Trans charity Mermaids faces watchdog probe over children’s chest-flattening binders

  • 7 min read
  • Sep 27, 2022

Trans charity Mermaids faces watchdog probe over children’s chest-flattening binders

A transgender children’s charity is facing scrutiny from regulators after they were accused of giving chest-flattening devices to young girls against their parents’ wishes.

The Charity Commission has confirmed they are ‘assessing’ concerns raised about Mermaids after an investigation also led to claims they were giving out medical advice on puberty blockers without the relevant training.

It comes as Harry Potter author JK Rowling slammed celebrities and organisations who had publicly backed the charity without doing their ‘due diligence’ as other critics called for an official probe into their practices.

Celebrities who have publicly backed Mermaids include the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry Potter star Emma Watson and Jameela Jamil. 

Mermaids staff offered to send a breast binder to a girl they believed was only 14 after being told she was banned from using one by her mother.

According to the investigation by the Daily Telegraph, the charity has been offering binders to children as young as 13 despite their parents saying they oppose the practice.

The newspaper also said the charity’s online help centre tells children who present themselves as young as 13 and 14 that hormone-blocking drugs are safe and ‘totally reversible’ – a claim which is refuted by experts as there is little evidence of the long-term impact of the powerful drugs.

Mermaids, a taxpayer funded group which supports transgender children and their families, runs training for schools and some NHS trusts many of whom are facing calls to sever ties to the organisation.

Mermaids, a transgender children's charity has been accused of giving chest-flattening devices also known as binders to young girls against their parents' wishes (stock image above)

Mermaids, a transgender children’s charity has been accused of giving chest-flattening devices also known as binders to young girls against their parents’ wishes (stock image above)

Pictured: JK Rowling slammed celebrities and organisations who had publicly backed the Mermaids charity without doing their 'due diligence' as other critics called for an official probe

Pictured: JK Rowling slammed celebrities and organisations who had publicly backed the Mermaids charity without doing their ‘due diligence’ as other critics called for an official probe

JK Rowling called out celebrities who had supported the charity without doing 'due diligence'

JK Rowling called out celebrities who had supported the charity without doing ‘due diligence’

Breast binding, also known as chest binding, is the act of flattening breasts by the use of constrictive materials. The term also refers to the material used in this act.

The ultra–tight garments can cause ‘horrendous’ health problems including breathing and breastfeeding difficulties, chronic back pain and broken ribs, increasing the chance of a punctured lung.

Meanwhile, the NHS acknowledges a lack of research into the long-term effects of puberty blockers and says it is not known if they ‘affect the development of the teenage brain or children’s bones’.

Yesterday, campaigners called for regulators to step in and launch an investigation into what they called ‘safeguarding red flags’.

A spokesman for the Charity Commission said: ‘In general, allegations involving vulnerable young people are serious in nature and our guidance is clear – safeguarding should be a core priority for all charities and trustees.

‘We are aware of concerns about Mermaids’ service provision and are assessing the information to determine whether or not this is a matter for the Commission.’

On its website, the regulator says it identifies and assesses risk by focusing on ‘the type and level of harm that may result if the risk materialises’.

It adds: ‘This includes taking account of the size, profile and activities of the charity concerned.’

Yesterday, children’s author JK Rowling spoke out about the controversy and asserted that celebrities and organisations who had supported Mermaids should now reflect on that support.

Journalist Sonia Sodha said there were ‘a lot of people in the NHS and Government who should feel deeply ashamed’ of their role in promoting or partnering with Mermaids.

Rowling replied: ‘Not to mention corporations and celebrities who have been cheering Mermaids on without doing the slightest bit of due diligence.’

In 2019, Prince Harry met with Mermaids CEO Susie Green to discuss highlighting their ‘important’ work after the Royal Foundation invited them to join its efforts to tackle mental health issues.

At the time, Green branded the support from the Duke of Sussex as ‘hugely beneficial’.

The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex also called Mermaids an ‘important organisation’.

JK Rowling pictured with Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson in 2001. All three of the Potter stars have distanced themselves from Rowling over her views on gender ideology

JK Rowling pictured with Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson in 2001. All three of the Potter stars have distanced themselves from Rowling over her views on gender ideology

In June 2020, the charity published a blog post praising support from Harry Potter star Emma Watson after the actor publicly tweeted that she donated money to Mermaids.

The tweet was an apparent response to Rowling’s essay, published on the same day, which addressed why she campaigns for sex-based rights over gender ideology.

The deeply personal essay expressed ‘deep concern about transgender activism’ and claimed the rise in trans activism would erase the concept of sex that defines the lives of many women.

In July 2019, actor and model Jameela Jamil posted what the charity called ‘a heartfelt video’ on Instagram in support of Mermaids.

Even US congresswoman Alessia Ocasio-Cortez  threw her support behind the Leeds-based charity during an online fundraiser, dropping in to take part in a live-streamed gaming marathon.

Mermaids said the Congresswoman’s trans-Atlantic support helped them raise £200,000.

Prince Harry and Meghan threw their support behind Mermaids in 2019 by inviting them to join a roundtable hosted by the Royal Foundation who also issued a statement of support

Prince Harry and Meghan threw their support behind Mermaids in 2019 by inviting them to join a roundtable hosted by the Royal Foundation who also issued a statement of support 

Organisations which have supported Mermaids include the Bank of London which, in June this year, awarded them with Charity of the Year.

Meanwhile, Starbucks attracted hefty criticism for a 2020 campaign which saw them sell Mermaids biscuits in a bid to raise £100,000 for the organisation.

Critics said that the Starbucks cookie sale would swell the coffers of a charity they claimed was pushing teens into transgender treatment too early – with life-changing consequences.

Meanwhile, Wagamama is currently running a similar fundraiser, according to its website which states 25p from every power juice sold will be donated to Mermaids along with 20 per cent of its profits from their bespoke menu. 

The charity’s most recent accounts, for the year ending March 2021, include a segment commenting on their ‘related parties and relationships with other organisations’.

It adds: ‘Mermaids has now collaborated on a number of large public facing fundraising partnerships including Starbucks, Amazon Prime and Tropic Skincare. 

‘Over the past year we have collaborated with an extensive list of corporate partners, including Lloyds, Barclays, Tesco, Aon, BP, BCLP, P&G and Unilever.’

Chest binders are used by a growing number of girls who believe they are the wrong sex to disguise their breasts and make them look like boys.

The practice was condemned as ‘painful, and potentially harmful’ by Dr Hilary Cass, the former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics in an interim review of trans children’s services for the NHS, published this February.

The binders, which often look similar to a vest or crop top, are typically made of nylon and spandex.

In 2020, Starbucks came under fire for a ‘woke’ campaign to raise £100,000 for Mermaids, donating 50p to the Leeds-based charity for every biscuit that was bought by a customer

In 2020, Starbucks came under fire for a ‘woke’ campaign to raise £100,000 for Mermaids, donating 50p to the Leeds-based charity for every biscuit that was bought by a customer

When worn, the extremely tight-fitting undergarment compresses the breasts to create the illusion of a flat chest.

But medical experts have highlighted their dangers.

One senior doctor warned that they can cause fractured ribs and chronic chest and back pain and may even stop girls from breast feeding in later life due to the damage to breast tissue.

A 2008 NHS England publication noted breast binders should only be used for short periods of time because they ‘may cause back problems’ and can distort breast tissue, which could affect any future surgery to remove the breasts.

The advice also noted binders are ‘not appropriate’ for ‘heavy-breasted’ women.

Leeds-based trans charity Mermaids was founded in 1995 and is taxpayer funded

Leeds-based trans charity Mermaids was founded in 1995 and is taxpayer funded

A 2017 study led by Sarah Peitzmeier of the University of Michigan and published in the journal Culture, Health and Sexuality, observed almost 9 in 10 people experienced at least one negative effect from binding, and 8 out of 10 felt that it was important to discuss binding with a healthcare provider.

On puberty blockers, the NHS highlights: ‘Little is known about the long-term side effects of hormone or puberty blockers in children with gender dysphoria.

‘Although the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) advises this is a physically reversible treatment if stopped, it is not known what the psychological effects may be.

‘Side effects may also include hot flushes, fatigue and mood alterations.’

Stephanie Davies-Arai, the founder and director of Transgender Trend, a campaign group, told the Telegraph: ‘This is a great safeguarding concern, because breast binding is basically a form of self-harm.’

She went on to say that Mermaids was issuing ‘inaccurate and impartial information’ and that parents deserved to know ‘all of the information, whatever decision they make in the end’.

The campaigner added that an ‘investigation into Mermaids is long overdue’, a sentiment echoed by Miriam Cates, Tory MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge who called the findings ‘huge safeguarding red flags’.

The charity is headed up by Susie Green, a consultant who has been CEO since 2016 and took her own child to Thailand aged 16 for genital surgery as the minimum age in the UK is 18

The charity is headed up by Susie Green, a consultant who has been CEO since 2016 and took her own child to Thailand aged 16 for genital surgery as the minimum age in the UK is 18 

Fellow campaigner, Maya Forstater, who won legal protection for having ‘gender-critical’ views back in 2019, said on Twitter that the practice by Mermaids was ‘not OK’ and that the ‘organisation should not be in schools’ and ‘should be investigated by the charity commission’. 

The charity issued guidelines before sending the chest binder, according to the Telegraph, which include that it should not be used for more than 8 hours a day or worn during exercise and should be removed if the wearer experienced conditions such as sickness, dizziness or overheating. 

The charity declined to comment on the findings of the Telegraph’s investigation.

On chest binding, they told MailOnline: ‘Some trans masculine, non-binary and gender diverse people experience bodily dysphoria, as a result of their chest, and binding, for some, helps alleviate that distress.

‘Mermaids takes a harm reduction position with the understanding that providing a young person with a binder and comprehensive safety guidelines from an experienced member of staff is preferable to the likely alternative of unsafe practices and/or continued or increasing dysphoria.

The risk is considered by Mermaids staff within the context of our safeguarding framework.’

Mermaids is embroiled in a legal battle after the group launched an appeal against the decision of the Charity Commission to grant LGB Alliance legal status last year (stock image)

Mermaids is embroiled in a legal battle after the group launched an appeal against the decision of the Charity Commission to grant LGB Alliance legal status last year (stock image)

Mermaids works with about 500 youngsters and 1,400 parents and educates schools about homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. 

The Leeds-based charity is headed up by Susie Green, a former IT consultant who has served as CEO since 2016, took her own child to Thailand aged 16 for genital surgery as the minimum age in the UK is 18.

Her daughter Jackie was born a boy – Jack – and her struggles with the transition partly inspired the ITV drama Butterfly which aired in 2018. 

It comes as Mermaids is embroiled in a legal battle after the group launched an appeal against the decision of the Charity Commission to grant LGB Alliance legal status last year.

It is believed to be the first time a charity has sought to remove the charitable status of another charity.

The LGB Alliance has defended its views ‘that sexual orientation is about biological sex’ after its charitable status was challenged by the transgender rights group.

Meanwhile, bosses from Mermaids, including trustee Belinda Bell, have repeatedly asserted as part of proceedings that they are not ‘medical experts’. 

The hearing was scheduled to conclude this month but has since been adjourned until November. 

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