I can be ready in 10 minutes. I am pretty low-maintenance, but if there’s time, I will faff. I’ll put on some music, fix myself a gin and tonic, and then suddenly think it would be a good idea to try something else on.
I like getting ready with friends. I think it stems from having two sisters and getting ready together when we were growing up.
I really enjoy makeup, so will spend the most time on applying it. I love the packaging and the rituals of buying a new lipstick, but I don’t really wear loads. I am into the contouring thing, but not so much that you draw in cheekbonesRuPaul style. I’ve worked with some amazing makeup artists and picked up tips along the way, like using lip balm on your cheeks. There’s a really nice rose lip balm pot by Terry, which gives you a subtle, dewy colour and smells great.
We’ve been to lots of events and awards ceremonies, and in America they like to do the whole big hair and makeup thing. If I’ve managed to hold on to my Britishness and kept it young and fresh-faced, then I’m happy.
When I have the day to myself and I am not getting made up for period drama – getting my hair tonged and waved into 1920s style – I keep it quite simple. I like it when my hair dries naturally. I will put a bit of serum in and that’s it. Similarly, working on Downton Abbey influences what I wear on my days off – I am often in jeans and a T-shirt. After working with such incredible costumes, I just go the complete opposite. I often feel as if I am in my pyjamas when I am not in a corset and beads.
I’ve always been impressed by women who incorporate regular face masks into their skincare routines. I can see the appeal of a more intensive treatment, and a little relaxation, and I have used hundreds over the course of my career, but masks seem to represent a lot of hassle for only moderate gain. A nice optional extra, but one for which I frankly don’t have the time (I’m also faintly allergic to the nauseating marketing language around masks: “me-time” and “pampering” make me shudder).
However, in recent months, some excellent products have caused a shift in my opinion, and I find myself with a little portfolio of masks that give me immediately noticeable results, and that I rotate according to need. If my morning skin is dull and flat-looking, but I don’t have time to mollycoddle it, I cleanse as normal, then massage in a coat of Ren 1 Minute Facial (£25.60). There’s some tingle, then it’s time to rinse off – a mercifully straightforward affair (so many masks are maddeningly hard to shift). My skin is brighter, healthier-looking and provides a much smoother canvas for makeup.
If I have a little more time, perhaps at the weekends, I reach for Origins Original Skin (£23). I’d normally steer clear of anything with a clay texture – almost always drying – but this is exceptional. It’s a two-phase mask that sits on the skin for 10 minutes, then is massaged off like a scrub. It smooths, softens and is particularly good if you have the enlarged pores and combination skin so common in middle age and menopause.
If I’m going out to an event where I’ll be photographed, I turn to Glamglow. Now, this is a brand I was almost adamant I’d hate from the off – the name, the copywriting on the jars, dear God. But it’s one that has since charmed me with truly fantastic, if eye-wateringly expensive, masks. There are five in the range, all of them great, but for me, Supermud (£44.99, for oily, blackhead-prone skin) andYouthmud (£49.99, an exfoliating treatment for all skins, especially mature) edge it. Both give such great results that, for up to three days afterwards, someone will invariably ask what I’ve had done. The cost is prohibitive, but you don’t need to use them more than once a month. Plus, the brand sells sample pots, so you can try before you commit.
A touching set of photographs shows a man, just in his 70s, surrounded by his family, being administered euthanasia medication. The pictures hang opposite the desk of Steven Pleiter, the director of the Levenseindekliniek – End of Life clinic – in The Hague, Holland, and he points to them with pride as an example of a “good death”. Pleiter helped pulmonologist Petra de Jong, now retired, start the Levenseindkliniek in 2012.
The man in the photos was not terminally ill, but he had been diagnosed with borderline dementia. He did not want to go where the illness would take him, or leave the request to die until he was no longer considered capable of understanding the implications. This is just one of the cases where the clinic has lived up to de Jong’s belief that people may decide themselves when life has become a matter of “unbearable suffering”. Controversially, she also declared that euthanasia should be on offer to anyone over 70 who is convinced that they have reached the end of the life they want to live.
Despite the defeat of the assisted dying bill, legalising euthanasia is seen by many in the UK as a way of enabling people to choose a humane and dignified death, and to die in their own homes with friends and family if they wish. Of all deaths in the Netherlands, 3.4% are the result of euthanasia, which was sanctioned after the NVVE Right to Die organisation campaigned to get the 2002 Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act on the statute books. Under this law, doctors may perform euthanasia on anyone with “unbearable suffering”. This goes beyond terminal illness to include somatic illnesses without an identifiable end, dementia, mental illnesses and the belief that meaningful life is completed, and illnesses for which there is no available and suitable treatment. This permits life to be ended after intensive interviewing and assessment, as well as the approval of a doctor outside the process.
In Holland there is 85% support for euthanasia, and 5,300 in 2014 took this option, with the majority of cases performed by GPs. It is only when people are refused by their GP – in cases where the refusing doctor may have a moral or religious objection or be unconvinced that it is within the law – that they turn to the NVVE and the Levenseindekliniek for help.
Pleiter was drawn to the euthanasia movement after seeing his mother suffer a stroke that wrecked her life, yet she could not be helped to die and endured another four difficult years. For all his Christian upbringing, Pleiter wished she could have been helped to die. He says: “I know the argument that we need to protect people from the chance that life will improve in the future, or that if they suffer in dignity it is inspirational to others. At the same time, if I see someone really suffering and wanting help to die, it seems morally right to give that help.”
This thinking extends to anyone over the age of 18 who fits the criteria. Pleiter tells of a 22-year-old young man paralysed from the neck down in a sports accident who had thought life tolerable until he began to go blind. “At this point, he was adamant he did not want to go on. We agreed to help and his parents were utterly supportive.”
More controversial was the euthanasia of a 47-year-old woman who had incurable tinnitus “like train brakes constantly shrieking in her head. There was no treatment and no forseeable end to it – she convinced us her suffering was unbearable.”
The Levenseindekliniek clinic does not charge and receives funding from the health system. Pleiter acknowledges that “we go to the borders of the law, but never outside. We are a professional organisation but one that believes you look at the fact that some people want to die as enabling them to accept responsibility for their choice. It is about using compassion to give them the dignity to go when they wish.”
Meanwhile the NVVE is campaigning to go further. They support the plea from the Dutch Paediatric Association that the age 12 limit, with parental approval, for “terminally ill children in unbearable suffering” be scrapped. Eduard Verhagen, a paediatrics professor at Groningen University, who is on the organisation’s ethics commission, said: “We feel that an arbitrary age limit such as 12 should be changed and that each child’s ability to ask to die should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”
They would also like the “last-will pill” – medication with which a person can kill themself – to be made available. This is certainly further than the UK’s proposedassisted dying bill – rejected last week – would have gone, but that bill would have been a vital first step, according to a group of senior doctors and nurses. The group wrote to the Guardian last week claiming that the law on assisted dying is “dangerous, cruel” and forces terminally ill patients to end their lives abroad. They urged that it would also have allowed a practice already happening “behind closed doors” to come into the open.
New legislation might have granted Bob Cole, 68 – who watched his wife Ann Hall take her life at Dignitas just 18 months ago – his wish that the law would legalise euthanasia for people such as him. Suffering an aggressive terminal cancer himself, he, too, went to die at Dignitas surrounded by four of his closest friends. He said: “I should have been able to do this at home.”
It would also have helped people such as my elderly friend – a frail and unwell 90-year-old with no family, who is likely to die alone in hospital – to be granted their wish to end it now and not “go on to the bitter end, doing what good to anyone?”
You would think the man I married was a monster if you had talked to me nine years ago, though now he is one of the people I most purely admire in the world. Since then, I have heard a lot of women talking about their ex in the same manic extreme, as if he was specially unsuited to domestic life, remote or crazy or hostile in a way no other man has ever been remote or crazy or hostile. These women will say, cupping their hands around a glass of wine, that you don’t understand; he is truly worse, in a whole different category. They will be impatient if you indicate in any way that you have seen or heard of someone who behaves like their ex, because there is no one on Earth like their ex. It’s almost impossible to put into words; he hovers outside of language, he is that bad.
It now seems to me that all the demonising and caricaturing that goes on when marriages break up is useful. It is a way to gain the momentum you need to leave. Rage is clarifying, energising; victimhood is searing, electric. It rouses and mobilises. It organises your thinking. Not to mention the affirmation and sympathy of the outside world, the pillowy, reassuring, collective outrage about a wife and mother wronged, which is also nice in a dark hour, and the bracing clarity of people saying, “Well, thank God you are out of it.”
If instead, in those early months, I had sat around facing the extraordinary things about the man I had married, I would not have been able to pull myself together to make coffee in the morning. The true texture of those lost years is both impossible to communicate and profoundly paralysing. However shady or undignified, the cartoon version I was peddling to my friends served me better in that sad, sketchy time. It was a way to get through. What was intolerable to face was the warmth I still felt, or remembered or could conjure. What was harrowing to accept and live with was that a marriage fails, despite both people being reasonably normal or well-intentioned or fundamentally decent.
In the early days of my separation, I used to think it was luxurious that childless couples could just break up and never talk to each other again. In fact, when I was younger, my sister and I used to imagine a planet where all our exes would go and live out the rest of their days in a sort of monastery. That seemed much more civilised and painless than the slow torture I imagined of seeing the man I married in this reduced or compromised way. Being “friends” with him seemed impossible and unwieldy and depressing. John Updike once wrote a short story in which a man runs into a former mistress in a parking lot. He says that seeing a woman who once opened herself to him but was available no more was like a little “taste of death”. That was basically how I felt.
When Harry moved out of the house, our three-year-old, Violet, began to ask, “Is my dad your best friend?” For years I said yes, because that seemed like the right answer, and then one day, we were walking down the street, past a bench full of people drinking lattes and a schoolyard, and she asked again, now tall and coltish, and when I said yes, I was surprised to realise I was telling the truth.
I can see why Gwyneth Paltrow’s phrase “conscious uncoupling” is so annoying to nearly everyone. It implies that you can skip over the rage, that you can choose how to be in one of the most extreme or distressing phases of life. It implies that you don’t feel like a bomb exploded on a crowded bus in daylight. The fantasy of mastering or controlling the wild and unsavoury emotions unloosed when a marriage splits up is maddening, because it feels fake, contrived, even sort of unnatural. There is something cold and bourgeois about it, as if getting divorced were the same as whipping up a kale and green apple smoothie. And yet the fundamental impulse buried beneath the silliness – that you should try to control your inclination toward murderous hatred and chaos and lashing out and sharing your least generous interpretations of their father with the children – is, in fact, a good and sensible one. We all know people who have every happy occasion, every wedding, every graduation, every child’s birth shadowed by the strain of warring parents, the looming awkwardness, and if you can avoid that for your children, well, who wouldn’t want to?
Some time after my marriage broke up, I got a job as a professor. I had a revelation that I needed some sort of structure in my life, either a husband or a job, and a job seemed way less arduous. In my first weeks, a brisk, dauntingly efficient older colleague at the university took me aside and gave me some advice: no matter what, never, under any circumstances, say anything bad about a child’s father to the child. Never let them see any conflict or resentment, “even if you have to bite your lip till it bleeds”. I somehow took this as a nearly biblical commandment. I just didn’t. And then, at a certain point, after things cooled, there wasn’t much conflict. I think these days there is probably less conflict between Harry and me than most happily married couples.
Six years ago I had another child with a man who moved away. When the baby was born, Harry brought a red paper lampshade with little green ganeshas on it that he had brought back from India, which I put on a lamp in the baby’s room. In the first few months when I was feeling very alone with the new baby, Harry was the person I would call if the baby was throwing up and I wasn’t sure what to do. He was the person who drove us to the one open doctor’s office on Sunday morning when I needed to get him a strep test.
I came to see that politeness was the way to handle things with the dads. Even when I was seething about something or other, I would try to be polite. Politeness, which I had never much valued before in life, and even had a certain amount of contempt for as a form of fakeness or hypocrisy, took on a moral dimension. I would act as if I had the feelings I wanted to have. I began to see politeness as a wish about how I would like things to be, and then, slowly, they became that way. I became the more graceful and generous person I was impersonating. There is actually an Alcoholics Anonymous tenet that I like in this vein, which is “fake it till you make it”.
Meanwhile, with Harry, short phone exchanges about logistics became more extended phone exchanges about issues that cropped up concerning Violet, which later slipped into long calls about our parents, our work, random things. For years, when I had a piece of news (“I got tenure!”), he would be one of the first people I would want to tell. Slowly, and without my totally realising it was happening, the careful civility we had cultivated morphed into real friendship. In the years after we were apart, I discovered in him great stores of generosity and loyalty, the family thing that we couldn’t quite hack when we were together.
One night when Leo was two, he stood in front of the mirror in his striped pyjamas and combed his blond mop of hair into some approximation of a side parting and announced, “I look like Harry!” One Saturday Harry drove us to the Bronx because a fireman he knows opened the fire station for us and let Leo clamber on to the firetrucks. He spent hours in the park with Leo teaching him how to ride a bike. He gave him the wooden bug box he had as a child to catch bugs. He was so sweet with Leo that I took a picture of them leaning together, deep in conversation at a coffee shop, Harry in a herringbone overcoat, Leo holding a bag of crisps, so that I could remember the moment later.
Somebody not so nicely once said to me, with the faux concern that will be recognisable to any single mother, “What if he walks away? It’s not quite the same thing, you know. Maybe one day he’ll just walk away.” But I know he will never walk away. I also know that it’s not so bad having an extra adult in your family, a surplus of parent-like figures. I picture Harry taking a grown-up Leo to lunch in Chinatown, near his office, in 15 years.
Once, around the time Leo was one, Harry did something gloriously or outlandishly generous for us. He stepped in to help us at a time when some of my immediate family members related by blood did not, and I began to think more creatively about what the definition of family is. The truth is that Harry occupies a deep family space that is hard for other people to understand. Periodically my friends have said over the years, “You should get back together” and, “Are you sure you and Harry won’t end up together?” but they are missing the point, which is that things are good as they are.
This is maybe not the platonic ideal of family life every 10-year-old imagines for herself as she drifts off to sleep, but it works. Nights like these: Leo’s father has flown from London to introduce us to his new girlfriend. The kids are opening the presents they brought on the couch, nail polish and an alarming cardboard monkey mask and bags of cherry Coke sweets, crumpled wrapping paper everywhere. My sister, a writer and former heroin addict with purplish hair, is playing with my boyfriend’s dog on the orange striped rug. Harry stops by and takes off his overcoat and shakes hands with the new girlfriend. I come out of the kitchen where I have taken out a lemon pie for dessert. “Was it weird?” a friend asks later, but nothing is weird.
The other day Harry and I drove four hours each way to visit our daughter in camp in the Berkshires, with Leo in the back of the car. We thought about where we should eat. We talked about a riding accident Violet described in her letters from camp. Sometimes we didn’t talk. I remember thinking to myself that this is the companionable silence of an old married couple; only we are not married any more. We’ve fallen into a comfortable relation to each other that holds out the same sort of reassurance and security and peace. It’s time spent together, with a more capacious definition of what together means than people usually think. These years, I realise on that long drive past crumbling red barns and empty hills, count.
Last winter, Violet, who was 11, wrote an Arabian Nights-style story for school about a marriage failing. We have talked to her only in the broadest strokes about our marriage failing. We split up before she was three, so she barely remembers a time when we all lived together in a loft apartment above a bank with turquoise trim.
The man in her story is a fisherman and the wife is very beautiful. They are both good people, but they don’t have anything in common, so he has no one to talk to about his “outstanding knowledge of fish”. (He ends up falling in love with a mermaid who shares this particular interest.) But in the meantime, every night he suffers the singular loneliness of a failing marriage: “It was like a sky without stars or a mosque without worshippers.” I am somehow touched that she has bothered to imagine this. It was exactly like a sky without stars or a mosque without worshippers.
It was liberating, actually, to stop being angry at Harry, to let go of all the caricatures, because all along they chafed; I was aware of the fabrication, and that dishonesty felt uncomfortable or unsatisfying, not for moral reasons, necessarily, but because the story I was telling to make myself feel better was not the best one I could come up with.
Two months ago, a new man moved into our house after eight years of our being on our own. Suddenly the walls are cherry burst, lilac, peacock blue, midnight blue, silver, gold. There is a light sculpture in our entryway, a long, illuminated tube of hand-blown coloured glass. He smokes and has tattoos, and can’t resist a black joke in a difficult moment.
A few days after Tim moves in, he throws me a birthday party. The trees in the garden have paper lanterns and tiny globe lights he has strung up. The dog I didn’t want when my children were begging for one but now adore steals a cheese. She looks like a little white wolf with a curling tail. Tim somehow produces at the last second, without any signs of preparation or effort, a whole feast of lamb and chicken and shrimp shish kebabs and tzatziki, and Greek salad, and two of our friends are opening a bottle of wine on the deck. Harry is sitting with my best friend from college, an Indian tablecloth laid out on the wood table. Leo is discussing firefly catching with a student of mine. All of sudden there is crazy torrential summer rain and we all run inside. I am standing in the doorway, watching the warm rain and the trees in the wind with Tim, who is soaked, and I think: this, finally, is the present I had been waiting for.
Growing up in Africa, Helen Pankhurst was used to her surname being recognised. Her father, Richard, was a well-known historian in Ethiopia, and people often asked if she was related to him. But later, when she visited the UK, people picked up on a different connection. “They wanted to know if I was related to the suffragette leaders,” says Helen.
Emmeline Pankhurst – the steely Edwardian matriarch famously photographed being hoisted away from a protest at the gates of Buckingham Palace by a policeman – was Helen’s great-grandmother. Sylvia Pankhurst, who joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the pro-suffrage group Emmeline founded in 1903, was her grandmother; and suffragette leaders Christabel and Adela were her great-aunts. In October, a new film, Suffragette, will examine the struggle to get women the vote with Meryl Streep playing Emmeline. Helen and her daughter Laura have cameo roles as suffragette foot-soldiers.
Filming was a moving experience, says Helen, not only because it allowed her to taste the heady atmosphere of those days, but because it was also a chance to reconcile a split that divided her family for much of the 20th century.
Although the suffrage movement brought a step-change in British political life – after a long fight, women over 30 were finally given the right to vote in 1918 – it caused a lasting split in the Pankhurst family. At the root of the problem were political passions and tactics: for Emmeline and Christabel, the single cause of women’s emancipation was always uppermost, while for Sylvia and Adela it was socialism, the great cause of their father Richard – a founding member of the Independent Labour party – that became their guiding star.
That division cut deep. Emmeline and Christabel remained close, slightly oddly reinventing themselves as government propagandists during the first world war, but Sylvia and Adela became increasingly estranged from their mother. The final straw with Sylvia was when she and her Italian partner Silvio Corio, who were anti-marriage, had a baby (Helen’s father, Richard). Emmeline, surprisingly conventional on some issues,, found the idea of a child born outside of marriage hugely embarrassing and wouldn’t have anything to do with her daughter or her grandchild. At Emmeline’s funeral in 1928, Sylvia wept copiously, knowing that the rift between her and her mother could now never be healed. It was the last time she and Christabel were together: Sylvia later moved to Ethiopia, and Christabel to the US. Adela had already gone to live in Australia.
The divisions, says Helen, were palpable. “It was predominantly ideological, but it was also about tactics. Sylvia was not in favour of militancy, and felt that more could be achieved through mobilising women, particularly working-class women. Emmeline and Christabel thought you could only have change through militaristic behaviour.” But as well as the politics there were family issues bubbling away under the surface. “Sylvia had been there when her father Richard died, and Emmeline wasn’t, and you wonder whether that helped create the divide, maybe with feelings of guilt on both sides,” she says.
Helen, 50, had not expected to be involved in the movie until an email arrived, asking whether she would be willing to look at the script. “As soon as I saw it, I thought it was brilliant. It’s about the issues, not the personalities or the leadership. It’s about the gradual awareness of a woman who doesn’t consider herself a suffragette. It’s not just about the right to vote, it’s about awareness of women’s role in society as things started to change for them.”
Helen was hooked – and she, along with her 21-year-old daughter, Laura, accepted an invitation to take part in a day’s filming. “It was incredibly moving being in the mocked-up WSPU office,” she says. “It was like time travel: we were deposited in the middle of it, with all this noise around us, the bustle of it, the phone ringing, people making banners, and I thought: this is what it must have felt like, being there.”
One of the most harrowing aspects of the film is an enactment of the forced feeding of the hunger-striking suffragettes. “Witnessing the scene is shocking and reminds you just how courageous the suffragettes were, how barbarically they were treated and how much they suffered,” she says.
But, for her, the most important element of being involved is that it has felt like a symbolic way to bring her great-grandmother, grandmother and great-aunts back together. “I feel that, by being part of this film, I am representing them all and helping heal the split retrospectively. I’m equally proud of each one of them: I don’t agree with all their views, and if I’d been there at the time I’d probably have been involved in the split and I’d have taken sides. But I wasn’t there – I’m here. And from here, I feel I can be part of the healing.”
Although Helen’s early life wasn’t much affected by being a Pankhurst, the family legacy has played a much greater role since 2012. It started with another email – this time, from the organisers of the Olympics opening ceremony. They wanted volunteer actors to play the part of suffragettes – and who better, they thought, than the latter-day Pankhursts? Helen and Laura embraced the opportunity – and as would later happen with the movie, they were more deeply affected than they had expected. “It was incredibly powerful getting into costume: it made you identify with the suffragettes in a new way,” says Helen. “And when it was all over that night of the opening ceremony, I got up on a table and said to the other volunteers who represented the suffragettes, why don’t we keep this group together? So now we’ve got this group called the Suffs, and we take part in events and give talks in costume, which makes our message a lot more powerful.” During this year’s general election campaign, the Suffs took part in a drive to encourage younger women to use their votes, and they are regularly involved in an event called Walk in Her Shoes organised by the development agency Care International that takes place on International Women’s Day.
Helen hopes her famous ancestors would realise that, although they warred about which path was the right one to take for the cause they all cared so deeply about, in the end every tactic played its role, and they were all part of the victory and, indeed, the continuing story. She says that, as well as politics, she inherited the family work ethic: her father used to say he would wake up to find Sylvia working, and she would still be working when he went to bed. Sylvia’s big campaign, as well as women’s suffrage, was for an end to the fascist Italian occupation of Ethiopia in the 30s; she became a heroine there, and when she eventually visited the country in the 40s she was feted by Emperor Haile Selassie. A few years later, with Richard and his wife Rita, she returned to live in Ethiopia, earning the accolade of “honorary Ethiopian” when she died in 1960, a few years before Helen’s birth.
“I was always interested in the less powerful people in the world, and I could see there were parallels with what Emmeline and Christabel and Sylvia and Adela had fought for,” Helen says. She has spent her life between the UK and Ethiopia, but her work in recent years has been with Care International on a range of programmes focusing on women’s empowerment and their practical constraints, such as the burden of daily water collection in Ethiopia. “In many parts of the world, women’s lives continue to be defined by a level of domestic drudgery, which just shouldn’t be acceptable in the 21st century,” she says. It’s a sentiment her great-grandmother, as well as her grandmother and great-aunts, would surely have endorsed.
Born in Hertfordshire, Simon Le Bon, 56, became lead singer of Duran Duran in 1980. The band have since sold more than 70m records worldwide and received multiple awards. Their latest album is Paper Gods, and they begin a UK tour in November. He is married to the model Yasmin Le Bon, has three daughters, and lives in London.
When were you happiest?
I was very happy to be alive when I surfaced after my yacht, Drum, capsized in the Fastnet Race in 1985. I was in an air pocket for 40 minutes, and had to take off my long johns to be able to surface.
What is your greatest fear?
I have grown out of arachnophobia and a castration complex, but I have nightmares about dying alone.
What is your earliest memory?
Lying in my cot, in my mum and dad’s bedroom in Pinner.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
What was your most embarrassing moment?
I went commando for 20 years, because a guy from another band told me that rock stars don’t wear underpants. In Rotterdam in the 1980s, I was wearing these Jean Paul Gaultier trousers. I came off the stage in a star jump and they opened at the seam and everything was flying towards the audience.
Property aside, what’s the most expensive thing you’ve bought?
A whole racing team for Drum.
What would your super power be?
I have one: I am a healer with music.
What makes you unhappy?
Other people’s pain and suffering.
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
I’ve got this enormous great big red nose. It just seems to get bigger.
Who would play you in the film of your life?
What is your most unappealing habit?
Blaming emissions and belches on the dog.
What is your favourite smell?
Yasmin, first thing in the morning.
Which book changed your life?
Dune by Frank Herbert. It opened my eyes to the nature of fear and nervousness. I read it when I joined the band. It taught me a lot.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Occasionally, I have an ice-cream binge.
What do you owe your parents?
My mum taught me self-belief, my dad taught me to be a pragmatist.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Have you ever said ‘I love you’ and not meant it?
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Noël Coward, Tallulah Bankhead, Cleopatra, Mark Antony (much more fun than Julius Caesar), my kids and Yas. But then I wouldn’t have a chance with Cleopatra if Yas came along.
How often do you have sex?
It feels like quite a lot, but it might not be by other people’s standards.
What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
Another radio hit.
What keeps you awake at night?
What song would you like played at your funeral?
I’m torn between Fauré’s Requiem and The Long And Winding Road.
Here’s the clever thing about the Brooklyn apartment of Bill Hilgendorf and his wife Maria Cristina Rueda: one minute it’s a children’s paradise, with Lego scattered across the table and Brio trains chugging around the living room; the next – ta dah! – it’s a cool, uncluttered pad, with not a toy in sight.
The key to making this modest 850 sq ft (79 sq m) space work for its four residents – the couple have two children, Oli, four, and Inez, one – is that everything has its place. “A small apartment can easily feel overwhelming if it isn’t organised,” says Hilgendorf. “It’s important to be able to free up floor space.”
The solution is a run of storage that spans the full length of the living area, incorporating closed cupboards in the lower section (to hide toys and audio-visual equipment) and open bookshelves above. The unit is painted in two shades of grey: a pale, matt hue for the top section and a darker glossy grey for the lower half. “We wanted a wipeable finish for the area that is in reach of the children,” says Rueda.
There’s more storage in the two bedrooms: cupboards in the children’s room house a vertically stacked washing machine and dryer, while the couple’s bed, designed by Hilgendorf himself, conceals six 1m-deep drawers.
The couple, who met 13 years ago, share a passion for contemporary design: Hilgendorf is co-founder of Uhuru, a studio that produces pared-back furniture in cast concrete and rugged reclaimed wood, all handmade in New York; Rueda is the company’s art director. Their apartment serves as a kind of testing ground. “It’s interesting how my sense of design changed once I had kids,” says Hilgendorf. “I became much more conscious of things that were sharp-edged or could tip over.”
The apartment is in Red Hook, a maritime neighbourhood in Brooklyn. “There’s no subway, so it has retained a small town feel even though it is right on the waterfront, directly across from Lower Manhattan,” says Hilgendorf. “There are a lot of people like us running small businesses.”The late 19th-century building began life as a macaroni factory, then became a hosiery factory. “I used to pass it on my walk to work when we were renting in a nearby neighbourhood,” says Hilgendorf. “I would chat with the owner, who lamented the fact that none of his kids wanted to continue the business.” It was sold to a developer who turned it into 16 apartments.
Although the layout – comprising a living space, two bedrooms and a bathroom – was determined by the developer, the pair were able to choose the fixtures and fittings, including the design of the kitchen. “We wanted a big island unit so we could talk to the children or entertain while we cook,” says Rueda. The blackboard paint serves as an ever-changing mural. “We never completely wipe it clean, so it always has layers of pictures.”
The larder unit is clad in weather-beaten panelling that originally served as snow fencing along the highways in south-west states such as Utah and Wyoming. “We’ve used it on some of our furniture – it has a great texture from years of wind, snow and sun,” says Hilgendorf. “It adds warmth to what could easily have become quite a clinical space.”
Indeed, timber features throughout the apartment soften the industrial architecture. “We were conscious of the fact that we live in a busy, loud and cluttered city, so it was important to feel a connection with nature at home,” he says. Houseplants help, and the children’s room features Cole & Son’s Woods wallpaper and a grass-green rug.
For the family, one of the best things about the building is its sense of community: the neighbours across the landing have become close friends, and a shared rooftop terrace, complete with barbecue and a large communal table, unites all the residents. “I think the developer curated his buyers, as there are a lot of like-minded occupants,” says Hilgendorf. “It’s a sociable place to live.”
Pet hate? Too many knick-knacks, or the other way: too minimal and cold. Biggest extravagance? Our Hästens mattress – good sleep is important, especially with two kids. Most treasured possession? Our $4.99 combination bottle opener and corkscrew.
Favourite home scent? The smell of new orange blossom on our little citrus tree. Any design heroes? We are really into the work of Jonas Bohlin and painter Eva Hesse. Best thing about the neighbourhood? Access to the waterfront, to light, to gardens, parks, even a little beach.
I spend almost as much time scrubbing whisks, bowls and tins as I do actually baking. While there’s a joy to seeing so many separate elements come together to form a really impressive layer cake or an elaborate dessert, the thrill quickly fades when the time comes to wash up. Here are a couple of simple recipes – ones that you can mix in just one bowl – no mess, no kitchen chaos.Self-saucing mocha pudding
With self-saucing puddings, a sponge mixture topped with a thick layer of sugar and covered in boiling water goes into the oven a sloppy, muddled mess, but emerges as soft, damp sponge cake sitting over a layer of sweet sauce. It’s a kind of kitchen magic, but whether you manage to pull off pure alchemy or just a fumbled card trick depends on the care you put into the flavour of the thing. Because so much sugar goes into the sauce, you’ll need a hit of either acidity or darkness to balance it (most self-saucing pudding recipes are either lemon or chocolate, with this in mind). In this mocha version, I’ve used plenty of cocoa powder and a coffee sauce to counter that sickliness.
60g soft light brown sugar
150ml sour cream
1 large egg
1 tbsp whole milk
1½ tsp vanilla extract
110g plain flour
40g cocoa powder
1½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon
A pinch of salt
For the sauce
100g soft light brown sugar
25g cocoa powder
3 tsp instant coffee granules
1 Set the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.
2 Melt the butter in a large, heatproof mixing bowl in the microwave. Use a little of the melted butter to grease a 1.2 litre ovenproof dish. To the remaining butter, add the soft brown sugar, sour cream, egg, milk and vanilla extract. Whisk for a minute. Sieve in the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, cinnamon and salt, then whisk to combine everything into a smooth, thick batter.
3 Scrape the batter into the greased tin and put the kettle on to boil. To make the sauce, add the sugar, cocoa powder and instant coffee granules to the mixing bowl (no need to wash it up or scrape it out first) and stir. Sprinkle this mixture in a thick layer over the top of the batter.
4 Pour 200ml boiling water very gently all over the top of the pudding. Don’t stir anything; don’t agitate the tin or try to make it even. It won’t look very promising at this point, but it will right itself as it bakes.
5 Bake the pudding for 25-30 minutes, until the cake is firm and set, and the sauce is bubbling up around it. Take care not to overcook it, or the sauce will just congeal to a layer of soggy sponge at the bottom. Serve straight away with ice-cream.
Cheat’s bakewell tart
Typically, with a bakewell tart, you would have to make a separate pastry crust, almond frangipane mixture and, if you’re particularly fastidious, a homemade jam. This simplified version cuts out all of that rolling, shaping, cutting, chilling, mixing and washing up, making both crust and filling from one simple mixture: a butter and amaretti crumb, half of which is pressed into the base and sides of the tin, the other half of which is then whisked with eggs and sugar for a rich “frangipane” batter to fill up the tart. It has the same sweet almond kick of a traditional bakewell tart, without the trouble of working with difficult pastry. I used blackcurrant jam, but a seedless raspberry or blackberry version would also work well.
175g amaretti biscuits
250g plain flour
A generous pinch of salt
150g butter, firm, but not fridge-cold
For the filling
100g caster sugar
1½ tsp baking powder
2 large eggs
¾ tsp almond extract
2-3 tbsp jam
3 tbsp flaked almonds
1 Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Take a 20cm-diameter loose‑bottomed cake tin out of your cupboard and set to one side.
2 Put all the amaretti biscuits in a plastic sandwich bag, then thoroughly crush them using a rolling pin. You want to reduce them to a fine powder. Pour the biscuit crumbs into a large bowl, then stir in the flour and salt. Cube the butter and add it to the bowl. Rub it in really thoroughly, working it between your fingertips until the mixture comes together in small, slightly greasy clumps.
3 Pour half the lumpy dough mixture into the cake tin and press down firmly into the base and 2-3cm up the sides. Pack the base down even more compactly by carefully pressing it under the bottom of a strong glass tumbler or by using the back of a metal spoon. Line the pastry shell with baking parchment, taking care to press the parchment right into the edges, then fill the parchment with baking weights, or dried pulses or lentils.
4 Blind-bake the pastry in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, then gently remove the baking parchment parcel and bake uncovered for a further 5 minutes, until the base is dry and sandy to the touch. Leave to cool and firm up for a few minutes before filling.
5 While the pastry shell is cooking, you can turn your attention to the filling. Rub the caster sugar and baking powder into the remaining crumbly amaretti dough mix. Add the eggs, one at a time, whisking well as you go, until the lumpy dough relaxes into a smooth batter. Stir in the almond extract. If there are any clumps left in the mixture, you should have no trouble pressing them out under the back of the spoon.
6 Spread the jam over the base of the baked pastry shell, then ladle the batter carefully on top. Sprinkle the batter with the flaked almonds and bake at for around 45 minutes or until the filling is well-risen, golden brown and set in the centre. Leave the tart to cool completely before removing it from the cake tin to serve.
Cassie Wilson can pinpoint the moment her daughter Melanie became her son, Tom. They were in the supermarket and Melanie, then two and a half, said: “I don’t want to be a girl any more – I’m going to be a boy, and I’m going to be called Tom.”
“That was that,” Cassie tells me. “I said: ‘Come on, then, Tom.’ He could have said he was called anything and I would have thought, great, fine, let’s get on with the shop.”
“I was wearing my Spiderman costume,” Tom, now five, remembers.
“Yes, you were,” Cassie nods.
But it didn’t end when they left the shop. “The next day, when Tom woke up, I said: ‘Morning, Melanie’ and he said: ‘I told you yesterday! My name is Tom!’ It just went on from there.”
Cassie and I are sitting at the dining table in her home in the north-east, while Tom charges about in a Batman costume, brandishing a sword. Cassie, 30, is a single mother to Tom and his sister Carla, who’s just turned two. Side by side on the shelves near us are two framed photographs: on the left is Melanie in a white dress, with a cascade of blond ringlets; and on the right is Tom, still the same bright blue eyes, but with a boy’s short hair.
Tom loves dressing up. “Normally as a superhero,” Cassie says.
“Batman and Superman,” Tom adds. “And Wolverine!” He also likes to play cowboys or policemen with his best friend, Charlie. “Sometimes we arrest people. Remember when we did it yesterday to the dog?” He grins. “He wasn’t putting the ball down.” He shows me his bedroom. There’s his treasured Playmobil pirate ship, his Marvel poster featuring Ironman, Captain America and the Hulk, and his pencil case shaped like a football boot.
Cassie says she knows that Tom is very young to be transgender, but he is just one of a striking number of children who have been referred to the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust’s Gender Identity Development Service in London over the past five years. A multidisciplinary clinic where all British transgender children are assessed, the service has seen referrals increase by 50% every year, from 97 new cases in 2009 to 697 in 2014. Young children such as Tom are unusual, but not rare: last year alone, close to 100 of those referred were aged 10 or younger.
Cassie tells me this was clearly “more than just a little phase”. Until that trip to the supermarket, Melanie had always been “quite tomboyish – I hate that phrase now”. But ever since that day, he has been Tom consistently, never faltering, even though at first he still dressed as a girl. But he always wanted to be called Tom, and to be referred to as “he” and “him”. If anyone used a female pronoun, he would get furious.
“On numerous occasions we would have to leave the park because someone would say: ‘Let that little girl have a turn.’ We’d get out of the park and he’d absolutely sob his heart out. It was the end of the world. He’d say: ‘Mummy, why can’t people see that I’m really a boy?’ This was before he was three.”
He still has girls’ clothes in his drawer. Cassie says he can choose to dress as a girl if he wants, but he never does any more.
When Cassie took three-year-old Tom to the barber for the first time, she wept. “That was the final thing. If I let him get his hair cut short, that was me accepting he is a boy.” The hairdresser was bemused. “I was crying and I had this little boy with me who had hair down to his arse. She asked him: ‘Has your mummy never let you get your hair cut?’ And he loved it, because she thought he was a boy with long hair.” After that, Tom never got mistaken for a girl, and became much happier.
“Granny still calls me ‘she’. My teacher still calls me ‘she’ sometimes.” Tom scowls as he nibbles a chocolate-covered rice cake. He’s about to go into his second year of primary school, where he’s fully transitioned: a male pupil. While the teachers have done everything possible to make things easy for Tom, the staff who have known him since nursery often get confused, because he was enrolled as a girl. “It used to make you upset but now you’re more grown up,” Cassie tells him, deliberately.
Like most parents of transgender children, Cassie learned about gender dysphoriafrom Google. Before she’d heard of the Tavistock or even visited her GP for a referral, she found Mermaids, a support group for transgender children and their families. “The Mermaids website is quite negative,” she says. “Every time I went on it, it made me worry… I knew from reading other people’s posts that I was going to struggle with my GP, because it seems to be a standard thing that they say no, we don’t believe in this.” She went to her GP armed with a printout of theNHS website’s page on gender dysphoria, prepared for a fight. Her doctor told her that she, too, had children, and that she needed to be tougher: tell her she’s a girl, and that’s the end of it. Tom was initially referred to child and adolescent mental health services, and then the Tavistock. He’s having annual appointments there, with his second coming up in a few weeks’ time.
No one can agree on what causes gender dysphoria, why so many children now say they are experiencing it, or even what it is, exactly: the idea that some people are just “born in the wrong body” doesn’t do justice to the range of feelings transgender people express. Gender itself is difficult to define, with a mix of social, medical and individual interpretations. The little research that exists on gender dysphoria is patchy and often fiercely contested. Some claim it has a biological basis; others argue it is a psychological state. Some say it must be genetic or created in the womb; others see it as learned behaviour, or a combination of nurture and nature. Whatever it might be, for the families of transgender children it is undeniably real.
“Tom is telling me what he wants and this is who he is, so I have to respect that even though he’s five. He knows his own mind,” Cassie says. “It could be that he changes his mind and goes back to being Melanie. But I can’t see it happening.”
The available evidence suggests most young children with gender dysphoria will not go on to be transgender adults. The Tavistock quotes research claiming that, while the majority of post-pubescent teens with gender dysphoria continue into adulthood with the same feelings, only 16% of prepubescent children do. (This figure comes from taking data from several different studies, with a total sample size of 246 children.)
Transgender children now have the opportunity to delay puberty by taking hormone “blockers” that inhibit the development of their secondary sexual characteristics, such as breasts, periods, a broken voice or facial hair. They can stop taking the blocker at any time and their own puberty will kick in, albeit at a later stage. But if they choose to proceed with the transition, they can then take cross-sex hormones from 16 years old, which will bring on the puberty of the gender they want to be. After they turn 18, they can opt for sex-change surgery through the NHS.
“Hand on heart, I do think that Tom will be trans when he’s older. He talks about ‘when I start having medicine to make me grow a willy’,” Cassie says. But she is making sure he knows his options are always open. “When he’s 18, he might be really mortified that this ever happened. But the message deep down is still going to be the same: it’s OK to be the person that you feel you are, and if that changes, that’s all right as well. You want your children to be happy.”
Meanwhile, the NHS is proceeding carefully with this explosion of child transgender referrals. Some parents’ groups claim it is too slow, too cautious and putting the wellbeing of young people at risk. “Medical intervention is very important, especially for teenagers who are already in puberty,” says Susie Green, chair of Mermaids and mother of a trans daughter. “It’s absolutely vital. If they feel their body is changing against their will, that’s when we get a lot of suicidality, self-harm, lots of young people talking about wanting to be dead. We’re trying to help the parents to help their children to get to a better place, and a lot of that is about navigating services and getting timely intervention – which unfortunately is not really happening as much as it should.”
Green became involved with Mermaids 16 years ago, after she got in touch about her daughter, Jackie, who was then six. “This is biological, definitely. It’s too widely pathologised as being a psychiatric issue, when it’s not,” she says. “The level of understanding within the NHS is appalling. If you’ve got a child who’s suicidal and self-harming because their body is changing against their will, nothing is done to fast-track or deal with that need. That’s why we’ve got families going abroad.” (This tends to be to the US, Germany and Holland.) Green reels off shocking figures from a 2014 study by the mental health charity Pace which surveyed 2,000 young people with gender issues: 48% attempt suicide, 58% self-harm. “It’s really common.” She pauses. “You can see why we’re worried.”
In the back garden of her Northamptonshire home, eight-year-old Julia King leaps on the trampoline with her 12-year-old brother, Dylan. She’s tiny and delicate, a pink hairband just holding her shoulder-length, white-blond hair from her face, her pink-framed glasses somehow staying put.
I’m in the living room, drinking tea with Julia’s parents: Annie is on the sofa, Daniel lying on the carpet on his side, propped up by a cushion. They finish each other’s sentences as they tell me what can happen to transgender children like Julia.
“Depression. Isolation,” Annie says.
“Self-harming. Substance abuse,” Daniel says.
“Suicide,” Annie adds. “They kill themselves, you know. And I want a happy daughter, not a dead son.”
Like Cassie, the Kings have learned a lot about gender dysphoria from Mermaids. The whole family has taken part in the organisation’s residential get-togethers, where families meet and share information. Last time, Annie found out that Julia was telling people she was only there in support of her transgender brother.
“She’s cheeky. She’s funny. She’s quick” – Annie snaps her fingers – “very quick. She’s into everything. My Little Pony, Moshi Monsters. Her friends. Parties, hair, nails. Clothes! She can change her clothes three, four times a day.”
Julia was born Callum, but as soon as she could talk, she said she was a girl. From two or three years old, she refused to answer if people called her by her birth name.
“She used to draw herself as a girl as soon as she could hold a pencil,” Daniel says. “I’ve never seen her draw herself as a boy, ever.”
Unlike Tom, there was no single turning point when Callum became Julia. “It just – from a little, little age – happened,” Annie says, brushing her pink, dip-dyed fringe from her eyes.
Daniel nods. “It evolved.”
At nursery, she was always in the dressing-up box, choosing the girls’ costumes. When Julia was given her first dress, at two and a half, she would wear it to bed. “She wore it until it was falling apart. We had to buy a new one because she was growing out of it.”
Julia still had a boy’s haircut at the time, and they didn’t let her wear her dresses outdoors. “She would ask: ‘Why? Why?’ And I’d say to her: ‘People aren’t used to seeing boys in dresses.’
“When she was around four, she started asking questions. ‘When will I have a baby in my tummy? Why do I have a winky when I’m a girl? Will I have boobies one day? When will I grow into a girl?’” Annie winces. “These aren’t normal questions. Dylan never asked them.”
Dylan comes in. He’s tall with square shoulders, his hair shaved at the sides with a floppy quiff on top. Julia’s having her picture taken and he’s not interested in watching her pose.
What’s Julia like as a sister, I ask. “Just a sister,” he shrugs. “I don’t see her as a boy or a girl. She’s just my sibling.”
Julia never wanted Dylan’s little cars, his action figures or his Star Wars toys. Her Christmas list, aged three, was full of Barbies. Annie and Daniel had never heard of people who were transgender at that point, and didn’t know how to respond.
“I struggled, initially,” Daniel says. “I had a big issue, not with her, but with the fact that I’ve got a boy and I’ve got another boy who wants to be a girl.” Daniel works in uniform, in a very conventionally male world. “I wasn’t ashamed, but there’s something in you, your pride or something, where you think, this isn’t what men do.” Now, he says, he’s incredibly proud of his daughter. When they changed her name by deed poll a few weeks ago, he toasted her with champagne.
Julia’s grandparents have found it harder to accept. “My mum said: ‘You wanted a girl, that’s why this is happening’,” Annie says. She thinks it’s a fad. “She’s said: ‘This is all some American thing.’”
When Julia was five, social services rang. “They said we’ve had an anonymous call, that you’re making your son Callum wear dresses,” Annie tells me. “I went ballistic. I said, ‘You are more than welcome to come to my house, because when you go in Callum’s bedroom…”
“…he wears princess dresses.” Annie throws her hands up. “I don’t care what anybody thinks.”
“Who’s he?” Julia frowns.
Upstairs, Julia’s bedroom is meticulously tidy. Her shelves are stacked with boxes of loom bands, a Shimmer ’n Sparkle nail kit and books with titles such as Love Lessons and The Illustrated Mum. She sits on her bed, twisting foam flowers on to a pipe cleaner to make a ring.
“When people say ‘he’ it makes me feel nervous,” she says gently. “That they’re going to forget and call me it from now on. That it might go back to how it was. All my friends call me Julia now. They never say C-A-L-L-U-M.” She can’t bring herself to say it.
But then she says something I wasn’t expecting. “Sometimes I say to my friends – because they were born a girl – ‘Would you be a boy for a day to see what it feels like?’ And they say yeah, but I’m like: ‘I don’t have to because I’m both.’”
Do you really think you’re both, I ask, or do you think you’re a girl?
“I’m both. It’s all right if I’m both. I want my mum to take me to football lessons.” But then the next minute she says she never feels like a boy, even though being a girl can be tough. “When you’re a boy you fall out and then the next day you’re friends, but with girls you fall out for months. It’s easier when you’re a boy.” She talks me through her collection of figurines. There’s Slimer from Ghostbusters, Raven from Teen Titans Go, Predator, and Anna from Frozen. “I don’t really like Frozen. I like horror films,” she grins. “My favourite film is Chuckie. For Halloween, I’m going to be Chuckie’s bride.”
Back downstairs, I tell Annie and Daniel what Julia said. “She knows the trans world better than we do,” Annie says. “Will there always be confusion in her mind?” she asks herself.
But is it confusion, or can you just be both?
“She can be whatever she wants to be, however she sees herself. She’s just our little girl at the moment.”
Julia is enrolled at her Catholic primary school as Callum. The school had suggested she finish the year as Callum and come back in the autumn as Julia, and the Kings had planned a big coming-out party for her over the summer – but Julia made it happen more quickly, insisting on wearing a skirt to school earlier this year.
“I said, ‘Do you really want to wear this?’” Daniel says. “She said, ‘Dad, I’m scared, but I want to because I have to.’”
“When she does things like this, you realise she doesn’t have the choice,” Annie adds. “She will put herself in the most awkward position. We don’t hold her back.”
They won’t hold her back when it comes to medical intervention, either. “We need to get these hormone blockers,” Annie says. “I wouldn’t want people to think that I’m pushing for something she doesn’t want, but I’m very aware of those years that could damage her future if she’s going to live the rest of her life as a woman. If we can get them at 10, 11, 12, brilliant. All the decisions are hers. We make her aware of what is out there, what they do, how she takes them, what she can have – even operations.”
At a Mermaids residential meeting, the Kings learned how other countries treat transgender kids. “They said that places like Germany and Holland are ahead of the UK in relation to giving the blockers,” Daniel says. “And I told the Tavistock, if there’s any blocking [of Julia’s treatment] I’ll remortgage and I’ll take my child over straight away. There’s no way I’ll stop my child’s happiness because of your restrictions.”
“We have made that quite clear to everyone,” Annie adds.
At the Tavistock, they are taking a more cautious approach. I meet Dr Polly Carmichael, the consultant clinical psychologist who leads the Tavistock’s Gender Identity Development Service, in her office in a leafy corner of Belsize Park, north London. A stone Sigmund Freud sits deep in thought in a corner of the car park. Carmichael is concerned that physical intervention is being seen, unrealistically, as a panacea.
“When the idea of the blocker being available to younger people was being pushed forward, I think that inevitably – understandably – there were quite simplistic arguments that if you have the blocker then all the problems disappear. In our experience, all the problems do not go away.”
The blocker can be therapeutic in itself, because it takes away the anxiety that comes with going through the “wrong” puberty. It also gives young people much-needed time and thinking space. “The idea was, if you could reduce that distress, then there would be room for young people to really explore the less reversible interventions: cross-sex hormones,” she explains. “But there’s also a lot of pressure to introduce cross-sex hormones at a younger age. It’s currently at 16. For some, there’s a real wish to bring it down to 14.” When I ask who she means, she says Mermaids and the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (Gires), a transgender advocacy charity based in the UK. “Really big changes like that should not be considered outside proper research protocols. We just don’t have the evidence.”
Carmichael says it’s very important for young people to experience some of their own puberty. “The blocker is said to be completely reversible, which is disingenuous because nothing’s completely reversible. It might be that the introduction of natal hormones [those you are born with] at puberty has an impact on the trajectory of gender dysphoria.” Even though the idea of experiencing any “natural” puberty might horrify the Kings and the Wilsons, by inhibiting it completely Tom and Julia might be denied the chance to explore fully who they are.
The available evidence suggests that most prepubescent children with gender dysphoria will have a different outcome in adulthood, Carmichael says: “The most common would be one around sexuality, rather than gender identity.” In her experience, they are more likely to be LGB than T.
When Carmichael took up her role in 2009, it was rare for children to be socially transitioned in primary school. Now it’s becoming the norm. What are the implications if only a small proportion will end up as transgender adults?
“If a lot has been invested in living in a gender role, then, potentially, it is difficult for young people to say: ‘Well, actually I don’t feel like that any more.’ Parents rightly want to support their child. Parents report that many young people who do make a social transition are much happier, that they’re functioning much better – which is why there isn’t a right and wrong. It’s about that child being able to carry on with general development, be in school. If transitioning facilitates that, then that’s positive, but how do we keep in mind a diversity of outcomes?” She pauses. “It’s really hard, a real challenge.”
The answer, she suggests, might lie in understanding gender as a spectrum, not a set of binary categories. “It would be great if society were more open to a range of presentations. I think if we could break down some of the gender stereotypes around boys and girls being divided in school the whole time, then that would be positive.”
Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Bernadette Wren works alongside Carmichael. She’s concerned that gender is becoming increasingly polarised, at an ever younger age. “Some of these children are going into a school environment where they make gender choices all day long, and they shouldn’t have to,” she says. We discuss how pupils have to choose what uniform to wear, what books to read, what sports to play, even what stationery to use, and I think of Julia insisting on wearing her school skirt, and Tom’s football-boot pencil case. “It’s not that you want everyone to be androgynous and gender fluid, you just don’t want children to constantly have to make those choices. We need to preserve a space where children can explore their gender identity without having to make a commitment so early.
“The younger ones can really, really want to be girls or boys, and then they can give that up and their relationship to their bodies can settle down quite comfortably. If we can help some of those young people through adolescence, they might make a different choice later.”
What about the risk of depression, suicide and self-harm at puberty, cited by parents?
“It troubles me that parents of very young children are already in terror that their child is going to kill themselves,” Wren says. “The energy has to go into changing how these people are seen by their peers, not into physical intervention alone. You don’t want these kids to have to make themselves over at a very early stage because otherwise they’ll be tormented to death.”
But what about the young people who say that living in their body is itself a torment?
“We have shifted to make the treatment available earlier and earlier. But the earlier you do it, the more you run the risk that it’s an intervention people would say yes to at a young age, but perhaps would not be so happy with when they move into their later adulthood.”
The argument over whether to intervene early or wait and see how a child’s gender identity develops naturally is so polarised, with such potentially serious implications, that it can be baffling – terrifying – for the families caught in the middle. Whatever the correct balance, medical intervention alone cannot ensure that transgender children become healthy, happy adults. More than anything else, transgender children need resilience; even if their family accepts them, and however tolerant we are as a society, they will need enormous strength to manage the choices and challenges they will face as they grow up and form relationships.
The Kings have already had their first taste of those challenges. When we meet, it’s the day after Julia’s school disco – the first time she’s ever been properly dressed up for an occasion – and Annie’s telling me about it with tears in her eyes. “I watched her run in across the hall, and all the girls running to her. Last night she was one of them. And I knew how much it meant to her.” Julia danced with a boy called Luke, and they’re now boyfriend and girlfriend. “But my worry is, what’s Luke’s mum saying when he goes home and says: ‘I’m going out with Julia, Mum’? I don’t think society has come to terms with trans as far as parents letting their sons go out with a transgender female. They’re fine to let them play together, to go to school together, to be best friends. But relationship-wise? I’m not sure.”
Annie might not want Julia to know she’s worried, but Julia will learn the reasons for herself soon enough. “We’ve just got to be there, ready to catch, if anything falls apart.”