Claire – not her real name – was a perfectly happy child. She tended towards boyish pursuits, like soccer and taekwondo, but so did her mother, Sarah (also a pseudonym). So Sarah thought little of it. Her tomboyish daughter took after her.
But her mental health plummeted as she became an adolescent: Sarah’s carefree girl was gone, as was the close relationship between mother and daughter. Just before Claire turned 18, she announced that she was transgender.
“I would never have envisioned it,” says a shocked Sarah.
Claire experienced bullying from extended family members and at the private school she attended during primary school, so her parents moved her to another school.
The move was successful, but at the end of grade eight Sarah says Claire fell into a crowd of rough girls, including one Sarah describes as “very dark” and “very troubled”.
“This girl didn’t identify as either sex and it was the first I’d heard of anything like this,” the Newcastle (Australia) mum says.
The girl would send Claire text messages with macabre images, such as burning heads.
Sarah says this was the beginning of three years of poor mental health for Claire.
“One night she went into a catatonic state of terror. I rang my sister who was a doctor and she told me to take her to hospital. I went to the emergency room and from then on I was on a merry-go-round of mental health issues for three years.”
Claire went progressively downhill and by the end of the third year she had two long stays in a private mental health facility.
“We went through public and private trying to find a good practitioner. She was diagnosed with bi-polar, anxiety and depression – and recently autism,” her mum says.
“In year 11, she announced she was trans and was going to kill herself. Her psychiatrist said to take her straight to the hospital and she was admitted to the mental health section where she was immediately affirmed as trans.
“The next day I went in to visit her and when I asked to see my daughter, I was told I had a son… there was a male name above her bed.
While still trying to come to terms with what was happening, the hospital advised Sarah they would be referring Claire immediately to the endocrinologist to start her on testosterone. “We said, ‘no, we don’t agree with it and it is all too rushed. We want to talk to our private psychiatrist and talk to you about it’,” she explains.
Sarah says the sudden changes in her daughter and the way she was treated by hospital staff, which she says amounted to bullying, sent her into post-traumatic shock.
Sarah was also called transphobic. “They continually corrected me every time I asked to see my daughter when they could see I was visibly upset. They told me our daughter would kill herself if we didn’t call her a boy.” However, Sarah was shown no medical evidence to support this.
“In a family meeting at the hospital, the psychologist ridiculed me, saying to Claire, ‘I suppose your mother dressed you as a girl when you were little’,” she reveals.
Sarah later discovered Claire had had two appointments with the endocrinologist four months later who had started her on testosterone after the second appointment.
“She was given no psychiatry or psychology – just immediate referral for hormones,” Sarah explains.
“We were gobsmacked that someone could immediately refer a clinically ill person for hormones,” she explains.
Once out of hospital, Sarah says Claire became verbally abusive to the family.
“We lived in a warzone – we were called every name under the sun. It was horrific, day in and day out. Her brother, who was 13, was suffering anorexia from the distress of seeing what his sister was doing, and would curl up in a ball on the floor begging me to tell her to stop.”
“One night she ran to a friend’s place and told the police we had assaulted her. The police took out a DVO on my husband.”
Claire was moved into student accommodation nearby to continue year 12 and begin college.
However, Sarah says Claire spent the next two years in bed, living in squalor. The distraught mum says she did everything she could to continue to help her daughter with her mental illness, taking her to psychiatrists and therapy – and putting her in another mental health hospital for six weeks.
She says there was some improvement with Claire stopping the testosterone and returning to using her own name, but the death of her grandmother in August last year rocked her, and she went back to binding her breasts and started crowdfunding to pay for breast removal. In January, the 20-year-old daughter told her mum she didn’t want to see her again.
“I am not transphobic. I don’t care if a boy wants to wear a dress or a girl wants to dress in a suit, but it’s wrong to put young people on dangerous medication, the outcomes of which are not known, and use surgeries that are a mass experiment on vulnerable people,” Sarah says.
“She was young, confused and mentally ill and I didn’t want her doing something to her body which would cause irreversible harm.
“By then I had read widely enough to pick up it was a fad. I realised there were other parents across the world that felt the same as me.”
The profound loss that Sarah lives with daily has broken her heart and left her with depression.
“The last card I sent her I told her she’s the last thing I think about when I fall asleep and the first thing I think about when I wake,” she shares.
“We got on so well before this. We were so close. I miss her terribly and cry regularly.”
Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Dr Roberto D’Angelo, says Claire is one of an increasing number of adolescents struggling with gender dysphoria.
“Many researchers have reported that there is a new cohort of young people presenting with gender dysphoria, namely adolescent onset gender dysphoria in natal females with significant comorbidity,” he says.
An Australian study, presented to the New South Wales Parliament, looking at the number of young people seeking or obtaining treatment for gender dysphoria in Australia between 2014-2019 found a rise in numbers in 2019 in all but South Australia of the five states offering this service.
The study found across the five states, SA, WA, QLD, NSW and VIC, there was a two-to-eleven-fold increase in children receiving puberty blockers and cross-sex hormone treatments.
According to Dr D’Angelo, the Dutch research team that developed the prototype of today’s adolescent medical transition protocols warned recently their protocol has not been studied on young people like Claire.
“Their research looked at youth with childhood onset gender dysphoria and anyone with significant psychiatric problems was excluded from the study,” he explains.
“What this means is we have no robust evidence to support the idea that medical gender-affirmation will yield psychological benefits in the long run for young people like this.”