I’ve said here before, that the only task of every psychiatrist I saw throughout my transition, was to make sure that I had no underlying psychiatric or mental disorder. Detecting gender dysphoria (or whatever we choose to call it) is a pretty difficult thing for someone who has never experienced it, but like any doctor or medical person, of course all you can go with is signs and symptoms, and diagnostic data. Unlike a bone, there is no x-ray or scan that will reveal gender identity. Chromosome tests have little if anything to do with gender; it is a felt thing. It is a known thing. And yes, it is a bit peculiar.
I am almost one year through my post-surgical transition now, and I am honest about where I am. The old gender identity feels very far away, my body has been altered, not as in restoration, but as in best-possible adjustment. Six months experience of sex, after the first five months of self-acquaintance, and I know where the imperfections lie. I am completely satisfied though, knowing that I have the best outcome I could expect. From the experience of trans men, I know I had it surgically easier, a compensation for entering my fifth year of weekly facial electrolysis. Having said that, I still have this deep awareness of how my body would feel had I been born with female genitalia. It is a bit different (not a lot), and it is uncanny. Something is there in my head like the few wires in a standard car electrical wiring loom unconnected because they were designed for the extra features I didn’t buy.
Yes; for me it is that strong and intuitive. I know what it would have been like to have the extra foglamps and dashboard gizmos.
My car could have extras. There are wires and fuses going nowhere, and I don’t have forward foglamps. It only matters in severe fog; they aren’t a requirement. But I know …
No-one can go for surgical transition expecting total perfection. Satisfaction, oh yes. But the full upgrade? So it is, that I feel most of us will always live with knowing we had a development problem pre-birth. We learn to celebrate what we have, do what we can, and live purposefully. I have never been happier.
But I do know that had I faced the total truth as a teenager, it would have been a harder thing to contemplate, for all kinds of reasons. You can ask a mature adult about their lives and investigate with them all their major influences. You can probably get to the root of things and recognise genuine gender dysphoria, with a sense of real responsibility being taken. For younger people, there is so much Internet information and dialogue going on, that you have to find the person through the learned language, once they have spent real time online. There, you can learn how to be, as much as learn how you are. The Internet saved me, in the sense that I recognised myself. Also, I knew I had a lot to lose if I got it wrong. But I did find my own narrative back to the age of five, in memories that only made sense with the new information.
My childhood was uninformed, it was vanilla, because I was not really permitted to know, think or discuss anything about sex or gender. When I tell you about my childhood, it is pure experience, and the interpretation is by the mature me. I don’t have to claim to have preferred dolls to diggers as toys, and I don’t have to pretend I dressed as a princess. I can tell you what it felt like not to expect a female puberty. I can tell you what it felt like to lose the colourfulness of being very small, as I was dressed as a plain boy for school, when my sister had budgerigars all over her dress, or even when my little school friend had a simple pink gingham dress. I did not need to exaggerate anything to ensure the diagnosis I wanted.
The earnest, very young, child who expresses an uninformed conviction about their gender not matching their body, has to be listened to. Parents may not like it, or be scared by it. But what is a very young child really telling you? Surely, they are telling you something. Later, when a child expresses identity conflict, it may be more difficult, since they can be over-informed as well as under-informed. But still, they are telling you something that is important to them, and as a parent, the best care you can offer is to listen. Yes, recognise that they may be easily influenced, but don’t impose your rationality on them too easily.
I guess it is easier to tell someone about your childhood later in life. I acknowledge that we alter our memories, but the ones that really stick are the ones with most significance. The significance may not be obvious, but it will be there. Why do I remember certain smells so well that I can recall them and the places where they were, so long after? I can’t tell you why; only that I can, and that something made me remember these windows on my childhood better than others. Asking a pubescent child about their earlier childhood feelings may not be so easy to interpret. There will be more of the memories, and less maturity with which to reflect rather than simply remember. But still, they do have the capacity to tell you their life story so far, as they understand it.
Children also must be allowed to make mistakes, and you know as a parent the best you can do is always be there to support and guide. You can’t prevent all the mistakes, and it isn’t your job to do so. Above all, don’t push your child in a direction that simply avoids what you find awkward or embarrassing. When it comes to genuine gender dysphoria expressed by a child, parents don’t usually know what to do. In many cases the parents will not agree. It may be ‘just a phase’ or it may not. One parent or both may feel scared of losing a daughter or son, or personally losing face in their own social circle. The truth is, you all need to find out.
Adult people in gender transition currently are required to live for two years in their preferred gender expression before invasive treatment can take place. It’s very frustrating if you have known all your life. But I know people who have switched about a number of times, either for lack of courage or conviction that this is what they really need to do. For children, the most that will be done is to delay puberty, in order to give the opportunity to really find out how to proceed. But you do have to be honest and open, and be prepared to decide one way or another.
If someone does not have strong gender dysphoria, it’s OK to be gender fluid, non-binary or androgynous. It is OK to be neither or both, however confusing some people may find it. What is not OK, is to impose your view of gender on someone who is struggling to find their identity. It is not your choice or decision. As a parent, the most loving and supportive thing you can do is to listen, be properly informed yourself, and swim alongside your child. You may swallow water, but you won’t drown; but they might if you don’t even jump in. No minority group, and no young persons’ group, has so high a suicide and attempted suicide rate as transgender youth.
There is support available, more so now than ever before. If you need advice or help for your child, please look up and contact Mermaids.
The reason I wrote this today is because I was talking to such a parent about such a child, where the situation is not altogether clear as yet, and where the other parent is dogmatically and assertively opposed to contemplating properly hearing the child. The youngster may or may not have gender dysphoria, but that is the pool they are swimming in right now.
I can think about my childhood, and I can tell my adult story of transition. But I can’t help diagnose anyone else. What I do know is that our childhoods matter for the rest of our lives, and we owe it to youngsters to let them live theirs freely, with all the exploration and mistakes it involves. I didn’t explore much, and I did make mistakes. In the end, I lived too long suppressing my gender with a lot of internalised fear and anger. A decision like gender transition is not easy (especially if you are young) if you are facing a life with one or two permanently disconnected wires just so your headlights work well.
So tell me about your childhood, and I will tell you why it simply matters that you can.