How can the place you pee be so important? My response to Graham Linehan



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:


trans symbol


“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.


trans symbol




Climate Change is About Everything

I don’t know how many people have been struggling with fragmented thoughts lately, but I have. I’m off overseas in a couple of days, and so far any attempts to summarise my year have been fruitless.  My head’s a mess. So, I’m just going to write in fragments. Perhaps this is counterintuitive, but I want to feel a bit more whole. So, firstly:

Climate Change Not Only Changes Everything: It’s About Everything 

I first remember a teacher explaining ‘the greenhouse effect’ when I was about 14 years old. I find it curious that this lesson sticks in my memory at all. It was about 1985, at the end of the Cold War, and we were taught that nuclear apocalypse was a real and present danger, far more alarming than any other possible catastrophe (movies like Threads and The Day After were made compulsory viewing at my high school). I found out later that my parents had seriously considered building a nuclear bunker in our back yard. Greenhouse gases seemed benign in comparison; in fact, if my memory serves me, my impression was that my arid homeland might become a lush rainforest, which was not an unattractive idea.

There were serious bushfires sometimes. One December afternoon, returning from the city with my parents, we could see billowing smoke over our suburb. As we drove closer, I realised it was the bushland to the west of us burning, but at night I dreamt of running and running from a fire that was always just behind me and always about to swamp everything.


In my late teens, I lived in Canada, and I joined a group at the college called SITE (Students Improving The Environment). I don’t really remember what we did – a lot of recycling, mainly – but I became aware of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. Canadians sorted their ‘trash’ long before we did. With the confidence of adolescence, and with the backdrop of perestroika, I was certain that my generation were the most self-aware to ever exist: more open and more politically galvanised.

So, I grew up with an awareness of impending global crises, but also a feeling of optimism that I suspect is common amongst colonials in the Antipodes: real life was always happening elsewhere. I also carried with me what now seems a particular sort of privilege: I felt certain that people were good and that everything would be alright in the end.

I also think I was fooled by my morbid, Catholic, literary attraction to apocalypse. At university, I studied both utopias and dystopias, fascinated by Wim Wenders and post-armageddon tunes by Morrissey.

For a while I lost sight of societal/environmental collapse as more than a concept, or an aesthetic. But in 2005, my Canadian English teacher sent me Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress , and this triggered an epiphany about the urgency of climate change: it was not Jared Diamond or Al Gore, as it was for so many others. Now I wonder why my understandings of various socio-eco crises came together after reading this particular little text: it’s a compilation of the 2004 Massey Lectures, and it’s about the collapse of former civilisations. But this was the book that finally sent me into permanent existential foreboding: I remember wandering the streets that Christmas time, thinking of my stepdaughter and my two small children, frustrated by the lack of a sense of crisis in the people around me. I had no idea how to live the rest of my life.

To paraphrase Tracy Chapman, talk of climate change sounded “like a whisper” in Australia, 2005. Environmental destruction was talked about, but only amongst some scientists and greenies. I don’t remember it having much traction in mainstream media.

Even today, I’m often struck by how hard it is for me to refer to climate change in professional situations, particularly as someone who is not a trained scientist. The very subject remains tainted with politics, though I can’t understand why it’s still often viewed as a partisan issue. Outside of Australian cities, as recently as last year, I witnessed tour-guides, geologists and farmers click their tongues in frustration whenever a trendy city person (like myself) brought it up.

There’s another thing  I struggle with, when I talk about climate change. I don’t know if I can articulate this well, but I’ll try.

The thing is: we spend so much time in Western societies, capitalist societies, consciously forming our individual identities. We do Myers-Briggs tests, to see what kind of personality we have. We make conscious decisions about our style of clothing and hair, music, living space, occupation and leisure habits (as well as the more subtly ingrained aspects of gesture, speech and taste – what Bourdieu would call habitus). We assert our sexuality, our gender identity, our alliance with some groups and our opposition to others.

Some of these aspects of self are chosen; many are pre-determined or innate. My attempts to comprehend what is innate and what is chosen is one of the subjects I keep returning to in this blog.

I don’t have a good way to say the rest of it: fighting environmental destruction is now the core responsibility and task of every human being on the planet. But I find the environmental activist aesthetic unattractive and it mucks with my personal identity. I know now that I will spend the rest of my time on this planet being conscious of how my own life reverberates with other lives, and with our shared biosphere.  But I’m no scientist. I don’t much like dirt.  Environmental activism sounds sort of . . . ugly and khaki-coloured. It smells like mould and mud.

I know I’m being petty and these are actually the best kind of people. I agree with their activism entirely.

I’m not good with sweaty earnest tree-huggers.  I like abstraction, poetry, beautiful art, impractical clothing, cityscapes, the exhilaration of air travel.

I’m trying to reconcile myself with environmental imperatives and my personal sensibilities. I suppose part of what I’m coming to terms with, like every living human being, is what is already lost.  I’m also trying to work out what can be saved. I remember reading Station Eleven: at the close of civilisation, people mourn simple things, like orange pekoe tea and warm baths.

Everything around me is so precious. I love our garden (what’s left of it); the bush; the stars at night; the handmade quilt on my bed. Our dogs, my husband, our crazy beautiful, mixed-up kids. I don’t want to let any of it go.

So . . .   Adani Must Be Stopped

 Adani is an ‘energy and infrastructure company’, a subsidiary of India’s Adani Group. Adani plans to build the Carmichael Coal Mine and Railway in the Gallilee Basin in Central Queensland (yes, close to the area last month that had ‘once in a century’ bushfires).

There’s more about this coal mine here, but suffice to say it’s projected to be Australia’s largest coal mine and one of the largest in the world. There are grave concerns about groundwater, the Great Barrier Reef, further desecration of indigenous sacred sites and, of course, the effects of carbon emissions. A Greenpeace report showed the output from Carmichael would exceed the yearly carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion in many countries.

Thirty overseas companies have refused to finance it, but the Australian government has pledged to subsidise two billion dollars to build it.

This is, inevitably, deeply political. Here’s our dickhead Prime Minister giving his infamous ‘coalphobia’ speech (when he was Treasurer):

Yeah. I do have an ‘ideological, pathological fear of coal’ if it continues to be dug up. Thanks for that, Scott Morrison.

Then there’s these pathologically tone-deaf words from Federal Energy Minister Matt Canavan:

Matt Canavan.png
NB: Adani is not ‘a little Aussie battler’: it’s an Indian multinational conglomerate.


In response, my children, like hundreds of thousands of others around the world have taken to the streets:

children in Sydney

Canavan also had this to say, but he’s already demonstrated his complete disinterest in the future of kids and the climate around the world.


The Personal and the Political: The Big and the Small.

I tweeted last week that articles like this make me consider not tweeting about identity politics – including gender and transgender politics – ever again. How can individual concerns continue to be important in the face of global destruction? How can we care about our own lives and the life of everything on the planet at the same time?

I have a good friend at the annual UN Climate Change Conference at Katowice in Poland this week. She’s a climate scientist and has spent a lot of time in the small, rapidly drowning islands in the South Pacific: the Marshall Islands; Kiribas; Tuvalu. When my friend and I meet, we don’t discuss climate change much, really, but I once asked her how long she thought we had left to avert certain catastrophe. She replied, “Two years. Sorry.” That was a year and a half ago.

The world has already warmed by 1 degree celsius. It’s unlikely that we can prevent 1.5 degrees of warming, though many scientific and environmental bodies are still trying.

Personally, I still struggle with my sense of conceptual dissonance. I’ve lived on this planet for almost fifty years in a manner that now seems stupidly and fatally disconnected from the non-human world; now I, my family and everyone I know needs to figure out how to live in a fundamentally different way.

In the midst of all of this, I have a home to look after, young people to teach, two children still to raise. I have health issues and gender services to navigate. I still have individual aspirations: to learn the violin; to teach yoga; to publish a short story and to be a better cook. And while it sometimes makes me cringe to acknowledge it, I have a lot of personal healing to do, a lot of grief to accept and overcome. Sometimes, keeping myself balanced and functional is a full-time job, particularly when I spend so much time hunched over a computer screen, neglecting my physical health. These efforts makes me drink too much wine and then consult naturopaths about why I’m gaining weight and feeling so tired. But naturopaths and alcohol both cost a lot so then I deal with the residual guilt about my over-indulgent life.

They’re first world problems, but problems nonetheless.

I’ve written before about how the American educator and philosopher, Maxine Greene, made me aware of how we can misconstrue what is ‘big’ and what is ‘small’.  Green regarded ‘big’ things as being about the intricate and complicated lives of individual students. ‘Small’ denoted bureaucracies and institutions that could only conceptualise demographics, not people. Greene wrote:

To see things or people big, one must resist viewing other human beings as mere objects or chess pieces and view them in their integrity and particularity instead.  One must see from the point of view of the participant.

In terms of where I put my attention, I feel I’ve been incessantly zooming in and panning out most of my adult life.  Is the big life or the small most important? I feel giddy, distressed – and unfocused.


How do We All Stop Screaming At One Another?

This is a poem I return to frequently:

The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.


I know that there’s little to be gained from adopting a hard line and then screaming at all who oppose it. One of my problems with activism is that a position needs to be adopted and maintained, often violently.  I despise ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric – partly because it is never effective. I have never known anyone to shift their position or capitulate when they’re kicked to the corner.

In my climate conversation with my scientist friend she predicted that as global resources continue to be depleted, and to be inequitably distributed, there will be more terrible, unresolvable conflicts like Syria. As I write today, the yellow vests are rioting in Paris in response to Macron’s austerity measures. I fear – I know – my friend is right. Historically, the ability to not choose a side is a luxury. It’s also frequently amoral. Many people – including me and those closest to me – will have to fight. In some ways, we already are.

On social media too, virtual as it is, there’s a lot of yelling. Inevitably, I’m particularly aware of the angry divisions within transgender and feminist alliances and it fills me with dismay. I don’t see how anyone suffering gender oppression will be helped while this polarity runs so deep. I’ve equivocated lately about some feminist issues and I now feel regret, even though I know it was absolutely personally necessary to dwell with my uncertainty for a while.

I’m running out of time today to articulate everything exactly as I wish but finally, I wanted to write that I value kindness. It’s not a soft or a weak emotion: it’s so bloody hard to maintain. I want to be kind – and I want to be unafraid. As well as a bit less earnest, sometimes.


To conclude, for now:

I intend to focus inward a little more in the next year, to pay close attention to my friends, my family and my inner life.  It feels like the right time to reimagine what is big and what is small.

I know this seems like an odd choice, given everything I’ve articulated above. The planet and our lives upon it are tumbling out of control.  But I can do my best and most urgent work by guiding and enabling the young people closest to me, as we head into this unknown, burning, swirling future.


The Sleepover and Adolescent Rites

It’s spring, the sky is smoky yellow and birds are fucking in midair. OK, that wasn’t how I was going to begin. It’s the season when feelings of change are palpable. This year I also feel unsettled. The bushfires have already begun and teenage-dom is contributing to my sense that everything is a little weird and a little undone.

O’s sister and I are travelling to Hong Kong and China next month. I’ll probably write about that in the future. But tonight I wanted to get down a few thoughts about adolescent rites and The Sleepover.

I’m beginning to realise that part of the reason O’s friends are flocking to our house at present is that we’re being more liberal than other parents in O’s age group. O is now 14 – his friends are mostly 13 and 14 – and it’s a tricky age for rule enforcing and boundary setting in any context.

Personally, I’m loving a sense of normality returning to our lives. I haven’t written much about how things were for our family in the last eighteen months but, suffice to say, a lot of our experience was frightening and isolating. I like having young teenagers lolling around on the couch or out the back, playing with the dogs or talking to me, and generally just being silly together. O is starting to thrive again, and that’s immeasurably important too.

Anyway, in the last couple of months we’ve let O hold several sleepovers – boys and girls. It was never something that O’s Dad or I were permitted at this age, so we did stop and talk about rules – but also why we felt OK with this. Here was our thinking:

  • It was important to us and to O that our house was a place where kids felt welcome and safe;
  • None of the kids in this particular circle are experimenting with alcohol or drugs at this point – at least in our presence. But this is part of our reasoning: we want these children in our presence as much as possible – and to have as good an idea as possible about what is going on;
  • Both our younger kids spent have spent much too much time in the last few years communicating online. We want them to build deep, strong friendships with their peers in person;
  • Sleepovers are lot of fun, if a bit exhausting. Our dogs (in particular) are thrilled.

There are definitely some well-documented problems with sleepovers. Firstly, there’s often not a lot of sleep and then there’s the thing where parents, in particular, worry that things will ‘get out of hand.’

I’ve found myself revisiting this second concern: basically, it seems that what adults worry about most is that teens will have sex. Specifically, teens will have sex in their house. When I was growing up teens were definitely not supposed to have sex at all. Of course, many did, but it was not talked about and not officially happening.

I still find it a bit hard to completely understand the origin of this fear of teenage sex. I am not sure if the biggest issue in the 1980s was that it was immoral to have sex or that someone might get impregnated. I tend to believe that it was more of the latter, although I have to recall that in my Catholic upbringing casual sex was always really, really wrong.

Madeleine bed

But O is transgender. He is also pre-puberty, which predictably enough is becoming more of an issue for him, week by week by week. O’s pretty sure he’s straight, which means he likes girls, and doesn’t believe this will change for him with pubertal hormones (although we’ve talked about how it might).

At the moment, this situation means that O is inevitably ‘friend-zoned’. He has some strong, genuine friendships with girls but they’re not particularly sexual with one another. I suspect some girls like him very much for the very fact that he’s ‘safe.’ O also has some longstanding male friendships and a lot of acquaintances through soccer and skateboarding. The need to socialise is strong in this one.

But here’s the thing – or part of it. Some of O’s friends are gay. Some are bisexual and some are straight. Some don’t know who they are attracted to as yet. So, with sleepovers, it seems ridiculous to insist on segregating genders. It might save some outdated notion of propriety but it won’t limit sexual behaviour. We could ban sleepovers, but then, inevitably, sexual experimenting will happen at the far ends of school property and in the bushes and the backs of cars, just like the ‘good old days.’

I feel a bit without a road map here and I think O’s Dad does too.  This is not how our parents or our friends’ parents handled this issue at all, but it’s safe to say that a lot of our own sex education was uninformed and just plain wrong.  It seems clear to me that the only sincere way forward – the only good way forward – is to ensure that all the kids in our care understand and practise mutual respect and enthusiastic consent.  I’m pretty confident that there are no young teens copulating under our roof at this point, but in the future this could well happen.  I’ve realised lately I’m far more concerned about O’s friendship group continuing to listen to one another and to treat each other with care and consideration than I am about anything else.


On that note, I should get to sleep.  I’m hoping we can all enjoy what is shaping up to be a long, hot summer – with added hormones.

I don’t get to be right about everything.

A few ways in which I think ‘gender criticals’ have a point:

It would appear that being transgender is seen as ‘cool’ amongst some young teens. This is what O tells me anyway. When I read articles online about trans kids I’m often struck by how many different stories get conflated. I don’t think that high school kids exploring gender and ‘bucking the binary’ are much like O, really. But yes, for some, transgender is a trend.

Gender is a social construct. As I’ve written before, there’s nothing about having a vulva that dictates that you must have long hair and like pink and princesses. A very thoughtful colleague asked me recently if I could define gender (he was trying to). I gave him the standard lines about “gender being between your ears and sex being between your legs”.  That definition – however glib – is helpful in distinguishing between sex and gender but it still doesn’t tell us much about what gender is

Linguistically, many things are defined by relativity (an apple is at least partly an apple because it’s not an orange). But what is gender, essentially? I only speak English and high school French. These languages are impossibly inadequate tools to use to describe gender. I don’t know if there’s better ones.

I suspect the reason so many media stories resort to stereotypes is because of the difficulty – even discomfort –  in trying to explain a deeply held internal conviction to others, a conviction that doesn’t make linguistic sense. Being a girl is not about liking dresses and being a boy is not about liking trucks, but it can become a convenient shorthand. Or so I surmise. Parents have to be advocates for their children – that seems fundamental to me. But until children can speak for themselves you’re often left trying to explain feelings you don’t actually have yourself. I have no idea what it’s like to feel that my sense of self is at war with my biology.

Finally, I agree with the ‘gender criticals’ that medicalising the transgender experience and altering the bodies of children is fraught with difficulty. I really really don’t like the idea that O might need to permanently alter his body – and that in choosing to take testosterone he would make his healthy young body always less than healthy. I’m not happy about that at all. In the article I reposted about Debra Soh, I concede I made light of this point at the time, as body alteration (by definition) is not a part of gender social transitions by young children. I still don’t think that medical professionals, the psychiatrists, the parents or the children themselves have resolved what the best standards of care are for adolescents with gender dysphoria. I will always be grateful that O himself has been treated with such care and consideration. I know it’s not the same everywhere.

I know what I want to do is to keep trying to tell our family’s story in a way that considers more than the typical – or what is becoming the stereotypical – story of having a transgender child. For me, part of doing what is best for O is to keep thinking, to keep thinking hard. Even when I get very stressed, it’s necessary stress. If I take his gender identity and his treatment too lightly I’ve done him a deep disservice.

In our garden right now – and definitely not just for girls

Throwback . . . Wednesday? A Response to Debra Soh.

I wrote this in 2015. Many things have changed since then. In Australia, it’s no longer necessary for transgender children to go to the Family Court to access Stage Two treatment – cross sex hormones. In Canada, Zucker lost his job. Also, Debra Soh got her PhD and makes a living as a science journalist, promoting free speech and claiming that she has been shut down by trans activists.

Hardly the most important point – but I note that in her first article (2015) she says she is in her thirties whereas Wikipedia says that in 2018 she is 28. No wonder casual readers struggle to work out what is true.

Anyway, I found my old post in a document on my hard drive (I deleted my old blog). Soh came up in an online conversation, so I’m reposting. Here it is: 


I lie awake at night thinking about the future of transitioning for my child. I agonise over unknowns: do puberty blockers have side effects that haven’t yet been documented? Are there going to be ways to prevent sterility if O takes cross-sex hormones? Will O be happy and healthy (or even survive) if we don’t allow him to take puberty blockers?  How do we support O in the way that is best for him?

These are the terrible questions we are compelled to ask, and to keep asking. They are questions that need to be raised publicly. Families like ours want to be able to assess the effects of hormone blockers and we need honest answers about the risks for O in taking them, as well as the risks of not taking them. We need answers based on the best possible science and reasoning, without scaremongering.

Sometimes, I feel like finding these answers is simply too hard. But, as O’s parents, find answers we must. All of our lives and wellbeing depend on it. With my heart in my throat, I follow discussions, I talk to professionals, I talk to transgender people. I read the latest research. In the end, we will make decisions based on all these considerations. We will also be guided by a child who we love dearly, who tells us things about himself that no research will ever capture. I’m not aware of a family supporting a transgender child who does not do these things.

Last week, an article by Debra W Soh appeared in the Pacific Standard, titled ‘Why Transgender Kids Should Wait to Transition’.  When I saw the link in Soh’s Twitter feed, my heart pounded.  I was afraid to click on it, although I felt I had to.  The article has been shared over 5100 times, and as someone with a deep interest in the title alone, I can appreciate why. Dr Soh’s profile states that she is a sex researcher and neuroscientist.  Based on her professional profile, I thought she must have the results of new research, highlighting the dangers of transitioning for transgender kids.


This is not the case.


Instead, Soh’s article begins with the story of having been a ‘gender atypical little girl’:

My friends were all boys. My favorite pastimes included rough-and-tumble play and running around the house while waving my he-man sword high in the air.

People who regularly read about transgender children online (particularly the dreaded ‘comments’ section) will know what’s coming.  Soh is describing the experience of being a ‘tomboy’. There is no suggestion that she or anyone else considered that she might be transgender, or even that she experienced consistent gender dysphoria. This doesn’t stop Soh wondering if today she might be labeled as trans and she is grateful that her parents did no such thing. She is now a ‘happy, straight adult.’

Soh’s story follows well-trodden terrain– you can find other examples of her particular logic here and here. Despite its speciousness, it’s not surprising that it’s a common narrative, given the blurred distinctions between gender diverse and transgender children prior to puberty. As most people reading this already know, these uncertainties are partly why prepubescent children never transition in any permanent way. Being gender fluid or gender nonconforming is not the same as being transgender, but prior to puberty, it might be difficult to make that distinction.


But Soh worries hypothetically about ‘a young child whose gender dysphoria would have desisted without intervention’.


Guess what? If a young child’s gender dysphoria desists, there is no intervention, unless acknowledging preferred names, pronouns and dress is ‘intervention’. However Soh never states clearly what she means by ‘transition’ and in most cases she conflates the socio-cultural ways in which one might support a small child, as we have with O, with the most physically invasive aspects of hormones and surgery.

At one point Soh does assert that, “Even a social transition back to one’s original gender role can be an emotionally difficult experience for children.”  How does Soh know this? Based on what evidence or experience?  She doesn’t say.  By definition, for a transgender child, their original gender role was an “emotionally difficult experience”. I couldn’t work out what Soh meant.

Soh never defines the age of the children she’s concerned about. Four year olds? Twelve year olds on the cusp of puberty?  Seventeen year olds? As most people reading this would know, children with persistent gender dysphoria at puberty do not ‘transition’, medically or otherwise. At this point, they might be prescribed hormone blockers, which are reversible: if you stop taking them, puberty commences.

If gender dysphoria still exists four, five or six years later – in other words, at the end of childhood – cross-sex hormones will be an option for some.  Still fewer consenting adults – those with substantial funds – might choose surgery.


The whole premise of Soh’s article is more than alarmist, it’s just plain wrong, for several reasons.


Firstly, trans children do wait to transition, because they have to. All people legally taking cross-sex hormones will have undergone rigorous medical and psychiatric assessment. For children, these assessments will likely have gone on for a number of years. In Australia, sixteen to eighteen year olds must have this stage of their treatment approved by the Family Court. Promoting the idea that irreversible sexual transitions can take place at the drop of a hat is pernicious for the trans people and their families involved.

Secondly, Soh states that ‘research has shown that most gender dysphoric children outgrow their dysphoria, and do so by adolescence’. This is incorrect, because there are no studies that have ever been completed with accurate data on ‘’persisters and desisters”.  The article that she links to is recent, but the statistics in the abstract have been discredited. However, the idea that most gender dysphoric children “change back” is a persistent misconception.

You can acquaint yourself with some of the issues to do with the assertion that “most children outgrow their dysphoria” by looking at findings and analyses from the Dutch research here. One of the main issues with this research is that it wasn’t longitudinal: if children didn’t come back to the clinic, researchers assumed that they no longer experienced gender dysphoria. Other possibilities, such as lack of money or support – or simply moving away – don’t seem to have been considered. Unfortunately, the Dutch findings have been cited in hundreds of articles since, until the assertion that “most kids change back” has become conventional wisdom. It is not, however, good science.

Referring to research by Kenneth Zucker, as Soh does, is also problematic to say the least.  Zucker and his colleagues at the Toronto Centre for Addiction and Mental Health have worked for many years to decrease cross-gender behaviours and identification in children. Zucker and fellow researchers claim a high success rate in encouraging kids not to express gender nonconformity, because that is their aim. If this sounds like the ‘conversion therapy’ recently banned in some states of the US, that’s because it is. Zucker’s clinic is currently under review and is not accepting new patients.

It’s probably clear by now that Soh’s article enraged me.  She is far from the only commentator to use dubious logic and outdated data to support her views about treatment for transgender children.  You can find articles like that all over the internet.  My overriding problem with this article is that Soh published her opinion under the guise of being informed by her work as a neuroscientist and sex researcher.

Implicitly, Soh is claiming that she has privileged information about the risks of transitioning for young transgender people.  If she has ever conducted any study of trans children, or written any meta-analysis, this is not cited. Instead, she links to old data conducted by other researchers and tells an anecdote about her childhood.  Even in an op-ed, this is dishonest, because she implies that her opinion is an informed one.

Given the subject of this blog, it’s ironic to take issue with the pronoun that Soh uses throughout her article – and it’s not even a gendered one! Soh uses ‘I’ throughout her piece, which only works if she’s either telling her personal story or telling us about her scientific work. As good researchers know, it’s fundamentally flawed to form a general theory based on specific personal experience, but this is what Soh has done.  On the basis of being an informed expert, Soh is advising parents and others who care about transgender children on how to help them – as well as warning her readers that many are getting it wrong.  This message has reached thousands and thousands of people, including some that are desperate for answers.

I’ve taken the time to write this because articles like Soh’s distress and confuse people, like myself, who are trying to navigate their way through information and misinformation in an effort to support their children.  There would be no problem if Soh had published her personal opinion in a blog as a private citizen – but then she wouldn’t have received her 5100 shares, would she?

Zucker’s office before he was fired in 2015.





I still need to talk about TERFs


My starting point in supporting trans people is realising that trans people exist. That they’ve probably always existed. That, for the majority of trans people, they have little choice about who they are. It’s not an identity taken up for fun, or for protest, or in response to the various forms of gender oppression imposed by current societies. It’s something innate, resolute, something central to being alive.

I’m starting here because I think statements like the ones above often do cis people’s heads in. They do MY head in and I’ve spent the last four years finding lots of different ways to challenge O on their truth. Personally, I would love it we could find demonstrable neurological proof for being transgender tomorrow. If I had proof, it would let me off the hook. It would release me from feeling that there’s anything different that I could have, should have, done.

I was one of many kids in the 1970s and 80s educated to believe that gender was a construct. That there was nothing linking pink shopping carts and fluffy dresses to having a vulva, or linking a love of Power Rangers and articulated machinery to penises.

I still don’t believe there’s a link. We haven’t raised our children to make this connection, either. My partner does all the cooking and shopping in our household. He likes it: I don’t. I’m the more highly educated, academic one and at the moment I’m the breadwinner. I’m happier that way. I also like jewellery and flowers. My partner loves football. There’s no contradictions in that, and we saw none in our children. O has always been very aesthetic, empathetic, chatty and interested in babies. He’s athletically vigorous, and likes footballs and skateboards more than reading or being arty.

His sisters very much like make-up and fashion. They’re also strong, forthright and well-read. Until O was eight we thought we were doing a really good job at parenting without sexism and gender conformity.

When I tried (tried!) to tell my parents about O being transgender, my father blamed everything on me, on my books and my feminism. I was accused, by many on both sides of our family, of pushing an agenda.  Apart from the fact that I wasn’t pushing anything (apart from my terror to one side) I found attributing O’s gender identity to my feminism wildly ironic.

By the time O came out, I hope I wasn’t imposing any ideology on the lived experience of my family. I don’t think I was. But I still had beliefs, and my feminist beliefs didn’t include understanding and supporting gender identities that seemed to conflict with biology. I had deeply wished for my children to be at peace with their bodies, to not suffer a mind/body split as profoundly as I and countless women had.

Moreover, I wanted my children to feel empowered through their female bodies, through what they were (free from masculine impositions) and through what they could do. I wanted them to rejoice in the strength of their bodies, to fully inhabit them and to think and feel through them.

O’s testimony was in utter conflict with what I had most desired for him.

I need to talk about TERFs



Well, I still feel like I do. When I think about trans identity, my thoughts often veer back to this (loosely affiliated) group.  My writing often feels like it’s addressed to TERFs and I follow TERF articles, news reports and Twitter threads. I have an unresolved knot inside of me.


Here are some very personal views, unedited.

So, TERF stands for Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist. This stance has been around since the dawn of second wave feminism (so, since the 1960s and 1970s) but I agree that the exponential use of the acronym in the last few years altered the meaning, sometimes subtly, and sometimes like a sledgehammer.

I also sort of agree with the proposition that calling someone a TERF is invoking a slur that shuts down debate. Sort of. The closest equivalence that I can think of is calling someone a Nazi. An unapologetic white supremacist fascist doesn’t deserve the respect of a nuanced discussion about their views. They can just fuck off.  However, if someone is raising concerns, however ill-founded, only to be met with name-calling – well, that’s hardly helpful.

I became very tired of working through online shouting about TERFdom – from trans people, trans allies and feminists having problems/issues with current trans visibility. I’ve always detested polemics and often shouting seems to replace conversation on blogs and social media forums.

The 4th Wave Now blog even in its early days was a little too shrill for me –  but in the last four years it has, at times, hardened into nothing more sophisticated than a hate group. It’s a pity. My dilemma is that I agree with some of the concerns that parents of trans kid have expressed within this group. I really do.


I’ll try and outline my personal issues here. They might be pretty boring, so bear with me, lovely audience of two.

I would have called myself a radical feminist during my twenties, like many earnest white Catholic girls before me. In practice, I was a pretty crap socialist and definitely a Bad Feminist, but the theories as well as the aesthetics and lifestyle were more than just attractive to me.  Radical feminism felt critical in forming my identity – an identity that was distinct from the way that I had been reared and the way that my church, family and education expected me to be.

One ‘problem’ I hit early on is that I wasn’t really sexually attracted to women. I often find women beautiful, and infinitely better company than my male counterparts, but I’m only slightly to the left of being completely heterosexual.

My total sexual encounters with women are comprised of two incidences involving drunken kissing. Both occasions were pleasantly intriguing but I’ve been sure for most of my life that I wanted to find a male life partner and I wanted to have children with him. I spent a lot of energy when I was supposed to be writing a PhD trying to reconcile my feminism with this desire.

To cut a lot of ruminating and angsting very short: I spent my thirties (re)discovering that the world was still aggressively slanted in favour of straight white men. Pregnancy, childbirth and childrearing are still overwhelmingly women’s work in Australia. They are overwhelmingly undervalued.

I’m well aware it’s female bodied people that get pregnant and give birth and breastfeed – but where do men fit into this picture? One of my major wake-up calls was that if I wanted to breastfeed (and I did) it was something my child and I did alone. It was my body that was needed – and this meant I was not available for education/socialising/work schedules/sleep/exercise for the breastfeeding duration. My partner and I couldn’t make it equitable. It wasn’t equitable. Biological determinism slammed right up against my ideology at that point, and from that point onwards.

In my forties, my ideas about feminism have – perhaps inevitably – become more intersectional. I got sick of nice white feminism: in Australia, the cultural feminism of Jane Caro, Annabel Crabbe and Virginia Haussegger was of limited attraction to me, despite having some important things to say about social and political inequity in Anglo Australian society. I think attempts to understand the position of Muslim sisters, Indigenous sisters, South East Asian sisters . . . have been partial, at best

I don’t claim to have done a good at either understanding or at standing in solidarity with women in developing nations. I do know that it’s crucial that privileged women work harder to do this. I’m no longer able to separate the problems of capitalist society, or looming environmental catastrophe, from the problems faced by women world-wide.

I have long wanted to embrace sisterhood. Strength in diversity. Solidarity in oppression. Celebrating universalities despite difference, feeling body-centred solidarity. We all bleed. We can all bear children. We share a disproportionate chance, worldwide, of being violated, raped and killed. We don’t want to be seen as objects, valued only for our sexual attractiveness, our ability to breed, or our willingness to maintain the dominance of men.


But trans existence blows that last paragraph wide open.

Starting Again



Well, I’ve reached the point where my page views are down to nothing. I have to give a lecture on ‘privacy and online culture’ this afternoon and it occurred to me that this is a place I can hide in plain sight, for a time.

I’ve also just come back from a holiday in Bali. While I was gone, I’d decided to write an email to my family every day. It was to try and connect with them using words, I suppose – which in itself was an attempt to make words matter to me a bit more than they have in the last two years.

A lot has happened in two years. (Of course it has – how could it not?). I had grown tired of using words to process my life: in fact, despite teaching literacy (or perhaps because of it), I’ve wondered making sense of the world through linguistic texts was getting a bit passé.  But despite how much words tire me, how inadequate they are, how much I would personally prefer to look at pretty moving pictures right now, I’ve worked harder at writing than at any other creative expression. Writing helps me. And I’ve finally come back to thinking that it’s perhaps OK to have a few things that are simply there to help me, and not necessarily to help anyone else.

O was the one who said, “Mum, you should blog again.” I’d known for a while that, despite deleting my last blog because of him, he liked my blog and had liked reading about himself. Anyway, he liked my Bali stories and I liked writing about my amazement at all the CRAZY CRAZY STATUES and the almost liquid air and the monkeys and flowers and bugs and incense and hypnotic bells and call to prayer along the coast of Padangbai.

I’m trying to wake up again, I guess. I’d not travelled anywhere in years, and certainly not without the kids. I’m trying to let everything in again.

I don’t know how much I’ll write about trans stuff.  Last time, it got to the point where navigating our own lives against the grain of dominant narratives about transgender lives felt too hard. I still think it’s essential that O creates his own story about who he is. Stories that get too much attention in the public sphere can get rigid quickly.

But, O is still O. He didn’t desist. I realise now I wanted him to, at least some of the time. My engagement with GenderTrender and 4thWaveNow was partly about reconciling my (then) allegiance to radical feminism but it was also because I hoped there would be another way of “doing” O’s gender identity. O says he has been telling me the same thing for over four years now. It’s true.

In the past, I’ve skirted over the fact that my father, in particular, thought I was mentally ill, and that I was forcing O’s identity onto him. I now know that he had contacted lawyers and was actively planning to remove O from me. I was right to be scared and to keep our identity online a secret.  I wasn’t paranoid (and, incidentally, I wasn’t mad either – at least not like that).

I’m glad I was careful, but I’m sick of being scared, and trying to make peace with people who refuse to listen and to try to understand.

So, here I go again.