A longer version of this article was first published in the The Telegraph in January 2020. It reveals where the idea for Nothing Ever Happens Here came from, relates this to the real-life experiences of similar families and explains why I think LGBT characters are so important in children's books.
When Justine first told her wife that she was trans, she was terrified that she’d lose everything – her marriage, her children and her job. “I’d seen on the internet other people having the courage to transition,” she says. “I suspected that my wife would leave me, but I had to do it. We sat up all night, crying and talking.”
These conversations continued for months, until they were ready to tell their three children. “We told them they could come to us with any questions, but they were very matter-of-fact about it. In time, they even decided to call me ‘Mummy’.”
I first spoke to Justine, and other families with trans parents, back in 2015, while researching a non-fiction book about the experiences of lesbian, gay, bi and trans (LGBT) parents. Their stories inspired me to write NOTHING EVER HAPPENS HERE, one of the first children’s novels to include a family with an out trans parent.
Justine’s daughter Samantha is now in her 20s, but still remembers that first conversation. “One day our parents sat us down and explained everything – dad was born to be a girl and they both loved us very much.” How did she feel? “I was upset because I thought I was losing my dad. But it's brought us closer, before we were drifting apart, I think because of the secrets. I'm happier in myself because my family are honest with me.”
Susie, like Justine, started transitioning while her children were in primary school. She says, “I've said I won't talk about it unless they want to, but nothing is off limits if they do. I've tried to take my lead from the children.” Most important for her is emphasising to her children that “I'm the same on the inside”.
However, some things did change for Susie and her family, in ways that she didn’t expect: “Most people think about the physical changes of transitioning, but these are nothing compared to what goes on in the mind. I've found more inner calm. It was like having a buzz in my head all the time and now someone's switched it off. My children have said, we prefer you like this, you're not angry, stressed, shouty dad anymore.”
Every family is different. Some people, like Jim who has two teenage sons, transition before they have children. This prompts a different kind of conversation. Jim’s wife Katie told me that, “We decided that, although Jim is not public about being trans, we would talk to the children about his identity from an early age. More tricky was helping them understand that this information wasn’t something we shared with everyone. We’ve taken the approach that ‘it’s not a secret, but it is private.’”
Different families make different decisions about how open to be. Justine and her wife decided to start by talking to their children’s school in order to try and forestall any problems: “Sometimes a child would repeat something their parents said and use it as a way of hurting my son. The school were brilliant though, despite the fact they hadn’t come across anyone trans before.”
When I began interviewing parents and their children for PRIDE AND JOY, my non-fiction book about parenting, I didn’t know very many other LGBT parents. My own journey to become a parent was an unusual one: my kids have two mums – myself and my partner – and two dads, the gay couple who we share parenting with. When we became parents, we had no role models and no road map, so I wanted to learn more about the experiences of other ‘different families’. Researching a book gave me the perfect excuse to ask personal questions to other families. I knew I would find the answers useful and I had a hunch that others would too.
I was blown away by the honesty of the families that I interviewed. We were all wrestling with common questions – around coming out, identity, gender roles in parenting and more – but the range of family structures was so diverse. These families were fascinating but, in the books my own children were reading, I rarely saw families like ours.
I believe this is a problem because it’s important for all of us to see ourselves in the books we read, and just as important to see the world through the eyes of those who have different experiences. This is especially true for children and young people as they try to work out how they fit in the world around them. If we don’t, not only do we overlook some cracking good stories, filled with drama and dilemmas, but also we miss out on an opportunity to become more understanding of others.
In particular, children in families with a trans parent very rarely, if ever, see their experiences reflected in fiction. If you never see families depicted that look like your own, it can make you feel isolated or even invisible. That’s why I hope that one day we will see more trans, and LGBT, characters in all kinds of books – from picture books to adventure stories, teen romance to sci fi – without the story being focused on their sexuality or gender identity.
I started with the character of Izzy - an ordinary 12-year-old girl who lives with her mum, dad, brother and sister. When her dad comes out as trans, she starts to think that her life is not so ordinary after all. Izzy’s not real, but the situation she faces is a reality for many children and young people.
As I wrote about Izzy’s experiences in her voice, she gathered an extrovert best friend, a sulky older sister (who, like most teenagers, thinks her parents are deliberately ruining her life), an inspirational drama teacher (who gives shy Izzy the star role in the school play), and a host of other characters, most notably Dee, Izzy’s dad, whose coming out sets drama in motion.
As a cis (non-trans) writer, I couldn’t draw directly on personal experience to tell this story, so I listened to families in similar position to Izzy’s. While they had faced difficulties – like Izzy, some children faced bullying or misunderstanding – they also experienced the same ups and downs as any other family.
I learnt that the support of schools, extended family, friends or others in the same situation made a huge difference in helping families with a trans parent navigate the changes they face. I really wanted to show this in my story. While Izzy might feel isolated at times, many people offer kindness instead of judgement. This is not wishful thinking, it’s based on real experiences. My hope is that children who read NOTHING EVER HAPPENS HERE will see that kindness is powerful, a secret weapon to change the world.
The trans people I know are just the same as anyone else, like Izzy and her family, in contrast to the ways in which they are sometimes portrayed. Susie puts it like this, “We're taught by mainstream media that we are either dirty and not to be seen, or the punchline for a joke, yet when I volunteer to help at school I'm seen as just like any other parent.”