Campaigning to halt Big Lottery funding for trans support charity Mermaids isn’t noble – it’ll directly harm children

The trans community has been subjected to a campaign of misinformation which has had far-reaching effects on our safety. And trans kids tend to bear the brunt of it all

Aaron Gabriel Hughes
Tuesday 18 December 2018 12:46 GMT
In the place of informed conversations about how best to support young people who wish to transition, the public has been presented with a reductive and inaccurate picture of the process
In the place of informed conversations about how best to support young people who wish to transition, the public has been presented with a reductive and inaccurate picture of the process

Being a transgender child isn’t easy. Childhood and puberty are immensely complex and disorienting stages in our lives; this is even more true for young people who identify as a gender different to the one they were assigned at birth. These young people are extremely vulnerable. They need love and recognition to stay safe, healthy and happy.

The charity Mermaids does invaluable work in this respect. They empower the families of these children to best support them with extensive resources and information. They raise awareness of trans identities and experience in society more broadly. Indeed, they have been instrumental in improving the lives of trans children and young people in the UK.

This is why it was so encouraging to hear that they have been awarded a substantial grant from the Big Lottery Fund. It’s also why it was so crushing to find out that the Fund has undertaken a review of its decision to award the grant in light of criticism it has received.

Travis Alabanza discusses how transgender people are received in public

Their change of heart is disappointing, but not surprising. This is far from the first time that commentators and public figures have played on the climate of misinformation and fear surrounding trans identities to undermine the vital work done by trans activists and organisations to improve the lives of trans people.

In the Times, Mermaids was termed as a “child sex-change charity”, and said to be “aggressive”. Elsewhere, writer Graham Linehan encouraged people to express their opposition to the decision on the grounds that the charity pushes an “extreme ideological agenda” and adopts an approach to trans and gender non-conforming children which is “experimental” and “non-evidence-based”.

None of these claims are grounded in fact. Mermaids primarily exists to support the families of trans and gender non-conforming children, not to coordinate their transition. It has no agenda, “extreme” or otherwise, beyond improving the lives of trans people and their relatives. Its approach to gender non-conformity in children is far from lacking in evidence, and is in reality informed by a wealth of guidance from the international medical community.

It is hardly surprising that these claims turn out to be unfounded. They are grounded in fear and ignorance, rather than in the lived experience of trans people.

For some time now, the trans community has been subjected to a campaign of false claims and fear-mongering which has had deep and far-reaching effects on our well-being and safety. Trans children tend to bear the brunt of it all.

This is nowhere more true than in discussions around medical transition. In the place of informed conversations about how best to support young people who wish to transition, the public has been presented with a reductive and inaccurate picture of the process.

Children are not being coerced into medical transition. International standards of care relating to young people who wish to transition, such as those published by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, are informed by the best interests of all children. There is no hidden agenda here. Indeed, in the UK, NHS protocol surrounding medical transition actively prevents children from accessing care.

Anti-trans figures and groups have been actively working to distort public perception of trans identities and experiences. Commentators have reignited myths of social contagion last used against gay people in the 1980s. These myths led to Section 28, a piece of legislation which we have long since dismissed as grounded in bigotry.

Transgender identities are not learnt. To be trans is to have an innate sense of one’s self as a gender which is different to the one assigned at birth. It has nothing to do with being indoctrinated or corrupted by others. It’s an intensely intimate, personal affair.

The backlash against the Big Lottery Fund’s decision is a testament to the power of anti-trans rhetoric. It reveals the very real consequences of this campaign of misinformation for trans people. Mermaids could use this money to extend its reach to vulnerable trans and gender non-conforming children who are currently lacking in support. As it stands, those children and their families will have to go without.

The impact of anti-trans hate is far from anodyne. Nearly half of trans pupils in the UK have attempted to take their own lives. More than four in five have deliberately harmed themselves. These children need our care, not our derision. Their survival is dependent on the work of groups like Mermaids.

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When able to use their chosen name, trans young people are less likely to show symptoms of depression, and less likely to report suicidal ideation. When supported in their gender identity, they exhibit “developmentally normal” levels of depression, in contrast to higher levels when they are not. By empowering relatives to support trans and gender non-conforming children, Mermaids actively and significantly contribute to improving the well-being of trans youth.

Trans identities are still profoundly misunderstood. Indeed, the about-turn on the grant decision only makes any political sense in the context of widespread misgivings about trans people. Ironically, it is precisely the work Mermaids do to raise awareness which can assuage such misgivings, and foster empathy for trans children.

Anti-trans groups are all too aware of Mermaids’ capacity for meaningful change. Shared understanding and compassion undermine their attempts to spread hate. Trans children need affirmation, not rejection. The Big Lottery Fund must renew its symbolic and financial support of Mermaids to show these children that bigotry will not be tolerated.

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