, to make sense of who they are, how they relate to others and where they fit into social structures.
The tensions of identity are illustrated by LGBT being considered by some people as a psychological impairment, whilst disabled people are seen as asexual. The contradiction here, therefore, is that disabled people cannot be gay or lesbian, but those who consider themselves as gay or lesbian have a disability.
“There are diverging views about disability and sexuality between LGB disabled people. Some would like a cure for their physical or sensory condition, but do not accept that sexual orientation can or should be cured. Others take a more politicised approach to disability, but are not confident about their gender or sexual identity.
“On the other hand, there are similarities between disability and LGB identity. People go through a process of “coming out” with their sexual orientation, whilst also “coming to terms” with their disability. This process of self-identification is closely interrelated, but may not occur simultaneously. Experience will be different for those with congenital and acquired impairments. Those with acquired impairments may have the advantage of experiencing mainstream socialisation, whereas on the other hand they may be so traumatised by the onset of disability that they internalise their own pre-existing negative attitudes about it. Moreover, those with a hidden impairment (epilepsy or mental illness) may choose not to identify themselves as a disabled person, nor “come out” as gay or lesbian. This is because of the stigma attached to both disability and being gay.
“People experience a multiplicity of identities. They identify with one more than others, depending on the particular occasion. It is a labyrinth of experience, tied up with similar features, contradictions and tensions. In responding to this rich diversity of individuality, institutions like the Equality and Human Rights Commission, need to understand the social constructs that can underpin acts of discrimination and prejudice.
“In meeting the challenge of harmonising multiple identities – in my case disability, gender and sexual orientation – it takes practical application in dealing with institutions and their myriad of perplexing processes. In doing that, I’ve had to understand myself, to continue learning about the different dimension to my life and be happy.
“My journey has required much resilience, what some might describe as ‘bloody mindedness’. That comes from growing up in a working class family, educated at a catholic boarding school that segregated blind children from the world outside, disempowered by so much information being inaccessible to me owing to failing sight – yet feeling female and alone; not understanding why.
“I tried to normalise, to conform through marriage and having children, building a successful career. Those experiences were rewarding, but nothing fitted together, I was unhappy – it was impossible to escape that feeling of being female.
Depression deepened, yet I began to understand more as I gained access to the internet and realised I wasn’t the only person who felt out of step with life. I couldn’t continue; I had to cross the Rubicon.”

Photo – Emily at The Queen’s College Oxford at Night
Photo – Emily at The Queen’s College Oxford at Night

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