Ma vie en noir

Should a 12-year-old British boy be allowed to get sex reassignment surgery?

Published July 21, 2008 10:15PM (EDT)

"To make a baby, parents play tick-tack-toe," explains Ludovic Fabre in "Ma Vie en Rose." "When one wins, God sends X's and Y's. XX for a girl, XY for a boy. My X for a girl fell in the trash. I got a Y instead. A scientific error!" The 1997 film tells the dreamy, fairy-tale-like story of a 7-year-old boy who believes that he is supposed to be a girl. Ludovic's world is rendered in lush, saturated colors. He dreams of marrying a boy he has a crush on, and his fantasies bring glamorous dolls to life.

Though his classmates laugh at him and his parents struggle to understand his plight, Ludovic's tale is ultimately a happy one. But as an article in today's London Times shows, life for children with gender variance gets much darker than even the saddest moments in the French film. In the piece, a mother recounts her 12-year-old son's lifelong experience with gender variance. At age 6, "Nick" began asking to have sex reassignment surgery, and last year he tried to cut off his penis. "When she started experiencing erections, she would scratch her skin raw," said Nick's mother, who the Times calls "Sharon." She believes that if forced to endure male puberty, Nick will commit suicide.

Because only 20 percent of children with severe gender variance become transsexual adults, doctors won't consider sex reassignment surgery until a patient is 16 years old. Sharon has decided to take her son to the United States for a controversial (but reversible) treatment that will delay puberty until Nick is old enough to seek surgery. The article surveys a number of experts whose opinions differ greatly on whether Sharon has made a defensible decision.

While it's always dicey to manipulate a pubescent preteen's hormones, it's difficult to imagine a better option for Nick. Perhaps he'll be among the 80 percent of children with gender variance who eventually identify with their biological sex. But if, at age 12, he's so disgusted with his male body that he's driven to self-mutilation, it seems likely he'll keep trying to hurt himself as he grows ever more masculine. I don't envy Sharon's situation one bit -- I can't imagine what it must be like to see your child in so much emotional pain, with so few viable solutions. In the midst of his predicament, Nick is at least lucky to have such an empathetic and tenacious mother.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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