We Transitioned Young – These Are Our Stories
Dispelling the misinformation and untruths around how and why young people transition.
Illustration by David Burgess
This month, we have a historic opportunity to improve trans rights. The government is currently consulting the public on whether it should make it easier for trans people to have their gender legally recognised through the Gender Recognition Act.
I was born in the 1960s into a Britain where gender norms informed every aspect of our lives. I spent my younger years trying to stay sane while being called effeminate; a sissy, a poof and a queer. Many of the difficult and often bleak issues I have faced in my life I can trace back to that time – to my own gender dysphoria and the fragility that came with living an inauthentic life.
I lost all of my twenties to addiction and paid for drugs with sex work. I only started to rebuild my life in my mid-thirties, when I started to transition and trained to be a teacher. At work, nothing made me happier than seeing young people dream about their future. A school's motto often includes pretentious Latin words that espouse truth, integrity and variations on "be the best you can be" and "stay true to yourself and others". Our job was to encourage children ("every child matters") to reach inwards towards their truth, and then outwards towards meaningful study and personal growth.
All teachers know you only have a few precious years in which to do this. When it comes to getting this right, listening to – and believing – children matters.
Transgender and gender variant children, apparently, are a different story. I want to try to dispel some of the lies, misinformation and untruths around how and why young people transition by speaking to people who transitioned while at school, college or university.
There is currently a fierce battle being waged by those who deny that trans people know our own minds and feelings; who do not believe that children can be trusted to tell us who they are. In June, a parents group named Transgender Trend was even suspended by Crowdfunder for raising money for a school "resource pack" that stated that being transgender "contradicts material reality".
On the other side of this battle are innocent kids simply trying to get on with their lives.
Alfie, a 25-year-old musician and entrepreneur, says his life is shaping up exactly as he'd hoped. He transitioned just as he was starting out at university. He met his current partner of seven years when he moved into student halls and she supported him throughout his transition. Alfie started and finished university as himself – no regrets, no wasted time and no looking back.
"Everyone around me just accepted me for the person I was," he says. "It was straightforward and easy, really. No one created a fuss, I just got on."
Alfie is already making a difference in his workplace, where he has created inclusive policies which will allow "other trans folk to follow on behind [him] safely and confidently", including gender-neutral facilities. His partner, Roo, tells me that "nothing could be more perfect about their relationship" and that "being with Alfie has actually given me the space to grow and explore without continually worrying about gender or what is expected of me as a cis woman".
Hearing stories of such acceptance makes me incredibly happy for us as a community but, personally, a little sad. I wasted at least 10 years of my life on heroin and crack cocaine because deep down I felt so different. At university I struggled to focus and ended up selling drugs. I knew by then I was definitely trans, but I didn't know how to find any help.
Talking to Alfie, it's clear that simple and uncomplicated support at a younger age allowed him to focus on moving forward with his life like anyone else. Sometimes it can seem that accessing the support needed to transition as a younger person is incredibly difficult and perhaps geared towards parents and teachers who are liberal and middle-class – in other words, privileged enough to advocate for their children and students' transition. Chrissie's experience, however, shows that good intentions are often enough to start the ball rolling.
Chrissie transitioned at 16 while in care. She tells me that she couldn’t fully be herself while at school, as care home staff advised her to wait until she started college. Thankfully, it was only a short time to wait.
"My nan supported me and the staff in the care home supported me 100 percent, eventually even social services," she says. "They considered me as their first case, like a test case, really. But once I'd told everybody, it was so freeing. It transformed me and my life. My behaviour hadn't been great before, but I got back on track and went on to study Health and Social Care at university."
Chrisse says that she wants to give back to her community in return, and has already been a peer mentor for young LGBTQ people. "I am really happy now," she says. "Everything feels settled in my life and I no longer feel like I’m searching."
Some would rather young trans people live inauthentic, unhappy lives. They believe that liberal parents are pushing their gender variant children towards a cliff edge, rather than seeing that parents are simply letting their children explore and feel free in the very spaces where kids should be encouraged to be themselves. It is important to remember that a small number of children may be put on puberty blockers, and only after a period of assessment that identifies that the child's wellbeing will be greatly improved by delaying puberty. For the vast majority, transitioning involves simple but life-changing social changes such as adopting a new name and changing pronouns in their day to day life.
Imogen has just turned 21 and started university in September, studying English and American Literature. She began the process of formally transitioning at 16 while at college studying for her A levels. This meant connecting to the Tavistock and Portman Clinic – a specialist NHS trust with a gender clinic for children – and making plans for medical interventions.
"Without the support from my family and friends I wouldn’t be where I am now," she tells me. "I told my mum first in 2012, when I was 15. There was silence and then she simply said, 'OK.' No fuss, just 'OK.' She was just calm and that really helped."
At 21, Imogen feels she is already finished with her transition. She highlights her mum's calm response as being key to her happiness: "She always supported me to be happy. Fundamentally, I am in a place where I feel no weight on my shoulders. I feel that I am being pushed forward in life. I don't understand why anyone would want us to lead unhappy lives?"
Like many other older trans people, I spend far too much time looking back over a lifetime of losses and painful memories. For years, I was described by those around me as depressed, effeminate and complicated. I wasn't complicated. Far from it – inside, I had a very clear picture of myself. I had ambitions of becoming a mother who would work in fashion or textiles, but my simple dreams were lost in the destructive and painful vortex of dysphoria.
Much of that time I'll never properly recover from. It's time, years, that I'll never get back, and I've played catch-up ever since. I still do. But people like Alfie, Chrissie and Imogen – and other young trans people who receive the kind of support they did – hopefully never will.