When LYNNE TRACEY’s 16-year-old told her she might be a TRANSGENDER FEMALE, her motherly protectiveness and fierce pride kicked in. Just over a year on, she recounts her family’s JOURNEY TO ACCEPTANCE …
My 18-year-old daughter, Alice, was born into a male body and, over the last twelve months, has socially transitioned to being Alice. I want to be very careful about the language that I use to describe my daughter and her journey; this is not about Alice making a “choice”. This is a story of an individual moving out of her two-dimensional existence into her fuller, three-dimensional, complete self.
Imagine a ciotóg being forced to be right-handed, as was the case for many years in Ireland. The ciotóg was left-handed, but was forced to become right-handed by schools and society. To my mind, this is only a fraction of how it must feel to look in the mirror and not see the person you know you are.
For Alice, she did not know if or why she might be different, she did not know why she was uncomfortable in herself – what teenager does know what the hell is going on in their head and their heart and their body?
Being an adolescent is difficult, particularly with the lens of social media focusing on every spot and every comment and every selfie. As an adult who is pretty comfortable in her own skin, I am conscious about how my FB posts are presented and what my social media identity says about me. What social media hell must our children be living in?
Transgender, or “trans”, is widely understood to describe someone whose gender differs from the one they were given when they were born. Transgender people may identify as male or female, or they may feel that neither label fits them and identify as non-binary or genderqueer. Or they may identify as a cross-dresser. Or they may identify as none of these. As with any attempt to define humanity, there is a broad spectrum of behaviours and expressions.
Some transgender people choose to remain in their assigned gender; others choose to engage with hormonal treatment and some choose to fully transition. But let there be no confusion: being transgender has nothing to do with sexual preference.
An article published in the New York Times in June 2016 indicates that 1.4m people within the US identify as transgender. This amounts to approximately 0.6% of the population. Overall, 4.1 per cent of the US population identify as LGBT (Gallup.com). While there are no comparable figures available for Ireland, Sara R Philips, Chairperson of Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI), observed the following: “Estimating prevalence of trans people is very difficult, as epidemiological studies are rarely conducted and efforts to achieve realistic estimates are fraught with difficulties. The data that is generally cited suggests that approximately one in 11,900 assigned males (trans women) and one in 30,400 assigned females (trans men) seek treatment for gender dysphoria in specialised clinics (HBIGDA, 2001). However, the data underpinning these figures is over 20 years old, and it probably significantly underestimates numbers of trans people by relying only on the experiences of people who have pursued gender reassignment surgery, which many trans people do not or cannot access.”
Trans people are increasingly articulating their gender identity at a younger age. While there are continuing arguments that suggest young people are too immature to make such declarations, new research suggests this is not the case. A recent study with 32 trans children, aged five to twelve, found that the gender identity of these children was deeply held and was not the result of confusion about gender identity. The researchers noted, “While future studies are needed, our results support the notion that transgender children are not confused, delayed, showing gender-atypical responding, pretending, or oppositional — they instead show responses entirely typical and expected for children with their gender identity.”*
In early 2016, Alice began to realise that she might be a transgender female. On March 4, she told us how she felt. It would be a lie to say that this was not a shock, of course it was, but it was not something we were afraid of or embarrassed by; of course we were confused, we had questions and there was a lot of Googling done that weekend, but mostly we were proud. Proud of this amazing person who had the strength and the heart and the confidence to be able to be honest with herself and with us.
Our first step was to discuss the situation with our GP and he directed us as to what we should do. We were referred to Dr Aileen Murtagh, a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist with a special interest in Gender Dysphoria, based in Willow Grove, the Adolescent unit attached to St Patrick’s Mental Hospital. Our child met with Dr Murtagh over the next few months and underwent a thorough evaluation which “confirmed” the gender dysphoria.
It may seem odd to talk about “confirming” our child as transgender. And, as I mentioned earlier, it is important to be sensitive in the language we use, but the “confirmation” makes sense. Gender identity can be confusing and difficult and terrifying. Regardless of the age of the transgender person, there is emotion and dissonance and dislike and guilt and fear and confusion, and so an objective and supportive evaluation can bring assurance and belief and confidence at a time that can be filled with terror.
There is a lot of support available for both trans people and their families. I stood for election to the board of Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) and was fortunate enough to be elected. We have attended TransParenCI meetings and met other trans families. We have attended Pride and met many fabulous people. To parapharase, a lot done, a lot more to do.
Alice came out in June 2016. She continued to present as male until January 2017, when she socially transitioned and the world got to meet Alice. In October, Alice officially changed her name to Alice Rosa, the first step towards achieving official gender recognition. She is a fairly typical teenager. Her room is carpeted with discarded clothing and smells of incense. She loves music and is the lead singer in a band called “Eternal Minority”, a post-punk group who write their own music and perform in grungy premises. She is adept at avoiding chores and has a somewhat egocentric view of the world.
But this is only a very small part of the story of Alice and many in the transgender and broader community. The LGBT Ireland Report (2016) showed that over 48 per cent of trans participants had self-harmed and over 75 per cent had considered taking their own life. Transgender Equality Network Ireland’s own study, “Speaking from the Margins, Trans Mental Health and Wellbeing in Ireland” found high levels of stress (83%), depression (82%) and anxiety (73%) among trans participants. These figures are much higher than among the general community. Add to that all the normal challenges in being an adolescent, and you might begin to understand the stress and difficulties faced by trans teens in Ireland.
We have been extremely fortunate in that we were referred to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) following Alice’s evaluation in Willow Grove. We received and continue to receive, support from a psychiatrist and a psychologist and, when Alice required more focused support, we were fortunate for her to be able to access in-patient care in Willow Grove. We are one of the lucky families. We live in a part of the country where we have access to resources. We have a GP who backed us and gave Alice wonderful care. Our local CAMHS service is generous and understanding. And we live close to Willow Grove so there was no great inconvenience in visiting our daughter.
We live in a bigger Ireland than we used to. There is no doubt in my mind that the Marriage Referendum of May 2015 changed more than the rights of couples to marry; it made Irish people proud to be liberal minded and so we opened our minds to new types of relationships and to perspectives on gender and sexuality that we may not have previously considered – probably because these perspectives were not on our radar.
However, we also live in a society that really only recognises two genders. Forms require you to identify as male or female, assign pronouns, bathrooms, clothing – all aspects of our lives are predicated on there being two genders. The Gender Recognition Act (2015) recognises and enables trans people to achieve full legal recognition of their preferred gender and allows for the acquisition of a new birth certificate that reflects this change. In addition, the Act allows all individuals over the age of 18 to self-declare their own gender identity. Young people aged 16-17 can also apply to be legally recognised, though the process is more onerous. However, non-binary individuals are still in a legal limbo and are not recognised in Ireland.
This is not a journey that Alice is taking on her own. She is taking this journey with her three siblings, Sally, Charlie and Isaac; her father Enda and her extended family, schoolfriends, neighbours and the broader community. All have been amazing. But most particularly her siblings and her dad. Our family take this journey together, united and with one objective, to continue to be a family that loves each other, that supports each other and are proud of each other.
We are proud of Alice. We are proud of our trans community and how they have enveloped us and supported us and allowed Alice to be herself. And Alice, be proud of you. We love you.
*From “Transgender Kids Show Consistent Gender Identity Across Measures” (2015) Association for Psychological Science, Washington.
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