Synestra de Courcy: What we can learn from the tragic death of a young trans woman

Jake Hall
Friday 15 June 2018 14:00
news
Photo courtesy of Amanda de Courcy

Three years ago, a young woman named Synestra de Courcy made nationwide headlines.

At the age of just 23 years old, the promising young student was found dead at a house party, her heartbeat permanently culled by a fatal mix of drugs on which she had accidentally overdosed. She had been studying cosmetic science at London’s University of the Arts, an unsurprising choice given her existing reputation as a YouTube makeup guru.

In many ways, Synestra’s life didn’t differ too much from the lives of other young students; she went out, partied heavily and generally threw herself into London’s heady nightlife scene.

She had come out as transgender years before her death, pursuing sex work in order to fund her transition. But this might not have been necessary had it not been for obstacles placed in her way by the healthcare system – obstacles which shouldn’t have been there.

It was around this time that journalist Jane Fae, who lives in Synestra’s hometown of Letchworth, came across her story in the local newspaper.

“I lived about a quarter of a mile from where she went to school, we might have even crossed on the street,” she says to indy100.

My daughter is just a year younger, so obviously the thought that Synestra’s mum had her child taken from her sent shivers down my spine.

So Fae reached out, initially just to chat with Amanda, but the idea for a book – not just about Synestra, but also about her struggle for acceptance and fair access to healthcare – blossomed. Earlier this year, the results were published: Transition Denied. In an impassioned foreword, Amanda took on the job of paying tribute to her beloved daughter, whereas Fae then took the reins and did some serious digging into the NHS.

The problems she uncovered resonated with her own life experiences as a trans woman:

I’ve had my own experiences with the gender identity service, but through talking to trans people I’ve heard some really appalling stories.

My understanding is that GPs don’t have the right to ethically object to anything but abortion.

Nonetheless, I heard of certain GPs – and I’m not sure if this is tied to religion or just conservatism – finding reasons for not referring or treating transgender patients.

"It’s never clear whether their reasons are genuine, or whether the actual motivation is something much smellier, but you have a bizarre situation where some GPs will refer you straight away, but others will put all sorts of obstacles in your way."

This was the case with Synestra. In fact, a letter referring her to a gender clinic came through a week after she died; to even get to that point she had been bounced back and forth between futile appointments and sidled with countless setbacks.

In cases like these, there’s little that can be done. “I very quickly learned how you’re supposed to make complaints about medical treatment, but it almost never has any positive effect,” states Fae.

Britain is a country that runs on a complaints engine, and every organisation has a system in place to distract from the complaints and deflect them. They aren’t ever actually dealt with.

There are also numerous factors to consider with trans healthcare, the first of which is that plenty of patients are required to become experts on their own hormone prescriptions – although, of course, Synestra never got that far. Still, Fae says that this can cause problems, and that GPs can feel talked down to.

"I can tell you my optimum range of oestrogen off the top of my head, and I don’t think your average GP would know that," she explains. This claim corroborates information listed in the FAQ of private clinic Gendercare, which states that it’s not unusual for GPs to consult them for hormone prescriptions as opposed to issuing treatment themselves.

“The thing about Synestra is that her life is something you could fairly easily turn into a ‘rock chick’ movie – she was moving away from addiction towards the end of her life, but she wasn’t a saint,” says Fae.

She was very mistaken in thinking that she could control her addiction; in that sense she was pedantic, but also clever and sometimes arrogant. I get why that would piss off GPs.

“I can imagine her going in and being maybe a bit haughty, and then that resulting in a lecture. It would have just ended in confrontation, which would have achieved nothing. So you end up sat at home convincing yourself that something will come, but ultimately the GP wasted her time, because it didn’t. Realistically, she could have been transitioning two or three years earlier."

Photo courtesy of Amanda de Courcy

Fae highlights that the role of a GP shouldn't be one of interference; instead, she describes their role as that of an “old-fashioned policeman waving people through a crossing; they should be there to pass people on, not act as a gatekeeper. But in this case, that’s what happened.”

Several studies have recently shown that affirmation can have incredibly positive effects on the mental health and general wellbeing of trans people. Something as simple as using chosen names and correct pronouns – which various publications failed to consistently do in their reporting of Synestra’s death – and acknowledging the needs of trans people can help to alleviate negative feelings.

I think Synestra had serious issues around self-esteem which ended up not being sorted, and I do think that getting her into the gender clinic earlier might have done something for her.

I say that because what people don’t understand is that putting trans people through that process can make them feel so different. I work with [LGBT+ charity] Mermaids, and I see parents of trans teenagers saying that they have children on the brink of suicide, who are regularly exhibiting antisocial behaviour.

Once they start getting help, they have a saint.

“I’m not saying that’s what would have happened with Synestra, but what I have seen is that the mere act of getting somebody into that transition period can turn their lives around.”

Unfortunately, these conversations are all too often overshadowed by the mainstream media’s obsession with debating trans identities. A person’s right to exist freely without discrimination is not a debate.

Last month, Channel 4’s Genderquake season rehashed these arguments on a nationwide level, screening a televised debate which featured audience members repeatedly screaming slurs at panellists Munroe Bergdorf and Caitlyn Jenner. Green Party MP Olivia Palmer was later suspended, after being named as one of the aforementioned hecklers.

The contents of the conversations themselves were more often based on fear and speculation than fact or logic, proving once and for all that the insidious rhetoric surrounding proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act is nothing more than thinly-veiled transphobia.

“First and foremost, it’s annoying,” states Fae.

We see headlines made out of the fact that a minuscule amount of women – 300, but we think it’s closer to 100 – walked out of the Labour party. That’s 0.01% of Labour’s women.

What I’d like to talk about are the issues in the book. Why won’t GPs treat trans people?

“Why do trans people go to the hospital with a broken arm and get told they can’t be treated because they’re on hormones?”

I have a local case of a trans woman being harassed. People are threatening to kick the shit out of her, and they’re also throwing eggs at the house she lives in. She’s now likely to be evicted because, in a landlord’s eyes, that makes her a bad tenant.

So you have an instance where someone is abused and then being doubly abused because they’re a victim. That’s why I’m tired of the gender ‘debate’ – it takes focus away from these very real issues.

As the conversation around trans rights threatens to be overshadowed once again by fear-mongering, it’s worth remembering the stories of young victims like Synestra.

While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with sex work – highly successful trans women like Janet Mock and Paris Lees have spoken about funding their transition using this method in the past – it shouldn’t feel like the only option, nor would it be if these discussions were commonplace. Synestra’s mother has since set up a charity in her name to honour her legacy, but also to ensure that the healthcare system doesn’t fail any other young trans women in the same way it did her beloved daughter.

More: We asked 14 trans activists how cis people can be better allies in 2018

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