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Olympian-turned-doctor ‘made herself a target’ by offering gender-affirming healthcare to trans kids

Lily Wakefield May 31, 2021
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Dr Michelle Telfer

Dr Michelle Telfer offers gender-affirming healthcare to trans kids in Melbourne. (YouTube/ ABC News In-depth)

Dr Michelle Telfer, who represented Australia in gymnastics at the 1992 Olympic Games, has described how she “made herself a big target” by becoming a global leader in caring for trans kids.

In a short documentary for ABC News In-depth, Telfer explained that after the end of her gymnastics career at the age of 18, she was inspired to become a doctor by those who had treated her various sports injuries.

She said: “I was trying to decide between doing paediatrics or doing psychiatry. And then in paediatrics, I found adolescent medicine, which is that perfect combination of paediatrics and mental health… I’d found the place I wanted to be.”

In 2012, after returning from maternity leave, Telfer took a job as the head of adolescent medicine at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.

She oversaw various services for young people, but her life changed forever when she was asked to lead the hospital’s gender clinic for children.

“I was asked to take over this group of trans children in their care, and I jumped at it,” she said. “I’d never met a trans child before I started this job.”

One of the first children she met with, she was, was named Oliver.

She continued: “I said to Oliver, ‘How do you know that you’re a boy? When did you start thinking about yourself as a boy?

“He was 10 at the time, and he told me his story… It was such a beautiful story.

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

Oliver went on to receive hormone treatment when he was 15, with the consent of both of his parents. Now 18, he told ABC News: “I’m in my final year of high school. I’m hoping one day to study medicine, cardiothoracic surgery or something similar.

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

Another of the kids in Telfer’s care, a trans teenager named Isabelle, also appeared in the film. She said: “I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have Michelle and the Royal Children’s Hospital with me. I think I’d equate a large part of my being alive at the moment to them.”

Right-wing newspaper The Australian has written “nearly 50” articles about Michelle Telfer.

But, despite the huge satisfaction she gets from helping kids to be their true selves, as the “debate” over trans people’s right to exist gets louder, Michelle Telfer has has become a “target”.

“There have always been critics,” she said.

“You don’t go into this area of medicine without being warned about becoming a target. And I’ve certainly made myself a very big target.”

She has been especially attacked, she explained, by the right-wing newspaper The Australian.

“From August, 2019, to the current time, The Australian newspaper has written nearly 50 articles about me and my work,” said Telfer

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

In 2020, following fierce lobbying by right-wing media and anti-trans campaigners for a “national inquiry” into health care for trans kids, Australia’s health minister Greg Hunt referred the issue to the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

The college shot down the idea of an “inquiry”, instead calling for greater access to gender-affirming services for trans kids.

However, even after the statement in support of her work, Telfer said the articles in The Australian continued and she began to struggle with anxiety.

Finally at the end of her tether, last year Telfer submitted a 42-page complaint to the Press Council over The Australian‘s coverage.

Despite everything, Telfer remains “absolutely optimistic about the future”.

“I know that what we’re doing is the right thing,” she said.

“Society has for hundreds and hundreds of years tried to ignore and dismiss trans people. But now that we’re affirming them, look at what they can do.”

Related topics: Olympic Games, trans healthcare, trans kids, transphobia

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