I know I shouldn’t look. I know there’s nothing there I want to see. I know I will leave in tears. But somehow, I can’t help myself. Partly, I want to learn what views are being shared, to try to understand what people are saying and, once I start, I’m so horrified, I’m unable to look away. A bigger driver though, is the knowledge that in a few years’ time my child will be the one on the internet. She won’t be able to look away, and I won’t be able to protect her. And the hurt I feel now will be nothing compared to the hurt she will feel when she realises how the world views her. It breaks my heart.
Parenting a transgender child seems to be a particularly lonely road. The vile and vicious comments under Daily Mail articles about transgender children and their families, are matched on the Guardian, on Mumsnet, even on supposedly LGBT friendly sites like Gay Star News. Parents of transgender children are harshly judged and attacked from the right and from the left. From traditional conservatives and from radical feminists. From religious fundamentalists and sections of the LGB exclusionary parts of LGBT+. At times it feels overwhelming. Hopeless.
Sometimes, when I’ve pulled myself up from despair, I wonder whether, if I could just find the energy to respond to the thousands of hateful comments, perhaps I could open a few minds. Help move society a few tiny millimetres in the direction it needs to go in for my child to be happy, to be accepted, to be safe. I know I won’t overcome some people’s strongly felt prejudice, but maybe if I could explain a bit more, try a bit harder, maybe there are some people who could learn that my child is not a threat, that I am not a failure as a parent, that we just want our daughter to be left alone to enjoy the childhood she deserves without this constant stream of vitriol.
I decided to take another look at the comment sections (the majority from a recent Guardian online article), to try to understand what drives people to write such hurtful things. To break through the insults and hate and try to gain an insight into why so very many people find accepting my child so intolerable. Then to give a personal response to those comments, away from the collective pile on which often occurs when someone is brave enough to try to confront, explain, or simply give examples of their lived experience.
‘I was a tom boy when I was a child’. ‘My brother borrowed my dresses when he was a child’
- This is not relevant. ‘Tomboy’ usually describes girls who are perceived to enjoy stereotypically male activities or toys or friends. This is not being transgender, and nobody is claiming it is. Being transgender is not about what toys you play with, or what activities you prefer, or how you behave or how you dress or who you play with. It is about the identity that these children feel deep inside. I know this is a very difficult concept to grasp and it may not make sense to anyone who does not themselves feel any particularly strong gender identity, but to these children it is more important than anything else. It can become the driving focus of their life (right up until they are accepted, and then they often become like any other child). The thing that matters more than anything else to them is to be acknowledged and accepted as the gender that they know themselves to be.
‘I was a tom boy or a not very macho boy – If this had been around when I was young I would have been made to be transgender.
- I don’t think that is at all likely. Girls who are ‘tom boys’ and boys who do not conform to stereotypically male ‘norms’ are not likely to be referred to a gender identity clinic – and if they were it would be pretty quick to find out how they identify. Unless you felt very strongly that you were a boy and were desperately sad about being called a girl over a prolonged period of time, your experience is not relevant to this topic. The children who transition tend to be ones for whom gender identity is the main thing that dominates their happiness. They also tend to have a deep feeling of sadness around their gender identity. Unless you were a child who was extremely sad every night saying ‘I am a boy’ or ‘I am a girl’, it is not likely you would be being supported to socially transition. The young children who socially transition have really fought for this, against a world that tells them they are wrong. They have insisted over a long period of time that this is who they are.
‘I used to want to be a boy’ ‘I used to call myself a boy and I’m not transgender’
- For children who are potentially confused, counselling can help them work out whether they are thinking life would be easier as a boy because of their frustration about limited gender roles or limited society opportunities for women, or suffocating expectations of what it means to be a women (and vice versa for boys who do not fit into the masculine ‘norm’). For anyone to feel that they do not fit in is very sad. I hope any such children can be met with kindness and understanding. There is no fixed destination. There is no conveyor belt. What all gender non-conforming children need, like what transgender children need, is more love and openness and acceptance. Of course we don’t want gender confused children to be pushed into a path that is not right for them. But to protect gender non-confirming and gender confused children, we do not need to stamp out the rights and the hope and the well-being of children like mine who are not one tiny bit confused, who know who they are and just want acceptance and room to exist.
‘It is a money making scheme for big pharmaceuticals and profit hungry doctors – keeping patients on drugs for life’.
- My child has not heard of big pharmaceuticals. She does not yet understand about hormones or any medical interventions. She does however know that she is a girl.
‘It is a trend’. ‘These children think this is a way to be famous and cool’
- Transgender children are very likely to get bullied or socially isolated. Many are victims of hate crimes. Most transgender children desperately want to fit in and be accepted as one of the other children. This is not a path to being famous and cool My child genuinely thought she was the only child in the world to have felt this way. She had never heard of transgender. She didn’t know what being cool or famous meant. (Though as a proud parent, my child will always be cool to me).
‘Parents are doing it for attention’
- I can’t imagine many parents wanting this type of attention, by which I mean constantly being judged and shunned and told you are a terrible parent. Losing friends and family members and feeling very alone. I certainly would never in a million years have chosen this. In fact the opposite is true, many parents shy away from attention, close their social media, try to avoid the inevitable and frequent difficult conversations. The majority of stories in the press are not self-serving, they are from parents who feel duty bound to raise awareness with the intention of de-stigmatising transgender children to make society a safer place for their child. Our family couldn’t do it, but I thank them for being brave enough to speak out for us all.
‘My child once or twice told me they were a girl when they were little. I said ‘don’t be silly Billy you are a boy. Aren’t I an amazing parent? If only these stupid parents/mums had followed my example’
- Many parents of transgender children spend months and years telling their child, ‘no you are not a boy you are a girl’, often until the child shuts down and stops raising the issue (while still feeling miserable inside). In our house this was a daily conversation for over 6 months. Please don’t bring your crappy example of having told your child a handful of times and insinuate that we have somehow failed. Your child is not transgender. My child was so fixated on asserting their gender identity that it dominated and damaged their life for that time. The guilt of not supporting her then is on us. The children that continue to vocally (insistently and persistently) assert a transgender identity do so against a huge heap of societal and family pressure telling them they are wrong.
‘So-called trans-women are really men who are pretending to be women so that they can invade women’s spaces to rape women’
- I’m always taken aback when I read this, and it comes up time and again in spite of a complete absence of credible evidence that this has ever occurred. My child is young. My child is not invading women’s spaces to rape women. This is not only absurd, not only deeply offensive and hurtful, it is also incredibly damaging. It conjures up the idea that ‘normal’ people should be afraid of transgender people. That they are different and can’t be trusted and our children (and women) need protecting from them. Well, my beautiful child, who is one of the kindest sweetest children you could meet, needs protecting from this kind of hate.
‘If gender identity can’t be seen, defined or objectively measured then it can’t be real or need supporting’
- So emotions or feelings or thoughts don’t exist either. Or anything to do with identity or who you are. None of these are valid. I can’t define the fact that I like smarties, therefore that can’t be true. I can’t see whether you feel happy, so happiness isn’t a real thing. We don’t understand consciousness, so that doesn’t exist either. This argument is highly flawed.
‘This is body mutilation’
- Thanks for that sensationalist statement. Why can’t people choose want they want to do with their own bodies without you getting so outraged? There are no operations related to transitioning before the age of 18, when they are adults, and can choose for themselves. Many transgender people do not choose to have surgery. Many non-transgender people change their bodies (eg tattoos, plastic surgery, breast augmentation/reduction etc) for a variety of reasons some aesthetic, some medical. I’m scared shitless about my daughter potentially having surgery one day, but I’d be anxious about any surgery. I’m going to do my very best to try to support her being comfortable in her own body without the need for surgery but I’m not naive, and know that for many transgender people, surgery is vital treatment for their gender and body dysphoria. I will support her in whatever she may choose to do.
‘Children naturally grow out of it’
or …‘80% do not persist as they mature’
or …‘It is just a phase’
- When talking about transgender children the statistic of 80% of children not ‘persisting’ is often repeated but total and utter nonsense. The few studies underpinning it, have been thoroughly debunked. The key thing these studies have in common is that they grouped gender non-conforming children (the majority surveyed, highly unlikely to be transgender, often grow up gay) in with cross-gender identifying children (a small minority of the surveyed group, highly likely to be transgender, no more or less likely to be gay). The Meta analysis of these studies are also intrinsically flawed as they simply collate all the previous rubbish studies. This means the numbers we have are meaningless for predicting the future path for children like mine who, from a very young age, has consistently and very persistently stated that they are a different gender to the one assigned at birth. The most recent evidence finds that children who very strongly identify as a different gender will continue to do so and will not grow out of it. Yes more research is needed, to give a better steer on ‘persistence’, but the 80% figure should be treated as a research phase that we have naturally grown out of as we’ve matured.
‘Let them decide when they are 18’
- Comments like this actually helped me decide to accept my daughter as a girl. She was miserable for years before we supported her. She felt extremely rejected by us and by others in her life. She cried every single day. Since we accepted her as a girl, and helped her be acknowledged by others as a girl, she has been so happy. So very happy. Every day. Why should a parent force their child to be miserable every day for years (for 15 years if you were to have your way!). A parent needs a very good reason to keep their child in a state of sadness and rejection, when the only thing you need to do to support your child to say ‘I love you whatever’ and to change the name, pronoun and noun that you use. We have not yet got to puberty, and making decisions then will be tough. But if our daughter at puberty still feels like she has since age 3, then she will have our full support to help her avoid the wrong puberty and have the right puberty for her gender.
‘why would a parent make this decision. Crazy’
or…‘The best course of action would be for parents not to make any decisions at all’
- This shows little understanding of what it is like to parent a transgender child. Life is full of decisions. Before making the extremely difficult and heart-breaking decision to support my child, for months I made the decision to say ‘I love you, but no, you are not a girl you are a boy’ and watched their sad face. For months later, when they said ‘I am a girl’ I decided to change the subject or look away. For months further I avoided directly calling them a boy but decided to sit in silence as others called them a boy and I watched their shoulders hunch in and the sad look of rejection on their face. For months further I sat with them at bedtime as they cried and listened to them say ‘but I am a girl’ and I decided not to say ‘that is ok, we love you whatever’. Life with a very insistent transgender child is full of difficult and painful and troubling decisions for a parent who cares deeply for their child. Making a decision finally to say ‘that’s ok, we love you whatever’ was the latest in a very long line of decisions. Which eventually moved on to ‘ok, we’ll call you a girl’, and ‘ok, we’ll help others to call you a girl’ and ‘ok, we’ll help others to understand you are a girl’. We do not wake up one morning and think, wouldn’t it be fun to choose this incredibly hard and traumatic path for our children.
‘Just teach them to be happy as they are’
- I really, really tried. It didn’t work. They got sadder and sadder. And feeling rejected by your parents is very tough. Feeling that your parents love you, but the way you feel is so unacceptable that your parents cannot bring themselves to properly accept you, is very tough on a child. We all want our children to be happy. We all want our children to have an easy path in life. This is not an easy path. But my child is now so very happy, long may it remain so. The main thing that threatens my child’s happiness is not potential future medical interventions, but the hate and anger that they receive. I wonder if, in a world of greater acceptance for transgender people, would fewer transgender people choose medical interventions? If it was more feasible to have a non-typical body and still be referred to by the pronoun and identity that a person feels. I can’t see that acceptance happening any time soon. If you care about my child’s happiness, please stop denying their existence and trivialising what it has taken us to get to this point.
‘Don’t label children’
- Our world and our language is full of labels. If you genuinely want a world without labels, then please put your energy into trying to avoid these boxes and labels everywhere, don’t focus your energy on a very powerless and vulnerable group of children who just happen to not fit into the boxes and traditional labels that the world is accustomed to.
‘It’s all because of gender segregated parenting. The parents had too fixed ideas of what boys and girls could act like or play with’
or…‘It’s all this gender neutral parenting. They haven’t taught their child what gender they are’
- Parents of transgender children get hit with contradictory accusations. Either we were parenting with too rigid stereotypical gender norms, or our parenting was too gender neutral. We hear this all the time and everyone seems very happy to share their opinion with us. The one thing that is quickly obvious when you get a group of parents of transgender children together, is the huge diversity. It is a bit like jury service. There is no common denominator between the parents. The weight of scientific evidence is also clear, including the Lancet, no less, that there is no evidence of a link between parenting and whether or not a child is transgender.
‘Young children can’t make a decision to change gender’
or…‘How can a young child know about transgender. What on earth are you teaching them?’
or…‘I wouldn’t trust a 5 year old to choose what to have for dinner let alone their gender’
- People really don’t understand this at all. My child had never heard of transgender. They never made a decision to change gender. They always, from the moment they could speak, said they were a girl (they were presumed male at birth). They knew they were a girl before they knew most things about the world. They knew it instinctively. They knew it, despite the fact that their parents, and everyone in the world told them they were a boy. They knew it, and insisted upon it time after time, despite being told in no uncertain terms that they were wrong. They never decided to change gender. They never have changed gender. The change has not been within them, the change has been the rest of us, coming to understand what their truth is, and coming to accept it. Our child has not changed, we as parents have changed and reset our understanding of our child. How our child developed a strong gender identity that they were a girl, I really do not know. But the thing is, hundreds of children up and down the country and thousands world-wide have had the same experience. There have been transgender people throughout the world, throughout the centuries, and many of those transgender people recall having known their gender identity from a young age.
‘These are mentally unwell children, we shouldn’t fuel their delusion’
- For many decades transgender people were classified as mentally unwell. Enormous pressure was put on them to conform, to change their view. This has led to some particularly awful outcomes for some transgender people who have had very tough lives. Lives far tougher than anyone would wish on their child. The medical consensus is that attempting to persuade people to identify as the gender they were assigned at birth is both unethical, and ineffective. Being transgender is being taken out of being classified as a mental health issue. Unsurprisingly, there is now increasing evidence that when transgender people are accepted, loved and supported, they have normal levels of mental health and wellbeing.
‘This is backward, we should be breaking down gender barriers and stereotypes’
‘Instead of supporting these children, let’s overthrow gender norms instead’
- Breaking down gender boxes and stereotypes will be a great thing for very many children, including for transgender children. If this is what you care about, focus your attention on breaking down gender boxes and stereotypes in society at large, don’t focus your attention on a marginalised group of vulnerable children. And if in your vision for a freer society you agree that people should still be free to describe themselves as a girl, then allow transgender children this freedom as well.
‘Those parents are senseless liberals inflicting horrendous damage on their child with this trendy transgender ideology’;
or… ‘those parents were far too liberal letting their child call the shots when they should have been more strict’;
or…‘Those parents were far too strict, couldn’t relax and let their children play with any toys they wanted to play with;
or…‘I bet the child is being abused’; ‘I bet these children are from a broken home’;
or…‘I bet the mum hated men so much the child wanted to be a girl’;
or…‘I bet one of the parents are in a homosexual relationship’;
or…‘Those parents must be homophobic and preferred a trans daughter to a gay son’;
or…‘I bet one of the parents is transgender’.
- We hear all of these charming comments. Parents of transgender children come from all walks of life. And whatever walk of life they happen to come from, accusations like this are thrown at us as the reason why we are in this situation. The more I see these accusations (once I get beyond my own thin skinned shock and upset at how people view us) the more clearly ridiculous these accusations appear. Try to ignore.
‘It is disgusting’. ,
or…‘It makes me sick’.
or…‘It is vile’. ‘These children should be taken away from their abusive parents’.
or…‘These horrendous narcissistic parents should be locked up’
- Yes we hear a lot of this too, some things aren’t worth the effort of engagement, try to ignore.
‘Children should be able to play with any toys – you shouldn’t force your child to be a girl or a boy just because they like toys associated with the other sex’ ‘Your inability to let children play with any toys or choose what to wear is what has caused this’
- In my view children should be able to play with any toys that they want to play with. Our child has always been able to play with any toys. For our child, this is a question of identity, not of toys or interests or behaviour or preferences. I know it is hard to understand that a child can have a clear gender identity at a young age. But you have not lived my life. Don’t judge us (and make my child’s life harsher and more filled with hate) just because you find it hard to logically understand.
‘You shouldn’t have let your child play with opposite gender toys or choose what to wear. This is what has caused this’
- Look, I think you have some weird ideas about toys. I disagree with you on this one. But I know plenty of families who have had fairly clear gender segregated expectations and upbringings for their child, and they have also found themselves with a transgender child. So although on a case by case basis it is easy to throw insults at us parents and say ‘this is what you have done wrong’, if you met a large enough group of us, you would see that we have very little in common in terms of our parenting styles, apart from perhaps a fierce determination to try to help and protect our wonderful children. The recent Lancet review concluded there is no evidence of parental upbringing having an influence on children being transgender. So give us a break from your mean accusations.
‘There are 2 fixed genders that are very clear cut, and it is scientifically impossible to ignore this.’
- People who quote ‘science’ in this way have a very limited understanding of science. ‘Gender’ and ‘Biological sex’ is made up of a wide variety of different elements. Sex chromosomes, which are often XX or XY, but can come in other formations. Internal sex organs (eg ovaries). External sex organs. Intersex people can have different combinations of these (eg having ovaries and XY chromosomes). Hormone levels – some people are have raised testosterone or oestrogen. Some women are unable to process androgens and have levels of testosterone typically found in males. Biologically speaking the world is much more complex than people would like to believe. The world is full of variation, it is humans (and our language and our need to classify and define) that try to put things in neat strict boxes. Some people think there is a physical aspect to gender identity, potentially linked to levels of hormones in the foetus, but like much of the brain and human development, much remains to be discovered. Beyond this, gender consists of gender identity (who you feel you are), gender expression (how you choose to dress), gender roles (how you conform with or do not conform with stereotypical gendered expectations). Life is complicated, and for some of us, that is ok.
‘My child said they were a dog for a year’
or…‘My child thought they were Spiderman’
or…‘My child asked us to call them an airplane’ etc.
- Were they playing? Were they having fun? For my child, asserting that they were a girl was not a game. They would say ‘I am a girl’ with tears in their eyes. When called a boy they would hunch their shoulders with sadness. This did not pass, this did not end. Please don’t bring your glib example of your child who played at being a dog, or Spiderman or an airplane. One other reason why this is not comparable –my child’s experience matches that of a small but not tiny number of other children who have the same experience. It also matches the experience of many adults who continue to identify as transgender, and are happy to be able to find acceptance in that identity. There is no comparison with the flippant dog/ Spiderman /airplane example.
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