Monday, 11 April 2011

"I would rather have a live daughter than a dead son."

Cemeteries can be pretty bleak places, but when it is on the outskirts of a faceless Dutch suburb under a grey January sky, it feel about as about as desolate as you can possibly get. When you are visiting the grave of a child who killed herself in her early teens, the feeling of despair, especially when accompanied by her mother, gives way to an urge to weep bitterly. It is an urge which I am unable to resist as I do the maths subtracting the date of death from the day she was born. It is one thing to be told Juliaantje* was only 14, but to see it carved in marble was too much to bear. Holding her photograph her mother sobs uncontrollably as I hug her while she in turn hugs a precious photograph.

The picture is of a sunny, smiling, apparently bubbly teenager, with long hair and a grey T-shirt. There is nothing in the picture to suggest that she was transgender, but that is the reason she took her life.

When she was 12 her mother tried to have her put onto hormone blockers to delay puberty. She didn’t want to develop body hair, a deep voice or have wet dreams. She had already self-harmed when young, trying to slice her penis off with a pair of scissors. However, in what was clearly a borderline decision, the psychologists decided to that she should not be given these drugs. She should be given counselling instead. In despair her mother, a single parent, tried to take her to the United States, but the air fare and the £200 a month cost of these drugs was way beyond her means. Her father had no money either and both sets of grandparents didn’t want to know.

Two years later the talking therapy failed. Juliaantje took a massive overdose and died, having self-harmed, abused alcohol and other substances for more than a year before that.

“She was an intelligent and lively girl.” Her mother tells me through the tears and a large glass of Genever in a nearby cafĂ©, probably the only thing that can deaden the pain of losing her only child. “She had a great future ahead of her, she could have done anything, been a doctor, a lawyer her teachers said…” Her voice breaks. Her happy nature had disappeared when male puberty really hit. “Her voice broke and she started to get facial hair and hair on her chest. She wore make up and turtle-neck jumpers to hide it all, but she simply couldn’t deal with the way her body was developing…”

Did she blame the psychiatrists? No. Psychiatry is never going to be an exact science, there will always be people who don’t fit into their categories. She does however, feel that they could have given her the benefit of the doubt. “The effects of hormone blockers are easy to reverse, you just stop taking them…” There would have been no risk to her daughter if, at any time she decided that she did not want to be a girl she could simply have stopped, and male puberty would have started.
Hormone Blockers are essentially a way for young trans people and children to leave their options open. They open an extended open window of choice, which gives them time to think about their future, a time during which young people can decide whether they wish to remain the sex they were assigned at birth, whether that be male or female, or whether they need gender reassignment surgery after the age of 18. Talking to mothers of transgender children in the UK who have been prescribed hormone blockers, usually at great cost (£200 a month plus the cost of a consultation in and flight to the United States) one thing comes across loudly and clearly; “I would rather have a live daughter than a dead son.” One of them told me. One mother had remortgaged her house to pay the cost of these drugs knowing what her child was like, she realised that this would probably be the only way to keep her alive.

Another mother talked of how her young child had been prescribed a cocktail of a dozen drugs, including Ritalin, because of behaviour problems at home and at school. Yet when her child was recognised as transgender everything changed. As soon as she was treated as a girl, the tantrums, the bedwetting, the crying, the screaming, the hyperactivity, the violence, just stopped, as did the need for any of the drugs. “She became happy and contented almost overnight, just because we treated her like a girl! The psychologist who spotted this probably saved her life.”

Predictably the accusation of “child abuse” has been levelled at those who advocate prescribing hormone blockers to children between the ages of 12 and 15 (they already are prescribed to those over the age of 16) in the UK. This flies in the face of the evidence in both the United States and Holland, where these drugs have been successfully, and harmlessly prescribed for many years. It also flies in the face of the experience of parents of transgender children, who have lived a day-to-day existence, hoping that their child is still alive and in one piece. Until her daughter was prescribed hormone blockers at age 16 one mother told me of the anguish she and her husband felt when their child had gone missing for a few days when she was 14. “We really thought we would never see her again. Every time the phone rang we thought it would be the police wanting us to identify a body.”

Now that this technology has been developed, not making it available to all those children who need it is child abuse. Three years ago the trans community was shocked by the suicide of a transgender child who was only 10 years old. The allegation of “child abuse” has been levelled at parents who permit their transgender child to express the gender they prefer and who let them have hormone blockers. Yet this is effectively child abuse in reverse. Not to allow trans children to express their gender identities is actually child abuse. Those who throw accusations of child abuse around without knowing the facts are the ones who are child abusers by proxy; putting pressure on parents to force their children to conform to the gender they were assigned at birth no matter what the consequences
Hormone blockers save lives and extend trans children’s options. Whether you believe the studies which variously claim that “50%”, “66%”, “75%”, “90%” or “98%” of trans children become cisgender adults, the fact is that all these drugs do is keep their options open. The fact is that sociological research has shown that these (psychiatric) statistics are based on thoroughly unreliable data, wildly overestimated at best and downright misleading at worst.

Wittgenstein famously said “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” I wish some people would do some serious research before making up their minds.

*Not her real name


  1. Thank you, Natacha. This is so moving. What I would like to know is why this story is not being told in the national press. They are happy to devote thousands of column inches to those who transition in middle-age after years of living an unfulfilled double life ... with all the social complication and expense, which so often then ensue. Why is a blind eye being turned to these tragedies and the simple way in which they can be avoided?

  2. Very well said. Whenever I hear about people refusing this, or resisting the efforts of parents to get help for their children, I think back to how my concerns were dismissed at that age. How is it so hard for people to grasp that NOT acting is so much worse than trying?

  3. When I think about the use of hormone blockers for trans youth I imagine the freedom of being able to be your true self for the bulk of your life. It's revelatory to imagine a whole new generation of transfolk able to truly live their lives from this young age.

    Thank you for this post.

  4. As a 'late bloomer' I can identify with so much of what's said here...when you realize why things are different later in life, it's not really much better - though you usually have more tools to deal with it.

    I'm so happy for those whose parents UNDERSTAND, and are trying to make life better for their children.

    I only wish things had been better for those of us that were born earlier, when knowledge about this was virtually inaccessible.

    Acceptance is the biggest hurdle.

  5. My daughter became suicidal; I know the fear that your child won't be there in the morning. Due to a long wait period to see a 'specialist' who was three hours away, his rigorous & lengthy interrogation of my entire family (including siblings of daughter), then a longer wait to see someone to Rx hormonr therapy... my daughter had gone through puberty. She is often depressed over body hair & voice; not wanting to leave the house & becomes suicidal.. the process with that doctor took 4 years.. she still wasn't Rxed hormone therapy. We found out there is a doctor 1/2hr away, who is trans herself & deals with this population solely, and went to see her. After the first appointment my daughter left with a Rx for hormone therapy. Yes she's happier now that she is on them but the damage has been done... I feel our doctor failed us by sending us to the 'specialist' & fear for what will happen with my daughter (antidepressants aren't a cure). The sad thing is we realized she was trans when she was10. If proper diligent care was given she would not be in the position she is in today. My father has finally accepted her because I said 'would you rather a live grandaughter or a dead grandson'.