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A Girlhood by Carolyn Hays: Compelling and illuminating account by mother of a transgender child

Accomplished author tells the story of her child’s emerging identity and her own initial struggle as a parent to accept what was happening

A Girlhood
A Girlhood
Author: Carolyn Hays
ISBN-13: 978-1529064483
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £14.99

“What happened to us shouldn’t happen to anyone. But it did, and it keeps happening, especially to families like ours.” Although it’s only January, I can say with confidence that Carolyn Hays’s A Girlhood is one of the most important and illuminating books of the year. Written under a pseudonym to protect the anonymity of the family, A Girlhood is a celebration of difference, a clear-eyed account of the difficulties encountered by transchildren and their families, and perhaps most importantly of all, a love letter from a mother to her transgender daughter.

It is a book pulsing with life, compassion and courage. Hays, an award-winning, best-selling American author, knows how to structure a compelling tale. The book is split into sections – Before, After, Now – that revolve around a seismic moment in the family’s life. This is not, as you might imagine, the declaration of their youngest child, aged three, that she is female, not male. There is no such singular moment, rather a series of constant and eminently believable moments where the child repeatedly tells her family who she is: a little girl in a boy’s body.

Initially Hays and her husband are sceptical. They visit a psychologist who encourages them to treat it as a phase. Under advice, they tell their child that he’s a boy who likes things that are traditionally associated with girls: sparkles, purses, dresses, heels. But the declarations and pleas keep coming as the months pass, until the family – progressive Catholics living in a southern, Republican state – decide to shift pronouns, use a nickname and allow their child to dress as she wishes.

The seismic shift, in real life and narrative terms, occurs with a knock on the door one ordinary afternoon from a state social worker who is there to investigate an anonymous complaint against Hays and her husband about the upbringing of their transgender daughter. Though the social worker ultimately finds nothing untoward, it instils a fear in the family that prompts a move to New Hampshire. The year is 2010.

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Hays is the right person to write this book, not just because of her empathy and obvious intelligence, but also because she’s not afraid to admit her own past prejudices and mistakes

A Girlhood is a marker of the change that’s occurred in society in the intervening years, the visibility and voice now afforded to a group of people who were for so long denied a platform, which is to say, denied an identity. Hays augments the personal narrative with references to the work of trans activists over decades: Laverne Cox, Jazz Jennings, John Lewis, Ian Harvie, Ru Paul, Sylvia Rivera, whose speech at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally is still hugely relevant today: “We have to be visible. We should not be ashamed of who we are. We have to show the world that we are numerous.”

Hays is the right person to write this book, not just because of her empathy and obvious intelligence, but also because she’s not afraid to admit her own past prejudices and mistakes: “Our transphobia was fuelled by our ignorance and culture – and all of the various cultures within our larger disturbed American culture.” As well as the experiential evidence of her daughter’s life playing out in front of her, Hays arms herself with facts and coherent arguments about transgender identity, exhaustively researching the area, like a woman who expects to have to go into battle (as well she might).

She presents her findings in a clear, nuanced fashion, countering anti-trans narratives with scientific statistics: “Now we know there are XXX and XXY and XYY [chromosomes] and one out of every one hundred infants is born with deviations from the ‘typical’ male and female anatomy.”

Another standout paragraph occurs earlier, when Hays and her husband are struggling to believe that their child can make gender identity decisions at such a young age: “But then we found the American Academy of Paediatrics’ timeline for children to understand gender identity. These were the major takeaways: By age two or so, kids understand the physical difference between girls and boys. By three, they can easily label themselves a boy or a girl. By four, most are pretty stable in their gender identity. This is true of “typical”/cisgender kids, and so it is also true for transgender kids but simply not in the expected gender.”

It was a wake-up call to Hays, and it will surely be one to many readers. A Girlhood is a poignant account of her family’s awakening, of their willingness to sacrifice their own needs in order to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable among them. Whatever your views on gender identity, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better example of truly caring, considerate parenting than the one depicted in these pages. In essence, it’s a book about an individual’s inalienable right to decide who they are, freely and without shame: “’Listen,’ the poet Mary Oliver wrote, “are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?’”

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts