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Ireland’s transgender children: Richie’s story

“Maybe if I just dress in male clothes and never tell anyone how I really feel,” Richie used to think. “Maybe if I just look androgynous. I didn’t know the possibilities.”

Richie, a 15-year-old only child, was considered a tomboy growing up, but he struggled to identify with what that label meant. He’s introverted, creative, likeable, intelligent and well able to speak for himself. But he’s also a child, and he is working hard to cope with the pressure of being young and trans. He lives with his parents, Diane and Gerry, in the northeast of Ireland. The family are close and hugely supportive of one another.

“I never saw his behaviour as masculine as such,” says Diane. “I saw an intelligent child who was very bookish. At around nine or 10 I was taking him to buy dresses and it started to get really difficult. If there was a family occasion involving dressing up there was huge anxiety. We just thought it was the awkward years.”

Everyone saw a girl. But one day someone identified Richie as male. Richie was ecstatic. “I told a friend that I wished people could call me Richie instead of my own name. I didn’t fully understand why, but then I said to someone that I thought I might be ‘sort of transgender’. Once those words came out, I knew.”

Richie feared being rejected or not being taken seriously, but he had to be open. Two months before his Junior Cert he told his parents, who were shocked. Diane had a friend connected to Transgender Equality Network Ireland (Teni). Still, she says, she was knocked for six.

At first Gerry didn’t accept it at all. “I said it wasn’t happening. I went quiet for a few days, and I spent a lot of time thinking. Once the shock passed, and we got to talk a little bit, I knew it was real, and that made me more scared. How did I let this happen? What had I done wrong? But I started to listen to my instinct and be honest with myself. It came down to realising that I don’t actually have a choice to make here. Not really. This is about supporting.”

Richie was at a girls’ secondary school. It was supportive and said he could stay, but Richie felt he couldn’t be the only boy there. Only the school counsellor, his parents and, after a while, the school authorities knew.

That summer his parents tried to find a new school that would suit him, but were unable to. And “there’s a constant internal pressure”, says Richie. “Last September I realised that anything on top of that, including a new school, would crush me.”

He didn’t go back to school. He reads a lot, and loves music and art. He and his parents see a therapist. They’re working together to take care of their mental health and of each other. Teni and a local LGBT support group have been crucial. “Without them the only messages we would have gotten is that this is wrong,” says Diane. “We wouldn’t be here.”

Richie’s parents hope to re-enrol him at school in September. He has transitioned socially and will begin the medical transition when he turns 16; he and his parents feel it should be allowed sooner. His name has been legally changed. He plans a career in music and would like to have a partner and a family.

“There’s so much about transgender politics and issues in the media right now,” says Diane. “People often think of drag artists like Panti, but this is completely separate. There are kids like Richie, all around Ireland, who have normal ordinary lives and are dealing with these issues every day. We’re coming into a time when so much is changing, and that gives me hope.”

All names have been changed