Caroline Watson’s son had never been happy but she didn’t understand why until, as a 22-year-old, the secret finally came out. Her son was trans – officially known as gender dysphoria – and was trapped in a body that wasn't theirs. The pair went through a long and emotional journey for her child to become Hannah, her true self.
I always knew something was wrong with my son as a child, but I could never put my finger on it. I’d constantly ask if he was ok, if he was happy, and he would say, ‘I’m fine’, but he wasn’t fine, he wasn’t happy.
In secret turmoil
He’d cry and scream about going to school. It terrified him but he couldn’t explain what was going on in his head, and it was agonising. When you can’t solve something, you think, ‘What am I doing wrong? I’m not a good mother, I’m awful at this.’
It took until he was an adult for me to understand. He came into my room late one night in 2015, aged 22, and said he had something to tell me.
With a look of turmoil on his face, he said, ‘‘I want to be a woman, I’m a woman inside and I have to do something to change the rest of my life.”
I was so shocked I felt like I’d swallowed a bowling ball. He explained, "I'm trapped in a body that isn't mine" and that he had ‘gender dysphoria’. He said that I may know it as ‘transgender’ and I thought, ‘Well, I don't actually, no.’
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I’d never even heard those words before. My heart went out to him but I didn’t know what to say. I asked if it was a phase, a stupid question really when he’d clearly been living with this for years.
But it gave me answers. I began to think, ‘Well, that was why he was always terrified of school. That was why he never had any friends and was never comfortable going into the gents' toilet.’
So many things started to make sense. My biggest guilt was, and still is, that I didn't know what was happening, that I didn't have the knowledge to say, “Do you think it could be this?” But I genuinely didn't know you could have a male body but be female inside, I just had no such concept.
I was frightened and full of fear. Will she be okay? When she walks down the street, are people going to attack her? Over the coming days, I cried a lot when no one was looking.
The loneliness was heartbreaking, but I wasn’t ready to tell my husband Dave because I wanted to understand it first, to ease his worry.
After the shock died down a little, I did some internet research which was terrifying. There were so many awful stories about transgender suicides and murders, but eventually I found organisations like the Beaumont Society and GIRES (Gender Identity Research and Education Society) that support gender-diverse people. I realised there were some good organisations and good people out there, who taught me to see there could be a bright future for my daughter.
Two months later, we told my husband Dave, who was shocked and clearly had no idea. Despite this, he promised he’d always be there to help and trusted her to do what was right for her future. After that, Hannah, as she’d chosen to be called, lived a sort of half-life, where she’d go out dressed as a man with her male name, but be female at home.
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It took us 18 months to tell friends and family because how do people respond when you say, “Well, actually, my son wants to be my daughter”? But they were brilliant and eventually, we all agreed we needed to get Hannah out there.
Coming out at work
The next step was to talk to her employers at the nature reserve where she worked, who were fantastic. They promised to be supportive of her transition and the following day she went to work for the first time as her true self in female clothing.
Hannah became gradually more confident and we went Christmas shopping with her in new skinny jeans and boots. I was scared but she coped well and we didn’t experience any of the finger pointing I thought we might encounter. She also looked fabulous!
The next hurdle, though, was being told it was going to be three years to get an appointment at a gender identity clinic on the NHS, which was very distressing for Hannah.
Going for surgery
We ended up deciding to go down the private route because of the long wait, which we know not everyone is lucky enough to be able to do.
She started taking the hormones, had her name changed by deed poll and, finally, after four years on her journey, had gender confirmation surgery.
I remember the anxiety, waiting on the phone until we got the message to say she’d had her surgery and it had gone well. We dashed in to see her, on morphine and looking awful but just beaming from ear to ear.
We’d spent a long time getting to that point, and it was incredibly emotional. My daughter was where she needed to be. There was still a lot to process mentally, but for her to be able to say, “I am now, finally, my true self” felt amazing.
From thinking I was failing her as a parent, we’ve come a long way. It was always such a distant relationship when she was a boy, but we are so much closer now.
Gaining a daughter
Knowing that we can finally have a normal mother-daughter bond is lovely. She’s also gained so much resilience, strength and confidence. Before, I’d constantly worry – every time she went to see a friend, every time she got on a train, it felt dreadful, in case she got verbally abused or was attacked. Now, she bolts off and she doesn’t care.
As a boy, Hannah and her dad weren't very close but now they now have a great relationship, even working together.
As well as gaining a beautiful daughter, I’ve gained so much more. I’d never been to a Pride event before, I didn’t even know what one was, but I’ve never enjoyed myself so much in my life.
My eyes were like saucers watching all these amazing drag queens. You think you get to your 60s and it’s going to be all just pottering around in the garden, but it’s opened up so much for me and I wish other people would experience these things. It’s brought so much to my life and I feel privileged that I can talk about having a trans daughter with such confidence.
We’re both incredibly proud of each other. There have been difficult times but, as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and we’ve come out the other side of it so much stronger. Hannah is finally happy and of course, that brings me great joy every day.
Until I was 18, I didn’t live, I just existed. My body felt wrong, my mind was wrong, I felt like I wasn't really in the world. It was a very dark time. I was so isolated, so confused, I had no hope, I was just empty.
I oppressed everything about myself and was so deep in an abyss that I had suicidal thoughts. I had no friends and went to a very traditional school, so I didn’t even know what being transgender was. I just knew I was different.
At university, things began to change. I was exposed to the world outside the school bubble, and had space to really think about myself. The darkness lifted, I developed close friendships for the first time and gained the mental energy to look inside myself and ask: ‘What is this? Do I want to be a woman?.’ I realised, ‘No, I don’t want to be a woman, I already am one. The outside just doesn’t match the inside.’
I’m not into labels as such, but I read up on gender dysphoria and I realised my brain wasn’t wrong, there was a word for it and that was me. It was a life-changing revelation.
I didn’t tell my mum until after university. I always knew my parents weren't going to throw me out on the street, but I knew it would scare my mum to hear something so powerful as, “Mum, I'm going to have to go through all of this, I'm going to have to fight the world. Are you with me?”
It's difficult to see someone you love going through that, and I’m so proud of my mum. There are a lot of trans people who have been cast out by their families, and some have been made homeless. You need to feel safe and have that backbone of parental support.
Not every trans person has surgery but, for me, I looked down and everything felt terrible, so it was important to me. After my operations, I won’t mince my words… I looked down and everything was bloody and gnarly, but I still cried at the sight of it because it was done, that final weight on me was lifted.
Now, I’m living, not just existing. I’m no longer that insular person waiting for the next bad thing to happen. I’ve found peace.
It was only after I finally became the real me that I was able to look back to really see how it affected me. I’ve worked through a lot of that with the help of my parents and an amazing therapist. I’ve seen mum open herself up to such a lot of things I wouldn’t have expected her to. She’s an amazing woman.
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