This is another in our ongoing series of personal accounts by formerly trans-identified teens and their parents. Ash, age 16, identified as trans from ages 12-15 and has now desisted. We start with her mom Kelly’s account of her experiences, followed by Ash’s essay. Ash and Kelly are available to interact in the comments section of this article, as time permits.
4thWaveNow is always interested in hearing from desisters and their parents. Please let us know if you would like to guest post.
By Kelly O’Connor
I didn’t take it too seriously when my daughter told me she was transgender. She had already told me she was gay, and she had ongoing anxiety and depression that I knew she was actively looking for relief from. She started puberty early, acquiring breasts which amplified her already frenetic mental state to the point that, like a wild horse, she could not tolerate most of the ropes society tried to hang her with. What young girl in her right mind wants to be culled from the herd and corralled into a ‘girl’ pen?
Prior to her identifying as trans, we had weathered a divorce, and I went back to being the single mom I had started out as (her biological father has never been in the picture). We began homeschooling soon after because there was bullying at her school. This brought the two of us much closer together, but she also began spending more time on social media looking for social outlets. That’s when the Trans Meme entered our lives in a big way. We were in a homeschooling group that had one kid who had trans’ed really young, but Ash’s biggest exposure was online on DeviantArt and Tumblr. Around the same time a close friend’s daughter, who was also on Tumblr, went on testosterone. Ash was now surrounded online and off by the idea that identifying as transgender was some sort of escape hatch.
Knowing that Ash was identifying as male online and wanted to do so IRL, I just kept up a non-committal, non-judgmental attitude about it. I never called her by a different pronoun, although she and her trans friend had made some attempts to get me to do so. I resisted because it felt like a slippery slope and reality was a pretty flexible concept for her at the time. She used to spin tales about people who didn’t exist or events that didn’t happen. She was into cutting and knives and horror films and intense, scary anime. Frankly, I didn’t have a big reaction to her coming out as trans because there were other, much scarier scenarios looming large in my mind. Her sexual/gender identity wasn’t a big concern for me. I was more focused on keeping her off of anti-psychotics. Looking back I think my non-reaction made it easier for her to change her mind. There was never a big line in the sand drawn by either of us and so nothing was ‘decided’ or set in motion. I’ve also always been very anti-interventionist. I don’t go to the doctor unless something is broken or the bleeding won’t stop. I once declined a D&C during a miscarriage – I didn’t want anyone scraping around in there – and the only drugs I take are ibuprofen, or antibiotics if necessary. Maybe that is why Ash never directly asked to be put on testosterone.
Having a child stand on the brink and stare into the maw of insanity was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. It was a years-long scream into the dark and I felt I could tell no one. I knew drugs or institutionalization would put her in a place she would not return from but I wasn’t sure others would see it that way. The possibility that she was transgender complicated matters for us and she was very vulnerable to the idea, as I can imagine any teen struggling with mental illness would be.
But we got through it. I listened to her when she would talk to me, I told her about some of the things I had been through at that age, I found her a therapist she liked and I trusted, we took lots of walks, and we got a great big dog. I kept encouraging her and trying to connect her with friends and the outside world. I took an interest in her world which was mostly anime, and horror films at the time, so we went to anime conventions and did cosplay and watched movies. I just kept holding on to her and didn’t let go. Eventually, she emerged from the other side of her darkness and slowly came to re-inhabit the body she had abandoned. Now, at 16, she’s learning to be better friends with herself, and finding ways to deal with her mental lows like exercise and diet. And the ‘girl-pen’ is just a place she left in the dust.
Ash is a 16 year old dual-enrolled college student who previously identified as transgender for 2+ years. She enjoys art/animation, games, and learning languages.
I am writing this essay because I want people to understand that mental illnesses aren’t being given the attention they deserve for many transgender-identifying teens and also that for females who are attracted to other females, we don’t usually get to see ourselves in popular culture.
From 12 to 15, I identified as transgender. I’m 16 now and I present as androgynous but I am a gender abolitionist in that I want people to be able to present however they choose, even though I also think gender roles are harmful.
Starting in 2012, around the time when the rates of trans people were just starting to spike, I was very much involved in the LGBT community online and beginning to realize that I was attracted to females. All of my friends were female and there was a lot of drama. That was difficult, being attracted to people who were mean. It seemed like being a guy would make everything easier.
There’s also a lot of pressure on girls to be attractive. On guys too, but it takes ten times more effort for a girl to be seen as attractive than for a boy. As a young teen, the thought of having sex with my female body repulsed me. But thinking of myself as male, with a new life, without my past trauma, was a lot more comforting to me. I didn’t want to associate anything about myself with being female because my body felt like a canvas of memories I didn’t want to remember, didn’t want to see anymore. I was molested when I was younger by an older male teen. Everything about my female body felt wrong and dirty and dangerous to me.
When female teens I know started identifying as trans, they instantly became more sexual. There are a number of reasons why: repressed emotions, “daddy issues,” negative body images, previous trauma, and some are also disabled. It’s completely unacceptable to be a fat horny girl, but it is more than acceptable to be a fat horny boy.
It’s safer and more socially acceptable in general to be a sexual boy than a sexual girl, especially a girl who is attracted to other girls. The word “lesbian” makes a woman sound gross for liking another woman but the word “gay” sounds completely fine and happy. When I was 12, I told some friends who are boys that I was attracted to girls. They basically said that’s not real, meaning it’s not possible for two girls to have a relationship. However, they also said it was hot, which made me see the label “lesbian” as a fetish term, unlike the label “gay” which is a legitimate form for a relationship.
Anime was a very big interest of mine, just like it is for many other transgender teens. That led me to fan art for shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes as well. A good deal of the fan art focused on two male characters who were romantically involved, not in the show, or in canon, but in the fandom. Gay male relationships were glorified on all the art and social media websites I was using but it was very rare to ever see two women from the same show or two women from any show depicted as lesbians. Most of the females I knew were drawing gay male relationships, not female ones, because the desire was for what we thought that kind of relationship would be like (the gay male kind). My mom and I have talked about how different things were when she was a teen. She would have had a crush on the boys in the shows she liked but me and my friends wanted to be them.
I was drawing that kind of gay male relationship art when I started questioning my gender, and I received a lot of positive feedback for my art from people in the community. On social media, I set my gender to male and no one questioned it. As soon as I came out as trans, I started to receive a lot more attention. I felt happier and much more confident in myself than I ever had.
Things didn’t exactly change with my life, but I had much more confidence looking in the mirror. I used to completely break down because I hated myself so much. Once I had the word “transgender,” I had a better idea of what my identity was at the time and I was able to find information and resources to help with many of my issues: depression, anxiety, weight, etc. I truly believed I must be a boy because of how happy I felt coming out as one.
However, now I feel like the term “transgender” has become a coping mechanism for sufferers of abuse, trauma, emotional neglect, and mental illness. It’s not that big of a coincidence that many of the transgender people I’ve met have some kind of chronic physical or mental illness or come from a childhood where they were emotionally or sexually abused, or suffered neglect or abandonment. They need some way to cope and gain the attention and sense of control that they always craved and never received.
I used to feel incredibly dysphoric over certain parts of my body that a lot of transgender people also feel dysphoric over, such as my chest, my legs, my hips, etc. It is not exactly something I can explain but I have always felt very off about myself. I also struggle with quite a few mental illnesses that can make my mind not the most stable. I unfortunately mistook overall body dysphoria and the emotional results of trauma for gender dysphoria and came close to ruining/mutilating my body in an attempt to fix it.
I was the most dysphoric when I thought I was trans, I never wanted to leave the house. I was heavier and my boobs were larger and I was very obviously female. I had a binder for part of that time but it was uncomfortable and gave me breathing problems. My ribs were in severe pain from wearing it for hours a day. I almost fainted multiple times at an anime convention.
The dysphoria grew when I thought I may be a boy. I always wanted to come across as more masculine rather than feminine. I never wanted to be a tomboy, I wanted to be a real boy. When I thought I was trans, all I wanted was to have gender reassignment surgery but now, I’d never consider it, even though I prefer coming across androgynous. Part of the reason I would never consider surgery or hormones now is because I feel better about my body. I eat better now and exercise a lot. While you can’t control dysphoria, you can learn ways to get used to the feelings and those feelings get better over time as puberty ends. That’s how puberty works, it messes with you. When you first hit puberty, dysphoria spikes because there are all these changes you can’t control and in my case, didn’t like.
My boyfriend at the time, who was also identifying as transgender (I knew them as a girl for a few years beforehand), convinced me I should transition a few days after I mentioned I might be trans too. If I remember correctly, I told my mom a few months later, when we were sitting in the car at the drive through for Starbucks. We were pretty quiet until I turned away from her and said “Hey, I think I’m a boy. And I want to go by “Avery” (a name that I went by for awhile even after realising I wasn’t a boy). She turned to me and raised her eyebrow and said “Uh, alright. So you’re this now?” We got our coffee and it wasn’t spoken about again. I figured, since she didn’t freak out, that meant it would be OK to start some kind of process, but then the next day, she was talking to one of her friends on the phone, and she referred to me as “she” like usual.
During that time, I had no questions regarding the side effects of being on T; I just wanted it, none of the side effects mattered or seemed important. My mindset was just “if I do this, I will feel better about my body and I won’t feel suicidal anymore.” But, the thought that maybe I couldn’t get on T or blockers sent me into a much deeper depression than I was in before. No one was there to inform me about the side effects of hormone therapy and in the groups I was involved in, people only encouraged me to go ahead in my transition once I officially came out even though I was still a minor, still growing, and not yet receiving the mental health care I needed. They encouraged me to go ahead and do what I needed to do to be happy with myself.
Because I didn’t have much support in my life in other areas at that time, their support felt amazing. Up until that point, I had struggled with gaining friends for months, years even. The only person I really knew and talked to daily in my life was my mom and my ex boyfriend (who was severely mentally abusive towards me). All of a sudden, I had many new friends and I was getting a lot of attention for my new identity.
The next three years were me believing I was trans and my mom blowing me off. Thank goodness, because I would be close to getting my first surgery now at 16. I have a lot of transgender friends and the difference between me and them is their parents brought them to gender clinics or special gender therapists. Some of my friends self-harmed and threatened suicide so their parents would take them to gender therapists but I never did that. I did tell my mom I needed a therapist and she found one but her focus wasn’t on my gender identity. We never talked about that until this year.
While I realize now that I am not a boy and will never really be a boy, I’ve also come to discover the androgynous community. I still feel like there’s something missing and I may never find it but finding a nice balance between both genders has been better, healthier and safer for me. I’ve never supported gender roles and usually tend to ignore them and wear what I want, but the harsh reality is if gender roles weren’t so ingrained into today’s society then a lot of kids might not even be transitioning at all.
Over the past few years, I’ve worked hard to change my lifestyle. I recently registered at a community college, and I’ve been making more friends and getting involved in things outside of the house. I have a therapist who looks at my mental health issues instead of my identity. She helps me explore my feelings of dysphoria and repulsion over having a female body. I’ve come to understand that these feelings come from past trauma not because I’m really a boy.
Most of my friends are either transgender and/or gay. Some of my closest friends have struggled with their identities as long as me. I also have friends who I’ve watched go on testosterone, and while I may not agree with their decision, I support them no matter what.
For me personally, my identity doesn’t mean a lifetime of hormone therapy and it certainly doesn’t mean a series of surgeries. For me, I realized that if I had even one small doubt, it would lead to more and more doubt. That was a red flag for me and it should be a red flag in general. Once the process of HRT and surgeries starts, there’s no going back. I think it is very hard for teens who’ve made these choices to change their minds both because they’re afraid to lose the control they never had before and once they go back to being “cis,” they’ll be unimportant and nothing special in this world.