At the start of Kim’s interview her adult son Mark made a brief cameo. He was going out for the night, and I heard his gruff cheerio. “Yeah, um, love you mum, bye, laters.” His top half appeared in camera for one of those loving but all too brief hugs that adult sons dispense. She looked touched, told him to drive safely, and off he went. It was a lovely moment. I was glad to have seen it.
It predisposed me to like Kim, a slight woman, nearly fifty, with a lively, forthright manner that is somewhat at odds with her sad eyes. She quickly gave me the feeling that she was not somebody to give much ground – that for her, things were true or untrue, ideas were correct or incorrect, and actions were right or wrong. I wondered, would she be a person to make compromises with a transitioning child? But as she spoke, it quickly became clear that she regarded herself and others as complicated, a mixture of light, dark and shade, and that as forthright as she might be about ideas, her relationship style was to look for conciliation and compromise where they could be found.
She referred throughout the interview to her child as “they” and used their chosen name. The only exception to this was when she was speaking about her deepest and most treasured memories of motherhood, when she reverted to the name she gave her child, and the pronoun “she.” Even speaking to me, an unconnected third party, I felt she was giving as much ground as she possibly could to her child’s transition, perhaps in the hope of a future reconciliation.
I had a question set prepared for the interview, but it turned out that I didn’t need it. I asked her about her pregnancy, and the whole history came out in a whirlwind. Kim had clearly spent hours, days, weeks, months, years going over and over the same ground in her head, in circles, questioning her every thought and action, wondering what she did wrong, what she could have done to change things. She almost seemed to be accusing herself, thinking of what she should have done instead.
The most striking thing about the interview, though, was the nature and extent of Kim’s grief. When somebody dies, all our friends and family come around and bring lasagne and do the hoovering and sit with us. They mourn with us. We hold each other, and cry, and talk about our memories of our dead loved one. Kim’s daughter was gone, her beloved little girl was gone, but she had nobody to mourn with. Everybody she would mourn with denied that the girl ever existed. Kim lost her firstborn child but was mourning alone. She sat with grief and desperation, but also with furious anger at everybody who claimed the girl she loved had never really existed at all.
I am struggling to find words to describe the extent of what happened to Kim and her family. Not just her firstborn’s transition and their subsequent estrangement, but all the years before. Tragedy heaped on tragedy across generations. The desolation that institutional evil leaves in its wake. Broken families, broken relationships, hurt, lost children, betrayed by those in authority who should have helped them. Traumatised fathers, mothers with broken hearts. I just wanted to give her a hug.
I have no words, so here are Kim’s. I’ve edited them for length, structure and repetition, but they are hers.
When I fell pregnant with my first born, I was working a very social job. I was training on the side as well, and I had a bunch of friends. My child was so desperately loved and wanted, there was never a question about that. But at the same time, nobody in my friend group was settling down, and it left me feeling isolated. On top of that, I was sexually assaulted early in the pregnancy, and that made me feel even more alone. Then at 26 weeks they did a urine test and said that there was a 98% chance that the baby would have Downs, and I should abort.
I decided not to have the second test. At the time I just thought the baby will come as it comes. I didn’t want to risk a miscarriage. I don’t even recall having a recoil of horror or thinking “what on earth will I do.” I just accepted it. It further isolated me, though. I look back and think – the test I did looks for a raised level of a particular catalyst which indicates extra chromosomal activity. In Downs it is a whole chromosome, but in the case of some developmental differences, it could be extra bits of chromosomes. I’ve gone over in my mind, could that be related to what happened to Tyler later?
Even the birth was hard, the baby did not want to come out. I was in labour for a day and a half. She got stuck. I’m tiny, I have little bird bones. She is broad, a big head, broad shoulders, and she got stuck. There was no abnormality, no damage to the head, nothing to indicate anything other than a normal baby. She was eight pounds, a good healthy weight. They separated us almost as soon as she was born, they took her up the stairs and me in the lift. I hated it, I was very disoriented on the way to the ward. When you’ve gone through this, you look back and think about every single little thing, did that cause it? Was that the moment? It goes round and round in my head.
All her developments were normal. Everybody doted on her. Everybody turned up for birthdays and Christmases with presents, but it was the day in, day out grind of a small baby that I needed support with. There was nobody to give me that support. My child’s father had quite a serious drug and alcohol problem by that stage and had become emotionally abusive. Needless to say, despite his apparently sane and professional exterior, he was not able to give me much support with the baby either. He did have a traumatic past and many tragic losses early in his life, to be fair to the man, and so I regarded it as my responsibility to facilitate a relationship between him and his child. I made various attempts, but it all dwindled out. He was unable to face what happened to him, and so was unable to be a father. And I couldn’t fix it.
Even though it was hard, and I was isolated, I treasured those first five years so much. She was my world. She was everything to me, and I was everything to her. I cry when I think about it. And then alongside that, even though I loved her, it is a bit boring looking after babies. It made me hungry to learn more about the world, to be a better mother. I decided to go back to university and put her into the college creche.
Tyler was Matilda back then. They built a Lego hotel with lots of detail on it at nursery. The worker told me, “that’s not typical play, that’s gender atypical play.” I was confused, but they pointed to the level of organisation and the level of detail and the fact she spent all day doing it. I wondered out loud, could it be ADHD or ASD? That was just what she was like. She once spent all day watching bees, and then drew a beautiful little bee, beautifully observed. We made a day’s learning out of it. She was transfixed. The lady in the creche said it was gender atypical play anyway.
I just thought it was a bit… absurd. It was just sexist, regressive stereotypes that this woman was spouting at me. I didn’t question it any further. She didn’t press it, but she did say “they may struggle, and this may reoccur in adolescence.” They didn’t have a problem, they identified themselves as female, as a girl. But she did say as a very little girl, seeing her father waltzing in and out, that “I don’t want to be a girl.” I just always took that to be “I see what boys and men get away with and what women and girls are expected to put up with and I don’t want to be on the losing side.”
I got in another relationship. I wanted a sibling for my child, amongst other things. I fell pregnant with John when Tyler was five. I have never loved anybody the way I love my children. I wonder sometimes if that makes me cold or deformed. Whether it stems from me being sexually abused as a child at school, along with other children. My beloved brother was abused too. He took his own life. It came out in the press when Tyler was twelve and the perpetrators went to prison. The loss of my brother affected both of my parents terribly, but when the thing hit the press, my parents didn’t even know about it. My father never really recovered from that. I moved back home to be closer to them, but he never recovered.
That combined with Tyler’s extensive medical difficulties in childhood made me very protective. They are an EpiPen carrier, and had constant issues with allergies, skin and so on. There were several occasions where they nearly died. I was a single parent, I was disadvantaged, with a lack of family support, and I went super fastidious, organic food, trying to keep additives out of everything. I was a neurotic cleaner, trying to keep the dust mites out. I used to send washing powder ahead and say “wash your sheets in this.”
The family situation was so difficult as well. I had to go to counselling when Matilda was maybe fourteen or fifteen and I think she was quite aware of it. They got counselling at school and my parents did try to support them, and me too. But it was a horrible time. My relationship with my youngest’s dad didn’t survive, even though I tried to make it work.
But as a family, we got through it. When you love people, and you are a family, you get through all sorts of tough and horrible shit that people do to you, because you are a unit and you love each other. That’s what family is to me, that’s part of why my heart is so broken by all this. We survived generational trauma, but this has split us apart.
Mom and dad gave me a little parcel of land next to their house. I started running my own business from it, teaching people how to grow vegetables, paint stones and so on. Actually, I say about vegetables, but I am so shit at growing vegetables. I’m appalling. I get utterly distracted by the wildlife. I manage to grow a single tomato, and then a deer eats it. I did bushcraft too, you know, teaching people to start fires without matches.
Tyler was at secondary school and I just had so many problems with the school. It had quite an academic ethos and they pushed Tyler too hard. They put too much pressure on, and then the bullying started as well, not just by the kids but by the whole system. Tyler just didn’t fit in. I tried to get them to think about changing schools but they had a boyfriend by that stage, they had been together a while, and they didn’t want to leave.
I went to visit the school and discovered that there was a tray of condoms in the girls’ toilets. No sanitary towel machine, but a tray of condoms. I brought this up with the school. This was when I found out that the school had an approach to sex education that I was not happy with, not at all. Stonewall were in the school. I really wish I had dug deeper. I don’t know if it is related to the school’s approach, but it became obvious that Matilda – Tyler – was exploring their sexuality and becoming uncomfortable with their body. They became obsessed with small details that were not observable by anybody else.
You know when you “do chores” with your kids, but it’s really an excuse to sit with them and talk and listen? We were balling up socks together, me and Matilda, and they started this conversation about the socks. What if the sock wants to be in a different kind of pair? What if it wants to unravel itself and be a glove instead? What if it wants to be a different shape? At the time, I just didn’t realise that they were trying to tell me they were trans. I didn’t know. I didn’t even hear what they were saying at all. I just made a joke about the sock being “homosocksual.”
I wasn’t being transphobic, I wasn’t taking the piss. I was just saying “socks can love who they want to love.” But of course, the response she wanted was “let me unpick your stitches and remake you as a mitten.” But I’m a scientist. Humans can’t change sex. That said, as long as both socks are happy, then it doesn’t really matter. I couldn’t understand the extent of her anger with that joke. It was so extreme.
Tyler did the normal teen stuff. Stage stuff, experimenting with baggy clothes, wanting boxers because they’re “comfy.” There was a pregnancy scare that I didn’t even hear about. And then Tyler fell in with these two people, one male and one female, but both of them and identifying as some sort of trans. Tyler became really close to the female friend, to Riley. It was a sexual relationship, I think, or maybe they were just working it out between them at that stage. Riley was having a really hard time at home, and wanted to stay at my house for a couple of nights. That turned into a couple of months.
At that point, Tyler came out to me as trans. It was very defiant, in the kitchen. “I’m TRANS.” I asked, “what does that mean to you.” Tyler said, “I identify as masculine,” and I said, “ok, identify how you want.” I was not hostile, but neither was I going to spend all day discussing queer theory. My child’s sexuality is not my business. It’s their business. So long as nobody is coercing you, regaling your sexual experiences to your mother is not a thing you would want to be doing. I put this to Tyler, who took it terribly badly. They went to Riley’s house, and there they stayed.
I was in a council house, I was a single parent. Riley’s parents were middle class, and living in the country side. Tyler had only a few months of school left, and Riley’s parents were taking her there each day. I did try to keep up contact on my end. Tyler had just inherited some money, and when the father found that out, he decided to “help her out.” So off she went, then, away to rent a room at her dad’s. Two month’s later, she confided in me that he was “ripping her off.”
She came to see me at that point, but everything was defiance. I still don’t understand it. What was there to defy? I capitulated to the demands, I apologised. I said “I’m so sorry, I birthed you into the wrong body.” I feel now like I can’t fucking grovel any more than that. The only thing I’ve ever said is that no, I don’t agree with medical treatment. Wear what you want, challenge every concept in the world, that’s the glory of youth, but I don’t agree with medical treatment. I have a tattoo, but I barely even agree with that. I’m not the risk taker or the glory maker at 50, that’s the joy of youth, that’s for them, but not medical treatment.
Then I found out that she had started on testosterone. Between her and Riley, whilst they were still living at my house, they had ordered testosterone off the internet, I think, or got hold of it somehow. That was at least in part what was driving their bad behaviour. She was not a naughty kid. I was not on the look out for that level of deception. I blame the school stuff, their approach to sex education, it was in their policy that they didn’t have to talk to me, that they would purposefully keep me out. I don’t mean to beat my breast and say “my own child is deceiving me” but I do feel that Tyler was groomed to keep this from me. They knew I would cut through the bullshit and not stand for it, so built a pre-emptive wall against it.
Was it a lack of female role models? Nobody Tyler wanted to be like? The school was very diverse in terms of race and disability, but really backwards in terms of gender conformity. I wonder, was it to do with thinking that being gender non-conforming meant they were trans? Tyler would never engage with me on the topic of gender stereotypes.
Tyler now has no contact with me. They joined a support organisation and got in a relationship with another trans person, also female to male, who started puberty blockers as a teen. I met up with the mother, hoping she would help me to build bridges with Tyler. She was supposed to mediate. I said “you can identify how you want, identify as a cat if you like, walk round purring on all fours, but if you start smooching round my legs or scratching me, I’m going to treat you as a very odd fucking human, not a cat.” I realised afterwards, there was no intention of mediation; it was a purity test; she wanted to see if I could be made to believe the lies; if I could not, she was my enemy.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Tyler’s mastectomy broke me. They had been seeing one consultant, who urged caution, rethinking, taking some time, maybe living as a butch lesbian, and needing more therapy before surgery. Tyler thought this was them just wanting to grab more money, so the family had her see a different surgeon in another town, who was happy to forge ahead with the mastectomy. At the end of the day, I’ve had to frame it as “that’s bodily autonomy,” and try to move past it. It’s done.
Tyler and their new partner came to visit me soon after that. I paid for their hotel. We went to the beach. It was so strange. I paid for everything, I turned up with swimming shorts, ice-creams and so on, and then I was supposed to be the worst thing in the world. I couldn’t understand it. “I want to visit you, you should pay for it, I want to go for a day out with you. You’re the worst mum in the world. I’m not talking to you, but I’ll eat the ice-cream you bought.” You don’t expect proper thanks or anything, they’re kids like, but I just felt it was jarring.
I don’t understand where Tyler’s head is at now. I’ve been accused of threatening my daughter’s life whilst she was growing up. It is like they have painted a picture of me that I don’t even recognise. It has ridden a coach and horses through my family. My mum is in touch a bit, and I hear about things from her. I’ve thought about moving away from my family, so that Tyler can move back. She won’t move close whilst I am here. But then, I don’t know if it would be of any help.
Tyler was talking about the whole trans thing when my dad was dying, and I said “Tyler, I can’t today, my dad is dying.” Tyler just looked at me and said “people die every day.” Sometimes I look at that and think “did my dad hurt her?” If he didn’t hurt her, why is she so cold about him? Was he an abuser too? It breaks your trust in everything, you know. So that’s where things are now. I’m just in a mess about it all.
I’ve tried brief, rational conversations about “living as” but I’m not going to lie to children about biology. You can’t expect compelled speech. If there was some sort of invasion, I would be the first to be shot. The neighbours would be the first to drag me out and say “it’s her, have her.” So that’s how it is. I’m joking about a hostile take over, well half joking, to cover up my feelings, but I just miss her so much. I just miss her. My heart is broken. I want to do whatever I can, I don’t even know where they live, I know the region they are in, they are there somewhere, I want to imagine meeting them and hugging them, putting my arms around my first-born child, and I’m not convinced that she wouldn’t just stab me in the back.
I’ve nearly not made it.
If it wasn’t for my son and my mother, I wouldn’t have made it. I wouldn’t even have had to do anything not to make it, I would have just shrivelled up and died, if I didn’t have somebody to pull through for. That handsome chap is everything to me.
I smoke some pot now, let me tell you, I’ve always quite liked a smoke. That’s where I sit with it. It just makes the madness diminish a bit. I feel like I can’t trust anybody, not the police, anybody who is going to make you identify a man as a female, Stonewall are everywhere. You can’t trust the men who you know are going to hurt you, you can’t trust the people who are supposed to stop the men hurting you, or the school who are supposed to help your child. You can’t trust anybody. My grace and saviour are my other two family members, they are a bit piss taking and demanding, I’ve made it look like a fucking breeze, typical mothering, so they take me for granted, even though I’m pissed off and anxious. The house is fucking filthy, all these years my house has never been dirty, all those years of kids. I haven’t been able to clean properly in lockdown, we are nearly on top of it now.
I would desperately like to meet up with Tyler. It has been five years now where the relationship hasn’t been good between us. That’s a fifth of her life, and a tenth of mine. I’m not only angry at the family for the fact that there’s no support for me. Did they not see my Matilda, did they not love her, all the privileges they had with her, did they not see how wonderful she was, how could they just let that wonderful little person die, as they all say. Pretending that she never existed, “oh you were always a boy.” It doesn’t matter how much you go against your intuition, it doesn’t matter how much you comply. You can never comply enough. It’s a very tenuous relationship she has with her younger brother and my mum, texts, you hear something every other month, but there’s no real emotional connection.
I want them back. I want them back. I want her back. The advice is that I’m supposed to build something better for them to come back to – something about these young strong minded lesbians, there’s nowhere for them to go in society, they’re not celebrated and validated for that and that’s what they do. But what I built was perfectly fine, I don’t have to build something better. She always did have a place for being herself. I want to be so positive and put my energy into building something better and trying to work with these support groups, but I can’t tell you how much I fucking hate people sometimes, coz it’s people that have done this. It’s people that took that took that scalpel and cut those tits off, it’s people who gave her those drugs and persuaded her that her mother hates her. I don’t know any more which people to trust and which people not to. All I know is that I love my daughter. It would be insane to trust them at the moment, but I love them.
Whatever you feel for me, for what I’ve lost, it’s nothing to what my child has lost. My child has lost her mother, whilst I’m still alive. That’s the cost of it to her. Never mind the cost to me. The cost to her is that she’s lost her mother. She’s lost her roots, her ancestor, she’s lost her health. You talk about the cost of queer theory. Look at what she’s lost. The health considerations are not even being considered. They are still on this gung ho course, they forget to take testosterone, they’ve become so reliant on the new partner and the family that they remind them. The new family are so invested that they gave puberty blockers to their own child. They are going to see anything I say as madness.
I would love somebody to show me the scientific evidence and show me it’s great for women to take testosterone, but it fucking isn’t, is it? I would eat my words. This other family know that too. It’ll come out eventually. Will it come out this year, next year? They could keep getting these prescriptions for five or ten years. They have already ended up in hospital with a urinary tract infection because they wouldn’t go to the public toilets. I only found that out via my son, John and Instagram from Tyler.
I don’t know where to go with it. All that love, where do I go with it, walking in circles in my own soul in a muddy swamp, what did I do. I know some things I did, where the relationship has struggled. I know I have never threatened to kill my child as I have been accused of. I have said “stop arguing in the car or I’ll crash.” I’ve wracked my brain, over and over, and I know I haven’t threatened to kill them. I haven’t. It is just my insistence that humans cannot change sex. That’s the “literal violence” that has been perceived as a death threat.
I’m angry with her too. I feel like, how dare you do this to me. I know I didn’t have much, but how dare she? And then I feel bad about my anger, because I wasn’t the perfect mum. Nobody is. And then I think, fuck, I forgive her, I just want to see her, I want to hold her in my arms. I want her to feel happy and whole and have a better sense of the world and where she belongs in it, and what it is reasonable to expect of others. I know she can’t be happy, not truly happy, if her happiness depends on forcing people to speak untruths about her, no matter what they believe. I just miss her so much. My heart is broken.