‘Children were being sterilised but no one could speak out’
Helen Joyce on how the silencing of the trans debate has caused immense harm to children.
The fall of the UK’s Tavistock clinic, the NHS’s specialist gender-identity clinic for young people, is a watershed moment. The Tavistock had long been accused of putting transgender ideology above the health and wellbeing of children. According to whistleblowers, campaigners and former patients, vulnerable children were being put on an irreversible medical pathway to changing their gender, involving puberty-blocking drugs, cross-sex hormones and, in some cases, surgery. And all this after just a few sessions. Clinicians, it was often alleged, saw it as their role to simply ‘affirm’ children’s chosen gender. For years, these criticisms were dismissed as ‘transphobia’ and those speaking out were shouted down. Now that the clinic is set to close, are the critics of transgender ideology finally being vindicated? And has the spell of transgender ideology over children’s healthcare now been broken for good?
Helen Joyce is a journalist and the author of Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality. Helen joined Brendan O’Neill on the latest episode of his podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. What follows is an edited extract from their conversation. Listen to the full episode here.
Brendan O’Neill: The closure of the Tavistock feels like a real blow to the authority of the trans movement. Do you feel positive about how the discussion around trans issues is going at the moment?
Helen Joyce: I really do. Several things have happened in just the past couple of weeks and months that have given me an immense amount of hope. That includes two very important employment tribunal cases, those of Maya Forstater and Allison Bailey, and the fantastic news that the GIDS (Gender Identity Development Service) at the Tavistock clinic is to close. What replaces the Tavistock is, of course, up for grabs. But I’m assured behind the scenes that it will do better research, and will be properly integrated with other mental-health services.
The Tavistock had become super ideological, so I don’t think it could have been rescued. It needed closing. I’m also really happy to see that the Conservative leadership candidates are saying really sensible and positive things about women’s rights and sex-based rights. I think, all in all, good news.
O’Neill: Let’s talk about how problematic the Tavistock clinic had become. What do you think was going on there? And what does it tell us about the broader trans debate?
Joyce: You’ve got to understand the Tavistock as a place that acts outside normal healthcare practices and, in particular, normal practices for kids. The clinic was a specialist service, because that’s the only way you can get the expertise. And the Tavistock was the one clinic for the whole of England – it had a satellite in Leeds and there is Sandyford in Scotland – and that made it a ripe target for ideologues who had specific ideas about gender identity.
What I call ‘gender-identity ideology’ in my book, Trans, is this notion that all of us have an innate sense of whether we are men or women, or girls or boys, or something in between. And that identity is the thing that makes you a boy or a girl – not your sex, not your actual body. Those ideologues really targeted the Tavistock. And the way it practised medicine followed their ideas. Kids were coming in and saying things like, ‘I like playing with trucks’, or ‘I like wearing pink’, and after two sessions they were being put on puberty blockers. It was completely bizarre.
It also turns out that the people at the Tavistock weren’t doing any research. They weren’t even keeping track of their patients. They said they were doing a trial of puberty blockers, but they weren’t actually doing a trial.
The reason it is due to close is because after years of pressure from campaigners, the government decided to get a very eminent paediatrician, Dr Hilary Cass, to look at how gender-identity services should operate for kids. It’s Cass who said that, in effect, the Tavistock is unrescuable and it needs to be closed.
There are two great things to come out of Cass’s recommendations. First, the centres that are going to take over from the Tavistock will do really good research and they are going to keep track of absolutely everybody. They are going to do proper trials on puberty blockers, which have never been done anywhere.
The second is that gender-identity services are going to be combined with broader healthcare services. Kids who turn up at the Tavistock have loads of other problems – self harm, internalised homophobia, autism-spectrum disorders. But once somebody says the word ‘gender’, that’s all anyone talks about. It’s called ‘diagnostic overshadowing’, which is an expression I learned from Hilary Cass’s report. Once there a child’s problem is attributed to their gender identity, we talk about nothing else. And that’s going to change. We’re going to see these new centres deal holistically with kids’ health.
O’Neill: The fact that there has not been any serious research into puberty blockers is extraordinary. That such drugs would be given to children, in an almost experimental way, is worth really dwelling on, isn’t it?
Joyce: It’s worse than that, it wasn’t even experimental. When you do an experiment, somebody is testing different possibilities and tracking the outcomes. But these clinicians started with an endpoint. If you believe that people have ‘gendered souls’ and that they sometimes get trapped inside the wrong body, then everything else follows backwards from that. It’s not just that it isn’t evidence-based medicine, it’s that it can’t be evidence-based medicine.
O’Neill: One of the issues, which is something that you have direct experience with, is the explicit curtailment of open discussion about the trans issue. Whistleblowers from the Tavistock clinic were often demonised and sometimes referred to as transphobic. There will have been others who felt they couldn’t speak up because they didn’t want to subject themselves to that kind of abuse. Is there a direct relationship between the clamping down on free discussion about the trans issue and the disruptive impact it has had on young people’s lives?
Joyce: Absolutely. If you look back at the history of medicine, there have been a lot of scandals. It often takes a long time for whistleblowers to get through, because even before modern-day cancel culture, it was never very easy to speak up about the guy in charge.
There is a famous French doctor called Charcot, who basically invented the notion of hysteria. He coached his patients in hysteria and they would have these massive fits. When he died, they stopped. We’re seeing this again. [Trans] is another socio-medical contagion. What’s new is that it’s not just driven by the medical profession, it’s online as well.
That brings us to our current sociological moment, which, as you say, is incredibly authoritarian on the speech front. I think it’s the flipside of the internet. Anyone can say anything, but also anyone can stop you from saying anything. Nobody’s ever spoken as much, but also [your opponents] can land on you like a ton of bricks. There are thousands of them calling you a Nazi, trying to get you banned and maybe even approaching your employer, which is what happened to Allison Bailey. I was dropped from a conference on gender issues organised by the Great Ormond Street Trust.
The experience of living through it myself has taught me that I didn’t fully understand until now how important free speech was. I thought I cared about free speech before, and I think I always knew how unpleasant it would feel to be silenced. And I can tell you, it does feel very unpleasant. You feel like you’re being throttled and choked.
But that’s not the bit that matters. What matters is that it’s by talking that we make new knowledge and get to a better understanding of what’s happening. And what’s happening is children are being sterilised because critics of gender ideology have not been allowed to speak out.
Helen Joyce was talking to Brendan O’Neill on the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here: