Published in the Courier Mail 3 June 08
TEENAGE years are downright difficult to negotiate, so I was amazed at the court ruling to allow a 12-year-old to begin a sex change.
The Victorian Family Court gave a 12-year-old-girl the green light to begin early treatment for a sex change. While surgical intervention won't occur until the child reaches 18, hormone treatment, which would suppress menstruation and other physical changes, has been allowed.
Gender identity disorder is a complex condition. Described as a mismatch between a person's perception of their body and their actual body, the individual rejects their biological sex. They are said to be "trapped in the wrong body". It is treated as a psychiatric condition but in recent times medical or surgical solutions have been explored.
While there's no denying the distress experienced by a person with gender identity disorder, medically altering one's sex is not always the best option. Other forms of mental and emotional distress caused by a distorted perception of the body anorexia nervosa is an example are not treated as if the sufferer's perception is reality. Instead, health professionals work to help patients change their body perception.
So if this young girl of 12, who cannot be named, perceives her body is wrong, should not health professionals work to help her come to a place of mental and emotional acceptance about her body?
This child is clearly in distress and needs support and medical treatment, yet aspects of the court's decision give cause for concern. One of these is the involvement of her parents. There is obviously a difficult family background here. Her mother, who supported the application for the sex change, is alleged to have consistently voiced her desire that the child should have been born a boy. A bitter break-up between her parents is said to have spurred the sex-change request. Reports by a family member also suggest her father, who lives in Queensland, opposed the court application. He had employed legal representation but his psychiatrist was unable to gain access to speak with the girl. Having run out of money, he was unable to send legal representation to the hearing. That alone must sit uncomfortably with parents across the nation.
Of far greater concern were comments by the state-appointed lawyer acting on behalf of the child. The lawyer said she considered the girl capable of making an informed decision about the sex-change procedure.
It seems irresponsible for an adult to suggest that a child of 12 is able to dispassionately weigh up the benefits and risks of such a decision.
When you are 12, society will not let you drive a car, buy alcohol, vote or consent to sexual activity. In fact, there are a great many things we do not allow 12-year-old children to do and with good reason. They are not emotionally or cognitively able or ready to make some decisions. The consequences of their actions are much heavier than they are able to, or should be asked to, bear.
Those who defend the court decision assert that surgical intervention is at least six years away, when the child turns 18. However, the court has allowed the girl to apply for a new birth certificate, passport and Medicare card in a boy's name.
So someone who is biologically female and anatomically female will carry legal documents representing her as a male. Are we really serving her best interests in allowing a mismatched perception of her self to continue?
My heart goes out to this child. She has experienced a breakdown in her family and has most likely suffered fallout from what appears to be a bitter relationship between her parents. It is not surprising that she dreads the onset of menstruation and puberty. Few girls look forward to it.
Yet the answer to her fear and confusion is not to add another layer of complexity.
Even for young people with highly functional families and a robust sense of self, navigating the teenage years can be difficult. Every young person deserves support and nurture, particularly scared and confused 12-year-olds.
In reality, sexual reassignment surgery does not change a person's biological sex. Neither does carrying an altered passport. It only serves to amplify a mismatch between perception and actual reality. There must be another way.
Ruth Limkin is a Brisbane pastor and writer.