Last weekend the trans activist Helen Belcher resigned as a judge of a journalism prize because, against her wishes, I reached the shortlist. She announced that: “Since The Times started printing such [transphobic] pieces, starting with one by Turner in September 2017, I have heard of more trans suicides than at any point since 2012. These have mainly been of trans teenagers.”
When probed on Twitter she said: “I have heard reports of four trans suicides in the past few months, two in the past month. The media reporting was referenced in three of them.” Later, trans activist Paris Lees added that she held “individual journalists who stigmatise trans people personally responsible for the suicides of young trans people in this country”. No further detail was given.
That my work has caused the deaths of children is the most upsetting accusation I’ve faced in 30 years. It provokes many serious questions. Most importantly, is it true?
But first consider The Samaritans’ guidelines for reporting suicide which warn it is dangerous to attribute a death to a single cause: “speculation about the ‘trigger’ . . . should be avoided” as “young people are especially vulnerable to negative suicide coverage”. Yet some trans activists casually breach this code. This week Professor Stephen Whittle of Press for Change, a transgender lobby group, said that any delay to changing the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) would “lead to a flurry of suicides”. Retaining a 14-year-old law to permit further debate, he believes, will literally kill people.
Suicide is a dark trope in the trans movement. Parents who hesitate over medical intervention are told by some activists: “Better a living daughter than a dead son.” The ITV drama Butterfly, an infomercial for the trans support group Mermaids, is based upon the story of its CEO Susie Green, who took her child to Thailand for genital surgery at 16 (which was illegal in Britain and is now illegal in Thailand) and features a graphic suicide attempt. Mermaids cites high suicide rates in trans youth to push for faster, younger access to hormones and surgery. Ms Green told MPs that Gids (the NHS’s youth gender identity development service) has a suicide attempt rate of 48 per cent. This was based upon a self-selecting sample of 27 trans people aged under 26 analysed by the LGBT charity Pace.
The sane, compassionate response is more research. Let’s pull out the serious case reviews of every teen suicide to examine all possible causes, including newspaper reporting. Surely Mermaids would welcome proper, independent, methodologically-sound scientific inquiry. In the meantime, the most reliable source is Gids which says of 5,000 young patients referred between 2016 and August this year, there were three suicides and four attempts. Each death is the deepest tragedy, yet this makes a suicide rate of less than 1 per cent. Moreover, Gids director Dr Polly Carmichael has warned that suicidal discourse is “quite unhelpful”, creating a narrative around gender-diverse children “imbued with negativity and lack of resilience.”
Undoubtedly the suicide rate in Gids children is higher than average: many also suffer from anxiety and self-harm; a third of girls are on the autistic spectrum, others have suffered sexual abuse. This is a very troubled, vulnerable cohort. A 2011 Swedish study published in PLOS One found a high suicide risk prevails even after transition. So is it responsible for activists to insist that suicidal feelings are intrinsic to the trans experience, perhaps even a sign of being “true” trans?
A friend who was hospitalised with anorexia for three years as a teenager lost three fellow patients to suicide. She notes that although anorexia has the highest morbidity of any mental illness, clinicians do not let suicidal threats hamper treatment. “No one ever told my parents ‘Do exactly what she wants or she will kill herself.’ Because that would have been disgraceful.” Yet this is what is said to parents and clinicians who support “watchful waiting” of gender-questioning kids. Nor is discussion of anorexia framed by, say, ordering fashion designers to use bigger models “because you are literally killing girls”.
This past year, since Maria Miller’s women and equalities committee report, must have been gruelling for many trans people. I feel huge compassion for those stuck in the crossfire of a vicious debate. But Mrs Miller is to gender what David Cameron was to Brexit. She created a toxic, divisive mess then left others to clear up. In ignoring concerns from women’s groups, listening only to trans lobbyists, she recommended far-reaching legal changes including self-identification and an end to single-sex spaces, thus rewriting the definitions of “man” and “woman”.
Trans campaigners cannot demand legislation without scrutiny. My Times column from September 2017, which supposedly precipitated a suicide epidemic, described a feminist meeting where a trans activist punched a 60-year-old woman in the face. Everything I have written since has been intended to shed light. Why is there a 4,000 per cent rise in girls believing they are in the “wrong body”: why is a male sex offender’s gender identity more important than the safety of women prisoners, resulting in the case of Karen White; can a compromise be reached which meets both trans and women’s rights?
I asked questions because many women (including trans women) risk their livelihoods for airing dissent, and could not. Even 54 per cent of MPs, according to a ComRes poll, are scared to raise this subject. In the middle of a government consultation! No wonder, when suicide is shamefully wielded as a political weapon, when anyone who strays from dogma is accused of having children’s blood on their hands.