Ireland’s trans children: ‘I didn’t know what ‘trans’ meant. I just felt that I was a woman’

Four young transgender people on growing up, coming out and being accepted

Luke O'Reilly Kane came out as trans to his mother when he was 15-years-old. Five years later and after top surgery he’s come to terms with his past life. Video: Enda O’Dowd

 

There’s no simple answer to the question of what it’s like to grow up transgender in Ireland in 2018.

On the one hand, “Ireland is a world leader in trans inclusion”, says Toryn Glavin, a 24-year-old transgender woman from Wexford, and campaigner for trans equality.

Glavin is referring, in part, to the 2015 Gender Recognition Act, which provided an administrative process for transgender people over 18 to achieve full legal recognition of their preferred gender. The process is also open to people aged 16-18, though they have to go through the Circuit Court and get a doctor’s certificate and parental consent.

She also points to a kind of “blasé attitude” among Irish people that, she says, can be very empowering for trans people. “They’re not trying really hard to prove what trans allies they are, and they’re not always questioning your identity either.”

A trans child described being pushed down the stairs in school, and pushed into the showers in their uniform, where they were soaked

At the same time, the picture is far from rosy. Suicidality, bullying and harassment, violence and systemic discrimination disproportionately affect the trans community everywhere in the world, and Ireland is no exception.

Society hasn’t kept pace with legal acceptance, says Moninne Griffith, the executive director of BeLonG To, who chaired a review group of the 2015 Gender Recognition Act.

In its report published last summer, the cross-party group recommended that the administrative process be extended to young people of all ages, subject to parental consent, which would “make Ireland the most progressive country in the world for trans equality”, as well as equality for non-binary and intersex people.

On a day-to-day basis, however, “it is still really tough to be transgender in Ireland”. In schools, communities, and homes, the experience is marked by “a fear of rejection, isolation, bullying, stigma and prejudice. As a result, young people are experiencing high rates of depression and anxiety, self-harm and suicide.”

Recently, at one of the peer support groups run by BeLong To, a trans child described being pushed down the stairs in school, and pushed into the showers in their uniform, where they were soaked.

Then there is the difficulty of navigating pathways to medical care. “It’s hard to negotiate; hard to find out information. There are huge waiting lists for medical appointments. Your access to healthcare really depends on where in the country you are and whether you can afford to pay.”

One of the first steps will be for the HSE to establish a trans clinic where young people can come for counselling and a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, the first step for many in accessing medical care.

Beyond that, says Griffith, we still have a lot of work to do to “increase education, information and empathy, so that people understand this could be a child in their family or a friend. The reality is that being transgender is a normal part of the human existence. 

“We’re seeing a huge increase in the numbers of people coming out as transgender since the marriage equality referendum and the Gender Recognition Act, and that’s a really positive outcome. There’s been a 100 per cent increase in people accessing our youth groups and support services. We work with hundreds of trans people and we see that with the right support, they go on to live wonderfully fulfilled, happy and amazing lives.”

CODY SWEENEY

Cody Sweeney photographed by Patrick Browne
Cody Sweeney. Photograph: Patrick Browne
I thought for a long time that I was going to be unhappy for the rest of my life, but that’s not the way it has to be. Once you start transitioning, it’s all about the future

Cody Sweeney had an idyllic childhood in many respects. The 19-year-old grew up in Dunmore East, a picturesque fishing village in Co Waterford, and spent his time playing music and messing about in boats with his three siblings. But by the time he reached his teens, he was struggling with anxiety and negative feelings. “I was bottling things up. I didn’t know what it was at first. I was always a tomboy. I knew I was really jealous of my brothers. I didn’t really understand beyond that, because I didn’t know that transgender people existed.”

When a friend at school came out as transgender, it was like a lightbulb going off. Sweeney, who was assigned female at birth, thought he might be transgender too. The feeling grew, and in 2016 – then 16 – he confided in an aunt he was particularly close to, telling her that he didn’t feel comfortable in his body, and that he “felt like a boy”.

With Sweeney’s permission, his aunt Sarah told his parents. “They thought this might just be a phase, which every parent thinks at the start. But then within a few days they came back to me, and they said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re there for you and we’ll get this sorted’,” he says. “They were really good, they got me support straight away. I got seen in CAMHS, the child and adolescent mental-health services. I was diagnosed with gender dysphoria.”

The all-important diagnosis meant he could get on the waiting list for hormone treatment, which he started last summer. He completed the legal process of gender recognition a year ago, getting his name changed by deed poll, and his birth cert reissued. Sarah went with him to collect the papers. “That was really nice. It was easier to come out first to someone that’s not your parent. It’s not that I don’t find my parents supportive, but it’s harder when you’re living with someone. Once she told them, I was so happy.”

Sweeney’s mum, Karen, says: “I think what Cody did was a good idea, because he felt comfortable talking to his aunt. It doesn’t have to be a parent, it might be a good friend; just somebody to talk to, and keep the lines of communication open.”

The staff and students at his school, Newtown in Waterford, were very supportive through his transition, he says. The biggest surprise, says Karen, is how accepting people have been. “Irish people are great. And our society has changed so much over the decades. We didn’t have to make a big announcement. Word spreads in a place like Dunmore, where everybody would know our family. Cody’s on Facebook, and everybody else is on Facebook, so you don’t have to go around telling people,” she says.

“It’s a big thing for a kid to come out like Cody has, and it was brave of him to do it. But if he hadn’t, I’d be afraid of the consequences.”

These days, life is good. He has just started college, and is hoping to work with young people. He’s happier than he’s ever been, though he still finds it upsetting if someone calls him by his old name. “It kind of sends a shiver up my spine. Even when I hear that name out and about, I think people are trying to call me, and it triggers negative feelings. I want to tell people not to call me that, but I don’t want to be mean. I’m very shy.

“Being trans does not have to define your life. I thought for a long time that I was going to be unhappy for the rest of my life, but that’s not the way it has to be. Once you start transitioning, it’s all about the future. I got very lucky with my family. But if you don’t have a supportive family, you can reach out to a friend, or one of the transgender organisations.”

Cody Sweeney talks about his experiences of being female to male (ftm) transgender on his YouTube channel, Cody with a T

TORYN GLAVIN

I didn’t know what the word ‘trans’ meant but I just felt that I was a woman
Toryn Glavin
Toryn Glavin

When Toryn Glavin was nine, and still assigned male, she remembers asking for a Tinkerbell doll in a toy shop. “I was walked out of the shop by my sister, so that my parents could have a conversation about whether it was okay for this nine-year-old ‘boy’ to have these dolls. They decided it wasn’t a big deal,” she says.

Being transgender “was always there. My dad will say he was aware of it and it scared him a lot: he could see it coming”. One of the middle children in a family of six, the 24-year-old was brought up just outside Gorey in Co Wexford, by parents who were liberal and open minded. When she was 14, she came out first as a “gay man”. “The world was identifying me as a man, and I knew I was attracted to men, so I felt I was a gay man.”

There were 650 students at her school, and she was the only one out as LGBT. It was a “completely miserable” time. “I was really lucky to have a supportive teacher. But the vast majority of my school wouldn’t have been. People would have no problem shouting ‘queer’ or ‘faggot’ in the hallways.”

In 2010, when she was 16, “I started telling people I was a woman. I didn’t know what the word ‘trans’ meant but I just felt that I was a woman.”

Her family, who had always been very accepting, initially found Glavin’s new identity challenging. “Even after I told them, the world didn’t just turn right side up. It’s worked out, and now my Dad will come to my trans events and make everyone cry, but even with a supportive family it has been a process. There was a period when I thought I might move away to college and never see them again. This was pre-Caitlin Jenner, before what we now call the ‘trans tipping point’. It was a very different world. They wanted to be supportive, but they didn’t know how.”

When she looks back at that time now, “weirdly, it seems like someone else’s life. I have a tattoo which has 2015 in roman numerals, because that was the last time anybody used my birth name and called me he/him”.

There are often more barriers faced by trans women, she says. “The idea of a ‘girl’ wanting to be a ‘boy’, society can kind of understand that. But the idea of a ‘boy’ wanting to be a ‘girl’ is a strange thing and a perverse thing. Why would you possibly want to give up your masculinity?”

Glavin went on to work for the Trans Equality Network (Teni), and is now the trans engagement officer for Stonewall in the UK, the biggest LGBT organisation in Europe. She goes back every year to the school where she faced some of her loneliest days to educate the students on trans inclusion.

“The advice I’d give to parents of children coming out as trans is just be clear that you do love them and you’re there for them. There are things for you to learn and there are things you’ll learn together. Don’t panic – and even if you are panicking, reassure your child that everything will be fine.”

LUKE O’REILLY KANE

Luke O’Reilly Kane photographed by Dave Meehan
Luke O’Reilly Kane. Photograph: Dave Meehan
I feel like she was my twin sister, and we share the same memories. When I look back, I feel like I’m standing beside her in a memory. I miss her

“It was like a fantasy childhood,” says Luke O’Reilly Kane of his early years, which he spent between Japan, Sweden, Bahrain and, after the age of 10, Ireland. “I was into nature, I was into sports, I loved hiking, I played basketball, I competed at horseriding.”

Later, at school, “I remember looking at the other boys, and wondering why couldn’t I be a boy and have short hair and be called ‘he’. I didn’t know anyone else like that, so I thought I was the only one.”

At 14, O’Reilly Kane told his mum he was bisexual. “She always had a gut instinct about me, and let me know it was okay if I was gay.”

Doing some research online, he came across the term ‘LGBT’. “I didn’t know what the ‘T’ meant so I looked it up. I saw ‘transgender’ and read about it. It just clicked. I ran downstairs with the computer to my mum to show her this was me.”

Even before then, he was “showing all the signs”, the 20-year-old says. “At 12 or 13, I’d put a sports bra on normally, and then I’d put about seven on back to front on top of it.”

His mum has always been very supportive, although she was initially sad. “She grieved her daughter, but she gained a son -– it took about two years for her to grieve her.”

I notice that he refers to his old self in the third person, and ask him about this. He says that his relationship with his pre-transition self has changed since he went on hormones 16 months ago. “I feel like she was my twin sister, and we share the same memories. When I look back, I feel like I’m standing beside her in a memory. I miss her. In a funny way, I’d love to sit down and have a chat with her. She’s in me now, and we live in each other. She would have wanted it the way it is now. But I think it’s sad that no-one is going to know her.”

Being transgender means having to learn a whole new way of being. “I’ve been socialising as female for 15 years and now I’m socialising as a man. I had to mirror how they communicated, their body language, their tone, how they spoke, and I had to relearn how to socialise, and that was very difficult. It was uncomfortable at times, but it was part of the process. There’s times I wish I wasn’t trans, but I do like the perspective I get. Not many people get to experience being a man and a woman both biologically and socially.”

ALISON FARRELL

Alison Farrell photographed by Patrick Browne
Alison Farrell. Photograph: Patrick Browne
My nan would let me dress up for an hour once a day in privacy. She didn’t want me walking around like that. Her fear was someone might attack me

Alison Farrell, the oldest child in a family of six, had an easier coming out experience than most. The 17-year-old grew up in Dublin, and later moved to Wexford. Assigned male at birth, she liked dressing up in princess costumes as a child, and would put a tea towel on her head and pretend to have long hair. “Some male kids do that, and grow out of it, but I was still doing it at 12 or 13. My mam was perfectly fine with it.”

She came out at 14 as a gay man, and a month later, dressed as a woman for Hallowe’en. “And I was like, I don’t really want to get out of this. It clicked in my head: I want to be a woman.”

She lived in a place where she felt LGBT people weren’t accepted, so she would go to her nan’s house, she says, and get dressed up there. “She would let me dress up for an hour once a day in privacy. She didn’t want me walking around like that. Her fear was someone might attack me. I used to pack a bag and go to BeLong To. I’d get dressed for the time I was there, and then take it off to go home.”

At 16, the family moved to Courtown, and Farrell decided to embrace the new beginning. “I was like ‘okay, I’m in a new place’, so I started wearing feminine clothing, and growing out my hair. The lads down here are much more accepting than where I was living before.”

She suffered from anxiety when she was younger, but all of that vanished when she transitioned to being a woman. Her boyfriend and her friends always call her Alison, but her mam sometimes uses her old name. She doesn’t mind. She hasn’t changed her name legally yet, but her school, Creagh College in Gorey, Co Wexford, changed it to Alison on the school roll.

She did her Leaving last summer, and wants to train as a professional make-up artist. The toughest part, for her, is access to healthcare. She has had one appointment with a doctor who took bloods, and said she’d be referred for hormone replacement therapy, but she hasn’t heard anything yet. It’s hard because “I have to get up every day and make sure I look feminine, and deal with my facial hair and my body hair. I have a fear of people being like ‘oh, you’re a man’ when I’m not.”

She was lucky with her family and friends, she says, but “if your family don’t accept you, you’ll find other people who will, friends who you can bond with, or be close with. You can choose your family.”

teni.ie and belongto.org have details of regular peer support for trans people around the country, and of family support groups in Dublin, Waterford and Limerick