'I'm a proud mum to a transgender child'
The only certainty about parenting is that there is no certainty, says Donegal mother of five Taryn De Vere, who shares how having a small trans child has changed life for her family
By child number five, I admit I had a certain smugness about my life as a parent; I felt like I'd been there, bought the t-shirt and later removed the stains from said t-shirt.
Little, I thought, could surprise me.
Then one day my five-year-old asked me if she could be a girl. Contrary to what some might think, my first thoughts weren't 'Oh, my child is trans'. I just thought that my kid, (who I then thought was a boy) wanted to try being a girl for a while.
My child was almost incandescent with joy when I told her she could be a girl if she wanted to be. She asked if she could wear a dress and she announced to her siblings that she was a girl. Her older brother helped her pick a new name for herself and that was that. I couldn't have foreseen that, after that night, our lives would never be the same again.
When I look back over the last few years, a series of specific events stand out for me.
Like the first time I called TENI (the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland). I remember how cautious they were, and keen to make sure that no one was encouraging my daughter - rather that we should look for a "insistent, persistent and consistent" message from my child that she was a girl. They told us that children of her age are referred to not as trans, but as 'gender non-conforming'.
For a year or so I went with gender non-conforming, despite my own dislike of the term. Who wants to be conforming to a gender anyway, I wondered, "non conforming" sounded like something you'd expect to get into trouble for.
It was my daughter who said she was trans. By this time, I had bought and borrowed a heap of books about trans children so despite knowing no other trans kids, my daughter identified with the characters in the books. She claimed the identity of trans for herself. She has been persistent, insistent and consistent in her identity for several years now.
I heard her recently tell her friend that she knew when she was three that she was a girl, but didn't tell anyone, "Because I thought there was something wrong with me and no one would love me".
It would break the toughest heart to hear their child say that. I know it broke mine. I wondered what messages I'd given to make her think that her gender presentation or identity was more important to me than her happiness. How can a three-year-old have absorbed so much about gender and about what is expected of them? I feel guilt about my role in my daughter's stifling her true self.
When she was seven, she wanted to socially transition at school. In reality all this meant was wearing "girls" clothes at school, growing her hair and being called by her new name. She had, up to this point, been living somewhat of a double life, presenting as male at school and being a girl while in my house or when out with me.
I tried to figure out how to approach it. The truth is there is no handbook for trans children and little advice. My daughter and I are part of something new to the world. These are the first generation of children, all over the world to be transitioning while still children. There have been a few that came before but not on this scale. It's all so new that we don't even have statistics of how many children under 12 are trans/gender fluid/gender non-conforming.
As a parent, there are few places I can go for advice, so while I was reading every study on trans children and I'd joined support groups for parents in four different countries - I was (and still am) largely making it up as I go along.
My daughter asked me to write a letter to the parents of her classmates to explain what trans means and to ask them to speak to their children about it. We live in Donegal, so I was apprehensive about how this would go down, but it seemed like a good way to let everyone know what my daughter needed - which was largely just respecting her pronouns and calling her by the name she wanted to be called. I added my contact details so if any parents wanted to ask questions they could.
That night I received a flurry of texts from parents. One read, "I've spoken to my daughter and she says she's excited to have another girl in the class." All the texts were supportive. I sat down and wept as I read through them. Some of the children arrived at school the next day with gifts and cards for my daughter. By and large, I've found children are not only able to understand the idea of trans people - but they don't seem to regard it as an issue. They simply don't care.
Another stand-out memory is the first time I decided to write about having a trans child. I write for a living and often about parenting, but I wrestled with writing about my trans child. It's a difficult thing to try and maintain a child's privacy while also wanting to communicate things that no one else is saying. I know the information I'm communicating is important, because other parents of trans children have told me.
I balance it by not naming my child, not making her photograph public and by checking in with her about what I can and can't say. The reality is she doesn't hide that she's a trans girl, and everyone in our large school community knows that she is trans. She is proud of being a trans girl and doesn't feel that it's something that should be hidden. I take my lead from her.
I was not prepared for people attacking me online for supporting my child. The first time it happened, I was stunned. It was a Tweet in response to an article about parenting a trans child that I'd written. I was accused of encouraging my child to be trans instead of letting her be a boy who wears feminine clothing.
There are people who think parents like me are somehow forcing our children into being trans. Little do they realise how poor my sphere of influence is with my kids. If I could force my children to do things, I'd be getting them to stop talking with their mouths full, not insisting that they change gender.
The assumption is that I have something to gain by making my child "be" trans. The truth is, being a parent of a trans child in a largely transphobic world is terrifying. Trans people are more likely to die by taking their own lives, more likely to experience workplace discrimination and more likely to be sexually assaulted. I know of no parent who would choose that for their child.
So don't "indulge" it, I've been told. This attitude asks me to force my child to suppress her gender identity. However, research on trans children says this approach is harmful to trans kids.
Researcher Kristina Olson has been studying trans children since 2013 and through her work we know that trans children who are supported by their families have no worse mental health outcomes than cis children of the same age (Cisgender or cis: someone whose identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex). Who could have predicted that affirming and loving your child for who they are seems to result in happier, healthier kids? (certainly not some folks on Twitter, anyway!)
Having a child who is trans has shattered a lot of my own ideas about gender. I would've placed myself firmly in the 'gender is a social construct' camp prior to my experience with my child. I tried not to enforce gender stereotypes on my children, there was never any chat of "That's a boy colour/toy" in my house. All colours and all toys were for all children. She could have been a boy who wore dresses, she was told many times that she would be loved and accepted as a boy who dressed in feminine clothing - but she was insistent that she wasn't a boy, she was - and is - a girl. What makes her so sure of that? I don't know, anymore than I don't know what makes me so sure I'm not a boy. You just know, don't you?
Helpline › The Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) is a non-profit organisation supporting the trans community. Call (0) 1 873 3575, email firstname.lastname@example.org or see teni.ie for more.
Follow Taryn's journey as a parent to a transgender child in Health&Living and on independent.ie. We catch up with Taryn on April 6 when she explores gender and sex with the experts.