When your gender becomes a prison
Life of Riley … the 15-year-old says she's always felt like a girl. Photo: Nick Cubbin
- Documentary: Transgender Kids - For some children, what's between their legs doesn't match what's between their ears - they insist they were born into the wrong body.
For Riley's parents, one of the first giveaways was the tea towel. At three years of age, Riley would shape it onto her head like a pair of pigtails and flick it from side to side. "She got into trouble with the person who ran her pre-school," says Riley's mother, Carol. "They said, 'This boy has got to stop playing with the girls and getting the girls to dress him up and wear tea towels on his head.'"
The greatest fear is that if parents don't support their child, the risk of suicide is so great.
Riley, 15, from Sydney's north shore, is biologically male – but says being born a boy simply never made any sense. The high school student is one of an increasing number of teenagers who identify as transsexuals – those who feel they are trapped in the wrong body. Some are so sure that nature got it wrong that they are taking the bold step of "transitioning" – presenting themselves outwardly as the sex that they feel they are – during their teenage years or even earlier.
Fancy dress childhood … Riley loved dressing up and favoured girls' clothes from a very young age. Photo: Courtesy of Riley
For Riley, 2012 has been a watershed year. After going to school with bras secreted under her school shirt and with minimal make-up, she started wearing the girls’ school uniform. She is also doing some schooling of her own, teaching the teachers in the correct use of transgender pronouns. "They were having a lot of trouble with calling me 'she', but they are getting better," she says.
When I meet Riley at her suburban home on a Sunday morning, she's dressed in jeans, knee-high boots, a cropped leather jacket and a T-shirt that boasts she's an "Angel by Day, Devil by Night". Her hair is styled perfectly, framing her prettily made-up face – as befitting for someone who is studying hairdressing part-time at TAFE along with her school subjects. We sit in the living room, where the table is scattered with photos of her as a young child. She seems to be constantly in fancy dress: vibrant-coloured outfits, make-up, glittery headbands. In one photo she's dressed in a cowboy suit but still manages to look feminine.
"All my life I've never really been a boy, I've never liked boy things," she says. "It was always Bratz dolls and Barbie dolls and everything." Her current obsessions are roller derby, vintage fashion and rockabilly music.
About a girl … "All my life I've never really been a boy, I've never liked boy things." Photo: Courtesy of Riley
Riley's parents, Carol and Chris, have always been incredibly supportive, which has helped her navigate the difficult path through school. "In primary school it was hard but looking back it was easier than high school," Riley says. "When it came to sleepovers, it didn't matter if you were a boy or a girl. Now in high school it is completely different: guys don't sleep at girls' houses, girls don't sleep at guys' houses. People get confused as to which one I am, so sleepovers are not really happening.”
Riley falls between the cracks of the high-school cliques, so often finds herself hanging out with those from younger years, who, she says, are more accepting. She says without her popular older brother, Fin, she "would not have survived high school". There is the teasing, the bullying and a vicious rumour mill to contend with, but Riley, whom Carol rates as the bravest person she has ever known, has stood up to it all.
"In primary school, Riley had panic attacks," says Carol. "When we dropped her off at school in the morning, we would try to make the green light because I could see Riley in the rear-vision mirror running after the car. And if we ever went to one of her concerts when she was little, she'd leave the stage and jump into our arms and want to leave.”
For back-up, Riley turns to social media, getting strength from a network of transsexual kids who tell their stories via YouTube and other websites. She also goes to a support group in the inner city, and has a local suburban support group – although, she confesses, "it's just me and one other kid".
Chris says the main problem with transsexual kids comes from the community. "I think we are at the same point in awareness of transgenderism as we were with homosexuality 30 years ago," he says.
Elizabeth Riley is a Sydney counsellor who works with children and teens diagnosed with what the medical community terms gender identity disorder – a controversial label in itself, and one rejected by many in the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community. She believes that gender variance, particularly at a young age, is one of the last social taboos.
"Society lives in a dichotomous world where the binary is male and female, and for a male to wear a dress or nail polish is seen as queer behaviour," she says. "I had a transgender client once who was waiting for his psychiatric appointment in his car. A woman came along and said, 'If you don't move along, I'm going to call the police.' He'd driven three hours from the country for the appointment and came in to me in tears.”
Society seems unwilling to even entertain the idea that gender can be in flux. It is as if by allowing a grey area, people will be threatened by how they view themselves. "There's an increased sensitivity about what boys and girls can do," says Riley, who has been working with children with gender identity disorder for 15 years. "Over the past 50 years, I've noticed that in places like Target and Woolies the toy section is more clearly delineated in pink and blue. You can't get a plain pair of jeans for girls; they've all got frills and flowers and colours.”
Yet the idea of gender-specific colours is a relatively recent one, with the US only adopting the idea around World War I. There are, however, signs that rigid definitions of gender are relaxing. The UK is leading the way, with some kindergartens supporting gender variance by allowing young kids to cross-dress. And last year the famous toy store, Hamleys, scrapped its boys' and girls' floors with their accompanying pink and blue signs, ending years of toy apartheid.
Dr David Sandberg, a US paediatric psychologist from Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, has spent years researching "gender-atypical behaviour" and believes it is far more normal than we think. In 1993, Sandberg observed 647 children between the ages of 6 and 10 and found only 0.3 per cent of boys and girls showed no instance of cross-gender behaviour, while 22 per cent of boys and 38 per cent of girls showed at least 10 expressions of cross-gender behaviour. While most of this is normal experimentation, "gender identity disorder" is far more persistent.
"What parents will notice is the child is probably going to refuse to wear clothes of the other gender by the time they're about three or four," Elizabeth Riley says. "And in my research, more than 80 per cent of parents identified the symptoms under the age of four.”
Riley's message is that being transsexual is not a lifestyle choice. Parents of such kids have many fears: what will society think of them, what discrimination will their child face, where is the line between permission and encouragement – and, most importantly, are they doing the right thing? She counsels one strategy: unwavering support. "For the child to feel loved and supported for who they are makes a huge difference and gives them a resilience," she says. "The greatest fear is that if parents don't support their child, the risk of suicide is so great.”
But theirs is a decision that comes with many risks. "If they do support their child, then they know they are likely to live with some sort of heartache," Elizabeth Riley says. "It all depends on how well they pass [as the other sex] in society." Carol knows the downside of such a decision only too well: "It hit me in the heart the time Riley told me that what she wanted to be when she grew up was a mummy."
The medical treatment of minors who want to "change gender" is a contentious issue. How can you allow a child to make such a momentous decision before the age of consent? However, as Elizabeth Riley observes, "They have formed that opinion from as early as anyone can remember. It's not a new decision for them. That's all they've ever known.”
The most common treatment for transsexual kids is to have what is known as "puberty blockers", hormones that delay the onset of puberty and halt characteristics such as excessive hair and broad shoulders for boys, and developing breasts for girls. Puberty blockers can drastically boost the likelihood of a transgender person passing for the sex they feel they really are later in life. The blockers are completely reversible and as soon as they are stopped puberty will proceed normally. The second phase of the treatment begins around the age of 16 when the child is given hormonal treatment to encourage the characteristics of the sex they wish to be. The final stage is surgery.
In Australia in 2004, a Family Court of Australia decision, "Re: Alex", made any such hormone treatment a "special medical procedure" requiring court approval. It’s a precedent that Rachael Wallbank, a lawyer from Shoal Bay in NSW, has been fighting to overturn. "The evidence presented in Re: Alex inaccurately depicted gender identity disorder as a mental illness," says Wallbank, who argues that hormone treatment is clearly therapeutic and saves these adolescent children from personal suffering and public ridicule by helping their bodies look the same sex as they themselves experience.
So far, Wallbank has not been successful in changing the court's mind regarding the necessity of approval. Despite this, she did manage to get Australia's first case of court approval for phase one (puberty blockers) treatment for a 13-year-old in 2010 in a case known as "Re: Bernadette".
Bernadette's* father, Sean*, comes from a strong Irish-Catholic background and admits he first thought the idea of blocking puberty was "like playing God". But then he read of the distress that puberty brings to transsexual kids. "If we did not do this, we were going to end up with a child who would self-harm or suicide," he says of Bernadette, biologically a male.
Sean had initially been told by the psychologist treating Bernadette to "dress him as a boy, give him boy toys, make him play boy sports and he'll be a boy". So, he and Bernadette's mother tried that. But Sean had a moment of profound insight at a toy store one Christmas, when Bernadette was aged eight. The only thing he had asked for was a Barbie doll house. The psychologist had said not to buy it.
"I usually love the hustle and bustle of Christmas but this night it was all just a drudge," says Sean. "We had just gone through the incredible queue to get out of the store and I just turned to my wife and said, 'This is absolute bollocks. On Christmas Day our son is going to get up and think Santa Claus is a complete prick. The only thing he has asked for is a pink Barbie house and we have all this other masculine and gender-neutral stuff. If he wants a doll's house, he can have a doll's house ... He is what he is and no amount of boy's toys, games or clothes is ever going to change that.' ”They bought the doll's house.
Says Sean now: "Any parent with a child who has had a medical condition knows it is a stressful time, but adding the legal process makes it almost unbearable. Puberty is basically a ticking time bomb and the uncertainty of not knowing whether your child is going to get the treatment that doctors are recommending only adds to the stress."
Elizabeth Riley says puberty is a scary time for children with gender identity disorder, when they feel very much out of control. "That's when they can't cope any more. They somehow had a fantasy that they might develop into the other sex at puberty, or the implications [of the disorder] hadn't really struck them. For example, girls who want to be boys can't bring themselves to buy tampons because it so distressing; a period is a constant reminder that they are female.”
Riley has not used any puberty blockers. Her main fears were excessive hair and a deep voice, but her Asian background means her hair growth has been light, while her voice has been deep from a young age anyway. She is considering the options for surgery when she becomes an adult. Puberty was still an important trigger, she says: "When high school started, seeing all the girls start to develop breasts, I'm thinking, 'That's not right - I should be getting that.' "
Riley views her condition pragmatically as "a birth defect", and hopes by being brave she can change a few people's attitudes in the process. "No one set the path for me, so I want to set the path for the younger generation. There has to be a path sooner or later because it is getting more common.”
She has no regrets about her decision to start the year in a dress and just wants to be treated like a normal teenage girl. "I definitely feel more confident at school. Sure, kids are whispering already and spreading rumours, but I don't care. They need to be educated about the real world; why are we learning about pi in school but are not learning about gays and transsexuals?
"I consider myself as more of a lone wolf who hasn't yet found my pack. I love being myself. If people have a problem with me, then that's okay. I'm going to tolerate it and I'm not going to change."
* Not their real names.