“I can definitely say that without Mermaids, I wouldn’t be at the stage I am today,” 18-year-old Ethan says of the the leading UK charity for gender diverse and transgender children and teenagers. “For kids and their families, it can really be an isolating time, so having such a friendly charity can make a real difference.”
Like many, Ethan’s journey of self-discovery has been a lengthy one, and hasn’t quite reached its finale. After spending much of his school years between both the boy and girl groups, their then same-sex attraction opened them up to the different identities of the LGBTQ experience. And with that, their first real understanding of who they are – and what label to use.
“Being in a same-sex relationship gave me a safe excuse to explore a more masculine role in society, which I loved,” he explains. “I was slowly learning more and more about identities in the LGBTQ group, and came across a social media post about a trans male. The light turned on and my prayers were answered – this was me. I am a boy, a trans boy.”
And while Ethan’s new identity took time and education for all, his mother Lisa knew the journey would be worth it. “The depression Ethan suffered during the early transition and the awful relationship he was in, I wanted to shut my eyes, scream and wake up as if nothing had happened. I wasn’t going to watch my gorgeous child suffer, so I fought, and we are winning as a family.
“My words are always that love will always win in the end. Let your child lead the way and you follow behind. You’ll get there if you want to. I did.” And it’s a love that his brother, Matt, treasures even more than before, now all the things that make me aspire to become a better person. Without Ethan in my life, I seriously don’t see me being anything like the man I am now.”
Here we speak to Ethan, his mother Lisa and brother Matt, about how their family unit has helped one teenager become their most authentic self, and how Mermaids became their lifeline to embrace, empower and educate.
In your own words, when did you first begin to question your gender identity?
Ethan: My earliest memory of gender is during my first year of infant school. The generalising that all my friends who were boys had short hair and liked darker colours, and the reverse for girls. Then when at junior school, it was more sociable, presenting challenges at the playground, which is why I consider my junior school years to be the best of my life so far. I would mix with everyone. I’d play football with the boys one lunch and then families with the girls the next break, to which I was always given the role of little brother – not that I insisted on it, I was just perfect for it. I had my own style and would usually wear hand-me-downs. Always rocking up the school disco in a shirt and tie, one Easter, I was determined to win the dance challenge for an Easter egg , so I spent the whole night dancing my socks off. My friends all thought I would win it so when I wasn’t announced as the girls winner, they all said that ‘maybe the DJ thinks you’re a boy’. To this, they all started shouting random boys’ names and pointing at me, it was hilarious, but it wasn’t strange and it didn’t feel wrong.
It was within junior school that I realised I wasn’t like every other girl. I remember sitting in my friends’ room after being persuaded to sign up to this new online game. We made my account and were faced with a screen asking to ‘choose your avatar’. We looked at each other and both thought the male figure was more me. At this point it seemed almost laughable that I might look remotely feminine and wear dresses, even in a game. In secondary school, puberty started and so did a huge social divide between boys and girls. This is the pivotal moment when I truly realised that I didn’t fit in with the girls, yet I can’t be associated with the boys for fear of bullying.
Moving into big school can be a scary time, but I was so lost in this new world and all I had was a friend I’d carried through from junior, so I just followed her grain. My mum was trying to get me to try makeup or wear a skirt with the same fear that soon people would notice how different I was. I survived until year eight when a new girl turned my friends against me, using slurred language and nasty insults to prove to them just how ‘strange’ I was. She even told me to “get a sex change”. I was so confused.
I turned to an old friend and jumped straight into her group. Then in year nine, most of this group came out as lesbian, to which I was confronted by a lot of people with the question about when I was going to come out as gay. I didn’t know who I was, and suddenly I felt pressured to decide. All of these feelings of gender dysphoria that were beginning to present themselves started to merge with the descriptions of my gay friends, and I was so confused.
After learning that I was attracted to girls, I very quickly met someone who I started a relationship with. This ended up being controlling and causing a lot of mental health problems, but being in a same-sex relationship gave me a safe excuse to explore a more masculine role in society, which I loved! I was slowly learning more and more about identities in the LGBTQ group, and came across a social media post about a trans male. The light turned on and my prayers were answered – this was me. I am a boy, a trans boy.
Do you remember the first time Ethan had a conversation with you about their gender identity?
Lisa: Yes, vividly. Pre-transition, at the age of three, I remember being asked why they didn’t have a willy, but never thought anymore until the night Ethan told me. He was 15, I actually found out via a text message sent to Ethan from his girlfriend at the time. I kept this to myself for a couple of days until I could not hold back any longer. I went into his bedroom to check how his day was and how the relationship was going. Due to the relationship being quite toxic, we spoke a lot and I was desperate to comfort and support. I felt Ethan had a noose around his neck and that perhaps he wanted to tell me but couldn’t, mixed with knowing that his relationship caused a lot of distress at home. He was not in a good way. I believed I made it easier to say I’d seen a text message and asked why the girlfriend was calling him a male name. It was then Ethan said he wasn’t a lesbian, he identified as a trans male. Trying to remain an open ear and heart, I knew nothing. I remember saying, ‘So you want to be a transgender?’, something I cringe about now. I knew from the reaction I must have said something wrong, but we were both upset and I desperately tried to comfort Ethan but had no knowledge of a trans world. We cried a lot, it was an extremely emotional time, tested further due to the girlfriend too.
How has your relationship with Ethan changed over the last couple of years?
Matt: Phenomenal. Utterly Phenomenal. We were so close as children, but I must say we are even closer now. Not only are we good brothers, we are best friends; we can talk about anything, laugh about anything, and not be afraid to hold back with topics. Ethan and I have always had so much in common, and now that he’s happy with who he is, a level of mature trust and respect has blossomed. I always enjoy his company, love to hear about his films and ideas, and will always support him in whatever way I can. Frankly, I have always viewed him as the stronger of us, and that inspires me. He is not only brave to come out as who he is, but persistent and fantastic for not letting anyone say otherwise. He’s funny, wacky, crazy, intelligent, and full of all the things that make me aspire to become a better person. Without Ethan in my life, I seriously don’t see me being anything like the man I am now.
Lisa: The early days of learning, thinking I knew but actually had no idea. From being the mum in control to feeling like I’d lost my role and passed the baton to my youngest to teach me how to be and how to learn as a parent. The distance it put at different stages to my eldest son and also my husband, just like when people grieve, we do it at different stages. This was how it was for us, all at different times. I never feared telling my parents, but I was concerned for my husband’s as they were older. The depression
Ethan suffered during the early transition and the awful relationship he was in, I wanted to shut my eyes, scream and wake up as if nothing had happened. I wasn’t going to watch my gorgeous child suffer, so I fought, and we are winning as a family.
Who is your biggest inspiration?
Ethan: My biggest inspiration is Casey Neistat, mostly for his talents in filmmaking but also because of his attitude to life. He constantly pushes the mould with everything in his life and prioritises the things that make him feel good. His two biggest goals in life are career and family, something we share. I also love how he does everything with intention, but uses things that go wrong as a positive stepping stone towards his future.
What’s your message to young kids questioning their gender identity? Ethan: It’s a totally normal thought to have, and you are so brave for allowing yourself to think about it. I know it’s hard, but you will be surprised about who supports you. Yes there are people who are less inclusive, but they don’t matter to your happiness. And no matter how many times people convince you otherwise, you know yourself better than anyone else, so go at your own pace, and try things out if you want. Nothing has to be permanent and no one will resent you if you change your mind, so take the leap.
How important do you believe a charity like Mermaids is for trans and gender nonconforming teens?
Ethan: Mermaids is an unbelievable charity, and if I had known about it in the very early days of my transition I would have definitely made a few calls to help talk things through. I know for my mum they were a huge help in just balancing her thoughts and seeing the bi er picture, which in turn was a huge help for me and moving forward in my transition. I can definitely say that without Mermaids, I wouldn’t be at the stage I am today. For kids and their families, it can really be an isolating time, so having such a friendly charity can make a real difference.
Matt: Mermaids has helped our entire family, not only with dealing with the issues that came with Ethan’s identity, but putting them into perspective with so many others. No matter how bad you think you are, there are families who will be worse because they don’t know what to do at all; which is extremely sad. But this makes charities like Mermaids great, as they can tell their stories, let other people hear who have dealt with stories similar, and hear the advice, comfort, and support they lend. Even if none of the advice clicks, or you reject it, just knowing that people care about you and want to listen to you, that’s enough. It is a society of beautiful and caring people, who just want others to realise that things don’t have to go back to the way they were, because nothing has changed. Understand your unconditional love for your child, or your sibling, and realise they are so much happier becoming who they always were. It’s so fulfilling that people are willing to come together and spread this message.
Lisa: It’s a lifeline. I would not be where I am today without the early support and the continued support on the chat group, or Facebook chats. Society needs to learn, and without such charities offering advice, support and genuine care, I believe there would be a lot of sad stories and that the darkness our youngsters feel would be all-consuming. Without Mermaids, there would be children and parents unhappy. The message needs to get out there and I believe Mermaids are continuing to make this change. They offer to help us parents at whatever stage we are in. This is needed, and long may it continue.
How can a family best support their child from your experience?
Lisa: My philosophy is to let love guide you, believe in your child, let them lead you, read, learn, join organisations. It’s no-one’s fault and there’s no blame. Research, find a local support group, talk to other parents. I discovered Ethan’s identity and felt swamped and afraid. I soon found Mermaids and I remember crying on the phone, but being comforted. There was no rush to end the call, I could talk, cry and ask questions. I then joined the secure online chat group where I found a local meet up of parents, I joined a coffee group feeling quite insecure, but left feeling empowered. To this day, I still chat with one of the people from there and add my words of support and advice to others online. I’ll happily talk to anybody that I can help. My words are always that love will always win in the end. Let your child lead the way and you follow behind. You’ll get there if you want to. I did.
If you need to talk to somebody visit mermaids.org.uk or call the Mermaids Helpline on 0808 801 0400.
Photography Tom Fuller and Raw London
Words William J Connolly