Inquiry into controversial UK trans youth charity Mermaids, a step forward for children

Inquiry into controversial UK trans youth charity Mermaids, a step forward for children

By Amy Dykens

The pressure on embattled UK-based charity, Mermaids, continues to increase following an announcement by the Charity Commission that they would be pursuing a full-scale formal statutory inquiry into the charity.

What started as a regulatory-compliance case back in September has since escalated into a fully-fledged investigation into the charity’s practices, “to determine whether they indicate a serious systemic failing in the charity’s governance and management”. Just one week prior to the announcement of the statutory inquiry, Mermaids’ CEO Susie Green suddenly and unexpectedly stepped down from her position, raising questions as to what the initial investigation uncovered.

Originally established in 1995, Mermaids is a controversial UK-based charity that claims to support “transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse children and young people until their 20th birthday, as well as their families and professionals involved in their care”. Taking a so-called ‘affirmation-only’ approach to the treatment of gender dysphoria in children and young people, Mermaids advocates for the use of puberty blockers, hormone replacement therapy, and surgeries in minors who consider themselves transgender.

The Charity Commission first launched a regulatory compliance case against Mermaids in September, after receiving a number of complaints from parents. It was at this time that The Telegraph published an article in which a number of serious safeguarding allegations were levelled at the charity. Significantly, the article claimed that Mermaids were discretely providing breast binders – used to create the appearance of a flatter chest – to girls as young as 13, despite marked opposition from their parents.

Responding to the allegations, Mermaids claimed they take “a harm reduction position”, and made the suggestion that supplying children and young people with breast binders is preferable to “the likely alternative of unsafe practices and/or continued or increasing dysphoria”. Yet the practice of breast binding has been attributed to a range of health concerns, including pain, bruising, fractured ribs, and infection, and permanent damage to the skin, and research suggests commercial breast binders are associated with a higher proportion of negative health outcomes than other compression methods.

The Telegraph article also raised concerns as to the charity’s youth forum – a private, online community for 12 to 19-year-olds struggling with issues around gender and identity. Access to the forum is granted following the submission of an online form and a subsequent phone call from Mermaids’ staff “for a confidential chat” for final approval, with no proof of age or ID required. These concerns were echoed by reporting in The Times, which alleged, among other things, that Mermaids’ staff tasked with overseeing the forums encouraged users to communicate off-site in unmoderated spaces, such as through Discord – an instant messaging social media platform with a reputation for facilitating the sexually predatory behaviour of child groomers.

Yet the charity’s most egregious scandal involved the resignation of trustee for the charity, Dr Jacob Breslow, after reports surfaced detailing his active participation at a conference organised by the paedophile advocacy group, B4U-ACT. At the 2011 conference, Pedophilia, Minor-Attracted Persons, and the DSM: Issues and Controversies, Breslow – then a graduate student in gender research at the London School of Economics – presented a paper titled: Sexual Alignment: Critiquing Sexual Orientation, the Pedophile and the DSM V (‘DSM V’ being The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association). While the full text of Breslow’s paper was not published in the conference proceedings “at request of the author”, both the paper’s abstract and second hand accounts of the presentation paint an alarming picture.

In the abstract, Breslow claims his paper is intended to “challenge normative assumptions about sexuality, personal and political identity, and childhood, both within the DSM and within wider society”. He advocates for paedophilia to be considered a non-normative sexuality, as opposed to a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, with the view that this would potentially create “a sexual or political identity by which activists, scholars and clinicians can begin to better understand paedophiles”.

Disturbingly, the presentation advocated for a ‘rethinking’ of children as sexual partners. Drawing on the analogy of asking a shoe if it wants to be worn to asking a child if they want to have sex, Breslow argued that the manner in which the question is asked should not require an answer, “at least not one which is conventionally intelligible or audible”. Mermaids claimed that upon receiving notification that they had hired a child abuse apologist as trustee of the charity, “swift and decisive action” was taken, with Breslow subsequently tendering his resignation on the same day.

That Mermaids were not aware of Breslow’s views prior to his appointment as trustee is, at best, an indication of pernicious negligence. Yet when taken together, the sum of Mermaids’ safeguarding blunders paints a concerning picture. The rapid socio-medical shift towards ‘gender-affirming’ care has resulted in serious regulatory and legislative deficiencies in the treatment of children and young people with gender dysphoria. Tragically, we are now seeing the devastating consequences of ‘gender-affirming’ care for those who realise too late  “that their gender dysphoria was caused by trauma, a mental health condition, internalised homophobia, or misogyny”.   

Critically under-regulated charities like Mermaids continue to feverishly advocate for an ‘affirmation-only’ approach to the treatment of gender dysphoria, and in doing so, reinforce the "significant difficulties in discussing, let alone challenging, the practice of gender clinics, due to the belief systems of those who adhere to gender identity theory”. Moreover, these charities wield enormous influence over critical public institutions, and have lobbied to inject gender identity theory into a broad spectrum of government policy while working to discourage or silence any dissent.

While the controversy surrounding Mermaids has further forced into the open the debate over gender-affirming medicine and the influence of the trans lobby, it remains to be seen whether the situation will have an impact beyond the UK’s borders. The work of similar Australian charities has been endorsed by local, state and federal governments. For instance, teaching materials on gender identity theory produced by youth-focused charity Minus18 have been distributed to classrooms across the country, and dozens of government departments and agencies have signed up to ACON’s Pride in Diversity program, which ranks organisations based on their support for LGBTQIA+ issues, and provides awards to the best performers.

If nothing else, the fallout from the Mermaids’ controversies highlights the need for close examination of the influence of the gender identity lobby in Australia, and the charities and organisations that are at its heart.   

Amy Dykens is a Research Fellow with Women's Forum Australia

Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

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