As far as I know, it started on the first day of Sixth Form. When we went to collect my daughter’s GCSE results at school last summer, she told me to go home without her so she could stay and celebrate with her friends. Once I had left, and without my knowledge, she asked the teachers to start calling her by a new name when she returned in Year 12, and to use male pronouns for her.
Several days after the start of the autumn term 2022, one of the senior sixth form staff at her private school in the Midlands rang me and told me: “Some teachers are calling your child by a new name and using he/him pronouns. We’ve realised we do need your permission for this because your child is under 18.”
I was taken aback. “I should have been informed of this before it happened,” I said. “And I don’t give my permission, because I don’t think this is going to help her mental health issues.”
The school already knew my daughter had suspected autism, and a history of anxiety and mood and behavioural problems, which started after a traumatic family breakdown when she was younger. She had already been through a long, difficult period of school refusal and as this resolved, the trans identity seemed to take its place as a coping mechanism for her underlying anxieties.
I’m not the only parent to have found myself in this fraught and difficult position. A report last month by the Policy Exchange think tank found 40 per cent of state secondary schools were allowing children to self-declare their gender without parental consent. Clearly it isn’t a phenomenon limited to the state sector, as my own ongoing struggle with my daughter’s independent school proves.
Initially, the school seemed to understand my concerns. But shortly afterwards they called me in for a meeting with the school counsellor and the pastoral deputy head, the aim of which, it transpired, was to try and persuade me to agree to my daughter’s name change – which I still did not. I was worried it could increase the chance of her going on to medically transition, with irreversible consequences. I felt she was still too young and immature. I understood she felt a great need for her new identity to be affirmed, but I had been supporting her gender exploration at home with a watchful waiting approach. I knew she had plenty of other issues that, as a responsible and caring parent, I felt should be professionally assessed.
Growing up, she had shown no signs at all of discomfort with her gender. She and I had talked openly about puberty and sexuality, and she had started her period and undergone the usual physical changes in her early teens without any distress.
What she did have was a complicated history of mental health and behavioural problems, dating from when she was 12. She and I had had to leave our family home and move to a new area and she had changed schools. It was a major upheaval for her and she became very angry, defiant, even violent at times, and started school-refusing. I made an appointment with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) but she refused to attend with me. As a single parent with a chronic illness, I found it incredibly stressful and eventually had to quit work as a result.
My daughter was spending increasing amounts of time alone in her bedroom glued to her electronic devices and I fought endless battles to try and coax her off them, even locking the wireless router in the car at one point.
When she eventually engaged with CAMHS, I was told by two mental health nurses that she needed an autism assessment, but it proved very hard to obtain one. She is still awaiting full assessment of her mental health needs.
Meanwhile, she started mentioning what she had read online about different identities. She talked to me about her uncertainty around her sexuality: she said she had never had a crush on anyone and wasn’t sure whether she was bisexual, asexual, demisexual or something else. I tried to reassure her: “You’re still really young, don’t worry about it, there’s no rush to define yourself.” I wanted her to know that whatever her sexuality, it was fine; that she didn’t need to panic if she wasn’t sure yet, she would work it out eventually.
On the back of this, came her interest in gender at around the age of 14. She wondered if she might be gender-fluid, then non-binary. She asked me to call her by different names, starting with a gender-neutral one. But she decided that name was too boring and generic and didn’t feel right for her, so she moved on to a more male-sounding one, and then two more male names inspired by male characters in television shows she liked.
I was trying my best to support her at home with her gender questioning but I did not call my daughter any of the new names she requested. When she became angry when I called her by the usual abbreviation of her birth name, I agreed to stop using it, called her a term of endearment instead and did my best to avoid third person pronouns in her presence.
When she was in Year 11, she told me she had come out as a trans guy to her friends and she asked me if she could change her name on the register at school. I said: “I don’t think that would be a good idea. I understand you believe this about yourself and that these are your feelings right now.” But for adults to join in with agreeing she was male? I just worried it may not be in her best interest and might exacerbate her mental health issues.
“If you want to change your name as an adult, that’s fine,” I told her.
Legally she was still a child. But this, it turned out, was no impediment to her changing her name by deed poll without my consent at the end of last year. All she needed was two witnesses over 18 to sign it off. The name she chose was one she had come up with only a few days earlier.
I was upset. “Please don’t do this,” I begged her. “I thought you had agreed you weren’t going to do anything like this until you’re 18? When you go to university you can introduce yourself to everyone however you like.” But she went ahead anyway, following a meeting with the school in which they confirmed to her she could legally do it.
Around this time, I wrote to the school to flag my concerns. I tried to explain I wasn’t just being an awkward, obstructive parent, citing the NHS-commissioned Cass Review of services provided to children exploring their gender identity as evidence that professionals have reservations about some of what is going on in this area.
I cited professional opinion that schools should not be socially transitioning children without expert advice, and that it is inadvisable to do so without parental consent. But the school dismissed it all. They insisted they had not socially transitioned my daughter as they didn’t believe that calling her by a new name and using opposite sex pronouns constituted a social transition. They claimed they were putting the child’s interests first and were following safeguarding. To me, it seemed they were doing the total opposite. They even reported me to social services as a safeguarding concern after I refused to agree to the name change in school, asked them not to accept the deed poll and sought reassurance that teachers were not referring to her as male in class.
All I’ve ever done is try to support and help her. I don’t want to look back in years to come and feel I didn’t try hard enough to get to the bottom of my child’s mental health issues.
My daughter, for her part, has called me a transphobe and a bigot; she’s accused me of contributing towards trans genocide because I do not share her beliefs about gender, parroting other things she has read online almost word for word. I have not tried to change how she feels,
I have welcomed her expressing herself however she wishes, I have listened and listened and tried to help make things better for her. But I’ve told her: “I won’t pretend you’re a boy; I draw the line there.”
Social services decided our situation didn’t warrant an intervention, but signposted the school to the transgender rights charity Mermaids – despite the Department for Education having removed it from its mental health and wellbeing resources for schools.
A couple of weeks ago I received the school governors’ response to the formal complaint I had made: they dismissed every one of my concerns and the school will continue to affirm her new identity. I feel like the school is actively undermining my relationship with my daughter.
They have told me that school is her only safe, happy place. I feel I’m living a nightmare and that, whatever I do, I risk either failing my child or ruining our relationship. I hope we can move beyond this and that I can get her the help she really needs. Only then, I believe, will it be possible for her to feel comfortable with who she is and what she really wants.TIOB News