During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, patients in the UK awaiting treatment for everything from hip-operations to cancer were left feeling forgotten and failed after the full focus of the NHS was shifted to tackling coronavirus. Among them were transgender people awaiting appointments for support and treatment for their gender dysphoria. However, experiencing massive waits for their medical transitions is sadly nothing new.
In the UK, despite being able to go through the NHS for treatments such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and gender reassignment surgery, trans people are faced with what have been described as “soul destroying” waiting times to get treatment. There are currently over 13,500 transgender and non-binary adults on waiting lists in the UK, with 731 in Sheffield alone. This has led to many people having to wait years even for a first appointment.
24-year-old Freyja James is one of those people. After two and a half years on a waiting list, she had her first appointment with a gender identity clinic in November 2019. Almost a full year later, she’s still waiting for her second appointment, where the clinic will consider providing HRT.
For her and many others, this simply isn’t good enough. Research by Stonewall conducted in 2018 found that almost half of trans people (47%) who want to undergo some form of medical intervention say that long waiting times prevent them from accessing treatment.
Back in May, Freyja decided that enough was enough, and began the perhaps even more daunting task of funding her transition privately.
“I started the GoFundMe in a moment of tired desperation, with the lengthy NHS waiting times only being delayed more and more by the pandemic, no knowledge of when things might be up and running again. It was founded on a whim, and a large part of me believed would lead to nothing.” she explained.
Within a few weeks, Freyja’s fundraiser page had raised a respectable £1400 of her £21,000 goal. However, with the milestone still far off on the horizon, it was at this point that a group of her closest friends (who she deems her “Avengers”) decided to take matters into their own hands.
Jim Smith, the Head of Content for Fund Freyja, explained to me how their grand scheme came to be. “I and a couple of my friends are into miniature painting and terrain building for tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer, and I came across this 24-hour paint and build challenge where over lockdown, you Skyped your mates, and painted or built for 24-hours just to see what you could do.
“Our friend Meredith overheard this conversation as I was pitching this idea to my two friends, and she was like ‘why don’t you live stream it and do it as a fundraiser for Freyja’s GoFundMe?’ and we were immediately beset by the idea.”
At first however, Freyja felt hesitant. “Initially I was very apprehensive. It meant putting my story and wishes out into the world to be seen by as many people as we could get.” she explained.
“It was scary to take something I saw as small and important only to me and make it a communal venture. If it hadn’t been so evident that my friends wanted to do it not only for me, but for themselves, I might have said no and shut down the whole concept.”
But, with the plan given the go-ahead, in just 11 days and riding on nothing but a dream, the team constructed a makeshift streaming studio, gathered a social media presence, and prepared themselves both mentally and physically for the whopping 36 hour stream – because why stop at 24 hours, right?
Live-streaming for charity and fundraisers is a fairly recent concept, but by no means a new one. In fact, in January last year, popular gaming YouTuber Harry Brewis (more popularly known as Hbomberguy) made the headlines after raising over £265,000 for UK transgender charity organisation Mermaids, by streaming Donkey Kong 64 for 57 hours.
The Donkey Kong 64 stream marked a shift in the times for the gaming community; often reputed for its toxicity towards women and minorities (by a very vocal minority), Brewis’ stream instead brought out the community’s best, with over 650,000 viewers tuning in, donating, and standing in solidarity with trans people all over the world.
Jim also remarked on the sheer sense of camaraderie between the Fund Freyja team and the stream’s viewers. “There was this incredible sense of community in the Twitch chat over the course of it; people were so astronomically kind and generous and pleasant.”
The nature of the fundraiser being online also meant that people from all over the world could contribute and interact with the stream.
“There was this great feeling of international solidarity. [People would] pick it up in the U.S. when they got home from work, watch it all night, and go to work the next morning, typing ‘I’m on the bus to work on my phone watching this’.” he explained.
“It was such a fantastically unifying and solidarity-giving experience talking to these people abroad who have the exact same issues. They were willing to chip in to someone else’s fight even though they have literally no vested interest in trans issues in the UK; it mattered to somebody and that mattered to them.”
As the 36 hours finally drew to a close, the team collapsed into (unsurprisingly) comatose-like sleeps, not only with their fingers aching from handling paintbrushes and miniatures for so long, but most importantly, with an extra £4500 raised for Freyja’s transition.
Responding to the amount of money raised, Freyja expressed her disbelief. “The size of the response blows my mind. Every time I thought the donations were done, a new one would pop in, the largest being £500. It was like I had walked into a strange dream where impossible things were possible.”
No one expected the fundraiser to reach the total it did, but the team weren’t just uplifted by the money raised – they were also staggered by the positivity of so many people coming together for their cause.
Transgender people in the UK are facing ever-increasing difficulties on their already challenging paths just to live as themselves without facing fear or prejudice. Scrapped government legislation and a lack of funding for gender identity services have made many feel that transitioning is an uphill battle. However, to Freyja, the outcome of the stream acted as a beacon of hope.
“What I took from that first stream was inspiration.” Freyja said. “It brought together people from all spheres of my life and others’ lives, and even strangers who I’ll never meet, in a way I had never experienced.”
Jim, too, was moved by the positivity shown by the stream’s viewers, but also believes that the stream sent a good message to those watching and participating, about how everyone can do their bit to help out.
“I think a big part of the success of it was that we’re living in a time that’s a little bit oppressive in feeling and tone, especially towards minority groups. There’s a general feeling of helplessness about ‘the state of things’.” he explained.
“But I think it stood in testament to the idea that people can make a difference; even if not to everything, certainly to a group of people. All it takes is a few idiots with an idea and some borrowed tech, and you can make a difference to people.”
However, the Fund Freyja team’s quest isn’t over yet; with more money to raise, they don’t plan on stopping until the goal of £21,000 is met.
“As we signed off and closed (the first stream), all so low on sleep and exhausted, the conversation was immediately not ‘are we doing another one?’, but ‘what are we doing and when are we doing the next one?’” Jim said.
And so, five months on from the first, the team is taking on their second marathon stream on 17 October, where they will be streaming all seven of the FPS Halo games from start to finish. They are hoping to capitalise on the nostalgia factor of the Halo games, and having had just a little more than 11 days to plan it this time, the team are optimistic that it’ll go well.
Freyja herself is excited to be part of the action for the upcoming stream, and expressed her gratitude for all the support she’s received so far. “It’s a feeling I will never forget and something I hope to see more of in the future. I’m eternally grateful to all involved and hopeful for what’s to come”.
You can tune into the stream here when it begins at 10:30am (GMT) on 17 October, and follow the Fund Freyja Facebook page and Twitter for updates. You can also donate directly to Freyja’s GoFundMe page here.
If you are LGBT+ and have experienced any of the problems discussed in this article, you can call Switchboard (an LGBT+ helpline) on 0300 330 0630 between 10:00-22:00 every day, or visit their website at: https://switchboard.lgbt/. Alternatively, you can visit the Trevor Project website and use their live chat service here: https://www.thetrevorproject.org.