Mermaids: leading children up the trans path


Mermaids: leading children up the trans path

The charity claims to be helping 'gender-diverse' kids. But it really isn’t.

Jo Bartosch

Jo Bartosch

Topics Feminism Long-reads UK

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With the air of an evangelical preacher, Susie Green paces across the stage in her Dr Martens. She is explaining to the Ted X audience how her son Jack became her daughter Jackie.

Green is a former IT consultant and CEO of Mermaids, a charity that advertises itself as supporting ‘gender-variant children, young people and their families’. The story of Jack’s transition to Jackie is frequently told by Green to promote the charity. In the four years since she took the helm, Mermaids has shot to prominence, forming partnerships with Starbucks and gaining the support of media megastars including Prince Harry, actor Jameela Jamil and US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But questions about the influence of Mermaids on clinical bodies, its response to critics and the science behind the ‘born in the wrong body’ approach have begun to tarnish Mermaids’ highly polished image.

Winner of a ‘National Diversity Award’ and one of the few ‘straight allies’ to appear on the Pride Power List of 2017, Green is the very image of a supportive mother. She says she initially thought she ‘had a very sensitive, quite effeminate little boy who was probably gay’. She recalls how, as a boy, Jack was made to feel shame about his preference for the ‘girly’ toys and clothes by his father, at one point asking his grandmother ‘can you buy me Barbie Rapunzel, but can you hide it because if mummy and daddy find it they’re going to take it away’.

Green offers such anecdotes as evidence that her child was born with a ‘girl brain in a boy body’. But most research suggests that children who exhibit such behaviour are simply more likely to grow up to be same-sex attracted, and that puberty typically alleviates feelings of a body / brain mismatch. Despite this, Mermaids has been so successful in promoting the ‘wrong body’ narrative that it is referenced today by organisations across the UK, from the BBC to the NHS.

Mermaids advertises itself simply as a support service for children, young people and families. But there is a political dimension to it. Its recommendations to government include: the right of children to take legal action, without parental consent, against schools which do not refer to them by their chosen names and pronouns; the provision of hormone-replacement therapy for children under 16; and the fast-tracking of appointments and physical interventions for pubescent young people.

It is understandable that a child who knows him or herself to be different might latch on to the idea that he or she really is the opposite sex. At secondary school, Green’s child Jackie wore a girls’ uniform and long hair. After Jackie was bullied, and became depressed, Green turned online for support and found a US-based doctor, who was willing to prescribe drugs to delay puberty – so-called puberty-blockers, or hormone-blockers, which were unavailable for off-label use in the UK at the time. According to Green, the treatment was both ‘life-changing and life-saving’, and she unequivocally stands by her position, arguing that ‘medical intervention is very important, especially for teenagers who are already in puberty’.

Mermaids shares this position, stating on its website that ‘blockers simply give time for them [children] to reflect; they can stop at any point and a puberty typically associated with the gender they were assigned at birth will resume’. But the safety of such drugs has been questioned by experts, including Oxford professor Michael Biggs who, following his investigation into the use of blockers by the NHS Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), revealed that far from alleviating distress, ‘puberty-blockers exacerbated gender dysphoria’. After a year of treatment, reported Biggs, there was ‘a significant increase’ in patients who had been born female self-reporting that they ‘deliberately try to hurt or kill’ themselves.

The most commonly prescribed drug to halt development was first licensed to treat end-stage prostate cancer. Its use to treat children with gender dysphoria is ‘off label’, and as yet its longer-term impact on such children is unknown. Biggs argues that such experimental use of puberty-blockers by GIDS followed pressure from Mermaids and other ‘transgendering organisations [sic]’. Earlier this month it was reported by James Kirkrup in the Spectator that ‘the NHS has quietly changed its trans guidance to reflect reality’ with regard to potential long-term effects of ‘puberty-blockers’.

Green claims that Jackie had first requested sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) at six years old. Ten years later, Green took Jackie to Thailand for surgery, which it is now illegal to perform on those under 18. Jackie’s 16th birthday was spent undergoing the seven-hour operation. Green laughingly recalls in a YouTube video that the use of drugs to suppress puberty left surgeons ‘little to work with’ when it came to penile inversion – the process whereby a penis is cut and remoulded to resemble external female genitalia. Arguably, having set her child on the trans path, Green is personally invested in defending juvenile cross-sex transition.

Mermaids: leading children up the trans path

But Mermaids has not always been so strident in advocating for medical intervention. Indeed, when the charity was founded in 1995, bloggers on its website, identifying themselves as young ‘transsexuals’, would often urge caution. One 22-year-old, writing under the name Sian, warned:

‘You need to be unusually mature for your age to be able to transition stably at a young age. People who are still doing a lot of growing up, as is perfectly normal, just aren’t stable enough or prepared with the mental faculties to be able to cope with the stress of transition… A lot of young (around my age or younger) transsexuals seem to think deep down that someone has a magic solution to their problems. Like the rest of life as an adult, this isn’t true.’

To readers in 2020, the idea of a ‘transexual’ child sounds disturbing, though the shift in terminology does little to change the uncomfortable reality that being trans was an adult concept only recently applied to children.

Cautionary advice, such as that offered by Sian, would today be deemed transphobic by Mermaids supporters. After all, the charity now champions the ‘affirmation only’ approach. In slickly produced videos, parents are urged not to question their child’s identification as non-binary or the opposite sex, but rather to affirm it; and to advocate actively for, and to be guided by, their children. Mermaids also warns of the cruelty of the outside world, of hostile doctors and unsympathetic schools. Against all this, Mermaids proffers the sanctuary of the quasi-mystical ‘trans community’.

The most troubling aspect of Mermaids’ messaging is its use of suicide statistics. Mermaids claims that 48 per cent of transgender youth are reported to have attempted suicide at some point in the past. An investigation by Transgender Trend revealed that this finding is from a study of 27 self-selected young trans people, 13 of whom reported having attempted suicide at some point in the past. Nuno Nodin, the lead academic behind the research, explained that the findings had been ‘misinterpreted’ and that this was common ‘when research is used by non-scientists in the context of their own agendas’. Sadly, this nuance is lost during Mermaids’ presentations, where the statistic is trotted out to horrified audiences.

Unlike Mermaids, Transgender Trend is a small organisation with no corporate deals or major celebrity endorsement. Its aim is merely to ‘question the trans narrative’. As founder Stephanie Davies-Arai explains:

‘A child under the age of about nine will believe that putting a dress on a boy doll changes the doll into a girl… To the boy who loves wearing princess costumes, “I am a girl” is the explanation which makes the most sense at this developmental stage of childhood. “Affirmation” reinforces these stereotypes as true.’

Despite its ‘overarching principle’ as a charity not to attack or denigrate other individuals or organisations, Mermaids has been scathing about both Davies-Arai and the organisation she heads. Mermaids has referred to Davies-Arai, who was short-listed for the 2018 John Maddox Sense About Science prize, as an ‘unqualified anti-trans campaigner’.

In 2018, I was invited to contribute a chapter to Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body, edited by Heather Brunskell-Evans and Michelle Moore. I interviewed five out-and-proud lesbians, all of whom felt they would have identified as transgender had the option been presented to them as children. Without exception, they felt this would have been a dreadful mistake. Had their ‘trans’ identities been affirmed, each today would be infertile and facing an uncertain future of potential health problems caused by synthetic hormones and invasive surgery.

Despite a paucity of clinical evidence, the ‘born in the wrong body’ narrative has spread from lobby groups through to the general public and even clinical practice. When the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) opened at London’s Tavistock Clinic in 1989, it received two referrals over the course of the year. In 2018-19 it received 2,590 referrals. The role of trans groups, including Mermaids, in the promotion of transition as a cure-all solution for troubled young people, is alleged to have prompted a spate of resignations at GIDS, with 35 staff members leaving between 2016 and 2019. One former clinician told The Times: ‘This experimental treatment is being done not only on children, but very vulnerable children, who have experienced mental-health difficulties, abuse, family trauma, but sometimes those [other factors] just get whitewashed.’ Fear of being accused of ‘transphobia’ and the pressure to affirm the ‘gender identity’ of young patients are reported to have put clinicians in an impossible position. The Times reported, quoting two clinicians who have resigned from the Tavistock, that ‘there was a dark joke among staff that “there would be no gay people left”’.

But this is not reflected in the mainstream media coverage of the issue. Mawkish dramas and documentaries about children who identify as transgender, from BBC Radio 4’s Just A Girl to ITV’s Butterfly, have become a staple of contemporary broadcasting, cementing the ‘wrong body’ concept in the public imagination. And on many of these shows, Mermaids has acted as an adviser, giving it unprecedented airtime to make its emotionally charged claims.

Trans-child drama Butterfly was shown on ITV in 2019.
Trans-child drama Butterfly was shown on ITV in 2019.

Those who do not mindlessly follow the ‘wrong body’ dogma are automatically treated by Mermaids as hostile. Olly Lambert is a filmmaker who in 2018 made the documentary Trans Kids: It’s Time to Talk, for Channel 4. Seeking to produce a balanced programme, Lambert approached what he described as ‘the best known advocacy group for transgender children’, assuming Mermaids would be keen to contribute. He explains: ‘Like many others before me, I learned that Mermaids cannot tolerate any questioning of their methods or motives and will work hard to shut down any debate rather than enter into it and win support.’

Lambert was grilled on everything from the language he used to who the presenter, Stella O’Malley, followed on Twitter. ‘Our genuine desire to ask questions about how best to support kids who were gender non-conforming’, he told me, ‘was wilfully misinterpreted as us trying to “deny the existence of trans children”, which was absurd and patently untrue’.

Months after the documentary was aired, Lambert was filming a piece on the Arab-Israeli conflict for the BBC. ‘It was bizarre’, he recalls. ‘It was easier to get an interview with Hamas and the IDF than it was with Susie Green.’

Green herself has a history of initiating legal action. In 2018 women’s rights activist Posie Parker was questioned by police from West Yorkshire, who had travelled 250 miles to ask her about referring to the ‘sex-reassignment surgery’ performed on Jackie as ‘castration’ on social media. In 2019 Catholic broadcaster and commentator Caroline Farrow was also interviewed under caution as part of a hate-crime investigation. ‘It was staggering’, recalls Farrow, ‘that four Twitter comments, which did not even include [Green’s] handle, could necessitate prompt action… The request to interview me under caution left me extremely shaken, angered and fearful.’

It seems others at the charity are similarly keen on pursuing their agenda through the courts. In 2019, Mermaids’ employee Helen Islan, the mother of a child who identifies as transgender, took human-rights activist Miranda Yardley to court, again for comments made on Twitter. Yardley is a transsexual and outspoken critic of the modern transgender movement. The case, which was the country’s first prosecution for ‘transgender hate crime’, collapsed within a day. The judge stated that there was no evidence of harassment and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) should never have brought the case.

Barrister Gudrun Young, who was following the proceedings, noted: ‘Questions need to be asked as to why the CPS not only decided to prosecute Miranda Yardley in these circumstances, but were also so quick to inappropriately label it an incidence of “transgender hate crime”.’ She adds that both the courts and the CPS ‘should be very wary of attempts to use the court system to silence political and ideological opposition’.

It should be noted that not only has Mermaids delivered training to and received support from several police forces, but Susie Green has boasted of the close friendship between Jackie and the Leeds hate-crime coordinator. Mermaids has also had a hand in CPS policy development, when, as a stakeholder, it was consulted on the development of the CPS’s 2019 Trans Equality Statement.

Mermaids’ influence at a parliamentary level is also notable. In 2015 Green was selected to give evidence in person to the inquiry into Transgender Equality conducted by the Women and Equalities Committee, where she claimed that children waiting to be put on cross-sex hormones become ‘self-harming and suicidal’, and referred once more to their ‘48 per cent suicide-attempt risk’.

Mermaids has made a number of high-profile mistakes in recent years — from doubling down in support of a mother who was found by a High Court judge to have caused her son ‘significant emotional harm’, to a data breach that led to the ‘intimate details of the vulnerable youngsters it seeks to help’ being revealed.

It seems the appointment of Liz Truss as minister for women has also impeded the progress of Mermaids. Setting out her priorities on accepting the role, Truss emphasised child protection, arguing that it is ‘very important that while people are still developing their decision-making capabilities that we protect them from making those irreversible decisions’. This has been met with a campaign of letter-writing and a furious public statement by Mermaids. Finally, it seems questions are beginning to be asked about the ideological bias of Mermaids and the charity’s influence on government.

Observing how Mermaids operates, a bastardised version of the old Jesuit saying comes to mind: ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the trans or non-binary adult.’ While Mermaids’ story of ‘wrong bodies’, suicide and persecution has a base appeal, the speed at which this small group of true believers came to exert such an influence over policymaking and clinical practice is concerning. The story of Mermaids’ success is testament to the credulity of adults who should know better, and the vulnerability of the children they ought to protect.

Jo Bartosch is a journalist campaigning for the rights of women and girls.

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Topics Feminism Long-reads UK


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