The family home of Carrie and David Grant and their four children is a grand white stuccoed house in a peaceful close in north London. A piano and guitars take pride of place in the huge open-plan living room, which overlooks a swimming pool (drained for winter) in the back garden.
On the surface you might think the Grants lead a charmed life — and in many ways they do. The couple have been on Britain’s TV screens for decades. Carrie is a reporter with The One Show, David a presenter on Songs of Praise. In the early 2000s the pair were voice coaches on the hit reality TV show Pop Idol and before that David was the lead singer with the 1980s soul-funk band Linx, scoring several hit singles. They have worked with everyone from the Spice Girls to Roberta Flack.
They are a thoroughly modern family: a mixed-race couple who have been together for nearly 36 years, whose first three children — Olive, now 27, Tylan, 20, and Arlo, 16 — were born biologically female and today identify as either trans or nonbinary. They adopted their fourth child, a boy called Nathan, who is 12.
Along the way there have been countless challenges, from racism and bullying to mental health problems. All their children have additional educational needs and some are neurodivergent — their conditions include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia. I am meeting them today because they want to discuss things most parents are either too fearful or too embarrassed to air. Having successfully navigated issues that are becoming increasingly familiar to families everywhere, they are now writing a book about their experiences, to help others.
On a cold January afternoon the couple muster their entire clan into the back garden for our photographer, then back into the living room to lark about on the sofa. Two labradoodles are determined to get in on the action too.
I last encountered Carrie in September, when I interviewed her ahead of a conference at which she and David were speaking on how schools should handle children who feel they want to change their gender. Back then she told me she’d felt a pang of grief after one, then two, then three of her children announced they were no longer girls. “There was a moment of me thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t have any daughters any more.’ As a mum I always wanted daughters. I am the only female left in the family. I managed to think, ‘OK, I need to grieve that and move on,’ ” she said. After our interview was published there was a swift and vicious online backlash against the entire family.
“The resulting abuse was horrific, there was so much hatred online,” she says. “The responses were unbelievably cruel.”
For months Carrie declined to open up further, despite many media invitations. But now she feels ready.
As well as gender dysphoria, parenting their four children has encompassed everything from “attachment disorder, suicidal ideation, depression and self-harm to eating issues”, Carrie says. One of the reasons they are writing the book is because the couple run a parenting group of about 150 families, some of whom are wrestling with similar issues. Another is the effect of the pandemic on families everywhere. One in six children had a mental health disorder last year, compared with one in nine in 2017, according to an NHS survey.
There has also been an explosion in the number of children questioning their gender in recent years — and this is not just some metropolitan fad: there is barely a school in the country that hasn’t had some experience of gender dysphoria. In 2009 77 patients were referred to the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) clinic at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust in London. By April 2019 the number had hit 2590.
Carrie thinks the figure is likely to have climbed again during the pandemic because in lockdown teenagers will have had time to think about their feelings and decided to act on them.
The Grants want to share what they have learnt, developing a parenting approach that is very different from the strict discipline of their own childhoods. Their book, A Very Modern Family, is intended as a solace to thousands of mums and dads — and as a thumbing of the nose to those who might sneer at their experiences. Because, after the upsets of adolescence, their older children, now adults, are thriving. And despite all the difficulties Carrie and David have encountered, they are still very much together.
When they first began dating in the 1980s they seemed the kind of gilded couple who would glide through life. Carrie still liked to imagine as much when their children were young. “I thought we would sit in a restaurant and everyone would go, ‘Ooh, look at that lovely family — gorgeous family, no one on their phones, everyone ordering the right food’ …”
David interrupts: “It went from that to thinking if everyone was sitting at the table — and no one was under it — we were doing well!”
They had not even heard of gender dysphoria when, six years ago, at the age of 10, their third child, Arlo, became the first in the family to declare a change of name and gender. Carrie can still remember how he announced to the whole house: “I am a boy and I want to be called Ian.” The reaction was swift: “Everyone said, ‘Oh my God, not Ian!’ Nobody batted an eyelid at the boy thing but everyone objected to the name Ian.”
Their jovial response was, Carrie says, typical in her liberal, creative household. But Carrie and David quickly realised that they were on a steep learning curve. At first they turned a blind eye to Arlo’s initial statement, says David, “through ignorance”.
And then Olive Gray, their eldest child, an actor who is about to star in Halo, a new American sci-fi TV series based on the computer games of the same name, came out as nonbinary. David explains nonbinary as “for them it means they do not feel male or female”. Olive, now 27, uses the pronouns they/them.
A year after Olive’s declaration, Tylan — who has played the character Brooke Hathaway in the Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks since he was 16 — made a move at the age of 18, saying he was nonbinary. Hollyoaks immediately said they would make Hathaway nonbinary too. At one point the character rejects the title of school prom queen, saying: “I don’t think I identify as a boy or a girl.”
Tylan has since gone further. “Tylan is now trans masculine and uses the pronouns they/he, so that’s quite a big change,” Carrie says.
All three children changed their names — in Arlo’s case more than once. His birth name was Imogen but for two years he went by Mae. After asking to be called Ian he settled on Arlo. Tylan used to be called Talia. Olivia is now Olive. When we last met, Carrie made light of the name changes, saying: “David and I sometimes say, ‘OK, we obviously chose really badly.’ “
'None of my children have been brainwashed'
The couple’s current parenting approach is based not on confrontation, or ridiculing their children’s choices, but on trying to understand their behaviour. So they started reading up on gender dysphoria and strived to use the correct names and pronouns for each child.
“All of them really hate what they call their ‘dead’ names,” Carrie says.
It was far from easy. At first, confused, they would slip up, “misgender” the children, apologise and move quickly on. “Some children react badly when the wrong pronoun is used,” Carrie says. “It would be like calling me Grant rather than Mr Grant,” David adds. “It feels disrespectful.”
So why did all three offspring experience gender dysphoria? Some people believe the rise in the numbers of children saying they have been born in the wrong body is because trans activists and campaigners are influencing children online, and in schools and youth groups, to want to be transgender, but Carrie dismisses that notion. “None of my children have been brainwashed,” she says.
Instead she thinks there may be a link between gender dysphoria and neurodiversity. Tylan has been diagnosed with autism, as has Arlo. Carrie points to recent findings by scientists at the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre that transgender and gender-diverse adults are between three and six times more likely to have had autism diagnosed than cisgender individuals (those whose sense of gender identity corresponds with their birth sex).
Tylan has also explored his autism with the character he plays in Hollyoaks: Hathaway is autistic, and suffers from bullying. This has been a turning point for Tylan, whose own education at his state secondary school had been derailed by difficulties, including bullying. “It’s really cool to be autistic and playing an autistic character,” he says. “The situations they get into mirror experiences I have gone through. I did experience bullying at primary and secondary school. Sometimes it was racially motivated, sometimes mean.”
Like some of his other siblings, he spent periods out of school. At one point Carrie even considered opening a school for neurodiverse children like Tylan and others she met while home educating him.
Tylan says that growing up with a gay uncle and a father who happily took on some of the more traditionally female roles around the house has influenced his freedom of thought around gender.
“Even when I was younger, I did not feel like a girl. I saw gender as a performance,” he says. He clarifies how his new identity suits him. “I am not, like, an alpha man. I am like a small boy. I changed my name because it better suited who I am and how I feel. It represents where I am at in my transitioning. I find it difficult when people deadname me, saying my old name. I appreciate when people call me Ty or Tylan. I do feel, 98 per cent of the time, I know I am a guy. That is the default for me.”
Gender and fashion
Carrie rejects the idea that feeling as though you want to change your gender is merely fashionable among the young, but Tylan agrees that many of his friends have altered their names.
“I changed my name last January, exactly a year ago. I wanted it to begin with T — I think it’s such a great letter. Tylan means a bricklayer. Quite a few of my friends have changed their names. A lot of my friends are also LGBTQIA [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual] and have explored their identity. Even my cis friends will talk about gender and the performance of gender and their own experiences.”
This is the way many young people speak today — employing language that might have once only been heard in a university gender studies lecture. Many parents will be familiar with it.
A source of anxiety for some parents of children who express a desire to change their gender is that their offspring will be referred for medical treatment to try to change their bodies. From the gender identity clinic at the Tavistock Trust, some children as young as 10 have been referred for puberty-blocking drugs and some from the age of 16 have gone on to take cross-sex hormones. As adults some move on to surgery to remove breasts or change genitalia.
As the Grants point out, though, the focus on surgery and hormones can be misleading. Tylan has not had surgery or taken hormones to try to change his body, nor have any of the Grant children. “Being trans is as spiritual as it is physical,” Tylan explains. “I do not believe you get surgery and then you are trans. There are trans people who get no physical changes to their body and that does not make them any less trans. I have transitioned socially — it is always an ongoing journey, to find that sweet spot and think, ‘OK, yes.’ “
The Grant children have talked to therapists about their feelings, Carrie says, adding: “If one of the kids wanted to medically transition I would support that.” David sounds a cautious note. “I would want to know everything about it,” he says. “You want to protect them. I would want them to properly research it, take time, count the costs and think it through.”
Landmark court case
The risks of such treatments were illustrated in a landmark court case last year brought by Keira Bell, who was prescribed puberty blockers aged 16 but later regretted taking them. Bell, born female, said as a teenager that she wanted to live as a man. She went on to take cross-sex hormones and have a mastectomy. She is now living again as a woman but has said she fears the effects of the medical interventions on her fertility.
The High Court, which heard the initial case, ruled that children under 16 with gender dysphoria were unlikely to be able to give informed consent to undergo treatment with puberty-blocking drugs. The court also said that doctors of teenagers under 18 may need to consult courts for authorisation prior to commencing any medical intervention. The gender identity clinic appealed the judgment and won; later this year Bell will counter-appeal in a case to be heard in the Supreme Court.
In 2020 the NHS changed the wording of its guidance on puberty blockers, the effects of which it used to say were “considered to be fully reversible”. It now says: “Although [the Gender Identity Development Service] advises this is a physically reversible treatment if stopped, it is not known what the psychological effects may be. It’s also not known whether hormone blockers affect the development of the teenage brain or children’s bones.”
Carrie points out that there are waiting lists of up to two years to receive prescribed puberty blockers through the GIDS and that this provides time for families to explore the issues raised by gender dysphoria.
Her parenting philosophy is based on keeping the channels of communication open and giving children the freedom to explore who they are growing up to be.
Among the parenting group she runs is a family “where the mum is supportive of her nonbinary child and the dad is deadnaming them, and will not use the right pronouns”, she says. “We look at what we should do to help that family understand the changes going on.”
David believes restricting teenagers rarely ends well, although he admits it took him longer than Carrie to come around to that way of thinking. Both he and Carrie had strict upbringings — Carrie in Enfield, north London; David in Hackney, east London. His mother came to the UK from Jamaica in the 1950s as part of the Windrush generation.
Carrie got into presenting television shows after a stint as a dancer on Top of the Pops. She met David in Plymouth when he was the pop star guest on a children’s show she was presenting. On the train back to London he asked her to sit with him. “I thought she would be too polite to refuse since I had just been a guest on her show and … she was too polite.”
It was the 1980s and as a mixed-race couple they stood out. “It was so different in the Eighties,” David says. “To walk down the street hand in hand — we were stared at, even in restaurants in London. The first time we went to Cambridge, walking around with Carrie, I thought, gosh, people really seem quite shocked.”
“My mum and stepdad found it really difficult,” Carrie says. “Mum was part of the tennis club, dad was part of the golf club. They were working-class made good. Suddenly my mum was faced with — one child has married a black man, one child has married a man, because my brother is gay.”
At one point her mum even told Carrie that a friend had told her to throw her daughter, who was still living with her parents, out of the house. Carrie’s family were won round eventually. Now she says they are fierce supporters of the children if any racist incident occurs. And racism persists. Once, during lockdown, when David was out walking the dogs near their home, he was accused of trying to steal cars.
The couple say their experiences have helped them understand that they can learn from their children, just as their own parents learnt from them. “We have hearty chats. The children are so much more advanced than David and I are,” says Carrie, adding that they are particularly hot on the concepts of therapy and mental health. “It is more important to them than their physical health. Young people have a language of therapy they are using, but as kids they need our help with that — otherwise our kids will diagnose themselves with lots of stuff.”
A new challenge
Earlier this month their 12-year-old, Nathan, whom they adopted at the age of 2, was professionally diagnosed with a condition they had never heard of: disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD), which can cause him to lash out very violently at his parents. Child-parent violence is not talked about enough in society, Carrie believes. “A few months ago he knocked me out by kicking me in the face. I went to hospital and had scans to see if I had a fractured skull. Then I had social services calling and saying, ‘We are just checking if Nathan is OK.’ I was, like, ‘Hello, I am actually in hospital having my skull x-rayed.’ “
She adds: “I do not manage [the DMDD] well because I’m intolerant of violence, but I am really committed to helping this child. Most of the time we de-escalate situations and help him to regulate his mood — 99 per cent of the time my son is kind and sweet and an angel, but there is the effect of what happened to him as a baby …”
Tylan describes his family as “chaotic but fun and freeing”, and always there for each other. “There are a lot of us: someone can be bawling their eyes out in one room while someone is jumping up and down in another.”
Carrie recently tried to make a film for The One Show about a mother whose child was transitioning. The mother withdrew, fearing the publicity. The Grants think there are thousands of families whose children are dealing with issues like theirs, but in secret.
After an afternoon spent talking openly about issues many would hesitate to address even anonymously, Carrie concludes: “I do not think David and I are so far away from people out there. The idea that we are a really weird couple — I do not think we are. I think we are really normal.” A very modern family, in fact.
Carrie's top five parenting tips
1. Increase your presence. By this I don’t mean increase the time spent with your child, I mean intentionally giving focus to your child and making time to listen. When we are tired it’s easy to be present physically but be completely switched off.
2. All behaviours are communication — if our children are disrupting or harming themselves or others it’s easy to get angry or frustrated with them. Rather, look at the behaviour and ask why it’s happening. In their unsophisticated way they are speaking loud and clear.
3. When our young people are trying to share how they feel, repeat what they say. Them: “I feel sad.” You: “You have so much to live for,” won’t carry as much weight as, Them: “I feel sad.” You: “I hear you, you feel sad.” Often children (and adults) simply need to be heard and their feelings validated. Being heard helps people to process. It is not our job as parents to jump in and solve everything for our kids. Question: do my responses to my child shut the conversation down or allow for deeper exploration?
4. Strike while the iron’s cold — don’t bother trying to teach kids a lesson at the point they are exploding. They cannot hear us. De-escalate everything and when things are calm (an hour or a day later) talk through what was happening in that explosive moment. Never shame your child about what happened, it only leads to more negative behaviour.
5. Teach your child how to advocate for themselves. This has to be one of the most precious gifts we can give our children. Helping our children to feel confident enough to represent themselves and speak up when they need to is a lifelong skill.
Written by: Sian Griffiths
© The Times of London
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