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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why I let my son live as a girl: Mother of boy who returned to school in a skirt bravely tells her extraordinary story

By Helen Weathers

Facing the world: Livvy, who has just returned to Year 6 at school as a girl, stands proudly with her mother Saffron at home in Worcester

Ten-year-old Livvy James loves her new school uniform, particularly the smart, grey skirt with two pleats and pockets decorated with hearts.

‘Walking to school on my first day back, I was nervous and excited, but most of all I just felt like shouting ‘‘Yeay!’’ ’ says Livvy, who wore her shoulder-length blonde hair that day in a swishy pony-tail.

‘I was so excited that I didn’t care what people thought about me. Even if people looked at me or were saying nasty things, I didn’t care. I felt happy because I could be me and didn’t have to pretend any more.’

Pretty, softly spoken and unashamedly girlie, with a passion for pink and diamante, there is little to distinguish Livvy from the other Year 6 girls returning to primary school in Worcester. Except for one startling fact: Livvy finished the summer term of Year 5 as Sam — as in Samuel.

He walked out of the school gates in July as a boy wearing trousers, polo shirt and trainers, and returned in September, with the school’s agreement, as a girl.

That nerve-racking morning, Livvy’s anxious parents Saffron, 36, and Phillip, 34, sat in the school hall as the headteacher gave a special assembly to explain to the pupils that Sam was now Livvy and they should refer to ‘him’ as ‘her’. The headteacher explained that Livvy had a medical condition called gender dysphoria, which meant that ‘in her head she felt she was a girl and not a boy’.

She added that just as with other medical conditions, such as being disabled or having to wear glasses, on no account would any name-calling or bullying be tolerated. The response, says Livvy, was one of understanding. At least initially.

‘None of the other children called me nasty names and the boys accepted me as a girl. A few of them kept calling me by my old boy’s name, but I didn’t mind because it takes time to get used to something new. I have a small group of close friends — all girls — who would look after me if anyone tried to pick on me, so I’m not worried. I have as much acceptance as I need.’

But does she? The day we meet she is not in school, though she longs to be, but at home. She tells me she has been in hiding since her real gender became public knowledge, turning her family’s life into ‘a circus’.

Some disgruntled parents at Livvy’s school were so outraged they hadn’t been informed of the situation by letter before the assembly that they went to the local paper to vent their anger. The story quickly went global.

One parent reportedly said: ‘We are not against the child. It’s the children being asked to treat her differently and watch a transgender video without parents knowing.

‘My children came home and said: “What are genitals?” ’

A minority, however, have been far more vicious, posting online comments about Livvy’s ‘freak family’. Meanwhile, a debate rages as to whether her symptoms are a result of a medical condition or due to the way she has been brought up.

Gender dysphoria, also known as gender identity disorder and transgenderism, is classed as a psychiatric condition, but recent studies suggest it has much to do with biological development.

But is Livvy really a girl trapped in a boy’s body? Could she simply be confused or just a sensitive child who doesn’t fit in with other boys?

It is a stressed mother, but contented child, who open the door to the family’s detached house in Worcester to speak to me, in the hope this interview will lead to greater acceptance.

They have asked for their names to be changed to protect Livvy from bullying, but have agreed to be photographed because mum Saffron hopes that once people see Livvy, she can move forward without fear. They want to put their side of the story rather than allow people to base their judgments on ‘disgusting, foul and nasty’ online comments.

Saffron wants to show people she’s not a ‘freak’ who gets some perverse pleasure from dressing her son in a frock and a wig, as some have implied.

‘This is who Livvy is. This is the way she was born. This is the way she has always been. She didn’t just wake up one morning and say: “I want to be a girl,” ’ says Saffron.

Birthday treat: Livvy blows out candles on her sixth birthday, while wearing a girly green outfit

Livvy in another picture with her mother, aged around 18 months. Saffron has insisted that Livvy is a 'little girl in a boy's body'

‘She didn’t choose this. There was no choice. The idea I might have nurtured her to be something she isn’t is heinous. She’s a little girl and for some reason she has a boy’s body.

‘We don’t need to know the reason why; people don’t have to understand this. We don’t expect them to, we just don’t want people calling her a freak because she isn’t.’

Livvy’s father Phillip adds: ‘Some of the criticism levelled at Saffron — that she is desperately forcing a gender on her child — is rubbish. We are just a normal family; two parents who want our daughter to be happy. This is something that is intrinsically in Livvy’s nature and we can’t change that.’

Indeed, first impressions of Livvy are of a bright, articulate child who knows what she wants and appears to have no doubts about her gender.

She looks like a girl, talks like a girl, acts like a girl and, had I not known she’d been born a boy, I would never have guessed.

The middle of three children, her 13-year-old brother is a ‘typical boy who likes computers,’ while her seven-year-old sister is not as girlie as Livvy, preferring Lego and building toys to Barbie dolls.

Livvy is almost stereotypically female. She adores dolls, pink, glitter, fluffy things, make-up, perfume and TV programmes about mermaids.

‘Wearing these clothes makes me feel happy,’ says Livvy. ‘I’m a not boy who likes girls’ things; I feel like a girl.’

That is the way it’s been since she was a toddler, say her parents.

‘Before Sam was born, we weren’t interested in having a girl or a boy, we just wanted a healthy baby,’ says Saffron, a full-time mother who has been married to Phillip, an office manager, for 14 years.

‘When Sam was able to choose, he would be drawn to dolls, fluffy things and stereotypical girls’ stuff.

He liked to dress up in my skirts and spray my perfume. Other people would say: “Oh, don’t worry, it’s a phase, he’ll grow out of it.’’

‘But we weren’t worried. Phillip and I felt the same way. If our child liked girls’ things, then he could have whatever he wanted. We just thought: “So what?”

‘It did become a problem when it came to presents, having to tell our families: “Would you mind not buying boys’ stuff for Sam, because he’d prefer Mermaid Barbie.” ’

Phillip adds: ‘Our families found it a bit odd at first, but soon accepted it because they love Livvy.’

Saffron, the daughter of a former RAF serviceman who went into the oil business, says she is the kind of mother who ‘likes to go with the flow’. Creative and artistic, she says she is not one for trying to mould children or bend them against their will.

‘When I looked at Sam — as he was then — playing with Barbie, I didn’t think: “Oh, he’s a girl.” I’d never even heard of gender dysphoria,’ she says.

‘All I saw was our amazing, caring, sensitive, gentle, artistic child that we all loved.

‘To have told him, “Pull yourself together, act like a boy,” would have been tantamount to child abuse.

I want my children to be able to express themselves freely, to be who they are, not what I want them to be.’

Phillip says he feels the same. Though he is passionate about skiing, tennis, rugby and squash, he’s never tried to force macho sports on his children.

Indeed, Livvy pipes up: ‘I would never want to play football. Yuk!’

Saffron remembers how, from an early age, Sam would scream and struggle when she tried to dress him in boys’ clothes and cried every time they cut his hair.

So they began to compromise, buying boys’ sweaters in pink and designer Moschino T-shirts that appealed to Sam’s feminine side.

Early years: Pictured at around 18 months, Livvy is the middle of three children and has always liked girly things, according to her parents

Matters, however, came to a head when Sam was seven-and-a-half, shortly after the family moved from Scotland to Worcester. A pupil invited for a playdate saw Sam had only girls’ toys and word quickly spread through the school.

‘I never, ever played with the boys and when I was seven I didn’t really have any friends,’ says Livvy.

‘I wanted to play with the girls and felt like one of them, but then it all became awkward and the other children would ask: “Why are you acting like a girl? Why are you always hanging around with us?’’

‘I was feeling down emotionally quite a lot. I couldn’t concentrate and it was affecting my schoolwork. I often got into fights with bullies who picked on me.’

Saffron says the school became aware of Livvy’s problems and were helpful and sympathetic. There were several meetings where they talked about her feelings.

‘Livvy was emotionally volatile at school and was complaining of headaches and stomach aches at home. It was at this point I realised I needed some help,’ says Saffron.

She took Livvy to their GP, explaining her son felt she was really a girl, and was referred to Birmingham Children’s Hospital, where blood tests showed her chromosomes were normal.

It was a hospital paediatrician who first mentioned gender dysphoria. Livvy was referred to the Tavistock Centre in London, a mental health clinic that offers a specialist NHS service dealing with children and adolescents who have gender issues.

‘We saw a consultant there and Livvy told the doctor very clearly she felt she was a girl and wanted to live as a girl,’ says Saffron.

Phillip adds: ‘That meeting really challenged us as parents about our perceptions about gender.

‘We’d been anxious about protecting Livvy, by dressing her in boys’ clothes outside the home. But the consultant asked: “If she feels like a girl, why make her wear boys’ clothes if it makes her unhappy?”

Saffron says it was Livvy’s decision, aged seven, to change her name and live as a girl, but she reluctantly agreed with her parents that she would have to keep on pretending to be a boy at school for her own protection.

However, she dressed as a girl at home and on outings — wearing a wig until her hair grew longer.

‘Worcester is a small place and when we’d be out shopping for girls’ clothes we’d see children we knew pointing and giggling at us and texting their friends — it was upsetting,’ says Saffron.

‘Most of Livvy’s friends knew she felt she was a girl and were totally supportive, but there were some who wouldn’t accept it. There was a small clique of parents who would stand outside the school gates and cough “freak family” as we walked past. It was horrendous.

‘Livvy felt angry at having to put on this alter ego. She hated having to tell lies about what she did in her summer holidays or what her favourite toy was.’

Some might think it strange that a family would allow or encourage such a young child to make a life-changing decision without extensive counselling. But Saffron becomes upset when I mention this.

‘It would have been child abuse to force her to live as a boy,’ she keeps repeating, adding that it was Livvy who decided she didn’t want to continue seeing the Tavistock Centre specialist.

‘Livvy told me: ‘‘I don’t need to be told what I already know. We are living it, Mum, we can talk it through ourselves and sort it out.” ’

And, indeed, what would you do if your child said, as Livvy tells me: ‘If I’d been forced to live as a boy, I wouldn’t be here now. I’d be in heaven.’

Livvy would have returned to school this September as Sam had it not been for an upsetting incident a week before term started.

While walking home from the shops alone, a parent allegedly called Livvy a ‘freak’ and muttered ‘tart’ as she walked away.

Livvy tells me: ‘I realised that even if I did go back to school in boy’s clothes, it wouldn’t make any difference. I’d still be called a freak, so why not go back in girls’ clothes and just be happy with who I am?’

Saffron called the head-teacher, explained the situation and asked if Livvy could return as a girl. The school, which has an inclusion policy, agreed, treating Livvy’s medical condition as no different from any other.

Happier than ever: Although her family still love Livvy just as much as ever, some of her classmates have been less understanding of her gender dysmorphia

‘Livvy wants to go to school,’ says Saffron, who has not considered home-educating or moving from Worcester. ‘Why should we move away or hide?’

Livvy certainly looks happy, but have they thought of the future? Saffron is seeking a transgender counsellor for Livvy, who says she wants to talk to someone she can identify with.

Already fretting about the onset of puberty, Livvy says she is ‘freaking out’ over the thought of developing facial hair and can’t bear the thought of her voice breaking.

So Saffron is looking into hormone therapy to block the development of masculine traits, but says that is a couple of years away and, besides, who knows what the future holds.

As for the teenage years when Livvy’s female friends are dating boys, the family would rather cross that bridge when they reach it. They haven’t even begun to think about the possibility of transgender surgery.

‘We are just taking one day at a time,’ says Saffron. ‘We’ve been told any hormone therapy is reversible, so if Livvy suddenly decides at 18 she wants to be a man after all, then she can. But she is who she is. She’s only ten and I just want her to be happy now.’

She adds: ‘To us she’s our daughter. She’s arty, sensitive, kind, loving. Sometimes she can be a pain, but she’s awesome and we love her. She’s our little girl, not a freak.’



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