A child telling a parent they’re gay? That’s one thing. Saying they’re transgender? That’s very different.
For many, many parents, even the most liberal and understanding, it’s a huge undertaking that presents all sorts of issues.
Not only do trans kids suffer extremely high self-harm and suicide rates on an international level, but are at risk of bullying and mental health issues as they struggle with being born in the wrong body.
But there is a charity out there helping British parents go through this hugest of asks – Mermaids. The UK charity and support network campaigns for the recognition of gender dysphoria in young people and they lobby for improvements for transgender people in professional services.
Many of these mums have said when they looked online to research for help, the charity was the only thing available.
One mum, Alison, told Gay Star News when her child came out to her as a gay trans man called William, she was shocked. Distressed. And she felt like there was nowhere to turn.
‘When he came out to us, he used words I had never heard of before. I didn’t know what dysphoria was, or what transgender meant. I thought it was an extreme version of being gay,’ she said.
But William encouraged his mum to research.
‘I asked the school, I phoned the council seeing if they had a LGBT group, and there was nothing. I looked online and the only thing I could find was Mermaids,’ she said.
‘And they did everything. I was able to talk to them at a time when my child wasn’t in the house, they phoned me back exactly when I asked, and I can’t be too enthusiastic about them.’
Because of the disparaging reports Mermaids has had in the tabloid press this past month, we have given these women and their children anonymous names unless otherwise requested. The pictures are from Trans Pride Brighton and other Pride events and are not of the people involved. We were not paid by Mermaids for this article.
Miranda and her 10-year-old daughter Jessie
Miranda has known Jessie, who is 10, is her daughter for a very long time.
‘I have two older boys, and they both had phases. Both of my boys had a week or so where they wanted to wear nothing but a Batman costume. The month was over, and they moved onto Superman or cowboys or whatever,’ Miranda said.
‘Jessie was never interested in boy things. When she said a year ago, “I am a girl. Treat me like a girl. I am a girl.” I was scared. Of course I was scared.
‘We didn’t want to cause her any damage so we let her get on with it. My husband and I wanted her to be who she is. So she would stay quiet and pick out dresses when we went shopping.
‘We tried to encourage her to wear boy clothes, but she’d just take them off and wear a tutu. Or try and make a pillow case into a dress.
‘At first it was a month. And then it was three months. And then a year. I realized this wasn’t a phase, and it was real.’
Miranda said she contacted Mermaids for help, and she couldn’t believe the support she received.
‘It was life-changing.’
‘We’re in a place now where Jessie is getting more outgoing. Last week, we went Halloween shopping, and Jessie wanted to be Wonder Woman. So we bought the costume. Since then she hasn’t wanted to take it off.
‘It turns out my children really aren’t that different after all.’
Alexandra and her 14-year-old son Joe
Joe came out to his mum as genderfluid and bisexual at 12, and then later as transgender.
‘When he came out as genderfluid I was completely OK with that. He always presented as a tomboy, and with hindsight you can see the signs. He never wanted to wear feminine clothes. And then when he came out as transgender, that was a shock. He seemed so happy being genderfluid.
‘You’re faced with the usual thing at the age of 13. It’s just a phase. Next week it’s going to be something else. And even though you’re thinking these things, there’s a knot in your stomach that knows this is right. It’s real. And we’re all aware of the bigotry the LGBTI community faces.’
Alexandra said she hated a lot of what she thought during the transition, but Mermaids was there to help her deal with the mixed emotions. She felt like she had to grieve her daughter before she could celebrate having a son.
Alexandra and Joe’s dad are separated but he took it a lot better than she did. ‘If people don’t like it, they can do one,’ he said. But she couldn’t help fearing her child would be bullied, self-harm, and kept reading about the suicide rates for trans adolescents and adults.
‘When you have a child in the first place, you think, will my daughter grow up to be like me? Be a feminist like me? Have children like me? It’s a natural thing to do. You feel like you have something snatched away from you, the path you hoped they would go down. And I didn’t want Joe to be distressed.
‘So I normalized it as quickly as possible. Any big steps, like the wardrobe change, coming out to his school, changing his name by deed poll, was all decided by him. Mermaids helped with this as well. I’d call up and say, “I’m crying, I can’t help it.” They would never tell you what to do or what to say. Other parents were out there feeling the same way.’
Joe’s school has been very supportive. When he first came out, he suffered from too much anxiety to correct teachers when they dead-named or misgendered him. But Alexandra got in touch, and the head of year would deal with it. Joe has a pass he can use to take himself out from his lessons and has access to whatever bathroom, including the staff and disabled toilets, he chooses.
And while there are still kids who try and wind Joe up, he has a mountain of support from friends he has met online.
But it is Mermaids’ closed parents group where Alexandra has got the most support.
‘We know Mermaids is fighting our corner on a national level and a political level. They’re well respected and know their stuff. It’s a safe space to anyone who needs it’.
Lisa and her nine-year-old son Oliver
Lisa has not had the easiest ride with Oliver’s school.
‘This time he came to me and told me I think I like girls,’ Lisa said. ‘That’s fine, I thought, that’s brilliant. I like girls too. The next day he felt more empowered and told me, “I feel like I’m a boy.”
‘I went into the school the next day, just to keep them in the loop, and they went straight to social services and told them I was emotionally abusing him.’
Lisa contacted Mermaids, and she said they were ‘brilliant from the word go’. They tried contacting the school to ask why their reaction was so volatile, but they refused to speak to them.
The charity had offered to email them, offer them free courses in teacher training, but the school wasn’t interested. As far as they were concerned Oliver was not transgender, he was going through a phase and that was it.
Lisa had split with an abusive male partner before coming to terms with her sexuality.
‘This woman, apparently a professional, said I was emotionally abusing my children and that I had an agenda because of my sexuality,’ she said.
But her nine-year-old son was insistent with every adult, he had felt like a boy since five or six.
So Lisa gave Oliver a copy of the Equality Act, which states you have to treat any person equally regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.
‘Eventually, the school decided they would do a party and announce it to the school. While I’m still angry with the way the school behaved, I am grateful now. They want to be patted on the back. It’s infuriating. But as Mermaids have said, it’s still progress. I’ve just got to be grateful. I still speak with Mermaids everyday, even with stuff not to do with Oliver.’
Because Lisa’s ex-partner was abusive to her, Mermaids has made sure they are in separate parent groups. So he has a free space to talk about his worries with Oliver, and so does she.
‘I’ve had parents at Oliver’s school tell me it’s sick, but all the kids have seemed to have taken it in their stride.’
Dawn and 18-year-old son Sawyer
Sawyer came out to his mother Dawn as transgender in February of this year, and the transition happened quickly.
‘We had an argument as things weren’t great at home at the time,’ Dawn told GSN. ‘We went out for dinner, and I just wanted him to tell me what was up. He said, “I can’t. I’m scared.
‘I told him I’m going upstairs, write it on the whiteboard, and went from there. He shouted that he had finished. My husband came down, and Sawyer was in his room sobbing his heart out. He said, “I thought you were going to kick me out”. I told him, “You’re my child. I’d love you if you were yellow with pink spots. I will love you no matter what”.’
It came as a shock to Dawn. The 18-year-old daughter Dawn thought she had was a son. For Christmas the previous year, he had asked for dresses and makeup, but it turned out he was trying to convince himself, fool himself, into thinking he was someone he is not.
But Dawn still grieved for the daughter she lost, and so she turned to Mermaids – a charity that helps parents with trans children.
‘They’re really good,’ she said. ‘They gave me support in the best way.’
But it’s not been easy. While the entire family have been supportive to Sawyer, the teen has faced bullying and once tried to kill himself.
‘We had a next door neighbor, she came in and asked us about council tax. She looked at our wedding photos with me and my husband. Sawyer was living as a girl at the time it was taken. This neighbor turned around, got abusive, and grabbed Sawyer’s breasts and vagina and told him, “God wants you to repent your sins”. We were so shocked she had done that. It was sexual assault. We don’t speak to them anymore.’
With support from friends, family and Mermaids, Dawn said: ‘You know who your real friends are, that’s what’s important. If people don’t understand, and don’t want to understand, they can jog on. He is a boy. He’s my boy.’