What happened in my family recently could happen in any family. In the same way that any parent can have a shy child, a left-handed child, or a child who grows up to be gay, any parent can have a child who is transgender – like my son.
When my son was little, he loved people, talked ceaselessly, adored Harry Potter and he and his big sister played magical games for hours. He was a child with an impatience to be just like his big brother and big sister so much so that aged three he requested a school uniform for Christmas.
But when he was 11 he became withdrawn, inexplicably angry, and devastated beyond all proportion. He was my third child so I was confident the phase would pass. But it didn't. The dark times started to overshadow the rest, there seemed to be nothing that would alleviate his despair and his sadness came to dominate our family life. I would have given anything for an explanation, a solution, for him to get a break and see the sunshine again. One day, an explanation did come – it was that everyone thought he was a girl, but he knew he was a boy. I felt like the floor had been taken out from under me.
I knew nothing about being transgender. My only frames of reference were transgender people in films, usually being mocked or derided. I could not comprehend why anyone would opt into such an existence. Yet here was my child, in our privileged life, seemingly doing just that. What I did not understand then was that he had no choice. Being transgender is a fact, an unchangeable part of who someone is. It’s just a roll of the dice of our lives that determines who is transgender and who is not – much like being gay, or tall.
Phillip Schofield, with a lovely family, and the nation’s affection, came out as gay after years living as a straight man, and in doing so showed us the essential nature of living as our true selves – the consequences of hiding, ashamed, are devastating, which is why I support my child to live as himself. I, and many other parents of trans children, know that to squash our children into a mould that does not fit, to force them into an exhausting, endless, performance of “normal”, would be to show them that our love is not unconditional, that we would prefer them some other way.
The parents I know, will not do that. We are from all walks of life – a midwife, a black cab driver, a psychiatrist, an accountant, and a parent who serves in the RAF, to mention a few. We are everything from devoutly religious to resolutely atheist. Our children are home schooled, state schooled and private schooled. We do not talk about Brexit. None of us chose the transgender identity for our children. All of us now navigate parenting our children against a backdrop of debates about the legitimacy of their identity. Thankfully, most people we encounter do not participate and are just straightforwardly kind to transgender children. I cannot commend my son’s school highly enough, nor his friends, their parents, our neighbours – my experience is that it is human instinct to respond to someone who might be suffering, or vulnerable to discrimination, with support, to put a protective arm around them, or give them a warm smile.
This is our experience away from the media. But as our children get older, parents can no longer shape their world – our teenagers are out in it with their peers, the internet, the billboards. I can no longer protect my child from hostile media coverage of transgender people. And I cannot overstate the impact that coverage has on the mental health of transgender children and on their safety: like press coverage about “swarms” of immigrants overrunning our NHS, or linking transgender people to the threat of harm to others, emboldening the violent bigots, the unthinking school bullies, the far-right extremists.
I don’t want to burn books or cancel your television appearances if you don’t agree with me. I don’t want anyone, ever, to threaten any woman with violence or misogynist abuse, whatever their views. At this stage, I just want to beg people with a platform to think about the impact of your words on my child, on young trans people across the country – those who might not have supportive families, who might be too scared to tell anyone that they are trans, who might be being bullied or vilified for just being themselves – and consider whether you need to speak out about someone else’s child quite so forcefully or as frequently to audiences of millions.