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Transgender children: Alex’s story ‘Being told to join the other girls made me feel invisible, that something so inherent to me could not be perceived by anyone else’

Alex was 15 when he was rushed to hospital after attempting suicide.

“I always looked and behaved quite feminine, and the outside world perceived me as a girl. But since I was two, I felt very firmly that I was a boy.”

As young as three, he reacted with tantrums if anyone approached him with dolls, dresses or the colour pink. “I did like them, but on some level, young as I was, I knew the implication of taking these things. I knew it wasn’t just about toys; it was about who I was and who I could be.”

At primary school, children were separated into boys and girls for PE. Alex didn’t know what to do. “I was usually told to join ‘the other girls’. It made me feel invisible, that something so inherent to me could not be perceived by anyone else.” The boys played football, and the girls did tumbles.

He tried to communicate how he was feeling, but people laughed at him and said he was a tomboy. Nobody listened.

Academically bright and a keen learner, all this caused Alex to be, he says, a very unsettled child. In secondary school, he looked feminine and had long hair. Everyone saw a healthy young woman.

But Alex was being torn in two. Inside he identified as male. Beyond him, he saw media depictions of trans people as figures of fun, the butt of jokes. Alex’s mental health began crumbling in his teens.

First came depression. After that: panic disorder. Then, at the age of 15, Alex began to experience dissociative episodes, which his psychiatrist later described as “quasi- psychotic auditory and visual hallucinations”. He was seeing and hearing things that weren’t there.

Ambivalence, says Alex, is not the condition of being neither one thing nor the other. “It is being so much one, and so much the other, that they cancel each other out. That was what was happening to me, and my brain couldn’t cope. I was too scared to eat, sleep or drink water. I was scared of the light.”

Alex was taken to hospital. Later, psychiatrists would establish that the cause of Alex’s breakdown was not a psychiatric condition caused by brain chemistry. It was psychological, and caused by the strain of leading a double life.

For three years, Alex went back and forth to hospital, while doctors tried to treat him without knowing the root cause of his illness. “I hid everything. I felt I would be rejected, kicked out, made homeless.”

During one hospital admission, he was making progress. On the day he turned 18, however – still not aware of his male identity – he was placed in a female ward. His anxiety soared and he was paralysed with fear. On the third day, he came out to his psychiatrist. “He was great. He gave me some tough love because I hadn’t told him for so long, but he was very supportive and understood that it explained a lot.

“But then I was brought back to the female ward – there’s no real provision for that, especially because I was still presenting as female and people conflate your gender identity with your gender expression.”

Since he came out, Alex’s parents have struggled hugely. His mother is somewhat relieved that there is an explanation for his breakdown, but has found it particularly difficult since Alex started taking male hormones last month. His father won’t use male pronouns and won’t acknowledge Alex as male; he doesn’t think he will ever come around.

His older brother and BeLonGTo, which he attends four times each week, have been huge supports. His name has been changed by deed poll. He has a sense of how life can be. It’s getting better.