To bypass waiting years for free gender-affirming healthcare, a British trans man has decided to jump into an icy pool every day to raise enough money to go abroad.
Unable to pay out of pocket for private treatment, Colby-Hugo McLeod, 22, is attempting to fundraise around £3,500 for top surgery out in Istanbul, Turkey.
He’s doing this by leaping into the ice-cold ocean each evening, shaving and waxing his body hair and cycling tens of miles – all captured on his TikTok.
Many obstacles prevent trans people from getting the free healthcare they need on the National Healthcare System (NHS). Discrimination and delays have turned gender-affirming healthcare on the NHS into an aching waiting game.
Specialised healthcare for trans Brits is provided by NHS gender identity clinics (GICs) which experts warn are under-resourced and over-burdened.
For McLeod, the waiting room has been his living room for more than half a decade. As much as the NHS has a statutory requirement that at least 92 per cent of patients using the service should have a referral-to-treatment time of fewer than 18 weeks, trans patients face three to five-year waits.
And that’s for a first appointment. From then on, each following appointment is often spaced a year apart. Being left in limbo in this way has been compared to “torture“, a lawsuit against the NHS over the waiting times has said.
McLeod, who moved up to South Ayrshire in Scotland from Blackpool, England, last year, has been on the waiting list for the Leeds and York Partnership GIC since 2017. According to NHS data, the clinic is currently booking appointments for the 3,157 people first referred in June 2018.
So at 8:30pm each day, McLeod wades into the waves along the coast to help him raise money. It’s something that his younger self didn’t quite expect he’d end up doing.
“I knew from a young age I was trans, I just couldn’t put it into words,” McLeod told PinkNews, “I was put into a box during high school – a female should do this, a male should do that.
“When I finished high school, I decided it was time to start living my truth.” And with that, McLeod came out as trans in 2016 and referred himself the following year.
The wait since has been long for McLeod. “I’ve basically never heard from them,” he said.
“My dysphoria has been to the point where I just didn’t want to live as me. I tried to kill myself last tear and ended up in hospital for two days.”
Not receiving gender-affirming healthcare has been linked by researchers to higher rates of depression and suicide risk for trans youth.
McLeod was placed on testosterone shots not long after: “My life changed. My confidence has grown. Obviously, it doesn’t help me 100 per cent, but it gave me that light, it gave me that hope.”
His goal is to raise the cash by September, with his appointment with a surgeon in Turkey scheduled for 3 October. He has so far raised nearly £1,400.
Many trans folks in Britain like McLeod have resorted to fundraising websites to afford to get healthcare privately or abroad. GoFundMe, in particular, has become the go-to.
But turning to the internet to raise money comes with its own set of challenges. Some people who set up online crowdfunders – McLeod included – may not have the tens of thousands of followers needed to help promote it.
Trans TikTok influencers have thrown their support to McLeod, boosting his fundraising drive on their accounts. Again, however, not all social media users may have connections but the community, McLeod says, does everything they can to support one another.
Not long after McLeod started his GoFundMe, though, the NHS finally got back to him – his first appointment is booked for 25 May.
But finally receiving an appointment five years later offered McLeod little comfort. Even though he only made the decision to do so two weeks ago, his mind was now set on Turkey – and he couldn’t bear the thought of the even more years of waiting following the first appointment.
“The way it made me feel … like there’s so much more than the NHS could do for non-binary and trans people, like reaching out to give you support to change your name, stuff like that, while you wait,” he said.
“As much as they’re doing the best they can, if they had more funding, they could support us rather than us just waiting and floating in a bubble, thinking the worst things and your dysphoria getting worse.”
“There is a risk, don’t get me wrong,” he said of travelling to Turkey, “but I’m the one taking the risk. If something bad happens along the way, to the point it was fatal… I’ve told my family just know I’m happy. I’m doing something to make myself happy.
“I feel so excited to feel the freedom I’ve been waiting for my whole life.”
Readers in the US are encouraged to contact the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255.