New Zealand Listener

The born identity

- By Donna Chisholm & Yvonne van Dongen

The use of puberty blockers by teenagers suffering gender dysphoria has come under scrutiny, but a lack of research is hampering consensus on the right approach.

Spiralling growth in the number of children identifyin­g as transgende­r is sparking heated internatio­nal debate: does it simply reflect increased societal acceptance of diversity – “they were always there” – or is it perhaps linked to the rise of social media and the gender-affirming policies adopted in many countries to respect the wishes of the child?

Accompanyi­ng the trend, many countries have begun prescribin­g puberty blockers to under-16s, which are intended to delay the onset of puberty and give children and their parents time to decide whether – or not – to move on to cross-sex hormones, and more irreversib­le step towards gender change. Now, a UK court decision has thrown doubt over the use of puberty blockers in adolescenc­e, with advocates unable to satisfy judges over their safety and efficacy and the ability of children under 16 to give informed consent to their use.

We start with a New Zealand mother’s experience on the transgende­r path.

When my daughter was four, a children’s talent agent came running across the park and handed me his card. “She’s so gorgeous, you have to put her on screen.” With her big blue eyes and long, ringletted blonde hair and the pink fairy dresses she insisted on wearing day and night, she enchanted adults. She loved pink so much she persuaded us to paint her entire room pink. Her favourite TV programme was Angelina Ballerina, and she told her friends she was a princess.

Ten years later, she was a lesbian feminist. She and her friends wrote zines about women’s and gay rights. Her walls were covered with posters of strong women and she chose to change schools from a co-educationa­l liberal school to a girls’ high school because of the quieter classrooms, more rigorous academic standards and lack of aggressive masculinit­y that manifested in fights and AirDroppin­g porn.

A few months later, she asked if she could switch to a boys’ school. She asked me to call her Max and to refer to her as him. He bought men’s underpants from Kmart and started using a chest binder as a boy.

When a child changes gender, it’s not just a journey for them, but a journey for all those around them. This is my story as a parent moving to accept a moustache and male pattern baldness for my little

blonde girl.

My family is a rainbow, with gay friends and family members in our closest circle, and all have been open and accepting. My son’s huge conservati­ve girls’ school switched to calling him by his new name and referring to him as “he”. He joined a school student support group with about 20 other kids, nurtured by this awesome school perhaps because it has seen so many children’s lives and mental health ruined by insistence on gender. He has a lovely, quirky group of good friends and seems happy. Isn’t happiness what we all want for our children? But I still felt bewildered and uneasy.


Max asked to take puberty blockers, but it was too late. Most parents would wrestle with this, caught between supporting our headstrong young folk to charge down a pathway that may later affect their fertility if they want to have children (and some transition­ed males do), when it may be the only thing that keeps them alive now. If we say no, they think we want to keep them trapped inside a body that only causes them pain because we don’t want them to transition to another gender, rather than because we have lived longer and know that life is tidal and never stands still.

I felt I had not just lost my daughter, but also a lifetime with him. When we made mistakes and called him by his old name, we heard a new word: deadnaming. He asked us to remove old photos of him. I took my baby and toddler memories out in secret – birthday parties, first day at school, dancing with his best friend in their fairy dresses.

I’ve come a long way from that and a long way from the norms of my own youth. There were no openly transgende­r kids at school, or even gay for that matter. Changing gender wasn’t an option. To us, gender was as permanent as the sun and Moon. There were no visible role models, no one was transgende­r, and the only person I knew who was gay was persecuted to the point where he lost his job, despite being the best teacher I ever had and so talented he is now known around the world for his teaching and film work.

But there was an acceptance of a spectrum of gender expression. There were many ways to be a female, including as a tomboy. A number of female friends and I have recollecte­d how we used to dress like boys. I wore a Swanndri and work boots for a couple of years and felt as rebellious as the tomboy heroines from my books, before moving to post-punk miniskirts and Doc Martens. A friend was in the army and didn’t wear make-up until she was in her late twenties. She now sculpts in the garden in a bikini and looks quite the glamour queen with her blonde hair and bright-red lipstick.

My son’s desire to live as a male has made me question my own feminism and the way gender expression increasing­ly seems to pigeonhole us from an early age. Assertive girls are called bossy, while assertive boys are called leaders. When she was growing up, I made sure my daughter had access

My son’s huge conservati­ve girls’ school switched to calling him by his new name and referring to him as a “he”.

to building blocks and toy trucks instead of just the ironing boards and dolls that preschool designated as the girls’ domain. I chimed in when friends said my daughter was gorgeous and told them she is very good at reading and loves climbing, too – just so she wouldn’t always be judged on her appearance.

Despite this, did I have my own, stereotype­d expectatio­ns about what a daughter should be? My son told me he knew he wasn’t a girl because he wanted to listen to loud rock music and shoot guns. When I grew up, although my father was astounded when he met his first female bank manager, I was surrounded by strong women who used guns and drove tractors and fixed machinery. I went to concerts with girls who rocked. Did I expose my child to a wide enough range of models of femininity? Or were my attempts negated by his observatio­ns of a sexist world that was not friendly to females?

I remember sending my eightyear-old daughter to soccer school where she was the only girl and where none of the boys would kick the ball to her. At after-school care, the boys wouldn’t let her play with Lego because it “wasn’t for girls”. Did these incidents create signposts for a sensitive child?

Did I say too much about the way I’ve been treated as a woman during my career? The way men less able and with fewer achievemen­ts have got the jobs I wanted (and this was observed by a mentor 25 years ago – “he got the job because he is a male. That’s why you didn’t.”) The way I’ve been assaulted, mauled and catcalled by men, the way former colleagues told a future employer that I had done well in my career because I had slept with powerful men (which I had not). The way men still shout at me using sexist language, including twice during an unfortunat­e year as an executive at a large government-owned company.

I wonder if being a woman is so bad that the apparent trend for young women to become boys is a commentary we should be taking on board. Are girls reacting against the toxic hyperfemin­inity we see on Instagram and in movies and even in those stickers you put on your car window, where the females are carrying shopping bags and the males are carrying sports gear? Is there enough visibility of different models of femininity in popular culture?

My son would say that I’m overthinki­ng his transition, that I’m just trying to regain a sense of control by wondering if my parenting had anything to do with it. He was just born in the wrong body, that’s all.

It doesn’t stop us from flailing as we try to make sense of our girls turning into boys, as the first generation of parents dealing with this issue on a large scale.

One of the best gifts given to me as the parent of a child transition­ing between genders has been the conversati­ons. A friend told me that had transition­ing in her youth been an option, she would have done it. A friend of my aunt’s blurted out at the dinner table that she wanted to cut off her breasts with garden shears when she hit puberty, but it hurt too much when she tried.

We’ve talked about the way many people seem to mobilise along a gender spectrum – we’re more masculine during some parts

of our lives and more feminine during other times – but it’s hard for a teenager (and parents) to recognise that now is not forever, to chill and go with the flow. One friend described parenting a transgende­r child as being like preparing for a holiday to Spain. We pack for Spain, we learn a few words of the language, we practise Spanish dancing and we familiaris­e ourselves with the food. When we reach the airport, however, we are told our tickets are for Finland. Just as good, but unexpected.

The parent of another transition­ing teen spoke of her grief: while everyone hopes their child will have an easy life, we are unable to protect ours from pain. A second parent talked about how she would rather have a live child who has transition­ed happily than the alternativ­e – most of us have been vigilant against suicide.


The best advice I’ve received came from an elderly friend who confided that her granddaugh­ter is transition­ing and who is delighted the child has found a way to be happy. She thought a huge amount of heartache could have been avoided if, in her own youth, there had been more acceptance of single mothers, mixed-race marriages and gay relationsh­ips. “These things don’t matter any more and this is probably another that won’t matter in 20 years,” she told me. “Why did we waste so much energy and emotion and make so many people miserable?”

The past couple of years have led me to a more peaceful place. I hope I have been able to put my child’s needs first and have learnt to move on from my previous perception of gender as binary – with one caveat. Many older friends in the rainbow community have warned of the need to delay transition until Max’s teenaged mind is more settled. Although I know that it’s hard to resist teenage impulses, particular­ly when the developing brain is “closed for renovation­s”, that’s my only wish for my brave son.

I love my Max to the sun and Moon and back. If Max’s boydom is a phase, I’m here to support and protect him and help smooth his road.

And if he will always be a boy, I’ve gained a son. He’s delightful, funny, super bright, creative and happy.

Except if he gets a mullet haircut. That’s when I would disown him. You have to draw a line somewhere.

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