Paris Lees: ‘Butterfly is the best thing to happen to the trans community for years’

ITV’s new series is the first ever UK drama to centre around a transgender child – how will it alter society’s perceptions of gender identity?

Butterfly on ITV

Some 45% of transgender pupils in the UK have attempted suicide, according to a survey carried out by charity Stonewall. It’s a shocking statistic, and an issue which is explored – as well as the wider experience of trans children – in ITV’s landmark new drama, Butterfly.

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The pioneering three-part series – from Bafta-winning Tony Marchant (Garrow’s Law) – stars Anna Friel and Emmett J Scanlan as separated parents who fundamentally disagree on how to support their youngest child, Max, who from a young age has identified as a girl.

When she begins to publicly identify as Maxine, she is relentlessly bullied at school, and her father is still clinging to the idea that her gender dysphoria is a mere phase. Her mother, meanwhile, just wants to ensure that her child’s mental health is kept intact. It’s a deeply affecting and enlightening family drama, which is sure to provoke debate.

Speaking after a screening of Butterfly, trans activist and journalist Paris Lees commended the series’ positive representation of trans people. “Every time I saw a trans person on TV when I was growing up, you would be presented as an object of ridicule or pity or disgust…” she said.

“It was really upsetting that every time I saw someone like me it wasn’t in a positive context, and I genuinely think that this is the best thing that’s happened to the trans community for years.”

The lead consultant on the series was Susie Green, the director of Mermaids UK, a charity that supports gender diverse and transgender children and young people. Green’s own daughter is trans and has attempted suicide numerous times, so the topic of the show is one very close to her heart and she said she is “ecstatic” that it’s airing on TV.

Although Mermaids helps thousands of children, it is hard to reach those whose parents are not supportive of their transition. “The parents who are going, ‘Not on my watch, you can’t do this, this isn’t happening at all, not allowed.’ They’re not talking to us,” said Green.

As Paris Lees pointed out, this means there are youngsters out there who are also struggling and whose parents refuse to acknowledge their gender identity. Mermaids runs an online forum for these unsupported children, so they can talk to each other and share experiences. “It’s a tough job for our moderators of those groups to keep an eye on those young people,” said Green, adding that they are “often self-harming, suicidal”.

In preparation for filming Butterfly, Friel and Scanlan met with some of the families who are supported by Mermaids. “I came out of that room so moved and touched,” said Friel. “I met so many wonderful families and it just opened my mind to the amount of bullying that’s going on, I was absolutely flabbergasted.

“And actually it’s adults to young children. It wasn’t other children in the schoolyard, it was the parents of the children that I thought should know better.”

She added: “There was one little girl who moved me so much. She said, ‘God didn’t work all day when he made me, he only worked for half a day.’”

Butterfly on ITV

Scanlan was equally in awe of the children he met. “I couldn’t not go to Mermaids and not meet Susie and those remarkable rock star kids and the parents, all of them mothers bar one father,” he said, referencing the fact that it’s fathers in particular who tend to struggle with the issue, especially when their kids identify as female.

“And again, the beautiful girl that Anna was talking about, she came home one day after school with a size eight footprint printed on her back from bullying, and it breaks your heart. It made me so angry and so driven to try and make this the best show that it could be.”

The creators of Butterfly decided not to cast a trans child to play 11-year-old Maxine, instead choosing newcomer Callum-Booth Ford.

Green elaborated on the decision, explaining: “What if when they were 13 they decided that they didn’t want to be known? And didn’t want to be public about their trans status? Then you have effectively put them in a position where that’s not possible anymore.”

Callum Booth-Ford, Butterfly (ITV, EH)
Callum Booth-Ford in Butterfly 

Desire for anonymity among trans children and their families is common. “I’ve heard from Susie terrible stories about… kids being snuck out and sent to their grandparents in the middle of the night because journalists are camped outside the house,” said Lees.

“We’ve never heard these people’s stories before because most of them don’t want tabloid attention, so they try to go under the radar.”

Because many people in this community are “living in fear” of speaking out, the debate about trans kids is “being conducted about them over their heads”, she added, going on to argue that the British press has under-served the trans cause. “I feel that journalists in this country have really let this community down actually, because they’ve failed to inform the public, including my parents when I was growing up, about the reality of what’s happening.

“We don’t know that this is happening because nobody’s talking about the fact that children are being bullied by adults. 45% of young trans people have attempted suicide in Britain. 45%. I don’t know why we’re not having a public debate about it.”

On what she really wants viewers to take away from Butterfly, Green said: “That this is not a fad or a phase, this is real life and kids really struggle with it, they fear their parents will reject them, they know that walking into a playground dressed as a girl or a boy or non-binary and saying ‘I’m not either’ is going to cause them problems.

“But then there’s also that inner sense of self, about, ‘This is who I am.’ And to deny that, we know, also causes masses of problems. We know that the problems that transgender kids have is more about society than about them. It’s not a mental health issue but actually the way that they’re treated as a result of being trans – because of the perception around gender identity – causes massive anxiety and depression.”

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This article was originally published in October 2018