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‘Your son is going to become a girl. How do you feel?’ As more UK children than ever identify as transgender, one mother tells the story of how her teenage boy’s desire to transition became a seven-year nightmare that drove her to the brink of suicide

When Cathy walked into her son’s room and saw the way he dropped his phone, she knew instinctively that something was seriously wrong. Jack was 13, one of four brothers.

They weren’t a prudish family and Cathy considered herself pretty unshockable.

But her son’s panic was enough for her to insist he hand over his phone. She took it downstairs, Jack following, begging, ‘Please don’t read it’. To her surprise, Cathy found she was shaking.

Downstairs, with her husband, they saw a letter open on the phone, written on the Notes app. ‘You can find the same letter online,’ says Cathy, now 42. ‘It’s a template the kids share and copy to give their parents. It was along the lines of, “I hope you will still love me but I am transgender… I’ve always known. I want to take steps to transition.”

I remember reading it, trying to stay calm and feeling really confused. Had I imagined the past 13 years? Jack had shown no signs of being gender nonconforming.’

Cathy saw a letter open on the phone, written on the Notes app. She said: ‘It’s a template the kids share and copy to give their parents. It was along the lines of, “I hope you will still love me but I am transgender… I’ve always known. I want to take steps to transition" Cathy saw a letter open on the phone, written on the Notes app. She said: ‘It’s a template the kids share and copy to give their parents. It was along the lines of, “I hope you will still love me but I am transgender… I’ve always known. I want to take steps to transition"

Cathy saw a letter open on the phone, written on the Notes app. She said: ‘It’s a template the kids share and copy to give their parents. It was along the lines of, “I hope you will still love me but I am transgender… I’ve always known. I want to take steps to transition”

This was 2016 and, for Cathy and her husband, it marked the start of a seven-year nightmare that reduced them to despair and left her contemplating suicide. At the beginning, Cathy – a college lecturer from the Midlands, happily married for 20 years – knew little about ‘gender ideology’.

She didn’t know that the number of UK children identifying as trans was rocketing – in 2009, the UK’s only NHS clinic for gender nonconforming children, the Tavistock Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), had 72 referrals. 

By 2018, the number was 2,590 – and this has risen by another fifth since lockdown. Figures from March 2022 revealed 5,500 on the waiting list.

Until recently, there had been no formal, evidence-based policies in place to respond to this increase. However, the policy practised at the Tavistock was almost always immediate affirmation of a child’s chosen gender. In a new book, Time to Think, by BBC journalist Hannah Barnes, whistle-blowing insiders – Tavistock clinicians, social workers and child safeguarding leads – have confirmed that gender-questioning children would present with complex histories including depression, anxiety, autism, bullying and abuse. 

And yet still they would be prescribed hormone blockers after just one appointment. The vast majority – about 90 per cent – went on to transition fully. However, when children are not affirmed or given blockers, the opposite is the case – up to 88 per cent lose their desire to transition. For most it’s a phase, which is why new NHS guidelines recommend the ‘watch and wait’ approach. Tavistock GIDS will be closing its doors sometime this spring.

Back in 2016, Cathy knew none of this – but as a parent, she certainly knew that taking Jack’s declaration at face value was not the right path. ‘When we found that note, Jack was crying, his father was crying,’ says Cathy. ‘It didn’t make any sense but we both hugged him and said we’d talk about it tomorrow.’

Jack had been a happy child, highly intelligent, a ‘boyish boy’ who played well with his brothers, the youngest of whom has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ‘Jack didn’t enjoy sport, but he was obsessed with anything he could collect and categorise – Thomas the Tank Engine, dinosaurs, Pokémon,’ says Cathy.

I STUMBLED OUT OF THE DOOR, FEELING LIKE I WAS ON A TOTALLY DIFFERENT PLANET, THEN SOBBED MY HEART OUT 

He had always rejected ‘girl’s toys’. ‘One of his brothers wanted dolls for Christmas and Jack wouldn’t have anything to do with them.’ Now 13, he was a pupil at a large comprehensive where class allocation had separated him from his old friends. ‘Maybe he was isolated,’ says Cathy. ‘Maybe the school had noticed.’

When Cathy approached Jack’s head of year, the response was blasé. ‘She said, “It’s fine! We’ve dealt with trans children before!” and made an appointment for me with the school counsellor.’ Cathy will never forget that appointment. ‘I told her I was shocked because Jack had never shown any signs. She wasn’t interested. She just told me it was “really exciting”, and I should get a referral to this clinic in London that was really progressive and have his puberty paused.’

(A report published last month by the Policy Exchange think tank found that 40 per cent of the 150 English secondary schools surveyed allow pupils to change gender without parental consent.)

The counsellor gave Cathy the website address for Mermaids, the trans charity currently under investigation by The Charity Commission. She told Cathy that her son was ‘going to be a girl’ and asked how she felt about it. ‘I remember saying I’d always love my child,’ says Cathy. ‘I cringe now but I parroted the line that we were hearing in the media: “I’d rather have a happy daughter than a dead son”.’ 

In 2009, The UK’s only NHS clinic for gender nonconforming children, the Tavistock Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), had 72 referrals. By 2018, the number was 2,590 - and this has risen by another fifth since lockdown In 2009, The UK’s only NHS clinic for gender nonconforming children, the Tavistock Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), had 72 referrals. By 2018, the number was 2,590 - and this has risen by another fifth since lockdown

In 2009, The UK’s only NHS clinic for gender nonconforming children, the Tavistock Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), had 72 referrals. By 2018, the number was 2,590 – and this has risen by another fifth since lockdown

This was based on the widespread belief that trans children were likely to attempt suicide if not ‘affirmed’, which has since been traced back to a study of 27 self-selected volunteers. 

Although Cathy said the ‘right things’, inside her head there was turmoil. ‘I stumbled out of the door, feeling like I was on a completely different planet,’ she says. ‘I sat in the car and sobbed my heart out.’

Strangely, in the weeks that followed, Jack looked uncomfortable when Cathy gave him a hug and asked if he wanted a new name or to dress differently. Instead he said he’d ‘made a mistake’ and ‘didn’t want to talk about it’. However, the boy Cathy had known now became a moody, absent teen who never went out, except to school, and spent all his time in his room. Cathy worried. 

She checked Jack’s phone but found nothing concerning and installed time limits and parental controls with their internet provider. ‘I hoped it was just puberty,’ she says. ‘Jack’s elder brother had been through that stage – though not as bad – but he’d come through.’

Jack was in his first year of sixth form when Covid and lockdown hit. Now he barely left his room at all. One day Cathy and her husband returned from the shops and their youngest son announced, ‘Jack’s been shaving all day!’ ‘I looked at Jack’s hairless legs – he was wearing shorts – and my heart sank,’ says Cathy. Jack, now 17, just said, ‘I told you I wanted to be a girl. I want to start on hormones now.’

That night, Cathy went online in search of information and quickly found support groups and hundreds of parents, many with sons who sounded just like Jack – quiet, sensitive – who’d shown no signs of gender nonconforming in the past and often had neurodiverse traits such as obsessive compulsive disorder or ASD. 

Another shared interest was that they were all obsessed with watching anime, the Japanese animation.

‘All these parents were loving, kind, confused, and knew their sons well enough to believe this wasn’t something organic that had come from within them. They had learned about trans ideology from school or online then gone on to forums and asked, “Am I trans?” The reply is always, “If you’re asking the question, then you must be.”’

Cathy needed to understand Jack’s online activity so, while he was sleeping, she took his phone and, as a lecturer in computer science, had a much closer look. ‘You wouldn’t believe the lengths he had taken to hide his activity,’ she says. Jack had an app that hid his other apps, and a VPN – a virtual private network – to circumvent all parental controls. 

ONLINE, JACK WAS ADVISED HOW TO GET DIY HORMONES, DECEIVE HIS PARENTS AND ESTRANGE THEM 

Now Cathy could see that he’d been on a Reddit trans thread since he was 13.

Online, he identified as an anime character called Raine. ‘On that thread was kid after kid, all the same,’ says Cathy. ‘The girls post pictures of themselves looking like anime boys and the boys post pictures looking like anime girls. Online Jack had asked questions like, “What can I do to look more feminine?” He was given advice on how to get DIY hormones, how to deceive his parents and how to estrange them. That word broke my heart into a million pieces.’

Cathy vowed that if Jack was going to take puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones, he would do so with his eyes open. ‘We sat down and I told him I loved him and I’d be here for him no matter what,’ she says.

‘But I also told him that I thought this was a result of social contagion and that he needed to get out into the world and have some life experience, maybe socially transition first before taking medical steps.’

Cathy downloaded patient-consent documents, the small print listing side-effects that come with these drug treatments: osteoporosis and brittle bones, increased risk of heart disease, sterility, the loss of sexual function and ability to orgasm. ‘He hated me for it,’ says Cathy.

‘To him, I was the most transphobic person in the world, but if he made a decision he came to regret, I wanted to know I’d told him the facts.’

Jack’s response was to leave home to live with a neighbouring family who had a son of a similar age. Cathy tried to talk to the parents but they were hostile and uncooperative. 

‘They believed we were transphobic and abusive,’ says Cathy. In September 2021, having done well at school, Jack left to start at university, blocking all contact with his family. His brothers saw that he had various social-media accounts, which showed him dressed as Raine, with a long dark wig, short, checked skirt and knee socks. After three months away, he messaged Cathy to say he was starting drugs to transition – then blocked her again. For nine months, they were estranged.

‘I can’t describe how heartbroken we were,’ says Cathy. ‘I had to stay strong for my other kids but I cried every single day. My husband and I were a pair of walking zombies. I used to fantasise about hanging myself from a rafter in the garage.’

In May 2022, Jack texted out of the blue about some belongings he had left at home. ‘I pushed my luck and asked him to visit,’ says Cathy. He did. On Cathy’s birthday, Jack knocked on the door. 

‘He was pale and so thin, he looked like he was returning from war,’ says Cathy. ‘Immediately, I started crying. I’d missed him so much. I hugged him and told him I was so glad he’d come.’

Jack didn’t hug Cathy back and said he was only stopping for half an hour, but he ended up staying longer – he played with the dogs, hung out with his brothers, ate a birthday takeaway then finally took the last train back. Afterwards, he and Cathy texted regularly. In the summer, having dropped out of university, he moved home.

‘He has woken up from it all,’ says Cathy. ‘He has left the Reddit sites, cut out all the anime. He no longer believes he’s trans. If he did begin to medically transition I can’t see any physical changes. I almost don’t want to know.’ Cathy has chosen not to bombard Jack with questions but to wait for him to open up about his journey.

He has mentioned that seeing comments online on Twitch – a livestreaming gaming platform he followed – about ‘feminised boys addicted to anime’ somehow resonated, made him think about social contagion and his part in it. He now has a place on a competitive corporate apprenticeship scheme. 

‘He’s going to the gym and out to the bar with his brothers. He has a new friend – male – who he plays Pokémon with. He’s a world away from where he was. I sometimes feel like I’m dreaming.’

For Jack, it was a ‘phase’. ‘But that phase stole seven years of his life,’ says Cathy. ‘I’m just truly grateful that something made him wake up.’

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