We often think of social justice as progressing in a loosely linear fashion. Granular improvements in legal rights for marginalised groups - enshrined in laws that are often difficult or impossible to enforce - cast a veneer of optimistic progress over fights for justice that are generally far, far messier than they appear. Transgender activism is exemplary of a movement whose every ostensible step forward incites waves of vitriolic backlash.
It’s a double-sided coin; on the one hand, we’re generally succeeding at increasing awareness of trans people and the issues we face within society. But a higher level of visibility, while going some way towards tackling transphobia stemming from pure ignorance, also carries a heavy price. The anti-trans movement, which has risen up in reaction to recent progress, appears to be gaining in power, and the children’s charity Mermaids UK is its latest victim.
Mermaids, a charity supporting transgender and gender-diverse children and their families, had been earmarked a £500k grant from The Big Lottery Fund, the body that awards funds raised by the National Lottery to charitable causes. This, however, was before, in the careful words of a press release from the Fund, a “range of correspondence” led them to “undertake a review” of the grant. The Fund have awarded grants to the charity before, in June of this year, as well as in 2016 and 2015. The proposed grant was, admittedly, intended to be significantly larger than these previous donations - but that’s only part of the story as to why it is this occasion in particular which has prompted backlash.
“Glinner and the Mumsnet Transphobes” sounds like the worst satirical cover band you wish you’d never heard of, but unfortunately - as anyone who gives the Twitter profile of TV writer Graham Linehan a cursory scroll will realise - it’s all too serious (and not at all musical), as Linehan has in recent years voraciously taken up the ‘cause’ of anti-trans activists, at one point receiving a verbal police warning about his interactions with a trans activist. This week, in a now-deleted thread entitled “Mumsnetters, assemble!,” Linehan called for users of the parenting site to contact the CEO of the Big Lottery Fund and express opposition to the grant. The choice of forum for this mobilisation isn’t out of the blue; a large proportion of the topics in Mumsnet’s ‘Feminism’ forums tend to focus on transgender people, or the “trans lobby” in the words of many of the site’s users.
But what often amounts to insular ‘gender critical’ ranting, frequently expanding to Twitter-based bullying of trans public figures like Labour activist Lily Madigan, has now gone yet another step further (if we optimistically hope that opposition to improving the Gender Recognition Act hasn’t already resulted in steps backward for trans legal rights), and had what may be a devastating material effect on the support available for transgender and gender-questioning children across the UK.
This rise in anti-trans backlash, moreover, isn’t as fringe as such unlikely warriors as Linehan and Mumsnetters might make it seem. As fast as many UK media outlets can platform trans activists and give voices to trans causes, other, better funded outlets attempt to shut us down. The Guardian continues to perpetuate the false dichotomy between feminism and trans rights; the Telegraph ceaselessly churns out transphobic dogwhistles ever-reminiscent of the “what about the children?!” outrage aimed at gay liberation activists in previous decades. Linehan’s bandwagon was jumped on this time around by the Times, who termed Mermaids a “child sex-change charity” in the headline of a piece which maliciously inflated the transphobia of Linehan and the Mumsnetters (the bad band names just keep coming) into the statement that the grant had “angered [...] feminists and women’s organisations,” conveniently ignoring the supportive position taken by many of both. The author of this piece, Andrew Gilligan, has written multiple anti-trans pieces in the past year, including thoroughly debunked faux-outrage stories.
I’d intended to write about why the backlash against Mermaids is wrong, but it’s hard for me to explain why something so obviously beneficial as support for trans and gender-variant children and their families should continue to be funded - it’s pretty clear-cut. Despite the clickbait titles in the Times, no child under the age of 16 will ever undergo any degree of “sex change” (whatever image that might conjure); the only form of medical intervention provided to under-16s on the NHS are hormone blockers, which, far from “sterilising” children as transphobes often claim, simply delay puberty, thereby preventing trans and gender-variant kids from the potential long-term harm done by irreversible hormonal development - whether ‘natural’ or medically induced. Mermaids, moreover, is not even a healthcare provider - they may offer data and opinion on policy, like many charities, but the service they provide is one of education and community.
Those of us who grew up without that kind of affirmation, without any existing network to let us know at least that we aren’t alone in our confusion and give us a space to talk it through, whatever the outcome, know how valuable that kind of service is. It is completely beyond my understanding how the mums (and sitcom writers) of Mumsnet don’t seem to understand that Mermaids, simply put, saves children’s lives. We can only hope that the Big Lottery Fund, as they undertake their review, aren’t quite so blinkered.
For more information on Mermaids, visit their website here
Useful websites and helplines:
- Stonewall for more information on other LGBT+ services and helplines | 08000 502020