Watching ITV's Butterfly as a family
A mother shares a real life Butterfly story
Anna Friel plays the mother of a trans child in Butterfly
We are watching Butterfly as a family. My daughter, her dad, her sister and me. We were slightly anxious before it started, and some of the scenes in episode two were harrowing, but it has been really positive, especially for Jenny, to see a version of her own experience on mainstream TV.
When my then-son was 10, he came into the kitchen and told me he was a girl. The day before I had given him a copy of The Art Of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson – he was a voracious reader and had a liking for rites of passage-type books. Keeping up with his reading was a challenge, and when it was recommended to me as a great, prize-winning read, I bought it.
With hindsight, I think I knew – and didn’t know – that that particular story was going to be more than just a book.
He had never conformed to a boy stereotype; I don’t know if anyone ever really does, but he was completely uninterested in any traditionally boy-related activities. From baby-hood he loved to look through my dresses and suggest outfits; he wore a dress – not the same one! His sister had an extensive dressing up box – to nursery for the entire two years he attended and pink was his favourite colour.
Lots of people told me he was gay. I thought that was slightly ridiculous as being gay and wanting to wear women’s clothes don’t equate, but I hoped they were right as I think I had a niggling worry that it was something else. Not because there is anything wrong with being trans, but because it is a very hard road and, like most parents, I wanted his to be easier.
His father and I had been worried about him since he left nursery; he learnt in Reception that pink and dresses were "not allowed". He conformed. He was happy at home, but miserable at school. He had bursts of anger. Something was wrong that we couldn’t put our finger on. He was not happy.
So when she told us who she was and wanted to be called Jenny, it made sense.
When she declared she wanted to return to school at the start of year six as herself – as she put it – I was terrified. I could only envisage mocking, ridicule, bullying. To return to school in a gingham dress and Mary Janes where only the previous term she had been Daniel, would be beyond exposing.
It wasn’t as if she could grow her hair long overnight. And at that time every single girl of primary age had long hair. It was an essential requirement for girl-status in Jenny’s mind, and the fact that it would take almost a year to achieve felt unbearable at the start.
Having always been a child who had a horror of drawing attention to herself, I think it is a testament to her resolve – to how fundamental her need – that she was willing to do it. It was the bravest thing I have ever seen a child do, when she walked into school that day. From that moment on, her father and I had her back no matter what.
Miraculously, it was a thousand times easier than we had feared. Ten-year-old children are very accepting. They don’t yet equate gender with sexuality, so the fact that one of their classmates had returned as a girl was no big deal. The girls welcomed her into their fold. There were teething difficulties, and she now remembers that first day as "very scary", but the transformation was breathtaking.
Having begged, pleaded, cried, screamed and refused school at least three days week hitherto, she went in happily almost all the time. Her work improved exponentially. Teachers commented on how hard she was working, how much more sociable she was. How much happier.
That is ultimately the point. She was, and is, happy in a way that I can now see only being allowed to be herself could bring. She is herself and she is happy. She is now 13, so there are anxieties around puberty, around fitting in, around the timing of blockers. But she is happy. Which is what it all comes down to.
Butterfly makes this one simple point – that a child’s happiness is paramount – and that as a parent it is intolerable to witness a child’s misery and alleviating that, even against a huge range of challenges, misunderstanding, objection and anger is ultimately the only thing that matters. I think the trans community just wants their experience shared. For people to be able to ask questions instead of drawing angry, fearful conclusions without really knowing anything about the subject. I hope Butterfly is another step on a long road to acceptance and tolerance.
Catch up on Butterfly on ITV Player now. Do you have a trans child? For advice and support, visit mermaidsuk.org.uk.
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