Born in the wrong body

AMY MAAS
Last updated 05:00 06/10/2013

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The parents of a seven-year-old girl are backing a decision for her to live as a boy and to medically stop puberty.

In as little as two years the child, whom the Sunday Star-Times has chosen not to identify, could start a course of drugs dubbed puberty blockers.

This is the first step toward hormone replacement treatment and possible surgery.

It would mean the child, whose story is being told today  with the support of his family, will never fully develop a woman's body and its natural functions.

However, if the injections, which are given once every three months, are stopped, the body would continue its normal development.

"If he reaches 11, 12 or 13 and decides it's not what he wants, then he stops blockers and he'll go through puberty as a woman," said the child's mother.

Last year the child started saying things such as "I'm not a girl, I think I'm a boy and I wish I was dead", his mother said.

The family are committed to supporting their child.

"That [gender change] won't stop me loving him, it won't stop me accepting him.

"I try to guide him the safest path through, and the safest path for him is love, acceptance, tolerance and support.

"We have the same child. We haven't lost anything. We haven't gained anything, other than a happier child."

While the child's family are supportive, Georgina Beyer - the world's first openly transsexual Member of Parliament - questioned whether the child was old enough to make the decision.

"Decisions are being made that I consider quite serious and the natural inclination of this child should be nurtured and encouraged," Beyer said. 

"I don't think a seven-year-old has enough life experience to understand precisely what they're doing. I think it's better a person gets to puberty and through puberty and then if this is continuing to develop . . . then yes, there is more of a case to be fought."

Dr John Newman, an Auckland-based specialist youth physician, said the youngest person he had treated for puberty blockers was 12. He would not comment on a child he had not treated.

"The recommendation is that they are seen by a mental health professional who is skilled in working with young people and with transgender issues, both before and during the use of blockers," he said.

"This is to ensure that there is no other explanation for their problem and that other mental health issues are being addressed as well.

"There are very few such mental health professionals in New Zealand so, more likely, they need to be seen by someone who is skilled in working with young people and is gaining experience in working with transgender."

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Newman said there were hundreds of New Zealand children who identified as being transgender.

It was not possible to determine the exact number because Statistics New Zealand does not collect that information.

HOW ANNA BECOME JASON - FULL STORY

An Auckland child was 6 years old when he told his parents he was not a girl. He was a boy. And he wanted to die.

"Jason" is now 7. When he was born, the doctors said he was a girl and he was named Anna - the only girl and only child born to parents Linda and Steve, who already had four boys between them.

Anna slept in a fairy castle bed but accessorised party dresses with temper tantrums. Anna didn't like playing with other little girls. Anna felt like a misfit.

From the time she turned three, Anna started wearing boys clothes, underwear and even socks. She gravitated toward the boys' aisle in the toy shop. And in two years, with her parents' full support, she will finally be able to take drugs which will stop her body from maturing as a woman's.

One day last year Anna came home from school - where she and her classmates were only just learning how to multiply and figuring out how cursive writing works - crawled on to her mum's lap, and cried.

"Some time in September or October last year we started getting the odd ‘I'm not a girl, I think I'm a boy and I wish I was dead'," Linda said. "And we couldn't actually understand why he was saying it because we didn't know anything about children being transgender at all.

"He didn't know who he was and he didn't know where his place was because he just knew that he didn't feel like he was a girl and he didn't feel like he fit in with girls."

Jason recalled: "I was just sitting in my mum's lap, thinking about it, talking about it. I felt scared and frustrated so I cried because, you know, I didn't know what to do."

The next day, after googling "my girl thinks she's a boy", Linda approached a former manager at Rainbow Youth, a gay and transgender support network, who confirmed her child could be transgender.

It took one conversation with the child to see a "weight lift off his shoulders". He knew it was OK for him to be who he was. The next week, Jason chose his new name - a milestone that would announce he was proud of his identity.

"He wanted to get little Christmas decorations, these snowmen with names on for his [friend at school] and we found his friend's and when we were picking his we said ‘well, do you want to have a new name'," said his mum.

"We went through names not thinking he would settle on one straight away, and he chose Jack. We'd got halfway up the mall and he turned around and said, ‘I actually want to be ‘Jason'.' So we had to run all the way down there and changed it to Jason."

Since then he has lived as Jason, a 7-year-old boy. And while he remained the same Pokemon-loving, playful kid, his parents found others have been less than kind.

Before his name change, they pulled Jason out of a Christian school after the principal "expressed concern" over his preference for dressing as a boy.

"When he started wearing boys' clothes, we started getting emails from the principal, things like ‘don't you think it's odd, do you think you should be encouraging him'. At this time, he hadn't even come out, we hadn't even had the conversation," said Linda.

"We got asked directly what happens if it carries on when he's older, in the future. We wrote back to the principal and said the only thing we're worried about is people like you," said Linda.

The next day, they enrolled Jason in a new school. While it would be another eight months before he came out, Linda said the teachers and principal accepted the fact this new child was dressing as a boy and had lopped off the feminine pixie haircut, but they found the most basic things challenging - they were unsure of whether to call Jason in the boy section or the girl section.

They were unsure of where he should change for swimming or which toilet he'd use during breaks.

"When they say boys line up here, girls line up here, I just line up with the girls sometimes and with the boys sometimes. It depends on what day it is. I sometimes have to sit out, it's too hard to decide," said Jason.

Linda admitted there was a concern at the school that using the boys toilets could be risky, so instead the school prefers that he uses the unisex disabled toilet, which still sets him apart as "different" from the other children.

"Jason started at that school as a girl in their eyes and he was wearing girls' clothes and didn't have the name Jason.

"For kids, it's hard to get their heads around because they don't understand," said Linda.

And while children can hide behind bright smiles and faux friendliness when they're hanging on to an adult's hand, on the playground there are plenty of "gay" slurs thrown Jason's way.

"They hate me. It's more like, nothing really. It's just only teasing. [The kids] just say things like ‘wrong toilet' and I go ‘no'. They've been saying it in front of the whole entire class," said Jason.

But it's not like that everywhere. Jason has found a safe haven in the community at Rainbow Youth that has allowed his confidence to flourish. Linda said they had reassured Jason it is fine to be who he is.

"It was the first time I've seen him mix with people and feel completely comfortable.

"We didn't mix with the community before, not because we're anti, but we just didn't have the need but we felt that it was very important for Jason to have somewhere he felt he belonged because he still doesn't feel like he belongs in the school environment."

Auckland psychologist Rebecca Daly-Peoples said a child whose gender is not treated as a shame will, most likely, "have a positive experience".

"He's going to have a different experience from a kid who grew up in a family that caused them to feel shame about it. If people are dealing with it in a positive way, that's great."

Daly-Peoples said people with sexuality issues between the ages of 15 and 25 are at highest risk for suicide and depression, and transgender people faced similar risks.

"Transgender is different, because it's the feeling you are in the wrong body but the reason there is an increased risk is because there's difference and it's a difference that's not often seen as acceptable in families, peer groups and then the wider community," she said.

"[Being transgender] is not something you would openly talk about with friends and when you hit adolescence and feel the need to belong and work out who you are, it's so important. You're talking about something that you potentially can't change."

It's not just mental hurdles Jason will face - when he turns 9 he will start taking puberty blockers so that his body doesn't start to curve or change like a woman's does. It may also eliminate the need for surgery to remove his breasts when he's an adult.

"The reason Jason is lucky is because by the time he's 9 years old he would have been living as a boy since he was 3 or 4. They do a psychological evaluation so that you know you're not making a big mistake," said Linda.

Linda said Jason "wants to go on blockers" and is aware that he will have to have surgery when he's an adult. Puberty blockers are reversible and if they are stopped, the child will start developing normally. "If Jason goes on blockers and gets to 16 and decides, ‘well, that's not for me' or for whatever reason he doesn't take them, then he'll just go through puberty and instead of going through puberty at 11, 12, 13, he'll go through it at whatever age he comes off it. He'll be classed as a late developer," she said.

Allowing Jason to make such a monumental decision for himself is being questioned by New Zealand's first transsexual MP, Georgina Beyers, who herself identified as a girl by the time she turned 3 years old.

"As far as I see it, I transitioned at the age of 16 going 17 - that's pretty young - and naturally my brain was leading me there, no matter what," she said. "I certainly think that's the best way to let it happen, naturally. When you start to intervene without the [body], it's a manipulation."

Beyers also cautioned that surgery for trans men was not ideal. "It's not nearly as successful as for trans women and that's got to be taken into consideration. I'm no expert, I'm just experienced."

Duncan Matthews, general manager of Rainbow Youth, said young people wanting support around their gender approached the organisation on a daily basis.

"As a community organisation, we provide social support, information and referral service. We don't, and can't, provide services like counselling directly."

Instead, Matthews and his team refer young people questioning their gender to medical and mental health professionals who are known to be "friendly to the needs of trans young people" or to community counselling services.

The team rarely refers young people to "mainstream" professionals because he said there was a "general lack of awareness, expertise and sensitivity to the needs of trans young people". "When a young person does start a path to transition, and everyone's path can be different, they often end up doing a lot of research and educating the health professional taking care of them," said Matthews.

"For example, if a young person is brave enough to approach a family GP, they often educate the GP around gender dysphoria (gender identity disorder), provide them with resources and tell them who they need to be referred to for psychological evaluation or surgery or what treatments they need."

As well as providing a support network for Jason and his family, the organisation has also given him the chance to meet positive role models with whom he is comfortable asking questions about his gender and feelings.

But Linda is aware that although Jason's journey might be different to other trans youth because his family accepts him, the mental health issues most trans people face are not eliminated.

"[The issues] are lessened because he's got support but they're not eliminated. Who knows what turmoil he still goes through or what he might go through when maybe he does want a penis but he's scared for surgery or if he gets into dating what does he tell people," she said.

While Jason lives as a boy, on paper he will be a girl until he has surgery because the government does not collect data on transgender people.

"It is not included as a topic or a question, because the Statistics Act requires the sex of the respondent, not the gender of the respondent," a spokesperson for Statistics New Zealand said.

"But we do advise transgender people who have had [gender reassignment surgery] to give the sex that they are now."

No matter what Jason is classed as on paper or whether kids taunt him for using the "wrong" toilet, it won't stop his family from supporting him.

"I don't want him to get laughed at or picked on because he identifies as a boy who was assigned female," Linda said.

"That won't stop me loving him, it won't stop me accepting him. I try to guide him the safest path through, and the safest path for him is love, acceptance, tolerance and support.

"We have the same child. We met with another trans child and the mum told us she had to go to counselling and we couldn't understand it, she felt like she had lost a daughter.

"We haven't lost anything. We haven't gained anything, other than a happier child."

HOW TO GET HELP

Rainbow Youth runs a fortnightly social group for young people questioning their gender.

Go online: www.rainbowyouth.org.nz; www.genderbridge.org; www.tomerge.wordpress.com; www.healthwest.co.nz; 0800 outline or www.outline.org.nz; www.curious.org.nz.

If you are in distress or concerned about another person's wellbeing, contact the national suicide prevention helpline at 0800 543 354 or visit www.lifeline.org.nz or www.spinz.org.nz 

Editor's note: The Sunday Star-Times believes this is an important story to tell and it was written with the support of the family concerned. As responsible publishers, the Star-Times has chosen to change the names of the 7-year-old and family in the story. - Garry Ferris, Editor-in-Chief

- Sunday Star Times

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