Eleanor got in touch with me after reading the article in my last Newsletter about unconscious bias. Her story is so inspirational that I decided I would like to interview her and share her story with you. I am grateful to Eleanor for allowing me to do that.
Eleanor Levy is well aware of the negative impact that social exclusion and inequality can have. She’s lived it. She was the first person working in HM Prison to undergo gender reassignment in the same job role. Her journey has been exciting, unpredictable and at times disturbing, for example when matters were taken out of her hands and her story was leaked to the press.
Disclosing her transgender status to her family, work and wider community was not easy, but she received love and support precisely where she least expected it: “My father was a fiercely homophobic, racist bigot.” She told me. “But he had the most positive response, telling me he loved me, no matter what. It was the most amazing moment of my life.” Not all her family were as accommodating. Her children broke off contact; her ex-wife was particularly abusive after she visited in her new gender role. Nonetheless, she used her experiences to develop diversity training scenarios.
Disability created additional challenges for her. Suffering with a progressive hearing loss has presented obstacles. Her mental health and addiction issues were perhaps amplified by the negative social attitudes towards her fluid gender and orientation identity. Surmounting these has confirmed Eleanor’s wholehearted belief in the power of positive change, even in the most difficult situations. Her work with the prison service invoked her principles: “Ultimately, you can be part of the problem, or part of the solution.” She explained to me. “In the prison service, I saw the best in people, their potential even while they were at their worst. People have the solution within them.” Offending is often linked to exclusion, trauma or abuse but change can happen when the right support is available. In her case, gender transition helped enormously with her mental health issues, as she no longer felt suppressed, and the support she receives as part of addiction recovery groups has given her more stability.
Against a background of deprivation, anger issues, oppression and abuse, Eleanor continues to use courage, humour and empathy to see her through. Like many people who have been through seismic life upheaval, she uses her own story to help others, particularly when they are feeling let down by their communities. She graduated as a counsellor, working for a drug treatment initiative within the prison service, rose to senior level in homeless services and volunteers at a strategic level in the NHS, developing patient and public involvement and governance processes. Her confidence stems from a combination of professional training and lived experience. She knows, she’s been there, and she finds other people’s voyage of self-discovery fascinating and exciting.
Eleanor has lived happily with her partner for the past 14 years. Her hearing disability has grown worse and mental health services have not provided the support they are commissioned to provide. These are substantial obstacles to employment, not helped by poor recruitment practices that continue to work against rather than with disabilities. The benefits system has been particularly unhelpful. Nevertheless, she continues to be a passionate advocate for inclusion. She works to support and empower others to be their best selves. She is not one to shout advice from the touchline but rather gets involved, for example in supporting development of the Surrey Mental Health network where she was its first chair.
She admits it is not easy to find your way when times seem dark, and engaging with support can seem daunting. Sooner or later, adversities filter into experience increasing empathy and ability to help others. Most people in public involvement have had some trying times. Making use of negative experiences to improve services and provide support enhances purpose and meaning, getting a word of encouragement and affirmation, finding a supportive voice and challenging poor practice can make a big difference. Sometimes it is good just to ask yourself “What do I really want to do?” and then set out to find what is needed to do it.
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