A boy’s own story
Lucy is on drugs to delay male puberty. For kids like her, the journey to adulthood can be a serious trauma, but is this the right way to help them?
Lucy is among 12,500 people in Britain being treated for gender identity disorder (Tom Pilston)
Kathy and Jamie didn’t know if their first baby was going to be a boy or a girl. “We wanted a surprise,” Kathy tells me. They decorated the nursery in neutral colours, bought white Babygros, decided on two names — Amy or Thomas — and waited. Amy was born in Torbay hospital in December 1999. Sandy-brown hair, blue eyes. From the very first, she was a tomboy. She never wanted dolls; she played with toy cars, scooters or skateboards. She obsessed over Spiderman, not Barbie. She insisted on boys’ clothes and refused to wear dresses. “There were some gorgeous little outfits,” Kathy recalls, “I tried dressing her in them. I wanted my pretty little girl! But I realised quickly there was no point — she despised them.”
When Amy started school she asked for the boys’ uniform. In class she drew herself as a boy and called herself Charlie. Kathy wasn’t too worried. She’d been a tomboy herself. “Apart from this she’s never had any problems,” says Kathy. “You let your child be your child, don’t you? As long as they’re happy — and safe.” But then, when Amy was five, she turned to her mum and asked: “When is my willy going to grow?”
Here is Amy, age three, wearing a white fairy dress, hair cut in a cute bob, scowling. And there she is at four in her dad’s trainers, grinning ear to ear. As Amy grew older her tastes grew more defined. By seven, she was decisive. “She explained she didn’t just want boyish clothes, she wanted boys’ clothes, including boys’ pants.” Kathy pauses. “She began insisting she was a boy.”
When Amy was five, she turned to her mum and asked: ‘When is my willy going to grow?’
Next to Kathy on the sofa is a cheeky-looking kid in a scruffy boys’ school uniform: grey flannel trousers, dirty white cuffs, lopsided tie. This is Amy. Now 11 years old, she is living as a boy called Charlie.
Gender dysphoria, or gender identity disorder (GID), is when someone believes their gender identity is not the same as their biological sex. Diagnosis of GID used to be pretty rare. In 1998 there were an estimated 4,000 cases. But a 2011 report by the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (Gires), funded by the Home Office, found that between 1998 and 2010 the total trebled to around 12,500, a growth of about 11% per annum.
Among children the growth was even more pronounced: 15% per annum. Between 2007-9, the growth rate of referrals for children was 68%.
If you were looking for a stereotypical boy you couldn’t do better than Charlie. He is a little shy at first, but friendly and bright. His favourite sport? Skateboarding. His favourite TV show? The Simpsons. His favourite instrument? Drums (he’s got a kit in his room). His ideal weekend would be spent playing Guitar Hero on his Nintendo DS. On Charlie’s bedroom door there’s a skull-and-crossbones poster that says: “No Trespassing Pirates Only”. Inside it looks like a boy cluster-bomb has gone off: every blue wall spattered with Bart Simpson posters; Rubik’s cubes, Dracula masks and toy guitars. There is a bunk bed with a Spiderman duvet, a bookshelf crammed with Marvel comics and Tintin books. I ask Charlie how he knows he’s not a girl. “I didn’t like wearing dresses,” he says. “I just didn’t want to be a girl at all, really.”
Charlie remembers the day he started infant school and Kathy insisted he wore a dress. He screws up his face. “I felt not so confident — I told my mum I don’t want to wear that dress any more.” He remembers the school disco, aged six: “Mum got me a white dress, and I was crying and crying. I had to wear it. I begged mum to let me wear a suit.”
“It was like putting a boy in drag,” says Kathy. So last September she agreed to let Charlie start big school as a boy. “I feel braver,” he grins. “Boys can be a bit braver than girls.” On the whole, his schoolmates have been very accepting.
As Kathy talks she occasionally slips pronouns, calling Charlie “she” instead of “he”, then picking herself up and apologising. “I spent a long time thinking he’d change his mind. I ask Charlie every day, ‘Are you sure?’ But Charlie has not wavered.”
As far as Charlie’s concerned he is a boy, and will grow up to be a man. But his body has other ideas. He turned 12 soon after we met, and puberty is waiting. Already his breasts are starting to bud, and periods are looming. “He cannot relate to his female body at all,” worries Kathy. “He’s in denial.”
The surgery involved in changing sex is not something Kathy and Charlie have discussed yet — she feels he’s still too young. But Kathy has considered it deeply and has made a difficult choice: in April Charlie will become one of only seven children in Britain who have been accepted so far on a groundbreaking trial at London’s Tavistock Clinic in which they will take drugs to delay puberty.