‘Butterfly’ is game-changing TV for transgender kids and their parents

ITV drama 'Butterfly' is centred around a young trans girl. Adrian Lobb interviews Susie Green, CEO of trans charity Mermaids, about a dramatic change in attitude around the issue in recent years

Child referrals for gender identity issues have rocketed in the last decade; from 97 in 2009-10 to 2,519 last year, a rise of more than 2,000 per cent. Heated debate continues, but often the loudest voices about transgender issues are not the most informed. On the rise in child referrals, experts say there’s more information about gender issues than ever before, and so a greater awareness.

Now a new TV drama, Butterfly—focusing on a young trans girl—is telling the human story behind the figures. Susie Green, CEO of Mermaids, a charity that supports gender-diverse children and their families, and which advised in the making of the new show, says there has been a chilling change in atmosphere in recent years.

“About 18 months ago, it seemed to kick off with a really massive push against trans women and trans kids in particular,” she says. “The narrative is that ‘children can’t possibly know’ and that it is ‘child abuse’ to do anything other than make them live as their birth gender. That causes an environment of fear,” she says. “The backlash is not from experts. We get a lot of people who have nothing to do with transgender people and maybe have never met a transgender child saying what is best for trans kids.”

Into this heightened atmosphere comes Butterfly, which stars Anna Friel and Emmett J Scanlan as the estranged parents of young Max, played by Callum Booth-Ford.

Max has identified as a girl from a very young age. Enforced football has, unsurprisingly, failed to change her conviction that she is a girl – despite her desire to please dad Stephen. So, at home, after initial resistance from her mother, she has been quietly living as Maxine when the series begins. But when she wants to start living openly as Maxine? That’s when life becomes more difficult.

The series has to perform a tricky balancing act. It must entertain, accurately represent trans children and their families, and educate.

“It could be a real gamechanger for trans kids and their families,” says Green. “It addresses some of those preconceptions and tells the story from a really human place. You identify with the people and their struggle – and for a lot of families it is a real struggle. It shows this isn’t something that happens overnight. Maxine didn’t put on a dress and immediately her mum said, ‘Oh, you must be a girl, then.’ It shows that it is about parents listening to their children.”

Writer Tony Marchant and the cast spent time talking to trans kids and their families ahead of filming. Stories were shared, and the actors were left shocked by anecdotes of grown adults spitting in children’s faces at the school gates.

One little girl who was nine, her mum was talking about the issues they have had with bullying at the school. She told them about the time her daughter came home from school and there was a size eight footprint in the middle of her bag.

Green has lived through this. She became involved with Mermaids when her daughter Jackie, now 25, was six. At 13, Jackie was beaten up by two 40-year-old men because she was trans. Proudly, she discloses how her daughter is now seen as “a bit of a rock star” by some of the younger trans girls. “She is tall, she is gorgeous, she is very confident.”

“She had told me at four that she was a girl,” recalls Green. “Everybody was telling me to force boy stuff on her. I was told I needed to make her play with an Action Man. I’d say ‘You are a boy who likes girl things, and that is fine’, but she was really clear about it. ‘No, I am a girl.’

“That is why Butterfly is so important. Because kids know. Children go through periods of gender non-conformity and will express themselves in different ways. But you can’t make anybody trans. And you can’t make anybody not be trans. What you can do is shame people into not talking about who they are because it is too difficult.”

Green’s advice to parents in a similar situation is simple. 

“Support them. Love them. Make them know they are loved and supported, and they will work it out. But if you try to force an identity on someone because it doesn’t fit with your sense of how the world should be, all you are going to do is make them ashamed.”

Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
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Image: Red Production Company for ITV