Our family is a modern one, a blended combination of half and step siblings. The adults involved have worked hard at creating peaceful and successful co-parenting relationships, but as with many modern families, there can be challenges to overcome.
My eldest child has autistic spectrum disorder, he refuses to believe in the possibility of being ‘born in the wrong body’ – we are our bodies, after all. He has been bullied mercilessly for this belief and has had to return from university to protect his mental health. We are currently unsure if he will restart the second year or not.
My youngest was diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening, cancer-like immunodeficiency aged just 6. She subsequently spent most of a year in and out of our wonderful nearby children’s hospital, including a period of mechanical life support.
The condition she suffers from is complex, but essentially her white blood cells consumed her red blood cells and then went on to attack her liver and spleen. Her own immune system tried to kill her, so if anyone in our family was ‘born in the wrong body’, it is she. Thankfully, she is now in remission and physically well, although she still needs continuous monitoring and is receiving ongoing psychological support to come to terms with both what she has been through, and with what the long term consequences might be.
It is against this backdrop that my middle child, my stepdaughter, developed a cross-sex identity.
There is a 12 year age gap between my two children, and when I met my husband we were delighted to find his daughter slotted precisely between the two, as if the universe had been saving her a spot.
This means all three are in completely different life stages, and that my stepdaughter’s entry to adolescence has coincided with her little stepsister’s serious illness.
Puberty has been rough for my stepdaughter, as it is for many girls, and with half her family busy at the hospital, she has tried to struggle through without bothering us. The first we knew about her cross-sex identification came via an email from school to her mother. The email explained that my stepdaughter had passed out in PE due to wearing two sports bras at once, and that the school nurse had referred her to the school counsellor.
The counsellor had informed my stepdaughter that a hatred of one’s breasts could be an indicator of a non-binary, or transgender male identity and encouraged my stepdaughter to research via transgender FtM creators on YouTube. Here, my stepdaughter learned about ‘top surgery’ – aka double mastectomy – and with this as her goal she was now keen to begin the transgender medical pathway. The email included links to various national and local transgender support groups.
She was just 13, a summer baby, so one of the youngest in her year group, and yet no one at school thought to explore the root causes behind these new feelings of body-hatred.
We now know that the rejection of her new, adult-female-shaped body was immediately proceeded by her first experience of unwanted sexual attention from an adult male, and a series of episodes of lesbophobic bullying in school.
When her mother responded to the email, stating that she did not give permission for her daughter to speak to this particular counsellor, the school dismissed her concerns, an action that I believe was motivated by xenophobia (my stepdaughter’s mother speaks English as a second language incredibly well, as long as words are used accurately, and not with newer, post-modern implied ‘meaning’).
For almost a year, my stepdaughter has been encouraged by school to live a double life, female at home, but ‘male’ at school. This has damaged her previously close and loving relationship with both her father and her mother, and driven a wedge between her and her little stepsister, her older stepbrother and myself.
Taking on a male identity stifled my stepdaughter’s ability to truly explore the things she is interested in, she became afraid of participating in anything that didn’t reinforce strictly coded male sex-stereotypes, lest it undermine her newly constructed sense of self.
A transgender identity did not give her the freedom or ‘authenticity’ that trans organisations promise, instead it isolated her, alienated her and made her miserable.
Shortly before lockdown, her parents and I had agreed to meet with various members of school staff to discuss school’s intention to change her name and sex marker on their register, with or without parental permission. Luckily, being out of the school environment, away from the counsellor and my stepdaughter’s peers, has given her time and space to decompress and de-radicalise from the ideas school has been reinforcing. As of right now, she no longer identifies as a boy, but still feels some distress around negative body image and societal gender-roles.
This distress is rational, growing from child to woman in a male dominated society is distressing for most female people, especially in a time that is both porn-saturated and virulently misogynist – see any of the online threats female politicians and celebrities are subjected to as a clear example.
Additionally, we have come to learn that a sudden cross-sex identity in children can be a maladaptive coping mechanism to an external trauma, including the trauma of a seriously ill or disabled sibling or parent. Sadly it seems there is not currently enough professional or political curiosity to investigate this adequately, and anything short of complete and immediate affirmation of a cross-sex identity is denounced as ‘conversion therapy’. Compare this to the carefully researched, up-to-date, world-class NHS care my youngest daughter has received, and the difference is truly shocking.
We are still scheduled to meet with school when they resume post-lockdown, and school are still determined to change my stepdaughter’s name on the register. They tell us that it would be illegal not to, but we have researched carefully, and do not believe this to be the case, rather it is a misinterpretation of law published by non-expert organisations and delivered to teachers in short training sessions. The prevailing medical opinion on transgender children is that ‘persistence, insistence, and consistence’ are required for a diagnosis, yet my stepdaughter’s school want to change her official records, even without parental permission, based on no evidence of persistence, insistence NOR consistence, and no medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
My stepdaughter has been understandably distressed by growing up female while her female stepsibling was close to death, yet the ‘solutions’ presented to her by the school counsellor have just compounded that distress and introduced additional confusion.
My stepdaughter deserves to be listened to with seriousness and sensitivity, instead she has been funnelled into an identity by well-meaning adults who have attended an inaccurate training session and been given a legally dubious trans ‘toolkit’.
My stepdaughter is part of the first generation of girls who have been taught in school, online and via children’s TV that growing up to be a woman is optional, rather than inevitable. It is no surprise then, that having experienced adult sexual attention and overt misogyny for the first time, many of them are indeed, attempting to opt out.
In years to come we will look back and wonder how we let our society fail our girls so badly.Mother and Artist, 43, Trafford