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Transsexual Teen In The Netherlands
Wrong Body….They have that 'pecker'
Ellen de Visser, 'Volkskrant' Magazine, September 13, 2003 [*]
So speaks Valentin who is 13 years old. With gender dysphoric children, like Valentin, their physical gender does not accord with their feelings about themselves.
Willem was nine years old when he first went to school in a skirt. Until that time his parents had compromised by buying him 'unisex' clothes, such as red pants and colored shirts for fear of the reaction of other children and parents. His mother knew that he was different from an early age. In pre-school he always played in the dolls corner and at a school party he once wore a lovely princess 'dress up' outfit all afternoon, only changing when he got home.
Eventually Willem decided for himself that this must change, and insisted on going to school in a skirt and blouse. His mother recalls that they rang the school to tell them that Willem was coming to school dressed as a girl. But it was not necessary! For him it was a great milestone, but for the school and his classmates it was normal, because everyone already thought of him as a girl!
Valentin was just four years old, and sitting in the back of a car returning from a childrens' party when he told his mother that he wanted to cut off his 'pecker'. His parents already realized that that he was different to other boys; he did not like playing with boys' toys like tractors, but loved to play with Barbies.
As he got older his feelings grew stronger. From ten to twelve years of age he attended the ballet school in Amsterdam, but gave this up because he could see no future for himself as a male ballet dancer. Deep in his heart he wanted to dance as a ballerina in a tutu and 'en pointe', just like any girl his age!
Now 13, Valentin has the appearance, movement and interests of a girl his age. His long blonde hair stretches down to his waist, and he proudly shows me the skirt he bought for himself, just last week.
Relations, friends and neighbors often argue with Connie Smit, about the behaviour of her son Colin, and feel that she should make him dress and behave as a boy. They just don't understand about him. She shows me some old photos of nothing but a shy, reserved boy who was not comfortable with what was expected of him.
During last year's summer vacation they chose a new name, Jasmijn.
Connie Smit finds that as time goes on Jasmijn becomes more natural and is perfecting her image as a girl.
The official name for this is gender dysphoria, but Willem's brothers refer to him as our 'brusje' (brother/sister). With gender dysphoric children, their physical gender is not in agreement with their feelings and behaviour.
Precisely how many gender dysphoric children there are in the Netherlands is not clear, although Professor Cohen Kettenis, (professor of psychology at the Medical centre of the Free university in Amsterdam), has treated over 400 children and adolescents over the last 15 years. The support group Berdache currently has 120 children and adolescents as members.
Lejo De Hingh, father of Valentin and secretary of Berdache, sees enormous relief in the faces of each new child who comes along to the group. Often they have already had to cope with enormous problems and difficulties. In the past they may have been passed from the school doctor, to their family doctor, and to social services, etc.
By far the most children in Berdache are boys who feel they are girls.
Bas was born as Debby but has always wanted to play football. Her mother remembers that about the only time she wore a dress was for her first communion and straight afterwards she was out of the dress and back in boyish clothes to play outside with the other boys again. Her parents always said that "she has become a boy"
That became very clear when she was eleven years old and entered puberty, having her first period and then her breasts started to develop.
She thinks that gender dysphoria is partly inborn. Previously, society and behaviour were thought to be the main causes, but now some of it at least is thought to come from the make up of the brain when it is being formed before birth. However the role of other factors is still unclear. Cohen is the head of the gender team at the Free Hospital where gender dysphoric children can receive help. They currently have a waiting list of over a year for patients to be seen and treated, (though children just entering puberty are given priority).
Her gender team keep a close eye on the behaviour of children the beginning of puberty.
Most children seen by Professor Cohen at puberty however, react with horror to the changes in their bodies.
Cohen emphasizes that the treatment at this stage is reversible and if it appears that the child has taken the wrong track then the treatment can be stopped and normal puberty should then ensue.
When the gender team at the Free hospital started this treatment five years ago, it was the first in the world to begin treating adolescents with puberty stopping drugs, leading initially to uproar and questions being asked in the Dutch Parliament. Subsequently other countries such as the UK have shown great interest in the treatment, and in some cases have followed the example of the Netherlands.
For Bas the treatment has literally saved his life. He had become so depressed that there was great concern that he would take his own life. Puberty 'retarders' help in the meantime.
As they become adolescents, children must decide how they want to live their lives in the future. Some of them may decide to wait until they are adult or have had a family before making a final decision. This is acceptable, as they will have completed their development to adulthood and know more clearly what they really want, rather than if they make the decision early.
Therefore Cohen always advises parents that their children should wait until they complete their youth (i.e. are over 18) before completing their sex change. Bas already knows for certain that he wants the operation just as Jasmijn does. Valentin and Willem are still not totally certain and have therefore not changed their names yet.
Valentin knows that he does not want to be an adult male with a deep voice and body hair.
Hiding Behind the Curtain
Manon (aged 10), has come to the Berdache family day for the second time. The playground they use, lies sheltered in the park with private admission. The children play with each other on the climbing frame, the adolescents hold back self-consciously, the parents chat and occasionally shout to the children.
Now she has adopted the name of the teacher who helped her when he came to the Netherlands from Great Britain. Her parents have decided to be totally open with her and all their family and friends. For her ninth birthday, they bought Manon a Barbie doll. She said "finally I have a present that I really like!"
Willem's parents also decided to be totally open about the situation. They spoke to the teachers of the secondary school that Willem started attending last month, and at the parents evening other parents were informed.
Valentin has this year at the school camp slept in the girls tent. "That caused no problems", he said.
He had decided to dress in more 'boyish' clothes for school, but the first day he went to school like this he was sent home because everyone thought that he was a girl masquerading as a boy!
Bas was intending to dress differently at secondary school. On the first day at school everyone was saying "Bas was a girl but was now a boy". For the gymnastics lesson, the boys said: "Come on man, come and change in our dressing room".
In 'It is girl' (a guide for parents written by Els Schrijf), all the possible problems are listed in order - learning difficulties, isolation, abuse, envy towards brothers or sisters (or anyone who represents what the child wants to be), tensions between children and parents, especially about gender issues. Sometimes, children have bad luck, recognizes Cohen, and live in a neighborhood or go to a school where they are not accepted. When Jasmijn went to her year five class as a girl, her mother wrote in the school newsletter
After that it went a lot better for her, says her mother Conny Smit
A New Class
Conny wants to try and help her daughter to be more able to defend herself against these things, and learn not to react so violently.
Valentin's parents have seen how he deals with stupid remarks from other children. He gives a demonstration:
"Humour helps" says his mother Klette de Rooij. They enjoy the film 'Life of Brian' because in it all the women play men's roles but are given away by their high pitched voices.
Openness, professional help, and training to help them look after themselves, are all useful, but they are not sometimes not enough to stop serious pressures and difficulties for gender dysphoric children in secondary schools. Conversations about menstruation, and courtship largely pass them by. Els Schijf sometimes hears of adolescents who have decided not to get involved with the opposite sex, or to fall in love.
How great are the problems that have to be overcome before a child can finally become themselves!
The mother of Manon tells how frightfully glad her daughter was when for the first time she was called a 'Dumb Girl'. Conny Smit says :
From the soft yellow walls of her bedroom hang photographs of her beloved horse, and the floor lies strewn with Barbies.
[*] This article was written by Ellen de Visser and published in the Dutch magazine 'Volkskrant' on 13 September 2003. It was translated into English by Barbara Blake ( barbara_blake65 (at) yahoo.co.uk ), herself the mother of a transgender teen.
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