Mermaids was once, not long ago, the darling of the charity world: Starbucks sold Mermaids-branded cookies and famous faces including Emma Watson queued up to support the transgender organisation. But 2022 was the year Mermaids hit the rocks. The Charity Commission launched an inquiry into Mermaids last month after identifying concerns about its management. The charity which, a few years ago, could do no wrong in the eyes of corporations and policy makers faces an uncertain future. Despite what Mermaid’s dwindling band of supporters might say, this is good news.
Susie Green, the charity’s media savvy chief executive, has been forced out following a staff revolt. Her departure a few weeks ago came soon after a trustee of the charity – who later said in a statement that he ‘unequivocally condemned child sexual abuse’ – resigned after reports he had spoken at a conference hosted by an organisation that promotes services to paedophiles. The charity’s former digital engagement officer also found himself in trouble when parents alleged he had posted explicit pictures of himself on social media.
Green’s replacement, interim CEO Lauren Stoner, certainly has her work cut out. When Mermaids announced her appointment shortly before Christmas, Stoner described it as ‘a difficult time for the organisation’. That assessment is something of an understatement.
The warning signs about Mermaids have been there for some time. Yet under Green’s leadership, the charity succeeded in winning over legions of high-profile admirers. The money, too, came pouring in: Mermaids received sizeable grants from the National Lottery and the government. Mermaids was also paid to train teachers, police forces, NHS staff and social services on dealing with transgender issues.
With astonishing chutzpah, the charity even took the fight to other organisations that did not share its ideology. Back inSeptember, Mermaids arrived in court to appeal the Charity Commission’s decision to register the LGB Alliance – thought to be the first time a charity has challenged the registration of another in such a way.
The LGB Alliance proudly campaigns for the rights of LGB people, and why not? There were already plenty of organisations that focus on trans people. But Mermaids thought differently. Green claimed that: ‘The LGB Alliance wants to divide the LGBTQ+ community in an attempt to undermine and isolate trans people, even children.’
We still await the outcome of Mermaids’ legal action against the LGB Alliance – judgement is expected next year – but Mermaids did not cover itself in glory during this episode. Kate Harris, a lesbian and co-founder of the LGB Alliance, was reduced to tears under cross-examination by counsel for Mermaids when she explained that lesbians are not attracted to anyone with a penis. We all used to know this stuff, but how many are willing to risk opprobrium by defending it publicly? In the end, Mermaids was hoisted by its own petard when the Charity Commission opened a statutory inquiry into the organisation – and not into the LGB Alliance.
This probe is overdue: vulnerable children are involved and Mermaids – as well as other organisations seeking to help transgender people – owe them a duty of care.
Mermaids started out in 1995 as a ‘a small group of concerned parents sitting around the kitchen table, coming together to share experiences, find answers and look for ways to keep our children safe and happy.’ It sounded like a noble aim: children struggling with issues of gender and identity do need help. But if I had a transgender child, I would urge them to avoid going to Mermaids for advice.
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.