To mark the publication of The Road to My Daughter, author Elisabeth Spencer shares her memories of the day that started her journey towards writing it...
When my child announced to me that she was transgender, I was totally unprepared in every way. I knew that Miles (as she then was) had suffered years of depression and isolation, but the idea that the young person I had only and ever known as my son might be suffering from such a total sense of gender dislocation had never crossed my mind.
Miles’ revelation emerged on the evening of a family crisis – Boxing Day evening, to be precise – when my then-husband, Baz, collapsed without warning and was rushed to hospital. The turmoil of his ensuing terminal diagnosis opened the emotional floodgates for Milly, and the truth finally came out.
At that time, I felt lost in a sea of ignorance and, as I discovered, of my own prejudice. When I saw how her burden had lifted and how happy she looked when she first found the courage to appear to me dressed as her true self, I knew I had a great deal to learn if I was to support my child.
I threw myself into trying to understand the strange new world I found myself in, reading everything I could lay my hands on. I delved into history, psychology and medical research, and in the process I discovered things about the body, gender and society that I had never before even considered.
Milly’s journey was a long and painful one. She was twenty-one when she first approached the GP about referral to the Gender Identity Clinic at Charing Cross Hospital in London and twenty-five when she was finally fully transitioned. That four-year process of transition was, in NHS terms, lightning fast. It was only possible because her desperation and determination led her to borrow significant amounts of money in order to pay for endocrinology, cosmetic treatments (such as hair removal and a tracheal shave to reduce the Adam’s apple) and ultimately full surgical transition in Thailand.
But for so many others the road is endless. Waiting lists are many years long, and few medical practitioners in the UK have any training in trans healthcare. There is a thriving trade in illegal hormones online, but even once a trans patient is on a healthcare pathway, mistreatment is endemic. Some sardonically call it ‘trans broken arm syndrome’: visit a doctor for a broken bone and you’re as likely to be sent away with a referral to a psychiatrist as a cast.
As my daughter attempted to navigate the system, I saw her plunge into despair. Eventually, her journey took her through the NHS to Harley Street, Belgium and Thailand before finally she could become the person she needed to be.
My journey was also profound. I had to face my own many shortcomings. I had much to learn, and I hope that I have grown. I now find it difficult to think of my daughter as anything other than the person she has become. The damaged, withdrawn boy of the childhood and teenage years has been replaced by a radiant and gifted young woman who is able fully to contribute to her place in the world. I am incredibly proud of her and humbled by her determination and sincerity.
I now know that no one, absolutely no one, would undertake the gruelling process of transitioning unless desperation drove them there. I have learnt that what matters is not what is bred in the bone but how a life is lived. Courage and compassion are our greatest gifts to ourselves and others as we strive to be who we are in this world. This was the road to my daughter.
Elisabeth Spencer's book The Road to My Daughter is now available to buy: take a look at it here.