I am trans! Bay of Plenty family share their transgender journey

Harry has always known who he is.

The 12-year-old throws his arms wide open, proclaiming proudly:

“I am trans!”

His parents have long known it too, fighting tooth-and-nail to ensure their son feels safe, not just in their home but within himself.

The Bay of Plenty family thought they were a family of all girls, but through Harry’s transition realised they had a son.

They spoke anonymously to protect Harry’s right to decide who he comes out to.

The term transgender is an umbrella term which can include non-binary people and intersex people. Not all transgender people are non-binary, and some non-binary and intersex people do not identify as transgender.

Harry (not his real name) was assigned female gender at birth but identifies as male.

Harry has always loved sport, no matter the game, and is a natural leader. He has even dabbled in school productions.

But when the 12-year-old is asked “What makes you, you?” his answer is simple.

“Me being myself everywhere I go, is me being me.”

Sadly, Harry doesn’t always feel like he can be himself.

He doesn’t take anything from people teasing him, but internally it does leave a scar.

It’s why he and his parents decided to seek help from the hospital, to not only help him with his transition physically but also mentally.

His mum said Harry’s gender was “obvious” from preschool age.

“He was coming home upset and saying ‘they keep putting me in the girls’ line’ and we are hopping off to the preschool asking them ‘does it really matter?’

“He’s never questioned himself, but he questions how he presents to the world.”

The mum says she and her husband have always been open-minded people, but when it came to their son’s transition they knew it was time to step up.

“As a parent, you need to champion your child, no matter what they’re going through.”

So the whānau went to their local GP, who told them it was “just a phase”.

The words hurt. Around the same time, their son was considering self-harm.

By chance, his parents saw a TV programme about parents not accepting their children, his mum said.

“One parent sat there and said, ‘If I only get to know 50 per cent of my child I am okay with it.’

“I looked at my husband and said ‘No. We want to know 100 per cent of our kids, 100 per cent of the time’,” she said through tears.

“Harry has always been Harry, and we have always allowed him to be Harry.”

Finding community helped Harry see he was not alone, and that there were many other young people similar to him.

That community was found at Gender Dynamix, a clinical and social organisation aimed at meeting the specific mental health service needs of transgender and gender-diverse people in the Bay of Plenty.

“It made me come out, and my school was open about my story which was really cool,” Harry said.

His father said the change in Harry’s personality was almost instant after just one group session at Gender Dynamix.

“Seeing a whole bunch of other kids who have maybe come out …and are okay being out in the world, it’s given him a lot more confidence.

“He is asking questions and using the [appropriate] language. Not feeling like he has to hide.”

His father said it took about six months to adjust and ensure the right pronouns were used. Now Harry and his family have happily transitioned to the way it was always meant to be.

Harry is “he” and the teachers were super supportive. He’s a bit of a trailblazer because they’ve never had any kid transition while at school before.

“Harry was awesome through that process because he challenged us too. If we ever said ‘she’ or ‘come on girls it’s dinner time’ he was like ‘Nah, I’m not having that – I’m a boy’.”

For Harry’s mother, the support from Gender Dynamix made all the difference. She said it meant her son was happy with who he was for the first time.

“As a family, you can be supportive, you can try and understand, but the deep knowing isn’t something as a parent you can say, ‘I understand’.

“You can help them and you can be loving and accepting and be everything, but you can’t be what others can be for your child.”

Gender Dynamix opened at the end of lockdown last year in a small building at the Tauranga Historic Village, but last month teamed up with Rainbow Youth and is now working in new premises alongside the other charity.

Gender Dynamix counsellor, therapist and educator Einstein Hale said it wasn’t just a supportive and affirming space, but a place for youth to learn.

They said someone might not have heard of the right term to fit their identity, but a space where queer vocabulary was normalised allowed for those teaching moments.

Hale asked why society was “gendering things” in the first place.

“Every culture in our ancestry has third-gendered people that are respected and honoured. It really wasn’t until colonisation in certain areas where we saw it change and shift.

“We are just breaking down what was normalised before and making it more inclusive for all human beings.”

Hale was aware some people believed there were “more” trans people than before, but it was a distortion.

“It’s about them being allowed to be themselves rather than them coming out in their 40s or 50s.”

Education and a move away from ignorance would lead to a more inclusive society.

“There is more LGBT out because schools, communities and families like Harry’s are allowing that safe space to happen.”

The organisation’s clinical psychologist, Dr Diana Prizgintas, said many transgender people – and particularly youth – felt isolated within their transition. A space where being trans was normalised and accepted was important.

Prizgintas initially worked at the Bay of Plenty District Health Board child and adolescent mental health service. Seven years ago a trans youth pathway was started because of one patient.

“Now we probably have 50 kids on our books.”

Structural changes elsewhere prompted Prizgintas to speak her mind on how trans services were being treated.

She said being trans was not a mental health condition but could affect mental health because of stigma, discrimination and internalised transphobia.

“I just said ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could take this pathway right now … and just see what we can do with it.”

The Bay of Plenty District Health Board has funded 2.5 full-time equivalent positions at Gender Dynamix with the hope it will streamline clinical services with peer and whānau support.

It follows a recently-published survey in the Journal of Pediatrics for Child and Adolescent Health which found 100 per cent of youth preferred to visit the paediatrician in a community-based setting.

Prizgintas wants services not just to expand regionally, but nationally.

“What we are trying to do is support people across their lifespan with small targeted intervention so it’s not ongoing weekly therapy for years.

“Gender is self-identified.

“I have an investment in [whether] they are being supported [and] are they making decisions that are leading them towards a rich and meaningful, sustainable life?”

DHB mental health and addictions portfolio manager Caleb Putt said he wanted to increase access and choice for mental health and addiction supports, and provide them earlier.

Putt referenced a national survey of trans and non-binary people living in New Zealand, conducted in 2018.

The research, “Counting Ourselves”, found 71 per cent of the participants, aged over 15, reported high or very high psychological distress.

Putt said only 8 per cent of the country’s entire population reported the same.

“Trans people and their whānau in our community, unfortunately, face significant challenges regarding both stigma and discrimination, and which contributes to higher rates of mental health and addiction difficulties for trans individuals compared to the wider population.

“Supporting Gender Dynamix to provide enhanced clinical support, peer support and support for whānau earlier and in the community is a great opportunity and aligns closely with our DHB priorities and values.”

Harry agrees. He says it is “really cool” that people are normalising trans people.

With the help of Gender Dynamix and the DHB, Harry feels comfortable in his own skin. Things might change, he knows the journey will never be over, but he has learned one lesson he wants to share.

“You’re [never] alone when you are going through stuff and you should always tell people what you are thinking.”

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