“If you can’t accept me, you will lose me forever.” My undeniably female child came out at the age of 12, during lockdown, in a letter to me and her father, first as “nonbinary” and later as a “transboy”. For clarity, I shall call her “she” and “Jo” here throughout, but she demanded a new name and pronouns and immediate acceptance on threat of withdrawing all communication and love.
I felt my world shatter.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d be happy to have a trans child – I am an openly bisexual, atheist, Left-wing arty-type with bright blue hair. I should be waving the Progress Pride flag. I certainly supported trans rights and considered myself an ally to a vulnerable group who, based on what I had read in the media, had always felt deeply unhappy with their bodies. Like any parent, I’d give anything to help my child be happy, confident and thriving.
But my husband and I quickly found that while our natural inclination to be open-minded and empathetic was well-received, our impulse to ask questions and receive satisfactory answers was not welcome among the agencies who position themselves as experts on this topic.
At the time, questions had begun to be asked about the NHS’s Tavistock clinic and how, as a country, we were managing the sudden uptick in children reporting gender dysphoria. This week, a poll published by the Civitas think tank showed one in ten 16 to 18-year-olds in England say they want to change gender, or have already done so. The authors warned sex education policies in schools could exploit vulnerable children – almost a third of the teenagers surveyed had been taught that a woman could have a penis.
Alarmingly, almost all of Jo’s friends adopted a trans identity around the same time, strongly suggesting to us that social contagion was an issue. Her letter to us, in November 2020, was in her hand but the words didn’t sound like her own, and I feared she was repeating narratives she had seen on TikTok. Such a cruel ultimatum was so out of character for her; just a few months before she had excitedly and unabashedly told us that the girl she had a crush on was rumoured to be crushing on her too (she was, we took them bowling, it was adorable). We wondered what had led to these feelings of dysphoria when she had never shown any discomfort with her sex or body.
My husband and I knew from media coverage that the correct thing to do was use requested pronouns and names and that the potential consequence of not doing so was the reportedly high trans suicide rate (we have since learnt this idea is misleading and potentially drives more suicides). Every agency and expert we turned to told us to “affirm” everything and question nothing – including the potential use of powerful hormonal drugs that could suppress our daughter’s adolescence and lead to irreparable damage to her body. Even social services told us we should not be talking about it.
We reassured Jo we loved her unconditionally and that we would get her whatever support she needed, but despite our best intentions, conversations were awkward and unproductive. She found it almost impossible to describe her feelings – following her later diagnosis of autism, we learnt this is a common symptom. She told us she wanted a chest binder and just didn’t “feel like a girl”, but would become defensive and unresponsive when we tried to dig deeper. There were tears all round.
We needed expert help, so in the spring, we contacted our GP. Although sympathetic, he could offer no advice either on gender dysphoria or using a binder. He referred Jo to the NHS’s gender identity development service (GIDS), warning of a long waiting list and in the meantime suggested we get support from trans organisations, such as the charity Mermaids.
Mermaids reiterated the importance of affirmation. However, I refused to allow breast binding – it seems an inherently bad idea to restrict a growing body. This did not go down well with Jo who responded with age-appropriate tears and door-slamming. I called grandparents, aunts and uncles and did my best to explain the inexplicable. Bewildered as they were, everyone knew what to do – cards of love and reassurance addressed to Jo’s new name arrived in the post and everyone did their best to use the new, grammatically awkward pronouns.
It’s no easy thing to unlearn the name you so carefully chose for your child, which you’ve sung in a thousand lullabies. Trans people call it their “dead name”; a cruel choice, forcing parents to think of their baby in such emotive terms. I grieved my loss and felt guilt in the grieving. I paid close attention to news coverage of trans issues, and was disquieted, particularly by questions over care provided by the Tavistock GIDS, which was being reviewed by the paediatrician Dr Hilary Cass (the interim report in February 2022 led to the NHS announcing its closure). Jo had mentioned various potential medical interventions, including hormones and “top surgery” (a euphemism for an elective double mastectomy), but I doubted she could understand the consequences of such things.
Despite all our support, her mental health worsened and during a trivial argument she blurted out that a few months previously she had taken an overdose of paracetamol, with the intention of ending her life. Distraught, we locked away meds and sharps and sought medical help. Our GP referred us to social services to see what support they could provide. A week later, a social worker was inspecting our home, interviewing us and, separately, our child. Her report arrived the next week, and as I read it, blood pounded in my ears. It stated that Jo was “a 13-year-old white British male who was born into a biologically female body”, with the directive “you do not need to discuss his gender identity at all”.
I’d made the mistake of telling the social worker that, although I use my child’s chosen name and pronouns, I didn’t want Jo to have irreversible medical interventions. Now the social worker knew who to blame for my child’s unhappiness. She said we should join trans support groups and re-educate ourselves via Mermaids.
I raged, I wept and finally I retreated, cowed by the double-pronged threat of losing my child if not to her own hand, then to care by the indoctrinated state. But I wasn’t beaten. I couldn’t be the only person with concerns.
I created secret, anonymous social media accounts to search for evidence about chest binding, puberty blockers and surgeries. Research was thin on the ground and solid evidence even thinner – when I asked questions, pointed out inconsistencies, I was labelled “transphobic” and a terf [trans-exclusionary radical feminist] and told to kill myself.
But I also found more terfs who, like me, were concerned about the impact deference to gender over sex was having on children, women and LGB people. Finally, I was able to find evidence and resources willing to view it with a critical eye. These brave women saved my sanity and inadvertently, my marriage, as I now had the evidence needed to open my husband’s eyes too. Our arguments became discussions of shared outrage and horror. I railed against the insanity. So it was that, as my husband drove us through a tunnel on a wet October evening I wound down my window and screamed to the wind “Transwomen are MEN!”.
Our daughter is now confirmed autistic, has poor mental health, and suffered bullying for her same-sex attraction. These are all things I learnt are common features in teenage girls who experience rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD), It seems far more likely Jo’s trans identity was a coping mechanism for a difficult period than that my child had somehow been “born in the wrong body”.
We tread on eggshells around Jo, who soon will be old enough to make her own decisions. I wish we could simply sit her down and explain we were wrong, we should never have affirmed her adopted identity, that these feelings of wrongness are common to adolescence and will likely pass. But I know such a direct approach would only drive her further away. Instead, we talk around the issue, by discussing the harms of porn, beauty standards and celebrating the amazing abilities of women.
There are signs it’s working; I hear my words repeated to her friends and while she still calls herself a boy, she’s no longer unwilling to include herself when discussing sex-based issues. Skirts have reappeared where once they were shunned and she no longer becomes hostile when “misgendered”. She seems happier and more confident. I have hope that Jo may yet come to accept herself as the incredible young woman I know her to be.
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