‘I knew her life would be tough’

Closer (UK) - - Real Life - By Mel Fal­low­field

Per­sonal as­sis­tant P Penni Gillen lives with her hus­band, Ciaran, and her chil­dren, Orla, 15, and Ash­lynn, 13, in Sun­bury-on-thames, Sur­rey. She says, “When I heard about But­ter­fly, I was pleased. Ash­lynn has been tar­geted by bul­lies, and I’ve been ac­cused of child abuse for sup­port­ing her tran­si­tion. But a TV show like this could change peo­ple’s per­cep­tions.


“Grow­ing up, we didn’t sus­pect that Ash­lynn was trans­gen­der. As well as a fas­ci­na­tion with planes and he­li­copters, she’d also choose dresses from the dress­ing up box and wrap a T-shirt around her head, pre­tend­ing to have long hair. But Ciaran and I didn’t care – to us, toys and clothes aren’t gen­dered.

“When Ash­lynn was eight years old, she said she wanted to ask me a ques­tion. ‘Is there an op­er­a­tion that can make me a girl?’ she said. ‘Be­cause I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.’

“It felt like a punch to the stom­ach. I didn’t know any trans­gen­der peo­ple, but I knew that if Ash­lynn was trans­gen­der, her life was go­ing to be tough. Like any mother, I just wanted to pro­tect my child.

“For the first 18 months, my hus­band and I spent hours re­search­ing gen­der iden­tity. If I’m hon­est, I hoped that if we didn’t say any­thing to her about it, maybe it would go away.


“But Ash­lynn con­tin­ued to in­sist that she was a girl. So, when she was nine, we took her to the GP, who re­ferred her to CAMHS, the Child and Ado­les­cent Men­tal Health Ser­vices. Their ex­pla­na­tion was that she idolised her big sis­ter, and wanted to be like her.

“I wanted to be­lieve what CAMHS had said, but in my heart, I didn’t. And, over the fol­low­ing months, we watched our funny, happy child be­come with­drawn and sad. Then, when Ash­lynn was ten, she came home from school one day and ran up­stairs. I found her sob­bing on her bed, say­ing how un­happy she was and that she hated her life. It was then that we re­alised how lit­tle we knew, so we started lis­ten­ing to her – prop­erly lis­ten­ing.

“Not long af­ter, we went clothes shop­ping, and I asked Ash­lynn if she wanted to choose some­thing. We were still us­ing her for­mer name at this stage, but a few months later, we asked Ash­lynn what she’d like to be called. She asked what girl names we’d picked out when I was preg­nant, and

she chose Ash­lynn. I wasn’t sad for the lit­tle boy I thought I had – see­ing how happy she was, I knew she was still the same per­son. And more im­por­tantly, I was get­ting my child back.

“I went to speak to her teach­ers in Oc­to­ber 2016 and she so­cially tran­si­tioned at school in Fe­bru­ary 2017. Her name was changed to Ash­lynn on the school reg­is­ter, her friends and class­mates were in­formed, and ev­ery­one started us­ing fe­male pro­nouns and her new name.

“Through­out this time, we had gone back and forth to CAMHS, who fi­nally re­ferred us to the Tav­i­s­tock Clinic when Ash­lynn was 12. Since May this year, Ash­lynn has been on hor­mone block­ers to stop her voice from break­ing and fa­cial hair grow­ing. And now at high school, she is able to use the girls’ chang­ing rooms and toi­lets. Her school also has gen­der neu­tral toi­lets.


“Our friends and fam­ily are very ac­cept­ing. One friend ad­mit­ted to me that, if they read about this in a news­pa­per, they’d think it was ridicu­lous and the par­ents were push­ing it on to the child. But know­ing Ash­lynn, they could see that it made com­plete sense. My par­ents are in their 70s, and they’ve sup­ported us whole­heart­edly. And Ash­lynn’s older sis­ter adores her just as much as she al­ways did.

“But, sadly, trans­pho­bia still ex­ists. Ash­lynn is now at se­condary school, and although she has friends, other pupils make com­ments. They say she isn’t a ‘real girl’, and talk about her pri­vate parts. Even at Pride in Lon­don this sum­mer, some­one told her she had made the wrong de­ci­sion and would change her mind.

“That’s why I’m so pleased But­ter­fly has been made. It is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of what par­ents and chil­dren go through. It’s not the same for ev­ery­one, but it’s a ver­sion. And the strug­gles you en­counter as a fam­ily need to be high­lighted. I now know that we’ve done the right thing, and Ash­lynn is hap­pier than ever.”

She fi­nally feels like her true self

Penni has sup­ported her daugh­ter’s tran­si­tion

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