CATHOLIC parents Teresa and Bill* discovered the unconditional love they had for their children when their son told them 17 years ago he could no longer live as a man.
Six months earlier, Bill, a retired GP and Billings natural family planning practitioner, had taken a course on medical ethics and bioethics with health ethicist Fr Kevin McGovern.
One of the issues discussed was transgender therapies and sex reassignment surgery.
“I was reading it from a medical point of view, reading the different viewpoints about things and reassignment surgery, and I thought it was going a bit far,” Bill said.
“And my son at the time came down on that particular day and I was talking to him about it.
“He didn’t say anything very much, as I was sort of going on a bit.”
It was a seemingly normal day when that same son dropped by to visit his Catholic parents at their Queensland home.
“I was sitting where you are, and he was sitting in the middle and made us sit down, said he had some important news,” Bill said.
Teresa mentally prepared for a cancer scare.
Instead, their son apprehensively handed over a short article with the headline: “Boys will be girls”.
“And he said, ‘I’ve decided I want to live as a woman’,” Teresa said.
Bill stood up from the couch, looked his son in the eye, and wrapped his arms tightly around him.
Research has found that transgender people experience a condition known as gender dysphoria.
Gender dysphoria is understood to be a psychological condition where a person experiences distress because of incongruence between their biological gender and their expressed gender.
According to Western Australian bioethicist Fr Joseph Parkinson only about one in 10,000 adults are transgender, or 0.01 per cent.
While the recommended treatment of gender dysphoria is counselling and a supportive environment, surgery is becoming an increasingly popular option, although not all transgender people undergo sex reassignment operations.
After 18 months of intense counselling and a psychiatric assessment, Bill and Teresa’s son was confirmed to have a genuine case of gender dysphoria and underwent sex reassignment surgery to remove his genitalia and acquire female sexual organs.
He was 32 at the time, and re-emerged to the family as “Grace”.
“Grace, because she was looking for the grace to become a woman,” Bill said.
On every form of Australian identification, Grace is a woman – even the sex on her birth certificate was changed to female.
Teresa said she was “totally unaware” that it was possible to change from male to female, to live as a transgender person.
According to her, there were no externally obvious signs that their son was ever distressed about his real and perceived gender.
He did everything children do in their childhood – played with toys, fought with his siblings, and he even played dress-ups with his sisters.
He attended an all-boys’ Queensland Catholic school, proved to be talented at gymnastics and rugby, and ended up a faithful employee at a global technology company, made up primarily of male workers.
He even considered entering religious life at one stage.
Bill noted in retrospect that Grace, as a boy, was sensitive to others, especially to those in trouble.
“She said she first thought of being a girl when she was at primary school and she had to play the part of a girl in some play they were putting on,” Bill said.
“She decided then that she liked the idea.”
While the Catholic Church does not have an official, authoritative teaching on transgender identity and gender dysphoria, it recognises the condition as a psychological disorder.
The Church also deems gender reassignment surgery as deliberate mutilation of the body that removes healthy organs, but again, there is no official statement.
“With Grace now, because she didn’t find any sympathy or understanding within the Church, she’s found she can manage without it,” Teresa said.
“I doubt she will come back to the Church.”
Teresa said she struggled to reconcile the Church’s position on gender dysphoria with her own Catholic faith, though it has not made her less faithful.
“I get very upset about their ignorance, that they don’t seem to listen to all the new psychology information that has come out about gender dysphoria, and most still seem to see that people who want to change their gender are mentally unstable,” she said.
“I really wanted to do something about it and shake them and say, ‘Listen to them – don’t you understand that your position is so antiquated?’
“Bill’s more patient, saying it might take 50 years. I want it to happen now.”
Bill also disagrees with the Church’s understanding of gender dysphoria as a psychological condition, and prefers to draw on embryology for answers.
“The bottom line of all of this, is people with no knowledge of embryology say we’re either male or female from conception but, no, the embryo differentiates into male or female during development, with gender identity another issue,” he said.
On the other hand, Bill and Teresa caution against cultural influences that believe gender is a choice.
“Mind you, I think there can be a tendency to say what gender you are is a choice, but it’s not,” Bill said.
“It’s almost giving the idea that this overall is common (but) it’s still not common.
“Sometimes I see that there are people with an issue trying too hard the other way.
“I even heard the Pope say it’s not a matter of choice; I also say it’s not a matter of choice – it’s just a fact.
“For a transgender person, it’s not saying ‘I choose to be this’, or ‘I choose to be that’, but ‘I am, I am a woman but I have been given an XY chromosome’– but that is semantics.”
They also warned against young people deciding “too early” that they have gender dysphoria, reiterating that it took their daughter 32 years and another 18 months of therapy to confirm her decision.
They said parents who had teenage children wanting to change their gender, either through hormonal treatment or therapy, should talk to their child about the underlining reasons for their unhappiness.
“We are very worried that it is becoming too popular a notion and agree that for most people psychological counselling is the way to go,” Teresa said.
Grace will celebrate her 50th birthday this year and both Bill and Teresa will be there to count their blessings.
“I see this as a blessing because, to me, that particular day, when that news came, I just know that I did not have to think about it (giving his son a hug),” Bill said.
“I knew it was love in me that made me do it.
“It said to me that even though I may not always show it, I actually do love my children unconditionally as any parent should – that there wasn’t anything they could say or do – I might disagree with them, which I still do – but it doesn’t stop you loving them.”
* Names have been changed to keep the couple’s identity anonymous.