“What would you like to be when you grow up?”
How we chuckled at our funny little three-year-old. It went down as one of those memories that made us smile, along with the video clips of them running around with various pairs of pajama bottoms on their head – “my lady hair” – shouting “Call me Chloe today!”
It wasn’t until years later that we realised these were not moments of play or confusion – they were a deep-seated statement of identity. But at the time it didn’t seem like an ‘issue’ – we had a happy, settled, curious, non-conforming child. Everything was fine. Then suddenly it wasn’t fine.
Trauma of puberty as a transgender child
Puberty hit our child like a brick and as the voice and skin broke, so did their spirit. A joyful child turned their pain on themselves – self harming, withdrawing from the world and alarming their teachers so much they recommended we contacted CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services). No one knew what was wrong, but something was very, very wrong. Our child was spiralling into suicidal thoughts, no longer wanting to live and we had no idea why.
People might be wondering why I’m using neutral pronouns. Our child isn’t non-binary. She is trans. But there’s a strange fracture in my memory – a time before and a time after. It’s not that I feel I had two different children, or that one was a boy and another a girl. They’re the same child, but the first feels like one in a process of becoming the other. I know that there are some who would condemn this confusion – nevertheless, it’s there.
Things took another turn when this child who loved to read and who did well at school suddenly started to lose their sight. No longer able to read text, unable to even tell the optician what the first letter on the sight chart was, the difficulty seemed to be related only to reading, not sight in general, but it was devastating. And incredibly there was no help from the NHS for it. We had to book in to see a private optometrist who diagnosed one of the worst cases of Streff Syndrome he had ever encountered – a condition linked to severe stress.
Social transition as a transgender teen
It was a dark time for us all but by then she was clear in her mind that she was transgender. We had started to work it out for ourselves. She felt happier coming home from school and putting on a wig and some makeup. There were patterns of ‘illness’ on days where she had to endure boys’ PE classes. For a while she played around with drag – would this make her happier? It didn’t – it was a costume, not an identity. In the end she simply sat down and said “I’m trans” and we found ourselves on an incredibly difficult journey.
The first few steps were relatively simple – she chose and changed her name, our extended family were accepting, her friends were accepting, school were supportive. The social transition element was reasonably uncomplicated, though as the Cass Report recognises, never ‘neutral’. There is always judgement, fear, anxiety at play. “Will I pass? Will my voice give me away? Will I be accepted? Will anyone ever love me?” – these are questions constantly playing away in her mind. The social transition process was simple, but not easy. It will never be easy and the rising transphobia in our society makes it even harder.
Lack of specialist NHS support
In the same way we had found there was little NHS support for stress-related eye problems and other special educational needs, we quickly found out that gender support was even worse. Our GP was kind and referred her onto a gender clinic – gently dropping into the conversation at the end that the wait time was currently four to five years long. As we drove home, our daughter quietly said through her tears “I’ll be an adult by the time I get onto the children’s gender clinic list”.
We knew we had to do something. For the sake of her eyesight, her education, her future and quite literally her life, we had to do something. So we turned to a private provider. Two psychological assessments, a family counselling session, a further assessment from a medical doctor, a diagnosis and finally, an agreement to prescribe hormones and puberty blockers on the condition that there are regular blood tests and follow up psych assessments.
Long conversations about possible side effects, implications for the future – all were part of the process, and it wasn’t an easy decision. But when it boils down to a choice – saving your child’s life and throwing every resource you have at that one goal – it’s not really a choice at all. It’s a necessity.
Hoping the world becomes a kinder, more accepting place
I’d like to report that things are now great. In some ways they are. Her eyesight has recovered. She is happy with the way she looks (on the whole). She’s so much more settled and ‘herself’. But life itself is still hard.
Her voice will never unbreak. She suffers constant harassment at school – one boy ran into her French class, yelled at her “Man in a Dress!” and ran out leaving her humiliated. Another put his hands up her skirt trying to expose her genitals.
She never quite feels like ‘one of the girls’. She wants the normal teenage experiences of dates and kisses and flirting. But the one boy who agreed to go on a date with her, bottled it half-way through and when she came out of the toilet, he’d left her there alone with the bill and she’s not wanted to go out since.
Every day is an emotional roller coaster and she’s facing GCSEs. All we can do is hold her close, love her as hard as we can and hope the world becomes a kinder, more accepting place.
I bristle when I hear people talk of the ‘trans debate’ as if my daughter’s right to exist peacefully and safely in the world is somehow up for discussion. But I do wish that all those who think this is a process any young person would ‘choose’ would walk one day in her shoes. It’s not a walk they’d want to repeat.