From the age of four Jackie Green knew she was a girl trapped in a boy’s body. Rod McPhee meets the courageous Leeds woman who, on her 16th birthday, became the youngest person in the world to have a sex change.
IT’S a subject which can prompt a response ranging from intrigue to derision, but it’s increasingly accepted that some people are born with the physical appearance of one sex and the mind of another.
The condition remains rare but the NHS is dealing with a growing number of cases due to a heightened awareness of symptoms.
In fact there are now an estimated 1 in 4,000 people undergoing some form of treatment for gender dysphoria in the UK.
It’s a concept which is virtually impossible for most of us to understand, but those affected have to make the best of a confusing, challenging and frequently heartbreaking situation.
That’s just what happened to Jackie Green.
She was born 18 years ago with all the physical characteristics of a boy and her parents named her Jack, but from being a toddler she acted like a girl.
She always wanted to wear girls’ clothes and play with girls’ toys.
From then on her life became more and more difficult until eventually her parents made the decision to pay for Jackie, as she was known by that time, to have £28,000 of treatment and complete gender reassignment surgery.
She was the youngest patient in the world to go through the procedure.
Even the most liberal observer could question the decision of her mother, Susie, to allow such a drastic operation when her daughter was just 16 years old.
But by her mid-teens Jackie was so traumatised that she had already attempted to kill herself four times and her mother says she had to face up to a stark choice – live with a daughter or face the prospect of a dead son.
“I do feel guilty sometimes,” says Jackie “because my mum’s gone through all this with me and I know people judge her and think she’s done the wrong thing. But I just couldn’t wait for it to happen. She and my dad have been brilliant. When they both came to terms with the situation they helped me so much. I owe them my life.”
Some might query whether Susie, who was always a very open-minded mother, did enough to discourage Jack from playing with girls’ toys and wearing feminine clothes – both signs displayed from the age of three. Did she really try to intervene enough?
“Oh good God yes,” she says. “I’ll be quite honest, if I could have had a choice I would have liked to have had a son who was completely heterosexual. Because I feared for her future. I wasn’t horrified by the prospect of her being a girl – although I did find it extremely difficult to come to terms with - I just knew how hard things life be for her.
“When she was such a girly boy from such an early age I even started hoping she might grow out of it and it might turn out that I had a gay son. I think I must have been one of the few parents who was actually praying I had a gay son. But you could see from about the age of three it wasn’t just the toys she played with it was as much as the way she played with them.
“She didn’t really have many dolls, but what cuddly toys she had she would nurture and treat like babies, not at all like a boy. And she just said to me: ‘Mummy, God made a mistake, I have a girl’s brain in a boy’s body.’
“But initially her dad just said: ‘I’m not having this’ and when she was aged about four he insisted we have a go at trying to stop her having anything girly. She had a few dolls which were put away. That lasted for about six weeks because she just disappeared into herself – she couldn’t even play with her cousins’ girl toys when she went round there.
“It wasn’t my idea and I didn’t like it. She got depressed and would sit watching TV, not talking. She didn’t want to do anything. Then one day I found her hiding in a cupboard on the telephone. My mum had called to see what she wanted for her birthday or Christmas or something and she was whispering ‘Can you buy me a Barbie and keep it at your house so I can play with it?’ And at this point I thought: ‘This is just not on’ because I realised I was battering her self-esteem and basically vilifying her as a person.”
Jackie was displaying classic symptoms of gender dysphoria both in terms of the timeline of change and the nature of the changes. Tellingly, research has shown that males are five times more likely to be diagnosed with GD than females.
Far from trying to encourage the change Susie’s stance was equally classic: she just hoped it would be a passing phase. But instead of going away, Jackie’s feminine characteristics intensified. She wanted to grow her hair, raid her mother’s wardrobe and started to compensate for her physical appearance by acting in an excessively feminine way.
IT manager Susie, now 43, split from her husband 11 years ago. The family – including Jackie’s three younger brothers – moved to their current home in north Leeds and Jackie attended the local primary school. It was at this stage that her mother realised it was more than a fad, particularly when she started to act female in the classroom and outside of the home.
“I was always overtly feminine,” says Jackie. “It was very obvious but I’d over-compensate and start wearing really outrageous clothes. I had a dress like a sari with purple sequins and flowers and big bell-sleeves and stripey with ribbons – and I’d wear that to Morrisons!” she laughs. “But when people started calling me a tranny or gay or whatever at primary school I just didn’t know what they were talking about. I had never thought of myself as anything but a girl.
“I don’t think I really knew there was a difference between the sexes in a way. I remember the first time I did was when the teacher would split us up in the classroom for something – boys on one side and girls on the other – and naturally, I thought, well, I should be over there on the same side as the girls.”
If anything might nip the fixation in the bud, her parents believed, it might be external peer pressure. But Jackie didn’t change, even in the face of horrendous abuse brought on by the fact she was then a boy, acting like a girl.
“One of the worst things was one day a woman was waiting in a car outside school with a child next to her,” recalls Susie, “And she just yelled out the window ‘Oi, you tranny! You FREAK!’
It was around this time that the suicide attempts began and Jackie threatened to cut off her own genitals with a knife. Susie now knew it was much more than a fixation and was forced to start locking up knives and any tablets in the house.
“At that point I would still try to make her live like a boy outside the home – believe me I was still fighting it. But in a way it was making things worse. By the time we let her grow her hair and wear girls clothes the bullying went away a little.”
It was after this time that Susie started to accept and embrace the fact that she had a daughter born in a boy’s body.
Believing there was no way back she researched gender dysphoria and concluded the only way forward was to stop Jackie from going through male puberty.
To that end she flew to the Boston Children’s Hospital in America to meet Dr Norman Spack who prescribed puberty blockers and the female hormone oestrogen which prevented the emergence of male physical characteristics in favour of female traits like breasts and hips. The treatment wasn’t available in the UK at the time, but puberty blockers are now available online – via a research program being run by the Tavistock clinic in London for those aged 12 and over.
But when Jack, by this stage known by everyone as Jackie, attended Benton Park secondary school, they knew that having the mere appearance of a woman would never be enough. Word quickly spread and she was spat at, constantly on the receiving end of abusive language and either in the corridor or on the way home. She started skipping school, suffering from ill health including post-traumatic stress disorder.
“From the minute I got there I was annihilated.” recalls Jackie, fighting back tears. “Even some teachers called me Jack instead of Jackie, even though we’d spoken to the school about this.
“But the worst thing that ever happened to me was while I was walking home and a group of people were following behind me – then one of them just ran up and pulled my skirt down and said ‘Show us what you’ve got then.’”
Susie said: “I actually wrote a list of bad things that happened to her that I could remember off the top of my head – it covered a side of A4 paper. She couldn’t go into school without having a full-blown panic attack, then I pulled her out after she tried to overdose a few times.”
In the end the local education authority arranged for Jackie to be schooled at a special unit in the middle of Leeds, but both mother and daughter knew that she could never lead anything close to a normal life until she made a full physical transition.
By her mid-teens her father had also come to the same conclusion and helped to fund the treatment, while her mum mortgaged her house to help pay for the £13,500 operation. The seven-hour transition eventually took place in Thailand because in the UK it is only available to those aged 18 and over.
Wheeling her into the operating theatre on her 16th birthday the nurses sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. “And it was my birthday,” says Jackie. “I felt like I was being born all over again.”