In most families the pronoun “they” is plural. In our family it’s singular and gender neutral. My husband and I have pronoun crises in which neurons misfire and the cat becomes “they”, our youngest daughter becomes “they” and the children’s granny becomes confused.
This is all because our oldest child is transgender - female to male - and no longer wants to be referred to as “she” or “her”. “He” and “him” won’t do either, only “they” and “them”.
My husband and I try to use it even when our child isn’t around. It helps reinforce the habit, so I will write “they” and “them” instead of “she” and “her”.
It’s been a year-long struggle to retrain our brains. Slips have sparked arguments that degenerated into conflict about how we misgendered them at birth and how dare we.
But we have slowly grown used to it, just like we have adapted as our beautiful daughter has transformed into a good-looking but boyish 16-year-old called Russell.
It was a huge shock when they anxiously handed over a note trying to explain that they no longer felt comfortable being called “she”.
At first my husband didn’t take it seriously, laughing uproariously at what he thought was a stunt. After all, up until then our daughter had never shown any signs of a gender struggle.
The pronoun wasn’t the only thing that changed. The wardrobe was overhauled. Low tops and short skirts were replaced by trousers and shirts buttoned to the collar. The make-up and jewellery are gone. The bras have been replaced by an unforgiving binder that flattens the breasts.
When I tried to warn Russell of the dangers of not taking it off at night, they replied: “Who cares, I don’t plan to keep them [the breasts] anyway.”
At this time Russell started to talk about “transitioning”. They wanted to take testosterone and we were deeply opposed. We thought it was all too new to be taking such a radical step.
I had a transition of my own, hitting a new low. I felt like I had lost a child somehow and I wasn’t sure what I would get in her place. Bewildered and deeply worried, my husband and I would lie awake at night plundering our memories for signs we had missed that all was not well with our oldest child. No one could explain it to us. None of our friends were any help. They didn’t get it either.
While Russell was busy forming a new identity I was busy on the internet. I was convinced this was a fad, a trend fed by the blogging site Tumblr, and I found a few stories backing up my theory.
I looked at the sites my child was tracking and became alarmed. Transgender blogs, presumably by teenagers, seemed to be filled with rage and hate. There were pornographic images, and people ranting aggressively about the persecution of “out-groups”. There are people on Tumblr who identify as animals, calling themselves “otherkin”.
It was like stumbling on a new form of madness. I took our story and my findings from the internet to a psychiatrist I know and described what had been happening and what I had found on Tumblr.
I told the psychiatrist it felt like a new form of mass hysteria and he agreed. He said gender identity seemed to be a new and growing field.
My husband and I knew we were out of our depth. We took Russell to a counsellor specialising in gender issues.
The specialist said it is real, but that Russell is not transsexual. They are androgynous. They feel neither female nor male, and they also don’t feel trapped in the wrong body, a crucial point because it means they are unlikely to qualify for testosterone.
Russell says they thought the specialist didn’t fully understand but they haven’t asked to see her again. They have suggested we go. We need it more, they say.
The specialist told us that Russell’s gender identity may change over the next few years. It could go either way, more feminine or more masculine. If we give them nothing to push up against it might turn out to be a phase that passes.
The important thing is that we support them - use whatever pronoun they want and whatever name they want, just let them know that they are loved and accepted no matter what. This is crucial in the process of their self-acceptance, she said. A lot of kids like Russell become suicidal.
We have taken her advice very seriously. We do our best to accommodate the changes that make Russell more comfortable, although I can’t yet bring myself to buy underpants. They have to do that for themself.
But, as so often happens, once your consciousness has been raised, there is no going back. Thanks to Russell, I am far more aware of issues surrounding the gender spectrum.
I hope there will be a time when gender variations are recognised and accepted. I want Russell to be able to live without fear of persecution and discrimination.
I’m proud of Russell. They have the heart of a lion.
In my heart I still hope that one day we will look back on this period as a particularly difficult stage in their growing up and that they will change their mind and drop the binder and the new name and all the challenges that it brings. But I also know that this might be forever, that when they are 21 they may decide to have a double mastectomy and to take testosterone.
By then it will be their choice and if they take it we will stand by their right to do so.
One of the things I have learnt is that gender is complex and separate from personality. I had feared that Russell was going to change in some indefinable way, but they are still the same person they ever were. They still have the same quirky sense of humour, the same laugh, the same intelligent inquiring mind, the same need to be hugged, and the same need to feel loved.
My husband and I are the ones who have had to change. And we’ll keep on doing it, until they tell us it’s time to stop.
*Names have been changed