I Dont Get To Love Where I Live

Life as a Transgender person in rural Cumbria

The rays of sunset fall on the fells below Scafell Pike, dousing the terrain in a golden hue. Bluetits and blackbirds revel in the last moments before dusk, their songs only interrupted by the scuffle of farm dogs rushing around the farmhouse.

This 300-year-old stone cottage, sat amidst acres of Cumbria’s idyllic landscape, is Reuben’s home. Set in acres of fells and forests, with no neighbours in sight, he refers to it as a corner of paradise.

“I live in nature, and nature is where I feel at home,” Reuben says, “but being able to love where I live isn’t something I get to do properly. Being a transgender man, I can’t do the things I love in the environment I’ve been blessed to live in.”

Standing at five-foot-nine and sporting an impressive beard, it is hard to picture the young girl that once stood in his shoes.

Attending school in such a rural community was the source of many issues. As the first openly transgender student at his school, there was a polarised response from staff; whilst some supported Reuben, others misunderstood, blaming his bad behaviour on his transition. “I remember being called into the office, and being talked at, rather than to, about how difficult my journey must be. To them, being transgender was the reason I was problematic, because they didn’t understand it,” he said.

Some staff actively ignored Reuben’s change in name and pronouns. “It didn’t matter what I did, or how hard I worked, they just didn’t like my existence.” Aside from uncomfortable interactions, Reuben faced real danger as a teen. “After school one day, I was threatened by a local man. He knew where I lived, and he threatened to come to my house to break my ribs – just because of my gender identity. It’s a violent reminder that my identity is reason to feel unsafe when I leave the house.”

With the population of the wider area totalling under 4,000 people, Reuben was the only openly transgender person he and his family knew. “It was very isolating. There was nobody I could relate to that would understand, because I was the only trans person I knew,” he said, recounting his early teen years.

This isolation, ironically, is where Reuben is not alone. A Scottish study published by Equality Network in 2020 found that 40% of LGBTQ participants living rurally felt isolated, and 39% had moved from rural to urban areas.

Despite his transition being recorded medically, Reuben recalls “warning” staff of his body for routine procedures, such as STI testing, to ensure receiving the correct care. Upon requiring X-rays at a local hospital, he was given the wrong protective shielding for his body and received radiation to his reproductive organs.

“There’s always the risk that I will be hurt in the hands of those who have sworn to heal,” he said.

The family received little social support, leading to tension from years of fighting for a gender clinic referral. Although Reuben’s declining mental health was a significant concern, support was scarce. “I wasn’t going to die if I didn’t transition straight away,” he said, “but if I didn’t get help, and get to a place where I could handle the transition, I would’ve died.”

After a referral to the Tavistock and Portman centre in Leeds, the family reported excellent progress and support with their needs, including an enhanced social worker and a psychologist. Abigail, Reuben’s mother, described their care as “phenomenal”, despite the six-hour round-trip the family had to take every six weeks.

“There isn’t enough support in this part of England, because not everybody can make that commitment to travel that distance,” she said, “but we’re never going to address it if we are not open about it.

“So, for me, talking openly about being the parent of a trans man is an important thing. I don’t get support and neither does he if we’re not open about it, and we’re never going to address people’s prejudices.

Abigail, however, is not the only local advocate for more understanding and acceptance. Zoe Fullagar, local to the Seascale area, speaks out not only as a healthcare professional, but a parent to a queer child. Having been presented with a Queen’s Nurse award in 2022, Zoe has used both her family’s and Reuben’s experiences to educate others around the country, including NHS staff like herself.

Her work in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion services for the NHS trust has rendered her a formidable presence and advocate for not only transgender people, but also for those with physical and mental disabilities.

Zoe’s work includes increasing accessibility at work for those with disabilities, leading the way for gender neutral toilets in Cumbria’s NHS bases, and supporting further education at Pride events in Carlisle and surrounding cities – including the first ever Whitehaven Pride.

“It provides important support for the NHS to be at Pride, but it is also flagging that within our health services, how do we support transgender people to have the health service that they need in a non-prejudicial way?” she said. “I think being trans is a bit like any other diagnosis. You medicate for your lifestyle equally. You have to fit into the world around you, because the world around you isn’t going to fit in with you.”

With Zoe’s support as a neighbour and local advocate, Reuben has found more hope in his country lifestyle.
“I don’t get to enjoy living in this beautiful, rural area yet, because I have to wait and be patient before I can enjoy it. I love to swim, but I am restricted by my own body.

But I know there’s going to be a day where I can take my shirt off and jump into the water without having to worry.”

Words by Kit Bell

Images created by young queer people from workshops at Whitehaven Pride, in the Loud & Queer tent. Special thanks to Lindsay at Tullie House for running this workshop.