Elliot’s Hidden A-Gender
Courage is easy to define, easy to spot and easy to appreciate and even laud, but sometimes it’s not easy to find. To have.
The dictionary defines the word courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one; bravery”, and images of firefighters and soldiers and so on readily spring to mind.
But sometimes just being yourself is the hardest, loneliest and most courageous thing you will ever do because if you don’t fit into society’s norms, hostility, ridicule and even violence await you. And that is very difficult for anyone to confront, much less a young man or woman.
Elliot Nicholas knows this all too well, as do his parents, Geelong-based Uniting Church ministers, Rev. Will and Rev. Amanda Nicholas.
Elliot is an impressive young man, the sort of young adult you hope all of your children – especially sons – grow up to be like. But Elliott’s journey to adulthood – he only recently turned 18 – has neither been conventional or easy.
Society has a label for people like Elliot: transgender. But it doesn’t have what people like Elliot need most: acceptance. And this makes what is already a deeply difficult journey even more problematic.
To understand that journey, it is important to start at the beginning.
When Elliot was born, his mother, Amanda, admits to great surprise: after all, she was convinced she was going to have a boy.
“I do remember a moment of surprise when Elliot was born and the doctor said ‘it’s a girl’, because I was sure I was having a boy,” she recalls.
“That has always stayed with me, because I was absolutely certain we were having a boy.”
For Elliot, though, life as a girl never seemed the right fit; something just didn’t seem natural, a feeling that only grew as he got older.
“As a kid, I didn’t really look like a boy or girl, but I would look up to my older brother and his friends and I preferred that (male) lifestyle and version of myself to one that involved wearing a dress or putting make-up on,” Elliot says.
“I didn’t like anything that made me feel feminine.
“I remember at one of my brother’s birthday parties, he had his friends over and it was a really hot day and they were having a great time playing in the sprinklers with their shirts off and I said ‘mum, I want to take my shirt off and hang out with the boys’ and she was like ‘no, you can’t do that because you’re a girl’.
“That was when it hit me and I was thinking to myself ‘OK I think something is happening here and I’m not quite sure how to feel about it’.
“I kind of ignored that at such a young point in my life, but from the ages of 10 to 12, when puberty was happening, my body was telling me it’s time to be a woman and I was like ‘no’.”
Elliot with his parents, Uniting Church Ministers Will and Amanda.
Amanda can recall Elliot experiencing feelings of dysphoria from the age of about five, while for Will, there were more obvious examples.
“I have a memory of Elliot at the ‘princess dance’, which was organised by one of our local Pentecostal churches, and all the girls are standing there looking glamorous and Elliot is standing off to one side looking extremely awkward and uncomfortable,” he says.
“So it’s something that we have been aware of virtually all of our lives.”
Elliot recalls a childhood in which the most fun was always had doing the things a boy would, rather than the activities his gender suggested he should be doing.
“I was always a tomboy and I would always want to hang out with my brother and his male friends,” he says.
“It has always been a state of mind.”
Navigating the rites of childhood can be tough at the best of times, so imagine Elliot’s life as the feeling that he had been born the wrong gender continued to occupy his thoughts.
Not surprisingly, school in Tasmania was a nightmare.
“Most of that time it was about wearing dresses and going to formals and that kind of stuff and I was about 14 when I realised that I really didn’t like this,” Elliot recalls.
“At that stage, I wasn’t going to come out as transgender because I didn’t even know what that meant and it would just open up a whole can of worms that I didn’t want to open.
“I was in a rough relationship with my parents and I didn’t have many friends because I would push them away as I didn’t think they would respond to me very well because in the past they hadn’t (responded well).”
For Amanda and her husband, Will, it was almost a case of joining the dots as they began to become fully aware of what was happening with Elliot.
“One of the things that we struggled with before Elliot actually came out to us was that we began to become aware of some of the bits and pieces around what was happening with him,” Amanda says.
“We would go shopping and Elliot would dash off to the menswear section and eventually he wanted to buy different underwear and we said to him, ‘we don’t subscribe to any binary ideals and you have to dress however you feel comfortable and in a way that works for you’.
“At this stage, we didn’t have the full picture, but there were certainly moments and inklings leading up to it where he was trying to make the expression without being so open about it.
“What we did was say, ‘it’s OK for you to be open about these things and you don’t have to hide anything’.”
In December 2017, Will and Amanda told the family that ministry changes meant they would be moving to Geelong the following year and, for Elliot, this was the best news possible.
Life and school in Tasmania had been difficult and he had been worn down by the constant battle to try and fit in.
Geelong, then, meant a new slate and a new beginning, or so Elliot hoped at the time.
“I wanted to sound sad about it, but I remember feeling really excited because it represented a fresh start for me,” he recalls.
“I promised myself when we moved to Geelong I would really try to make things better and I would work hard at it and I did.”
The move was the catalyst for Elliot to try and take more control of his life.
“We moved in June 2018 and around the time of my birthday in July I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to live like this anymore and I deserve better and to live better’,” he says.
“I made a list of all of the things I didn’t like about my life and put little equations next to them, like how to improve the relationship with my parents and ‘I don’t have many friends, so how can I change that?’ and ‘I don’t like going to school, how can I be more interested in that?’
“It was about looking at all the hard things in my life and asking myself how could I make things easier?”
At this time, Elliot’s conviction that he had been born the wrong gender only grew and, with that conviction finalised in his mind, it was time to find out exactly what options were open to him.
“I did a whole heap of research because I wanted to find out what was wrong with me, because I always thought I was gay and a girl who liked girls, but it was something more than that,” Elliot says.
“I actually didn’t like the body I was in and when I discovered that was a real thing I was almost in disbelief, I was like ‘am I actually faking all of this’, but I knew it was a real feeling.
“I needed to do a lot of research because I knew that when I came out to mum and dad they would be saying ‘OK, how can we help you, how can we make things better for you, what can we do to make you feel more comfortable?’”
November of 2018 marks a pivotal point in Elliot’s journey as, armed with all of the research he had carried out, he came out to his parents, told them he was the wrong gender and wanted to transition to a male.
“I was 15 at the time and, over those summer holidays, we worked out a strategy to affirm that transition,” Elliot says.
For Amanda, an experience within her own family gave her hope that a positive outcome could be achieved for Elliot.
“In terms of the relief, I think one of the things that helped Elliot was that a couple of years before this my youngest sister had come out as gay at the age of 34,” she says.
“When Elliot saw how her family continued to love and support her, that helped him to feel that it might be OK and we could work this out.”
But it was a more practical example that Amanda remembers as a defining moment in Elliot’s journey, a small but symbolic act around change.
“At the beginning of 2018, Elliot decided that he wanted to have all of his hair chopped off and that was a moment where I had to step aside because I recognised that this was going to be a particularly important thing for him,” she recalls.
“I didn’t quite know why or how, but there was just a sense that Elliot was growing up by doing this.
“It seemed to me to be the first outward expression around him being more comfortable in himself by getting rid of about 60cm of hair.
“I think it was a real point of freedom in the sense of getting rid of some of the physical aspects (around being a girl).”
Will admits to a great sense of relief when Elliot came out to them.
“For me, that period of time around the emergence of dysphoria had been one of absolute terror,” he says.
“As the male parent, I had a child who was into all of the things that I was into, like getting into the garden and hiking and fishing, then all of a sudden I had this child who was pulling away from me and I was in terror around the possibility of losing him.
“So all of the things that I loved about being this child’s parent were slowly being stripped away.
“But there was certainly a sense of relief when Elliot came out.”
As the end of 2021 nears, Elliot Nicholas looks forward to a future that offers endless possibilities.
Yet it’s a future that, at one point, he could not imagine and one which seemed unattainable.
His journey towards gender affirmation had become too much to bear and, if there was light, it was almost entirely engulfed by darkness and despair.
The world, he thought, was not a place for him any more.
Elliot recalls his early teenage years as the darkest of times, as doubts and confusion about who he truly was, as well as ongoing abuse from fellow students, led to self-harm and attempted suicide.
Elliot’s teenage years were a difficult time as he tried to make sense of his place in the world.
“The worst time was probably between the ages of 13 and 16,” he says.
“It started as little things. For example, I would grow my fingernails a bit longer and sometimes clench my fists and I would end up with cuts on my palms, so it was doing little subtle things like that every time I got called a name at school or someone picked on me for no reason.
“I didn’t know how to say how I felt because, at that stage, I was in a school that was quite binary and it was quite intimidating for me to say anything.
“So I would say, ‘oh I’m just having a bad day or I haven’t slept enough’. It became harder and harder to deal with everything because people started to become more and more aggressive towards me.
“I would get notes left in my locker and anonymous messages and posts on social media about me, and they started to stack up on each other and I began to believe what they were saying and that I was a waste of space and was stupid and broken, a loser, a weirdo and a freak.
“I was told I didn’t deserve to live. It was terrible. I was so cornered and so lost and I felt like I had stumbled into a dark room and lost the key to get out and I’m stuck there.
“It wasn’t that I enjoyed being upset, it was that it just seemed like the only option. Every time I tried to step up I would be pushed back and I just got to the point where I gave up.”
And so, while his fellow students navigated the more mundane things involved in being a teenager, Elliot had decided his life would progress no further than that.
The hatred and abuse towards him and the pain it created had become too much.
He wanted out of this world.
“I was in Year nine when I heard about a kid in NSW who was bullied because she was different and had decided to end her life,” Elliot recalls.
“I was thinking ‘I don’t want to do this’, but I kept getting the hate and the bullying and harassment and I thought ‘I know why this girl did that to herself because I feel that is where I need to go’.
“I didn’t want to be here anymore and it felt like other people didn’t want me here anymore. I had tried to take my life twice before we moved from Tasmania to Geelong.”
Amanda recalls a time of great despair, as she and Will began to realise the extent of Elliot’s emotional and psychological pain, and how he dealt with that pain by harming himself.
“The period involving the cutting and suicide attempts was really hard and, for me, the thing that was hardest was there was the moment when we realised the cutting was becoming a daily practice,” she says.
“When you see the physical scars that go with all this, you start to look at how can we get beyond this point to somewhere where Elliot doesn’t need to harm himself anymore?”
Ironically, the very darkest day in 2018 became the catalyst for Elliot’s journey towards the light.
On that day, a distressed Elliot told his parents he was once again experiencing suicidal thoughts and wasn’t sure he could make it through the day.
“I came to them and explained the situation and said ‘I need to be honest with you, I really don’t feel like I can be left alone because I don’t trust myself, I feel if I have the chance I will take my life. I just want to die, I don’t want to be here anymore, it’s too painful’,” he recalls.
For Will, that day was his most difficult as a parent and a major test of his resolve.
“The day when he came to us (and said he couldn’t go on) was probably the hardest point in the journey, but what came next was even harder because it meant I had to switch off all of my training as a Minister and swap seats (to that of a parent),” Will recalls.
“So I said to Elliot, ‘let’s hop in the car and we’ll go to the hospital’, so we went to casualty and told them what was happening and one of the psychiatrists from headspace came in and sat down with us.
“And I was sitting next to Elliot and looking at the person on the other side of him and I thought to myself, ‘I have sat there, where the psychiatrist is, I know how to do that, but I don’t know how to do this (as a parent)’.
“So I now have a greater understanding of what the parent is enduring when they sit in that space because when I sat there with Elliot that day I had absolutely no skills, words or anything that could possibly help me to resolve this.
“I remember just sitting there and praying and saying ‘is there anything I can do’ and I felt a great sense of calm and a voice saying to me, ‘just be here for him’.
“I felt I was doing the wrong thing by taking him to the hospital. You know, I’ve turned up and said ‘I’ve brought my healthy, walking child here because they have just told me they want to kill themselves’.
“The hospital staff responded straight away and said ‘this is serious’ and got us into a room and, from that point, our GP, headspace, and the GP, sociologist and psychologist at Elliot’s school were all around us and there was no need for Amanda and I to try to be experts in this field.
“We were cared for by this incredible team that I call a cloud of witnesses, but I think it’s important to recognise this really dark period when Elliot reached a point where he decided, ‘I don’t want to live like this’.
“It’s important that we don’t skip those dark periods because Elliot’s statement, ‘I don’t want to live like this’, actually has two arcs to it and I think it is really courageous that Elliot has chosen the arc that he has and pruned the other one.”
Michelle offers hope
In Victoria, one woman has come to represent a beacon of hope for children like Elliot Nicholas, who know they have been born the wrong gender.
Michelle Telfer runs the Royal Children’s Hospital’s Gender Service, which offers support to children who are experiencing gender dysphoria, the medical term for “the distress that a person may experience when there is an incongruence between their gender identity and their gender assigned at birth”.
With Michelle’s role comes a fierce spotlight and often harsh criticism from some of society’s more conservative, or narrow-minded, elements, a fact she acknowledged in an episode of the ABC’s Australian Story earlier this year.
“There have always been critics and you don’t go into this area of medicine without being warned about becoming a target,” Michelle says.
“I have certainly made myself a very big target.”
For Elliot, Michelle and the hospital’s staff in general have been an enormous support during every step of his journey, and he has her back when it comes to any criticism of her.
“(What I would say to people is) have you met Dr Telfer, is she the monster that you think she is and is she manipulating kids and converting them (with) experiments?” he says.
“Have you actually had that conversation with her, because I feel that if you haven’t you don’t understand and can’t mount an argument, because you haven’t seen the whole perspective.
“If it wasn’t for the (gender affirmation) program, Dr Telfer and the RCH staff, I definitely don’t think I would be here and, while that might sound terrible to say, that is the reality.”
Michelle’s journey towards medicine began as a promising gymnast who, at the age of just 16, won a bronze medal at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games.
During her time in gymnastics, Michelle met sports physicians and saw the power of what they could do, steering her towards a career as a doctor.
“I was trying to decide between doing paediatrics or psychiatry and then in paediatrics I found adolescent medicine, which is that perfect combination of paediatrics and mental health,” she told Australian Story.
“I found the place I wanted to be with adolescent medicine.”
But something happened in 2012 that represented a major turning point in her career.
“I came back from maternity leave and took this full-time job as the clinical lead of adolescent medicine at the Royal Children’s Hospital,” Michelle says.
“I was asked to take over this group of trans children and their care, and I jumped at it.
“I had never met a trans child before I started this job, and one of the first children I saw was a young boy called Oliver.
“I said to Oliver, ‘how do you know you are a boy, when did you start thinking of yourself as a boy?’.
“And he was 10 at the time when he told me his story.”
Oliver says that any time he had a birthday or someone asked him what his three wishes would be, he would always wish that he could be a boy.
“It was such a beautiful story and I thought to myself, ‘I can help this child have a boy’s body’,” Michelle says.
“How many people can do that?”
In 2019, there were 336 referrals to the Gender Service and that number had grown to 473 just 12 months later.
However, Michelle says more than 20 percent of the hundreds of children who come to them never go beyond that first assessment.
“We have helped them to understand that it is OK to have behaviours that are not consistent with what we would expect stereotypically of being a boy or girl,” she says.
“But that doesn’t mean that they are trans.”
For someone like Elliot, the journey towards gender affirmation through the RCH is a long and supportive one.
“For those who do feel that medical affirmation is necessary for them, they will see a mental health person, either a psychologist or psychiatrist, at least three times before they see anyone like a paediatrician or endocrinologist, who might start to consider whether medication is going to be something that will help them,” Michelle says.
“So the time taken from referral to seeing a paediatrician is about two years.”
Michelle says long-term regret rates for those who have transitioned are very small, about 0.5 percent.
“So if you are to avoid providing care to everyone to try and get that regret rate down to zero, it means that you are denying 99.95 per cent of all people who come to you the benefits of treatment,” she says.
As the public face of the RCH’s Gender Service, Michelle has been the target of regular attacks in the media, with News Corp, and its daily newspaper The Australian, leading the charge.
“From August 2019 to now, The Australian has written nearly 50 articles about me and my work,” Michelle says.
“The newspaper is inferring that clinicians like me are harming children, that it is experimental and the care is novel and that (the children) are potentially mentally ill and not really trans.
“One of their criticisms is that they can’t provide a balanced story because I haven’t engaged with them, but I feel very strongly that it is certainly not in the best interests of some of my patients to engage with the newspaper.
“They certainly weren’t using published and peer-reviewed evidence to balance out their articles (and) I felt that they were never going to give me a fair hearing.”
Michelle says there is a risk involved if nothing is done to support a child seeking gender affirmation.
“When the short-term risk of not providing care is severe depression and anxiety, self-harm and young people attempting suicide, we know that we can’t do nothing,” she says.
“Doing nothing is actually exposing young people to the risk of harm. Society has for hundreds and hundreds of years tried to ignore and dismiss trans people but now, that we are affirming them, look at what they can do.”
Speaking from experience
While Elliot Nicholas isn’t sure what career path awaits him, he is certain of one thing.
The Newcomb Secondary College Year 12 student intends to be a strong voice for those people often marginalised or left behind in society.
And not just a voice, but a loud and persistent one, as he campaigns with heart and head for a better deal for the LGBT+ community.
He is proud to say his name loudly, not his birth name, but the one that gives him strength and suits him best.
“Before I came out, I made a list of first names and middle names that I wanted to change to,” Elliot says.
“I then sent a photo of my face and the list of names to my closest friends and the most popular response was Elliot.
“I liked it too, so I chose Elliot for the first name and Tiberius for the middle name, as my birth name was originally a character from a Star Trek TV show, so I kept the nerdy inside joke and used Captain Kirk’s middle name, which is also Tiberius.”
The 18-year-old is already making a significant mark as a spokesman within his school and the wider community, as a vice-captain at the college and in his role as Greater Geelong Junior Mayor, as part of the city’s youth council.
Elliot is also a member of Geelong-based gender group GASP, which has been operating since 1996.
Under the theme of ‘As you are … as you want to be’, GASP is a safe and inclusive space for same-sex attracted, transgender, gender diverse, and intersex young people aged between 12-25 who live, study, or work in the Geelong region.
“During the years, I’ve noticed that my friends have grown more accustomed to my identity and have even become more accepting of the community as a whole,” Elliot says.
“In terms of a supporting community, I visit GASP and have benefited heavily from it.”
Royal Children’s Hospital’s Dr Michelle Telfer believes Elliot can be a positive spokesman for those like him tackling gender transition.
“What we have seen with Elliot over the past year is this thriving young man who has been incredibly positive in terms of influencing his own community,” Michelle told the ABC’s Australian Story earlier this year.
It’s a role and responsibility Elliot is more than keen to take up.
“(Making a difference) is why I have been trying to be as loud as I possibly can, that’s why I’m talking to you and was part of the Australian Story episode and am part of the Geelong youth council,” Elliot says.
“I am trying to show people who might disagree and say that ‘all this (gender affirmation) is wrong and you are being cruel to children’, that (without this) intervention my life was terrible, but now it is better than it has ever been because I have had all of these people supporting me and this program at the Royal Children’s Hospital in place for me.”
And it is people’s perceptions that Elliot knows need to change if progress is going to be made.
“We still live in a society where being transgender or gender fluid or non-conforming is considered alien and strange,” he says.
“I really want to get through to people that gender is not just about male and female, it’s anything and everything.
“I feel that if you haven’t met someone who has gone through these issues, you can’t know (what they have had to deal with).”
Most of all, Elliot is excited about a future that has endless possibilities around creating a better world for our youth.
“I’m really excited because during my time on the youth council one of the things we have been heading towards with the Geelong Council is creating a youth-dedicated space,” he says.
“I see part of that space as consisting of different areas that can accommodate different denominations of people.
“You might have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, LGBT+ people and people of different religions, as well as international students (feeling welcome in this space).
“I have always felt there is a need to advocate for LGBT+ people and their rights, especially those of children, both worldwide and within Australia.”
And, who knows, perhaps a political career beckons for Elliot.
“I definitely have a lot of passions and there are many things that I want to do,” he says.
“Next year, I plan to have a bit of a break, but there will be plenty of campaigning, including with the local Labor Party, because I’m really getting behind (what they represent).”
This piece originally appeared in Crosslight. View the original article here.