"I am Valentin, when you look at me you think I am
a girl, but I am not a girl yet!"
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!
Willem, age 12
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.
"When watching films, Valentin always identified with
the female characters", said his mother Klette de Rouge.
"He was always pretending to be Snow White or the Rose
Princess, never the prince!"
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
On his first day at secondary school, he told everyone "I
am Valentin, you think I am a girl, but I am not a girl yet,
one day I certainly will be! I will explain more fully later,
but it will make no difference what you say or try to argue.
That is what I am!"
Valentin 13 years old,
acting as an elf in 'The Lord of the Rings'
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. "For her, Colin no longer exists",
says her mother. "And he hates his 'pecker' " Connie
Smit finds that as time goes on Jasmijn becomes more natural
and is perfecting her image as a girl.
Connie says "Our children are not transvestites,
freaks. or sights to stare at. They only want to be what they
Jasmijn aged 9
(born as Colin)
Our Brother/Sister -
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. "It is not just boys
who sometimes want to play with girls dolls or girls who eagerly
play computer games" Explains Els Schif, Willem's mother,
"It means children who consistently, and over a long
period adopt the behaviour of the other sex".
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.
"Parents may not be able to control the behaviour of
their child and often think that they are the only ones like
this, or that their child may be mentally ill", says
Peter van Leeuwen, father of Willem, and also founder of Berdache.
"We know of harrowing examples of children who have developed
mental illness or become totally withdrawn and uncommunicative.
Parents have so many concerns and questions that need to be dealt
with. Which issues need to be dealt with first? How do they inform
the child's school and when? What should they do about teasing
and bullying? How should they deal with tensions within the family?
Tough Girl -
By far the most children in Berdache are boys who feel they
are girls. "That is not to mean that they are the more
important part of the group", says Els Schijf, "
But girls who feel that they are boys, often find it harder to
talk about their feelings, though girls can more easily behave
as boys" says Monique de Vries, mother of 12 year old
Bas. "With a 'tomboy' no one has problems".
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 was in panic and cried. There was much
drama to follow. She threatened to cut off her breasts with a
What do you do when your daughter says 'Mom, I don't want to
sit at the toilet anymore, I want to stand like a boy' ?"
"Puberty is often a nightmare for these children"
says Professor Cohen, "They develop an enormous dislike
for their body".
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).
"It takes a long time, with tests, interviews, and observations,
as well as psychiatric evaluation, before the children can be
properly diagnosed. Gender dysphoria is not a static condition
that can be determined by a single test. We need time to study
the children properly and exclude all other explanations for
their behaviour" says Professor Cohen, "In some
cases the gender dysphoria can develop as a result of severe
Her gender team keep a close eye on the behaviour of children
the beginning of puberty. "Sometimes the gender dysphoric
feelings can reduce", says Professor Cohen, "children
seem as it were to grow out of it, although the interests of
the opposite sex they have developed as children often still
Most children seen by Professor Cohen at puberty however, react
with horror to the changes in their bodies. "It appears
that their feelings become much stronger and they do not feel
at home in the body that they now developing. If it appears that
the gender dysphoric feelings are becoming stronger then they
will be prescribed medicines to temporarily halt puberty until
they are 16".
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
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.
Jamie, age 14
"During the period from the start of puberty to age
16 we have a number of searching conversations with them"
says Cohen. "Again we make it clear that their gender
may be changed medically, but that may not be the best option
for them at this time. We point out all the disadvantages, for
instance they cannot have children (biologically). For mutual
support they can join the special support group run by Annerike
Gorter, for young people between the ages of 13 and 16 years.
Young people when they are 16 and quite certain that they have
the wrong body, can be prescribed hormones as well as puberty
blockers to begin to change their outward appearance to more
closely match their chosen sex. After that comes the actual sex-change
operation" says Cohen. "Almost three quarters
of the youngsters eventually become homosexuals, and at this
stage they will leave the program. The full treatment is only
for those very feminine boys or masculine girls who continue
to need the change of sex ".
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.
"I hope that Willem has a good look at all the options"
says his mother Els. "He needs to consider everything
carefully, before he chooses what is best for him".
Valentin knows that he does not want to be an adult male with
a deep voice and body hair.
"The only question is whether I want to be a complete
girl for ever"
Kristel aged 11
(born as Jeremy)
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. "Last
year when Manon was still called Benjamin, her eyes were opened
to what she was" said her mother Elise Meussen, "After
that she relaxed and no longer fought against everything. Previously,
Benjamin had been a boy of the most extreme behaviour. Always
shouting, climbing to the highest branches, and being very aggressive
to everyone. When we finally took him to the psychologist, Benjamin
said that he would rather be dead. He had already decided that
he could not be what he wanted to be. He had to appear masculine,
so he had already learned to hide all his feelings away. For
years he had concealed his real self, because he thought that
it was not acceptable. It was like he was hiding behind closed
curtains. As soon as Benjamin came home from school, he would
dress up as a girl. If the door-bell rang he would hide himself".
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!"
Manon aged 10
(Born as Benjamin)
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. "You cannot hide
yourself in a school with 1100 pupils" says his mother
Els Schijf, "If you say nothing then there will be rumour
and gossip, and that is not good".
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
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
"He has become so accepted as a boy" said his
mother. "He has so many friends, and the girls treat
him as a boy, insisting on standing in front of him in the queue"
Humour Helps -
"How gender dysphoric children themselves deal with
problems can vary enormously" says Peggy Cohen, "Confident
intelligent children are able to cope, but there are those who
get in an awful mess". 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 "Our
greatest fear is how we protect her from the outside world that
does not understand or accept her condition". After
that it went a lot better for her, says her mother Conny Smit
"There was clarity, and Jasmijn even gained some friends."
Jasmijn aged 9 (Born as Colin)
A New Class -
"However she has just moved
up into a new class, who do not accept her as a girl She gets
so teased and abused by the other children. Even the neighbors
condemn her. They find it ridiculous that we let our child go
out in a dress. During the summer holiday she was at the pool
and some other girls said "There is a boy in girl's clothes"
Jasmijn became very upset about this" says her mother.
"She quarrels with her younger sister, and sometimes
argues with her father. Also she can be very aggressive and has
learning difficulties. She wants to be who she is and that makes
it very difficult for her". 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 :
"Are you a boy or a girl?" Answer: "Yes"
"Let me see your 'pecker'" Answer: "You
show me yours first"
"You are a transvestite." Answer: "I
am very happy, how are you?"
"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.
'Dumb Girl' -
How great are the problems that have to be overcome before
a child can finally become themselves!
"He has changed from an embarrassed girl into a confident
guy" Says Monique de Vries, of her son Bas.
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 : "Jasmijn was formerly full of sadness and uncertainty.
I thought :'That child I am about to lose'." From the
soft yellow walls of her bedroom hang photographs of her beloved
horse, and the floor lies strewn with Barbies.
Her mother says: "I have an enormous respect for her,
because she perseveres to get what she wants. Children do not
choose the most difficult way consciously, it has to be driven
by something deep within them."
*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.