Mermaids is one of Britain’s most controversial trans charities, yet its overarching aim is hard to fault. The organisation says it wants ‘to create a world where gender diverse children and young people can be themselves and thrive’. To that end, its goal is ‘to relieve the mental and emotional stress’ of transgender kids. Unfortunately that laudable objective is hard to square with what it tells vulnerable children who identify as transgender.
The organisation has recently put out a ‘help sheet’ in light of guidance issued by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Mermaids says it is ‘not happy’ with the EHRC document because ‘it is not inclusive enough of trans people’. Yet its own guidance risks confusing those it seeks to help.
‘Know your rights!’, it announces boldly. Under a section detailing what to do if ‘someone asks you to leave a facility’, such as a women’s toilet, it suggests trans youngsters call 999 if they feel unsafe.
Might a more appropriate title for this guidance have been ‘Take other people’s rights!’? Single-sex and separate-sex facilities are provided for good reasons. Safety is paramount when it comes to determining who should, and shouldn’t, be allowed into such places; privacy and dignity are also important. As a boy, for example, I remember feeling very uncomfortable whenever a female PE teacher walked through our changing room.
The EHRC guidance reassured service providers that they could indeed provide ‘separate or single sex services’ where that is ‘a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.’ Perhaps more controversially, in a political landscape where party leaders such as Keir Starmer struggle to define the word ‘woman’, the Commission deliberately used the term ‘biological sex.’
For all the flak that came its way, the EHRC was right to take this approach. If we genuinely want to relieve anyone’s mental and emotional stress, guidance and policy needs to be grounded in reality, using terminology we can all agree on, so that we all know where we stand.
Mermaids, however, scorns this guidance. In rather typical fashion, its help sheet appears to set out law and policy as Mermaids would like it to be. It says:
Trans people, like everyone else, need to be welcomed into spaces that make them feel respected and happy in their gender identity.’Mermaids
Is this right? Mermaids says its guidance does not just apply to trans people but ‘is standard for any member of society’. Yet there is a danger that its words are giving some children false comfort. After all, in the UK, gender identity is not a protected characteristic and there is no automatic right for a person to be ‘welcomed into spaces’ based on feelings. Places such as women’s changing rooms and toilets exist to protect dignity, not to validate identity. Try telling that to Mermaids. Its help sheet goes on to say:
‘We want to live in society and be able to access changing rooms, shops, and toilets with the same ease as everyone else.’Mermaids
For all its concern for the rights of trans people, there is a group that is central in this debate that Mermaids does not give sufficient concern to: the needs and rights of everyone else. Facilities are segregated by sex, not gender identity, and for good reason. By failing to set this out clearly, Mermaids leaves young people vulnerable to being challenged.
Mermaids’ advice isn’t entirely wrong. It tells young people, quite rightly, that they are ‘protected by the Equality Act 2010 as a trans person and cannot be unlawfully discriminated against’. But rather than give more prominence to the government’s definition of discrimination – being treated less favourably or put at an unfair disadvantage – Mermaids allows young people to assume that discrimination means being prevented from using spaces designated for the other sex. It doesn’t: trans people have rights but so do people who aren’t trans.
Mermaids says the right words about its mission. Yet rather than helping vulnerable young people, it risks doing the opposite: failing those who are questioning their gender and their identity. Once upon a time, such introspection was a normal part of growing up. But organisations like Mermaids have elevated the concept of trans children, as if they have some special quality that sets them apart from other children and whose rights need to be prioritised over theirs. This ‘help sheet’ is hardly a recipe for harmony among the peer group.
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.