Author Lisa Williamson’s affecting tale of transgender teens

Jacket cover and image of author Lisa Williamson

Jacket cover and image of author Lisa Williamson - Credit: Archant

The former admin assistant at the Tavistock tells Bridget Galton how she turned her experience of working alongside children struggling with their gender identity into a debut novel.

When actress Lisa Williamson took a temporary admin job at the Tavistock Clinic, she didn’t know it would lead to publishing her first novel.

For two years she travelled from her Hampstead flat to Belsize Park to work at the NHS Trust’s gender identity development service.

Typing up patients’ notes from therapy sessions offered a unique insight into the little-explored phenomenon of young people who struggle with a core part of their identity – whether they are a boy or a girl.

“My knowledge of transgender people had previously been confined to sensationalist headlines. Now I was hearing all these incredible - very relatable stories - in great detail and as the job went on I was invited to sit in on group therapy sessions and would go to their Christmas parties,” she says.

The Tavistock’s team of 40 psychotherapists and psychiatrists work with children from all over the UK who have gender identity issues. Patients are equally split between boys and girls, most are teens, but Williamson says there are referrals from worried parents with children as young as five.

“The subject hasn’t been covered enough. People aren’t aware of how many young people need help and the ignorance and hostility many encounter. Children all over the country are struggling with their gender identity and their first port of call is needing someone thoughtful to talk to.”

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Having always written in her spare time, Williamson was trying to write a novel while working at the Tavistock, but had a lightbulb moment when she realised “this amazing research source material” could inspire a book.

Aimed at teens, The Art of Being Normal (David Fickling Books £10.99) is a sensitive,portrayal of a 14-year-old boy struggling to feel at ease in his own body.

Her hero David obsessively measures himself, is dismayed at the size of his feet, fears the onset of stubble and covets his mother’s curves.

“Puberty is a huge trigger point. Young children might not have strong feelings before but they become much stronger as they hit their teens and their bodies start to change.”

David wants to be a girl and has confided in his two best friends but can’t bear to tell his loving parents, who assume he’s gay.

When tough, mysterious emotionally neglected Leo is expelled from his rough school and transfers, David tries to befriend him but is initially rebuffed.

It is only when Leo stands up to the bullies who dub David ‘freak show’ that a bond is formed between them.

Although peppered with realistic detail, Williamson was careful to avoid patients’ true stories.

“It was quite hard work because there were some amazing stories and by osmosis they had lodged themselves in my mind.

“I had to shut them out of my head so the characters were completely fictional.

“The story is also filtered through my own teen experience of feeling you don’t fit in or are different. There are other teen issues in the book too like falling in love or having an absent father.”

The book has already provoked positive feedback from readers: “I’ve had a tweet from a young trans person saying it gave them the courage to come out. Another teen has given it to all his friends to help them understand what he is going through, and teens who aren’t trans say it’s struck a chord with them because it is about being different, not fitting in and working out who you are.

“I am so glad because I didn’t want to do them a disservice by not representing their experience.”

Williamson is also heartened that the dearth of trans characters in fiction is being addressed with a forthcoming BBC sit-com featuring a trans character, played by a trans actor. “Things are starting to change but I know it will take time.”

Now the writer who lives near Whitestone Pond is on her way to writing her second novel for young adults.

“I can’t imagine writing for anyone else, I feel I have found my voice.”