On Thursday 25th August, West London Mental Health Trust (WLMHA), the NHS Trust that hosts my full-time employer, Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic, issued a statement on its website. Entitled The future of the Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic, it talked of the Trust's pride at having been at the forefront of developing gender services and the challenge of ever-rising numbers of referrals, concluding:
However, as WLMHT moves forward it is necessary to refocus the services that we provide. The Board has made a decision that the medium-term strategic focus for the Trust will be to develop mental health services, physical care and integration between the two.
As a result, the Trust has come to the conclusion that patients requiring gender identity services would be better served in the long term by another provider, and has therefore served notice on our contract to NHS England.
Acknowledging the alarm this would create in an already stressed, often desperate group of people, WLMHT attempted reassurance: services would not be stopping, a suitable alternative provider would be found as soon as possible, staffing levels would not be reduced and patients would not have to restart their treatment again. Handover to a new provider would be made as seamless as possible, and disruption would be kept to an absolute minimum.
There was, arguably, some degree of ambiguity to the statement in that it suggested the timescale for a new provider would be "at least six months" and that patients from London and the South East would not be left without a service "or have to travel much further", combining to give the spurious impression of a mysterious unnamed provider already waiting in the wings, ready to spirit the clinic off to a new location within half a year. In specifying London and the South East, it left hanging, by omission, the question of service provision to trans and non-binary people in other parts of England and, particularly, to Wales.
I first became aware of WLMHT's statement when, in an afternoon meeting, my phone started buzzing. Within five minutes, I was responding to anxious queries from half a dozen trans contacts and, even as a latecomer to Twitter, it was impossible to ignore the widespread and escalating distress and panic among users of the gender services.
This arose, in large part, by the alarmist headlines that sprang up in some quarters of the LGBT press. Pink News was at least technically correct in stating, "NHS trust terminates Gender Identity Service contract amid trans health turmoil", but Gay Star News led with the wholly inaccurate and spectacularly irresponsible "UK's largest gender identity clinic to close", adding "There is currently no alternative provider in sight".
In addition to wrongly stating that "new patients had to wait up to four years for their first appointment" - not so, this has been the case in Leeds and Sheffield GICs, but not Charing Cross - the Gay Star News piece piled on the anxiety, claiming that "with the closure of the gender identity clinic in London, there will only be six across the whole of England". Despicably shoddy.
Later in the day, Attitude uncritically regurgitated Gay Star News' version of events, intoning "UK'S LARGEST GENDER IDENTITY CLINIC SET TO CLOSE" with the same misinformation.
This would all be worthy of epic eyerolls and slow handclaps aplenty if it weren't for the fact that a highly vulnerable group of people are dependent on Charing Cross GIC for vital care and treatment.
My colleagues and I - clinicians, not media folk - quickly found ourselves in a firefighting position. Some of us took to social media in an attempt to limit the damage. By the end of the afternoon, the following clarification had been added to the original WLMHT statement:
Dr James Barrett, Lead Consultant at the Gender Identity Clinic (GIC), on behalf of GIC clinicians, said:
"The gender identity clinic is not closing.
"To clarify, we clinicians have long felt that West London Mental Health Trust is not a good fit for the unique and specific service we provide (the vast majority of those we see are not mentally ill).
"Increasingly, we feel our patients would be better served by us if we worked somewhere better able to support and develop a more tailored approach to gender.
"There are a number of options in terms of alternative providers. We would not make any move unless confident that patient care would be markedly improved.
"Until that point, current arrangements will still apply. Our aim is for any change to be a positive one, and any transition to be as seamless as possible."
At the time of writing, Gay Star News and Attitude have not corrected their headlines or the content of their articles.
There's a whole separate article to be written on the GIC's reasons for wanting to change host provider - and another on future options in this regard. For now, however, we're resigned to dealing, on a more human level, with the aftermath of yesterday's statement.
It's difficult to come up with a suitable comparison, but I tried to imagine news outlets misreporting that the UK's largest specialist diabetes or cancer clinic was on the verge of closing and that no alternatives were forthcoming. With untreated gender dysphoria carrying a significantly elevated risk of suicide, this is not a hyperbolic analogy. Reportage this bad isn't merely shitty journalism; it's shitty journalism with a potential body count.