‘Nothing Ever Happens Here’ is a new children’s fiction novel in which a girl of 12 in a small town in the UK copes with the transition of her father. It has already been quite controversial and has an interesting background which suggests that it’s been written with an agenda. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this book is damaging to children of transitioners (as well as other children) and amounts to a form of grooming for emotional abuse. It also, surprisingly, veers off into the subject of child transitioners. The book is very much for the assumption that gender non-conforming children are trans, despite evidence that the vast majority of these children would grow up to be gay adults.
The author, Sarah Hagger-Holt, wrote this book after researching a non-fiction book on the same subject for her employer, the UK LGBT advocacy group Stonewall. You may not be aware that, since 2015, after the fight for gay marriage was won in the UK, Stonewall turned its attention towards aggressively campaigning for trans rights. This move increased its funding from £4.33m in 2013, to £7.24m in 2017, but has been so controversial that a new group has been formed called the LGB Alliance to focus on gay rights. For example, Stonewall actively promotes the idea that a person with a male body can be a lesbian, without acknowledging that lesbianism is female same-sex attraction. You can’t say that Stonewall is a neutral participant in the gender wars, unfortunately.
Stonewall is also very much involved in working with schools and young people and ‘Nothing Ever Happens Here’ contains a number of references to Stonewall and its campaigns. It’s basically a Stonewall book. I noticed that its launch on Twitter was welcomed by many school librarians.
So, sadly, Hagger-Holt’s book comes with an agenda. If you are looking for anything like a sympathetic or accurate account of the range of emotions and problems a young girl might experience when her father starts wearing women’s clothes… don’t bother opening it. As with most books that seek to educate rather than illuminate, it’s also quite dull.
The book centres on ‘Izzy’, a girl in Year 8 in a UK school (which would make her 12-13 years old) in a small and rather dull town in the east of England. Her best friend is Grace. Early on in the book they win lead parts in a school’s production of Guys and Dolls. Now, I really like Guys and Dolls (I’ve even read the Damon Runyon book), but I wouldn’t say it’s particularly appropriate for children. ‘Nothing…’ has a number of odd features like this. Adults do slightly inappropriate things. There are some strange conversations. Bizarrely, all of the children speak in complete sentences and don’t use any slang. But hey, it’s a first time children’s book; they can’t all be Harry Potter!
While looking for the DVD of Guys and Dolls at Izzy’s house, Grace and Izzy find an unusual stash of clothing stuffed at the back of the wardrobe: “She unzips it to reveal a couple of dresses, along with a skirt and top, underwear and a pair of pink high heeled shoes … Grace shakes out one of the dresses, holding it up against herself and feeling the silky material between her fingers.” The detail of Grace feeling the ‘silky material’ is particularly unsettling. Later, Izzy’s Dad says he will wear dresses sometimes but also “I’ll wear jeans and T-shirts – like Mum.” Mum, the voiceless trans widow, says nothing about her husband wearing clothing like her. At one point, she says: “Dad and I made a promise eighteen years ago, and we’re not going to break that promise now, whatever happens.” I wish there was some acknowledgement that the promise was made on very shaky ground and it’s often better to separate. If I could enter this book as a character, I’d be the feisty neighbour giving Mum a help with consciousness raising and also changing the locks.
Izzy’s joy about her part in an oddly inappropriate musical is overshadowed by her father’s announcement that he is transgender, which he defines as being: “born in a body that doesn’t match their true gender … my body and who I am inside don’t match.” Izzy’s eldest sister is upset and challenges her father’s idea that he can be a woman, but don’t worry… by the end of the book she is inspired by transvestite artist Grayson Perry (the author is at pains to make sure we know there is a difference between being ‘trans’ and a ‘transvestite’) and using Stonewall slogans in her A Level art project.
Izzy notes that when her sister doesn’t accept him at first: “He looks so sad that I want to reach out and hug him. But I’m still angry with him too. He’s supposed to be the grown-up, not me. He’s supposed to be the one comforting me. The one with the answers. He’s supposed to be my dad. And I’m not ready for that to change.” Her anger is mentioned again later, but is finally buried before the end of the book.
Izzy’s mother is a cypher. She designs web sites and… that’s about it. She is simply there to be supportive, although she does acknowledge having some feelings on the matter later.
So Izzy is our protagonist and she is confused and worried about what will happen at school. In the end the information comes out, she is bullied and has a massive row with Grace, but she meets a boy whose ‘father’ was born a woman and it all gets resolved by the third act. It’s all helped by ‘Vicky’, a magical trans person who appears in the middle and encourages everyone to use ‘she’ pronouns for Izzy’s father. The children also start calling their Dad ‘Dee’ to differentiate him from their mother.
So there’s some bullying at school and a row between Grace and Izzy, but Grace eventually comes back to Izzy’s side and sees off the main bully. There is also an odd aside about Shakespeare ‘liking’ both men and women. I really wish people wouldn’t say that to English Literature students until A Level. It’s more complicated than that, and starts creeping into GCSE essays. Sigh.
Izzy is a bit worried about Dad wearing women’s clothes but it all seems fine. And when he doesn’t everything’s fine. Grace seems to think he will look great eventually, like Caitlyn Jenner does (!). Then, one morning Izzy comes down to breakfast and Dee is annoyed about something in the paper. It’s the kind of headline you never see: Primary School Kids Forced Into Sex Change. Possibly because it’s frankly bonkers, but also because we don’t use that language any more. Here’s what Dee has to say about the article: “Just make sure you don’t believe a word of it. There was a report released yesterday. About people who are transgender and the kind of support they need. At school, at work, from the NHS, that kind of thing. And somehow that has become a story like this.” Dee ‘gestures to the paper and screws up her face in disgust’ … “It’s twisted and mean and not true.” The family is horrified that ‘thousands of people’ will read these ‘lies’ and “not know any better.”
Dee says: “Just because it’s in the papers, or on the internet, for that matter, doesn’t make it true. You’re both clever girls, you know that.” So ‘clever girls’ know that newspaper coverage of transgenderism isn’t true? How is this not grooming?
Just to contextualise what is happening in the UK at the moment around the issue of transgender children, the UK’s only NHS clinic for child gender dysphoria (The Tavistock) has been beset by a number of scandals relating to its practices, including a series of high-profile resignations, whistle-blowing and legal actions alleging that it has been far too keen to affirm children as trans and prescribe dangerous treatments. Thirty-five members of staff have resigned over the issue. So it seems incredibly disingenuous to tell children that they aren’t ‘clever’ if they believe press coverage of this. As Stonewall itself is very much about affirming gender identity, this is pure propaganda.
The book goes further. Dee decides to accept an invitation to appear on television to debate the story against a stereotypical evangelical preacher. Bizarrely, he invites Izzy to join him on the journey to the television studio. Grace comes too. This is the day of the big musical and Izzy is distressed that her father is focusing on himself and also that this might embarrass her.
Mum finally addresses Izzy’s feelings and acknowledges her own: “Izzy, I know you’re angry … I get angry too … with your Dad and with myself and with how people are, the whole damn situation.” She tells Izzy that she always knew Dee was trans, or different somehow, but thought being married to her and having children would ‘cure’ him. I do wonder who the writer interviewed as most trans widows talk about how incredibly straight-presenting their partners were. She says there have been other things in her life, like her children, so the trans thing hasn’t been the only thing happening. I suppose it gets around the idea of deceit if she has always known and somehow settled for the sake of having children, although you might think she could have expected more from a marriage.
Dee’s a bit of a wet blanket to be honest. He just seems to cry and be sad.
At the television interview, Dee talks about how supportive his family has been, which makes Izzy happy. He characterises the report in the newspaper as being just about making things easier for trans people, nothing to be concerned about. I am sure it is completely a coincidence that this echoes the arguments for implementation of self-id in the controversial Gender Recognition Act in the UK. The preacher urges caution around gender transition, while Dee retorts that ‘young trans people are suffering’. The only thing to stop young people being bullied or self-harming is to go further, says Dee. When asked about the issue of social contagion among young people claiming to be trans, Dee’s ‘clever’ response is that is: “is learning about the French Revolution going to encourage our children to chop off people’s heads?” Dunno, Dee… are clusters of children being inspired by YouTube and Instagram to storm the Bastille and construct guillotines? Dee talks about how difficult it was growing up trans and Izzy feels a lot of sympathy.
It’s all wound up pretty much after that. Izzy does well in the musical, her Mum and Dad seem happier, Dee starts taking hormones and people get used to calling him ‘she’. Her sister becomes an activist, defending her Dad against transphobia.
Of course, in the 1980s, when I was Izzy’s age, there were hardly any children in the UK with trans parents. Today it seems to be a phenomena that warrants a children’s novel. I am very glad it wasn’t around for me then as it seems to be priming children to accept emotional abuse.
The thing I wanted to address the most in this blog was what I called ‘The Pressure to Pretend It’s All OK’. It was the first thing I wrote here and the most urgent. If we can talk at all about our experiences, if they are to be honest, they have to be made without a censor. I feel my feelings. I don’t need a filter. I loved my Dad and wanted to make him happy, but bottling up my feelings left me with an eating disorder and a lot of anger. Sure, I am a happy middle-aged woman these days, but you should have seen the mess I was in during my twenties!!
I found this on the website for Relate, the UK relationship support organisation:
I wish I had understood about emotional abuse at Izzy’s age. Perhaps I would have recognised what was happening to me as wrong. It’s important to recognise the pressures placed on children in all kinds of contexts. Having a trans parent shouldn’t be any different.
There are a few articles out there as well as some FB groups, Mumsnet threads, books, podcasts etc. about being a child (and wife) of an adult male transitioner. In those I have found experiences similar to mine: emotional abuse, problems with boundaries, financial abuse, substance abuse and the associated problems of living at the mercy of someone with narcissistic personality disorder. Some accounts are difficult, some are more positive. A book with such a trans-affirming agenda is obviously not going to be honest about what really happens, and that’s a shame.