Gender sirens

Beware Mermaids singing a sad song

Artillery Row

It was entirely predictable that the adults would hide behind the children. As soon as it became clear that Mermaids — the charity that claims to support “gender-diverse youth” — would at last be subject to some degree of formal scrutiny, out came the familiar hashtag: #ProtectTransKids.

Following reports that Mermaids has been sending breast binders to children, helping 16-year-olds to change their names without their parents’ knowledge, and directing chatroom users to unregulated spaces, the Charity Commission has opened a regulatory compliance case into the organisation. 

You will note that the people being investigated here are not children themselves. Being desperately unhappy with your body and confused about your identity are not crimes, whereas exploiting vulnerable young people who feel this way really ought to be. 

Mermaids is terrorising vulnerable children for political gain

Nonetheless, Mermaids and its supporters — including Stonewall CEO Nancy Kelly — have chosen to misrepresent the situation in the same way they always do. It’s not them, the adults, who are being asked to justify their actions. Oh, no, kids — it’s you who are under attack. 

In a statement released this week Susie Green’s charity declared itself to be the victim of “a targeted, cynical attack” by “those with an anti-trans agenda”. Meanwhile Kelly has shared a TED talk in which she asks “how can a trans child need less protection than a cis child? How can a trans child need less protection than a cis adult?”

I don’t know, Nancy, but given the cavalier attitude to safeguarding shown by adults declaring themselves trans allies, I quite agree that these children have been badly let down. Then again, I know that’s not what you mean. What you and others are suggesting is that unless Mermaids and fellow organisations such as Gendered Intelligence are permitted to proceed as they see fit, minus any oversight whatsoever, trans children are being made unsafe. You might think of this as covering your own backs. I think of it as terrorising vulnerable children for political gain. 

It’s a tactic familiar to anyone who has studied domestic abuse and coercive control. Make the people whose unquestioning compliance you seek — in this case, unhappy children — believe that the rest of the world is a greater threat to them than anything you could do. Convince them you are keeping them safe. Make them think that without you, they’d die. 

The adults who claim to champion the cause of “trans kids” have taken this approach to extremes. The world is “trans-hostile”; young people are being threatened with “conversion abuse”; the treatments Mermaids promote are “life-saving”. This sits alongside broader messaging which suggests anyone critical of, say, puberty blockers or breast-binding is supportive of “trans genocide”. 

Young people are told they are surrounded by adults who want them dead — if not by killing them outright, then by denying them the treatment they need to survive. Feminists want them dead. Their parents want them dead. Hell, even their favourite author wants them dead. This inflicts terror on children at one of the most turbulent stages of their lives

This alone would be bad enough, but Mermaids takes it further. What’s next, once you’ve convinced a distressed child that everyone in the world is against them except you? You take away their last scrap of self-reliance. Persuade them their own body is out to harm them, with puberty lying in wait to ruin everything. Make them believe that the trauma and disorientation that is a familiar part of this particular life stage is proof that they need fixing, and fast. Anyone standing in the way of this is, of course, the enemy. 

If you’ve destroyed young people’s trust in other people and their own bodies, what can there be left? Only their minds. Here, Mermaids encourages its young devotees to believe that if they are not careful — and if they are not sufficiently protected from the twin enemies of their growing bodies and Mermaids’ political opponents — they will kill themselves. It is this exploitation of the suicide narrative that I find most unforgiveable of all. No one can claim ignorance as to the dangers of this, yet Mermaids and its cheerleaders routinely add “suicidal ideation” into the symptom pool of what it means to be “truly” trans. In doing so it is they, not anyone else, who are putting children’s lives at risk. 

I cannot imagine how terrifying life must be for a child immersed in Mermaid’s exploitative fictions. Like many adults who spent years despising their developing bodies, I do find it easy to see how one might get drawn in. Like all those who practice emotional manipulation, the adults who run Mermaids base their lies on grains of truth. 

There is plenty of misogyny and homophobia in the world. Certain people do believe if you are a gender non-conforming child, there is something wrong with you (although contrary to the Mermaids line, these people tend not to be radical feminists and butch lesbians). Some of the children who turn to Mermaids will be genuine abuse victims, making them easy prey for the “I’m the only one who doesn’t want you dead” message. 

The oppression fantasies Mermaids offer trivialise homophobia

Yet I also think Mermaids appeal to that self-dramatising side of adolescents, particularly those who struggle with deep distress whilst knowing their lives to be relatively privileged. The messy truth of growing up — that lots of us have parents whose politics we don’t agree with, who don’t see us the way we see ourselves, who do things that leave us with scars — becomes a simple, high-stakes battle in which the cisnormative masses are out to destroy you unless you hand your body and mind over to Susie Green, Nancy Kelly and that surgeon who promises to save you from the trauma of becoming a grown woman.

You can live a fairly mundane life yet be tortured by the physical, social and emotional changes wrought by puberty. This needs to be put in context. If your otherwise loving parents have misgivings about puberty blockers, or have the temerity to call you by your birth name every now and again — hell, even if your middle-aged mum has the nerve to suggest you, an assigned-male-at-birth teenager, might not have a better idea of what a woman is than she does — then, no, you are not an extra from It’s A Sin, struggling to survive in the face of familial hate. 

The oppression fantasies Mermaids offer to children constitute a gross trivialisation of what homophobia has done and continues to do to the lives of millions. This doesn’t mean your trauma isn’t genuine — it doesn’t mean you’re not in deep pain due to the restrictive ways we are made to feel about our sexed bodies — but you are being encouraged to superimpose a false narrative onto this pain. Doing this makes it far more difficult to heal. 

Much is made of Mermaids’ promotion of puberty blockers, which halt children’s physical growth. In many ways I am far more concerned about the emotional stunting. The #NoDebate, #ProtectTransKids message refuses to acknowledge that our identities are shaped through constant negotiation with others. 

By telling children that anyone who does not see them as they see themselves is a threat, Mermaids is preventing the development of mature individuals — adults who understand that we are all defined in the context of our relationships with others, including those with whom we may not always agree. 

As if the charity were not sufficiently embroiled in scandal, this week has seen the resignation of Mermaids trustee Jacob Breslow, an academic who advocates for greater understanding of paedophiles (recast by him and others as minor attracted people). Whilst the charity’s supporters will surely position this as a paedophilia slur being used against trans people, it needs to be restated that this is not about trans children: it is about the adults who are using them. 

The psychological damage Mermaids has done to children is immeasurable. The charity has told them that the  people who care for them are out to destroy them. And if they stop believing this? Then they must come to terms with the fact that the adults in whom they put all their trust have lied to them. It is horrendous either way. 

Neither Susie Green nor Nancy Kelly are trans. Neither of them were dosed up on puberty blockers, terrorised into crushing their breasts, pushed to remain frozen in time. I therefore don’t know what their excuse is for not behaving like responsible adults. They need to understand this, though: a moral reckoning is not coming for trans kids. It is coming for you. 

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