‘Coming to live in Derry has changed my life’

Alexsia Henderson, pictured right at the Rainbow Project's Derry centre. Also photographed, from left to right are Kerri Henderson, Jennifer Clifford and Keith Moore, volunteers at the centre.
Alexsia Henderson, pictured right at the Rainbow Project's Derry centre. Also photographed, from left to right are Kerri Henderson, Jennifer Clifford and Keith Moore, volunteers at the centre.
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Alexsia Henderson is a woman with a transgender history who has lived in Derry for over three years. She says her life has changed for the better since coming to the city and that Derry is the most accepting place she’s lived in, thanks to the Rainbow Project. Now as, a project officer at the centre, she’s inviting other people who may be lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual to come forward and use the centre.

The Rainbow Project’s new centre in Derry had its official launch last week. The building itself, at Orlan House on the Strand Road, has been in use for over a year, but the launch emphasised just how much goes on there on a daily basis.

Alexsia Henderson, Project Support Officer, says they could easily fill the place 24 hours a day, if funding wasn’t an issue. Unfortunately, as is the case in the entire community and voluntary sector, funding is a very real problem.

It doesn’t stop Alexsia and her colleagues from delivering a huge variety of programmes and courses and most importantly providing a lifeline to those in Derry and the North West who are struggling with their sexuality.

Alexsia is the living embodiment of the difference Derry’s Rainbow Project has made to the city. The project has been in existence for over 20 years, and is now a lasting legacy to the late, great Sean Morrin. Those behind the vital service have never shied away from speaking loudly about injustice and discrimination and have been a constant source of support and comfort for those who have been traditionally labelled by society as different.

“I’ve been there, I know how it feels,” says Alexsia, who is a woman with a transgender history.

“People need a safe space where they can come and not be judged, and that’s at the heart of what the Rainbow Project does.”

Before moving to Derry three years ago, Alexsia lived in Portadown. Since moving to Derry, she says, her life has completely changed.

“The only way to describe what I experienced before I came to Derry is absolute horror,” says Alexsia.

“I had a device put in a wheelie bin at my home. I had death threats, I got a DVD put through my letterbox from a preacher telling me to get out of the area. I was on the verge of a breakdown. I was at a point where I wouldn’t answer the door or the phone. It was awful.”

All this came after Alexsia had faced challenges with her identity for many years, having been born into a male body.

“I knew something was wrong when I was six,” she says. “I suppose the attitude at that point was that I would grow out of it. In a way I was pushed back into the closet. But in those days, there was no education, people didn’t even have terms like ‘transgender.’ I had real low points, there was a point when I’d considered ending it all. It’s a huge thing to have to deal with and that’s why I think I’m in a good position now to help others.”

Jennifer Clifford, also a woman with a transgender history, who volunteers at the Rainbow Project, adds.

“I’m glad to say we’re a dying breed. I think now youngsters feel more that they can stand up and be themselves, and that’s amazing.”

Alexsia, her partner Kerri, and Rainbow Project volunteer Jennifer, are all members of Trans Derry, a support group for transgender people in Derry supported by The Rainbow Project.

Alexsia believes Derry is strides ahead of other areas in the North when it comes to education and acceptance.

“For me, coming to Derry meant a massive turnaround in my life. Because of what I’d been through I really had to push myself to access the services here but after those initial steps, I haven’t looked back.”

Many of the services at the Rainbow Project go unnoticed by those who’ve had no direct experience with the organisation.

Alexsia explains how the centre plugs a gap in the system for many LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, bisexual or transgender) young people. “A lot of teenagers who are LGBT seem not to complete school. Many drop out early and we’re able to help them gain qualifications here at the centre. If we didn’t take those young people on, they’d be lost. That’s a side to what we do here which doesn’t really get noticed.”

While the centre is based in Derry, Alexsia says the catchment area is huge and extends to places far beyond the city.

“We get people coming here from outside the city and from Donegal and beyond. For people who are living in rural communities coming out can be particularly difficult because being seen as different in a small town is very hard. But once people are familiar with the centre here, they feel comfortable coming back and using the place as a focal point where they can talk and meet other people. We offer a drop in service which a lot of people use and that sometimes runs six days a week until 4:30pm.”

The drop in service is just one element of what the Rainbow Project does. A youth group - for people aged 14-25 - meets twice weekly, on a Tuesday and Wednesday. The Trans Derry group meet every Thursday. There’s also a spiritual group and a Live and let Live group which helps people trying to combat addictions. There’s also a counselling service with an average waiting time of four weeks.

“People see the centre as a second home, and it’s a family atmosphere,” says Alexsia. “What we try to do is to take the message out into the community that we are normal. We do everything that you do and what we really want to tell people who feel they need help and support is that we’re here to help.”

n Contact the Rainbow Project on 02871 283030.