Jo Hirst is the parent of two sons, but she didn’t always know it. One of her sons is transgender. While she had a fully supportive school and community who wanted to ensure her son’s transition went smoothly, she saw a gap in resources available for her son’s age group. Jo’s experience led her to write a book for children about gender identity called The Gender Fairy.
Right Now: How does your book fill that gap in available resources?
Jo Hirst: There was nothing that represented real children apart from I Am Jazz [an American reality television series] and that was about a girl. My son felt it did not reflect him. Also there was nothing that tackled the questions that most transgender and gender diverse kids have. “Am I normal?” “Am I the only one?” “Can I use the right toilet?”
There was a great need for a book with notes for parent and teachers, as this is still such a little understood area. The feedback is that the book and the notes have been really helpful. I get some beautiful messages from parents and educators.
I’ve had lots of older transgender teenagers tell me that they wish The Gender Fairy had been around when they were younger as it would have given them the language they needed to express themselves to their parents and get help earlier.
“You can’t influence someone’s gender identity.”
Many people worry that if you explain gender diversity to children it will influence them in some way. As though children will become confused. Like you can catch it or something. But you can’t influence someone’s gender identity. It’s why conversion therapy does not work. Just like you can’t stop a child from being transgender if you take away certain toys or clothes or say certain things, you can’t influence a child to be transgender either.
What was the best resource available to you and your son’s school for his transition?
I was very privileged to have the best of resources made available to us for my son’s transition by the Safe Schools Coalition (SSC). They met with myself and school staff, helped my son’s school with their questions and policies, and arranged a professional development day to learn how best to support LGBTIQ students at school.
Roz Ward [SSC Coordinator] came to my older child’s class to explain his younger brother’s transition in an age appropriate way. She also went to my younger son’s class. My son was not in the class when Roz spoke to them. Roz spoke to the class about him in a relaxed, age appropriate way – for example talking about the “M” and “F” on birth certificates and how he felt this didn’t fit him – and all the children were very accepting.
When my son returned to the room they all celebrated his new name with chocolate cake.
The Royal Children’s Hospital are now using your book as a suggested resource on their website. Did you work with them in writing the book?
I consulted Dr Michelle Telfer from the Royal Children’s Hospital when writing the book. She is one of the world’s leading experts regarding transgender children and having the opportunity to consult with her was incredibly valuable. I was honoured when she wrote the foreword.
I did a lot of research and spoke to many people including other primary teachers, early childhood educators, many transgender/gender diverse children and their care givers, and many in the transgender/gender diverse community.
I also consulted Roz Ward and asked her to collaborate on the notes at the back of the book for parents and teachers. I was thrilled when she agreed. After seeing her work I couldn’t think of anyone more qualified, and her ability to explain gender diversity in a simple, age appropriate way is incomparable.
“If we wanted our child to be alive and mentally healthy we had no choice. It was not our choice to make.”
You’ve written that your family, school and community were supportive of your son’s transition. How did you approach your son’s transition with them?
We are one of the fortunate families. I knew the principal of my children’s school would be supportive without even asking. She worked through it with me every step of the way. We didn’t really know how to go about it so we called in SSC. All the staff could not have done more to make our family and my child feel comfortable.
When I told the other parents at the school, many had not heard of transgender children but it was the week the Four Corners program “Being Me” had screened and that helped a lot.
I found parents just took it in their stride and those who knew my son well were not completely surprised. Most people praised us for being great parents and being brave but really if we wanted our child to be alive and mentally healthy we had no choice. It was not our choice to make.
He received immediate validation as a boy from the school, parents and other children. The children had no problems accepting his identity especially when it was explained simply by Roz.
Have you seen your son’s transition been approached from a human rights perspective?
My son’s transition was approached perfectly from a human rights perspective. He was in control of who in the school was told what. The school was supportive and we had access to Safe Schools.
Unfortunately, it’s not like that for most children. They face so many barriers. If they are very young like my son, they first need the support of their family. Number two, they need a supportive school. Some of our children have had horrific experiences in unsupportive schools. Independent schools in Victoria are not required to work with Safe Schools. A recent study has shown that at least 1.2 per cent of school children identity as transgender and about 4 per cent as gender diverse.
We were lucky with our medical care. Although our GP had no training in the area she knew enough to refer us to the Royal Children’s Hospital Gender Service where we are able to access world class care.
Unfortunately this is not the case for most people. Most medical professionals are completely untrained in this area which opens transgender/gender diverse people to discrimination. I’ve had to contact my children’s GP three times about my son being misgendered and deadnamed [using his birth name] by reception staff before the matter was adequately addressed.
The biggest problem my son will face is if he chooses to access gender affirming hormones [testosterone] when he is older. Currently Australia is the only country in the world that requires someone to go to court when they are 16 to do this. It means that many children who do not have supportive parents, or whose parents cannot afford a costly court case, go without until they are 18, which can cause anxiety, depression and worse.
People often see gender as binary – male or female – but there are more young people who are identifying as non-binary. I understand this is something you are interested in writing about in a new book. How will you be addressing these matters?
Yes, a lot more young people are identifying as non-binary.
My next book will focus more on this and letting children know it’s OK not to fit into the binary boy/girl box. Many are choosing the pronoun “they” as a better fit, which is addressed in the notes in The Gender Fairy. The generation coming up through our schools now certainly find this an easier concept to grasp than some of us in the older generations.
“My advice to parents would be to really listen to your child.”
Do you have any advice to parents of transgender and gender diverse children?
Recent research tells us that when children are supported to express their gender identity they grow up to be happier.
My advice to parents would be to really listen to your child. Gender identity is their journey and you are there to support them. It’s normal for children to express themselves in all sorts of different ways, wear different clothes and play with different toys, and this is not necessarily an expression of their gender identity. And they should be free to do this.
It’s important also for children who may want to explore their gender to know that they don’t have to choose. If it does not feel right for them to be labelled male or female, that’s OK.
However if you have a child who is insistently, persistently and consistently letting you know that they do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, then I think we have a duty to listen to them. We know the dangers if we don’t.