When Sons Become Daughters, Part IV: Parents of Transitioning Boys Speak Out on Their Own Suffering

When Sons Become Daughters, Part IV: Parents of Transitioning Boys Speak Out on Their Own Suffering

Angus Fox
Angus Fox

What follows is the fourth instalment of When Sons Become Daughters, a multi-part Quillette series that explores how parents react when a son announces he wants to be a girl—and explains why so many of these mothers and fathers believe they can’t discuss their fears and concerns with their own children, therapists, doctors, friends, and relatives. To find out more about how the author collected and reported information, please refer to his introductory essay in this series.

 

The Man Who Wouldn’t Be Queen

Menno is a gay man in his early 40s—Dutch by birth and a Londoner by choice. He’s “gender critical,” meaning that he rejects the fashionable belief that self-declared gender overrides the reality of biological sex. His YouTube channel features a satirical listing of newly conceived pronouns, set to the tune of The Sound of Music’s Do-Re-Mi; a song about pop star Sam Smith’s non-binary identity, modelled on Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee from the musical Grease; and a reworked version of Kylie Minogue’s Locomotion, in which a pharmaceutical pied piper advertises puberty blockers to children.

He is also an occasional drag artist, a side gig that occasionally brings him into ideological conflict with another faction within the gender-critical movement: self-described radical feminists, some of whom take the view that drag is inherently misogynistic (a view now shared by some gay men). I test this argument out on Menno, and his response is characteristically unapologetic. “Not the way I do it,” he tells me: His is the drag of lampooning, not of objectifying. This point takes us into a discussion about British drag culture versus its American counterpart, beauty pageants, humour, and other subjects besides.

Upon arriving at this point in the text, readers may be expecting me to describe Menno’s experience as the father of a trans-identified child—since these essays have profiled mothers and fathers who are concerned about the often rapid and unquestioning way in which educators, therapists, and clinicians are encouraging boys to transition. But while I do make a point of prioritizing parents’ views (as they typically know their children far better than anyone else; and have the most incentive to work toward the best outcomes), there are other knowledgeable observers with important perspectives on this topic. And Menno (who happens to be childless) is one of them.

There are plenty of gay men (such as Canadian YouTuber Arty Morty) who believe that a misdiagnosis of transgenderism is now being applied to gay boys who simply don’t conform to (straight) stereotypes about how males are supposed to act. But in Menno’s case, there is an additional personal element: He was born one of two; and his tomboy twin sister bucked against gender stereotypes as much as he did, to the point that his parents would even joke about “the cocktail getting mixed up wrong” during the gestation process.

For years, this thought stalked him. Perhaps, he told himself, something really did go wrong in the womb, and his feminine characteristics didn’t truly belong to him but were stolen from his twin—who had also committed her own act of genetic theft. His anxieties were made worse by the bullying so often meted out to young pre-gay men, and a relationship with his father that was marred by the kind of harsh corporal discipline now outlawed in many Western countries. Menno turned in on himself, retreating to imaginary worlds of his own creation. His father bought him a typewriter, which Menno would bang away at frantically, to the point where the hollow metal legs of his desk had to be stuffed to reduce the noise reverberating through the house.

London beckoned, as it does for many gay men in Europe, and Menno found a new means of processing his identity outside the statistical norm. Drag, for Menno, became a form of catharsis. But unlike many of his fellow queens, Menno never believed in the idea of “the woman internal.” He identified instead as simply a gay guy in a dress, making people laugh and—more importantly—think. He remembers being backstage before one of his first appearances, when a queen who was more accomplished in the arts of hair and make-up took pity on him, and began helping him with foundation and eyeliner. “There. So do you feel like—a woman?” asked the expert, widening the eyes for dramatic effect. Menno looked in the mirror. “No,” he said, though not in a spirit of disappointment. That simply wasn’t the objective.

For many years, Menno’s femininity defined his opportunities. He appeared in several television roles, often as a male-to-female transsexual; during our Zoom call, he shows me the publicity stills. While these mementos are clearly a source of pride, he wanted to branch out. At one point, he auditioned for the role of Puck, the mischievous male fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Casting called him back, gushing with praise, to offer him the role of Titania, the fairy queen.

King Oberon, Queen Titania, and Puck, with dancing fairies—as conceived by William Blake

Menno reads a lot into this character switch. By nature, he is a Puck-like prankster, jabbing at received wisdom with a classically gay mixture of affection and derision. But what seemed to be valued more in the London arts scene, he found, wasn’t so much the send-up of old conservative dogmas, but the showcasing of new progressive dogmas. Yes, his effeminacy was widely accepted—but so much so that it placed a new kind of artistic and professional constraint on him. Menno wanted to showcase his unique personality. But this play’s director, as he saw it, was more interested in Menno acting out a certain conception of gender.

Menno believes that he would have been led to consider himself trans if he’d been born a couple of decades later. He’s also convinced that transition would have been a disaster. (He’s not the first adult I’ve spoken to who reports feeling this way.) And the response that people such as Menno sometimes hear back from trans-rights activists—words to the effect of “maybe you should have transitioned, then”—can be deeply wounding, as though the male sex would be better off keeping them outside its boundaries.

It turns out that Menno’s sister, too, was miserable during her teenage years, something that Menno didn’t appreciate until quite recently. She tells him that this was partly related to—as she saw it—her tenuous identity as a member of her own sex. Menno tells me all this by way of explaining why the gender-critical cause is important to him: He’s fighting an ideology that effectively would have encouraged his irrational fears—as well as his sister’s—that they weren’t really in the (respectively) male and female clubs, and so needed to head for the exit through surgery and a lifetime of drug treatments.

We talk about the accusations of transphobia that are levelled by some heterosexual women who undergo sexual reassignment surgery and then have difficulty finding gay men who will date them. As has been pointed out by Duncan Railton, a gay man who once was an ideologically orthodox LGBT activist, the logic embedded in such accusations can seem like a progressive spin on homophobic “conversion therapy” (traditionally the domain of religious conservatives), since it presumes that gay men should try to find natal females attractive through sheer force of will. “We’re gay men,” Menno says, cutting to the chase. “We know cock. And we know what’s not cock.” And so he’s not going to waste his time debating what it is and what it isn’t.

I ask Menno what he hopes to achieve by making his videos. He tells me that he wants to call out the culture of victimhood that permeates gender activism, and prick the pieties of its leaders. He also wants to expose the financial interests of those who are profiting from transition—such as pharmaceutical companies and gender clinics. He’s frustrated by the reluctance of prominent political and cultural figures to address the unsettling numbers of detransitioners, or listen to their cautionary tales; and he’s disgusted by the ideological capture of LGBT groups, some of which he now sees as effectively homophobic. Does that urge to subvert make Menno the Puck of the gender-critical movement? The question seems to delight him.

As noted above, Menno is a childless outlier among the mothers and fathers who populate the online gender-critical group that’s formed the object of my journalistic study. But I wanted to include his story here, as it helps explain why so many parents (including some I’ve already discussed) suspect that their gay boys are being taught to hate their gayness.

Menno is one of many thousands of men—not all of them gay—who had to fight and suffer simply because they didn’t exemplify a certain kind of male stereotype, and have struggled, over many years, to come to peace with their outsider status. It is natural that they would be alarmed to watch their younger counterparts being bullied out of their right to be seen as men. And Menno’s fierce, adult individualism supplies an example of another path that gender non-conforming boys can take.

 

Discord

Natalie loves Luke, and she’ll always love Luke. But she doesn’t like him. Nor would you, if you’d driven for 45 minutes, baby in the back seat, to a therapist’s office, and then sat in the car for an hour before driving 45 minutes back home, three times a week, all the while knowing that Luke had no intention of taking these therapy sessions seriously. If Luke had repeatedly tried to manipulate you with threats of suicide that you knew to be empty. If Luke had manhandled you and barricaded you in a room, and you felt so threatened that you called the police. If Luke had then called sheriffs out to your home in rural Alabama because he’d holed himself up in the attic with a kitchen knife, and was threatening to stab himself in the testicles. If Luke had lied and lied and lied, until you could no longer trust a single thing that came out of his mouth.

Sometimes Natalie wonders: Was it when Luke saw his mother peacefully nursing his baby sister that this all started? Did he think, “So Mom likes girls more than boys?” But she also suspects this might all have been coming down the tracks, no matter what she did. Luke became unhappy and angry as soon as he started puberty, and the anger never let up. There was always food on the table, and a warm bed, and the love of Luke’s mother and father, always wanting what was best for him. They encouraged him to work hard, and to embrace the chances life offered him, no matter what he was—sexually or otherwise.

Luke’s gender dysphoria, as Natalie sees it, exists as a pretext. It gives him a label—“transphobia”—that he can apply as a means to seize the moral advantage in a range of situations. But Natalie knows that he never truly hated his facial hair, as he now claims. In fact, she’ll never forget that day when her husband taught Luke to shave, when she welled up at the sight of her baby’s face lathered in foam. She remembers Luke’s proud announcement that he was going to grow “a beard”—which turned out to be few spindly chin hairs. When Luke later claimed that his facial hair had always made him want to self-harm, Natalie knew it was a lie. She’s kept the photographs of that first shave, Dad supervising in the background, which she shares with me. This rewriting of history is something which many parents report: Young men reimagine past events to justify present behaviour.

This isn’t to say that Luke had been a happy-go-lucky child before his gender epiphany. Natalie and her husband always had a sense that their son was ill at ease in the world. He was desperate to be liked, but never sure quite how to make that happen; he was uncommonly smart, but didn’t have the temperament to master his schoolwork. His potential was vast, and Natalie was determined not to let him squander it. So rules were laid down. Internet usage was regulated, with the computer placed in a common area, and parental controls duly enforced. When the suicide threats came, she acted. When practitioners suggested anti-depressants, she listened. She’s written a timeline of Luke’s collapse into misery, which she shares with me; it reads like a military history, detailing her efforts to help her son battle his demons.

When Luke was too much for Natalie, and got placed in residential care, the staff refused to engage with Luke’s claimed dysphoria. So she sent him to a therapist who prescribed mood-altering drugs with side effects that hadn’t been mentioned before Luke started taking them. When Natalie confronted the therapist over the issue, it was the therapist who fired her.

But perhaps the rudest shock of all came on Discord—a social-media platform that allows voice and video calling, file transfers, and instant messaging. It had been one of the programs Natalie blocked. But Luke, undeterred, found a way around the parental controls. His Discord friends were all male, except for a sprinkling of trans-identifying young women. These friends helped Luke curate a new identity. They assessed his hair, which he was growing long, telling him how to make it look more feminine; and they evaluated the options for his new female name.

They also sympathized with Luke’s negative body image, which was now firmly fixated on his testicles and hair. Natalie wanted Luke to learn how to be comfortable with the biological transformation into manhood. His Discord milieu instead offered the promise of timeless boyhood.

It was on Discord where Luke met John, a hyper-feminine gay man working as what he calls a “passing coach.” John (a pseudonym, like most of the other names I am using) teaches young males how to “pass” as a member of the other sex—how they should dress and style themselves, how they can feminize their voices—a service that John monetizes. According to Luke, John could have been a world-renowned artist, but bravely chose to give that up. Natalie still can’t believe her son fell for what she regards as a scam.

Naturally, John immediately affirmed Luke’s hatred of his own testicles, further legitimizing his claims of dysphoria. John told Luke all about voice modification, and Luke began to learn about the anatomy of the vocal tract in detail, eager to please his new mentor. John even suggested that Luke could work as John’s assistant, applying his newfound knowledge to broaden John’s online services.

Luke was 15 when he first met John, who was then 27. Natalie asked Luke if there was a sexual component to this relationship. Luke said no; but Natalie still isn’t sure what to think. As noted above, Luke lies often. And his claimed sexual orientation varies like the seasons, having gone through bisexual and pansexual phases—making it almost impossible to know how Luke actually experiences sexual impulses. Natalie wants to believe that John’s relationship with her son is merely unwholesome and manipulative, not sexual; but it’s impossible to say.

Natalie confiscated Luke’s phone, but John wasn’t going to let that stop him. He started phishing for contact details for Luke’s relatives, trying to find ways to get around his parents’ restrictions. And Luke soon got back online himself, using the notebook computer his school had given him. Natalie eventually found that her son was using second-hand phones in the house, getting them from other kids and hiding them under his bed. These got him back onto Discord, and back into John’s orbit. Short of moving to a log cabin with no electricity, Natalie found, there was almost no way to keep her son safe. And all this was before COVID lockdowns caused Luke’s emotional state to deteriorate and his threats of self-harm to become more frequent.

When Luke was about to turn 18, his parents found themselves utterly beleaguered. The prospect of Luke leaving home was more of a relief than anything else, especially for Natalie’s husband, who was more than ready to say goodbye. School was all online anyway; so when Luke announced he was moving in with a friend and his friend’s mother as soon as he became a legal adult, it seemed like the best possible outcome for all involved. Luke would be free of his parents’ alleged tyranny, and find “gender affirmation” in his new home; and Natalie and her husband would be free from all the drama and abuse. He’d be in the next town over, and still graduate from school as planned. At least that was something they could all chalk up as a win.

But that plan, too, was a lie—or at least, as Natalie puts it, “a stepping stone” to where Luke would eventually end up: he moved in with John, in a strange new city, hundreds of miles away. It turned out that John lives with a number of other men whom Natalie doesn’t know much about. Firmly in John’s thrall, Luke is now a live-in worker, writing and delivering “courses” on John’s behalf. How much—or indeed whether—he gets paid, Natalie doesn’t know. Luke puts great effort into his work. And John publicly describes him on Discord as his “slave.”

To describe men such as John, we once used words like predator and creep. Now we say “advocate” or “coach.” As for boys like Luke, we once would candidly describe them as disturbed, unwell, or incapable of making proper decisions. We used to focus on their potential, and the means by which they might be helped to achieve it. When young men such as Luke experienced violent impulses, whether directed toward themselves or others, we would investigate the deeper reasons, rather than asking them to perform their own diagnoses.

Natalie and her husband repeatedly approached the police about John’s behaviour, which looked a lot like grooming. But they didn’t have evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Luke apparently cleansed his hard drives, deleting any evidence that might have incriminated John, leaving his mother with nothing actionable.

Throughout our conversation, which takes place in the middle of the night, Alabama time, Natalie is composed. Other than occasionally yelling “go back to sleep, Ruby!” to her now four-year-old daughter, her voice is level. She is goal-focused: pray for her son; keep a pathway open, so he can return to her; and help people understand what sort of behaviours are being countenanced under the guise of trans rights. She does something positive every day. She signs a petition; she donates money to a good cause; she counsels other parents who are dealing with their own children’s similarly misguided choices.

Every day, Natalie lives with a terrifying thought: Will today be the day that her son is castrated? She knows that’s what Luke claims to want: and a man who keeps a “slave” won’t care much about his young ward’s lifelong medical fallout. (At this point, I would ask non-squeamish readers to visit Reddit’s “Castration Captions” page, where people post pornographic images pertaining to emasculation. The commentary is public; you don’t need to scroll for long before you encounter users—age unknown—openly encouraging genital-focused dysphoria. Any troubled person can post and interact on this site, simply by affirming “I am over 18.” There are no meaningful boundaries in place. Meanwhile, on Twitter, accounts get memory-holed merely for using “dead names” or misgendering.)

Natalie checks the Discord server every day for signs that her son is at least safe and well. But Luke has already decided that she is a transphobe, and that the only way she can support him is to be absent from his life. I wonder how many policy-makers have stopped to think what happens when loving parents such as Natalie are replaced by men like John.

But Natalie doesn’t yet consider herself defeated. She feels that as stories such as this one multiply, a change is coming. She just hopes that it doesn’t come too late to save her son.

 

Thinner

Jane’s family has a difficult history, on both sides: suicidality, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, bulimia in particular. Ben is not her first child, nor the first of her children to struggle with this cluster of challenges.

It’s only in recent decades that our understanding of eating disorders and other psychiatric difficulties among children has developed to the point that we no longer reflexively blame bad parenting. New treatment models have been developed, taking into consideration family genetics and other risk factors. These models feature carrot-and-stick behavioural techniques to get a young person back onto a healthier track. Language must be monitored closely: Something as simple and innocent as “you look nice,” we now know, could fire off a child’s dysmorphia (the word refers to an inability to stop thinking about perceived body defects).

Clinicians can order lab tests and monitor vital signs, but it’s parents who are ultimately on the front line when it comes to eating disorders among their children. They have to provide a supportive home environment, prepare meals and snacks, make sure that plates are cleaned, ensure that calories are burnt off through exercise, and that the meals aren’t regurgitated into the toilet bowl. The stakes are high: If they fail, their children may not recover. They may even kill themselves, as eating disorders have the highest suicide rates among all mental-health conditions.

The recent spike in trans self-identification has made things even more difficult for these parents, because gender-related body dysmorphia often appears alongside other kinds of physically focused anxieties. And unlike with anorexia and bulimia, when it comes to gender, parents are expected to “affirm” the child’s perception of reality.

And so when Jane’s son Ben uttered that single syllable, trans, everything changed. The long-term goal of restoring Ben’s mind and body to health was out; instead, the end-state was a perfect—and entirely hypothetical—female form on which Ben was fixated. After two-and-a-half years of Jane trying to get Ben to accept who he was, achievable, measurable steps were junked in favour of conversations about “who you feel you are.” Therapists took seriously Ben’s claim that cantaloupe breasts and an improbably small waist would resolve his anguish. These therapists had no interest in Jane’s family history, nor in the infertile state in which surgeons would leave Ben’s body.

Therapists dealing with bulimia impress upon young people the long-term consequences of their behaviour, such as low bone density and weak tooth enamel. When the discussion turns to issues of fertility and reproductive health, and the child in question responds by saying, “I don’t want kids anyway,” therapists will push back, pointing out that many people feel that way early on in life, only to change their minds later. These same medical risks apply to cross-sex hormones, but in this case, mentioning these risks suddenly becomes taboo.

A parent with an eating-disordered child is advised to take the lead in implementing family-based treatment in the home. Yet once the subject of gender is brought into the equation, it is the child who takes the lead. Kids decide how their “essential gender” is to be expressed, and parents must obey—never mind that the obsession with thinness and the hours spent in front of a mirror certainly seem to mimic the symptoms of an eating disorder. Like anorexia and bulimia, gender dysphoria features a deep desire to force the body to conform with a fantasy perception—yet the former are seen as psychiatric illnesses, while the latter is celebrated as an invitation to a rainbow-bedazzled identity group. We finally stopped blaming parents for one form of dysphoria, just in time to call them out as bigots if they raise concerns about another.

Many young men who seek out a new, female identity will associate womanhood with smaller size. Women, on average, are shorter, and more slender at the shoulders; they have smaller hands and smaller feet. A young man battling bulimia or anorexia can retrofit his desire to take up less space in the world to his imagined female self. Vomiting and laxative use then become gender-affirming rituals instead of forms of self-destruction. The societal obsession with transgenderism has sprinkled fairy dust on what we once recognized as deeply unhealthy and dangerous behaviours. And young men themselves don’t have the self-awareness to distinguish between a desire to erase themselves and the desire to unburden themselves of their masculinity.

I would like to write in more detail about the situation in which Jane and Ben find themselves, but I agreed to keep her story short. Ben’s welfare is paramount, and his situation is in flux. She has chosen to speak to me not because I can offer her any help, but because she is desperate for the public to understand how proven, effective healthcare models are being undermined in the name of trans rights.

 

With thanks to Menno, Natalie, and Jane for taking the time to speak to me.

Angus Fox (a pseudonym) is an academic working in an unrelated field of study. He can be contacted at gcri@protonmail.com.

ActivismCulture WarsDiversity DebateFamilyHealthIdentityRegressive LeftSexTop StoriesWhen Sons Become DaughtersWomen