When my son, Miles, uttered the words ‘There’s something I need to tell you,’ nothing could have prepared me for what he was about to say.
For once, he was looking straight at me. ‘I’m transgender,’ he said. ‘I have always wanted to be a woman. And I can’t go on any longer living like this.’
I wish I could say that at that moment the scales fell from my eyes, all became clear and I joyfully embraced my child and this revelation, gifted with a clear vision of how life would now change for the better. I would love to say I always knew. But I can’t. I simply had no idea.
The truth is that my first thought was: ‘Why are you doing this to me now? Haven’t I got enough on my plate?’
It was Christmas 2015. We were hosting a big family reunion and I’d just returned from seeing my husband, Baz, in hospital — he’d collapsed the night before and his life was hanging in the balance.
Elisabeth Spencer (pictured), who lives in London, revealed the sorrowful path Miles, now named Amelie, 25, pursued to become a woman
At home, the table was strewn with the remains of Christmas. There had been a heated discussion about whether trans women are really women, sparked by something on the news, and Miles, then 22, had stormed out, returning much later once everyone else was in bed.
I leaned forward against the sink, a support against my tiredness and shock. ‘How long have you known?’ I asked.
‘Always,’ he said, and years of repressed pain poured out in a torrent of words.
I was shivering from head to toe as my body succumbed to the onslaught of stress, emotional turmoil and the utter physical and mental exhaustion of what I was hearing.
‘But you never said anything. All these years. Why didn’t you tell me?’
His response was devastating: ‘You’re just about the last person I’ve told . . . because you’re a homophobe and a transphobe, too.’
The next morning, as I visited my husband in hospital, I felt the weight of my child’s revelation like a bereavement. Baz was diagnosed with a terminal blood cancer, and so, that day, I discovered I was going to lose both the husband I loved and the son I thought I knew.
The double anguish wrapped itself around my chest, and sitting in the shabby hospital cafe I quietly fell apart over my tepid, tasteless tea, overcome with silent grief.
Although I was born and brought up in Australia, I moved to London at 18 to study at music college. I married my first husband when I was young, and had two boys three years apart: Lucas and Miles.
I speak of my son here, but I am keenly aware of the hurt that misgendering causes. I am trying to tell my story as I experienced it — not as my daughter lived it — so I have used male gender pronouns and her birth name for those early years.
Elisabeth said Miles was going to a music school for boys until age 13, when he became adamant he wanted to switch to a school with girls. Pictured: Miles, aged three, on a trike
I know and respect now that Amelie herself has always experienced her life as female.
From the start, Miles was, I thought, the most boyish of little boys. He loved Thomas The Tank Engine, Thunderbirds and Buzz Lightyear.
Early in my career as a professional musician, work meant irregular hours. I adored my children, but my marriage was deeply strained. Lucas was happy and content, but Miles was a difficult baby and by the time he was a toddler he often seemed withdrawn and miserable.
Naturally, I blamed myself; for bringing another child into what became a toxic relationship, for being too tied up in work, for lacking enthusiasm for Play-Doh, or just for not being ‘enough’.
Eventually, in 2001 my marriage acrimoniously unravelled (Miles was eight and Lucas 11) and three years after the divorce that followed, I found myself living in a village in Cambridgeshire in a new and happy relationship with my second husband, Baz, an architect. This relationship changed Miles’s life — one Christmas, Baz bought him an electric guitar, which suddenly unleashed his extraordinary musical talent.
I felt the weight of my child’s revelation like a bereavement — I was losing the son I thought I knew
But, although Miles threw himself into his music, as he grew into a young adult I was at a loss either to understand or to fix his constant aura of sadness.
His school referred him to counsellors, but no one could get to the bottom of his malaise.
Both boys were at a music school for boys, but at 13, Miles was adamant he wanted to switch to a school with girls. And so we settled on a school that offered co-ed boarding.
I was rather pleased with his choice, thinking it showed a promising interest in the opposite sex. I didn’t realise my child wanted to go to a school with girls because she was a girl.
Elisabeth received an email from Miles confessing that he had been cutting himself and contemplating suicide, when he was 14. Pictured: Elisabeth and Miles
So much of what happened at that school I found out only later, but it didn’t take long before I noticed his optimism being replaced by deepening despair.
Then one evening, when he was 14, I received a desperate email from Miles in which he confessed he had been cutting himself and was contemplating suicide.
I drove up in the middle of the night for an urgent conference with the housemaster; but even then the truth was obscured.
I now know that trans people typically suffer from gender dysphoria (an acute sense of being in the wrong gender) and body dysmorphia (a sense of horror at the body they find themselves inhabiting) which can lead to crushing feelings of isolation, anxiety and despair. But back then it never occurred to me that this might apply to Miles.
Despite everything she had to go through, my daughter never once expressed the tiniest regret
Subsequently, I have learnt that most, if not all, trans people suffer depression because their lives are so often beset by oppression, confusion and shame. Their suicide risk is catastrophically high. Studies have found around 84 per cent have contemplated suicide and, shockingly, around 45 per cent have attempted it.
Painfully, that number included my child.
It was a very dark time and I really hoped his cry for help might help me find answers. It did not, but soon afterwards, Miles came home from school for the weekend and awkwardly pressed a scrap of paper into my hand on which he’d written: ‘I am gay.’ My initial reaction was relief, that perhaps this might explain his isolation and depression and I grasped at the opportunity to re-catalogue him as ‘my gay son’.
He had decided the only way to cope with the strange dichotomy of experiences and desires was to identify as gay, and he became the cross-dressing pet of the girls’ boarding house. Then, confusingly, while working towards GCSEs he became a dedicated bodybuilder. His day revolved around two things: music and muscle.
Elisabeth (pictured) said her ex-husband Amelie’s father, was angry and cold after Amelie revealed she’s transgender in 2015
By now, he had been on antidepressants for some time and was seeing the counsellor at school every week, so finding something that helped him cope with his inner torment on a day-to-day basis seemed a step forward. It turns out this was a desperate last-ditch attempt to try to reconcile body and gender.
In spite of everything, Miles did well at school and won a place at a music college in London, where he made new friends.
Shortly after the big transgender revelation that Christmas in 2015, Miles changed his name to Amelie, and took the first tentative steps towards transitioning. First little hoop earrings appeared instead of the usual studs, then a more feminine style of jeans. Her long hair hung luxuriantly down her back.
Reactions in our extended family varied. Baz was supportive, but my ex-husband, Amelie’s father, was angry and cold. He told Amelie she was dead to him, saying: ‘You are no child of mine.’ At the end of last year, however, in the final days of his life, he did offer her an apology and they were reconciled.
I have since discovered that rejection by family members is widespread among trans people. My son, Lucas, remains gender critical and I grieve for the unreconciled differences between my children and for my own brother and sister who have been divided by their views.
My mother’s first response was: ‘It’s just a phase, darling. I don’t think you need to make a big deal out of it.’ But when I explained to her the seriousness of the situation, she acquiesced but added: ‘She’ll always be my little Miles to me.’
Elisabeth (pictured) said Amelie was distraught about having to wait 18 months for an appointment at the Gender Identity Clinic in London
None of this was easy. My struggle to cope with Baz’s terminal illness and the harrowing psychosis that went with it, the ups and downs of Amelie’s transition process, my attempts to repair the schism in our wider family, and the need to keep my professional life in the face of such turmoil took a huge toll.
Fifteen months after that Christmas night, I lost Baz. On the day of his funeral the first letter from the Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) in London arrived. Amelie was distraught that the offer of an initial appointment was 18 months away.
Nationally, referrals outstrip available appointments by four to one, and a shortage of clinical specialists in the field of gender identity means there are thousands of people on waiting lists around the UK. In some regions the wait can be as long as four years, but Amelie was adamant she couldn’t wait another day.
I watched her mental state plunge as she spent hours researching alternatives.
Finally, desperation drove her to consider buying hormones online. I begged her to see our GP and was there to support her. She told the GP: ‘I’ve been unhappy my whole life. Everything about me is wrong. The way I look, the way I sound, the shape of my body. I want nothing to do with this flesh, this shape, these . . . these appendages. I want them gone. They disgust me. I disgust myself. The only way I can truly live is if I can change my body.’
Once the tap of her despair had been turned on, there was no stopping it, and her words and distress came flooding out. I thought I had known her pain, but this anguish plumbed a new depth. I was shocked by the extremity of her misery.
The GP arranged an appointment with a private endocrinologist, who prescribed the hormones she needed to begin her transition — anti-androgens to block testosterone and both oestrogen and progesterone to feminise her hormone profile.
She then began a gruelling programme of laser hair removal to erase her facial and body hair and took out a loan to pay for cosmetic surgery to reduce the size of her Adam’s apple at a private clinic in Belgium.
Elisabeth (pictured) said Amelie took out a loan to cover the costs of having sex reassignment surgery in Thailand
To me, through the eyes of a mother, she already looked perfect, but I knew she was driven by deep-seated needs that were beyond my understanding.
For Amelie, full transition was her absolute goal, but when the long-awaited GIC appointment finally arrived, she was dismayed to discover the endless hoops she would need to jump through and how long it would take. Her desperation quickly resurfaced.
I struggled with the thought of what she would be doing to her body — the surgery, the risks. But she threw herself into researching private options and settled on Thailand. I was hugely concerned. Was my daughter riding into the Wild West of medical tourism?
My knowledge then of what sex reassignment surgery involved was sketchy to say the least. There was only so much I could take on board in those early days. The idea of surgery seemed a distant prospect back then, and I was happy to allow a discreet veil to fall over the technicalities. I begged her to wait out the GIC process, but she countered: ‘If I had a terminal disease that could be fixed with surgery, but the waiting list was so long you knew I might die before I could have it, wouldn’t you do anything to help?’
I soon learned that doctors in Thailand are the world’s most experienced at performing the complex transgender surgery.
The procedure, which costs around £10,000, is called penile inversion vaginoplasty, a complex, four-hour operation during which male sex organs are partially removed and reconfigured to create the appearance and function of female sex organs.
By this time, Amelie had established herself as a successful jazz musician and, determined to proceed, she took out a loan to cover the costs. The surgery was booked for eight months later, in early 2018.
I still found the thought of surgery hard to contemplate but knew I had no choice. My support would lie with my daughter, however hard the road ahead might be. I knew I wouldn’t be able to cope with the thought of watching her being wheeled away for surgery, and was worried my fear would infect her, so I arranged to fly out after the operation to be with her during recovery instead.
The operation was an ordeal and Amelie endured considerable pain. The healing process was agonisingly slow. She knew something wasn’t right post-operatively and over a year, she was bounced between six different consultants in an effort to seek a solution to her daily suffering. Each one agreed she needed corrective surgery, but no one in the UK was trained to deal with that kind of thing.
Eventually, Amelie returned to Thailand for corrective surgery and I travelled with her.
That surgery, in 2019, marked the end of her transition. Finally, aged 25, her name, gender and body all matched and it was immensely moving to see her finally free of pain and full of joy for her new life.
Despite everything she had to go through, my daughter never once expressed the tiniest regret. She was quite simply overjoyed to have crossed the final barrier. The difference in her was, and still is, palpable.
Now 27, Amelie is confident and completely at ease in herself. She is beautifully and radiantly female. She lives quietly and happily as a woman.
She has a wonderful partner with whom she is building her life. She has never wanted children and is content.
Just six years ago, I knew nothing of the sorrow and suffering of transgender people, of their fears and courage. But this has taught me so much and I have been honoured by my daughter’s confidence in letting me share her story and tell my own.
Having travelled this path with her, I now know no one would choose the gruelling road to transitioning unless the utmost desperation drove them there. They deserve nothing but dignity and our greatest compassion and respect for their courage.
For confidential support call Samaritans on 116123 or go to samaritans.org
Adapted by Louise Atkinson from The Road To My Daughter by Elisabeth Spencer (£16.99, Biteback) © Elisabeth Spencer 2021. To order a copy for £14.44 (offer valid to 30/3/21; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.
(Names have been changed to protect privacy)