The charity Mermaids has found itself at the heart of the highly charged debate pitting trans rights supporters against gender-critical feminists.
Mermaids, which is funded mostly by donations but also receives grants and payments for training, says it provides support to transgender children and their families, as well as helping to facilitate their acceptance in society.
In recent weeks, Mermaids has been the focus of a slew of newspaper articles that have called into question its safeguarding policies, prompting the Charity Commission to open a “regulatory compliance case”.
This is not a formal investigation, and it is not a finding of wrongdoing. But pending the commission’s scrutiny, a number of organisations have paused their relationships with Mermaids – the National Lottery Community Fund has suspended future payments and the Department for Education has removed it from its mental health and wellbeing resources for schools.
For Susie Green, the CEO of Mermaids, the focus on the charity reflects an attempt to discredit it and to make it look “dangerous”.
“That negative media … directly impacted young people, their families, our staff, our volunteers and all we’re trying to do is to support kids to be happy – that’s it - and to support parents to support their kids appropriately.”
Critics accuse the charity of going beyond mere support, encouraging children to transition simply because they deviate from gender stereotypes, and when they are too young to understand the potential consequence. They argue proper scrutiny of the charity by the commission is well overdue.
While the debate over trans rights has become increasingly fierce in recent years, Mermaids long predates it.
Founded in 1995 and staffed solely by volunteers until 2016, Green became its first member of staff. It has its headquarters in Leeds, with an office in London, and has about 44 staff members and 110 volunteers.
The charity’s work is under the spotlight as never before.
The file opened by the Charity Commission came after the Telegraph published a story in September alleging that Mermaids offered to send breast binders to children against their parents’ wishes.
Breast binders come in different forms; there are commercially made garments that flatten breasts to minimise their appearance. Some people use strips of material or tape to constrict their chest.
The Telegraph said staff on the charity’s forum agreed to send a chest-flattening device to an unidentified adult posing as a 14-year-old girl wishing to transition.
Dr Hilary Cass, who is undertaking an independent review into the quality of care for children with gender dysphoria in England, has described such devices as “painful and potentially harmful”.
The Telegraph story acknowledged that Mermaids staff directed the person to read a safety sheet, and in a statement after the story was published, the charity said it “takes a harm-reduction position”. Green argues supplying a well-fitted binder has to be better than “a young person using duct tape on themselves”.
A follow-up article by the Telegraph went a step further, with the headline: “Chest binding could be child abuse, say police amid ‘mounting horror’ at Mermaids trans charity.”
Green says the second story conflated breast binding with breast ironing and FGM (female genital mutilation) – and led to some parents fearing they could be considered child abusers if their children used the binders.
The Metropolitan police subsequently stated the supply of breast binders was not a criminal offence and that it supported “transgender and gender diverse individuals who freely choose to wear a breast binder”.
The Charity Commission has opened a case, explaining it has done so because “concerns have been raised with us about Mermaids’ approach to safeguarding young people”.
Compliance cases can be triggered by press coverage. Some 5,324 were concluded in 2021-22. The commission could still decide to elevate this to a formal investigation, known as a statutory inquiry. These are much rarer; there were only 45 of those last year.
Green says Mermaids spoke to the regulator in 2020 about the supply of binders and the charity’s forum, following previous complaints. She says the commission was satisfied then and “our processes have improved”.
The Telegraph story was followed by an article in the Times reporting that a Mermaids trustee, Dr Jacob Breslow, an associate professor at the London School of Economics (currently listed as being on sabbatical), gave a 2011 presentation for B4U-ACT, an organisation that aims to promote “a science-informed understanding about people … with an attraction to children”.
In a description of his presentation, Breslow wrote: “Many tend to begin with the linkage of paedophilic desire to harmful and abusive relationships and acts, and end up proliferating, rather than questioning, normative gendered and sexual intelligibility.”
Breslow quit when the Times contacted Mermaids – and the charity has issued a mea culpa. “If we had found that he had attended that event, we would never have offered him a trustee role because we would have considered that that doesn’t fit with our aims and our views and our values,” says Green.
“But we did an enhanced DBS [Disclosure and Barring Service check], we did some general top-level Google and internet searches. We did a social media search [and it] didn’t come up.
“We’re now in a position as a charity where we’re having to look at doing external third-party checks because of things that might come up in somebody’s history that don’t come up in a regular search. We asked the NSPCC whether they could recommend anybody to do them and they said no – no other charity does that as far as they’re concerned.”
Since the stories were published, Mermaids says its helpline had had 130 abusive calls or messages between 27 September and 27 October (80 of which have been reported to police), including accusations of being paedophiles or child abusers, compared with 29 in the previous six months.
Gender identity clinic
When the NHS announced it was shutting down its gender identity clinic (Gids) for children at the Tavistock and Portman NHS foundation trust in July – it will be replaced by regional centres – the gender-critical feminist Kathleen Stock tweeted: “Mermaids must fall next.”
Mermaids’ critics argue that an organisation that has influence with children and public and private organisations, including Gids, deserves scrutiny without inquisitors being accused of transphobia.
Asked about the line between concern and transphobia, Green says: “If it’s their child, and they’re trying to find the best thing to do to support their child, then absolutely it’s their place to look into what is out there, make the decisions with their child around what best serves their kid to make them happy, to support them, to make them feel loved, and affirmed and know that they’re doing the best that they can for their child to keep them safe.
“That’s fine but when it’s other people, it’s just this assumption that a cisgender outcome is better than a trans outcome.”
Mermaids has itself has been on the attack itself, appealing against the Charity Commission’s decision to award charitable status to the new gay rights organisation LGB Alliance, which has been critical of what it describes as ‘gender ideology’. It is understood to be the first time one charity has attempted to strip legal status from another.
And it has been accused of wrongly thinking it knows best, including in the area of puberty blockers.
The Times has claimed that staff in the charity’s forum promote puberty blockers as “safe and reversible treatment, despite medical consensus that the long-term impact on teenage development remains unknown”.
The NHS website says little is known about their long-term effects, adding: “Although Gids advises this is a physically reversible treatment if stopped, it is not known what the psychological effects may be. It’s also not known whether hormone blockers affect the development of the teenage brain or children’s bones.”
Green maintains that fully trained Mermaids staff set out the options and would be investigated if they went beyond that. She maintains that puberty blockers are safe, pointing out that, despite what it says on the website, the NHS still prescribes them.
However, since an interim report by Cass was published in the summer, the NHS has determined only to prescribe them in a formal research setting, which Green says is “inappropriate”.
She accepts that the difference between what the NHS website and Mermaids say is confusing, describing it as “frustrating”.
“If you look back, blocking medications were first used in the 1980s for cisgender children to stop them going through early puberty. And it’s been used ever since then, so that we’ve got adults out there who went through that treatment from three, four or five years old. And then when that was withdrawn, normal puberty resumed, and they’re now living their lives like everybody else … I think 1988 was the first time that it was used [for trans children] by the Dutch, again for the same thing, to pause puberty.”
Green insists Mermaids has not influenced Gids to prescribe the drugs in the past.
“It would be really strange if the biggest charity that supported trans children didn’t have a relationship at all with the only NHS service that provides support for kids and young people. But we don’t have any say on how they operate, how they prescribe, what they do in terms of the process.”
• This article was amended on 18 November 2022 to correct the spelling of Dr Hilary Cass’s first name. Also, due to an error in information supplied by the charity Mermaids an article said it has 60 volunteers. In fact the number is 110.