My name is Rosana, I live in Sydney’s Inner West, and I’m the proud mother of a gender diverse young person. I am keen to share our story because my child’s journey has not been straightforward, even by trans* standards. I hope that in telling our story it helps all parents of trans* kids, but I especially want to reach out to those parents whose children do not present or ‘come out’ as typically ‘male-to-female’ or ‘female-to-male’ trans-identified.
My child, Oliver, or Ollie as we mostly call him, is 16-years-old and identifies as a ‘genderqueer’/transgender person. If you’re new to this, bear with me, I’ll explain the terminology as I go on. Suffice to say, for now, that Ollie is a ‘female-to-male’ young trans* person.
Nonetheless, Ollie is the kind of kid that resists labels, and in his case, the most prominent feature of their gender identity is ‘NOT GIRL’. The pronouns we use for him are ‘he’ and the gender neutral pronoun ‘they’, as Ollie is a non-binary gendered person, who does not identify completely as either male or female. I am trying to describe my child as they feel themselves to be in order to show other parents that not all children fall neatly within the male/female divide. Some kids, as do adults, identify somewhere on the gender spectrum other than the absolute opposites of male and female. That’s where the ‘genderqueer’ term comes in. Ollie ‘queers’ gender by identifying mostly as male, but not entirely. However, he does prefer to be ‘read’ as male, prefers a male name, male or gender neutral pronouns, male clothing, hairstyle etc, but may wear the odd girlish thing, like a flower in his hair, or occasionally even a skirt, although these things are never worn in a feminine way. There is no make-up application, no shaving, no plucking or preening, and definitely no heels.
Along this journey you’ll come to understand, as I did, that all trans* people are different and their stories are not standardised – this is simply my child’s story – the labels that trans* people use also vary, and their identities are not necessarily fixed. There can be fluidity. There is a lot of variance; and once you begin to understand that gender is far more elaborate than the simplistic binary gender system of boy or girl we have been brought up with, it all makes more sense. Boy or girl. Man or woman. Male or female. Masculine or feminine. These sex/gender labels may serve a linguistic purpose, yet they also avoid or ignore the complexities associated with gender, and contribute to the confusion, bewilderment and uncertainty most parents feel when their trans* child initiates the difficult process of gender questioning and transition.
As of November 2014, it’s been 15 months since Ollie (then Olivia at 15 years) began questioning their gender. It started with a breast binder. Meaning he was actively looking for ways to minimise his breasts and achieve a flat-chested look. He talked to me about it without much notion of what it meant. He told me he hated
having breasts and preferred a flat chest, like a boy, and that having breasts eroded his self-esteem. When I told him I didn’t know what a binder was, he directed me to a website. A transgender website. When I questioned him about it he shrugged his shoulders. He appeared bewildered by all the questions, and I began to realise he was as confounded and baffled about the situation as I was. So I told him I’d look into it.
But I didn’t look into binders, not just yet, I got the idea of what they were quickly enough. I googled transgender and gender generally, (best website I found is www.genderspectrum.org about gender variant/transgender kids and teens) and began the harrowing process of discovering who my child was. When I talked to Ollie again, a few days later, I wanted to explore any other possible explanation as to why my child felt they had no self-confidence because they had breasts. I asked him whether somebody had said or done anything to him to make him feel that way. The answer was, ‘No’. Had anyone made fun of him or his breasts? ‘No’. Had anyone touched him or made him feel uncomfortable about his body? ‘No’. Was he trying to tell me he was a lesbian? ‘No’. Did his bras simply not fit well? ‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s just the way I feel inside, mum.’ Finally, I asked: ‘Do you think this is a gender problem? Are you telling me you are transgender?’ … ‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘maybe. All I know mum, is that I have to do something about this. If I had a flat chest I’d just feel better about myself, plus I don’t think I can live like this anymore.’ I had already read about the high suicide statistics among trans* people and became alarmed at what my child was clearly trying to tell me.
To say I was concerned about my child’s welfare is to say the very least. I waited for my partner to get home from work (Joe is not Ollie’s biological father, but cares for Ollie and loves him as his own) and I told him what Ollie had said. Joe seemed less concerned. ‘She’s a teenager,’ he said. ‘All teens feel awkward about their bodies. Besides, flat-chested, skinny, androgynous looking female models and celebrities are everywhere. We just need to teach her that it’s okay not to look like that, and that most of those women are photo-shopped anyway. No one looks like that.’ Perhaps Joe was right, but I wasn’t convinced. I spent that night anxiously researching transgender again, and the more I read the more I was confronted by my high level of discomfort. I was really uneasy and apprehensive about the whole notion; but mostly, I was shocked, worried and scared. It just felt wrong. Of course, I knew very little about gender or trans* then, all I felt, was that as a parent, I was embarking on a journey that would lead me deep into a murky rabbit hole. I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t right either.
I made an appointment to see a local clinical psychologist the very next day, but apart from comforting me and reassuring me that transgenderism was not a mental illness, they weren’t specialised enough to help me and recommended I seek the assistance of a gender specialist. We did speak of ‘gender dysphoria’ though and that, in itself, was very useful. Understanding the uncomfortableness my child felt by being ‘mis-gendered’ as a female was enlightening. I found Dr Elizabeth Anne Riley online (www.peoplesmart.net.au) and made an
I found Dr Elizabeth Anne Riley online (www.peoplesmart.net.au) and made an appointment to see her the next week. I found her to be extremely approachable and she appeared knowledgeable and professional, so we decided to make an appointment for Ollie to see her. Ollie wasn’t too keen on the idea but I reassured him that it was for the benefit of us both, as I didn’t have the specialised knowledge to help him. So Ollie agreed to see Dr Riley, though it was mostly for my benefit.
The consultation went well. Ollie liked Dr Riley and continued to see her for another three sessions. In the end, Dr Riley’s assessment was that Ollie was indeed questioning their gender and that he appeared to sit somewhere along the trans-masculine spectrum ie ‘female to male’ but not completely identifying as male, and definitely ‘not girl’ identifying. My ‘female’ child’s identity sat somewhere between gender neutral and male. I took hope in this, yet my child was still ‘not girl’, still wanting to bind their breasts and even talking about ‘top surgery’, a lovely euphemism for a double mastectomy and chest re-construction. The ‘gender dysphoria’ or uncomfortableness appeared to be unbearable.
Dr Riley recommended the book, The Transgender Child : A Handbook for Families and Professionals by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper, which I read in one sitting – it’s an easy book to read – and highlighted most of the text in glaring yellow! I couldn’t say how many times I have re-read this book or used it as a reference – it’s that good and simple to understand. Unfortunately, since it’s written for an American (USA) audience, the resources – both medical and legal, and social I should add – do not necessarily apply to us here in Australia, though everything else does and the book remains invaluable for parents anywhere.
One of the suggestions the authors of this book make, is to introduce your child to other gender variant or sexually variant people, such as any trans* and gay or lesbian people you may know. I didn’t know any trans* people then but I do have an old friend who is gay, so I took Ollie to see him and chat about diversity. It was very helpful and I was heartened by my friend’s support and by Ollie’s enthusiasm.
My friend suggested I take Ollie to Twenty10 a youth organisation that supports and works with young people, communities and families of diverse genders and sexualities. The young people who attend Twenty10, a free service, identify as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Trans*) and have the opportunity of meeting other young people who are similar to them in a supportive, friendly, supervised environment, where they can be themselves. Twenty10 has been a god-send (sorry to the religious but that’s how it feels) to our family. After a few attendances Ollie was feeling a lot better about himself and his identity. The other young people there called him by his preferred name and used his preferred pronouns and he finally had a peer group to relate to.
Nonetheless, after a few months, Ollie felt that a social transition was in order. He told me he just couldn’t take being mis-gendered anymore, by society at large, and
by our family and close friends in particular. My son simply felt that unless he
transitioned and visibly became hismself, he could not engage in any meaningful or authentic relationships with others. I thought about it long and hard and I was terrified about him coming out at school, in Year 10, as he wished to do. I was afraid of him being bullied, physically attacked or raped even. I was fearful of him losing his best friends at school. I was scared about the school’s reaction generally. I dreaded to think what our family and friends would say, especially my in-laws, who are a very traditional Catholic Italian family. I was concerned about how Ollie’s birth-father would take it, because I knew it would crush Ollie to be rejected by his dad, whom he loves very much; but I was mostly anxious about my youngest child’s reaction, Ollie’s little sister, Sophia, a darling, innocent 10 year-old at the time. I was also fearful of beig labelled a ‘bad parent’ and being judged for accepting my child’s identity and thus harming him in some way.
When Ollie told me he had already ‘come out’ to four of his school friends, whose reactions were very supportive, I panicked. I got on the phone and quickly organised a meeting with his Year Advisor at school. To my surprise both he, and the school generally, were extremely supportive. As were Ollie’s peers.
Things were going well. I told my parents, who were shocked but supportive. My sisters too. Even my in-laws, though bewildered, tried to undertand and show support. Our friends were likewise tolerant and compassionate. Ollie’s school friends did not turn their backs on him, on the contrary, they have been reassuring and empathetic, despite their youth, or perhaps because of it. Ollie’s father was kind and caring, despite the surprise. He was taken aback, for sure, but he was gentle and understanding. Ollie had always been a quirky child. And most importantly, Sophia, my youngest child, did not take it badly either.
Despite the support, however, all the worry and stress that led to Ollie’s ‘coming out’ completely shattered and consumed me. My anxiety level was out of control. I had to stop working for a while because I was an emotional wreck; and when I finally took myself to the doctor and then to a clinical psychologist, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. So don’t think for a minute that you are alone in your worry and distress about your child’s identity. I had catostrophised the whole situatuion to such a point that left no room for joy or celebration. I was an utter mess.
The psychologist recommended many things I could do to help myself, but key amongst them, that I attend the Gender Centre parents’ support group to meet other parents in my situation; and what a relief it was to meet other ‘ordinary’ families with extraorinary kids. I still attend these meeting regularly, over a year on now, because of the respite it gives me and because I think it’s important for new parents is this situation to meet other parents who have been through the worst of it and are still hanging in there and even celebrating their childrens’ difference.
The world did not end when Ollie came out, at school or otherwise. Nothing ‘bad’ has happened so far, and I have a beautiful, confident, aware child, who is doing better at school then ever. Who is socialising more than ever. And who can walk with their head held high, knowing that all the people that he loves or are imprtant to him somehow, both appreciate him and accept his difference.
Ollie continues to attend Twenty10 when he can. He also attends TRANSTOPIA, the trans* youth group at the Gender Centre, and has made some good friends by attending both of these groups. He sees a clinical psychologist, who is aware of trans* issues and has helped him deal with his social anxiety around gender difference. The therapy has been invaluable for him and he really likes the psychologist TONY MERRITT who practices from rooms at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Medical Centre in Camperdown. Although, Dr Elizabeth Riley was excellent, she is a counsellor and not a clinical psychologist, so she could not give Ollie the Gender Dysphoria diagnosis we needed in order for Ollie to start medical transition, which he desperately wanted to embark on.
Once the diagnosis was established, about four months into seeing Tony Merritt, Ollie was given a referral to see Dr Jonathan Hayes, an endocrinologist in St Leonards, who prescribed testosterone shots for Ollie. Three months on, Ollie’s voice has cracked and the register lowered and he is beginning to get hairy like a boy and will soon begin to shave his face, as he does not like the ‘fluff’ adolescent look. The changes suit him and he is looking better than ever. He is a handsome young guy; but most importantly he is happy in his own skin, something he has never felt till now. He continues to wear a binder, and feels extremely uncomfortable without it, and we are looking forward to his 18th birthday, when he can finally have the ‘top surgery’ he so urgently desires. I never thought I’d say this, but I am looking forward to that day as much as he is. The day my child can finally throw away his binder and have the ‘male’ chest he desires.
I no longer look at Ollie and think: under all those boys clothes, under that binder, under that haircut there’s a girl, my child, Olivia. I now think that under the smokescreen of that girl Olivia, there was always this young person called Oliver, and I am finally seeing my genuine child, and I am happy for that, and I am so extremely proud.