Recently, I went out for dinner with my partner. Nothing fancy, just a veggie burger and fries after a long week at work. Next to me, on tables far too close for comfort, sat two men discussing their respective days – the usual frustrations at work, summer holiday plans burrowed into their already bulging calendars and football tournaments with plastic medals and muddy boots to look forward to at the weekend. All seemingly normal and tediously dull to a stranger (me) who had no interest in their lives whatsoever. Except then, I heard something which really caught my attention. My palms and forehead became sweaty, my heart pumped faster than it should, and I felt my body twinge.
‘The book is called The Transgender Issue’1, one of them said.
‘Oh I’ll look at that one,’ replied the other.
There was a moment of pause and the man on my right bowed his head.
‘I just worry,’ he continued. ‘There’s so much to consider: bathrooms, bullying, grandparents and clothes. I’m getting the hang of it, but I’m worried other people aren’t. It’s quite scary to see what’s happening. And then the news it’s just…’
My nervousness dissipated slightly, as I began to realise they were speaking respectfully about trans people, rather than debating our experience like I have become accustomed to. I tried to close my ears to the conversation, which felt private, and played with the few remaining chips I’d left abandoned on my plate. Some moments later, one of the men got up to visit the bathroom. A heaviness remained, the conversation left unresolved, and the man next to me looked defeated.
‘I’m sorry to interrupt,’ I said, quietly. ‘I didn’t mean to be listening in, it’s just that the tables are so close. Did I hear that you were discussing The Transgender Issue?’
A flash of worry appeared on his face.
‘Yes,’ he replied tentatively and with suspicion.
‘It’s a great book,’ I said, to reassure him, and continued, ‘I know that it can feel like a lot, but I wanted to let you know that I am a trans man. I’m here with my partner, and I want you to know that trans people can be happy and loved. It’s not all doom and gloom, I promise.’
His hunched shoulders fell from his ears as he relaxed.
‘It’s my daughter,’ he said.
‘Well, used to be son. I’m fine with it, I just worry about everyone else. It’s been a lot so far.’
Words began to flood from him, as if he’d wanted to say that for a long time – to a friend, a stranger, it didn’t matter. He told me about difficulties at his daughter’s school – teachers refusing let her wear girl’s uniform, bullying in the playground, other parents glaring at the school gates. They’d had to move house.
‘Well you’re doing all the right things,’ I offered, hopefully. ‘You’re there for her, you’re wanting to read the right books. I know it’s hard and this is a cliché, but it really does get easier. I’ve transitioned for eight years, this is my fiancé, I have an accepting family. Trans isn’t a synonym for difficult. There is a huge, loving and accepting community waiting for her. She won’t just be OK, she will be happy and loved.’
He smiled, a deep, ear-to-ear grin. We continued chatting, exchanging knowledge of books and details of trans youth charities, before each returning to our separate lives, each of us feeling a little lighter.
Serendipitous as that encounter was, it stayed with me for weeks afterwards. The worry the stranger felt for his child was palpable. I knew that fear well. Maybe it wasn’t my place to interrupt or offer opinion, but I knew that so often stories of trans people are (to put it lightly) negative, dehumanising and untruthful. That may have been the first time he’d ever met another trans person. Putting the usual awkwardness of talking to people I don’t already know aside, it felt important to offer reassurance and hope. They were the kind, reassuring words I wished someone – anyone – had given to my parents when they were figuring all this out too.
Next in this issue
The power of words
As therapists and counsellors know, language has the power to soothe, affirm, inform, make us laugh and be therapeutic. But it can also do harm – words can be cruel, callous, cold and exclusionary. Words shape our experience more than we realise. Language and its tangible effect on us is something I explore candidly in my book, A Trans Man Walks into a Gay Bar.2 I ask questions about what it means to be a man without having had a boyhood, and how the labels other people imposed on me – like girl, lesbian, angry, sporty and tomboy – had an impact on my sense of self. I grew up believing that I was these things even if they didn’t quite fit. I learnt that because of my innate masculinity, draw towards men’s clothing and desire to play typically ‘masculine’ sports like football, that I’d be a lesbian when I grew up. I was teased and bullied accordingly. This wasn’t based on my sexuality – in fact I’ve always fancied boys – but on my gender presentation and lazy stereotypes. And the idea of being trans, of being a man – even 10 years ago – was entirely inconceivable.
At that time, I didn’t have the language to explain that what I was feeling was more than being gay, more than stereotypes, more than something I would grow out of. I didn’t understand that the anger and frustration I felt wasn’t ‘who I was’ (which is what was insinuated, even though no child is born angry), but the result of living in a world which punishes gender difference. A place where drawing outside of the lines or questioning the boxes we are forced into is not allowed. Perhaps, in another world, if I was allowed to explore, at home or in therapy, what felt good and comfortable, I would have foregone much of the suffocation, confusion and anger I endured. I do not have the opportunity to go back and change all that now, but we do have the opportunity, and it is a collective duty, to make things better for young people today. We can learn, grow and do better.
In therapy or counselling we explore ideas and words. We have opportunities to discover and interrogate, challenge and re-think. Counsellors and therapists can offer trans young people the opportunity to explore their feelings, experiences and identities without judgment. So, when I was invited by the editor of this journal to write a piece about what I wish counsellors and psychotherapists working with young trans people would bear in mind, and what they can do to help, my first thought turned to language.
It’s easy to get weighed down by words we don’t know or worries about ‘getting it wrong’ but it’s clear how important and meaningful the words we use are. When it comes to therapy, allowing young people to explore language around their identity is incredibly important. For me, being in an ‘all-girls’ school, having long hair and wearing a skirt, it was incredibly affirming to be referred to correctly during my school counselling sessions. I glowed every time I saw my preferred name, Harry, written down, or when I was referred to as he/him, and it gave me an increased sense of self. Denying a name and identity, even though it may not be a child’s legal name or legal gender, is dehumanising and disrespectful. Thanks to an incredibly kind counsellor, who didn’t know anything about trans people but was willing to learn, I was able to explore what language felt right for me and experiment in a safe environment before coming out to family and friends.
Keeping it confidential
This neatly brings me onto my second point: confidentiality. For many trans people, putting trust in people and organisations does not come easily. We do not know if our identities will be respected or believed. Or indeed whether we’ll be able to explore our feelings in a safe environment. Of course, confidentiality is imperative for every child, but for young trans people it can be especially important. I remember the school nurse once rang my mother raising concerns about my mental health. During this conversation, she cited that my being transgender may be having an impact on my welfare and outed me to my parents. It was terrifying as I was nowhere near ready to come out. And yet such things cannot be undone. For years, my home life became rocky, and I lost trust in the people who were meant to be supporting me.
Of all the counselling and therapy I have experienced, both as a young person and as an adult, there has been a running theme. I’ve found that trans-ness has, at times, dominated the therapeutic conversation much more than I would like, seemingly for the interest, curiosity and benefit of the professional rather than me.
I distinctly remember being told by a Mental Health Trust aged 18, that they would not be able to refer me to a gender specialist but did want to have a conversation with me because they hadn’t met a trans person before. I felt like a circus act, as invasive questions were asked under the guise of helping them to understand trans-ness.
Of course, questions can be good. They enable learning and can be essential to investigate why clients feel the way they do. But do consider why you are asking those questions – is it to satisfy your curiosity or is it for the benefit of your client? Could a simple internet search or reading a relevant book give you the insight you need instead of relying on your client to educate you?
Intersectionality plays into this too. Being trans is not all that we are. My trans identity doesn’t affect my approach or interests any more than my nails define my height. I’ve had therapists in the past who have suggested that my feelings of depression, anxiety and attachment difficulties may stem from being trans. This might be the case, but it also might not. After all, cisgender and straight people experience mental health challenges too. So, avoid implying that trauma responses are due to one part of a person’s identity as this is reductive and exclusionary of other important factors, such as race, religion, sexuality, class, ability and nationality.
1 Faye, S. The transgender issue: an argument for justice. Penguin Press; 2021.
2 Nicholas, H. A trans man walks into a gay bar: a journey of self (and sexual) discovery. Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 2023.