What does it mean to have a transgender child?


If you’ve wondered what terms like ‘gender fluidity’ or ‘transgender’ mean for you and your kids or why your school is talking about cross-gender uniforms and safe school programs for LGBTI children then read on. Gillian O’Shaughnessy spoke to one of Australia’s leading medical experts to find out.

A few weeks ago I met 15 year old Georgie and her mum, Rebekah, who spoke to me on 720. Georgie was born a boy. As soon as she was able to reach for a Barbie doll or thrill over Cinderella – as early as she could remember –she  identified as a girl.(Georgie, brother Harry and mum Rebekah, outside Parliament House in Canberra. Photo: Rebekah Robertson)

I had seen the word ‘transgender’ and ‘gender fluidity’ in the news a lot, and I’d read about the Safe Schools program for LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and/or intersex ) children but I really didn’t know exactly what that meant for young kids. Most of the stories I saw about transgender people were sad tales of adults trying to transition later in life, often biologically limited to partial changes, struggling with questions of identity.

These are often stories where trauma and a lack of acceptance and support had led to tragic consequences, homelessness, addiction, self harm. The lives of those who can’t be who they are and become emotionally damaged as a result. Stories where the term, ‘transgender’ was used alongside words like ‘transvestite’ or references to sexual preference, so the term transgender on its own wasn’t all that clear, and was linked to sexuality as much as identity.

Georgie was a happy child by all accounts, whose life changed dramatically when she had to start school and her choices about who she was and the gender she identified with became much less straightforward. It was a story of confusion, of bullying, at times thoughts of self harm and of despair. There were arduous, long court cases where her whole world hung on decisions made for her by people she had never met. She and her mother told of unimaginable stress as they navigated the medical, emotional and legal requirements that were vital if Georgie was to live as herself. She was, eventually, successful.

For the most part, those dark times aside, Georgie’s story was the best outcome you might imagine for a transgender child in Australia, the only country left in the world where the Family Court holds the power to allow, or not, medical treatment for transgender children. Her family was supportive and accepting, she had friends, eventually she found a school to support her, she had an excellent team of medical experts and lawyers prepared to work on her case pro bono.

But there are many other children like Georgie who don’t have that support. Whose families reject them, whose peers don’t understand them, whose school won’t support them, who don’t have the money to fight long legal battles. There are stories of adults who didn’t even have those options because there was no diagnosis for them, or treatment plans. It’s not really surprising then, that transgender adults often make the news because they are vulnerable to suicide, to homelessness, to addiction.

Dr Michelle Telfer is one of Australia’s few experts on transgender children and gender dysphoria. She is the Acting Head of Department of Adolescent Medicine at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and the Director of the RCH Gender Service.

Here’s what I learnt from Dr Telfer about what transgender means. You can hear the full interview here. You can also hear my conversation with Georgie and her mother, Rebekah here.



Your physical body is inconsistent with the gender you identify with. That may mean you’ve been born with a boy’s body but your sense of identity is female, or vice versa.

Gender identity is most likely present from birth and that transgender children can begin showing signs from 18 months old, as soon as they are old enough to begin expressing themselves.

Many young children like to dress up or role play as another gender, that is not the same as being transgender, or even likely to be a sign of being transgender. Transgender children are persistent and insistent about their gender identity, it does not ‘come and go.’

Being transgender is not a mental disorder, it’s a biological condition.

Being transgender is not the same as being homosexual. “Gender and sexuality are quite different,” Dr Telfer said, “your gender is how you view yourself in terms of who you are, male or female or in between. Sexuality is about who you’re attracted to. It’s a common thing people get confused about,” said Dr Telfer, “ young children are not aware of their sexuality at all, it’s how they feel about themselves and who they are.”

There is no evidence whatsoever that you can influence someone’s gender identity, there is no evidence it is caused by environmental or social factors.

You cannot ‘undo’ someone’s sense of gender identity with psychotherapy or psychological treatment. “You can’t convert someone to being transgender, you can’t convert them to not being transgender,” Dr Telfer said.

Being transgender does not mean that the person has a mental illness. The term ‘gender dysphoria’ is currently classified as a mental health diagnosis but this term describes the distress that is experienced when someone who is transgender is not receiving support or treatment.

Dr Telfer quotes research from La Trobe University in 2010 which looked at adolescents with gender dysphoria who were not receiving support or treatment, 50 per cent were self harming and 30 percent had attempted suicide.

“Really frightening statistics,” Dr Telfer said.

“For those who have supportive families, supportive school environments and access to treatment, the outcomes are quite good.

For those who don’t, it can be life threatening.”

STORY COURTESY OF: 25/02/2016 , 6:10 PM by Oshaughnessy Gillian

For support in Perth, contact the Gender Diversity Clinic at Princess Margaret Hospital. 


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