Dude, Not Darling
by Hope Bell
I am asked regularly, “What are the challenges of raising a transgender child?” The only thing I can conclude is that the child is not the challenge – I mean they are, of course. Here is a shout out to all the single parents! There is a crushing, crippling responsibility that comes with parenting and there is so much to do, so in the end listening to and loving my child is not what I found difficult.
I thought it was cute how this child rejected anything ‘for a girl’. The questions … while holding up her pink polka-dot cup,
“Why is this cup for girls Mummy?”
“Is this music for a girl?”
“Macaroni cheese is for a girl, right?
It became easier to just summarize, “None of this stuff is for a girl or boy, it’s just stuff and choices.”
But the list of stuff was piling up: toys, trousers, tops and socks, sports, friendships, activities, interests, colours, hair styles, swimwear, and shoes. The answer was always the same, “You get to follow your heart’s desire kiddo.”
Her heart’s desire was hilarious. While browsing the sale aisles of the ultra-feminine Monsoon store, my three-year-old was pointing at something excitedly “Look Mummy, I want one!”
I spun on my heel thinking the first request for a dress had come. No – it was the fire extinguisher secured to the wall. The Sting-Squisher, to give it its proper name.
“Please can we take it home Mummy? It’s on sale.”
I couldn’t buy my daughter the store’s health and safety equipment, but I could respect her choices.
But then, age four, the questions took a turn.
“Are sons just as loved as daughters Mummy?
“Of course!” I would reply.
“Well, can I be your son then Mummy? I’m not a girl. I am a boy and my name is George. No, Thomas – like a tank engine. No, Pip. No, Thatch. No, Freddy. That’s it Mummy, my name is Freddy. I will ask everyone to call me Freddy from now on. You do the same too. Tell them my name is Freddy and I am a boy.”
And so it continued.
“No Mummy. I do not want to wear a tutu and be a snowflake in the nativity. I WANT TO BE A SHEPHERD.”
“Look Mummy, I have cut my own hair to look like Robinbatman.”
“Look Mummy, I can pee standing up!”
The swimming costume got surreptitiously unpacked and hidden, then later cut up in two. Such was the determination of this tiny child to not wear anything that would let people assume they were anyone other than male. Refusals to leave the house because the clothes weren’t ‘boy enough’. Even pink cotton pants that wouldn’t be seen by anyone other than the wearer and their laundry fairy would be hidden under the couch for weeks. Most parents want to see their child thrive, but this child was unhappy, and I was overwhelmed by how much gender allegiance dictated our day. I did what any other fretful, tired, anxious parent would do and asked Google.
I read stories and studies, child-led approaches, poetry of voiceless existence. Hidden history revealed itself. Scientific findings and lived experiences of an inconvenient identity. Rightful demands for equality, protection, completed educations, health care, family life, respect, and inclusion. Where are our allies? I was learning that gender is more than outside decoration and laughable stereotype. Trans is a valid identity.
In the charity shop a few days later the volunteer shop assistant praised Freddy,
“You must have been a very good boy getting this tractor today?”
Freddy’s eyes bore into mine, begging me not to betray him. We smiled and nodded and left the shop, and outside Freddy gave me a big, loving hug and said, “Thank you for letting me be a boy Mummy.”
From this day on Freddy has been my son. He, him, his, whatever; Love. He needs my love. And yours.
Fast forward five years and there are days when Freddy does not love himself. Rather he does not love being transgender. He can struggle to hold his own in a minority. He first learned the word ‘transgender’ when watching the CBBC My Life show I am Leo.
“I am like Leo Mummy, I am a transgender boy.” He used this new word with gusto and pride. But he gets tired of telling everyone what it means. Progress for inclusive education is slow, our authorities in education worry far too much about the negative impact visible diversity will have upon children. In our experience Freddy’s friends needed very little support to accept his transition. Is it really radical to suggest we should be embracing a child’s ability to understand diversity? Rather than signing off on a policy promising support and inclusion but are still only words on a page instead of meaningful change?
For Freddy using the word transgender to describe himself has given him some freedom from the fixed idea of what a boy should be. He enjoys a rich world of play and exploration. How he is assures me that this child, age nine, has the capacity to love and care for others and himself. I love to watch him invent and create, use languages and love friendship. He is learning and growing. Phew! I can relax.
Oh shit! Here comes puberty.
Hips growing, breasts budding, first bleed, betrayal of the body. Hormone blockers? Bone density tests, hours of assessment, invasive procedures, binders, packers, cross sex hormones, first crush, first kiss, Snapchat and Insta rejection, spots and getting it wrong. Shitty statistics telling him he is fifty times more likely to attempt suicide than his cis-peers. Daily Mail headlines and worse, Daily Mail readers … “No! I did not do this to him because I really wanted a boy. No, he hasn’t had any surgery. No, I don’t know if he ever will have surgery, but did you know if you support and accept him then is just as likely to succeed as his peers and continue to grow with confidence? No, it is not a trend. Transgender people have always been here.” There is as much reassurance given as there is sought.
I don’t have a looking glass into Freddy’s future. I won’t be the one making his decisions but as his mum I can prepare him for adulthood in his childhood. Assuring him that he is valid, he is equal just as he is. But is this enough? I would rather teach every child we meet about the harmful myth of gender binary than have one more conversation with Freddy about transphobia. It is not ridiculous to hope that he will never have to protect himself against hate. But I still try to give him a thick skin for the real world.
The charity Mermaids have come to our rescue here. What better protection than a community of families like ours. Freddy and I spent the weekend at an outdoors resort in the Scottish Borders. That Saturday night he lay spread-eagle across the bunk with a rainbow face-paint smeared across his cheeks. He was exhausted from a day of tree-climbing, swimming in the lake, picnicking with new friends in a forest wig-wam and hours of football on the lawn.
“Mum, did you know some doctors helped Jake to look like he does now? He used to look like a girl. Do you think doctors can help me grow a beard when I’m older?”
“Yes, doctors can help you to have the puberty you want.”
He fell asleep dreaming of the possibilities. Not afraid. Progress indeed.