I know a boy who’s really a girl. Fun, bright and open-faced, comfortable in her skin. She knows who she is and what she isn’t. She’s waiting for the rest of us to catch up.
She’s five years old.
Those of us on the fringes try to understand, to be useful. Sometimes we muck up the pronouns and say “he” instead of “she”. But it’s only when we’re speaking English. In Māori, there is no gender distinction with pronouns. The word “ia” means “he” or “she”. There’s no separate word for “him” or “her” either.
Even in English, the five-year-old doesn’t seem bothered when we drop the ball. So I’m trying not to be bothered, either.
During the holidays, I took six kids, including the five-year-old, to an art class. They were making greeting cards with a lovely, elderly woman. As she surveyed her group of eager students, the Nice Lady clapped her hands joyfully.
“All girls!” she squealed. “I’m so lucky today!”
Three of my lot helpfully pointed out the not so obvious to the Nice Lady.
“He’s not a girl!” they chimed in unison. “She’s a boy!”
Those of us in the know looked at the five-year-old resplendent in a favourite skirt, happily distracted by the glittery buttons and ribbons on display. It’s no wonder the Nice Lady didn’t click. I don’t think she was any the wiser at the end of the class either.
Her dad told me the five-year-old gets that a lot. While it didn’t appear to faze the child, I thought I’d better “unfaze” myself.
“So,” I asked his parents. “Is Harry a boy who loves girls’ things or a boy who’s really a girl?”
In her mind she’s a girl, says her dad. And that’s what matters.
It’s a huge learning curve for the parents to understand they have a daughter, not a son. But it’s been the five-year-old who has calmly guided her parents, and who, in fact, told them it would take them a while to “get it.”
“Your son is dead now,” she said. “Now you have two lovely girls.”
It’s the kind of stuff that would make many parents catch their breath.
So I asked his parents: “How can we support her?” (And support you as well, I thought.)
They told me that Harry wants to be known as Harriet now. Sweet. So I told the other kids after I picked them up from the art class that now, she’s to be called Harriet.
“Okay,” they shrugged. “What’s for lunch, whaea?”
We did our best to remember. Sometimes we forgot. But Harriet seemed relaxed about it. She just wanted to get to the bit where we’d play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Or stick-the-horn-on-the-unicorn.
Her mum told me that Harriet insisted on wearing skirts when she was just over two. That was about the same time she first saw a video clip of Swan Lake. Instantly captivated, all she wanted to do was watch full-length classical ballet, and dance as those characters. For a while Harriet was happy to have a boy’s haircut and wear jeans under her tutu. Not anymore. If her parents try to put her in pants, even girls long pants, she has a meltdown.
I can relate to that. My daughter hates “boys” clothes. I bought her a very stylish, grey, cashmere vest from an overpriced French designer shop and no amount of “wiwi, oooh la la, ataahua” could drown out the tantrum. The vest went west.
When people ask the five-year-old if she’s a boy or a girl, she feels really uncomfortable. Her mum said sometimes Harriet would pretend to be a doll, just so she didn’t have to speak. On the other hand, the whānau has been lucky to have the support of some wonderful teachers at kindergarten and school.
A couple of weeks back, the five-year-old’s teacher announced to the class that Harry wanted to be called Harriet. I’m picking it didn’t raise an eyebrow.
The other day, Harriet told me there are three books she knows about boys who want to be girls. She reeled off the titles, saying her favourite is My Princess Boy. Harriet said she can’t wait until she’s grown-up because she intends to have long hair right down her back. Cue for my husband to shake his own curly locks loose and announce: “I used to have long hair right down my back.” Harriet thought about it. “Some ladies have short hair. But I want mine really, really long.”
Harriet’s mum says her daughter is so keen to identify as a girl that she feels uncomfortable if that comes with any qualifications.
“She doesn’t want to be grouped with boys-who-feel-like-girls,” says her mum. “Harriet says she is a girl. She doesn’t like the word “trans-girl”. She just wants to be accepted and treated as a girl — end of story.”
The kids around Harriet understand that at one level their friend is a boy, but they know that really, she’s a girl. While they can’t articulate the whole thing, it doesn’t seem to bother them.
The more time I spend with Harriet, the more special I realise this child is. Strangely enough, it has nothing to do with gender. It’s to do with the whole magical way she interprets the world.
Harriet told a kindy teacher once: “When I grow up I’ll turn into a girl. A fairy will come and turn me into a girl, a beautiful one. I just know.”
Some day, say her parents, Harriet may have to make tough decisions about a permanent transition. I can only imagine the questions her parents ask themselves, the conversations and worries they have.
But for now, this cute kid looks like any other little girl in her class. Her parents have time to think, to prepare and to celebrate their happy child with a love of frilly skirts, kapa haka, classical music, dance parties and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.
Long may you reign, Princess.
A Word from Harriet’s Mother
What advice would you give to other parents in a similar situation?
I thought I was being helpful by saying: “Harry is a boy. He just likes ballet and skirts. Some boys like Spiderman outfits but Harry likes tutu.” Eventually, I realised this wasn’t helping at all. Harriet identifies as a girl and wants a girl’s name and pronouns.
When she started school, she was enrolled as Harry, but she’s clearly much happier now we’ve accepted her as a girl. Now the school has recorded her preferred name as Harriet and preferred pronouns as “her and she”. So she is even happier.
How can others help or be useful?
Harriet says she feels sad when people ask: “Are you a boy or a girl?” Instead, I’d suggest, you ask someone’s name, listen carefully for what pronouns his or her closest friends and whānau use. If someone always wears typically “feminine” clothing and hairstyles, the chances are that’s the way they identify and would like to be treated. Also, I try not to “out” Harriet, as I did in the past. If someone wants to reveal that they’re transgender, that’s their choice — but if not, ditto.
It means a lot to Harriet when people use her preferred name and pronouns, and I certainly notice it too, with gratitude. We know which people are supportive, accepting, and will keep her safe and happy. Harriet’s seven-year-old sister has been amazing too, reminding people when they slip up and say “he”.
What support groups or advice have you found along the way?
We have lots to learn as we help Harriet along whichever path she ultimately chooses. We talked to a child psychologist when Harriet was three, which was reassuring. There are very negative statistics for trans teens who aren’t accepted and supported by their families. So it’s really obvious we need to support our children, whatever their identity or orientation.
We read The Transgender Child (Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper) and found that very useful. It’s been good to meet other parents in a similar situation, and to know that Rainbow Youth is there, for teenagers. It’s been great to find the Facebook group “Ben’s Supporters” that has lots of brilliant information and discussions.
There are some good documentaries online, such as the ABC piece on trans children. Jazz Jennings is a great role model, and such a positive example to offset some of the worries you can feel about the difficulties your child might face as a teen.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
10 Things You Need To Know About Transgender People (Jazz Jennings)
Rainbow Youth - Useful Words
See also, in e-tangata:
Victor’s Rodger’s profile of Amanaki Prescott-Faletau
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