Children as young as five are now undergoing gender reassignment therapy, but the idea of dating a transgender woman remains beyond the pale for most straight men.
By Patrick McAleenan
Would you ever consider dating a transgender woman?
If you are a straight man, the chances are that you answered that question in the negative. Transgender people tend to elicit reactions of discomfort, naivety, fear, and, at the most extreme end of the spectrum, outright transphobic among the heterosexual male crowd. Put simply, to the straight bloke down the pub, a transgender woman is considered immediately ‘undateable’.
As more transgender role models appear in the media (Caitlyn Jenner being the most obvious high profile example), and with Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne about to portray transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, are straight men lagging behind the rest of us in their struggle to accept the increasingly visible T in the LGBT community? And how would they react if a friend or family member decided to transition?
To answer those questions, first we need to look at how traditional Western culture has established very specific and strict parameters for being a ‘man’ and being a ‘woman.’ Masculinity, as our culture defines it, is highly valued; as a man you are expected to cultivate, maintain and celebrate it.
The existence of transgender women pose a threat to this concept of masculinity. If something so highly valued and prized can be cast aside, then it suggests that thing might not be so great after all. Misogyny inherently lies at the heart of this: the unwarranted devaluation of women and the feminine, and the concurrent, unwarranted elevation of men and the masculine.
But the truth is that transgender women don’t reject masculinity and male privilege. They are not ‘men’ to begin with – even though outward appearance and societal expectations suggest otherwise. They cannot reject something that they never were.
The issue came to light earlier this year in Louis Theroux’s excellent documentary on transgender children in the US. Investigating the idea that some people are simply born in the wrong body, Theroux spoke to a number of children who ardently believed that they were of the opposite gender to the set of genitals they had been born with.
Louis Theroux explores the lives of transgender children, such as Cole for a BBC documentary Transgender Kids
Some of these children, who were as young as five-years old, were already undergoing treatment for gender dysphoria that prepared them for a sex change later in life. Others were considering embarking on the process. The one constant in every case, however, was the dilemma these children posed to their parents. What do you say to your son who wants to wear girls’ clothing, behave in a ‘feminine’ way or asks to be called a girl’s name? Do you brush it aside as a ‘phase’ or take it seriously and help him navigate his way through what is a life-changing and potentially destabilising situation for everyone involved?
While the majority of parents believe (and if they are honest, hope) it could never happen to them, what if your son or daughter did show signs of struggling with their gender? Are parents equipped to deal with that? Can a mother cope with it better than a father?
“I would say that some men may take a little more time and education to understand,“ Susie Green, Chair of support group Mermaids told me. “On the other hand, there have been some incredible Dads that I know that have embraced their children’s identity and supported them wholly.”
“Whichever parent this is, it causes immense distress to the children caught up in this situation, as they are effectively torn between being themselves or alienating one of the people who are meant to love them unconditionally.”
Mermaids is a support group originally formed in 1995 by a group of parents who were brought together as a result of their children’s long-standing gender Identity Issues. Faced with transgender children coming out at increasingly younger ages, families need to be able to accept and support their children, and be advised and supported themselves. There is no doubt that figuring out what it means to help a transgender child is a struggle for even the most supportive parents.
Research by the US National Center for Transgender Equality shows that transgender children and adults rejected by their families are far more likely to commit suicide (41 per cent compared to only 1.6pc of the general population). It’s a statistic that Kent couple Lucy* and David are very aware of as they support their six-year-old son Peter’s transition to becoming Katy.*
“From 18 months, one of our twin sons Peter would always choose a girl’s magazine and a pink tooth brush, while his brother choose the blue.” Lucy told me. “At nursery at three he spent the whole time in a Princess dress and wanted to do ballet which we thought was a phase and didn’t think much of it.”
“Then at his induction to school he asked to wear the girls’ uniform. It was here that I thought he was either gay or my worst fear, that he was trapped in the wrong body,” says Lucy. “We realised it was the latter when we had a little girl and bath times became a problem. Peter would see her and kept pushing his penis in, saying he didn’t want it. He constantly said he wanted to be a girl and it was then we knew it was deeper.”
The couple said they realised just five minutes into the Theroux documentary that their son had gender dysphoria. That was further confirmed when Peter started calling himself Katy on a family holiday abroad.
Now in contact with Gender Intelligence and with a supportive network of family and friends, the couple are preparing themselves for the challenges that will arise when Katy starts school again in September, as a girl.
“I couldn’t deny him being who he wanted to be, especially when she now has a sister,” says Lucy. “It was breaking my heart and while my husband is about three months behind me in accepting this, we know and understand now that he has never been a boy. You are who you are at the end of the day.”
*Names have been changed