Bella Simpson seems like your typical 17-year-old girl – she loves putting on make-up, fashion and adores being pampered.
But what makes the Kiwi teenager different from her peers is she wasn’t born a girl – she was born a boy named Benjamin.
Bella has been living as a girl since she was nine. Life as a transgender child would have been hard for the Wellington high school student if it hadn’t been for the loving support of her parents – mother Melanie and father Craig.
They’ve come to accept Bella’s desire to change her sex – and made the radical decision to allow her to take medication at the age of 11 to stop puberty. It meant saying goodbye to their son and embracing a daughter.
“I am really grateful and lucky to have a family that support me,” explains Bella.
“There are many kids, just like me, who are struggling and don’t have that support.I find that sad.”
The transgender teen is speaking out about her journey for the first time, following media reports earlier this month on the Auckland parents of a seven-year-old girl, who they allow to live as a boy.
Like Bella, their daughter will start a course of prescription drugs, commonly known as puberty blockers. These put the physical transformations of puberty on hold, making it easier for transgender youths to decide which sex they want to be when they are older.
While the Auckland parents’ decision has been met with controversy, Bella is thankful her parents had the foresight to put her on the treatment, because it has changed her life.
“The blockers gave me time to think and allowed me to make that important decision as I grew up,” the Year 12 student says.
“It meant I didn’t have to go through puberty and spend money in the future trying to get rid of unnecessary things, like an Adam’s apple.”
Growing up, Bella always felt like she was meant to be a girl.
“We had a dress-up box at home full of ball gowns and wedding dresses,” she says.
“I used to put these on all the time. It got to a point where I needed to wear real female clothes, because you can’t wear wedding dresses everywhere.”
When she was 10 years old, Bella professed to her parents she wanted to be a little girl. Although at first it was hard to understand, her parents gave her their support, knowing their child’s happiness was the priority.
For mother Melanie, her child’s struggle with identity was hard to cope with – especially the heartbreaking times when Bella would constantly say she hated herself for being a boy.
“We started to accept it from the day Bella wore girls’ clothes, and the idea became more cemented as time went by,” Melanie admits.
A milestone for the family was when they worked together to choose their son’s new name.
“Once we changed it to Bella, everything else evolved. It was only then when she was truly no longer a boy and became a girl,” says Melanie (46), who declined to be in the photos, so the story could focus on her daughter.
The decision to allow Bella to stop puberty was the next big step the family had to take.
The three monthly injections are a gruelling process, which involved Bella undergoing an evaluation from a mental health professional, as well as regular x-rays to determine when puberty would start.
“It wasn’t a quick decision,” Melanie says. “We agreed, with recommendation from medical professionals and counsellors, this was the right thing to do.”
Just 11 years old, Bella was too young to understand the technical jargon of what would be involved, but she knew the procedure would allow her to become the young woman she ultimately wanted to be.
“Mum explained to me what everything meant, and we always talked about what was happening and I wasokay with it,” she says.
For six years, Bella has been taking the blockers, as well as female hormones for the last year, to help her physically transform into a woman.
After seeing how happy Bella has become, Melanie is pleased she and Bella’s father made the right choice for their child.
“She is more comfortable with herself,” Melanie says.
“She has become a well-rounded person and is doing better at school. If we made her conform, then that would be wrong.”
Bella has one more year at high school and plans to look into sex reassignment surgery to change to a girl once she has finished her studies.
In the classroom, Bella goes through every day like a regular teenager, and has the support from many of her peers and teachers.
“I’ve been open about my life since day one, so the teachers and other students don’t have a problem with it.”
Through her strength and determination, Bella has become a role model to other transgender teens, both here and overseas.
She constantly receives emails asking for advice and travels the country to talk about her life.
While her journey has been full of ups and downs, Bella doesn’t regret any of the decisions she has made.
“You just need to be strong. Having the ability to be yourself gives you so much freedom.”
For gay and transgender youth support, visit Rainbow Youth at rainbowyouth.org.nz
Photos: Neil Mckenzie • hair & Make-up: Michelle Siou