Mermaids and the Daily Mail

Karen Pollock responds to the Daily Mail attack on the charity Mermaids


Last week the case of child J made the headlines, sensationally, and misreported. Like many who read the court reports I refrained from commenting, as it seemed to be a messy, complicated case very far from the tabloid reports. One thing many people do agree on however was that parents do not turn their kids trans, and that parents who support their trans children are still, unfortunately in a minority.

We live in a world of gender reveal parties, where from even before birth children are forced into ever tighter boxes marked boy and girl. The roles laid out for them to conform to seem to be narrowing daily. At the same time we have a wider understanding of gender than ever before. Science tells us that there is no such thing as male or female brains, and that gender, like many other things, probably exists on a spectrum. After years of pathologisation the medical community is moving away from the idea that being trans is a mental illness.  Reputable bodies now accept that it is dealing with societal transphobia which leads to negative impacts on mental health. Even John Hopkins, one of the centers of the trans = mad fallacy has relented, and accepts now its previous stance was wrong.

We are in a time of flux, and confusion, with gender conformity pushed by the marketing men whilst gender non conformity makes the front pages of fashion magazines. Many of those who claimed expertise in trans peoples lives  were either cis doctors, wedded to the idea of treating the mental illness of being trans, or gender theorists, who instead of seeing people saw bricks to put in their wall marked gender studies. Into this battlefield of theories and counter theories came trans people, often desperate for any help available. Many do not make it across the battlefield, casualties of the ideas projected upon them, of transphobia, of not being accepted, or deemed acceptable.

One thing many people do agree on however was that parents do not turn their kids trans, and that parents who support their trans children are still, unfortunately in a minority.

Onto this battlefield, apparently unconcerned by the casualties it has already caused, today strode the Daily Mail. When the case of J was misreported last week I feared that the oversimplification, and transphobic stance taken by both the Mail and the Guardian might lead us to a new series of attacks on the parents of trans children and trans children themselves. My fears today were confirmed, by this, transphobic, scaremongering story in the Daily Mail.

I should say, in order to be totally honest, that I think Mermaids acted slightly foolishly, in not saying they would support both parents in the case of child J. However, it is entirely possible they had done this. I only have the fuzzy lens of media articles and court reports to attempt to glean facts from. What I do know for sure is that it is  a well trodden path to blame parents for the non sexual/gender conformity of their children. It started  with Freud, who saw homosexuality as a result of a  failure to separate from the Mother, ironically given his own relationship with his own mother. Sexuality and gender have both been viewed through a prism of what is normal, for which read acceptable to the culture of the day. When abnormality has been identified it has often been traced to some defect in parenting, or rather I should say Mothering, and interventions have been targeted at making up for this perceived defect.

Many of those who claimed expertise in trans peoples lives were either cis doctors, wedded to the idea of treating the mental illness of being trans, or gender theorists, who instead of seeing people saw bricks to put in their wall marked gender studies. Into this battlefield of theories and counter theories came trans people, often desperate for any help available. Many do not make it across the battlefield, casualties of the ideas projected upon them, of transphobia, of not being accepted, or deemed acceptable.

There is a huge elephant in the room here, in that as a counsellor I am aware that many people arrive in therapy because of some defect in parenting. Not everyone, but many people struggle as adults because their needs were not met as a child. Parents can be negligent, neglectful, abusive, fail to see their children as separate human beings. Parents can also be over protective, overbearing, too enmeshed with their children. However one thing I do know from my experience as a therapist is that so far no one has ever arrived in the consulting room saying, “My parents f*cked me up because they were loving and supportive, whilst allowing me to develop as an independent person.”

Which brings me back to the Daily Mail article. I think its important to look at it whilst holding in our heads three thoughts; Firstly that some parenting negatively impacts on children. Secondly, that all anyone can be is a “good enough” parent.Thirdly, that supporting your children is a good thing. It’s worth, I believe, looking at what is being claimed in detail, because, as I have already pointed out, parents can, and do harm their children.

The article opens with what would be very worrying claims, by a father about the actions of his ex. A parent who decided to dress their child a certain way, ignoring their child’s feelings on the subject would certainly cause harm. How do I know? Just ask any trans person who dared express a preference for clothing other than their assigned gender as a child. We know, because we have the lived experience of thousands of people, how being forced to wear clothes that feel wrong damages people, invalidates their sense of self, and can have a lasting impact. Conversely we also know where children are allowed to express their sense of self, including gender, then there are positive outcomes, regardless of whether they are cis or trans. I have previously written of how refusing to accept your child’s individuality, their separateness from you, as a parent, is harmful.

one thing I do know from my experience as a therapist is that so far no has ever arrived in the consulting room saying, “My parents f*cked me up because they were loving and supportive, whilst allowing me to develop as an independent person.”

The article then goes onto focus on Mermaids, a charity set up by cis parents, to provide peer support, which has expanded into becoming one of the most respected organisations providing support for families with gender variant children. It’s that second point I made earlier, that all any parent can do is try to be “good enough”. When a child turns out be more than a plastic doll, but a real, living, breathing human, with unanticipated needs, many parents turn to each other for support. There are dangers here of course, disabled people have spoken eloquently of how some parents adopt their identity, and cause harm in doing so. In the desire to be the good enough parent we always need to ensure we are not speaking for, or over, our children. This is a universal issue however, not one limited to the parents of trans or gender non conforming children.

The Mail, oddly seems to think peer support for parents is a bad thing, I assume that they will extend this to groups who support parents of children with cancer, or autism, or parents who have lost a child due to miscarriage or stillbirth? If that seems a slightly cynical sentence, it is intended to be. Most of this article, which drags another custody battle into the headlines (with no concern for the child) is actually an attack on a charity which does exactly what it sets out to do, support families with gender variant or non conforming children. There may be questions to be raised about the prominence of cis people in training, or its use of a certain asterisk, however, in doing what it says on the tin, Mermaids is excellently placed to support families, and parents.

Again and again the piece tries to suggest some shadowy agenda on the part of Mermaids, whipping up hysteria at the very idea of a support charity for gender variant children and their families existing. A school who doesn’t know their duties under the Equalities Act needs to be reminded of them. A headmaster “intimidated” by a simple phone call needs to consider another career. There is a sense of deja vu reading the supposed crimes of Mermaids. It reminds me of the furore over books featuring gay parents being available in libraries. The idea that “they” (where “they” are corrupting figures intending to lure children away from cis and hetronormative society) are constantly working to undermine “normal families”. The Mail makes a huge issue of the lack of qualifications of the parents running Mermaids, where the only qualification for a parental support group is surely being a parent in need of support? What qualifications would the Daily Mail approve of? They don’t think a psychotherapist is qualified, they ignore the advice of CAHMS, perhaps they think Toby Young should be in charge of supporting these families?

Most of all what comes across reading the article is that Freudian fear of the Mother, that if the Mother is not corralled and curtailed by the Father, she will negatively impact on her children. Mothers are it seems driven by unknowable, but always damaging emotions, lusts even, and unable to see how these might harm their children. It may even be linked to purity myths, after all one thing we know about Mothers (or most of them) is that they have had sexual intercourse. Is there some atavistic belief that once a woman has allowed herself to be sexual, she might allow anything? A woman who cannot resist the attentions of a male, unable to resist being a mere creature of emotions? This may be too speculative, but from reading the Mail piece it is clear that we are meant to see mothers as needing to be constantly kept in check from their harmful desires, whereas Fathers are objective, unemotional, trustworthy. In particular mothers are it seems unable to be “good enough” but instead are a danger to their own children, whereas Fathers, simply by the virtue of being a Father, are always good enough.

Again and again the piece tries to suggest some shadowy agenda on the part of Mermaids, whipping up hysteria at the very idea of a support charity for gender variant children and their families existing.

I do not know how the child mentioned in this case identifies. I do know that even two and a half year olds have very strong feelings about how they dress. Anyone who has attempted to get a child ready for nursery knows that. They might not yet have a theoretical knowledge of gender, they know, and can express what they like. Any parent who attempted to impose clothing choices on a toddler is asking for daily battles. In trying to be the “good enough” parent we learn to compromise, we allow them to attend nursery dressed as superman, so long as they are wearing socks, and shoes as well. The good enough parent knows that in the long run self expression matters more than looking like a picture perfect family. As it is with superman, so it is with dresses, or trousers. I am not intending to trivialise dysphoria here, simply to point out, that in order to be good enough we allow our children to express themselves.

Finally, I believe, as a counsellor, and a parent, one thing which will never go on the list of “good enough” parents is contacting a tabloid to complain about your ex. As well as making public the emotions of a break up, which are far better dealt with privately, it seems motivated. by the belief that uncontrollable mothers somehow create false genders or sexualities in their children. A good enough parent would keep the tabloids as far away as possible. All too often children are seen as objects, the prize for winning the divorce. This objectification of the child, ignoring their needs, most definitely goes in the column marked not good enough.

Follow Karen on Twitter (@CounsellingKaz)