‘I knew her life would be tough’
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CAMHS had said, but in my heart, I didn’t. And, over the following months, we watched our funny, happy child become withdrawn and sad.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