For all they are talked about in the media, it is rare that we hear from young trans and non-binary people themselves. The lives and feelings of these kids are sidelined in favour of sometimes well-meaning but often scaremongering rhetoric about how transness is being 'pushed' on 'confused' kids. It echoes the 'think of the children' narrative that plagued the lives of gay people with the introduction of Section 28, the homophobic law passed in 1988 by a Conservative government which stopped councils and schools "promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship." In doing so, it removes any agency from the children or those who care for them.
It is why Juno Roche's latest book, Gender Explorers: Our Stories of Growing Up Trans and Changing the World is such an important and timely read. In a series of life-affirming interviews, young trans people share their empowering experiences of questioning and exploring gender, alongside their parents and carers. Speaking to – and crucially, listening to – trans and non-binary kids of all ages brings their experiences back into the conversation. As Juno writes in their introduction: "This book isn’t about proving or disproving, believing or disbelieving, challenging or not challenging the validity of trans children and their parents or carers. These young people are me, and for a brief summer term in 1972 I was them. They know their truths, I know our truths, and no one can tell them, or me, otherwise."
The heartwarming and uplifting conversations featured in the book show us that what is best for all children, cis or trans, is the love and support of those around them to let them be themselves. It can be the difference between a happy childhood and one fraught with confusion, self-loathing and fear of rejection.
The following interviews are extracted from the book and were carried out with young trans and non-binary people and their parents and carers during Mermaids weekend residentials.
Trans Girl and Her Mother
Juno Roche: What year are you in at school?
Trans girl: I’m in Year 8.
Are you happy at school, do you enjoy school?
Trans girl: Yes, my school is a Stonewall school so it’s really LGBT friendly.
Amazing. What’s it like to be in a school where you feel supported?
Trans girl: It’s okay, the school is LGBT friendly but that doesn’t mean that every pupil is. One day a week we have a club called the Equality and Diversity Club. It’s really LGBT friendly. Also, if someone in school says ‘that’s so gay’ they get told that it’s not funny to say it. People try to make sure that no one who is LGBT is being picked on or having a hard time.
When did you transition at school?
Trans girl: In Year 7.
Was that tough?
Trans girl: It was near the end of Year 7, near the start of the summer holidays.
Can you think back to how you got to the point of being able to go into school as yourself?
Trans girl: I know mum hates the way I did it, but I posted something on Snapchat about it, I said that I’d always been a girl. When I was growing up, I was a really stereotypical girly girl. I loved Barbies and the colour pink, I loved playing with Littlest Pet Shop.
So, you first posted something on Snapchat. When did you tell your parents?
Mum: I think you told me and dad first?
Trans girl: No, I did Snapchat first.
Can you remember the timeline of events?
Trans girl: Yes. I was with my friend and we said let’s do make-up. And then something in my brain clicked, I thought I’ve always liked make-up and I’ve always liked girly things, not that girls have to like girly things, but I did. I’d always felt different. When I was much younger, I’d said to my mum, ‘Isn’t there surgery people can get if they are born in the wrong body?' So, with my friend doing make-up something clicked in my brain, so I posted this thing. I know it sounds silly and bad but at school I got great support from it. Then I told my mum and dad. My mum said she always knew, and my dad made a funny noise. It took him a little while.
Do you remember the time she told you?
Mum: Yes, very clearly. She had a friend over for a sleepover and they both came trotting down the stairs, stood in the middle of the lounge floor, looking at us and she said, ‘Mum, I’ve got something to tell you, I’m trans, I have a new name, I’m a girl, please call me she from now on and I won’t answer to my old name or old pronouns again and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.’
Trans girl: Dad made a funny noise again and they paused the film. It was time for thinking time.
Mum: I knew this was coming for a long time because all the signs were there from about four or five years old.
Trans girl: Did you think I would be gay or trans?
Mum: No, not gay but trans. Yes. It was tough on your dad because he felt he had sons. It only took him a short while though.
How did you become strong or confident enough in yourself to post on Snapchat and then go downstairs and say who you were?
Trans girl: I’ve always been confident. Talking to my parents was like talking to my best friend. It was easy because I knew that they were accepting. I knew that my mum would be brilliant, and she was. In that moment I knew I would hear my mum’s voice. Before that I had been through a tougher period, but I’d rather not talk about it apart from that it also took me some time. I remember having a best friend and once someone asked if we were dating and I thought NO WAY, I felt like the opposite to her, best friends.
Does everything make sense in your life now?
Trans girl: Yes, mainly. It doesn’t feel like it’s falling apart, just coming together. But then some people say that you must have dysphoria to be trans, but I never had it. I never felt dysphoric.
I don’t think you have to be depressed, I think if you can be as smiley and happy as you are then that’s brilliant.
Trans girl: After announcing it on Snapchat and telling my parents I went into school the next day as myself and everyone knew. I was slightly worried but they all just ran over to me and hugged me. My best friend told all the teachers that I had changed my name and pronoun and that they must get it right. The teachers were brilliant, they just got it right. I stayed in the same school uniform as it was near to the end of term and returned after the summer in a skirt.
Do you feel like more people at school got things right for you than got it wrong?
Trans girl: Yes.
If you could give advice to someone who might be having a tough time, say someone reading your story about having an easier time, is there anything you think you could say to them?
Trans girl: If you’re scared about judgement, about being judged, it makes the judgement come to you more impactful. So, if you just say it and say who I truly am, it will make you feel more positive. It doesn’t mean it’s not scary, but worrying about the judgement and worrying about if you should say or not could just make it worse. It’s like getting on a rollercoaster. You could be scared or excited.
I’m in the scared rollercoaster camp. I think some people might not have your support.
Trans girl: My parents and school could have not been accepting but I still would have said it. Maybe it’s the person I am. I do feel lucky and I do feel privileged but I’m only being myself so it’s not really a privilege.
Mother of Two Young Children (One Trans and The Other Gender Fluid)
You said you have two children?
Mum: I have three altogether. One who is eight years old and defines as trans (male to female) and one who is just thirteen who has very recently come out and said that they feel more comfortable describing themselves as gender fluid. They are questioning lots and going through a process.
What age was the younger child when they told you?
Mum: They were about five.
Do you remember the moment?
Mum: Yes, I do. I was doing the ironing and she came in, sat in the corner quietly and started crying.
I said, ‘What’s the matter?’
She said she didn’t know if she could tell me.
I said, ‘You can tell me anything.’ I thought she might say that she fancied boys.
She said, ‘I feel really confused and I don’t know if I can tell you.’
I said, ‘I’m your mum and it’s my job to make sure you are happy and safe. If you feel like you can tell me, then tell me. If not, then you can tell me another time.’
She said, ‘Mum, it’s really weird. I’ve got this boy’s body but in my heart I’m a girl.’
That was how she told me.
What was it like to hear those words?
Mum: I had this rush, a rush that came up from my toes and overwhelmed me. You know in films when it’s all slow motion? It was a little like that, but then I knew that my child was in front of me crying so I immediately picked her up and gave her a cuddle, saying, ‘It’s alright. If this is what you are feeling, then I’ll look after you. If that’s how you feel, then that’s how you feel. That’s who you are.’ I hid the fact that I went into turmoil straight away.
What were the feelings beneath that turmoil?
Mum: I just felt as if someone had switched off the light and hit me. It was a stunned ‘What the hell?’ It was nothing I expected. We live in such a small place that I was terrified about the reaction. I didn’t sleep. I spoke to my then husband and he had real problems getting his head around it. I could tell from my daughter’s words that she knew who she was. She was a girl. She said, ‘In my heart I’m a girl.’ She was five.
I walked away in shock. I learnt a lot about myself. It was nothing I’d ever thought about or prepared for.
What did you learn about yourself?
Mum: I learned that I wasn’t as open-minded as I thought I was, which was hard because I’d always felt like I was a supporter and an ally and that I would stand up for anybody. But then when my child told me, it hit me. Fear hit me. Fear for my child. But also, from a selfish point of view you have your dreams of how you imagine your child’s life will go. You have an idea of a dreamy path they might take. I thought I didn’t know my child at all.
To those people who feel that parents might be pushing their children towards being trans, what would you say?
Mum: Absolutely ridiculous. It’s the complete opposite of that. I couldn’t even think or didn’t even think about having a trans child. It never entered my head. She always wanted to dress up and wear dresses, she always drew amazing eyelashes on with my eye liner. If anything, I thought she’d grow up to be a great drag queen. But nowhere in my mind did I even think or consider the word ‘trans’. The worry I started to have about keeping my trans child safe went to a different level.
What were the things that helped you get from fear and worry to where you are now?
Mum: Connecting with other parents. I researched like there was no tomorrow. I knew I had to support my child and I needed to find out how to do it best. I had to get over the guilt as a parent. I had to stop questioning if I was doing it right or doing the right thing. I kept thinking, ‘Should I be doing this or that?’ I questioned my parenting even though I knew deep down I was doing the right thing. I just wanted to nurture. I spoke to some very close friends who were very supportive. I spoke to my mum and we grieved together and then supported each other.
When you grieved, what were you grieving for?
Mum: I don’t know. I have no idea. I just felt this massive sense of loss. He was my boy and he was such a lovely boy. He was quite fabulous. At that time, I felt like I was losing him. Now I can see that I wasn’t losing him; he is still there but he was always she. She was always there. I will go on to have a fabulous daughter, another fabulous daughter.
A while ago you talked about having dreams for your child. Do you have a plan now for your daughter?
Mum: No. She will do whatever she wants. She will become whatever she wants. She will lead and I will follow. That’s it.
In a way she always did lead.
Are you scared about her growing up?
Mum: No. I think by truly being herself she’ll develop the confidence to live her life. She has blossomed. She’s doing so well in school now. Before, she was struggling and getting so behind. She’s got friends. She’s so happy.