‘I feel like it’s quite a shaky acceptance’ | Daily News

‘I feel like it’s quite a shaky acceptance’

Trans-kids and the fight for inclusion

Alex, still at primary school, is trans. A few years ago, her mum assumed she was a boy who was clumsily trying to ask for typically feminine things. “I remember I used to have conversations with her at a very young age in the car because she’d get really upset. I’d say: ‘But I don’t understand what would be different if you were a girl? What can’t you do that you could do if you were a girl?’ I’d ask: ‘Do you want a doll?’ She’d just reply: ‘I don’t like dolls!’”

‘My preconceptions about trans people came from the media, and I certainly hadn’t heard of trans children. So it just flummoxed me having an assigned male child who didn’t have especially ‘feminine’ interests and yet was saying consistently, ‘I’m a girl.’”

Kate was telling me about her eldest daughter, Alex. (Names of all trans young people, and of their parents, have been changed for their privacy.) It was a warm July evening, and we were sitting in the kitchen of their family home, in a comfortable British suburb populated by middle-class couples with young families.

Alex, still at primary school, is trans. A few years ago, her mum assumed she was a boy who was clumsily trying to ask for typically feminine things. “I remember I used to have conversations with her at a very young age in the car because she’d get really upset. I’d say: ‘But I don’t understand what would be different if you were a girl? What can’t you do that you could do if you were a girl?’ I’d ask: ‘Do you want a doll?’ She’d just reply: ‘I don’t like dolls!’”Sitting next to me at her home, Alex seemed like a typical kid of her age, who accepted me casually as a stranger at the table. As Alex’s parents later pointed out, there wasn’t anything especially feminine about her dress sense; she wasn’t what people call a “girly girl”.

Reading to sleep

“She was very into books from a really young age, and still is,” Joe told me. “We have to tell her to stop reading to sleep.” He and Kate described their daughter proudly as “someone with a strong sense of herself and a sense of justice – what’s right and wrong. She thinks very deeply about things.”Alex was about three years old when she began to correct her mother if she called her a boy. “I’d try to encourage her good behaviour, as any parent does, by saying things like ‘good boy’,” Kate explained. “She began to reply, ‘No. Good girl.’”

Joe and Kate soon felt a little out of their depth. “Like a lot of parents with young kids, I thought there was something I was meant to teach her that I had missed,” said Kate. “I just didn’t get it.” Joe told me how Alex soon started to tell other children and the staff at nursery that she was a girl – but would regularly be corrected. Soon she started to become frequently upset, particularly before bed. The source of her distress, said Joe, was always clear. “It was: ‘Why can’t you call me a girl?’, ‘Why won’t you call me a girl?’, ‘I’m a girl’, ‘I’m a girl’, ‘I’m a girl’, ‘Why can’t I be a girl?’” Joe was careful to stress how fixated his daughter had become on being regarded as female by those around her. It wasn’t long before Alex had convinced half her nursery class to refer to her with female pronouns; the staff, meanwhile, were as unsure as her parents about how to respond to this unusual situation. Children are known for being more accepting of difference than adults, after all. One thing, though, was clear to everyone around her: Alex was really unhappy.For those unacquainted with trans people, it might seem that in the past decade there has been a huge rise in children expressing issues with their birth-assigned gender. This is a perilous misunderstanding of the reality; in fact, there aren’t greater numbers of children asserting a trans identity than there were in the past. There are simply more children who feel able to talk about it openly and seek support and advocacy from their parents. In March 2017, a 90-year-old second world war veteran called Patricia Davies came out as a transgender woman and began taking hormones, shortly after discussing her lifelong gender dysphoria with her doctor. Davies said she first realised she was a girl back in 1930, when she was very young – the same age as Alex, when she began to assert her gender identity to her parents. “I’ve known I was transgender since I was three years old. I knew a girl called Patricia and I decided I wanted to be known by that name, but it didn’t stick.”Davies recalled that, even though her own mother was initially tolerant of her interest in femininity, she soon sensed wider society would not be so understanding and learned to repress her own instincts about her gender. “They thought they could make you better. They didn’t realise it was something that you could not cure. Because of the general hostility of people, I kept quiet.”

Family home

For many trans people, experiences of shame, suppression and discrimination start early in life, often in their family home. If the existence of adult trans people has become increasingly accepted, even normalised, in recent decades, the same isn’t true for trans children, whose existence is more often disputed, and who risk censure, or even punishment, from adults for expressing their trans identity. In Britain, the national conversation about trans children, driven by the media, focuses on the question of why children are trans (or, in some cases, whether trans children exist at all).As their certainty that they merely had a confused son started to crumble, Kate and Joe realised they’d have to do some research. Alex was determined to assert a female identity, and her parents dropping the use of male pronouns in the family home could hardly alleviate her daily distress in a world that still treated her as a boy. “Being gender neutral when everyone else was being gendered wasn’t an acceptable solution,” Kate told me.

“That was when I started properly reading and thinking, ‘OK, we need to actually have a plan.’”As the couple read up on the subject, they came across hundreds of accounts of families with a young child identifying as a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth. They were surprised to find how close these accounts were to their own story. “It can be spookily similar, even with quite diverse stories, among the kids who feel really, really strongly and are able to vocalise it at that young age.”Kate pointed out that these similarities between the various accounts of parents with trans children attracts criticism from those commentators who argue that trans children do not exist or should not be affirmed in their gender.

“That’s why some of the haters don’t believe it,” she said, “because they think families are following ‘the script’, whereas we know we experienced it long before we’d read it in anyone else’s account. And now I’ve read it and I’ve talked to tons of people and the story is similar. This gender identity that just seems to be there with a three-year-old is the thing that matters to her more than anything else.”

One theme in Kate and Joe’s story, which recurs in many accounts of trans children attempting to express a variant identity, is the initial reluctance of most parents to fully affirm that their child is another gender. This reluctance is in stark contrast to a widespread misconception that parents of young trans children might have helped them affirm too quickly what might have otherwise been “a phase”. In reality, many supportive parents acknowledge that, if anything, they tried to resist their child’s happiness for too long because of their own ignorance or fear. Kate and Joe’s story is a case in point: their acceptance of Alex’s identity was a gradual process.

The Guardian


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