A mother's journey of acceptance: ‘I knew my child was different from age 3’
After actress Charlize Theron confirmed she was raising her eldest child as female, many had their opinions about raising a transgender child from as young as three years old. Even controversial musician Steve Hofmeyr added his two cents.
This caused Francina Hendriks to pen a lengthy post to Facebook about accepting her own transgender child. This is her story.
“Bonny was about 18 months old, and I put her in the bath. She just looked down between her legs and said ‘mom, take this away’. And I wondered what was going on. She started pulling on her penis, and she said ‘I don’t want this thing’.”
Thinking about the strange encounter, she put it down to curiosity. As Bonny grew older, she kept on reminding her mother she didn’t want a penis, refused to play with boys’ toys and preferred playing with dolls. “She had a tendency of going into my other daughter’s room and taking out some of the dresses and dressing herself,” she says.
Frustrated and confused, Hendriks could no longer deny that her little boy no longer wanted to be exactly that. The turning point came when Bonny walked out into the street when she was three years old, wearing a christening dress. “She was standing in the street, and she said ‘this is what I want’.”
She admits it was difficult at the beginning. Family members accused her of encouraging Bonny to be more feminine while others openly called her “moffie”. But with a nursing background, she realised it wasn’t just a phase and something she needed to take seriously.
Hendriks then allowed her daughter to dress up as a girl when they were home. But then the bullying started, and at age nine, Bonny started developing breasts. Depression set in. She refused to go to school. After extensive tests, doctors at Tygerberg Hospital discovered she had an overproduction of oestrogen. “She was teased at school, and I had put a bandage around her chest just to compress the breasts.”
After countless counselling sessions and endless tests, doctors were still no closer to finding out the reason for Bonny’s oestrogen surge and increase in breast size. And when the opportunity was presented to have her breasts removed at 11, mother and daughter did some honest soul searching.
“I told her to be open with me and asked her what she wanted. I knew she wanted to be a little girl. I promised nobody would touch her again. And her face lit up. She asked ‘can I really keep my breasts and stay as I am’? And I said ‘yes, I love you just the way you are’,” said an emotional Hendriks.
And so Bonny’s transition into womanhood started. It was a gradual process that started with many false starts. Today at 30, she still hasn’t gone for gender reassignment surgery, but is hopeful, as is Hendriks. As a parent of a transgender female, their journey is far from over, but Hendriks is happy that people are having these conversations.
According to a study in Paediatrics, the flagship journal of the American Academy of Paediatrics, transgender adolescents attempt suicide at a much higher rate than young people whose gender identity matches the sex on their birth certificates.
First reported in the Washington Post, the study found that 51 percent of transgender male adolescents reported at least one suicide attempt - the highest rate in the study.
Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Simon Pickstone-Taylor further adds fuel to the claim. About 50 percent of transgender teens who aren’t supported, will attempt suicide in SA, he said. “Most of the young people I see at Red Cross Hospital feel that they are identified as being one sex from birth, but they feel that they are the opposite sex or gender identity inside,” he told Cape Talk.
Things could have turned out much different for Bonny and her mother. Living in a community that demonises what it doesn’t understand, the mother and daughter duo somehow managed to fight against the odds.
For Hendriks, the solution to supporting your transgender child is simple: “Accept what is going on with your child. Don’t be in denial because it’s not something to wish away - it’s there to stay. If a child has support, is made to feel safe and is loved, then it will make a world of difference.”
Like Hendriks, Pickstone-Taylor’s advice is for parents to support their transgender kids and help them be themselves.