Last year life changed dramatically for Jamie and Chloe O’ Herlihy when together as sisters they decided to come out to the world as transgender. The initial reveal through a video on Facebook was a way of telling their friends and family that they identified as female
Their story became national news both here in Ireland and across the pond in the UK.
Tabloids and Broadsheets competed for interviews, while TV producers began to call and request interviews on live television. Chloe and Jamie spoke about their journey on TV shows such as This Morning with Holly Willoughby and Philip Schofield. Closer to Home, they chatted to Ryan Tubridy on RTE Radio. For a while, they were the focus of a lot of media attention.So what is it about the O’ Herlihy Sisters that makes them such fascinating figures?
Ýou see Jamie (24), and Chloe (21) are transgender sisters from the western suburbs of Cork City who were born as brothers. After years of struggling with their identities, and being bullied by classmates the siblings finally confided in each other back in Summer of 2015 and found they were both facing the same issues with their gender.
Jamie was an outspoken teenager and rebelled for many years before she came out as gay at the age of 14. Chloe was the quieter of the two, choosing to surround herself with a close-knit group of female friends who defended her and looked out for her if anyone spoke badly to her. Both girls felt they were born in the wrong body, enjoying dressing up and using makeup from a young age.
Jamie spent time performing as a drag act, while Chloe enjoyed growing her hair out and being with her friends. Both of them naturally gravitated towards female clothes and shoes. They always felt as if they were living in someone else’s skin. But having each other for support gave them the courage to come out to their family and friends and finally live the life they both always wanted.
Today Chloe and Jamie look like the people they have always wanted to be. Tall and Leggy, Chloe has fiery long red hair and sparkling eyes. Older Jamie has opted for blonde hair and a classic look. Both are keen to move on from their old lives, with Chloe opting not to discuss her “dead name” ( her name pre-transition), focusing on looking forward and being positive instead of dwelling on the past.
‘We didn’t really want to have to come out over and over again to everyone we knew so we decided to come out to friends and family on Facebook. We had already had the conversation with our mother about being transgender, she is our best friend, and we all have a great relationship. Her reaction was one of support, but she was also a little worried for us. Worried about how society would treat us and she knew the tough journey we had ahead of us. Once our story was picked up, we said it would be a good opportunity to educate people on what being trans was’ Chloe says.
Her sister Jamie also feels it is important to inform people of all backgrounds about identifying as a different gender. ‘We come from a family with a single mother who didn’t have a lot of money, a lot of transgender activists who are in the media have come from privileged backgrounds, and that’s just not us. We are very open and honest about our journey in this life, and I think it’s helping people who come from similar situations’
Once the story was out there on Facebook, a number of shares and likes ensured the news went national; it wasn’t long before people gave their opinion according to Jamie. ‘The response has been mostly positive, there have been a few negative comments made online, but that’s to be expected. What hurt us most is people commenting on our mum saying she is a bad mother and she is to blame.It was bigoted people on the internet, and now we don’t read the negative comments anymore. They are all water off a duck’s back’.
Chloe feels it’s a lack of understanding that prompts this type of response ‘I think some people don’t understand fully what transgender is but don’t ask questions in çase they offend us which isn’t the case.’
Transgender is a topic that has come to the forefront both in Ireland and around the rest of the world in recent years. The most famous name that people associate with trans undoubtedly is Caitlyn Jenner. She has become the face of the trans community, sharing her story with the world and in front of television cameras. While there is some debate about the publicity, her transition generated it did, in fact, open up the eyes of the world and finally make people discuss the topic of transgender. It also gave those struggling with their gender some form of hope.
As time goes on and people like Jamie and Chloe are open and honest with their story, the conversation can continue, and people can face who they are, and not be afraid of being judged. Something that Chloe feels still happens a lot ‘I tend to attract stares when I am out because I am 6 Foot 2′, I also get some rude comments.’’ Chloe shares ‘’Í knew the only way I could someday walk down a street and not receive negative comments would be if society changed and trans became ‘’the norm”.
By telling their story in the way they did, Jamie shares that the support they received was amazing ‘’We have received thousands of messages across our social media platforms from people showing their support and also from people within the trans community. A lot of positivity and kindness has filled our lives, and it’s been beautiful. We see that we are educating people and helping them and that’s what we wanted to do.“
It hasn’t all been plain sailing though with Chloe, saying she is just trying to live her life as normal while Jamie highlights the ongoing process of the transition. ‘In regards to the transition itself it’s still a very slow process, and it’s expensive, so we just take every day as it comes’’. Jamie’s point is important; there is not a lot of discussion around the stages of the transition and also importantly the cost of it. A lot of people assume once someone comes out as trans that is it, but this is just one step in what is a slow and ongoing process.
According to the HSE, the approximate cost of an assessment and the associated surgery is €30,200. This is outside of any hormone treatment that goes along with it. For Chloe, who is a trainee hairdresser and Jamie, an aspiring actor, the money for these surgeries is something that will require saving and forgoing luxuries. It’s a far cry from our UK counterparts where the surgery is available on the NHS. We have made some positive steps with the government funding procedures for 28 individuals in 2016 alone. However there are no concrete plans to provide a streamlined service yet
Another issue that the girls faced once they came out was that they became a focal point within the trans community, and it was not all positive. ‘’I think other transgender people had issues with the story when it first broke’’ Chloe says, ‘ít was very sensationalised. But they didn’t realise we felt the same; we never wanted our story to turn into this big outrageous headline’’.
Jamie agrees with her sister. ‘Í think people have seen that we are courageous putting our story out there for people to judge and tear apart. I hope they would admire that. It’s not always easy as people judge you and your family and say horrible things. Some people here in the Ireland think what we are doing is damaging the community, but we are just being true to ourselves and living our lives. They say we have to remember that we are representing all trans people which can be quite intimidating when we just want to share our story’’.
While the responsibility of representing all of those people is daunting, it’s refreshing to hear both sisters reinforce the fact that like all of us they are just trying to be their true selves and live the life they want. There are people all over Ireland and the world who struggle with their gender and are fighting an internal battle that we know nothing about. So what advice would Chloe and Jamie give those who are struggling?
‘Ýou gets one chance at life,” Jamie says ‘Óur ultimate goal in life is happiness and if your not happy with yourself true happiness will be hard to find. Coming out can be daunting, but I think the most daunting thing is the thought, the idea of coming out. It can seem so scary and then when you finally do accept yourself you look back and think that wasn’t so bad’ Chloe agrees, ‘’ Just keep your head up high. It will all get easier with time and patience.”
For anyone out there struggling, the good news is that as we become more educated, we can provide better information for people.’’Just remember you are not alone, there are so many amazing resources out there and so many people just like you so do your best to be yourself with the people who love and accept you’’. Jamie finishes. She’s right. We as a nation have come so far when it comes to acceptance let’s not stop now.
Speaking to the sisters, it hits home how hard it is to be different in the Ireland of today. Jamie, in particular, spent a lot of years being bullied, because she was different. Chloe was clever to surround herself with a tight group of people. Both of them spent years enduring mental torment because they were born as something they didn’t truly feel they were.
Ireland is getting there when it comes to being more open to transgender; we are coming out from under the black and white outlook of what is normal and what is not. Jamie and Chloe are on the next stage of their journey now, but for those just beginning, there is always hope and a way to be who you are. Don’t be afraid.
For resources and information on transgender issues go to www.teni.ie