I’ll always be grateful to Graham Linehan for Black Books. Bernard Black was a joy. I’ve no idea about Father Ted or the IT Crowd or anything else that Linehan wrote or co-wrote. I don’t watch a lot of telly.
Why am I writing about Graham Linehan? For reasons that are obscure – at least to me – Graham Linehan has been supporting the ‘gender critical’ position on Twitter for about a year now. There might be a good reason but I don’t know what it is. For this, he’s earned the praise of those who are loosely called TERFs and the condemnation of many trans people and allies.
I disagree with just about everything Linehan tweets and I’m not surprised he generates pile-ons. I’m also not surprised he’s had enough. He’s just published a farewell to Twitter on Medium (which maybe I shouldn’t support with a link but I will). The article contains many things to take issue with, but today I’ve decide to take issue with this bit in particular:
Why then, are we telling children (children!) a similar, harmful lie? And when current ideology dictates that you don’t need surgery or hormone treatments to be trans, then why are these children being sent down a medical pathway AT ALL? It is contradictory nonsense enacted every day in gender clinics all over the world.
I probably read something in a similar vein to this every day. It’s nothing new. But it occurs to me that at the heart of Linehan’s (and the objections of thousands of others) is the idea that being transgender is a lie. Particularly in the case of kids, there’s a conviction that even if children are telling the truth it’s not an endurable truth, that it’s literally impossible to ‘be in the wrong body.’
I wrote a ‘thing’ last week for an online page in a parent support group. It hasn’t gone up yet, so I thought I’d reproduce it here. It’s just a personal account; the best response I can muster to Graham Linehan:
“Our youngest child was always a cheeky sprite of a thing. We gave ‘her’ a name which seemed to perfectly describe her impish, other-worldly quality. I remember her as being a ball of energy, hair always flying, ever curious, ever busy. I still miss her. Sometimes, it feels like it’s not permissible to say that, but it’s true. I mourn her, this fantasy child who never fully came into focus.
I’ll call our child – now our much-loved son – ‘O’ from here on.
From babyhood, O was often distressed, but we seldom understood why. O was early to walk and talk and he met all developmental milestones. But he couldn’t settle and often wouldn’t eat; he would rip everything off his bedroom walls and wail for hours that “everything was wrong.” He was stubborn, difficult to discipline, impossible to reason with. Getting dressed took hours and there were days we didn’t leave the house because the world was inexplicably so, so wrong.
Like all good, worried, middle-class parents we had tests done. All the tests. Nothing definite. None of the ‘A’ diagnoses (autism, ADHD, Asperger’s) fitted – except anxiety. Terrible, terrible, world-upending anxiety. By the age of eight O often begged me to kill him. He wanted me to end how unrelentingly awful it felt to be alive. I was alarmed and frightened, and we got a referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. But there was still nothing obvious to diagnose and we were turned away.
O’s Dad and I didn’t think of gender dysphoria and there were no clear signs when O was very little. O did all the ‘girl stuff’ well. He had excellent fashion sense (and he still does); he was good at socialising and always had enormous birthday parties; he had a talent when it came to looking after younger children (and still does). He was also feisty, fascinated by insects and football and climbed everything in sight.
I’ve worked at universities most of my adult life. I now think my education both helped me and blinded me to what was going on. I thought I already knew about gender diversity, about ‘performing’ gender, about gender being a construct, and about the difference between biological sex and gender identity. I knew some trans people – though not well – and somehow thought I was “across this”. I had also long understood – intellectually at least – that my child’s sexual and gender identity was not about me. For a while it was very easy to accept O’s emerging identity, because our kid was a feminist’s dream child: a tough, spirited girl who suffered no bullshit and took no prisoners. I loved her. I loved everything about her, including my idea of what she was and who she was becoming.
But, today it feels weird to be talking about ‘her’. Despite how hard things have been and continue to be, I also don’t care much anymore about the gender of our darling child. By nine years old O was running in front of cars. He was running and running, often bolting out of the classroom doors and running for miles. We changed schools, we found a psychologist trained in CBT, and our families blamed our indulgence and lack of discipline. We got ‘back to nature’ and spent time at the sea and in the bush. We bought a puppy. (The puppy is still hands-down the best thing we did).
It’s not like it suddenly became clear that O was transgender. It was something that slowly but surely came into view. Now, looking back, I can pinpoint when shifts occurred. The haircut. The time he was called ‘he’ when we went to buy boardshorts and he asked me to stop correcting the shop assistant. The insistence on swimming shirtless. The distress about being handed the ‘girls’ colouring book (I know: why gender a colouring book??). The panic at being in the girls’ cabin at camp. The refusal to wear a sari in the school concert.
O was nine years old at this point, approaching puberty. He has two older sisters who had also been tomboys at this age. I thought very little about O’s early gender rebellion. But then there were the other, more private, things. Some aspects of O’s gender identity are very private. These private details are also how O’s Dad and I know that his identity as a boy is profound, and real. This is not a phase, or a whim, or an experimentation, either O or for us. It’s also not something O can choose.
I remember meeting two of my friends for dinner around the time O was in Year Four. When they asked how ‘she’ was going, I said, “Well, she’s wearing boys’ underwear and wants to use the boys’ toilets but I don’t think she can be transgender because she’s nine and I’ve read that kids usually say something when they’re much younger.” I still remember the doubtful look on my friends’ faces: was I kidding myself?
Then, in the kitchen one evening, not long before his tenth birthday, O told he was a boy and he needed to live as a boy. I wasn’t surprised. Amazed, proud, fearful – but not surprised. O insisted I do something so he could use the boys’ toilet – and that was the first of my many steep learning curves. How can the place you pee be so important? But it was important to O and I accepted it, even though I didn’t fully understand. O often says I’m overthinking gender stuff – and sometimes I think he’s right.
When a child comes out as transgender at the age of ten, it’s the parents (and, statistically speaking, usually the mother) who paves the way. I still think of myself as the minesweeper, clearing away potential explosions so O doesn’t have to. This job of mine has no exact precedent: in 2014 there were no “trans child rule books” about negotiating names, pronouns, health cards, education, counselling, clothes, sport, toilets, changerooms, passports, birth certificates, health care etc. etc. The social, legal, political and health changes in the last six years have been incredible, but none of them happened by accident. If a trans kid transitions with ease today it’s because they‘re standing on the shoulders of the fearless activists who came before them.
In 2014, when O transitioned, there was no ‘out’ transgender, primary school-aged child in our entire city. O’s school had never had a child go through a gender transition. I didn’t enjoy having to explain the situation to O’s classroom teacher or to the school principal. (I should probably clarify that the transition was social, not medical: we just asked everyone to use O’s new name and male pronouns and to let him use the boy’s toilet). I also had to explain to the dentist, the gymnastics coach, the general medical practice, the parents of O’s friends and a thousand other people. It was exhausting and it enveloped all our whole family’s lives for a long time.
Unfortunately, the worst aspect of O’s coming out – both for him and for our immediate family – was trying to explain the situation to our extended family. Today, I think a lot of the problem stemmed from me being O’s primary advocate. Because I often had to speak for him I was seen as driving his transition. The subsequent misunderstandings and estrangements hurt everyone involved. To everyone who has a transgender child, I would say: make sure you listen and attend to the siblings. Both of O’s sisters suffered terribly.
Here’s another thing I’ve learned: the importance in honouring the “starting point” of other people, no matter how much their incomprehension might grate on you. We were lucky enough to get immediate support from a local gender centre; several members helped O at the school in ways that I couldn’t. One wonderful woman taught me a lot about how to be at peace with “where people are at.” I learned from her that most in our community weren’t hostile: they’d just never thought about the possibility of a transgender child. Most people I’ve met are compassionate and open hearted once they understand something of what is going on for O and what they can do to support him.
O ‘came out’ nearly five years ago now. He’s fourteen, nearly fifteen. He’s still feisty, cute and funny. The puppy dog is one of his best friends – but he has other (human) friends. He still likes football and he also loves skating and acting. So, is this a happy ending? I don’t know.
I try to not worry about the future. All parents of transgender kids do what I’ve seen called anticipation work: we have to simultaneously ‘hold space’ as our children to grow into who they need to be – but we also have to make hard decisions about bodily changes that might threaten their survival. For us, the Family Court decisions of 2017 have meant that those that know O best are now free to work very slowly and carefully to help him determine the best way forward. It’s not easy, but we know we’re lucky.
I’m not going to tell you that everything was better once O transitioned. It wasn’t. O still suffers crippling anxiety: it didn’t fix his sense that at times the world (and he) are irretrievably broken. He rages, he breaks down, he screams at the unfairness of it all. There’s difficult shit to overcome every day.
For a while I drank way too much wine and developed an autoimmune disorder (these things do not go together well). But lately, thanks to the love of friends and family, and consistent professional care, I’ve had time to reflect on where our family is now. We are alive. We’re out in the world again: teaching, writing, studying and performing. We’re sadder – but also wiser about the precariousness of having privilege in this society. Loving and supporting someone who’s gender diverse doesn’t make you a good person. It will likely make you a person who can better understand what it’s like to live beyond what society deems to be acceptable – and to stand in your truth regardless.
There’s one reassurance I can give anyone who has newly discovered they have a transgender child: you will never, ever, have to do this alone. The power of this truth can’t be overstated: your child will never have to feel like they’re the only one. Today, there are support groups and services across Australia and internationally. Transgender people can connect with millions of other transgender people – and they can be certain that, throughout time and space, there have always been transgender people. And I know that the more stories are told, the better it will be for those that come after us. That’s why I’ve shared O’s story – and our story. I wish you the very best of life and luck.”