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Mermaids: Why Is The Trans Charity Under The Spotlight?

(Photo: Maskot via Getty Images)
(Photo: Maskot via Getty Images)

(Photo: Maskot via Getty Images)

The charity Mermaids says it’s been forced to temporarily close some its services, due to volunteers and staff facing “intolerable abuse”.

It’s now the subject of a number of column pieces in a range of mainstream media outlets, which also attack the foundation. Mermaids has now launched a crowdfund to “help us fight back”.

But why is a charity, which promises to help “gender-diverse kids” up to the age of 25, being targeted – and what does the trans community think of it all?

What is Mermaids?

Mermaids is a charity which has supported transgender, non-binary and gender-diverse children since 1995. It is now one of the country’s most prominent LGBTQ+ charities, offering online services, and hosting events and residential weekends.

According to the Charity Commission, the charity has 23 staff members, around 45 volunteers and 10 trustees. Its total income in 2021 exceeded £1.8 million.

Mermaids has trained employees in schools, the NHS and police forces on how to understand gender as a spectrum, and received National Lottery Funding since 2018.

What is Mermaids being criticised for?

1. Concerns over trustees and staff members 

A trustee of Mermaids, Dr Jacob Breslow, quit on October 3 after The Times newspaper found he had attended a group conference promoting support for paedophiles back in 2011.

B4U-ACT promotes the rights of those “with an attraction to children and adolescents”, and runs support sessions.

According to the newspaper, Breslow gave a presentation for the conference back when he was a graduate student in gender research at the London School of Economics (LSE).

The Times also included a extract from the 2011 presentation, still available online, which reads: “This paper works through the DSM’s struggle to understand ‘the pedophile’ through an investigation of the highly questionable and deeply assumptive clinical, empirical and theoretical studies it cites.”

Breslow is now an assistant professor in gender and sexuality at the university.

He became a Mermaids trustee in July this year, but resigned after The Times approached the charity about his 2011 talk.

In a statement on its website, Mermaids said it only became aware of Breslow’s participation in the conference on October 3.

“Once notified, we immediately launched an investigation and Dr Breslow tendered his notice that same day. We want to apologise for the distress and concern this news has caused.”

Mermaids notes that during his short time with them, Breslow had “no interactions with any of our young people or families and only attended one regular quarterly board meeting”.

The charity also explains that all trustees and staff are subject to thorough background checks – but in this case, “clearly none of this was enough” and the charity will be “more rigorous in future” by reviewing its recruitment process.

In a press statement, Breslow said he “unequivocally condemns child sexual abuse” and that he believed B4U-ACT promoted “treatments to prevent offending by pedophiles”, and would not have attended otherwise. He said he has not been affiliated with the organisation since.

He added: “I decided to resign as a Trustee of Mermaids as I did not want to distract from the good work the charity is doing to help transgender and gender diverse children.”

The Charity Commission has also received complaints about sexually explicit images posted on another former staff member’s personal Instagram account. The account is now private.

2. The Telegraph’s report about binding

The Telegraph alleged on September 27 that there were concerns about Mermaids’ safeguarding. It claimed the charity had supposedly been “discreetly sending binders to children as young as 13 and 14 whose parents will not let them use one.”

The controversy comes down to fears that a chest binder could cause breathing difficulties, back pain, and damage to ribs and the spine.

Mermaids told The Telegraph that it took a “harm reduction position” as gender-diverse children could adopt other “unsafe practices” or “experience dysphoria without a binder”.

The Telegraph quoted the Metropolitan Police, who acknowledged that “the supply of a breast-binder on its own is not a criminal offence”.

However, the police also said it would “investigate jointly with social services as potential child abuse” any report of “someone using a breast binder or undergoing the practice of breast ironing.”

The Telegraph also claimed in the same article the charity was telling children that puberty blockers were “reversible”.

In a later response, Mermaids pointed out that puberty-blockers are “an internationally recognised, safe, reversible, healthcare option which have been recommended by medical authorities in the UK and internationally for decades.”

Then, on September 29, The Telegraph reported that its own reports concerning the charity prompted the Charity Commission to “investigate” Mermaids.

However, as LGBTQ+ outlet PinkNews later pointed out, this claim is not entirely accurate. The commission had opened a “regulatory compliance case”. This is different to an investigation, which is typically called a statutory inquiry.

The Charity Commission confirmed: “Concerns have been raised with us about Mermaids’ approach to safeguarding young people. We have opened a regulatory compliance case and have written to the trustees. We now await their reply.”

Mermaids replied it would be “responding directly” in “due course” to the Commission. There has been no confirmation of suspected wrongdoing.

What happened next?

Since the Charity Commission announced its “regulatory compliance case”, the Department for Education has removed the charity from its mental health and wellbeing resources for schools, and the Lottery fund paused its payments to Mermaids.

Mermaids also announced on October 6 that it was closing its helpline and webchat services for “the rest of today and tomorrow”, due to “intolerable abuse”.

The charity explained: “We do not make this decision lightly, but our duty of care towards staff and volunteers necessitates a harm reduction approach to protect our dedicated staff and volunteer team.”

On October 11, Mermaids released a new statement: “We have regrettably continued to receive a high volume of distressing, and in some cases threatening, calls, emails and web chat contacts as a result of some of the recent coverage.”

As a results of these, the charity closed its online services again on October 12.

During PMQs on the same day, Liz Truss said the issues around Mermaids should be “properly looked into”.

How does the trans community actually feel about this?

‘Traumatising’

Priya*, the mother of a young trans person, condemned the attacks on Mermaids when speaking to HuffPost UK.

She claimed: “The gender critical lobby is directly putting the systems and people who run them, and the young people who use them, further at risk mentally and physically.”

She said this “traumatises” a minority of people who are “seeking urgently needed help and support”.

‘Heart-breaking’

Helen Belcher, TransActual’s managing director, told HuffPost UK that attempts to intimidate the volunteers on Mermaids’ helpline are “heart-breaking”.

She continued: “Despite malicious claims to the contrary, Mermaids is a support organisation, providing support to trans and gender questioning young people and their families.”

Belcher said it was a “misrepresentation” to suggest the charity was “some sort of conveyor belt”. She said Mermaids actually supports children and young people “while they work out what they want to do”.

She added that the charity is “carrying out vital work that no other official body has the resource to do, and giving young people hope in a world that appears not to care about them.”

Belcher also speculated that the criticism towards Mermaids stems from “those who do not believe that trans children and young people exist – and presumably believe that trans adults just blink into existence magically at 18, 25 or 30.”

She continued: “They do not want young trans people supported, or helped, or even advised, against the more dangerous practices to which some are prone.”

More specifically, Belcher defended Mermaids over its distribution of chest binders. She said it is “responding to an existing demand and providing reliable and accurate advice” so those who use the item will do so safely.

‘A concerted attack’

Cleo Madeleine, communications officer at Gendered Intelligence, told PinkNews that she believed the articles were part of a “concerted attack” on the queer charity sector.

She said the criticism of Mermaids was “very reminiscent of the Thatcherite language around gay people then”,  referring to the Section 28 legislation, which told local authorities they could not “intentionally promote homosexuality”.

Madeleine said further attacks would stoke “mistrust” between the LGBTQ+ community and the general public – and that young people would suffer most.

‘Sour grapes’

Madeleine and Belcher both pointed out the significance of the timing of this attack on the charity.

It comes shortly after a tribunal – led by Mermaids – challenged the Charity Commission’s decision to register the LGB Alliance as a charity. The LGB Alliance – which claims it was founded to “prevent the dissemination of the lie of gender identity” – has been heavily criticised by members of the trans community.

As the tribunal only took place in September, Belcher believes it all looks like “sour grapes”.

What does Mermaids say?

Mermaids was not able to provide a detailed comment to HuffPost UK due to the ongoing compliance investigation.

The charity did clarify that it provides “practical support through a helpline and web-chat offering emotional support to any young person, parent or carer experiencing distress; local groups, parent groups and online forums for peer-to-peer support; support with name-changing and hate crime and access to trans friendly lawyers; and LGBTQ+ educational workshops and training”.

Mermaids has also launched a crowdfund in November to help the charity fight back against what it calls a “cynical, coordinated attack on the trans community”.

It claims the criticism is “having a real life direct impact” on its charity work, as local authorities are being pressured “to remove our resources and services from websites” and funders who are partnered with Mermaids are feeling “intimidated”.

Mermaids said: “We wanted to set up this crowdfund so we have something tangible for our supporters to get behind, and for everyone to join us in taking a stand against transphobia – and really any kind of persecution of a minority.”

It aims to raise £25,000. The charity wants the funds to go towards keeping helplines open, providing safe spaces for children, young people and their families and amplifying trans voices.

* Some names have been changed.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.

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