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Transgender schoolboy: 'I have admiration and hope for Paul... but he's still an 11-year-old child'

By Fionola Meredith

Published 20/08/2015

Hearing 11-year-old Paul, who was born a biological girl, telling Stephen Nolan how he was going to secondary school as a boy was compelling radio.

Paul - which is not his real name - sounded old for his years, expressing himself in confident, articulate words that few children of his age would use about themselves.

This was a young individual who had clearly thought a lot about his own identity and sexuality, at a time when most kids are still immersed in video games and whether or not they're having pizza for tea.

Nobody could doubt Paul's sincerity, or his certainty that being a boy, not a girl, was the right and only option for him.

But at the same time, you couldn't help wondering: wait a minute, this child is only 11 years old.

He's only just finished primary school.

He hasn't gone through the enormous physical and pyscho-sexual upheaval of adolescence.

How can he - or his mother, or his teachers, or his doctors: the adults who have responsibility for his wellbeing - be sure that transitioning to the opposite sex, right here, right now, is the proper course?

What would be lost by waiting a few years?

Paul's mother, 'Angela', had a clear answer. She has obviously been thinking a great deal about this too. What would be lost? His freedom, she said. His freedom to express himself. You can't put a lid on these things, she added, because it can be psychologically damaging.

"Who am I to argue about what's going on in his head?" asked Angela.

"It's not my life. He knows his mind, his body, his heart... I just want him to feel loved and secure... It doesn't make him any less my child."

It was a good response to a difficult question. A few years ago, I had the privilege of spending time with members of the Belfast Butterfly Club, a support group for transgender people.

There I met people who knew for sure, from the earliest age, that they were trapped in the wrong body.

They spoke of a powerful sense of certainty, amounting to an almost physical conviction, a gut sense that simply could not be denied.

But equally, I talked to men who - while they had a strong desire to dress in women's clothes, to assume the identity of a woman, and frequently did so - also knew that they didn't want to make the full transition to womanhood.

There were aspects of their male lives - such as competitive sport - that they enjoyed, and wanted to maintain separately.

So they kept a foot in both genders.

It wasn't always easy, but that was how they liked it, or rather how they wanted it.

It was an individual pathway, right for them.

What I'm saying is that it doesn't always have to be a stark either/or choice.

There were a few things that Paul and his mum said that gave me pause for thought. Paul said that he had told one of his teachers he was a bisexual girl, before later arriving at the realisation that he identified most strongly as a boy.

Angela said that she wasn't really shocked when he told her, quite recently, that he wanted to be a boy - he'd been up in his room, doing research on the computer beforehand - because there had been ongoing issues, for the last four or five years, "trouble with identity and sexuality".

When Stephen Nolan asked Paul how long he had known he was a boy, he said that he had known he was different since P2 - he didn't fit in with the girls, and was too scared to try to fit in with the boys.

There's a lot of confusion in there, naturally enough, and a desire for answers.

It must have been a difficult time for both mother and son. But sometimes there are no definite answers.

And there are a lot of questions still to ask. Is Paul in actual transition, and if so, how long will the process take?

Will he have surgery at some point?

More immediately, what arrangements have his new school made to accommodate and protect him?

It's a big thing to come out as transgender, even anonymously, on public radio.

And it's an even bigger thing when you're an 11-year-old child.

Despite the enormous goodwill shown towards the reality TV star Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner, it's a very different prospect to out oneself as trans - I understand that Paul has already told some of his friends - in a small, conservative community like Northern Ireland, where you don't have the cushioning of extreme wealth and celebrity to protect you.

I have hope for Paul, and admiration, but I fear for him too.

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