“We did not ‘transition’ our child from one gender to another. What we did was we stopped rejecting our child, we stopped calling them a name that made them feel depressed, sad and worthless, we finally told them that we loved and accepted them. And do you know what? The sky didn’t fall in.
If a child who is born female grows up to cut their hair short, to wear their brother’s clothes, to play only with toys “meant for boys” and says they want to be a boy – should they be supported to change their name, gender pronouns and gender expression? What if this child consistently, persistently, insistently tells their parents that they really are a boy; that the gender assigned to them at birth is causing them significant distress?
“No” is the controversial answer given by Canadian psychologist Dr Kenneth Zucker, currently being given air time in a BBC documentary on how to approach gender dysphoria in children. While he acknowledges gender non-conforming behaviours can be a healthy part of child development, Dr Zucker tells parents to “limit cross gender behaviour” if it becomes a subject of concern – a response prompting fear and outrage among thousands of transgender campaigners who support social transitioning for young people displaying gender dysphoria.
The IPF spoke to one of Dr Zucker’s most passionate detractors – Susie Green, CEO of the transgender support charity Mermaids UK – to hear more about children’s experiences of socially transitioning from parents themselves.
Support for transgender children through Mermaids UK
Susie initially contacted Mermaids UK, which was founded by a group of parents whose children were all experiencing gender dysphoria, around 17 years ago – when she was a parent seeking support with her transgender daughter. Having becoming active on the committee, she eventually became Chair, and then CEO.
“It seems odd, but all of our children shared the same obsession with mermaids,” Susie said. “That’s where our name came from.”
Originally a support group for families, Mermaid UK’s focus has widened dramatically over the last few years, with its services now including a free helpline for transgender young people and their parents, along with online forums, and funded residential for young people and their families.
When asked of her advice for parents supporting young people who want to express their gender differently, Susie said: “Accept them, listen to them, and – most of all – believe in them.
“We know that for a lot of young people, it takes them a long time to pluck up the courage to speak to their parents about their gender. To be faced with complete denial can be devastating.”
Just a phase?
Supporters of Dr Zucker’s argument often cite his 1995 study, in which he shows that out of a test group of 45 gender dysphoric children, only “80%” could be identified as transgender when followed up in their high school years. Dr Zucker’s suggestion is that children are very likely to “grow out” of their gender dysphoria, particularly if encouraged to maintain gender conforming friendships and activities.
Dr Zucker’s advice no doubt alleviates the fear of many parents worried that their gender non-conforming child may grow up to be transgender. Indeed, the parents supported by Mermaids UK speak honestly of their fear when they first realised their child’s gender dysphoria. Susie recalled:
“My daughter told me when she was four that she should have been born as a girl. To be frank, I was terrified and I wanted it to go away.”
Another parent, Margaret*, remembered being “absolutely devastated” when her daughter told her that she should have been born a boy.
“In that conversation all my dreams of my husband walking Holly [her birth name] down the aisle, faded away,” Margaret said. “I was very scared for the future.”
Persistent, insistent, consistent
Is there not a large difference, however, between the 80% of children who display the kind of transient gender non-conforming behaviour described by Dr Zucker, to the experience of transgender young people, who, from a very young age, know that their gender does not match that assigned at birth?
It is in this context that parents who have sought support from Mermaids UK speak of the irrelevance, even dangerousness, of Dr Zucker’s approach for their children. Sharon* explained her child’s insistence on the variance between their own gender and their sex:
“From aged two they would say ‘I’m a girl’. I would say, ‘No you’re not, you’re a boy’, and they would cry. […] At nursery, they independently persuaded half their nursery class to call them a girl. […] They’ve never wavered from this insistence despite us as parents telling them for years that they are wrong.”
Another parent, Jenny*, recalled dismissing “any niggling thoughts” when her child was young. Eventually her child was able to “to tell [her] that ‘she’ had always been a boy, and had always known this”.
Mental health statistics for transgender young people who are not supported by their families are terrifying; 58% of all transgender young people are self-harming and research conducted by PACE in 2014 showed that almost all these instances of self-injury are directly linked to an instance of physical or verbal transphobia.
In contrast, research published in 2016 revealed that transgender children who are “allowed to express their identity” are far more likely to have good mental health.
“The sky didn’t fall in”
Crucially, for Jenny, social transitioning is totally reversible: “We have always told [our son] that if he were to one day feel that he is actually female, then there is no issue in him transitioning back to his birth gender.”
But speaking of her son’s social transitioning, she recognised that “being allowed to do this for some children – including young children – is potentially lifesaving”.
“We did not ‘transition’ our child from one gender to another,” Jenny explained. “What we did was we stopped rejecting our child, we stopped calling them a name that made them feel depressed, sad and worthless, we finally told them that we loved and accepted them. And do you know what? The sky didn’t fall in.
“Our worst fears did not happen. Instead our sad and depressed child, who had talked about their gender every day for years, over-night became happy and confident, felt that the world had been set right.”
Now Jenny, together with other parents supported by Mermaids UK, turns her focus towards “ensuring that the wider world wake up, stop being so ill-informed and ignorant, and treat [transgender children] with the respect, love and support they deserve”.
*Names have been changed on the request of the interviewees.