Michelle Telfer has been a lifesaving advocate for hundreds of trans children. But her work doesn’t come without controversy


It has taken seven years for Isabelle Langley to really feel like herself. Sitting in her bed room in Taggerty, Central Victoria, the 12 months 12 teenager lights up as she shares her plans for college subsequent 12 months.

“It is a new chapter of my life which is frightening however thrilling. I simply really feel like a standard child, which I’m,” she says.

A girl with long hair sits on a couch with a dog
Isabelle Langley at house in Taggerty, Central Victoria.(

Provided: Naomi McNamara

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Isabelle comes throughout as a assured 17-year-old with the world in entrance of her. She’s sporting a purple costume adorned with flowers and has lengthy curly brown hair. Her bed room seems like a basic teenage lady’s retreat. However the journey to get to the place she is in the present day has been difficult.

She’s transgender and has been on hormones for the previous three years.

“Once I got here out, I did not know that I may stay as a woman,” Isabelle says.

“I simply informed my mum, ‘I do not need to be a boy anymore. I am not a boy’. And I did not assume there was something I may do about it.”

Whereas Isabelle is flourishing now, there have been darkish instances in her life earlier than she was in a position to transition.

“Getting the fitting remedy for her was critically necessary,” her mom Naomi Langley says. “It has made all of the distinction by way of who she is in the present day.”

The remedy Ms Langley refers to got here from the Royal Kids’s Hospital Melbourne (RCHM). Michelle Telfer heads the hospital’s Gender Service and first met Isabelle eight years in the past.

Young Isabelle
At age 10, Isabelle informed her mother and father she not needed to stay as a boy.(

Provided: Naomi McNamara

)

Dr Telfer is credited with serving to to avoid wasting many kids’s lives with out pulling out a single scalpel or tending to any life-threatening ailments. However the job can be one of the vital controversial in Australian drugs, with critics questioning whether or not the medical remedy of trans kids below 18 is acceptable.

For Dr Telfer, the work is extra necessary than the controversy.

“We will not do nothing as a result of doing nothing isn’t a impartial choice for us,” she says. “Doing nothing is definitely exposing younger individuals to the danger of hurt.”

The gender clinic’s multi-disciplinary workforce has handled greater than 1,500 gender-diverse younger individuals, and when the time comes for individuals to transition into grownup care, it may be robust emotionally.

“Now that she [Isabelle] is 18, ending college and going into grownup care, will probably be a very unhappy time for me,” Dr Telfer says. “I do not know what Isabelle’s life can be like if she could not transition. I can not really image it, as a result of she’s such a assured, sturdy, articulate younger girl now.”

Isabelle says she hopes Dr Telfer can nonetheless stay in her life.

a young girl sits at a desk smiling at a female doctor who has short blonde hair
Isabelle first met Dr Telfer when she was 10.(

4 Corners, 2014

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Self-harm, suicide excessive dangers from gender dysphoria 

The RCHM Gender Service was the primary multi-disciplinary clinic arrange within the nation to assist kids and adolescents with gender dysphoria, which is the misery skilled when your physique doesn’t match your sense of who you’re.

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Previous to the clinic being established virtually a decade in the past, trans kids and adolescents had nowhere to hunt remedy, in accordance with Dr Sarah McNab, the hospital’s director of common drugs.

“Kids with gender dysphoria had no-one who understood them which had terrible psychological well being results, and in lots of conditions, they might attempt to self-harm and suicide,” she says.

A 2017 Trans Pathway survey of 859 young trans Australians found half of those respondents had attempted suicide and almost 80 per cent had self-harmed prior to getting the treatment they needed.

Reverend’s son ‘flourishing’ since coming out as trans

Seventeen-year-old Elliot Nicholas has attempted suicide several times. That was before he came out as trans to his parents, who are both Uniting Church ministers.

Almost two years on, Elliot is now the Junior Mayor of Geelong and the vice-captain of Newcomb Secondary College.

“Most of my mental health that I have this day is because of the amount of support and respect and love that I’ve been given being transgender and transitioning,” he says.

A man wearing a clerical collar with tinted glasses next to his teenage son Elliot who also wears glasses
Reverend Will Nicholas has been supportive of his son, Elliot.(

Australian Story: Ron Ekkel

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Reverend William Nicholas says his son has “flourished” since he started to transition.

“It’s been a long journey,” he says. “There has been considerable psychological assessment and as parents, we felt like we’ve been consulted every step of the way.”

composite image
Elliot Nicholas came out as trans at age 15 and at 17 he is now much happier within himself.(

Supplied: Elliot Nicholas

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Dr Telfer says her early career as an elite gymnast helped build the stamina and drive needed to do such a high-profile job. As a 16-year-old, Dr Telfer won a bronze medal in the uneven bars at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games.

“In my final year of gymnastics, I spent so much time with the sports physicians, and I saw the power of what they could do, and that made me want to go on to be a doctor,” she says.

After she’d qualified as a paediatrician, and returned from maternity leave in 2012, Dr Telfer was asked to look after a small number of trans children who had presented at RCHM. She “jumped at” the opportunity although she had never met a trans child before.

One of the first children she saw was 10-year-old Oliver Kipnis.

“I said to Oliver, ‘How do you how do you know that you’re a boy?’ And he told me his story,” Dr Telfer says.

Oliver, now 18, says: “For as long as I could remember, if someone said, ‘Well, what would be your three wishes with a genie?’ I’d always wish that I would be a boy. That would be my birthday wish.”

Oliver Kipnis
Oliver Kipnis first came to the gender clinic at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne at age 10.(

Supplied: Oliver Kipnis 

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“And I thought, I can help,” Dr Telfer says. “I can help this child have a boy’s body. How many people can do that?”

Oliver, who is in the Army Reserves and doing his last year of high school, hopes to become a cardiothoracic surgeon.

“I’m really optimistic about my future,” he says “I have huge ambitions. I want to do a lot of good in this world. And I think I wouldn’t be able to have those dreams if I didn’t receive support from Michelle.”

Probably, the most well-known of all Dr Telfer’s patients is Neighbours actor, 21-year-old Georgie Stone, the youngest recipient last year to receive an Order of Australia medal. She has also won a Human Rights Award and in 2017 won the Young Australian of the Year in Victoria.

“I couldn’t have made it to where I am today without the doctor who offered me the chance of a much brighter future,” Georgie says.

Two teenage girls hug tight outdoors at an event
Georgie and Isabelle have both worked with Dr Telfer.(

Supplied: Rebekah Robertson

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Surge in gender clinic referrals

The number of children seeking help from Dr Telfer and her team has exploded.

In 2009, there were six referrals. In 2020 there were 473 new referrals. This mirrors similar increases in the UK and US.

Two women smiling wearing work attire and stethoscopes around their necks
Gender clinic staff Sarah McNab and Michelle Telfer say they take a multi-disciplinary approach to diagnosing trans children.(

Australian Story: Ron Ekkel

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The upsurge in numbers has been accompanied by a debate about whether there are enough checks and balances in services around the world to identify children who may not truly be transgender.

Dr Telfer says her clinic follows a strict multi-disciplinary approach.

“Of the hundreds of young people that come to our service, more than 20 per cent never go beyond that first assessment,” she says.

“We help them understand that it’s OK to have behaviours that are not consistent with what we would expect stereotypically of being a boy or being a girl. But that doesn’t mean that they’re trans.

“If you aren’t actually trans, the hospital will figure it out,” Isabelle Langley says.

“If the child maybe is confusing their feelings or something else, they’ll figure it out. If at any moment I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not trans,’ I would have stopped.”

For those who do feel they want to take steps towards transitioning, the clinic offers multiple consultations with mental health professionals, including psychologists and psychiatrists.

Dr Telfer says the time taken from the first referral to seeing a paediatrician is about two years.

Parental approval is necessary to access treatment such as puberty blockers and hormones. Surgery is not an option until the child is 18 and transitions to the adult system.

Reports of ‘experimental’ trans medicine harmful

Dr Telfer’s work has also made her the target of those opposed to the medical affirmation of young people.

She says from August 2019 to July 2020 The Australian newspaper published 50 stories mentioning her and more than 300 citing the hospital. She has chosen not to respond to The Australian’s request for an interview.

“The newspaper is inferring that clinicians like me are harming children and what they suggest is that it’s experimental, that the care is novel and that they’re potentially mentally ill and not really trans,” Dr Telfer says.

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The Australian declined an interview request from Australian Story.

Dr Telfer recently took her complaints to the Press Council and is awaiting an adjudication.

For Associate Professor Liz Scott, a youth mental health specialist based in Sydney, the issue of transitioning at an early age is complex.

“Adolescence is a time of great change,” she says. “In the UK, there’s been a lot of attention from a case out of one of the big UK centres, the Tavistock Clinic.

“That has brought attention to young people who have transitioned during adolescence who then become very distressed and change their mind and wanted to de-transition.”

Ms Scott supports the need for multi-disciplinary services like the clinic run by Dr Telfer, which she notes is “accessible and accountable”.

But she also thinks it’s possible that cases similar to what’s happened in the UK may arise in Australia due in part to a lack of resources for vulnerable young people.

“My concerns about the explosions in presentations is that we don’t have adequate resources and young people will go to … hormonal therapies on the black market or to practitioners that did not work within that multi-disciplinary frameworks and young people may get wrongly diagnosed,” Ms Scott says.

Raising ‘comfortable and happier’ kids

 family of
Isabelle marches in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in 2020 with mum Naomi, dad Andrew and sister Hattie.(

Twitter: Andrew Langley

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Isabelle will need to stay on oestrogen— which is a gender-affirming hormone to feminise her body — for the rest of her life. But she says it’s been worth it.

“It just makes very little sense to me that people would see this kind of treatment as a social experiment — it’s just medical treatment,” Isabelle says. “It’s simply helping children feel more comfortable in their bodies and feel happier.

“The help I’ve gotten from Michelle and the team at the children’s hospital is a big reason why I’m so happy and healthy and alive today.”

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