As a trans woman, receiving an OBE from the late Queen was an honour and a privilege. When I reflect on my journey this Trans Awareness Week, however, it is not the thing of which I’m proudest. Trans Awareness Week, for me, is an opportunity to reflect on my journey as a trans woman, and the opportunities I have had, that are still denied to many trans people globally.
For many trans people the start of my story will not feel unique. I knew from an early age I was different, but as the eldest of four in a working-class family (my father was a builder), I locked those thoughts away, pushing them deep down inside.
Throwing myself into my work was a release, a way to forget about these thoughts and feelings eating away at me, and it worked for a while. By the time I was in my mid-forties I was married, had children, was well-respected and successful in my field.
But I couldn’t help feeling I was different.
When I finally slowed down, allowed myself to think, I realised there was another person inside of me, one who I identified with more and more. And so, Antonia was born.
Like many in my generation, I hid my identity. I led a double life, the professional Tony with a Y on weekdays, and Antonia in the evenings. I was burning the candle at both ends, but finally, after over forty years, I felt something close to being free.
It was that freedom that gave me the courage to admit who I truly was, not just to myself, but to those I cared deeply for.
Coming out as trans to my wife was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. I truly believe we’re soul mates, and to tell her was to risk losing her. But I knew we couldn’t be truly happy if I was hiding who I really was. It took time, and a lot of understanding. Andrea is an incredible woman – it’s one of the many reasons I married her – and together we rebuilt our marriage as two women, together. My three children were incredible, my friends celebrated my happiness and my business partners accepted who I was.
After years of struggling with my identity, especially with no role models to look up to, I was experiencing a strange feeling; happiness. I was finally who I was meant to be, I had a loving wife, three amazing children, and my identity didn’t harm my career.
Yet, something still felt off.
Supporting others to be their true selves
I had worked hard to finally be who I am now, and whilst I would never say it was easy, I began to realise that I was more fortunate than many trans people. I live in a country where it’s not easy to be trans, but it is legal. Where, whilst we have a long way to go still as a society, coming out as trans is something that is increasingly understood by communities, and there are legal protections against discrimination. As difficult as it was to come out for me personally, I do feel lucky to have come out in the UK.
But many are not so lucky. I began to think about how I could move beyond my own personal journey as a trans woman, and help work towards a future where every trans person has the same opportunities as I have had.
But how? Trying to support trans rights in many countries is complicated. Being trans is explicitly or implicitly illegal in over a quarter of countries worldwide – how could I find groups challenging this when even belonging to my community meant they would face arrest and abuse?
That’s when I was introduced through a good friend to GiveOut.
GiveOut exists to raise vital funding for activist organisations worldwide, including in some of the most difficult places to be LGBTQI. I knew that globally there was a paucity of funding for LGBTQI organisations, with just a fraction of donations going to these causes; and yet even within the wider LGBTQI movement, trans organisations receive even less. Most trans organisations around the world survive on less than £7,500 a year.
How could we expect these courageous organisations to fight for trans equality, challenge laws, provide support, safe spaces and raise awareness of the challenges faced by our community, when they are operating on almost nothing?
So I decided to do something about it, and take on a new identity. I am Antonia Belcher, a trans philanthropist.
With GiveOut, my wife and I set up the Antonia & Andrea Belcher Trans Fund in 2018. We have raised and donated over £100,000 to support grants to seven trans organisations working across the globe, fighting for trans rights in Guyana, the Caribbean, Jamaica, the Czech Republic, Western Balkans and Turkey, India and Tonga.
With our support, they are challenging laws which harm trans people, such as the law in the Czech Republic that means trans people like me have to be medically sterilised before changing their legal gender. They provide community hubs and safe spaces, information on topics like access to healthcare. They raise awareness of trans issues and build understanding in their communities, to end the social stigma of being trans, the economic exclusion, and provide legal support to those facing harassment.
They are changing the world, one trans life at a time, and it is my greatest honour and privilege to play a small part in enabling their incredible work.
I’ve met with trans activists working around the world and heard about the challenges they face. I believe fervently that we need to support these activists with reliable funding so they can advocate for their communities in the places where it’s hardest to be trans.
I’ve been fortunate to meet courageous people like Jayna, who fight legal injustices facing trans people in India. I was able to fund and join the first trans rights convening in Western Balkans and Turkey, a first step towards co-ordinating activists across the region. And I’ve been privileged to hear stories from those like Yulia, a Ukrainian refugee whose gender identity made it harder to escape the Russian invasion, and who, through the support of activists we fund, now lives in the Czech Republic.
A call to action
When I set out to start the fund, I said “If I can help one soul to be free and true with this Fund, I will be the happiest transgender woman alive.” I can say with the greatest pleasure that this dream has started to come true; hundreds of trans people are able to access the services, support and will benefit from the societal and legal changes these organisations will bring.
But we must do more.
Trans people around the world face ongoing threats of violence, harassment and abuse, and there are many trans people out there who can’t access the support they need.
I’m calling on everyone in the LGBTQI community and our allies, including in business, to do what they can to support the global movement for equality, and protect some of the most vulnerable.
If you do only one thing this Trans Awareness Week, join me in supporting trans communities around the world, and help more souls be free and true.
Antonia Belcher OBE is trans businesswoman, role model and mentor. To find out more about the Antonia & Andrea Belcher Trans Fund with GiveOut, visit giveout.org/trans-fund.