Mary Smith

Secretary, MERMAIDS, GEMS Associate Member
Gendys Conference, 1996


I know I'm here to talk to you about Mermaids, but I'd like to start off by talking about DRAGONS

A few months after we had found out about our child's gender identity problem, she and I were finding it difficult to convince local psychiatrists of the seriousness of her situation, and of the need for her to be referred to a suitably qualified professional. The local adolescent psychiatric unit had signed her off, saying that she was not depressed enough for them to treat her. They said that the stress caused by the gender problem (which was causing serious problems at school) could be catered for by a half hour chat each week with the school counsellor. They were obviously not taking the situation seriously enough, and she was beginning to despair. As we left the building, I told her that this wasn't the end of it, that there had to be someone she could be referred to, and that her father and I would start to make waves. Specifically, I told her that if I had to fight dragons for her, then dragons I would fight!

Parents in my situation have to continually fight dragons on behalf of their children; I'm going to tell you about a few of the dragons that I, and other Mermaids members, have met. Coincidentally, after vanquishing our first dragon, our family was referred to St. George's Hospital, which seems rather appropriate.

Dragons come in a variety of ages, shapes and sizes, and some of them are tougher than others. Some of them come disguised as the child's grandparents, who might query a mum's request for a present of a toy vacuum cleaner for their 3 year old "grandson" at Christmas. "Isn't that an odd toy for a boy?" I was asked. Strangely enough, every child that came to the house loved that vacuum cleaner isn't it a pity they grow out of it as teenagers!The pre-school child that shows signs of cross gender behaviour is often accepted, perhaps thought of as sweet ("such a good boy, so gentle with his sister"), but when they reach primary school you find more dragons on the scene. For example, the grandparent of a 6 year old boy who loves dressing up and playing with Barbie dolls and My Little Pony may start to say "Isn't it about time you got him sorted out?", "You're bringing that boy up to be a sissy, teach him to be tougher", or even "It's all your partner's fault, I never liked them!" Perhaps the aunt of a 8 year old girl may say "What do you mean, she's refusing to wear a bridesmaid's dress for my wedding?" Sadly, even parents are not immune from being dragons, and there may sometimes be conflict between Mum and Dad over how to handle the situation.

The parent-of-your-child's-friend-Dragon may not like her child playing with yours, in case it's catching! Your child may exhibit more strange behaviour when under stress or when over excited, possibly at birthday parties or when visiting relatives, allowing more Dragons an opportunity to blow fire at you.

At primary school, your child will meet dragons of their own little young ones who like to tease and hurt. Together, you'll meet older, bigger ones. Perhaps you'll go into school to ask the staff to help protect your child from the constant bullying. The Teacher- Dragon or even Head-Teacher-Dragon will say that not only can they not watch him or her all the time, but that they bring it on themselves by their strange behaviour. For example, if he didn't behave like a girl all the time, and learned to be a proper boy, then he wouldn't have these problems. The parents may counter this by saying that they consider their child's behaviour to be natural and normal, and trying to change it will only make him or her unhappy. As a result they may themselves become labelled as slightly potty. There are other dragons at this stage such as the swimming teacher who is reluctant to allow a young F to M to wear swimshorts and a tee- shirt in the pool, or the Head Teacher who insists that your `daughter' wears a skirt to school and turns her away if she wears trousers.

Your child may be referred to the Educational Welfare Department yet more Dragons, such as the Educational Psychologist. Most of these have not heard of gender problems, so you go around in ever decreasing circles, usually until your child decides they have had enough of school and refuses to go. Sometimes this stage is met at primary school, but often the child copes until they hit puberty, when they are now at secondary school. Sometimes this is the time when the parents first realise that their child has a serious problem the child may have successfully covered up or lived with the gender problem until now, but the onset of puberty proves too stressful.

Psychosomatic illnesses and feigned problems begin to occur headaches, stomach pains, aching joints, nausea. Always worse in the mornings but miraculously starting to clear up at about 3pm. Lots of trouble getting off to sleep, followed by difficulty in getting up in the morning. Lots and lots of time off school! The stress causes the child's immune system to be inefficient, so they catch every bug around. The aches and pains are real the parents know this, but neither they, or their GP, or any specialists, can find a cause.

It's about this time that the biggest dragons appear on the scene these are called WORRY, FEAR, DOUBT, and the EDUCATIONAL SOCIAL WORKER. The parents are worried about their child's physical and mental state. They worry that their child has problems at school the child may not fit in with the peer group, and have few friends. They may be lacking in concentration, and be failing to achieve. They may even be severely depressed. In this situation, a parent's biggest fear is that of suicide. I can remember meeting this fear every morning when I went to wake my child. Would she still be breathing? And as a direct result of all this time off school, the Educational-Social-Worker-Dragon will rear its ugly head for the first time, and threaten to take the parents to court, thus adding to their problems. The Educational Psychologist may also be brought in, as the school may feel that the child should be statemented in order to help them with their education.

If, by this time, the parents have discovered exactly what is wrong with their child, then they will meet the Doubt Dragon Is it the way we've brought her up? Was I too soft on him when he was younger? Is it my fault for taking aspirin when I was pregnant? Is it genetic, and will other people in our family be affected? How are we going to accept this? What can we do about it? How can we possibly tell our friends and relatives? What will the neighbours think? What will happen to him or her in the future? And, worst of all: Will she or he be taken away from us and put into care?

Unfortunately, some people even meet the Dragon Doctors the GP who does not believe in gender troubles being a real problem, but thinks they are a passing phase. Or the specialist who gives the wrong diagnosis and prescribes the wrong treatment, possibly treating the child for other non-existent psychiatric problems and causing more traumas for the family. Some families may also have to face the Dragon of Religious Doctrine with extra social pressures as a result.

The family of a child with a gender problem will probably never have met anyone else in this situation at all. They will be facing all these Dragons almost weaponless, with no basic information on which to base their fight for acceptance and treatment for their child's situation. Their sense of isolation and alienation will be acute. Only if the problem is taken seriously by their GP, and the right advice sought, will they begin to find some relief.

A self-help group for adults, such as the Gender Trust, can provide some support and information, if the parents can locate it. However, gender identity problems in childhood can differ considerably from those experienced by adults, and result in different problems. A young gender dysphoric child or adolescent is not as free to make his or her own decisions as an adult might be, and is constrained by the legal requirement to remain in school until the age of 16 years. Nor have they had the time to develop the life skills which would help a gender dysphoric adult cope with their situation in fact the overpowering nature of their gender dysphoria may have actually prevented them from developing those skills. To top it all, the gender dysphoric teenager may also display all the difficult behaviour patterns of a typical adolescent, turning them into a bit of a Dragon themselves!

As you all know, the biggest dragon that we all have to face and fight is IGNORANCE. Not just other people's ignorance but, to begin with, our own. We need basic information to enable us to understand the situation, and to make the right choices in the handling of it. Once the Ignorance Dragon has been conquered, even the fiercest of all the other dragons might one day be tamed.

Mermaids has been set up to help to counteract that ignorance. We aim to provide information, not just to families, but also if possible to other professionals that our children might meet, to reduce the number of dragons and the power they wield. Our aim is also to provide friendship and support to other families and individuals in similar situations to our own; to share our experiences in dealing with problems; to reduce the alienation and fear that can arise; to give families the strength to overcome the problems they may face; to give young people with gender problems the support they need, and to help them through the changes they may eventually go on to make in their lives, should those changes be found to be inevitable.Mermaids has now been operating for a year. Our membership is growing but is still not large in numbers. However, we have received a lot of correspondence, and distributed a lot of information. We are still busy sending out introductory letters to various bodies informing them of our existence, and also of the existence of the Gender Identity Development Service. Over the next year or so we expect to continue to grow, with more members one day we may be able to set up a newsletter, or a penfriend scheme, or eventually regional meetings. Your support has been a great help to us, for which many, many thanks. Please keep it coming, whether it be practical, moral or financial.

And finally, why "MERMAIDS"? Where did we get the name? One of our member's children once asked his mum: "Would you still love me if I were a Mermaid?" in other words, no matter how odd people think I am, will you still love me? (She does, in case you're wondering.) When we brought this suggestion up in committee, Dr. Di Ceglie told us that very often children, and adults, who are male to female gender dysphoric, are fascinated by Mermaids. Certainly one art therapist was prompted to write to us as she works with a very young boy who constantly draws Mermaids.

The address of Mermaids is:
London WC1N 3XX
Citation:Smith, M.,, (1996), Mermaids., GENDYS '96, The Fourth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. 28.12.99 Last amended 14.03.02